EVERYTHING becomes problematic when you think for too long. Escapism is the relief from being conscious in an inescapably problematic reality. It transforms the Gordian knot of reality into a dramatic bow that can be undone with a gentle pull. I had no sense for that kind of escapism as a child. It wasn’t a transportation to another place or a simplification of anything, but instead added a new piece of furniture to my psychic landscape, a new perch to stare out the window from.
The first object I remember triggering this effect was a t-shirt with an iron-on logo of a tiger on its front. I wore it as a one year-old, tottering across the wide and fence-less dirt yard of our family home at the time, throwing rocks with my older brother and swinging sticks through the barely perceptible friction in the air. When I saw the shirt for the first time, I immediately placed that tiger into the front yard, stalking low to the ground between the palm trees on the far edge, or else napping heavily by the front door, a mound of warm fur waiting to be burrowed into.
A few years later I discovered an old Batman comic book in another house my parents were renting. I read the story, about a doctor who accidentally turns himself into something called Man-Bat after injecting himself with bat serum while trying to cure his deafness. This history–a jumble of images that led to an ending frame that would have been dull without what preceded it–dramatized the darkness of the room I shared with my brother at night.
As I looked out at the neighbor’s rooftop through the trees and disintegrating shadows, the soft dark breeze a reminder that something invisible was always happening somewhere, I began to picture all the horrible stop-motion monsters of my 3 year-old imagination as failed heros, scientists who couldn’t heal themselves and had inadvertently grown fur, fangs and claws in the process. The night became a sadder place, but one where more company–not less-might be found.
I learned these conflicted dramas were scalable when my parents gave me a book about dental care, the heros of which were two trolls that lived inside a cavernous mouth. They used pick-axes to carve out homes for themselves in the over-sized teeth and lived in fear of the giant toothbrush and its tidal wave of foam that would periodically devastate their shelter. The use of catastrophic violence and the suspiciously human-like characterization of bacteria seemed suspicious, but the suggestion of wild histories, passing without record, in my mouth seemed true. Epochs could fit within other epochs, neither aware of the other.
This is also a good description of videogames, not as escapism but as little epochs indifferently underway inside a larger epoch, culled from the same material, atomized and impossible to imagine in both states simultaneously.
I don’t remember the name of my first girlfriend. I was in 2nd grade and she was in kindergarten, the younger sister of one of my classmates called Crystal. I liked Crystal in a way that didn’t make sense in 2nd grade. She lived down the street from my friend Gordon, whose house I’d go to for a few hours after school every day while waiting for my parents to finish work. His mother would give us some small snack–apples, or yoghurt–and then we’d run outside to play and often times this led us to Crystal’s yard where her small sister whose name has escaped–irretrievably–would cling to my neck with her bony arms and kiss my face all over.
Crystal had blonde hair and her younger sister had brown hair. I didn’t know much about Crystal’s sister except that I liked kissing her in the same way I liked swinging on swings and looking out at things from my bed at night. When we kissed my feelings for Crystal transposed themselves onto her, a little creature who remained a stranger, even when, one day, she lay down on the floor in her parent’s garage and told me to pull my pants down and lie on top of her. This gesture scared me and I ran out into the safety of the front lawn. She came chasing after and we kissed some more, our thin, childish lips pressed together, each one longer than the last, the air from our noses warming on the opposite cheek. I told my mother that I could no longer kiss her because I had a girlfriend and I didn’t want to make her jealous. My mother laughed at me.
Love is timing, a friend’s fiancee told him a few months after they called off their wedding, a reflection not of who you rightfully belong with, but of the best possible arrangement of circumstances at the time. To fight against circumstances for something you love is another way of going to war with time, a way of fighting against yourself since, if time is a dimension, part of it must be in ourselves too. To overcome the circumstances of time would be a way of erasing ourselves.
