The sun seemed depressed, worn. In the winter months it was too chilled to reach beyond the angled height of summer’s 11 a.m. When it did decide to retire after a quick effort at a day, its angle despondently tilted downward through shivering tree branches, across parking lots bermed with banks of dirty snow, filtered out by slices of half-tilted blinds and onto the hospital bed blanket where Adam rested — feeling not unlike the sun. If cancer was an hour, it would be 4 p.m. in the dead of winter.
Adam awoke to a gentle knock at his door. He had grown accustomed to being awoken by family members coming to visit, eager to provide their love but unknowing of how fatigued it made him. Even when you’re healthy, slapping on your happy face can be exhausting. He had started to believe that their visits were more for themselves than for him — even the nurses had repeatedly told everyone how important his rest was. But they wanted to shake their pom poms for him, for themselves. They were using him as a subject of legitimate sadness in their otherwise peachy lives. They were the victims, dammit. They were hoping for hope. He knew better at this point.
“Hi honey. How are you feeling?”
“Ti — ”
His throat was a charred brick chimney. When he spoke he felt the fireplace embers glow from the draft that his mouth let in. Clearing his throat, he realized he hadn’t spoken a word to anyone all day
“Tired. How are you, mom?”
“I’m freezing, it’s so cold outside.”
She sat in the fuzzy felt chair that was reserved for such occasions. It was faded from countless asses that had arisen and settled over the years — each with its own unique size and surmount of worries. Something was always lost in these pauses. In the beginning developments of his illness, these moments of silence used to be a nod towards something nobody wanted to say. Now they were to days what the nighttime was — long, dark, and cyclical.
“Your father should be stopping by later this evening.”
More nighttime in the nighttime. Perfect.
“I brought a couple new books for you. They’re short reads and fun.”
That’s smart. Because I probably couldn’t finish anything over 200 pages.
“Thanks mom. I’m almost done with this one.”
He patted the paperback copy of Hemmingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. His hand was thin, vacant of life’s pigment. The nurse had slotted the tightest fitting hole on his white wrist band, and yet its fit still hugged his wrist like hula hoop to waist. At least it matched his skin tone. He saw his mom look to his hands and turn away, tears forming. He couldn’t handle any more of this, he simply didn’t have the energy for emotion anymore.
He looked towards the bulbous Panasonic TV set suspended in the upper corner of his room. He’d never been a fan of television, didn’t like the watery jello hangover it gave his brain. In recent weeks, though, it had been a nice distraction. The sun’s setting glare was revealing a dihedral shape of dust on the screen. Some of that dust is from my dead skin cells, Adam thought. How strange. Look mom, I’m on TV. The visible, undead but deadly half of the screen revealed an ad for Pradaxa (dabigatran etexilate), promising to reduce risk of stroke. The trusty Panasonic was on mute, but Adam knew the ad by blood-thinning heart.
“I only take one pill a day. And with proper diet and exercise, I feel better than I have in years!”
He got a kick out of it. The commercials had become just as entertaining as the programs. With proper diet and exercise, you say? Well by golly, that’s the cure right there — forget the fucking pill. With enough focus on diet and exercise, no shit you’re going to feel better than your fat ass has ever felt.
But that’s just how it worked. Americans needed the quick fix. Pills. The swallow. The settle. The smile. Fuck it, he needed the quick fix too.
As the ad’s outlandish montage continued — slow motion hand holding, happy golden retriever chasing a stick, titanic-style embrace looking out at the sunset — he longed for the energy the commercials actors had, old as they were. To be able to do take after take of different shots, the director coming damn near to a stroke himself trying to accomplish that perfect medical cookie cutter infomercial style.
His deteriorating energy — the evasive, intangible memory of what he used to be capable of. He slept all the time and gave little thought to trying to get in one of life’s last jollies. It’s hard to know you don’t have enough energy when you don’t have enough energy to realize it.
He turned back to his mom. Her eyes were dry. She too was watching the television set as though it held the answers. How many people did this? Was television as much of a social lubricant as alcohol or cigarettes? It certainly helped fill the void of pauses and numb the sting that seemed to chasm his every conversation. Television — the campfire of the 21st century.
“Thanks for coming.”
“Of course, Adam. I just wanted to drop by for a bit to check on you.”
“Thanks. You don’t have to stay though, I’ll probably just go back to sleep.”
“Ok, is there anything I can get you? Do you need the nurse or anything?”
“No, I’m ok.”
“Ok honey, sleep well. Your father should be in later. I’ll leave these books on your table over here.”
“K, bye mom.”
She hadn’t touched him since he’d been sick. He didn’t know whether it was because she thought him spiritually toxic. But perhaps she simply couldn’t stomach it — like touching a corpse at a funeral. And just like that, it was over. What else could they say? At least his mom knew the drill.
In his final weeks, Adam had tried to come to terms with the things he had accomplished in his 27 years. This internal interview almost always ended with bitter thoughts of things he wished he had done, but it was a fun enough game to play even with knowing it would end in frustration. Like pacman. If anything, it helped him realize that it was always better to judge someone by their cover letter over their resume; their self-description and intention over concrete experience. He had by now perfected the art of the exit interview.
He thought a lot about a trip he had taken a few years back through Argentina. There was something about traveling alone that reminded him of how he felt now — wide-eyed; adrift. Buenos Aires to him was everything Paris must have been before it became the Paris that was mentioned one too many times. The city was vast and artistic in the unpretentiously raw form that true art can be if it chooses. Or if it’s held up on the corner and forced at gunpoint to feel that way. He decided to hop on the bus one morning after a cup of mate and ride it straight through the city. He had no intention of getting off at any point, he just wanted to see where he would end up and what sights might interject themselves along the way.
