A story I read once: Peggy Lee onstage in Las Vegas, pilled into oblivion. Her strand of pearls breaks and they scatter. She crouches down, crawls, picking pearls up one by one. An anguished and angry voice from the audience: "You were the American dream!" Her band plays on and on. Finally, she stands and steps to the microphone, enters back into the song, smooth, unruffled. Her hand, a fist of stray pearls.
A lot of my problems stem from living my life according to a declaration made by Truman Capote: “I’m an alcoholic. I’m a drug addict. I’m a homosexual. I’m a genius.” Well, three out of four isn’t bad.
I have none of the signposts that make a life. I have no family, no children, no calling, no formal education, no accomplishments, no real career. What I do have: a former drug addiction, a history of depression and breakdown and suicidal ideation, various disgraces, and an ability to lie in bed for long stretches of time not sleeping and not waking, not daydreaming and not even really thinking.
I have many pens with pharmaceutical companies’ names on them. That can’t be a good sign. What was the medication I took last year to help with anxiety and sleeplessness? Its side effects included cloudy thinking and memory loss. Was that last year?
Life right now feels like lost film, like the placards in old movies: scene missing. But I am living the lost film.
Most days I am a mix of Rip Van Winkle, Jack the Ripper, and Rip Taylor: comatose, murderous, and frivolous.
Sometimes the chase is so convoluted, strange, errant, and ongoing, there is no way to cut to it.
The television, phone, and computer. A feed scrolls along, and I send a series of texts three time zones away. Outside, late night traffic rushes along through the rain. I haven’t left the house in days. Since Wednesday, maybe even Tuesday. No matter. It reminds me of living on drug time but now without the drugs, particularly pointless. The true north of that need gave me a way to always move forward. Now I hear directional navigation from every screen, the eternal now of the internet where each thought is subsumed in a tidal wave of more of the same.
Context is everything, a friend tells me. He texts with authority from his context, a good address in the city or his getaway where he unplugs and unwinds. I’m poor and don’t use summer as a verb. Someone texts to tell me of some party on a beach or near a beach, with fairy lights and finger foods. I have a miniature fridge full of what I consider to be old man picnic food: cold cuts, pickled vegetables, cubed melons, and berries.
Apparently I have tried to write an entire novel on matchbooks and dry cleaners’ tickets and credit card slips (and I take the merchant instead of the customer copies).
The poet Alice Notley said, “The obvious problem is that you can only catch a mind with a mind, so you never get where you’re trying to be, again you wind up making art. Why shouldn’t you?”
A breakdown? My sense of it isn’t that things shatter. It’s that the fragments all start to come together and point insistently toward one conclusion. So, clearly I’m still all right.
Late night, over drinks, I make the mistake of telling a friend about how I’m feeling. I say it lightly, or as lightly as such a thing can be said. It’s only a feeling to me. Ambient, like the bar’s soundtrack, like the free-floating lust that hums in the room.
“Promise me you won’t hurt yourself,” he says.
I have never understood this. If one is close to killing oneself it means being beyond promises, beyond connection, beyond love. It means the pain must stop any way necessary. Promises have no hold there.
When I ask, “How are you doing?” what I’m saying is: What are you thinking? I notice that when someone transgresses or makes a mistake, people often ask them, “What were you thinking?” when they mean, “Why did you do that?”
I have left my phone off for days and holed up at home, watching old movies on cable with the sound muted. I drink in bed and watch the lambency on the walls. I don’t have to do laundry because I don’t change clothes. Dishes are piled up. Apples brown on the kitchen counter and smell of sweet rot.
I am less dependable. A gregarious hermit maybe. A voice on the phone or words online. I like being alone at home, unshowered, drifting between desk and bed. Working, not working, reheating cold coffee, slipping outside to smoke and watch people passing by.
Plans are malleable. Dinner at eight is canceled and moved to drinks at ten. At nine-fifteen I phone to say I can’t make it, unable to imagine walking to a crowded bar for a half-yelled, half-heard conversation about how exhausted and busy everyone is. I make myself a drink, lie on the bed with a book, and watch the people on the bar patio diagonal to my window.
The white noise machine is supposed to be the gentle shush of ocean, but it sounds like the crackling fire of papers burning.
I am monastic but without the discipline or the silence. The apartment fills with songs. Dreamy fingerpicked melodies with nasal men’s voices and later at night, warped cabaret with garage orchestra strings and smoke-scarred women’s voices.
The city’s energy makes my inertia more pronounced, so I prefer hiding in the apartment, making quick trips to the bodega around the corner, dropping off my laundry because I can’t bear to sit and wait at the Laundromat where people I recognize show up and make small talk.
I wake too early and am tired within hours of getting up. I won’t seize the day; I won’t even brush its hair. I’ll lie here until it starts to fade and I can get up suddenly afraid of my dwindling time. I could call someone and release myself from this time warp, but that’s usually when things start to slip.
