I’m standing inside a restaurant downtown. I feel intense disquiet; uncomfortable. We’ll laugh, I know. As we walk in I see the sun set over a building across the street. It cuts a shadow as sharp as the edges of the building onto the concrete in front. A bus stops at the corner, reflecting the setting orange hue into the restaurant’s chamber. I take a picture with my phone. I want to remember the shape of the light, it’s a natural moment, a distant moment, a moment of privacy.
Tomorrow will strip the world. But now the facade of the Fashion District can be what it is. Poetic trimmings on dusty air conditioners hanging from the dilapidated buildings around this trendy little spot.
I’m uneasy. I’m not living the life I’m supposed to. When it struck me I’d shouted down the phone to Peter. He was about to hang up and stopped. “What do you mean?” he asked? “I know you don’t have the time” … silence “another time”. I hung up.
We’d spoken earlier in the week. He picked up the phone, monotone, a monotone I’d learned to dislike. False unassuming calm… “Hello” he said, “How are you doing?” I was infuriated. What a stupid question, he knew exactly how I was. I could feel the urge to challenge him.
“What kind of question is that?” I was pissed off. “What do you mean, how are you doing?” I replied. His monotone shifted in preparation. “Jesus” I continued, “I mean, today, this week, my life? What the hell are you asking me? How long have we been talking about this?”
“It’s not a stupid question at all,” he continued with the forced calm of someone telling you that behind the facade a force is ready. “How are you feeling? The last time we spoke…”
“Ok, ok” I couldn’t follow up my anger and knew he was right, I knew I was being a dick. “I’m not myself”.
I’d started talking very quickly. “I don’t exist” I told him, “I’ve been living another life, another person’s feelings… there’s no ‘me’, I’m a reflection” I could feel my voice falter, I wanted to feel a tear, but there wasn’t one to lift the tension stretching the skin across my chest.
“I want all the wrong things” I continued. “I know I can’t, but I don’t want to lose the desire” I didn’t know what the words meant as I heard them, I was just talking “I need this feeling, I need to be reminded how uncomfortable I am, I’m living a bullshit life.” I still had no idea what I was saying.
“I can picture dreams I had when I was younger. I can see feelings, ambition. But, the disinterest, flat uncomfortable silence… It’s a feeling, I have to have it, without it I don’t know there’s a me.” We never finished the conversation, time ran out.
The waitress exchanged jokes as I ordered my steak blue. ‘Moo’ she said, “yes… I want it breathing”. The rapport of ordering steak blue can be fun… It’s mostly tiring.
The restaurant’s damp bulbs appealed to me, as did the stark walls and bleeding veneer. I figured it was about time the hero of the 80’s, the one that vanished in the 90s become our anti-hero. Dreams gone, we’ve walked into our own dystopia arms open, welcoming horror. It seemed only right that fashion should show its edges; only fitting we be reminded how mundane our money has become. The irony, baroque’s patina is our ambition. And I can say this only because I am sitting in an expensive restaurant eating steak. Money, as if I don’t want it.
The table was long. Everyone sat feet away, when the food arrived our heads faced the plate in front of us and we paused only for small talk or a shout at the game as our knives cut the meat.
‘The restaurant’s great’, ‘good choice’, ‘wow the steak’, ‘what about Charles Manson’, small talk made small moments of levity, I felt a kind of emotional voyeurism. Maybe that’s what it means to be happy with other people? Between small talk we knew the nuances of eachother’s lives. We can’t talk of them of course, if we did we’d have to face the unreality; see ourselves for who we are; imperfect. We said goodbyes and went home.
Some years ago I was sitting with a friend in a Sushi bar in LA. Sitting in the bar I told my friend I felt that there was a language I didn’t understand between people. It was as if there were a code and I didn’t know how to break it. Looking back now I realized the code was simple, it was the elephant in the room.
Everyone’s comfortable with the elephant, the challenge is getting out without noticing it.
At the restaurant the table was stretching between us. The flat wood distorted like rubber as their chairs slid away from me. The light, for all its shade was too bright, even the sun, now firmly set in the background hovered too long, distorting the artificial light around us; at once dim, at once bright. For a moment I looked directly at the faces around me with a deep fear that they could see the discomfort in my pupils, my eyes felt dry.
On the drive home I was quiet. I’m always quiet in cars. As a teenager my friends and I used to party at the weekend. We were all at boarding schools; when the time came we’d get together and dance, be kids in a playhouse. We didn’t have any responsibility, it was our rule; everything else got left at the door. The weekends would last long.
One Sunday after a night and no sleep I was sitting in a car with a friend. It was a white Fiesta. We’d driven to a market to get supplies early in the morning. He pulled over in the drizzle of Pimlico back streets, I didn’t know why we stopped, but we opened a pack of cigarettes and started talking.
6am drizzle and the grey world, opaque, empty, free and foggy. “You know all this fun” he said. “It’s real, we’re not just partying, we’ll be friends for a long time, no one can experience this and not be close.” he told me. It’s been 16 years since that morning. I now have grey in my beard. He and I haven’t spoken since that night.
Back then on the drives from country houses to school I would sit in the back seat on the left and stare at the fields, trees and small towns we’d pass through. Today, passing through Los Angeles I see the ambition and fear of the world around me. Occasionally I see a group of people on a wall talking. A food truck with a group on a Friday night and for a moment freedom sits in the center of the its otherwise absence. Smiles that hide the lives they mask. Or maybe, just maybe those are the moments of life.
I can now read people’s faces well. I can see small creases as people think, a slight frown or look of worry as an eye glazes for a moment. There is no wonder. The end of wonder is the end of thought. It is the start of concrete and of reality. And with that I wonder what other people see.