Decade: October 2020By Steven Arcieri
November 02, 2020
The opening sentence I first wanted to run with was: “I may have inadvertently endorsed an actual cult.” Then, I thought: “I would like to take this opportunity to close the curtain,” would be more fitting. Although both true, I don’t wish to bring further attention to my potential cult endorsement, and I forfeited my right to privacy when I decided to write this book. But more importantly, neither sentence does the work of kicking off a month in which—for the second time in my life—I thought, “God is happening.” Disclaimer: I don’t believe in God, neither do I disbelieve in God—it’s not a question I’ve ever found vital enough to answer. The thought popped up only because there aren’t words to describe what occurred to me at night, October 7th. Things got set in motion, a smidge more than a week before, when I woke to a text from Pola: Hi Steven, happy birthday! Hope it’s a really nice day for ya. It was the first time, I think, she’d initiated contact since February, aside from the time I sobbed so hard I puked blueberries and unfollowed and removed her as a follower on Instagram because a photo she posted of herself and Bella forced me into the moment I felt closest to her—we’re on our stomachs, trying to lure the skittish and wide-eyed cat from beneath a bed, when Pola says, “It’s okay Bella, we’re your parents now.” Days after the birthday text, I pinned down why it disquieted me. Blind to everything but the short story I was working on, Sarah J. texted she was close by and wanted to do schoolwork on my couch while I wrote at my desk, something we’ve been doing weekly, and I said sure, just gotta shower first. A drop of lavender Dr. Bronner’s cupped in my palm, collecting water to dilute it, and no longer thinking of the divorced dad narrator and his weekend with Audrey, his daughter—something gave: the whole of the relationship, the breakup, the bereavement, caved in on itself and buried me in its rubble. I didn’t cry until I dried and sat naked in my desk chair, but it wouldn’t stop once it started, regardless of the Klonopins and the mindfulness exercises—I texted Sarah J. over-apologetically asking to postpone. For three hours, I was confined in the endless illogical circuit of a Möbius strip. It looked like this: I needed comfort, the comfort I needed was a lightning storm where the strikes were close enough for the sounds to rattle your bones and typhoon rain and a disturbing dream then terrible sleep-paralysis then terrible panic then terrible tremors then warm arms around me then Pola making hush sounds and kissing my hair and singing a song her grandmother would sing to her when she was little and upset until I’d calmed completely, I needed that specific and perfect comfort because it was gone, I needed comfort. Three days later, October 7th, I got home from work, collapsed on my couch, considered writing, settled on nothing. Thumb doing the thing it does after too many mindless cycles through the apps, a pattern appeared—for some reason I wasn’t aware of, I’d struck up conversations with a succession of women I’d had vague and undefined romantic-ish somethings with before. I replied “omfg” to their Instagram stories because the stories made me think “oh my fucking god” and each of them replied to my reply and we talked stupid stuff or other stuff. Outside my open window, thunderclaps cracked hard enough to rattle my bones, lightning strobe-lighted typhoon rain, wind whipped moisture across my bedroom where it lined my skin in a film of the comforting kind of sweat, as I realized another thing the Instagram exchanges all had in common then, God happened. I didn’t inhale but my body filled with air, the air alchemized into rich amber light, a string attached itself to my solar plexus and, as if reeled by a lazy fisherman in the sky, my torso levitated, my skull and my ass anchoring me to the armrest and couch to keep me from rising flat against the ceiling. The other thing that tied the Insta chats together was the absence of overthinking, anxiety, calculation, insecurity, strategy, dread—things with long histories of hindering the way I communicated. But here, not one psychological barricade–I spoke freely and openly and didn’t second guess. Also, whether the interaction lasted four messages or bled into the next day, it was exactly what it needed to be, a tacit acknowledgment agreed upon by both parties: This is what we were, this is what we are. Things unsaid for as much as ten years were said. Every relationship, once begun, never witnesses its own conclusion—in high school, you learn matter cannot be created nor destroyed, it can only become something else. I’m not entirely sold on destiny, so the “cannot be created” part of the metaphor doesn’t work; relationships are created when two strangers see something in each other, and even if they start to hate each other, even if neither thinks of the other again, the relationship cannot be destroyed because it is an invisible breathing rope that survives forever. Still suspended over the couch, the warm honey light intensified and oozed into my limbs. I felt all the ropes and their tangled nexus in my chest and the light exhaled on my behalf and eased me back down. The typhoon rain and strobe lightning kept at it and I understood I’d undergone a full refurbishing of my interior life; when I told all this to my friend Rebecca, currently in grad school for psychology, she perked up and diagnosed the shift with a term she’d just learned. Everything kicked the dust off a memory I hadn’t seen in years—I’m in undergrad, I’m friends with a girl and I often go to her dorm room to drink tea until George Lopez comes on the TV; I have a nascent crush on her and it’s maybe mutual but she has a boyfriend; one night, when laughter of people long dead starts to punctuate everything George says, she asks me to stay, she’s sad; I hesitate, knowing I’d like if we kissed, knowing we can’t, but eventually decide to stay; we are in her small college bed and she says maybe it’s a bad idea and I agree and I say maybe it’s a bad idea and she agrees, but I end up staying, maybe we exhausted ourselves agreeing maybe it’s a bad idea and fell asleep that way; the most that happened, I think, was when I held her, like you’d hold a friend who’s hurting and is scared to be left alone—I cite this over the other vague and undefined romantic-ish somethings because it’s a counterexample of how I’d operated in most relationships; it was this rare, special moment, where “Yes, but what are we?” didn’t matter, and I was simply there for someone I cared about. When Pola said she needed space and time, I asked what that would look like but she didn’t know just yet so couldn’t produce a blueprint; my fear of losing her eclipsed my love for her, both were there but the love wasn’t visible behind the overwhelming need for everything to be defined and spelled out; breakups are complex, so I cannot say it was the reason but a reason was: I tried to make her stay when I should have been loving her, whatever we were, it wouldn’t have needed a name if I wasn’t so terrified, I shouldn’t have had my head stuck so far in what the future would look like when she was right there, in the present, around. The final shot of Portrait of a Lady on Fire by Céline Sciamma is an uncomfortably long take of Héloïse on a theater balcony hearing an orchestra play Vivaldi for the first time in her life—the camera stays trained on Héloïse the entire time, because Marianne cannot turn her gaze as Héloïse is overcome with emotion and cannot stop weeping—although the camera never pans or cuts to Marianne, the viewer is forced to feel the brunt of the leaden emotions experienced by both women; Portrait was the last movie I watched with Pola before everything and I cannot help but look back, at us sitting side-by-side in the theater, experiencing the fullness of that final shot together, then processing it alone.
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