On and Off

A sudden, cold terror grips him: he’s lost her. He said he’d stay by her side, be there in case anyone dared challenge her, give her an escape if this ball became intolerable. Of course she hadn’t asked him to; that was never her style.

Perhaps he presumes too much? Is he merely the fawning lap dog? She could have dumped him in the river months ago if he hadn’t piqued her interest somehow. No, she expects him to stay, probably even expects him to come find her now that she’s ditched the ball.

Merely a toy, then? He’s heard the line from her, time and time again: ‘the world is my plaything.’ But he’s seen her at her weakest, stumbled through some of her old college diaries in the bowels of a dresser drawer on that one lucky night when she let him in. He knows there are questions beneath, or at least there once were, before her name became the talk of that arena where she spends her frenetic days.

He chances one of the upper galleries of the hall, hoping his haste conveys none of his panic. She must know every back room of this place by now, and she no doubt knows people who could spirit her away, give her cover for days or even weeks. But is there anyone she trusts, any confidante she’d let see her soft side? He doubts it. She is a loner. He can find her, coax her back down.

He runs up one staircase, stumbles up the next, yells her name once he’s sure no one else at the party might hear. The reply comes reluctantly, resigned; she knew she couldn’t hide for long.

“What are you doing up here?” he bellows as he bursts through a door. He stops in awe.

“It’s a phenomenal view, isn’t it?”

He surveys the city as it unfolds beyond this topmost balcony to the hall: a city of lights robed in golden haze, its restless din dulled into a murmuring stream of life, while the river itself flows silently past, dark as the night except where it mirrors the gleaming towers on the opposite bank.


“Would you believe me if I told you I just want to jump on the next flight out of here? Forget it all?”

“But that’s ridiculous. You’ve got them all eating out of your hands, with how much you do to make things right. You work harder than anyone to pull it all off, and they know it. This city is yours.”

“Maybe too much mine to ever properly share it.”

“You’ve always been the queen of mystery.” He chances a knowing grin, but she shakes him off with a toss of her head.

“You look gorgeous, you know.”

She thanks him out of courtesy, suppresses her real thoughts: Lord, she tries, yet every new diamond or sequin only raises the stakes the next time, feeds the insatiable beast. It’s vain of her, of course: vanity trapped in her body, the only idol left for worship in this age beyond God. Her dear grandfather always said she should have been a nun, but even his faith would have crumbled if he could see what she had become: this woman of the world, born to rule.

“Want to just go for a get a drink, you and I? Leave all the intrigue behind?” He offers her an arm, his pained overtures suddenly channeling the gallantry she’d long wished he might someday muster.

“No, I think I’ll just walk by myself for a moment.”

She is cruel. He’s been good to her; he shares her humor, her commitment, and he’d sheepishly let her take him home earlier that spring. But he lacks her iron resolve, too easily lapses into blithe cynicism, any real depth concealed beneath a protective veil. He plays the same game, but that alone is enough for him, and she will always crave more. No apologies: she strides out past him, wishing this imposing façade could collapse upon the tumult within and smother it into submission.

Down a side staircase, out the kitchen entrance: she knows how to slip out of the spotlight, ever a talent she needs when wheedling the power brokers of this town into the belief that they call the shots. But it’s her, all her. Or so she tells herself, for how else can she keep the faith?

It’s a crisp night; perhaps she should be cold in this dress, but she has no mind for anything outward. She eases herself along the cobblestones, lets them turn her heels ever so slightly before she catches each step, wobbles her way toward the promenade along the river. Late-night revelry carries on all about, though no one knows her when she comes down from her rarified air. Or perhaps they do; she’s spent too much time up in that world, and now she shuts them out without a second thought. She went into politics to be their champion. And she has been, secretly tipping the agenda where she can. But it’s been too long. She’s lost touch. She said she’d never let this happen. But the zeal is gone, and the revolution has left her behind.

She could fix that now, if she so desired. But no. Somehow, this is all alright. She was never here to blow up the world; she merely came to shepherd her flock along. Perhaps her grandfather was on to something after all. She repeats the mantra she uses to train her will: the ceaseless refrain, stashed away in her brain and yet impossible to find when she truly needs it, when it might blast through her lingering doubts and save her from the thousand little deaths she dies every day. Turn it on, turn it off. Every day that light detached manner, that effortless zeal for the mundane tasks at hand, all the while biding; biding her time for the battles she chooses that will actually give it all some meaning.

