:: Article

On or About

By Greg Gerke.

This is an extract from See What I see (Splice Books) out on 31 October 2019.

Regularly, in articles and essays, in blog posts and tweets, Virginia Woolf’s remark, “…on or about December 1910 human character changed,” gets bandied around for having pinpointed the coming of the modern age. It is claimed, by such a writer as Edward Mendelson, that Woolf was making a serious joke—and that her pronouncement was a hundred years premature. “Human character changed on or about December 2010, when everyone, it seemed, started carrying a smartphone,” he wrote in the New York Review of Books. That’s a serious joke, too. Both Woolf and Mendelson are probably not right; besides, trying to pinpoint something as elastic and elusive as human character is better left to the hacks. Few persons living or dead would attest to these dates when asked about human character, which most people probably think falls under the rubric we call life. Someone much more divested than Woolf or Mendelson, Thich Nacht Than, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, averred what I now take to be the warmer truth, in a dharma talk I attended some years ago, saying, “You can’t compare yourselves with anyone, because everyone is different.” It holds that all of us will have different markers to our lives. Some Americans feel September 11 is one, while others could not give a shit. I would bet all the money in the world that in the final analysis, the personal outweighs the historical or political in almost every instance. The most mundane and seemingly least important things are our benchmarks. Charles Foster Kane’s friend Bernstein, an old man at the time, says it best in Citizen Kane:

A fellow will remember a lot of things you wouldn’t think he’d remember. You take me. One day, back in 1896, I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry. And as we pulled out, there was another ferry pulling in. And on it there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on. She was carrying a white parasol. I only saw her for one second. She didn’t see me at all. But I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by since… that I hadn’t thought of that girl.

Can I say I’ve had the privilege of living a life tending solitary? I didn’t choose it as a child or a teenager—it’s just what happened. Divorced parents, a sister seven years older, the ostracization of being taller than everyone else my age and fairly chunky—these facts strafed me and made me separate. I learned to play by myself, creating my own universe and my own reality, taking the role of two players in Monopoly and many other games, and then gorging myself on TV, movies, and reading. It can’t be a surprise I traded the usual collaborations of my first passion, filmmaking, for the quiet, orderly hours of writing.

Even before my body grew, I developed a yen for a wonderful contrast: my being solitary while the company of others was not too far away, something exemplified by playing in my own world in the back seat of a car while my parents were in the front. I felt a sort of strange equilibrium, maybe entelechy, but also a security in the sense that I knew life went on—more important worries were being taken care of by older people. I could rest easy and be apart, but remain in the encompassing bubble. I kept testing the limits, and as I experienced the summer vacations, especially during high school, I reveled in the long hours when my mother and sister would be away at their first-shift jobs and I ruled a large enough two-story bungalow. What I gained, besides a thriving inner life, was an adamantine sense of control. You could say I didn’t play well with others and I lost some of the social skills one starts displaying at twelve, thirteen, and fourteen, acquiring a shyness most took as vanity, and a sneer that couldn’t be called haughty because I was incredibly alone—haughty people need others they can direct. I sneered when scared. Around people, fear ruled.

One ordinary day, a moment in my life came back to me for no particular reason. I’ve rarely thought of it in the thirty years since it happened. The moment wasn’t so much when my human character changed, but indeed something did. The moment itself, which wasn’t really a moment so much as a span of time, took place in around an hour. It was June or July of 1988, a Friday. In the evening, but not too late, maybe between eight and nine, when the golden hour would hit Milwaukee, Wisconsin, though it was overcast. I sat inside during the warm night doing what I did best, watching a movie on TV. It was Friday the 13th something. Part two, part three? Maybe four. Aren’t they all the same? But it was on a national station, so it was edited with commercials, and at that age I already pretty much had the template of the scenarios down. An unsuspecting group in their late teens goes camping. There’s the couple where the guy always wants to get into the pants of the girl, plus the nerd and the jock and the well-developed female character who will ultimately survive the carnage. Slowly, inevitably, the script engineers things so that people get separated and easily killed without anyone else knowing until Jason reveals it—and as I write this I have to make a serious joke of my own: how can people wonder about the violence in American society when a thirteen-year-old can recapitulate the methodology behind killing so efficiently, so clearly?

