5.19 The Walking Man Excerpt
To learn more about The Walking Man, check out the Pubslush page at this address: thewalkingman.pubslush.com. The following is the first chapter from the book, coming out in Fall 2014 and published by Iguana Books. FEAR AND LOATHING IN JORDAN
Lemme just get this out of the goddamn way: nervous as all hell. Nervous because you may or may not relate to the mess that follows. Of course, I hope that you do because then it confirms to me that late at night at the time before we fall asleep when our bodies sink into mattresses while our minds are removing the armor, that moment where all our deep fears appear ready to jump into our dreams, we all have in common at a base level the ability to admit that we don't know what we're doing.
Maybe it's just me.
Maybe you don't relate, you're well adjusted and have no idea what I'm talking about. If you're content, simply slip into a soundless sleep dreaming nothing but skiing on snow made of cotton candy wearing skis made of French fries, you wake up refreshed, ready to tackle the challenges of the day, you refer to them as this - as challenges of the day - and you're looking forward to said challenges, this might not be for you.
Maybe you're like me, you wake up late - always - and your back hurts, feels like someone punched you directly on the brain, you're hungover but didn't drink a drop the previous night, you wear sunglasses even without the sun to hide the bags under your eyes that reveal the terrifying yet forgotten dream state buried deep in the subconscious that left you restless and you can't imagine talking to someone until the clock turns to the PM. And then still - still - cannot perform simple societal exchanges that represent the hallmark of being a functioning person participating in this world wanting to just walk into a café to get a coffee because you need it desperately to wash away the forgotten nightmares but this simple excursion involves true existential dread - yes dread - in order to even attempt to answer the barista’s quizzical question: for here or to go? If you're still following me, if you're still here-
-you are my people and I've been looking for you my entire life.
-I’ve been mad as hell. So goddamn tired.
Mad and tired without knowing it. Unable to admit that perhaps I wasn't as self-aware as I thought, successfully pushing these two elements down deep into the depths so far that my everyday disposition failed to register any anger, any fatigue. Just sailing along with no feelings at all. Thought I had those feelings, my sensitivity merely hiding the fact that I wasn't feeling much at all. I realize that many people, including myself, would like to just say, “Stop whining and get on with things.” To those people, including myself, I say (or want to say, wish I could say but I'm too cowardly to say to anyone's face): shut the fuck up. Cause the thing is, it’s not so easy.
Besides, aren't you tired sometimes? Mad?
For too long, I’ve hidden behind stories and inside the minds of characters. I thought this was the best scenario, that who I really was and what I had to say should be expressed through fiction. That way, if anyone asked, if anyone found fault with what I said, I could place responsibility on a fictional character. After awhile, these fictional characters became facets of my personality. Replaced me. I’ve realized this was both cowardly and dishonest.
Last year, I took a creative writing class focused on memoir. Wow, a writer writing about being a writer. Brilliant.
Stay with me. Please.
This has to work.
This class was undertaken in an effort to help develop some kind of authentic voice, which made me uncomfortable from the outset because I convinced myself long ago that my life simply wasn’t interesting enough to document. Why would anyone want to read about me? I couldn’t think of anyone. As the weeks went on in the class, I felt I was producing some of the worst writing I’d done since I tried to compose poetry in my twenties, those sparkling and rhyming renditions expressing how alone I felt surrounded by so many people. The pieces I read out in class were not much better - so stoically earnest, so Antarctic cold, so utterly humorless.
Just hold on. Keep holding on. Stay with me.
The whole thing fell apart for me when I wrote a piece about going into depressions. An enormous mistake, not with the content of the piece, but in the execution. Writing about depression should help take you out of it, not push you further into the fog. The subject was important to me, and something I have fought with and continue to fight with, yet, I couldn’t articulate what was happening internally in any tangible form. Embarrassed, I did what I do best – I shut down, tuned out, turned off my emotions. A dial on a radio.