He saw worlds in this manner. In addition to the first-rate third-world people watching he was afforded by the other riders, the passing outside world was ripe with the entertainment of interaction, personality, and buzz.
Every block corner had its own story told through the humble businesses of the fortunate, the graffiti of the disgruntled, and the people that walked somewhere in between. There were blood-clad butchers yelling out prices and slapping hefty slabs of beef on a scale. There were groups of teenage girls surrounding a single cell phone screen, giggling and ruffling their school outfits. You had your typical hustlers, smooth talkers, beggars — all working their angles to make another day livable. Moms walked with ice cream stained children in tow, police strolled — elevated by an uneasy ego, and artists made their confrontation with the world. Buxom booshie women fronting false ages and sums of wealth. Through Adam’s passing eyes, a wealthy finance executive walking a run down street was just as much a contribution to the city’s filth as the bum that he stepped over. The fact that his shit didn’t stink just made everyone else’s worse through comparison. It was all so familiar, but the language and the people and the authenticity of it all made it new to Adam. Through a brief glance in a distant land, anybody could be anything — yet nobody was anything but themselves. The roles that were cast to each person were all being fulfilled with the utmost seriousness. He imagined this is how god* must see our petty lives.
Adam celebrated being himself in the plot. He kept his eyes busy on the street’s storied pages; occasional glances around the bus at his silent neighbors marked the chapters. On an autobús in a strange land, it’s easy to think of time and action as inconsequential. While speeding past contradistinct things so quickly, the quantity of any action becomes largely denominated. Like cultural time travel, Adam thought. A moment’s value is diminished by the overwhelming amount of stimulative information zipping by. He realized he could do anything within legal realms in that bus and come away from the experience unscathed by lasting embarrassment or shame. He would never see any of them again. It was all a big show.
He recalled a scene from the classic Michelangelo Antonioni film, Blow-Up. Actor David Hemming plays Thomas, a curious fashion photographer who runs throughout London on existentially-charged adventures within a stop-gap, pre-postmodern plot. One night, Thomas stumbles upon an underground concert by the Yardbirds — the 1966 band comprised by the likes of early Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page. After battling a crackling amplifier, Beck slams his guitar into the ground, stomps it, and tosses the mangled guitar neck into the crowd.
The audience, having had shown no previous signs of interest in the band (was that the true-to-form British culture in the 60’s or one of Antonioni’s philosophical antics?), went wild over the broken guitar neck. Our character, Thomas, as movie plot luck would have it, comes away with the neck and manages to fend off the pursuers looking to attain the invaluable scrap. Once free outside, Thomas seems to have a Socratic awakening and haphazardly tosses the piece to the streets in an assumably nihilistic mood.
Adam never really understood why he did this — it didn’t seem to align with any of Thomas’ character attributes. Perhaps Antonioni’s point is that the ‘why’ isn’t the point.
In any case, a passerby, seeing Thomas toss the guitar neck, picks the piece up to examine it, and tosses it back to the ground after ascertaining it had no value. Within the span of a few seconds and a new audience, a treasured prize was now a scrap of junk in the streets of London. What else worked this way? Humor? People? Was that how the rest of the world and its materials were? Merely contextualized value in the moment of trend or need? The obvious example, Adam knew, was money. How appropriate that the global line of credit should draw debt’s deep red blood with a paper cut from a useless green scrap of paper. The eye in the pyramid watching ominously and with masked boredom. Illuminati was nothing more than a rap industry A&R executive hot word, for all he cared.
Moments in a foreign land were feeling like Jeff Beck’s mangled guitar neck. The currency here didn’t have an unimpressed eye watching. It had a corrupt dictator, which at least was a much more straight shooting way of conducting business.
He wanted to do something to mark such an unworthy moment in order to make its unworthiness worthy. He should stand up and sing a Frank Sinatra song. He should start a conversation with the person behind him. He should get off the bus and explore the streets. But just as quickly as these ideas formulated, they were shunned by the reserved, thoughtful nature from which he was comprised. This was the person he was desperately confined to. Even partaking in any of those dimension-shattering acts would have further defined him as himself. He was as much of him as there was to be, regardless of what he did. This moment would have to be marked in his mind as the time he almost hugged the elder woman next to him, but looked at his sunburnt hands instead.
So that’s that, he thought. The end of the line. The bus driver looked at him in the dislodged rear view mirror. Any curiosity as to why this gringo was still on the bus was masked by a leathered brow of indifference. The final few stops of the route should have prepared him for this; the flow of people coming onto the bus grew fewer, the presence of those on it rapidly declined. The bus was stopped, far from the city, and the driver had ripped into a modest lunch of homemade quinoa salad. Outside, there were now fields with forests beyond them. Mountains beyond the forests. Dark clouds beyond the mountains. The surrounding houses were much more sustained, earthly, homely. Time tends to speed up in a city. Out here, the clocks were not clocks. On cue, a rooster strutted by a nearby home. It was thin, mangled. Had definitely been through some shit. There didn’t seem to be a mark for the bus stop. Where they had stopped had no marking of a bus stop.
As Adam approached the driver, passing rows of deserted benches tombstoned with letter-etched seat backs, the inebriation of his previously picayune outlook of time and reality seemed to wear off. Where he had no less than an hour ago felt the rush of a bustling society, he was now faced with the sobriety that only a sudden wave of solitude can bring. Would he be stranded for the night? How far out of the city are we? How do you say ‘daydream’ in Spanish?
“Asi, que hacemos ahora?”
So what do we do now?
The driver swallowed. Settled. Smiled.
We go back.
*no capitalization needed, as proper noun capitalization would imply god’s entity was restrictively confined to a Biblical context. To Adam, this was not the case.