Friday, September 12, 2008

Depression at 14

(Fiction: "Depression at 14")

The classroom was full, and the teacher inattentive. There were students who talked, gossiped, joked, or worked. He thought. He had drifted away from childhood friends without making new friends; and he was intelligent and sensitive, though inconsistently so, a personality without direction; and he felt everything in the classroom was now alien to him. He was brown-skinned and overweight, dressed in a shirt with short sleeves and pants that were slightly too tight. A boy looked over at him, frowned, and told someone loud enough for him to hear, “Look at how miserable he looks. He looks dead.”

Was it that he was on the cusp of growth, a greater emotional depth and an intellectual confusion out which might come the possibility of intellectual understanding, but also a beginning sexual awareness, all of which might result in a force that would impel him to say, I am and I feel and I want, none of which he felt yet strong enough to say, an inability he suspected without having the thought or word to indicate the suspicion, and so he was paralyzed: and so he could not imagine anything beyond this moment, nor act in a decisive way; he was simply still and he stared outward while wondering why his inner landscape was so ambiguous?

He hoped to get to a point and place in which all was nice, in which he was not accidentally or intentionally treated carelessly or cruelly. (No safe place exists among people, said The Book That Should Have Been.)

What day was it? Is it March, or September? What color are the leaves? Is there a breeze outside? How intense is the light?

There had been a girl he had been a pal with throughout grade school, after they had outgrown an early, brief, mutual crush. One day, when he was about thirteen, he pretended to read another girl’s name in the lines of his palm, covering the name in ink. He had wanted to see his pal’s reaction; also he hoped that she’d tell the named girl of his new affection. The named girl was pretty, dark, smart, quiet, with the air of a shy princess, and she was neither impressed nor persuaded by the news and he chose to forget her. What had he expected? A desire that might be spoken by others, a beloved object that need not be charmed or fought for—love without conditions for him to meet. Though shy, there had been cunning in that. Where was the cunning boy he had been?

When was it that a younger cousin of his named the cousin’s puppy an unusual name, the sound of a pleasant reprimand, and he had taken the same name for his own dog (an indication that he was unimaginative but in search of distinction, even borrowed distinction)? Was it yesterday, two years ago, three years ago?

The boy liked looking at the sky and stars at night.

He had awakened too early, scared by a dream: and then the light in the room made shadows and he saw the shadows enacting a violence and the violence scared him further though he could not stop watching it: one figure repeatedly cut off the head of another.

The two women took the small children out of the car, held their hands, and gingerly made their way through the town’s garbage dump, trying to ignore the eyes of the men driving the bulldozers or walking on the ground. The children were very young, and the mothers may have assumed they would not remember this visit or register what it meant, but the boy remembered the black mud under his feet, both gritty and slimy, and the foul smell and the flies. He remembered the dented cans of sweet potatoes the women found, kept, and later cooked. He remembered a small box with a dial on it that he found, wanted, and was allowed to keep, a toy; years later, he would know it was the temperature device of a discarded electric blanket…The father at home was quiet, angry, tense. He waited for the children’s irritating noise, or always-moving bodies. They might at anytime step in front of the television he was watching, or trip over his feet; then he would look at them with dislike. His mood seemed an almost daily, unspoken threat…The mothers of the two boys had gone to a weeknight church event, leaving the boys alone—to watch television and play. The older boy, about fourteen or fifteen, wasted no time in trying to climb atop the younger boy and rub his excited crotch onto the younger boy, about eleven. The younger boy ran from room to room, and when the older boy followed he tried to fight him off, and they fought through the rooms; and, finally, the younger boy gave himself up to the older boy’s stronger body, hard prick, and the stale breath of his insistent kisses. These lips on his neck were kisses? Why was the older boy’s eyes closed? The younger boy did not tell his mother. Was it because of his confusion or because of the odd, fleeting pleasure?

“I wasn’t sure what had happened. Was this play, sex, or violence? I accepted it—I thought I accepted it,” the man said to the therapist.

Sometimes out of fear or shame a person hides emotion, but this does not end the life of the emotion, it preserves it, and the emotion resides within and comes out at sometimes inopportune moments. Pain hidden comes out then when someone mentions something that touches on the cause of the pain, comes out as a flicker of the eyes, a movement of the lips, a perceptible physical shock, something, said The Book That Should Have Been.

“I don’t believe in original sin. I don’t believe in a genealogy of disaster, that there’s one thing that can explain how everything following it went wrong, such as a bad childhood. I think there’s an atmosphere in which we are encouraged or discouraged, helped or hurt—or helped and hurt, and also a whole range of life experiences, but I don’t think one thing can cripple someone for life,” the man said to the therapist.

The house the boy lived in was made of wood, and it was white. It did not seem sturdy, and yet it lasted.

The father did not build or own the house, nor was he the one who added rooms to it when they were needed. He was both absent and present.