I’ve quit many things in my life. I feel no shame in quitting. It’s highly underrated and I think more people should try it. I feel shame in admitting that I can go down for days into a depression. Sure, I can function and people generally don’t notice, I just don’t feel the need to generate pity by dragging my life into the lives of others.
Justifying my enormous failure in the writing class, I spiraled down into thinking that perhaps I should finally give up writing. Very dramatic, but another common behavior trait of mine is making everything into a high stakes situation. Unfortunately, I tend to lose these games, setting myself up for failure from the outset. This is how it goes with me. I don’t think, Not a good class today, we’ll get’em next time. If there’s one thing I'm good at, it’s beating myself up. I should bite my own ear off and get a tattoo on my face. I really have no idea how to get out of my own way. Can someone please tell me how to get out of my own way?
The scary thought that all this led to was that if I couldn’t write about myself in an honest way, then what did I actually have to say? Like really have to say? The only answer I came up with: nothing. Stewed in this for a few days, which was both stupid and unhealthy. Maybe the whole thing was a bad idea. Maybe I should focus on other things like having a family and purchasing a house in the suburbs? As I said earlier, I have no shame in quitting. The thing is, writing has actually been the single part of my life that has remained consistent. I’ve been through a few jobs, a few careers, schools, relationships, friendships, all kinds of ships. The one thing through it all has been writing.
How could I quit?
This is my last chance.
And then my computer got stolen. I want to say that I had everything backed up. Some of it I did have backed up. Angry and rage and madness and desperation was focused on the thief. Wanted to find him, beg him to give me thirty last minutes with my computer so I could get my files and he could have the damn machine. Just give me the work that was on it back. Give me my life back. Years of stuff, gone. Then I thought perhaps this was a good thing. Sometimes it's hard to change, to let go, until our hand is forced. Sure, I still had printed old drafts and could piece the manuscript back together, but what did all this work really mean to me?
So on an exceptionally warm summer day where the wind blew across the urban landscape, disrupting discarded debris and releasing cement dust into the air and into my lungs, the sounds of rushing ambulances filling the soundscape, I built a fire using some of the manuscript pages as kindling. I never built a fire before this night, a potential problem I failed to consider, but nonetheless, perhaps it was the ink on the pages or the poor choices of words forming the poorly constructed paragraphs, quickly - a bit too quickly - that fire shot up like a goddamn Phoenix, like an explosion that could be seen for miles. And I tossed in each page one at a time, and with each page the fire grew and grew, and after throwing in the last page, I danced around that fire, raised my arms to the heavens, and if you watched me from afar, I looked like an insane shaman with the intention to resurrect spirits from the other side. Raise people from the dead.
When there's nothing left to burn, you gotta set yourself on fire.
Really, I had no choice.
And that’s the point of all this. I think that anyone wanting to express themselves through writing or other means is curious about the world and interested in becoming a better person. I’m not curious about plunging into my past, which I understand as a form of denial, but how can I write about it in a sincere way if I’m not interested? I’m just going to write about what matters to me. If it’s about something serious or about the old guy that farts when on the treadmill at the gym. Cause inside of that smelly shitty fart could exist The Answer.
Excuse me for this long diatribe reeking of self-indulgence and presented in a way that makes me, and potentially you, uncomfortable. Tired of the shame, tired of the need to please, tired of the need of wanting everyone to like me. The truth is, I’m just going to sit here, I’m going to write whatever I’m going to write, say whatever I’m going to say, and I’m going to do it in a way that I think is the right way. It might get messy, it might not be pleasant all the time, but screw it.
Stay with me, you have to stay with me.
So this story, this new story, covers about a year. The metaphorical burning began in the deserts of Jordan, where there was nowhere to hide, very soon after the computer was stolen and I danced around that fire. Trust me, I tried to hide. Carried around a straw in case I decided to bury myself under the sand. In the end, decided against this fear of near silence, the only sound the laboured breathing through a straw, a straw my only connection to living.
