‘Loneliness is Starting Clubs’ by Chris Rojas

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When I was in high school my mother told me it was important to participate in extracurricular activities. Doing so would help me get into college, and had the added perk of potentially socializing me. Sports were pretty much out of the question given my meager frame and limited stamina. My tone-deafness and complete inability to act further limited the field. In surveying my options, I had a brilliant idea: start your own extracurricular.

The first plan was a Monopoly Club—as in the board game. This was right when hipsterdom was burgeoning and board games of all sorts were experiencing a resurgence. “Board game brunch” was becoming a thing in big cities across the country, and in my own neighborhood, an old diner had just closed and been replaced by a bar where you could play Battleship and Stratego as you drank. I counted on that trend to serve as wind in my sails. Moreover, people who love Monopoly are always in search of kindred spirits. While board games are generally meant to be played at family gatherings, nearly every family has at least one, and usually more, diehard Monopoly hater. Very few people casually dislike Monopoly: if you don’t like it, you hate it, and find any other board game superior to it. While this trend is on the whole depressing, it makes Monopoly a great basis for a club. Clubs, I believe, are best borne out of an interest or activity that your immediate family cannot ably meet.

Or so I thought. That high school had around 4,500 students and only two wrote their names down on my sign-up sheet. Three people was not enough for the school to officially sanction the group. Nor is it a good number of Monopoly players. While not having a Monopoly club would have been fine, having tried to start one and failed was considerably less than fine. Discovering that pure nothingness feels less bad than the nothingness that follows failure is a terrible realization. Once you know that, your motivation to take risks and try new things plummets, which is a good way to live a static life, which is a good way to feel unhappy. The cliché that only by taking risks and trying new things can happiness be achieved is completely true. When you prioritize not failing over succeeding, you have made the choice to descend into an emotional coma. But fail enough times, and you will get there. The stillbirth of my Monopoly club did not get me there, but it was a start.

Continue reading “‘Loneliness is Starting Clubs’ by Chris Rojas”

‘Loneliness is Going to the Movies’ by Chris Rojas

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When I was younger I thought I could feel less lonely if I consciously chose an interest that was widely popular. In middle school I was having a hard time finding other kids interested in Harry Turtledove novels and the Franco-Prussian War, so I set out to establish an interest already in vogue with my classmates.

This plan seemed like a safe a bet—everybody likes movies. And for a time, it worked quite well. A large part of why movies are the default for first dates is because it counts as spending time together, but you don’t actually have to start and maintain a conversation. Then after the show, you have an obvious conversation topic. The same goes for dysfunctional families and their affinity for any kind of shared viewing experience. If there is just one TV show or genre that everyone can agree on, an hour or so of unity and tranquility can be achieved while everyone silently participates in one thing. When you’re in middle school, trying to figure out how to stop being a complete child and manage adolescence, quite a few social engagements have that uneasy feeling of a first date or a family on edge. Movies serve as a handy “free parking” spot throughout all of this chaos.

But over time, most every appreciation sharpens into an interest and is then honed into a specialized obsession. There are sports aficionados who want to tell you about specific plays in the 1976 Super Bowl. There are gearheads that insist on explaining the details of Pontiac V8 engines to people who drive Corollas. I’ve even met feminists eager to tell registered Republicans about every intricacy of the 1980s “porn wars.” So it goes. And so it went for me and film. When I was 13, it was easy to find guys interested in watching Quentin Tarantino’s latest. When I was 16, and wanted to see Moon, it was a harder sell. By the age of 19, I had gotten my hands on some VHS tapes of Lina Wertmüller movies never released on DVD. Boy was it tough to find anyone to watch those with me. Inside of just a few years, my interest in film evolved from a social outreach tool to a burning, and very niche, obsession. I do not mean to denigrate my cinephile ways—at least not entirely. Film has brought a richness to my life that I will appreciate to the day I die. But the irony of having first dived into movies as an avenue to a greater social life and ending up just developing another often-unshareable interest is, well, depressing.

