Under Alex’s skin was the dullness again. The sound came from outside. Kids playing their tunes probably, little nothing sounds unaware of themselves that ruled anyway. He went to the window. Not kids, he realized, but the neighbors, people he didn’t like because he didn’t know them and they didn’t know him. By now, after seeing one another for two years, no one cared to bridge this gap.
He closed the window. There was that man who always walked his dog, talking to a woman with blue veins on her temple, a talker, her, one who spoke of things like friends and who gave little notices via her eyes about real meanings that had no importance whatsoever in the world of thought, of ideas, the things that Alex prided himself as having embraced like a lover. He had closed the window so as not to hear the tinny music that the lady always carried with her when she walked. The man never walked, but stood and watched his dog. He was old, too. There was no way to know about them, except that he was not a talker and she was. Did he put up with her as Alex had put up with her briefly before closing the window and going back to his computer? He had 134 Facebook friends. Yet nobody ever called.
He remembered the laughter of the woman. Over the many years laughter seems to lose its luster. It seemed fake to Alex, too loud, too loud to be real, for very few things caused so much laughter to occur unless the person wanted laughter to occur. You could not have real laughter through mere want, he knew. He looked at the happy people on Facebook, hoping that they were not as happy as they seemed. He hadn’t posted in several months and had considered getting off, but his computer was too old now and it wouldn’t let him. He was a slave to Facebook and friends who didn’t write to him, formerly good friends, friends that mattered. All avoided him and his only solace was in thinking that they avoided everybody else, too, that they were philosophically against Facebook so were off doing something else. They probably hoped the same thing concerning him, if they remembered him at all.
Alex had recently quit reading the newspaper in hope of gaining a little bit of solace. He had taken up reading again, novels: J.M. Coetzee, David Mitchell, Russell Banks, only the best of modern writers. He was going to inject the best of thought into his overly worked brain from now on. Everything else had somehow failed him. He had been like those Indians whose sole purpose is to make sure the sun goes from East to West every day. By reading the news he was a watchdog. Nothing too horrible could happen if he was on the job. In the end, he realized, this was a false notion. He had written letters to editors and politicians and had never gotten a response. He had protested the Iraq war. They killed anyway. Everybody does everything anyway, he realized. He had zero impact upon the world by fretting over it. Besides, now that he had let the world go, there would be more of a chance that it would hasten its own destruction and he would be forced to move on, to Argentina or Ecuador or the southern tip of Spain. The nuclear bombs probably wouldn’t go off in these places.
Alex could no longer hear the tinny music of the woman who laughed like she didn’t want to. Janie Frieberg was doing lunch with her sister and she was really excited. He couldn’t put Facebook away just yet. He kept going back to it. Janie was the only girl he had ever dated who remained his friend afterward. She seemed so dull to Alex, viewing her life on Facebook, so much so that he wondered what he had ever seen in her. When she left him, she had been talking about spirituality and politics and religion and sex. When she walked she would sometimes twirl. She was bright-eyed and ambitious, but when she saw him it always seemed like she was looking around him, like she was looking to see if there was something better than Alex. This eventually led to the inevitable breakup. One knows when one is not loved.
Now Janie was married to a man named Styrong. Alex couldn’t place the nationality of that name. Perhaps he was Asian or Scandinavian. It would have fit Janie to go after an international type. She was a romantic. That’s why they originally clicked. She went by Janie Frieberg Styrong on Facebook, proud of herself and her marriage. She was a regular gal now, wasn’t straying that far, was capable of being married and having kids while keeping her individuality which was always very important for she and Alex way back when. She looked better now than she did then, but Alex figured that was just because he still missed her. He loved her then and he loved her still, but now he had to face, everyday, that it was an illusion, that their relationship was a brittle husk at best while it was going on and now was a visible memory anytime he went to the computer. She was making vegetarian tacos for the kids. She got a new shawl that was wonderful. Does anybody else care that meat is murder?
Everybody on Facebook had become a caricature of who they really were, but that was all that he had of them anymore. He had no way of going back to them. He was a failure in this world, living on food stamps, nursing a painful tooth badly in need of a root canal, working at a job that had no interest in his Bachelors in English Literature with an emphasis in Poetry. Poetry. It had failed him. The words had not been enough. The world didn’t want them. After awhile the bitterness seeped into him like the rot into his tooth. More than once he cursed the gods of poetry, those same gods that he saw in the eyes of Janie, that he heard in the music of her voice. He knew what mattered and he was forced to question himself and his choices. Had he majored in poetry because he was lazy? Was he a failure in the world because the inner world really was not as important as the outer world? Had that been a lie? Why did the guys who never bothered going to school do better than he did in the minute intricacies of life? They all got married. All had children. All made upwards of 50 to 100,000 dollars per year. Alex realized that it was willful ignorance and lack of introspection that had saved them. They had not tried to trace the intricacies of God’s grand design and the universe rewarded them for it, like a bunch of Adams before the original thought.
Alex went down the row: Stan Villon, now a professor in South Carolina. Stan was a friend during his post-college days in Chicago. A guy who reminded Alex of Gandhi, Stan had been a student at the University of Chicago. Of course he would now be a professor. Alex sat with these University of Chicago students in old houses while snow fell outside, drinking coffee while reading to each other. They were equals there. Nobody cared that Alex had graduated from a small state school in California of little significance. He sat and listened mostly, always somewhat in awe of the intelligence of his fellows. They liked his poetry, but he always wondered whether he could ever be an intellectual peer to them. They had been vetted by the system and they could take that with them anywhere they went. He had gotten into college easily, for all that had been needed was a C average in high school. Everybody got into his school.