Jordan was the idea of my girlfriend, Hannah. We wanted to travel together but she got a job in one of those big towers downtown and couldn't get away. She told me to go visit one of my best friends, even though I'd miss her birthday. She didn't seem to have a problem with this. Hannah's not my girlfriend anymore. More on her later, that part of the story displaying my desperate attempt at love and thinking that I understood it - love, that is - but really and completely and truly had no idea.
As soon as we got off the plane, a couple kneeled in the corner, started praying. Notable differences of dress - no shorts, no short sleeves, no skin showing what so ever. Trapped in the Cairo airport for a ten-hour layover. Walked up and down those limiting hallways so many times. Emailed with Hannah for a bit, she seemed disinterested that I was in Cairo while I found it very interesting. Maybe she was just disinterested in me?
Landing in Amman, ready, I clapped when we hit the ground, cheered and everything. A solitary clap heard throughout the cabin. Perhaps cause it was late at night? Maybe these passengers were not so happy to be arriving in Amman? The clapping was just a Greek-thing? Whatever the case, everyone regarded me with mild confusion.
Inside the terminal, the thought occurred to me: what if my friend Andrew doesn't show up? About 2:00 in the AM, I didn't see him anywhere. Maybe we got the times mixed up? So focused on just getting here, making all the transfers, waiting, walking and cheering. Loitering caused the taxi drivers to keep asking me for rides. Probably projection, but the look on their faces held questions as to why I was here. I wondered why I was here. Finally, Andrew burst through the doors, threw his arms up and yelled, "Welcome to Amman!" Lifted me off the ground in a bear hug. I used to find it uncomfortable to hug men, a slave of these societal rules we cling to that hold no meaning. Andrew taught me to hug other men, that I might even enjoy it.
We rushed out to the waiting taxi and into the Amman night. The driver was very enthusiastic to have us in his cab. The car got significant air when hitting the many speed bumps, the bumps not deterring his speed. I was glad to be introduced to driving in Amman in the middle of the night, with few cars on the road. Driving in the city was like nowhere else. All roundabouts and rocky roads. All cars pockmarked from nudging into each other. As the saying goes, "Jordanians are an accommodating people, until they get in their cars." Roundabouts ruled intersections and drivers were schooled in the art of using other cars for blocking in order to arrive alive. Like many places with crazy drivers, there was an organized chaos and everyone got to where they had to be. We ended up in a quiet part of the city.
The apartment next to Andrew's apartment was empty and his landlord allowed us to use it. We were roommates many years ago in Toronto and we'd be roommates again in Amman. We couldn't sleep, didn't sleep, loudspeakers throughout the city informed us it was time to pray. The announcement happened five times per day, instructions arriving through a series of outdoor loudspeakers that could be heard everywhere in the city. The call comforting, even though I knew not what was being said or felt inspired to pray myself. It was the collectiveness of it. The people around us formed a community where many, if not doing the same thing, were at least aware of the time when it happened. The sun rose intensely as lights flicked on illuminating rooms in the apartment buildings surrounding us. Andrew told me his story about moving to Amman. It's his story to tell. Still couldn't sleep, we walked the streets past the ubiquitous grey garbage bins and feral cats looking for scraps. Walked up a steep hill, overlooked the valley, watched nomads stepping out of corrugated-roofed shacks tending to herds of goats. Past soldiers strolling holding machine guns. Finally, I crashed, my own bed in Amman.
Where am I?
Halfway across the world from home.
But what was home?
The Captain gave new meaning to the term handlebar mustache. Wore a dark jean vest over a white shirt with Marine-like patches, a brown corduroy fedora hat tilted to the side. Only The Captain could wear this outfit and make it not only respectable, but damn cool. I didn't know if he was a real captain, but that’s what he told us to call him. He drove the bus with ease, drinking from an open cup of steaming tea, never spilling it, smoking out the window, playing DJ for the rest of us and clapping to his music. The music seemed woven into the fabric of everyday life here, all beats, foreign tongues and unidentifiable instruments. There was a sign at the front of the bus that said, No Smoking, but who was going to tell The Captain he couldn’t light his Marlboro Lights? Not me, no goddamn way. As we left the city of Amman early in the morning, The Captain cranked the volume, yelled into the microphone at the passengers, "Why aren't you dancing?"
