onion skin

Is heartbreak apparent? Can you diagnose it just by looking at someone? Do their eyes lack a familiar glow, lackluster under the ball and chain of being shunned? Do their movements appear robotic, set on autopilot, just shuffling along by muscle memory to make it to the end of the day? Can you see it in the way their mouth moves; a mouth that longs not to be talking to people idly but to be kissing lips that have said no (or an ill-fated yes, or perhaps the worst fate of all: absolutely nothing)? I feel as though I’m walking around, living my life in this world of yellows and anthracites and the greyest of greys only to be the butt of some widespread joke: that everyone, everywhere, all the time knows everything I’m feeling. I feel as though I’m as transparent and flimsy as an onion skin; seemingly brusque and brittle but really just thin and crumbly in the face of the world and all its atrocities.

What if they can see it in the lines of my face? What if everyone — even those who have never met me before this, before her — can just tell, and I’m met not with the clean slate of first impressions (as clean a slate as I can get, anyway, with my scars and my frown lines and my criminal record) but with the sorrow and pity of a man who’s been rejected? What if it’s this intricately-sketched map all along the landscape of my head, from the scar just below the hairline where that feral cat scratched me when I was eight years old to the wayward and indecisive bridge of my nose (swaying in opposite directions along the same trunk from when I got into that fight in the Burger King parking lot in my first month in the states)? What if it hangs down to my chin and its muddled cleft, and swings back upward along the uninterrupted oval of the side of my cheek? What if heartbreak, in all its malevolent mischief, is blatantly speckled right here, right on my skin, in an ink that’s abhorrently visible to everyone but me?

I’ve given up on optimism and given into my own cynicism. It’s easier that way. It’s easier to be morose. It’s easier and — dare I say it — a little more fun. I tried, I really did. I tried not to be that guy, that guy who closes off in his own misery, that guy who scowls all the time, that guy that no one likes and everyone pities. I always hated that guy; the quintessential dark and brooding, “misunderstood” man whose mind is too complex for the peons around him to ever ascertain, the man whose struggles are so much more substantial and important than those of the people (or objects, rather, as he saw them) around him. I read about that guy in books. I saw him in movies. At home, I saw the straight-laced and effeminate guy my father was, and though my father was bland and sheepish, I noticed the loving way he treated my mother; the way he regarded those around him (pleasantly, with full utilization of his manners), and I always preferred to become a man like my father to that grimacing punk of a guy that so often blanketed the perception of the entire male gender. It seemed to me, in my years of boyhood, that growing into a harmless and unassuming sky of eggshell pallor with no intention of an outburst whatsoever was more admirable by far than the violently grey storm clouds that were so full of heaving rainwater bubbled up inside that they bordered on a mournful tone of purple when you looked at them a certain way. Not really that I wanted to be either one, but those are the options when you’re a boy. You’re posed with the two types of man you can be: the demure, socks-with-sandals type that says, “Yes, dear,” and wears fanny packs, or the constantly-frowning asshole with slick hair and a slicker audacity. You could be milk or you could be whiskey. Pleated khakis or ripped jeans. Safe or sorry.

I always felt, naturally, drawn to the sun-soaked shallow end of that pool of personality, where the water was clear and warm and I could splash around in my own ignorant bliss rather than venturing out into the darkness of the deep end where the water was a brilliant shade of royal blue, frigid in its own spatial awareness and isolation. Most grown men I knew as a boy were docile, married, accountants, drank in moderation. In fact, I don’t even think I met one of these moody, charcoal-type men until much later, after Jennifer, after I left Canada. I always had this perception of who they were, what they were: socially-inept scoundrels who drank away their coherence and treated women like toys for their own amusement. My parents, my grandparents, all the adults around me with influence in my life at that age were feeding me tales of these men, these drunks, these pillars of wrongdoing and moral insolence who were completely fraught of emotional availability that they considered themselves above it all, wrecking everyone who stood in their way. I didn’t realize how wrong they all were, how wrong they made me, and how two-dimensional of an idea that everyone had of that guy until I, in fact, became that guy.

They were right about some things, I’ll give them credit. They were right about the drinking, how it calls to you down the street when you’re just trying to get to the bus stop for work and how it whistles in your ear to the tune of every song you hear during the day. They were right about the shaking inability to perform even the simplest of tasks during the day after a declaration of sobriety, when the ghost of your favorite drink — your best friend, your therapist, your priest, your lover — paraded around in the swirling surrealism of your mind, the landscape of which was still and arid yet simultaneously quaking and heaving. They were right about alcohol being more important than anything else: more important than the obligatory suffocation of familial closeness which masquerades as comfort, more important than the played-out and diluted social exchanges which drag themselves like lazy slugs between those who identify as “friends,” more important than the ties to a nationally-accepted set of rules that someone else made up completely arbitrarily. Yes, alcohol was above everything, because alcohol was the only constant. Alcohol, in and of itself, never let me down; it only allowed me to let myself down. And as many times as I came to terms — bleary-brained and sweating regret — with that playfully loose yet unwaveringly firm grip alcohol held on my throat, I could never quite fault the catalyst for all my explosions as an individual with the luxury of free will. Altruistically, I always took the fall, and I probably always will.