Turn it on, turn it off. Turn it on, turn it off.

She stops along the bridge and gazes at the water, mesmerized; perhaps this is where she should see wonder in simplicity, fall into the gentle rhythms that can guide her along into a meditative bliss that eases these demons to bed. But no; not here, not now. She is still on edge, that drive outward in full control, and deep inside her she knows that she cannot separate those demons from the hunger that has made her what she is, this guardian of a city, this lady of her realm. She cannot turn it off.

She catches her reflection in the window of an idling taxi and wraps her shawl tighter around her dress. He does not lie: she really does look that good. But it’s all an illusion, is it not? She’s built it up for too long; illusion has slowly leeched into reality, and now she cannot separate the two. She can wonder at it all, but only with a skeptical eye, forever aware that her moment here will never last. At its best it swells in a surge of bravado, but it seems reckless to cling to this juvenile urge to take command. If mere youthful beauty is all she has, what will endure when this all fades away? She’s not young anymore.

Perhaps it’s time to move on. She’s given this place all she has, and it has taken that and more from her. If the wonder is dead, what is left? Is her god really some vague sense of awe, some raw emotion with nothing to ground it but her own cynical eye?

Best to let it surge again, to blink back that tired eye and turn it back on. She has a party to return to, a city to rule, a man to tease as he pursues her deep into the night. It has all come in to focus because she has turned it off, unwittingly: this little step back out into the night, all the wilderness she needs.

It doesn’t happen when she wills it. No, it happens only when it comes to consume her life so fully that she has no other choice. Submission, she supposes: for all her struggles for control, she is still a slave to these currents that bear her along. Perhaps all she can do is ride them, feeble as that may seem. Become one with the water, or some such cliché.

“I would have jumped by now if I were you.”

She starts in shock. A woman leers at her; a grotesque, doddering crone who most likely climbed down from the eve of some Gothic church. But she can see how close she’s come to the rail, how fixated she must seem, and she lets loose a manic laugh.

“I’m afraid I drowned myself years ago,” she says. “And I don’t regret it one bit.”

Her gargoyle squints at her and nods before shuffling onward along the bridge. Her smile blossoms outward: this woman, too, is one of her children, one of her fellow lost souls who can’t quite cooperate with all this order she tries to impose. A flaw in the plan? No, just a reminder of how much life there is in the darkness, even when it all goes off. These are her people down in here, just as much as she is one with her erstwhile lover back at the ball, the closest she has to a kindred spirit. Perhaps if he could join her down here, he’d understand. It would be a risk to ask it of him. But these shifts are too much to handle alone.

Turn it on, turn it off. Turn it on, turn it off.

She wakes early the next morning, has every intention to slip away while he stays sprawled among the sheets. But this time, she stays. Is a false love better than none at all? For now, she supposes, it will have to do. There is still some hope for him. She needs just one thing: someone else who can embrace the totality of these swells. Her faith wavers. But here, and only here, can it become something beyond that inane cycle of ons and offs and infuse it with a sense of direction. The time will come. For now, her city beckons.

“Come on,” she coaxes, shaking him awake.

“Lay off,” he grumbles as he flops over on to his chest and buries himself in a pillow. She laughs in delight, pulls him upright, and throws aside a curtain to let in the morning sun.

“Not quite as good as your balcony,” he muses, staring out at the dingy apartment across the street.

“But just as much ours.”

“You off to wander alone again?”

“I’m certainly going to wander. Whether I’m alone is up to you.”

Boston and Emotional Response

I’ve always been fascinated by my response to national crises. I try to be as detached and rational about bombings and death as is possible, and indeed, the big picture is never quite lost on me: on the same day as the Boston Marathon bombings, thirty people were killed by bombs in Iraq, and no one batted an eyelash; on Friday, the U.S. government shut down an entire city of several million people in an attempt to hunt down one person—one person!—and most everyone accepted it as necessary. When viewed from an extreme critical distance, our responses to such events can seem nearly as absurd as the initial act of terror.