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‘Unconditional Conditioning’ by Maddy Isenbarger

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Love is a subject so conceptual and subjective it’s nearly impossible to articulate, like the universe, or Björk. The word alone tends to bring to mind a nauseating, picket-fence couple that oozes heterosexuality out of their tiny pores, whom I’ve been force-fed via Nicholas Sparks over the span of my life. It is infuriating to me that this is the primary image of “love” that has been cattle-branded into my hippocampus, because there are so many infinitely cooler ways it shows up in life.  For example, should you take a moment to consider someone who cares for you unconditionally, odds are it’s a parent, a pal, or a pet. (Cats still want us to pet them even after seeing us do shit like examine our own assholes with hand mirrors, and if that isn’t love, NOTHING is.) I myself am not exempt; I see my father’s teary eyes after every and any minute accomplishment I’ve ever achieved. His most recent birthday letter also comes to mind; it reads, “Since your first minutes on this earth, you changed my life for the best. You let me understand true love. I miss you when you’re gone.” The very same man is responsible for triggering my fight-or-flight response more times than I can count on two hands. Talented, no?

There was the time I was seven, and decided to explore my budding entrepreneurial skills with a lemonade stand. I was joined by my sticky, but admittedly adorable toddler sisters who, quite frankly, were no help at all. It should be noted that before this point my dad made a routine of reminding me how to handle strange men via episodes of Deadwood (TV-MA): in a firm and clear voice say, “NO,” and when that doesn’t work, simply jab your fingers into the eye socket of your choosing, make a hook, and pop out his eyeball. And yes, I’m aware a classic kick to the balls would suffice, but my father lives for theatrics, so eyeball. Those reminders began to fester when a silver van pulled up with a comically-stereotypical unsavory character in the driver’s seat: red flag number one. The scraggly stranger asked if I would bring the juice to his window, because he hurt his leg and didn’t want to get out: red flag number two. My tiny voice broke when I declined his request, and that would have embarrassed me had I not been near fear-induced paralysis.

I stared into his eye sockets and considered what they would feel like.

The man looked at Melanie and asked if she wanted to go for a ride around the block: red flag number three. At this point I was very aware of the state of my own eyeballs, which had grown similarly to that of the Grinch’s heart.

“NO.”

As predicted, that didn’t really have much of an effect on his agenda. The van shifted into drive, prompting me to instinctually start dragging my tiny sisters by their tiny wrists up our horrendously long driveway. I didn’t look back once, but I could hear the van’s tires on gravel pursuing us. It wasn’t until we had made it onto our back porch that I noticed my dad, now sitting up in the passenger seat, absolutely beside himself with laughter. He managed to muster up a, “You passed,” before he started cackling again. I, on the other hand, found the whole ordeal rather upsetting.

There was the time I was twelve, and he set off the fire alarm at 2:00 am on a school night to see if I would look for my cat before leaving the house. (Fail.)

There was the time I was fourteen, and he cut the power while I was home alone, put on a ski mask, and pretended to be an intruder. I grabbed a softball bat and locked myself in a closet. He revealed himself before I called the cops, but not before I pissed my pants. (Semi-pass?)

There was the time I was seventeen, a senior in high school, and had hormonal rage essentially seeping out of every orifice. Our house was in the middle of absolute nowhere, and I liked to go for walks down the deserted roads with my headphones in, listening to music obnoxiously loud, and hoping to blow out my ear drums before another extended family member asked me what my plans were post-graduation. Each time I was about to leave the house my dad would remind me to take my pepper spray. He had put one in each of our stockings that Christmas; standard yuletide cheer and all that. I didn’t like carrying it around my wrist because it would rhythmically bump into my hip while I was getting in my groove, so I ignored him. I had made it about a mile from home when Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish” came on shuffle and I lost all contact with my physical surroundings. In my head I was rocking out on a double bass, but I came hurdling back down to Earth when an unexpected hand was placed over my mouth, and I was yanked into a pickup truck. In hindsight it couldn’t have been more than ten seconds before it became clear this was another simulation, but in that short time frame I found that the amount of sweat the human body can produce when faced with its own mortality is quite astonishing. The truck came to an abrupt halt, and I heard a familiar voice say, “That’s how easy it is.” Interestingly enough, that moment doubles as the happiest I’ve ever been to see my dad’s face, as well as the only time I’ve ever screamed “YOU’RE A FUCKING SOCIOPATH” in said face.