Twenty years in the future, the boy might dream of this house, and of the people who have lived here, and of the people who might need to live here. He might ask in that dream if there are enough electrical outlets for the toaster, the hairdryer, the television, the music stereo, and other things all these people want and need. Will all these electrical demands cause an explosion of charges? This is not a question about electricity—about energy and utility—alone. It is a question about economics. It is a question about love and intelligence. This is a dream, and an understanding, he cannot anticipate. If anyone had explained it to him, would he have understood it, and would this understanding have changed him? Maybe. Maybe not. (There are always uncertainties, said The Book That Should Have Been.)

Intelligence is a facility, a skill, an understanding, but it is not as agile as one expects or as indomitable as one hopes, as its’ value and use are limited not only by one’s situation, but by one’s own personality, said The Book That Should Have Been.

The boy spent afternoons after returning from school looking at trees and birds. He thought about the life and the people he knew, trying to figure out who he was by seeing what he felt about them.

Again the boy dreamed of armed men invading the family home. Unknown to him, his mother had grown up with the same recurring dream. Had they spoken of their dreams with each other, and of the hostility they sensed surrounding them, might they have grown closer?

The boy’s aunt told his mother that she thought he was disturbed, but did not say what had disturbed him nor what he was disturbed about. The people he knew were interested in the rules and one’s ability to follow them; whether the rules were logical, good, or necessary was no matter for debate. For “rules,” substitute “expectations,” substitute “values,” substitute the subject of your choosing.

In untutored minds, intelligence takes on the cast of suspicion, with a subsequently found fact the cause of indictment, said The Book That Should Have Been.

The woman gathered her children, the boy and his sister, and took them without explanation to a faith healer, who knelt before them, put a hand on their chests, and prayed. The woman gave the healer money, and the family left. It was strange and a little frightening.

The members of the boy’s family were together, but they were not together. The existence of each influenced the existences of the others, but they did little to make each other’s lives easier. The mother ensured survival, but even she was distant in her approach. The boy might have been a text she was ambivalent about, yet felt compelled to annotate, correct, criticize.

Does your mother love you? I don’t know. She says she does. I don’t believe it. And when I think of how she is with others, I don’t know that I would call that love either. What is it? Obligation maybe, a sense of responsibility. I don’t know. Aren’t there joy in love, and a regard for someone’s uniqueness?

What is family for?

When guests came, though they might have been people he’d known all his life, he hid in his bedroom. He might have known them, but they did not know him, or what he was becoming.

For a boy to choose to pursue as personal ideas a sense of care, delicacy, reflection, and self-consciousness is to choose civilization, which is read as the feminine. It is a brave choice that is read as weakness, an affirmation of independence that is read as acquiescent to women and the dominant establishment, a presumably bureaucratic order. It is a profoundly decent choice that is perceived as queer and seen as queer even by he who makes it, a confusion of values and understanding that can lead to other confusions, false starts, disappointment, and punishment, said The Book That Should Have Been.

Tears in his eyes, he said to his mother and grandmother, “What do I have to do to be loved?”

If you have been convinced that you’re life is meaningless and realize this, or if you see that you have not been the one to determine your life’s meaning, you then are likely to make every effort to achieve a meaningful life, and to have that meaning be something you respect. It may take you a while to see that meaning is not always generated in such a singly conscious, controlled fashion, though it is affected by your efforts. It is generated by who you are and what you think, feel, and do, as well as by the results, the residue, of everything and everyone you encounter, said The Book That Should Have Been.

Were the games boys played rehearsals for friendship, community, work, or war? Or all of these? One day when he and the boys in his gym class ran a race, another boy advised him to pace himself, to not run full out the whole way. The physical education teacher laughingly told someone else to watch the boy’s ineptness on the basketball court, to see how unlike he was to the boys who otherwise looked like him. He was chosen last for teams more than once.

While he was getting a book and notebook out of his locker for his next class, hands suddenly appeared on his locker door, hands heavier than his own and a shade darker, hands belonging to another boy, a football player, someone he thought tough but decent, who looked at him hard and said, “You think you’re smart, but being smart doesn’t mean anything.”

Are men good for anything but work, sports, and sex?

The woman storeowner looked into the boy’s face and called his mother’s name, startled and urgent; she said, “You’re her son.” She had seen that earlier face in his. “Yes,” he said, “I am her son.”

Under the tree in a neighbor’s yard, the children stood. A seven-year old boy looked at the fourteen years-old boy and asked his own older girl cousin, “Is that a boy or a girl?”

Your grades used to be better than this, the teacher told the boy.

The civics teacher set up a television in the classroom on the day of the presidential inauguration. One of the students, who had been a friend just two years before, said, “The niggers elected that president,” and looked at him.

No one had ever took the time to explain to him why schoolwork was important, and he had not seen in any of the work where it might lead. Then, when he began to understand all he had not been taught and the dangers of ignorance, he began to train his mind, and the schoolwork often became part of his necessary exercises. Other times, his will faltered.