But even still, it’s impossible to imagine love outside of the context of some kind of fight, either against the circumstances that surround you, or against the impulses inside yourself. In that way, love can be a will to both reject the structure of time and to acknowledgeone’s helplessness in the face of it. The one constant characteristic of my lovelife in the 30 years since Crystal’s anonymous sister raised her little face to mine, is the constancy of departure, the need to endure, again and again, the loss of people who felt like unconscious aspects of myself, whom almost as soon as they are woken, must be ripped away into the dreamy vapor of timing and circumstances and daytime and lobby lights.
Not long after I met Crystal, my brother taught me how to steal things. He explained that the big red backpack I’d been carrying to school everyday could be filled with cargo more precious than schoolbooks. In the wide aisles of the Country Boy grocery store down the street from our parents’ apartment we’d pretend to read the labels until no other shoppers were nearby, then we’d fill my little bag with as much candy as time and circumstance would allow. We could very nearly fill the whole bag, with 10-packs of candy bars, bulk pouches of gummies, chocolate morsels, and stretchy fruit taffies. We’d run from the store back to the laundry room of our apartment complex, which became our de facto feasting ground, mixing the chemical sweetness of the candies with the scent of fabric softener and soap.
Never before had I eaten so much and so quickly, the subdivision of wrappers and price evaporated with each new fistful, the alien textures of taffy, licorice, and nougat seeming to disappear instantly with each swallow, creating an instant absence, the salivary rush of sweetness in my mouth feeling as if it had no connection to the fullness in my stomach. It was a compulsive loop that seemed to have no natural limit: valuable treasures can be stolen from wherever they have been hoarded, and the pleasure of discovering each one in its own little bloom of time is a richer reward than any other.
Our parents soon discovered the hulking bag of candy stowed between the dryers and made me carry the loot back to Country Boy, where I presented the candy, admitted I had stolen it from them, and gave them $40 to pay for it, a debt that, my mother explained, would be taken from two months of suspended allowance money. I never felt guilty for my theft, only embarrassed that I had been caught, and resentful that the grocery store’s right to hoard had superseded my own desires, diminishing them into puny, unanswerable pleas that an occasional morsel of chocolate would never again satisfy.
As my parents continue to age, their emotions have gained a historical distance that sometimes passes for depth. One story that is repeated, the first event connected to my life for which I do feel guilt, comes from the circumstances leading to my birth in Kenya. As my parents drove several hundred kilometers from the college town where they lived to the capital, my mother expecting to begin labor at any moment, they passed through a mid-sized village where a small girl jumped out in front of their car. They hit her. She went flying through the air and broke her femur when she landed. According to my parents, an angry crowd began to form around the car and a policeman told my dad to drive away before something bad happened.
The girl and her father were brought to the police station and my parents agreed to pay for her medical treatment and give them a ride into Nairobi. While they talked about the details, the nervous policeman loaded his pistol with new bullets, “just in case” the angry people from the crime scene had followed them to the station. It seems, in hindsight, like so many things could have gone wrong: my parents turned inadvertent murderers, then beaten to death in a strange village they’d never been to, unconscious me left to feel the blows and hear the shouts, muffled and from afar, as if in another dimension. And the poor girl dead, or wounded for life, by an ill-considered leap into a street that, for a moment, seemed like a playground.
Every time this story returns–as an object lesson in an argument or during a reminiscence that ends with a question about how much I remember from my childhood–guilt is the only emotion I can manage. None of the choices were mine and none of the memories are real for me, the events exist only in an imagined series of worst case scenarios, more dire in my mind than they ever were in the moment.
Is there any purer way to imagine guilt than as a focal point through which all of the unconsidered dangers of time and circumstance coalesce? It is the same thing as escapism, but applied in the opposite direction, enlivening the past with helpless sorrow at how much worse everything could have been. And all of the steps that lead toward that coalescence are rational and moral enough in their own contexts. There would have been no reason to do things any different, even with a miraculous second chance. And while the particular circumstances of the past probably won’t repeat again, all the atomized decisions will, and inside each will now lie the remembrance of the invisible wind of disaster blowing through. I am not what I’ve done. I am what I didn’t know, what I couldn’t stop. The more of it I discover, the less of an escape it will be.
Score: 3 out of 10
*This is an excerpt from a collection of essays you can get here.