This is a poem. Is it all right if I lie to you for a little bit?
It feels like a lie isn’t so bad if the victim is playing along. I read a Murakami quote recently, something from one of his novels, I think. He was, or his character was, talking about how you can ruin someone’s life with your own life. Not with a gun or a knife or a threat but just by being yourself. By saying something simple, like, “I love you,” and then changing your mind about it somewhere down the road. By putting your kids in the car and driving off somewhere without your spouse. By having one beer too many, staying out one hour too long. Our lives are like cars that we are at the wheels of. I’ve never driven a car before but I assume that when you’re in a car you’re not really aware of how dangerous you are. You’re probably not aware of how, at any moment, you could hurt or kill or set into motion a chain of events that would kill and hurt a lot of people. We are the cars that we ourselves are driving. On the highway of life.
I think, if Murakami read that paragraph, he probably would regret having wasted his time reading it. Let me start again.
Everyone in the world has a tragedy and my tragedy is smaller than others. Some days I am William Burroughs’ wife and sometimes I am William Burroughs. Sometimes I am the apple and sometimes I am the bullet. Sometimes I am just one of the guys at the party. Sometimes I am just a news story about the trial. Do you know what I’m talking about? How William Burroughs killed his wife at a party when he was drunk and tried to shoot an apple off her head? It’s a true story.
I remember last summer, at night, in my single bed. You (or an iteration of you) touched my face as I thought about what I’ve just said. I was talking about my grandmother’s death. Does talking about death in a single bed with someone make kissing someone and talking to someone and graft them into a relationship? Are human beings like apple trees? I could hear your heartbeat and my first thought was it was beating fast. Because I was talking about loss. I only know one dead person, my grandmother. She smoked herself to death. We never really got close until the end, after the diagnosis, during her last year. The smoking was what had always defined her, for me. Whenever she came to visit she’d made the guest bedroom smell of cigarettes. My mom always made her go outside to smoke but the stench was on her so intensely that it followed her everywhere, filled up the spaces where she was. I don’t know how conscious she was of that, of the way the addiction acted like a barrier, setting her apart from everyone else. She was incredibly smart. We played the vocabulary game once on freerice.com and she was getting up to level forty-eight or so pretty casually. But I don’t think human interaction was ever her forte. My mom said she didn’t have a lot of friends, even before my grandfather left her. I once read a piece that Malcolm Gladwell wrote that suggested depressed people used cigarettes as an anti-depressant. I’m pretty sure that’s what happened to her. Malcolm Gladwell also went to a school for journalism uniquely funded by cigarette companies. Malcolm Gladwell is almost definitely a tobacco industry stooge. I would like to write for the New Yorker. I would like to be a stooge for a less harmful industry. All industries are harmful when you get really leftist about it, though. The ice cream industry is killing all those poor diabetic kids. The magazine industry gives people low self-esteem and too much recycling. The porn industry gives people bad ideas and worse browser histories. And so on.
Every time I feel a headache come on out of nowhere I assume I’m going to die soon. That’s narcissistic, isn’t it?
I think about 9/11 a lot, I guess everyone does. I was twelve at the time; it happened a few days before my thirteenth birthday. My uncle, the sensitive one, called our place. This was when my parents were still together. My dad had been supposed to fly down to Maryland that day, although his trip was delayed for reasons unrelated to terrorism. My mom said my uncle had been crying on the phone as he was asking if my dad was okay. That was the first time I ever experienced a grown man crying in real life and not in a movie, I think. Although, true to my dad’s family, it happened at a remove. And it was my mom who reported it. Of course if my dad had taken the call he never would have said something like, “He was crying.” That was the kind of detail he would elide without even having to think about it; the kind my mom would supply in much the same manner, instinctually. It’s a wonder such different people ever managed to stay together so long. I talked to my mom last spring about the circumstances surrounding my conception. I guess mostly because I was having a lot of unprotected sex with my girlfriend at the time and thinking about how babies affect people’s lives. I knew I hadn’t been planned but I guess the particulars of the distinction between ‘unplanned’ and ‘life-altering mistake’ hadn’t really presented themselves to my brain yet. She told it very nonchalantly; she hadn’t had any particular interest in having a baby at the time, even though she was three months married when I was conceived. She was thinking about a career, maybe teaching in Europe. She was still a scholar. And I kind of ruined all that. They had to move somewhere where my dad could work, so they returned from France to Canada. And that was that. I felt like I kind of ruined my mom’s life in a way. I guess abortions in Europe in the late ‘80s were probably not the best idea. So here I am.
Do you ever do something like go to a conference and meet someone and fall in love with them, maybe because of their astonishingly beautiful smile, maybe because of their Twitter persona, and add them on Facebook, and never talk to them again after the conference is over, but just watch their lives extend in photos and status updates and wonder what it would have been like if you’d run into each other when you were getting destructively drunk during the final gala when you were a runner-up for something and not a winner, and made out or really connected or something? I always want to send a private message saying, “If ever you’re in my city, let me know, I’d love to take you out for dinner or some drinks” or something but that seems like the kind of thing that might be described as “unwarranted.” You know that Simpsons quote? “Sir, you’re making a scene”? I’m always afraid of making a scene. But you have to wonder how your life would go if you were less afraid of making a scene sometimes, right? Was it Stevens who said “death is the mother of beauty,” or was it Yeats?
I was sorting through some piles of paper in my apartment recently and I came across a handwritten letter from my grandmother. She’d included it when she gave me a copy of Lolita a few years back for my birthday, after I included it in a list of classic books I told her wanted to read. She said Pale Fire was the better book but Lolita was a better starting point. If I can feel this bad on my own, I think, imagine how bad I could feel on steroids.
One time, when I was thirteen or fourteen and bicycling to one of my soccer games, a kid ran after me yelling. When I stopped he told me I had a really nice bike. Then he asked me if I was going home alone. It seemed suspect that anyone would ask anyone that, even a little kid of seven or eight. I didn’t respond; I just biked away as fast as I could. Looking back, it still seems suspect.
A year or so after my grandmother died my mom and my sister and I sat around the dining room table and took turns transferring her ashes from a plastic bag into a big copper pot. Afterward we all hugged each other and then washed the dust off our hands one by one.
Some of the best poetry humans have ever written I’ve seen on cardboard signs at sporting events. Things like ‘We may never lose again’ and ‘We may now die in peace.’ If you write something in all caps using black marker on a piece of coloured cardboard it stops mattering what you’re actually saying. All that matters is that you’re saying it with conviction.
Alex Manley is a twenty-five-year-old Montreal writer with a degree in creative writing from Concordia University. His work has been published by Shabby Doll House, Everyday Genius, Banango Street, and Maisonneuve magazine, among others. He is left-handed and working on a novel.