In a bizarre way, those mildly to moderately traumatizing tests were a true testament of my father’s love, although I realize they probably had more to do with him entertaining himself than anything else. That being said, my dad has only ever wanted me to be healthy and happy, and if he legitimately believed repeatedly terrorizing me within an inch of my sanity would be in my best interest, is that not an extraordinary act of love?  I cannot say I understand a love that capitalizes on ridiculous romantic expectations and the longing for my “other half,” but I have felt love from my sisters, who trust me with their burdens and look to me for support. I have felt love from my mother, who shares my ornery sense of humor and wheezing laughter. I have felt love from my father; through his proud tears, sincere letters, and simulated kidnappings.

To his credit, I have not been successfully taken, or severely maimed thus far, so that has to count for something.

Maddy Isenbarger is finishing up her degree in Film Studies, and just trying to stay alive long enough to hold hands with Frances McDormand on day. You can find her screeching into the abyss of the World Wide Web on Twitter: @maddymoiselle.

‘Floaters’ by Tim Gorichanaz

Houghton_MS_Am_1506_(4)_-_Cranch.jpgWhen I stare at the sky or a blank page, I see things that no one else can see. I’m not talking about imagination or what have you.
I’m talking about my floaters.

What it comes down to is there’s a bunch of junk in my eyes. It’s been there for as long as I can remember.
I remember when I was younger the eye doctor saying the floaters would go away when I got older.
I wonder if I am older yet.

My floaters remind me of the lazy river at Noah’s Ark, “America’s Largest Waterpark,” according to the tagline. When I was a kid, my family went every summer. The intense and tall water slides were fun, banking left and right in snakely tubes, but my mom and I always had a special place for the lazy river. It wound slowly around the whole park, and you could get in or out at many places, or you could just stay put for hours and let the current take you round and round. Letting the afternoon float by in the lazy river, sitting atop a one-person tube, staring at the sky.
Floaters is a good name for them.

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‘Suburban Bardos’ by Walker Storz

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This weekend I went shopping at the Hampshire Mall with my mother, getting some groceries and some amenities for my on-campus apartment.  This particular mall is not very special–just a lukewarm iteration of a rural-suburban shopping center, nothing mega–except that due to an accident of geography I grew up going there, while I was visiting schools in the area, and often in between visits to my cousins’ house in suburban Connecticut.  (The mall is right off I-91, which takes us from Northeastern Vermont to a suburb of New Haven).

I always remember being comforted by the ambiences of malls and grocery stores, and loved to accompany my mother while she shopped, so I enjoyed these stops even though we never really ended up buying that much of anything, at least anything fun.  There was one trip that has been flashing through my head recently, triggered by the insomniac lighting and brand-new smells of outlet stores and the misted jungles of produce sections.

I had been having a crisis of faith in the most dull and literal sense, for probably close to an entire year.  As a child I had been obnoxiously, proudly atheist.   But I gradually came to realize the ramifications of a materialist worldview.  I found the universe cold and hard-edged and hated it–hated that I would be annihilated and that everyone I loved would be.  This is the year that I tried really hard to believe in God, almost entirely out of fear and melancholy.  So when we went to visit my cousins–the only practicing Christians or even the only members of any organized religion left in my extended family, I took advantage of their willingness to convert me.  I threw myself so sincerely into going to church that they were at least a tiny bit suspicious, though for the wrong reasons.  This year–the year I turned twelve–was a blur–my grandfather got sick and died, which meant a lot of shuttling down to spend time with our cousins and grandmother, a lot of tight collars and hospitals and time in and around churches and receptions, with lots of comfort food both ideological and literal.  I had lots of chances to dress up and talk to pastors and talk to my cousins about God and church and engage in speculation about the afterlife that in retrospect was almost grotesque–imagining all of our dead relatives meeting and hanging out and becoming friends.

Continue reading “‘Suburban Bardos’ by Walker Storz”

‘Loneliness is Sharing Books’ by Chris Rojas

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When I was younger I thought I could feel less lonely if I found a way to get people I liked to like the things I liked.

