You believed that old men know more than young men; that life will break your heart; that death is the vantage point from which a life must be seen. There was something you needed that you never found, and you must have died horribly unsatisfied.
I don’t know how to make myself an education out of anything, even those things that I love best in life. I read very fast, uncritically, and without retention, seeking only to escape from my own life through the imaginative plunge into another. Maybe I read too much. But the first lesson reading teaches is how to be alone. And maybe I’m not alone, not technically, but even when I’m in a room full of people I often feel so lonely that it’s easier to just leave because it’s only when no one’s around that loneliness makes any sense.
At the grocery store I sort through a cue of condolence cards. In the journey of life some people leave a mark so deep it is hard to forget them. I put the card back.
If I wrote a condolence card, what would it say? You don’t need to be in a relationship. You are already in a relationship with yourself. You are going to love yourself forever.
All memories, the neuroscientists say, are actually memories of memory, but usually they don’t feel that way. Anything processed by memory is fiction. Speak, memory.
Outside a theater: Stacks of blond curls spill out your knit cap; straight-legged jeans reveal the geography of your skin. You wear a half-bored look on your face, the kind models are always trying to find. I start to walk past, but you grab my elbow. I’ve seen you in the halls between classes, but we’ve never spoken before. Every time our eyes meet you lift your sunglasses and smile. I study the floor.
I’m sorry if I stare at you, you tell me, your fingers tightly wedged into my skin. But you look just like my father in his high school yearbook.
We moved in together ten days later. That night I sprung from sleep and began to bawl because I had everything I wanted and knew I would never be so happy again.
It was as if I’d been dead forever, and was now awake.
You told me, I know one of us will die first and the other will suffer. Then our naked bodies started glowing, and the air turned such a strange color I thought my life must be leaving me, and with every young fiber and cell I wanted to hold on to it for another breath.
You said that you loved me more than anything. But you knew what I didn’t: That you can love somebody more than anything and still not love the person all that much, if you’re busy with other things.
When you were too sad to talk, you would read to me. If you couldn’t use your own words, you would use someone else’s.
I suspect that not being able to share depression’s inner feeling or even really describe what it felt like felt to you like a desperate, life-or-death need to describe the sun in the sky and yet being able or permitted only to point to the shadows on the ground.
You had all day every day to figure out some decent and satisfying way to live, and yet all you ever seemed to get for all your choices and all your freedom was more miserable. You liked to make your pain seem extraordinary when it was just ordinary, ordinary pain for an ordinary, ordinary person. I wondered if there was something wrong with me, talking and laughing, having a good time, as if I enjoyed being alive.
Just before Christmas, you packed your clothes and left to visit a friend. Said a change of scenery would do you good. Got in the car and drove. Leveled a freeway divider. Shot through the windshield like a sneeze. Stepped onto the sky to land like a spilled purse at my feet.
I lie here hating you, loving you, knowing I have failed you.
My mother calls. She asks me how I feel. Am I sad? Emotions, I tell her, in my experience, aren’t covered by single words. I don’t believe in “sadness,” “joy,” or “regret.” I’d like to have at my disposal complicated hybrid emotions, Germanic train-car constructions like, “the happiness that attends disaster” or “the sadness inspired by failing restaurants.”
It is impossible to say just what I mean.
The root function of language is to control the universe by describing it, and writing is an act of communication between one human being and another. I quote others to better express myself, but even with the help of others, I find that I don’t know myself in the slightest. Monday’s me and Friday’s me are two completely different people, and each one depends heavily on the book in my pocket that day.
I go back to the store and buy myself a condolence card. May you take comfort in the memories you shared. Memory is by its very nature a dream machine; it is the diary that we all carry about with us, but it usually chronicles the things that have never happened.
We met in a dream. We were falling off a bridge, up high where the air gets so hot it burns the wings off the birds.
Dolphins have been observed refusing to eat after the death of a mate. Geese have been observed reacting to such a death by flying and calling, searching until they themselves became disoriented and lost.
There’s a silly saying “We’re born alone and we die alone”—it’s nonsense. We’re surrounded at birth and surrounded at death. It is in between that we’re alone.
1: Richard Rodriguez (“believed that old men…death is the vantage point from which a life must be seen”). Wendell Berry (“There was something you needed that you never found”), Dawn Ryan (“must have died horribly unsatisfied”).
2: Natalia Ginzburg (first sentence). Frank Conroy (second). Ron Carlson (third). Jonathan Franzen (fourth). Matt Bell (fifth).
3: Greeting Card (“In the journey of life some people leave a mark so deep it is hard to forget them”). Jami Attenberg (“You don’t need…You are going to love yourself forever”).
4: Franzen (first sentence). David Shields (second). Vladimir Nabokov (third).
5: Nothing (consciously) stolen here.
6: F. Scott Fitzgerald (“began to bawl because I had everything I wanted and knew I would never be so happy again”). Denis Johnson (last sentence).
7: Matthew Dickman (italics). Johnson (second sentence).
8: Franzen (“that you can love somebody…if you’re busy with other things”).
9: Nothing stolen.
10: David Foster Wallace.
11: Franzen (first sentence). Rivka Galchen (second). Leonard Michaels (third).
12: Rodriguez (last sentence).
13: Scott Russell Sanders.
14: Jeffery Eugenides (“Emotions…‘the sadness inspired by failing restaurants’”). T.S. Eliot (last sentence).
15: James Baldwin, (“The root function of language is to control the universe by describing it”), Wallace (“writing is an act of communication between one human being and another”). Montaigne (“I quote others to better express myself”).
16: Greeting Card (“May you take comfort in the memories you shared”). Shields (“Memory is by its very nature a dream machine”). Oscar Wilde (“Memory is the diary that we all carry about with us, but it usually chronicles the things that have never happened”).
17: Italo Calvino (“We met in a dream. We were falling off a bridge”), Anne Carson (“up high where the air gets so hot it burns the wings off the birds”).
18: Joan Didion.
19: Tom Rachman.
*Some of the quotes were condensed and/or altered slightly, mainly to fit pronouns and verb tense, occasionally to fit the space. About the author:
Johannes Lichtman’s work has been published by or is forthcoming in American Short Fiction, Barrelhouse, The Collagist, The Oxford American, REAL, and elsewhere. He is currently an MFA student at UNC Wilmington, where he is completing a novel about plagiarism.