Heart of an Explosion

“Double-Check”, by John Seward Johnson II, in Zuccotti Park, Manhattan, New York

One summer, my leg turned necrotic purple and swelled up to one and a half times its normal size. I thought that they would have to cut it off. I had been training for the midwestern-regional san shou (that is, Chinese-style MMA) fights, and I took an unexpected blow to the back of my knee while sparring. My leg went numb, but I thought nothing of it, and I worked out, hard, for two more hours. By the end of two hours, I had lost most mobility, and it was a struggle to walk. I stubbornly walked anyway.

That was not the end of it. The pain became so severe that, even as I sat with my bad leg up and iced, the nervous storm of it pushed me into joyless, involuntary laughter. Tears poured down my face. Still, I stubbornly resisted. I limped over a mile around downtown each day, hobbling along on the support of a six-foot fighting staff. One reason is that I did not want to rent crutches. The other is that I was hurt, and weak, and it gave me comfort to carry a quiet sign of counter-aggression in my hand. I will not be weak or wounded, I told myself, as if saying so could make the facts any different.

When you hurt a lot, and you are unsure how else to respond, there is this temptation to turn yourself inside-out, so the pain ends up outside your own skin. That is when the pain ends up on other people. In the most benign cases, this is simply grotesque. In the worst cases, it explodes.

My leg got better, but then, sometimes I wonder, what if it didn’t.

Sometimes I worried what would happen if I ever filled up.

They watch on, evil, incredibly stupid, enjoying my destruction.
“Poor Grendel’s had an accident,” I whisper. “So may you all.”
(Grendel, John Gardner)

the humanity was a test. I love you, love. Time to die, time to be free, time to love.
(from the personal journal of Dylan Kliebold, shortly before the Columbine High School Massacre)

My brother did actually fill up, when he was only 18. I was 22. A close romantic relationship, perhaps his first, turned sour, then ugly. He and two friends broke into her apartment, stole several items of value, and trashed the place. They fled across the nearby interstate highway. The police report said he was intoxicated. He failed to avoid an oncoming truck in the westbound lane. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

Many years later, an elderly friend who was unusually religious and something of self-styled spiritual leader to the kids in the area, related fragments of this story to me, one of which was the romantic relationship. I had not known. “The sad thing is,” my friend said, “he did it for love.”

I do not remember what I said to that, if anything, but I feel compelled to add something now: Even if there was love, there was also hate, the hate killed him.

Now that I am a bit older, and have had time to think, I would add a question:

Who did he hate?

When I was thirteen, a friend showed me a picture of a hypothetical mass killing at our school. It was rendered in painstaking detail on an oversize sheet of high-quality paper. It showed several dozen teachers and students that we both knew, in various states of death or grisly dismemberment. In the far lower-left corner appeared two stick figures fleeing the scene because, my friend explained, the bomb was about to go off. That was us, he explained. After he showed me, he quietly put away the picture, and made me swear never to tell anyone. Except for this mention, twenty years after the fact, I never have. We both were slow and weak relative to our peers, and we had both fallen through the cracks academically; the experience of school was one of isolation and impenetrable failure. I remember feeling a distant discomfort with the picture, but also a dark fascination; I wasn’t sure that I wanted my classmates and teachers to be shot dead or torn limb from limb, but neither was I sure that I might not want them to suffer some taste of the pain and humiliation that I felt behind the walls with them every day.

Those two stick figures are what I remember most vividly about that drawing. The people of the school, at least, had flesh, and blood, and faces. No matter how grotesquely mangled, they were real human beings.

We, the perpetrators were mere lines and spaces, empty hooks on which to hang a name.

“I wasn’t a coward about everything, but I would have been one if I had let anyone notice how I suffered. Maybe that was wrong, but that’s what I thought anyway. Because every boy has his pride, you surely know that. No, I didn’t cry every time I got a licking — I thought that was being a ‘sissy’ — and so at least I was brave about one thing, not letting anyone see my misery. But in all seriousness now, whom should I have gone to, whom should I have poured my heart out to?”
(The Self-Portrait of [Serial Murderer] Jürgen Bartsch, Paul Moor,)

I do not like to play catch. The first time that I did, it made me cry.

I remember going to the store with my father, and I remember purchasing, amid much excitement, a brand new baseball glove, and a brand new baseball. I remember the baseball smelling smart and new as I removed it from its package, and I remember going with my father into his workshop to oil the glove and break it in. I remember the excitement that I felt about this, as if it would be the beginning of a long story, one that might perhaps even pass down to my own children some day, venerably creased and softened by the years.

He threw the ball too hard. Even now, those words sound ridiculous, whether I say them out loud, or think them, as if I were speaking gibberish. But it’s true: My father threw the ball too hard. And he would not stop.

I caught some. But one hit me in the nose. A couple more hit me the stomach. Another bruised my knee. My nose bled. I said that I did not want to play any more. But my father just laughed. He said that it was just a game. He said I should lighten up. He said this was all a part of learning.

He told me to stop crying. And we continued to play

It was not fun.

I woke for school one morning, that same spring my friend showed me the picture, and found that I could not stop crying. My parents, alarmed but confused, took me directly to the quiet, gray office of a physician. He sent out my parents and asked me, blandly, if I was being abused. He told me matter-of-factly, that depression was quite normal. He prescribed me a drug that has since been given a black-box warning, for its demonstrated link to suicidal tendency in adolescents and young adults.

Then he sent me back to school.

When I was seventeen, I tried to kill myself.

This is the point in narration where I would like to make a joke. Maybe something like: “I didn’t do a very good job, clearly.”

Or perhaps I would like to quietly diminish the episode, as one of life’s plain and impersonal inconveniences. Maybe: “Sometimes things are tough when you’re young, and you don’t always make good decisions.”

