Mike Nagel’s writing has appeared in The Awl, Apt, Hobart, Salt Hill, DIAGRAM and The Paris Review Daily. His essay ‘Beached Whales’ was a Best American Essays 2017 notable essay.
There are not seven billion people in the world. There are only twelve. They make quick costume changes. My waitress is also the lady at the grocery store is also the DART fare enforcement officer who checks my ticket on the morning train. I’ve seen her in ten thousand roles. A character actor’s character actor. The Paul Giamatti of my real actual life. I pretend not to recognize her. I don’t want her to feel like she’s doing a bad job. I don’t want anyone to feel like they’re doing a bad job. I want everyone to feel like they’re going to win a Tony award for their work in the musical theater production we are calling, for now, my life.
Let’s try this again. Good morning. No, good afternoon. It’s afternoon. It’s 12:15pm. July 16, 2017. A hot blue Sunday in Dallas. Good news. The grocery stores can sell beer now. Before 12pm on Sundays they can’t sell beer. The computer system won’t let them. The system says: Nope. The system says: Nice try. These are the Blue Laws. Legally enforced southern morality. AM sobriety on the day of the Lord. Unless, of course, you’ve planned ahead, which I have.
Every year we tell ourselves that we are still young and that we have plenty of time but after a decade I’m starting to wonder: Plenty of time for what?
I want to know who you’ve slept with. What type of porn “does it” for you. Which drugs you’ve taken. In what quantities. Over what period of time. I want to know how many alcoholic drinks you drink a day. How many you think is too many. When you get started. Before noon? Tell me: What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done? I want to know you by your shame, to see the shape of you in the things you distance yourself from, an outline of you in the negative space.
Why did you think you were going to become famous? What was it about you that you thought the rest of us couldn’t already see for ourselves, plain as day?
Me, I’m just trying to keep my skin on. People ask me what I’m doing with myself and I say, “Keeping my skin on.” It’s harder than it looks. At night I coat myself in Crisco. I stand naked in the living room with my legs spread and my arms out like the Vitruvian Man, twisting gracefully back and forth, glistening under the 60 watt light bulbs in the ceiling fan. Have you seen me glisten? It’s really something else.
Yesterday on the DART I saw a man reading a book called How to Not Be Wrong. He was standing with one foot against the wall. I wondered if not being wrong was the same thing as being right or if there was some space in between, a demilitarized zone, where things weren’t exactly one way or another. I’ve heard we all start off as little baby girls but I’m not sure if that’s still true. What’s the thinking these days in terms of little baby girls? I followed the man off the train. He was holding his place in his book with his middle finger. I saw that he’d underlined things. What things? What was so important that he had to underline it? For a minute it seemed like we might be going to the same place but then he turned into a parking lot and got into a Volvo. I kept walking to the liquor store where I bought a $10 bottle of vodka from Questlove whose name there was Jerry.
Here’s the story. I fly to Chicago. I stand under The Bean and stare straight up into its chrome-jelly center. I lose track of things in there. The surface disappears. I am swallowed up. I can’t remember which side of The Bean I’m on. Am I looking up at myself or down? I am, I think, for a few moments at least, inside The Bean. There I am given top-secret bean instructions. When I come back to my senses, I understand my life from my own perspective and from the perspective of a giant metal bean. I am not sure what to do with this information and go about my life as if nothing has changed.
I read something from Cheryl Strayed a few years ago, in the intro to an edition of Best American Essays, where she said that the unspoken sentence at the end of every essay should be, “And nothing was ever the same again.” Which was funny, I thought, because the unspoken sentence at the end of everything I’ve ever written is: “And so, of course, nothing really changed.”
Well what did you think was going to happen? I want to know what you expected. I want to know who you think you are. I want to know what your singing voice sounds like inside your own head. Beautiful? The same way all of our singing voices sound beautiful inside of our own stupid heads? Tell me something: Do you think you’re funny? Just keep something in mind: This is my show. I’m the one who glistens.
At the advertising agency where I work, I tell E that I don’t know how much longer I can pretend to care. E says, “At least you care enough to pretend,” and for a second I feel like I have re-entered The Bean, a place with no ups or downs, insides or outsides, lefts or rights. What’s the difference between right and wrong if we’re all just saying the same thing? The liquor stores are closed on Sundays in Texas but the bars are still open. I have a bottle of vodka in my freezer for emergencies. A flask in the cupboard for emergency emergencies. Be patient. You can buy beer after 12. There are very few things left that aren’t merely a formality. You don’t have to feel the dance, but you do have to make the moves. The dance is the moves. It’s enough, I think, for now just going through the motions.
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Image (modified): Onchi Koshiro Public Domain