They were right about the depreciation of women — but when liquor is whispering in your ear and soothing you away from internal panic, when the world is a floating fairytale of liquid nature — the screeching of a woman about trivial things or nagging about something you failed to do is, naturally, a reason to begin to loathe them. And they’re all the same, are they not? Even the ones that seem so interesting in the beginning: so refreshing, so carbonated in a sea of otherwise still waters, even those go flat in the end…which is probably the most significant tragedy of interaction between man and woman, if we’re speaking candidly here. Something like the slow decline of a woman you once thought was a spicy pepper into a shriveled and flavorless vegetable makes you not want to try anymore. It strips you of your optimism, it makes you want to just grab any sack of skin you see on the next time around. They’re all the same; all just looking for some unattainable guy who will read their minds, decode the hieroglyphics of their desires and translate that text into a viable course of action without appearing cheesy or hackneyed. They’re looking for a man who will treat them as an equal while also, somehow, working the miracle of treating them like a princess. They can’t decide whether they want to be spoiled, adored, challenged, or insulted. They all say they want compromise, that they want both parties to be satisfied, but when an argument arises, they never want anything less than their own selfish desires to come to fruition; they want their way but they want it with the freshly tied bow of the man’s agreement, creating a “compromise” where there was previously disagreement.

But what they — my family, my friends, society as a whole — failed to see and understand before casting their scathing and pretentious generalization over this “other” type of man, the man who refutes the vanilla complacency of the storied “good man” and, in their eyes, is some social outlaw who relentlessly ignores the needs and emotions of others in an iron path to self-destruction is probably the simplest misconception of them all: it isn’t that we’re heartless. It isn’t that we — a legion of “that guy” outcasts whose footsteps leave behind a trail of disappointed families and broken promises — are emotionally deficient, even if that’s what we’ll fight to the death to have you believe. We want to extol that image, paint that picture of the man who is far too entrenched in his bottle of brown liquor or his bad decisions to ever expose the truth, which is so much less intriguing or enigmatic than any of that: instead of being emotionally unavailable due to our inability to empathize or open our souls to the possibility of feeling anything, we are, in essence, a floodgate of feeling.

We are selfish, that much is true. That’s another bulls-eye on the cynical dartboard of disappointment that our loved ones have constructed against us, for us, about us. But we’re not selfish because we can’t feel anything, no; we’re selfish because we feel everything. We’re too wrapped up in our own emotions, folding into ourselves when times get difficult and instead of being regular people, instead of reaching out to others in times of turmoil, instead of exercising or finding a hobby or turning to some fairy tale up above, we sit with it. We sit in the filth of our own minds, the excrement of whatever our brains have cooked up to torture us day in and day out. And why? What’s the big, soul-eating deal, anyway? Why is it such a production to just be a person (a Canadian person, at that)? Why is it such a chore, such a brain-bending behemoth to just reach out to someone?

That’s not my place to know. I can question it until I’m exhausted under the weight of my own ennui, but I don’t think I’ll ever find an answer. I don’t know if my ambivalence will ever form a truce, if the two warring sides to my persona will ever kiss and make up. What I do know is that I could either pour this out to everyone I meet — present myself as some sad sack who can’t seem to get it together, as some tortured soul who craves the sympathy of others in the most odious method of all: with the soul-obliterating fires of pity induction…or, alternately, I could take the high road and buck up. I could grow a skin a layer thicker with each survived hardship, a soul a shade darker with every conquered adversity. I will always and forevermore choose the latter. It’s too exhausting and pathetic to take any other path.

But where does that leave me? What hope is left for me? Despite my constant longings to the contrary, my incessant wills to the wayward side, I am still, regrettably, riddled with emotion. I am a man waterlogged with the moisture of malevolence, a person porous with peril. I can’t escape the feelings that take hold of me, that strangle me in the nighttime when no one is paying attention, that flow through me more naturally than the blood that is rumored to keep me alive. It’s not necessarily en vogue for a man to feel things. Girls say they want a sensitive man, but by the time they rot into women, past the age of poor decisions undone by a flimsy plea of overruling inebriation (uttered in some kind of unanimous last resort, almost like a defense of temporary insanity in a court of law), they’re far too dignified to succumb to such a reprehensible subset of the male species. Or something like that.