On the other hand, I may want to puff up big enough that I could shrug off the fact, as if it had hardly touched me at all: “What a stupid thing to do.”

Those are all facile deflections. They make smooth conversation. They hide a great deal.

I have never been able to understand how that episode actually makes me feel, in the now, as I look back on it. I see only a stick person, being erased.

But after all: It is only one bad leg of my life. I hobble stubbornly along, trying not to put too much weight on it.

I tell myself: Life is a game. You’re supposed to be having fun.

There are times when I wonder whether he really didn’t see the truck coming.

“For as every soul is unwillingly deprived of the truth, so also is it unwillingly deprived of the power of behaving justly.”
(Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 11.7)

“Where are we, when we are in the monstrous?”
(Peter Sloterdijk, Spheres, Volume 1)

I returned to school, a week or two after I returned from the hospital. Word had gotten around about what had happened. After the bell one day, I overheard a classmate say, with little snicker: “Did you hear what happened to him? He went crazy.” Then, he turned and looked to see if I was looking. I was.

So I take back what I said just now about feeling nothing particular. I do feel one thing, and that is rage.

I still remember that little snicker, and the words “he went crazy”, as if I was still trying to catch the baseball. I regret to say so, but it boils in me even now. Something inside me just hurts, deeply, and it hurts worse to know that it means little more than idle gossip or a smug little smirk.

I actively trained in a martial art for a number of years. For most of those, I severely over-trained. I went out in the blazing heat and the freezing cold. I worked until I was too tired to walk, until my feet blistered from bad shoes, and bled from the shattered glass on the pavement. I cracked at least one of my own ribs, broke two knuckles and a toe, and got several concussions.

And when the pain roared through me, I just bore down harder, and I laughed. Sometimes I thought about that face, with the little smirk, grinding into the pavement, beneath my shredded shoes. And I bore down even harder.

That’s just you’re supposed do in the presence of pain: Carry more.

There’s this phrase I keep turning over: “The latest American to go nuts and shoot a bunch of people.” It refers to something definite, and substantial. There’s sequence of silent evils winding quietly through the late days.

I uttered this phrase to myself while at the punching bag at the gym. There are televisions in unfortunate proximity, and at some point I became aware of the show-psychologist radiating from the screen above, eulogizing, with appropriately telegenic sadness, how maybe this guy in wherever it was (because it seems like it’s now bound to happen anywhere, sooner or later) wouldn’t have gone up smoke and shot whoever he could point a gun at, if only his family had kept closer. Keep in touch with your loved ones, he wheedled. I suppose the reasoning here is analogous to watching a boiling pot. If only you watch the ones you love, then maybe the darkness in them won’t boil over and consume everything in reach.

I suddenly wanted to cry, there in the front of the elevated telecasts. Sometimes watching is not enough. Sometimes people choose distance. Sometimes they build fortifications, and the architecture is not an accident. Sometimes people help to design the walls. Sometimes they get inside before you can get them out. And they go so deep into the dark passages that neither voices, nor actions can reach. And only the people who build them know those places, and there are no maps for anyone else to follow.

I wonder what it feels like if that person, going in darkness, to be alone forever, is you.

On my worse days, I wonder if I already know that feeling.

I saw my brother just twelve hours before he died. He was perched on a bench downtown, scowling, and though he seemed angry, he was always angry. It was normal. We had a normal conversation. I tried to suggest that perhaps we might see each other later. Maybe, I said, he could tell me more about what was eating him. We did not see each other later. The anger ate him alive, and that was the end.

No, he didn’t hurt anyone — not directly, anyway. But he still died in an act of desperation and vengeance, and he was an angry person (which I say, as another angry person), and more than a little violent; there are other worlds, visible from this one, where I could see it happening differently, and much, much worse.

A few months after he died, an unknown friend painted a ten-foot high blue-scale mural of him at the entrance to the city storm drains. Shortly thereafter, the city painted over it, replacing it with a blank gray wall.

Sometimes I think my only real accomplishment in life is that I have managed not to be evil. That is harder than it sounds. When others give you hatred, you are left alone with it; there is no option to give it back. The mass of it seethes and swells on your heart, and the weight of it drags you down to places still worse, and more solitary. After a time, all that you can think about is what you might do to drag others down to your side. Yes, you can climb out of that place, but it is a gruelling trip, and the pale light of the real world, though not hell, hardly feels like salvation. No one will meet you at the top. No one will congratulate you for extinguishing your hatred. You will know what you’ve done, but you will be alone in this too.

I doubt there is any reliable data, but if I were to hazard a guess, I would say that for every one person who snaps and kills indiscriminately, there must be ten thousand or more in that exact same place who simply tread the same dark waters in silence until their lives’ ordinary ends. They shamble from home to work and back in solitude. They sit alone on a hard plastic bench in the dim corner of a crowd. They drive the nights aimlessly. They mumble to their unhearing screens. The money comes in. The money goes out. Nothing changes.

And their nerves are long fuses, and the only spark in them is slow-burning and dim, and they sit, and they wonder if they could ever be something more than the perfect emptiness.

And no one sees their faces, and no one knows their names, and a desolation stretches to every horizon, and the vastness of it makes all voices pitifully small.

That same summer, my leg got better. The bad blood drained out and went back to where it was supposed to go. The joint learned to bend and straighten again. In the long run, there was no permanent harm. I was able to walk without a stick. I got back to training. I stopped crying at work.

I had made for a pretty conspicuous spectacle getting about town, though. As I got to the end of my half-hearted convalescence, I got a message from an ex. Our breakup had been long, and painful. The message read:

“Maybe now you know what it feels like to be in pain all the time.”

I wish I had known, much earlier in my life, how to say this:

I already know, and it hurts.