He had watched as these diverse human satellites in the world of the University of Chicago pulled in close just briefly and then veered away into their proper orbits. These orbits were distinctly different from his. Their orbits allowed them to be paid for subtle thought simply because they had also been practical. Many had been groomed. Now he felt that he had simply been allowed to view the subject matter. Nobody ever had any intention, he felt, of letting him also thrive by concentrating on the barely visible truths, pulling them up further and revealing them for the good of all man-kind. He thought of going back to school, a graduate school where he could study philosophy and psychology and poetry and fiction and write essays and treatises and be listened to. Perhaps that was what was needed, to be allowed to be one of the vetted ones, to push it forward, get the title behind his name and just go to work, get paid, get a family, a home, a life. But the brain was dulled by now, at 38, too dulled to forget the pain that he had experienced holding on to a dream made of vespers and silence. He had come to know the realm of poetry, but by this time, the sadness of getting there had chased him away. Half of him no longer respected something that could keep someone from having a family through its virtual insistence upon poverty in order to stay true. This rebellion pushed him back to Facebook. He scrolled down.
A slew of faces, some of them from his time attempting to solidify a weekly poetry reading that fell through. Once again, the real world trumped the inner world. He found that there was petty competition even in the realm of high spirituality. Life always seemed a balance between the animal and the spiritual and the animal always won. God Sex ruled, of course, perhaps because of the spirituality involved on some deeper level, but with it always came the baser power structures, the evil little victories, the savoring of the defeat of others. Once again, the poetic ideal was corrupted by two little things called hope and belief. There was Roger Milens and Fay Disiwala. They were good poets and went on to be in a theater company. He never really knew what they did with the rest of their lives, but they drove nice cars, had mates, were nice people, but aloof. Everybody was aloof. Poetry was about intimacy with others. You could play it, but Alex found that few wanted to live it. God Fun was really the key here. Fun was the ideal once people got together. The urge to laugh became a sort of religion. Perhaps if people couldn’t laugh after every sentence then everybody would have to cry. Everybody would just break down and cry. As people age, the idea of tears became the enemy. No matter what everybody was doing, no matter what a group believed in, the idea of fun always reigned supreme. It was the same on Facebook. Everybody was putting on their perfect face. In the meantime, nobody communicated anymore. Nobody cared anymore. They had all virtually laughed themselves to death.
Brent Helow, Slim Fawaskawa, a Japanese dude who was really funny. Another one Alex didn’t really know. Slim was one of those guys who was in and out. He had an invisible wall around his head, a perpetually smiling head, a mouth of perpetual wit and glee, but a wall nonetheless. He was just another who came out and then went back in where Alex could not go. The death of intimacy, Alex thought. Facebook was becoming a symbol to him of the death of ever being able to connect on a true level with somebody ever again. All of his friends were on it. Every friend that was listed he now knew did not want to know him anymore. It would have been better had he not initiated contact at all. They would have been better off left in the warmer clouds of memory. If left there, there would have been a hope of contact once again, real contact, and it would have held surprise and the memory of the more authentic moments of the past, the true laughter that had simply had to stop. Alex understood having to move on, but he couldn’t quite understand coming back in such an impersonal way. All reunions had been wasted. He would never have a reason to really see these people ever again. They were Facebook friends after all.
Julie Lowe, a model and actress, a stranger; Giselle Luidi, an intellectual from college who laughed like a hyena but behind her glasses possessed one of the finest noses he had ever seen. She was a beauty that didn’t know it who became a business-type, he thought, wasn’t sure, stocks and bonds. Smart girl. He had re-united with her without a word, a simple acceptance of the other’s existence, an acknowledgement that the one is happy that the other is not dead. They had once found themselves alone together for four hours, and talked about everything from politics to the Miami Dolphins. There had even been a chance at love, but it fizzled. Both held back. Both had a feeling about the other, that it just wasn’t that way. They were right. A hello without a hello was in order. Strike Giselle. Tom Julienne, Ty Uflado, a true laugher, a big smile, outdoorsy, probably not at the computer that much. Alex envied him. Jim Lowry, Hillel Lowenberg, Gail Stormer, the list went on and on. All happy. All knowledgeable of him, always would be, none of whom really cared. He hadn’t gotten a personal message by any of them in over eight months.
Alex closed the lid of the computer. Perhaps he could go to the library and use one of their computers to cancel Facebook. He would do it soon, but there was always a waiting list at the library. Outside he heard more laughter. He went to the window and a couple of middle-aged women had joined the dog watching, radio-listening group, whiling away the hours with innocent banter. The middle-aged ladies were loud. They were big lunged laughers who found everything funny and yet had nothing at all to really say. This was the way of the world. People as they aged had gone back to the placid non-thinking of who they really were after all of the bravado of having to be the hero to insure themselves food for their gullets in their old age. At a certain point the hero is let go and the simple, gurgling stream is taken back into their hearts and minds; simplicity and laughter and mere feeling of presence without any impulse to dream forward a finer existence, a more poetic existence, one that magically transforms others while transforming oneself. The idea of a spiritual utopia had been replaced with a toaster and cream cheese reality.
Alex watched the group talk below him for a little while and then went over to the dresser and opened his book. He had picked up, once again, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. After only a moment he closed it and picked up a pen and a small personal journal. In it he wrote:
Ever long the day
Not knowing then
That I would never know
Having sought solace
Where solace dare not dwell
I roam still ever inward
All the people gone
A few old faces
Remembering me -
Before all – we fly