The written word makes us less lonely. When you read about someone just like you, who feels the way you do, gets off on what gets you off, you feel less lonely. That’s the point of it all. The trouble is when you find a book that makes you feel less lonely, but then can’t find another actual person who also felt less lonely after they read that same book. Not being able to find that actual other person can bring on a whole new kind of loneliness. And the trouble with this kind of loneliness, is that you can’t get out of it by reading, because that’s what got you into trouble in the first place, and you become all too aware of that fact.

Years ago, I figured all I had to do was give people I liked the books that I like. I assumed the issue was just that they didn’t know about all of these great books. All I’d have to do was show them. Then they would know about these wonderful things too, and they would feel less lonely, and I would feel less lonely too. This plan had the added benefit of making me look like a cool curator of cool things. People would know that I knew about all sorts of great books that could make you feel less alone.

In hindsight, it is extremely strange how long I stuck with this strategy. There is perhaps no lonelier feeling than when you buy somebody a book, excited to give it to them, and realize as you give it to them that they will not read it. On the day of the gifting, I would always make eye contact with the recipient as I eagerly stuck my book-clutching arms out. More often than not I could immediately see the hesitation in their eyes. It was never disappointment, or even annoyance, just a clear discomfort or weirded-out ambivalence. The look of “What am I going to do with this?” Or, “Wow this is weird, why is he giving me a book?” More generously I sometimes got, “Boy, Chris sure is goofy. I wonder what the fuck this book is about.”

One time I was meeting an acquaintance at a restaurant and I brought him a magazine I thought might interest him. He was a foreign policy junkie with a paleoconservative streak, and that ideology’s foremost outlet, Chronicles, had an issue almost entirely dedicated to the Ukrainian Crisis of 2014. He was sure to gobble it up and ponder it for weeks. We were seated outside when I gave it to him, and after briefly thanking me he tucked it under his chair without much looking at it. Unfortunately it had rained the night before and the magazine slid into a puddle of stagnant water. He failed to hear the slight “sploosh” it made when it hit the water. I didn’t want him to realize what had happened, because it would guarantee at least one uncomfortable apology and a lackluster “no worries” on my part, so I kept my reaction to a brief wince. When we had finished eating and headed out, it was clear he had completely forgotten about the magazine. I didn’t bring it up as we exchanged goodbyes, and he has never mentioned it.

When I was 23 I went to my then-girlfriend’s father’s house for Christmas. He remains the most generous man I’ve ever met. He bought my girlfriend and I a fancy Keurig coffeemaker for our apartment along with dozens of boxes of k-cups. A value of at least a few hundred dollars. At the time I was making $28,000 a year at a non-profit near Washington DC, and had just paid off my student loans. We drove to his house in my girlfriend’s car because I was too broke to own my own. Her father was a fairly tough guy, from rural Pennsylvania, with a keen sense of right and wrong. So I had bought him a paperback edition of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. That novel is easily best detective story ever written, filled with broad shoulders, flasks, dames, and a seedy Los Angeles that can’t manage to protect itself from the heroic and tough protagonist. Plus, it influenced a whole slew of classic Hollywood tough-guy movies, which all dads seem to like. He unwrapped it after we had opened the Keurig and said, “thanks” with a perfectly neutral expression across his face. For a moment, I felt the overwhelming rush to explain to him why it was such a great book, and why he would like it, and why I had chosen it for him. But the rush subsided and I thought better of it. Next Christmas I did not buy him a book, and The Big Sleep did not come up.

Two Christmases later I had wised up a little bit. I had three friends all living together in one house. It was a den of millennial cliches through and through. They, like I, were broke, bright, and conspicuously lacking in telos. When we hung out we tried to get as fucked up as possible. Adderall, ecstasy, alcohol, marijuana, and LSD, mostly. Sometimes I’d go to their house, get high, and watch Netflix for hours with them without ever getting up even to smoke a cigarette. Other times we’d stay up all night giggling through the hallucinatory recollections of the triumphs and tragedies of our adolescence. As a gift to all three, I bought them the issue of Granta magazine with the cover story, “Confessions of a Middle-Aged Ecstasy Eater,” by Anonymous. Of the many many written works that grapple with the ups-and-downs of drug use, I assure you this one as one of the best. Its ability to convey the strange mix of blissful hedonism and unending ennui that become permanently entangled after years of abuse is uncomfortably on point. It’s about forty pages long, ensuring that at least one of the three roommates would read it. This was an incorrect assumption, and not one of the three has ever brought it up to me.