I listen to scraps of conversation on the street and hear someone—a movie star, a pop singer, someone that the word icon or diva can be attached to—described as ageless. When it's said that someone is ageless, I assume it means they're dead.
Things are built to change, by which I mean to fall apart. Entropy unto death, not only of the individual but of the idea, society, everything visible and knowable and unknowable.
When entropy becomes a comforting idea, you know you’re fucked.
Without premeditation, out of laziness, indecision, and dread of the weekend grocery store, I have eaten two slices of toast, some pretzel sticks, a handful of popcorn, and a couple jelly beans: A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving.
Editing amends: I have done that. I have sat and confessed my sins. I have refined them. Whittled away. I want to believe that I took the measure of the damage I had done and distilled it. But it is likely I subtracted what I could to preserve some small dignity for myself.
Scene missing. I am living the lost film.
We all know the self is constructed. Some of us more than others. But what is it constructed of? The material is stolen. Our selves are plagiarisms.
"Act natural" is the ultimate fascism. "Be yourself." Who is talking and who is expected to shape a self to that instruction? Act natural means conform to the falsehood of authenticity.
Everyone is an actor and each role is derivative and yet we are ourselves: authentic fakes. Always failing. Always falling short.
As terms go, spatial anxiety sounds positively expansive compared to agoraphobia.
It started out small. Working from home. Ordering groceries for delivery. Laundry pickup. I’d laugh about it with friends. Use the old Dillard line about being a gregarious hermit. But then it became increasingly true. I didn’t leave the house.
A Yelp review of Manhattan Central Booking: "Two stars because I've been to clubs worse than this with a longer line, and the car was returned unscratched. Thank goodness they didn't find what was under the tissue in the cup holder."
The New York Times runs a correction to an article on a movie director: “Because of a transcription error, an interview misquoted him. He said, ‘You must leave out the painful parts, or you would never do certain things’—not ‘live out’ the painful parts.”
I agree with the misquote.
I am listening to jazz and Nico, the sounds of heroin. Before Nico gets to moan the chorus of David Bowie’s “Heroes”—“And we can be herrroooeees just for one day”—by way of introduction, she asks the fervently applauding audience, “Why do you give me so much gratitude?” Indeed.
The phone brings questions and the questions either don’t have answers or have the wrong answers. And that only brings more questions. Before long I have said the wrong things, and there are expressions of concern, or I have fallen mute. The caring voices on the line speak to me gently as if I am lost and they can bring me back, when it is precisely these voices that have silenced me and sent me into a small place where I cannot speak.
“Insomnia is like a kind of torture,” Lorna says. “Seriously, sleep deprivation can make you crazy.”
She has information: Vitamin D in fish oil, magnesium citrate twice a day, and three milligrams of melatonin at bedtime. “They should have it at that health store by you. The yuppie-hippie one.”
I pause, pretending I’m writing all this down.
“And try rubbing lavender into your feet,” she says.
“Unless it’s cut with morphine, that’s not going to work.”
I’m not interested in meditating to empty my mind. I’ve already lived that. I grew up with people who hated thought.
An hour before dawn I lie in bed and feel myself somehow both waking and dissolving. My limbs and my neck feel like they are decomposing into the bed but my head with its pulsing insistence keeps me here. Some nights my insomnia is almost soothing, a private time in an already private, quiet life; the one I’ve scooped out since he left.
Usually when I can’t sleep I watch foreign movies with the sound turned down, reading the subtitles. Anything with Isabelle Huppert will do, but especially ones where she takes younger lovers. Her silent face orders the world, and soon enough it’s dawn. But tonight I came home from the bar and got a bottle of whiskey from the kitchen cabinet and drank more, and then, with all the reflection of turning off the TV, I took a few painkillers, and soon a shadow grew at the edges, getting darker as I shrank down. But then I resurfaced a few hours later, replaying bad times, remembering the wrong things: the fights that left me raw, the words that cut me for years.
On TV, cops interrogate a necrophiliac.
Perp: Can I get a glass of water?
Cop: Lots of ice, the way you like it?
I turn the channel to a documentary. Something about war with grainy footage of dark projectiles in smoke, which look like crows in a snowstorm. A man intones more numbers and more carnage is shown. He says, “War talk by men who have been in a war is always interesting while moon talk by a poet who has never been to the moon is often dull. Mark Twain.”
I would rather hear the poet’s moon talk. That’s always been part of my problem.
In a New York Times profile of Peggy Lee from January 31, 1988, Stephen Holden writes, “Clad in a white silk gown with long winding strands of pearls draped around her neck, Miss Lee conjured up images of an etherealized, vaporous Mae West.” And then: " 'I don't like marking time,' she said with a rueful, tough-sweet smile. 'I like to think of everything as now. Haven't the scientists more or less proven that that's true?' "
Nate Lippens is the author of three chapbooks, most recently Mince (Bridge Productions, 2016) His stories have been published by Berfrois, Catapult, Entropy, Hobart, Queen Mob’s Tea House, and Vol.1 Brooklyn, among others.