I passed a man and his young son on the street. I turned to look and caught a glimpse of the boy looking up at his father, having asked him something, with a look that was all trust and expectation. Nothing profound, nothing special; the scene was commonplace. But so much was told on his face, of how much he depended on this man, how much he respected him, loved him; how much a mystery this towering figure–just some guy on the street!–is to him. You can spot a loving father a mile away. I see them all the time. They haven’t a chance. Some of them know it. They can’t help but be committed, tireless, against all evidence. Some even understand–how can one not, in this day and age?–how ultimately futile their efforts at nurture are. Not that it would matter; you could prove beyond a doubt that every effort of theirs is pointless, that all is for naught, and they’d go on, holding hands, pulling up trousers, patiently answering questions.
You get these glimpses of other people sometimes that are too close for comfort. It’s as if you’ve stumbled into their homes. But they don’t know; I try not to look too closely at other people. I can go all day in public without making eye contact. I try to remedy it by looking directly at them sometimes. I can be very charming sometimes; I surprise myself. If it’s this easy, why don’t I just do it?
I’m interested in people; I’m always looking for something in them that will surprise me. But I’m mortified by the prospect of intruding on them, so I mind my own business. Still, you can’t help it sometimes; people intrude on you, wandering into your line of sight. You can’t spend your day looking at the ground–it’s been a bad habit of mine since childhood, to walk with eyes to the ground. But I instinctively don’t look people in the eye. In the city I’m often looking up–over the heads of people. You can do that in the city. I’ve always had a problem with other people, with relating to them. But I love the idea of people. I only now realize these things are related. It’s so much easier to appreciate people in the abstract than to love them in person. I like to walk the city streets to be among the crowd, but I rarely engage anyone. But then, who does?
But here was this little guy, an awkward kid, scrawny, sensitive, heartrendingly earnest; it was all there on his face. With no idea what’s really in store for him. But no; he has to have some idea what’s in store. He can sense what’s coming, and that sense is getting clearer along with the progress of aging, crystallizing into realization. Childhood is all premonition and foreboding and, maybe, hope. No one ever remembers the precise moment he learned what death is–do they? I don’t. It’s as if the understanding was always there, gradually taking form with the same inexorable, unceasing certainty of the physical growth and decline of which it is a part. The precise moment you understood death, that you came to know it, can’t be pinpointed because it doesn’t exist.
Everything outside the small world of a child is mysterious and grotesque, enticing and terrifying at the same time. You graduate into the once mysterious world of the adult beyond, and realize how vast childhood was after all. For all its greater dimensions, possibilities and dangers, adulthood is small, constrained and contained, its boundaries too early known, too early they become depressingly familiar. Speaking for myself, solace from this can only be found by turning within, and there I rattle around inside my psyche, tinkering like a hobbyist, fashioning rationales, molding denials, tricking out fantastic scenarios. I kid myself that I’m not like everyone else; I kid myself that I’m just like everyone else, as the moment requires.
I confess: I’ve imagined alternate lives, the life I could have led, should have led. It’s always better than this one. But then, just as the madman is always a reincarnated Napoleon, not a reincarnated Nobody, these other lives are better, more fruitful, more pleasing–I’m better. I can imagine these alternate Dennises do exist, right now, in neverending variation, an endless hall of mirrors out there, redeeming this dull life, this squandered potential, these venal sins. That moment, that deja vu moment we all have, when your life suddenly feels unfamiliar and alien and you find yourself tripped up and you think, like the song says, well, how did I get here?–maybe that’s the glitch-in-the-Matrix moment when you come too near on some dimensional plane to one of your alternate selves. Your frequency is momentarily lost to the interference.
I should imagine how much worse life could have been, as a sort of therapy. I mean, in my imagination I’m out here in the foggy ether of all possible realities, and the bottom is no more visible than the ceiling. But what would be the point? What I need is what we all need, what we can never have: to escape myself. Intoxication, meditation, medication, various obsessions: all these are means of momentary, simulated escape. I don’t disapprove, even if I don’t indulge myself in any of these, at least not any more.
When you’re a kid you think, hopefully, that you’re going to know things. This, I thought, was the true measure of a man. A man knew things. Cruder souls sought to acquire things. “He who dies with the most toys…” At least I thought knowing was my aspiration. He who dies with the most knowledge. But I’m lazy; I’m always content to know just enough. I stop short; “okay I get it” I tell myself with a shrug, and interest evaporates. The moment I pick up a thing is the moment just before I lose all interest in it. But knowing is not everything. Knowledge can only reduce the world–down to formula, predictability, measure ever more precise. Mystery is boundless. But you can’t fake mystery. People try. People are driving themselves mad right now, everywhere, trying to conjure up mystery and resuscitate wonder lost to maturity. Should I have sought “enlightenment”? I don’t know what that means. I should have been a man of action, I tell myself. Ha! I wish. I envy these men, respect them, but I do not understand them. I am another species entire–but what species am I then, I keep asking myself. I honestly don’t know.
So I couldn’t help but be moved by the sight of the boy. And I don’t think it has anything really to do with my own lack of a relationship to my own father–that was the last thing on my mind. It had everything to do with my relationship to my daughter, now grown; to that relationship lost, that position, as someone else’s towering figure, lost. Lost not in a flash but in a bittersweet, gradual dissolve; every parent is fated to diminish in his child’s eyes. I envy no one more than the young parents of young children. That I couldn’t see the beauty of it when I was young, that parenthood had to happen to me by accident, is less a shame than a mystery.