More recently, I made what was likely my most obviously doomed gifting. A conservative friend of mine and I had been arguing about whether Marxists, or at least Marxians, had ever made thoughtful or valuable observations about the world around us. He remained obstinate, and left me with the burden of proof. With the thrill of coming vindication, I dug-up my copy of The Society of Spectacle by Guy Debord and handed it to him. It’s a very short book, and has a kind of whimsy to it that makes it a real pleasure to read. Most importantly, the “spectacle” described in it has obvious value to conservatives, as the spectacle papers over religion, tradition, and even nationalism with a spiritually empty gilding. It’s now been long enough that if he were going to read it, he would have already.

The list could go on, but you get the point. So next time you find a book that makes you feel less lonely, and you share it with someone you like, and the gift goes down the memory hole, and you feel even more lonely than you did before finding the book, try rereading this essay. I hope it makes you feel less lonely.

Chris Rojas is the son of a librarian.

‘A Simpleton’s Grin’ by Natasha Cabot

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A simpleton’s grin is the vilest of all grins. Simpletons are harmless, like tiny balls of cotton. And when they grin, their faces perk up and their eyes go wide – exposing a well-hued iris to the world. Full, thick eyelashes – the ends curled, of course – dangle from doe-like lids, causing a breeze as they lift curtains of flesh up and down in order to moisten the ivory sclera that sits dully inside of vast sockets.

Their illuminating skin casts a soft shimmer through whichever room they happen to be in. People flock to the simpleton, anxious to be in is or her presence. Simpletons are always beautiful, like unicorns. Being in the mere presence of a simpleton can make even the most pessimistic person throw off his or her shackles of cynicism.  They, too, want to be near the god-like beacon of simplicity.

The simpleton is rarely intelligent. White, straight teeth stare out from behind perfect pink lips while idiotic words clumsily tumble out of their mouths.

“I wonder why the sun is yellow and not red. I mean, it is hot. Red means hot, doesn’t it? And if it is a ball of gas, why doesn’t it just float away?”  Everyone stares at the simpleton, its spell interrupted. Then he or she flashes a grin and the spell becomes strong once again. Charmed, everyone around the simpleton sighs and forgives him or her for his or her stupidity. Mere mortals are never allowed to be annoyed by a simpleton. Indeed, simpletons are stupid yet beautiful so we, as a society, must never get angry at them or be annoyed by them.

People often claim that the simpleton means well. Like Bambi, they scamper through the forest of life sniffing flowers and befriending rabbits. They’re so harmless, they say of the simpleton. Someone tell that to the worms on the ground or the bugs on the leaves Bambi walks over and/or eats. Whether or not any harm is intended, something still dies. But then Bambi flashes his simpleton’s grin, and all is forgiven. The surviving bugs and worms look at the fawn and say to themselves, “He couldn’t help it. He meant no harm. Look at his eyes…and that smile! Oh, that precious smile!”

Simpletons are often born into wealth. They are indeed financially blessed. No sweat is broken. No brow ever furrows. The simpleton floats through life without any worries. It is enough to make one bitter, but then the simpleton flashes his or her grin and any trace of envy evaporates into the air, becoming a fine mist that floats away on the waves of the wind.

Simpletons exist to remind regular people that the world is unjust. The simpleton has everything: money, beauty, nice teeth, no fat, and soft hands. The simpleton is given everything he or she wants, and they do it without asking. All they have to do is flash their simpleton’s grin, and the world drops to its knees.

Perhaps they’re not so simple after all.

Natasha Cabot is a Halifax-based Canadian writer whose work has been featured in Thrice Fiction Magazine, Toasted Cheese Literary Journal, Wilderness House Literary Review, Anti-Heroin Chic, as well as several others. She recently completed work on her first novel, Patriotland.