And then I go and watch something like this:

And then, in spite of my alleged detachment and cynicism, in spite of my inner stoic, hockey-bro-wannabe persona, I am reduced to tears.

I have a similar reaction to 9/11, even though the effects of 9/11 on my own life are limited to a few airport security annoyances and a visit to Ground Zero back when I was sixteen. 9/11 is often described as the moment when my generation lost its innocence, yet not even that really applies to me; my illusions about the world were shattered by a jarring personal tragedy some three years earlier. So, what gives? Why do I abandon reason when confronted with a national tragedy, even though I’ve been trained all my life to never do such thing?

My clearest thoughts on this conundrum came out in the immediate aftermath of Osama bin Laden’s death two years ago. I was a junior at Georgetown at the time, and the memories of that night are still crystal-clear: a text message breaking up a night of halfhearted study, barreling down the stairs of my house seconds after one of my housemates to turn on the TV, vaguely wondering if I should join the herd of Hoyas racing off to the White House. Still, I couldn’t quite settle on a sensible response, and wound up just debating the night’s events on Facebook, of all places. “Justice reigns,” I wrote, and someone quite rightfully called me out on this point. If I may be allowed the pretension of quoting my response:

Many of my friends in this city are storming the White House as I write this, and that part of me that lives in the moment–which I do value greatly–is sorely tempted to join them. But I’m not. Instead I’m sitting here, writing on this note, blathering more literary thoughts in a document, and facebook chatting, trying to give this some sense of order. In questions of justice, there is always a question of whose justice we really are serving, what is truly worth fighting for, and what means are worth using to attain some distant goal. As I sit here, I try to balance my efforts to judge from on high as an intellectual, my dreams for what can become, and figure out my own place in this world as a child of a country born of a messianic mission but trapped within the moral morass of reality. I don’t have an answer yet. In the past, I’ve even paused to ponder whether “justice” as an idea really even has any value. But tonight my mind didn’t turn to questions of moral relativism or geopolitics. It turned to the kids in New York and DC who grew up without a parent, with some awful hole wrenched in their young minds. Tonight, they found some form of justice. If that conclusion is a sign of my moral failing, a sign of my blind nationalist or liberal (in the broader sense of the word) pride, then so be it. His death is not cause for blind celebration, but it does affirm a certain set of values to which, for better or worse, I have some measure of loyalty. For all America’s faults in this “War on Terror”–a concept whose complexity many fail to grasp–the guiding vision has never fallen back on blind hate. That is an achievement, and tonight we can note a victory over blind hate. Onward, to however history may challenge us next.

It has become fashionable in some circles to disown one’s roots in the interest of detached reason, and while I understand the impulse, I cannot adopt it. It strikes me as a luxury available only to those who have never understood what it means to lose someone, to endure a cycle of grief, to confront those bitter thoughts in the dead of night that call us to revenge, or invite us to imagine What Could Have Been. There are many things I do not particularly like about modern America, just as there are things that annoy me about Minnesota or Duluth or the details of my own upbringing and (most importantly of all!) my own choices in life. But for better or for worse, they are me, and no amount of self-delusion can make it otherwise.

Acknowledging these blind passions is not an excuse for acts of hate or incredible stupidity. We must always hold ourselves to the highest standard that we can. But only by recognizing them can we begin to understand why this world of ours is so imperfect, and why people feel so deeply for certain things—be it a country, a faith, an ideal, or a loved one—that they are willing to defy all other logic to defend them. As dangerous as those passions can be, a world without them would be a far poorer place.

In the coming weeks, we may learn whether one of those things motivated the Tsarnaev brothers. If it was indeed a deep love or sense of duty, then they are little different from any of us in their motives. They simply went to such an extreme that they lost all perspective, and that made all the difference.

But there is another possibility: they acted not out of passion, but bitter indifference toward life. Their alienation left them so detached that the emotional response to the bombings felt by so many of us lost all meaning to them. If so, more than anything, they have my pity. Either way, they were dangerous: either because they loved too much, or they loved too little. The middle ground may not be the most alluring, but it is, in the end, the only safe refuge.