Dreaming of the uneven, patchy back lawn of his family’s house, the boy saw himself walk around half-buried large bones, bones that suddenly emerged from the soil and took on flesh and feathers—monstrous chickens—that then tried to devour people. In the dream, the boy rushed to escape them.

He refused to go to church. If fear of misery, death, and hell were the worst that could be promised, the motivation for attendance, they were not enough.

“I don’t hate authority. I do not like it; I prefer to be my own authority. However, I don’t assume a particular social or professional authority is to be questioned or dismissed until something is said or done to me that I find lacking in logic or sense or use,” the man said to the therapist. “Yes it’s true that I did not find the authorities available when I was young to be of much use,” he added.

If, as a child, your relationship with a parent is much less than you desire, you may feel you have no need to continue this relationship when you are an adult. What if that later time is the only time when it is possible for the two of you to have a response to each other that is mutual, possibly equal, that does not assume one’s knowledge and the other’s ignorance, and one’s power and the other’s pain, as fixed coordinates? Is this a risk and a work worth taking up? If you do not take this risk, you may be giving up what you’ve always wanted, said The Book That Should Have Been.

The boy imagined that he might become…an actor, a singer, a clothing designer, a writer, a lawyer, a doctor, a world traveler….

Usually people with money and power do not like their money and power attached to your need, neither as cause or remedy. Although money and power are as real as a loaded gun, a fancy car, a stuffed refrigerator or the private number of a necessary contact, people with money and power prefer you to see these as part of their charm and discretion, as something ephemeral and ethereal, said The Book That Should Have Been.

Those who give charity often see their generosity as pure, and your need as impure though it may be rooted in the injustices of the age in which you live, though their generosity often is tinged impurely with pride and suspicion and sometimes contempt, said The Book That Should Have Been.

While you work to achieve what you call success—an important career, a measure of fame—time and life do what they do, and there are for your neglected others love affairs, marriages, births, and deaths. And of those you once knew or might have loved, there are only memories, regrets, and irrelevant dreams. You might have laughed once more with a sister or brother, taken a glass of water to an ill grandmother or grandfather, but you did none of these things, said The Book That Should Have Been.

“Work. There’s been all kinds of work and no real work at all, only helping others fulfill their plans, trivial commercial plans,” the man said to the therapist.

One dreams of it, but one rarely gets all that one needs at once—the work, the money, the friends, the love, the community, the power, rarely arrive as needed, at the same time, if they arrive at all, said The Book That Should Have Been.

Success? Providing for others? Where once was need, there may be abundance, and instead of worry over frustration and hunger, there may be anger over the new indifference, laziness, and waste that can come with comfort. This may leave your will to mastery, your will to reconcile, your will to make things better, seem nothing, nothing at all, but self-delusion, said The Book That Should Have Been.

Who might prove to be a true friend?

“My friends have been attractive, smart, sensitive people, both the women and the men, and they have not given me what I wanted. I wonder if I gave them anything they wanted,” said the man to the therapist. “What did I want? Everything. A world. People who would be fully present and engaged and match my energies and interests, people who would like me, and who would confirm that life was worth living.”

Home is acceptance, encouragement, fulfillment of needs, gratification of significant wants, intimacy, security, shelter. If you have not had this, you may look for it in new situations, encounters, people, thus charging your relationships with unspoken or spoken expectations that may not be easily met, and out of this can come conflict and defeat, said The Book That Should Have Been.

“Yes, there was sex, but no sex with love. I did not trust sex or love,” the man said to the therapist.

The boy slept and dreamed of a tall, cloaked and hooded figure walking a dusty road. The figure’s dark hood covered most of his face, leaving the lower part of his nose and his mouth and chin exposed, and his teeth were large and white in purple gums. He stopped by a dead man on the road, lifted him in his arms, and took bites of the corpse’s flesh as he carried him. He clearly enjoyed the taste of the flesh he ate, some of which became stuck beneath the fingernails at the end of his long, thick fingers.

If today is like yesterday, and tomorrow will be like today, …is there transformation? Does the sublime exist? Is transcendence only a hope, an idea?

As you get older, your perceptions and prejudices may become so habitual, so hardened, that you confuse them with a permanent external reality and so, despite trying to think anew, you may arrive again and again at the same destinations, said The Book That Should Have Been.

The words of a solitary man can seem like a fantasy or a lie; such words must be spoken with proofs—the proofs of history, poetry, or daily work, said The Book That Should Have Been.

“The things I know seem to have more to do with the past than the present. With time’s help, life seems to outrun my ability to understand it,” said the man to the therapist.

The fourteen years-old boy paced the floors, the sidewalks, the roads, walking and thinking, dreaming and planning. A new force was in his eyes, his voice, and his movements: I have been the boy you made me, but from now on I will be the boy I make of myself.

(The boy would grow up to make his own mistakes in life and love and thought—mistakes in friendship, intuition, grammar, logic, passion, politics, style, and work—and out of these mistakes he would write The Book That Should Have Been.)

(c) (“Depressed at 14,” December 2001, by DG)