Our destination was the desert. The Captain was the one bringing us there.
The city quickly disappeared, the box-like buildings faded, growing smaller in the rearview mirrors. The brown land on both sides flat, the horizon visible. Signs for Wadi Rum led us away from the rolling trucks, rocks became visible, then larger, growing into hills, mutating into cliffs and mountains. At a point, after driving deep into the valley, and now surrounded by mountains, we turned off the road and headed into the desert. We were off-roading in a large coach bus. I had faith in The Captain. Sand kicked up from the wheels, dust clouded in our wake. Coming around a steep rock-face, we rolled to a stop.
Mid-afternoon, and although the sun was hot, the temperature was tolerable. We grabbed our bags and walked into the Bedouin camp. Sadly, my reference point for Bedouins also came from Lawrence of Arabia. The camp had a large square in the centre for the entertainment, flanked by rows of tents.
Time to eat and time to dance. There was no formal entertainment, the Bedouins had a full sound system and blasted music loud enough it probably echoed in every corner of the desert. Visitors got up and danced while others sat around the perimeter of the stage, eating and smoking hookah. The Captain sat, chain-smoked his Marlboro Lights, a pot of tea at his cracked toe-nailed bare feet. I wanted to talk with him, have a sit down, but no goddamn way.
As the sun went down, it was time to hit the desert.
Walking up a hill covered in sand was much more difficult than you may think. My feet sunk into the sand up to my ankles and little headway was gained with each step. I’m rewarded at the top, and following along the rock, kept going higher, like giant steps leading up to the sky. Not exactly rock climbing, easier, but once I reached the top of the rock cliff, I realized this was not a place to get lost.
From the camp, a group of people emerged and we decided to join them. We walked deep into the desert. My concern of getting lost dimmed - the rest of the people seemed to know where they were going. There was very little conversation, we just walked. Andrew and I walked at a distance from the group, but soon a young boy broke off from them and insisted we join. There’s strength in numbers. I can’t tell you how long we walked, didn’t matter.
Sometimes you just have to walk around aimlessly. Sometimes you do it alone, sometimes with others.
Andrew was up near the middle of the pack. I lingered, fell back to the back. I got lost in our nomadic pursuit, in my footsteps disappearing behind me, in the repetitiveness of the foreign chatter ahead of me. The camp well behind us, the lights getting lost behind us, flittering farther away with every step, I stopped mid-step. Not tired, or a conscious decision or thought told me to stop, my feet just came to a stand still. The desert horizon illuminated by the moonlight, I saw a cloaked figure in the distance perpendicular to the walking group and the camp. I thought maybe this person was lost, or afraid of us. Just like when I stopped with no conscious thought, I took a new step without any thought. A step towards this person who just disappeared over the sand dune. Okay, I'd just make it to the top of the dune, if the person didn't want to join us, then I’d return to the group. The problem with this perfectly laid out plan was that when I reached the top of the dune, the cloaked figure seemed even farther away. Stopped, looked back at the walking group, now small figures in the distance. Turned to the cloaked figure, damnit, with every step it seemed like he took five.
Kept after the cloaked figure. Maybe he was lost, maybe he needed help. Just up and over one more sand dune, one more and I'll go back. I can't keep after this guy, I don't want to get lost myself. One more. Up and... He was gone. Ran up the sand dune, couldn't see anyone from the walking group, didn't even know which way was the camp. Nothing but sand, the moon. Nothing.
There was only one thing I could do: walk.
Sometimes you just have to walk around purposefully. Sometimes you do it with others, sometimes alone.