:: Article


By Jackson Arn.

Recently, I won’t say exactly when but embarrassingly late in life, I realized that books had been lying to me. Movies were slightly better, but still untruthful. To put it another way, I realized that nothing is connected. Nothing is central. Not all things happen at the same time, or a millisecond before or after that time, or at midnight, or on anniversaries.

Nobody jogs down a street and sees a sign that says SIMPSON and then later that afternoon drives to their dentist and finds a new receptionist, surname Simpson, caressing the desk with nails of plastic coral.

Her eyes are never the precise whimpery blue of an April morning in the Southwest. They may bear a passing resemblance to that shade, they may be very, very close, but they are never the same, no matter how hard one overworks one’s eyes.

Nervousness never makes the hands quiver, the abdomen tighten. It does, of course. But not, as books would have it, for days at a time. Even in the midst of one’s nervousness, distraction shudders on. One finds time to fidget with one’s phone, watch the pornography of one’s choice, laugh with actual mirth, and be distracted from these distractions, until nervousness is just one feeling out of many.

Her eyes, never the correct shade of blue in the first place, do not become that shade in hindsight, either. Memory never purifies or intensifies. It only dirties, and the dirtiness is only ever a dusty, unglamorous kind.

For that matter, colors in general are never one single color. It is astonishing how many dark blankets contain single threads of red or magenta. One only spots these little mutations after many months or years, and only then when one has lost interest in looking at literally anything else. The single thread lies there, rewarding your attention with its out-of-placeness (it has nothing else to offer). One rarely if ever finds details like this in books. In books, the blanket is either one single color, or it is mottled or speckled in a way conducive to quick, shallow noticing.

Shallow noticing should not be flattered in this way. It should be exposed for what it is. Her face, seen for the second or third time, may be agreeably freckled. There may be a single freckle on the tip of her nose. But noticing it cannot be considered insightful. Nothing is learned in the process of noticing, other than the fact of the freckle’s existence. The freckle is not a symbol of playfulness, or pain, or royal ancestry, or a terrible secret that must be confessed post-coitally. It is tempting to believe that it is, in fact, such a symbol. Books train readers to yield to this temptation.

Speaking to her for the first time—not literally the first time, but the first time she sees you as a person of flesh and leisure, not a client, the last first time, one could almost say—is difficult, but not as difficult as books suggest. There’s nervousness, of course, but it’s just one feeling out of many. The rest of your life hums on. The conversation between the two of you is neither the least nor the most comfortable, nor does it precisely split the difference. It is not remarkable, it is not even remarkably unremarkable. It is just a conversation.

The many other conversations you have with her are a lot like the last first conversation. They do not evolve one way or the other so much as they stay exactly where they are and slacken, so that less unsaid stuff presses out from within.

Her interests are not your interests, but they are not not your interests, either. This becomes clear to you, not all at once but not gradually, either. It happens in sputters of clarity broken apart by long silences, in much the same way that species evolve over millennia—i.e., the way all life works.

The two of you do not become one person, but you do not stay two people, either. Either of these possibilities is misleading, irresponsibly so. Better to say that you are occasionally one person, and when this happens it tends to feel very good.

But it’s impossible to predict when the two of you become one person. The moment is not preceded by natural wonders, thunderstorms, heavy cardio, national tragedies, or any of the other typical indicators. Even sex is no guarantee. The experience of holding her to your chest until your heartbeat and hers, her breath and yours, become indistinguishable is rare. Even when it happens it doesn’t always prompt the fluttery oneness that (you’d always been led to assume) follows. On the off-chance that you become one person, you tend not to realize it until days later. Neither does she, presumably.

Her flaws do not complement your flaws, or dovetail with them, or do anything else casually productive. It’s not useful to think of them as flaws, really—the syllable’s concision hides pains of many different sizes. The pain, for instance, of yelling at her, and being yelled at, because you were twenty minutes late and she can’t tolerate disruptions in the schedule. Also, the pain of answering the phone and learning that the hospital has her from now on. Does it make any sense to file both of these pains under FLAWS?

Even when you’re waiting to visit her, distraction continues the way it always has. You do not forget your job or your car parked across the street or the attractive strictly Platonic friend whose messages keep rumbling in your pocket. Least of all the attractive strictly Platonic friend. You don’t tell your attractive strictly Platonic friend what’s happened, obviously (even books get that right), but you don’t stop texting her while you’re waiting for visiting hours, you may even send over a few inside jokes to feed the fire until Monday morning.

You do this, not because you feel like shit and you want to take your mind off of things, not because you’re choosing to drown your guilt in low-risk flirting or because repressing pain is your tragic (there’s that word again) flaw, not because you could never quite convince yourself you loved her or because you could never quite convince yourself she loved you or because your mind is rejecting too much responsibility the way your gut rejects too much brown liquor. There’s no “… but rather because …” on the horizon, just a long list of nots. You flirt for no reason at all—which is to say, for the same piddling reasons and half-reasons you did before you got to the hospital.

Books are never brave to confess this, even when they’re supposed to be confessional, even when everyone coos over how brave they are. Nothing happens for no reason in a book, which is to say, everything happens for a reason, i.e., books are still shackled to a kind of classical physics defunct since the Gay Nineties. Sitting in the waiting room, trying not to count the clock’s ticks, you study the stack of magazines and begin to overflow with fascination with Carrie Coon—but not because you are trying to forget about her, trapped on the other side of the door in a uniform with no bands or laces. The cover shot of Carrie Coon with her older husband, the playwright and character actor Tracy Letts, while not an answer, is as close as you or anybody else is likely to get to one. Maybe this is okay.

When you leave your cell phone and driver’s license with the security guard, walk through the door, and realize, after a few long minutes of pacing and questioning, that you are in the wrong fucking hospital, it’s funny, but not funny in a way that emerges organically from character or resembles other humorous moments you’ve been involved in. Nobody laughs, needless to say—but someday, you may tell yourself, you will laugh, and when that day comes, you’ll know you’re all right again. But this isn’t true, and you know it’s not. Years from now, it’ll still be funny and you still won’t laugh.

When you’re finally in the right place, she will look the same but shrunken. Everyone in the room will look like her, a tenth too big or too small, dolls from mismatched collections. This is where books’ lies are at their most pernicious. She will tell you how much pain she’s in, how long the hours feel, how scared she is of herself and of the patients and of the staff. And although there is no shortage of literary scenes of this kind, you will be unable to tell her a single comforting thing.

Instead, you will sit there and try to think of things you can tell her, and the harder you think the more peculiar your thoughts are likely to get. You are likely to think at least a few shocking things. You may contemplate helping her break out of here, or killing her, both imperfect solutions to the problem, but solutions nonetheless. A book would attach great significance to second of these thoughts, because in a book the last thing is an important thing, a prophecy or a clue that gives away the crime. This is an ugly prejudice, but like any prejudice it can be defeated with open-mindedness and the occasional training program.


I was in a library when I realized this. It was a clear October day, and children swam under me. I forget what I was reading (that’s how far I’ve come—I used to remember everything I read), but I can still feel the clenched exertion.

They pulled books from shelves, chattering, and seated themselves before the cracked shells of machines. What they were saying meant nothing when you took it all together, of course, but it had the faint echo of truth. I listened closely. And as I sat, listening, I felt the urge to close my book, stand up, walk out the doors, and find nothing, absolutely nothing.

Jackson Arn
has written for Art in AmericaThe New Statesman, The Nation, and The Point. He is a columnist for 3Quarks Daily.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, December 15th, 2020.