I actually wasn’t too tied to the film because in the backyard, just a little jaunt through the house (the TV room was at the front end), my sister and her soon-to-be husband stood with one of his friends and our mother testing the durability of an old tent they were considering for a weekend camping trip. Their imminent departure has stayed in my memory because it was such a different type of experience, even if I would not be the one going on the trip. Trips were scarce, and even when my father lived with us, into the prior year, we were all homebodies (except my sister), whether through TV or depression—aren’t they equal? Good for my sister and Joe, I thought vicariously. Getting out there, having fun. This real life corralled my plastic one concerned with baseball, baseball statistics, and films about a real life I couldn’t understand. I could scarcely imagine the prospect of women and their honeys—I wanted the baseball Brewers to win the pennant. Real life. “The fair courts of life,” James Joyce called it; that is order, peace, honor, and beauty in whatever form we live our adult time. But I had enough years to harbor a quiet wish for what would have to eventually happen in some form for me as well. I couldn’t conceivably live at home forever. I’d have to get a job and eventually fall in love, with someone, or I’d be a failure.

Was this the dawn of yearning? Jealousy? Envy? Surely I had all those before, but I couldn’t name the words to encompass the feelings. I continued to observe. Not vanquishingly and not without disinterest. I stood in the house’s enclosed porch, looking down on them in the yard, with two trees, an oak and a cherry, planted by the man who bought the house but no longer resided there. The yard was once my play area, but I retreated to my father’s former den (the TV room), which stood out of the safe zone, where the unexpected is more likely. These people obviously participated in the fair courts of life, while I eschewed people for control, for artifice, and somewhat for my own unattainable glory. I pressed to join them, but was hamstrung.

Listening to their plans, I stooped, vaguely aware they were about to head out for the woods like the people in the movie I watched. Hey! I was watching a movie and the commercial was probably long done, so I went back through the house to the TV to see Jason staring at one of his imminent victims. They were by a barn, but I viewed this with an eye to reality. The cool kids (my blood) were going into the forest. Wasn’t that more interesting than edited death by machete impaling? Mmm. Beginning to watch a soft-core car commercial, I asked if we (I) had a will to do what we wanted? But really, sitting beside my closest friend, the TV, did I know anything else?

I returned. Joe and his friend were packing up the old tent—it would do. This time I went outside. I had a flicker of how I was being viewed by the others when trying to stand eagerly, but unable to be a party to anything. Myself: tall, very overweight, morose. Who did they see? How could they help him? Because, of course, what I was doing there was asking for aid, even though I didn’t know I did that. My mind said, Come play with me, or, Come watch the movie with me; although I couldn’t always align actual words with emotions just yet, I could feel them accumulating in a large face growing more and more punitive toward the world, more repelled while marooned on the wrong avenue of my desires. Soon, people said their goodbyes. The moment just ended.

I don’t think there are as many epiphanies in our lives as we report. Things accrue and one day there is a jettisoning, but much has contributed. Our lived years bring us to the cusp of realization, but all that went in comes out in fits and fizzles—and maybe it’s only real when we can give those fits and fizzles language, to be understood. I went back to the television. My mother started going through the week’s newspapers in the kitchen. I could write in an epiphany, but to say it came to me then would be false. I simply succumbed to entertainment. My yearning? To see everyone killed, like I’d been taught to expect—except the final girl, who would somehow destroy Jason, with a little help from a Hollywood screenwriter. After I got that, I perfunctorily hoped nothing like this would come to pass in western Wisconsin where my sister camped. My small prayer might have been the beginning of something, some parceling of feelings, maybe some inner voice whispering that I would soon have to take responsibility for my life, especially if I was to participate in it to the extent my sister did, but it wouldn’t be manifested for some years. In essence, I had my first ideas of what I was missing. Now… how would I give up the make-believe world to get there?

Greg Gerke’s work has appeared in Tin House, Film Quarterly, The Kenyon Review, LA Review of Books, and other publications. He is the author of Especially the Bad Things and See What I See.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, October 26th, 2019.