by Jenny Lee Allen
As I sat alone in my apartment and stared at the bare white walls, I finally realized what they were. Many a night I've sat in this place and stared, wholly convinced it was my prison, the white walls my solitary confinement. I was wrong. These walls are my savior. If this place had not driven me to the brink, I would never have seen anything for what it is. I never would have started living again, and in fact, I'm quite sure I would be dead. Dead like poor old Ray.
It's difficult to say exactly when it all started. It was some time after Ray did himself in, I know that. More than anything, I remember what it all started with Bob Dylan spinning on the record player, a bottle of white wine, and these white walls. Every weekend after another torturous work week, Bobby and I would split that bottle of wine and contemplate why the walls taunted me so. They teasingly displayed the seasons to me, as if it mattered anymore what time of year it was, as if the warm light drenching my apartment was something I could still enjoy. They taunted me through the seasons, through the holidays, all the time. Now and then, the wine allowed me to drunkenly laugh it off. I would laugh off everything - friends, family, work. After some time, though, drunk or sober as could be, I was only ever reminded that I had no family, friends were long gone, and work was the one thing I still had any relation to - but not to worry, I fucked that up too. I often greeted it like a child faced with losing an argument, with a defiant "HMPH!" In all honesty, I was your proverbial overworked, lonely loser riddled with self-pity and the loss of everything I ever held dear.
But that's my fault too. I've never much liked people. They talk way too much. Too many of the people I've encountered get off on just the sound of their own voices. The actual words that come spewing out of their mouths never matter. They go on and on about religion and violence, sex and faith, morality and mortality. They're all convinced that God himself came to them and told them that they're right. The Christians are right. The Buddhists are right. The Jews are right. The Muslims are right. Everybody's right. And everybody else, well, they're all going to hell, of course. If people are sure about one thing, it's that everybody's going to hell.
And they go on with their lives, their day-to-days. They smoke their cigarettes, down their coffee in massive quantities, and pop their endless supply of pills. Anyone who doesn't enjoy coffee can, of course, just as easily get by on their alcohol addictions. They go to work in factories, offices, schools and hospitals. Some do the grunt work while the so-called intellectuals sit around and debate the details of their existence. I've read their countless books and essays on the greater meaning of life and laughed myself silly for hours. This only lasted so long, though, as I soon tired of hearing the same ludicrous theories rehashed and rephrased. They think that giving God a different name, rewording the same moral principles, and slapping a new name on an old faith will lead them to salvation. They recycle the bases of religion and philosophy and call it fact. They really know how to think things to death without ever touching upon the truth. Not that I know the truth. Based upon the arrogance and avarice of my fellow human beings, I just assume that they are all wrong. That, or they're all basically right and they've just tailored the details to their liking. My old girlfriend was one of them. She knew everything. Mostly, though, she knew what a loser I was so one day, about two years ago, she up and left. Of course, I'm just like her and all the rest of them. And that's exactly why I dislike them. Hypocrisy is man's greatest God-given talent. There is nothing more inherent in our beings than hatred for those who make us realize what awful creatures we really are. It was this outwardly projected self-loathing that kept me from putting any faith or effort in relationships with anyone. It is partly the reason I've ended up this way. I tried everything from therapy to drugs. Putting myself out there is just not my thing. And when the only person you have left is reduced to a mess of blood and bone, it's not the easiest thing to keep yourself going. So I gave up and befriended the great musical geniuses of our time instead. Dylan, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk and I have all gotten pretty close in the past decade. Some of them may talk a lot and throw their beliefs at me but at least they make it sound good. Not only that but sometimes I'm almost convinced they understand me.
Now one might think it took an out of body experience, an overdose, or perhaps falling in love to wake me up to the world. I'm sorry but counting on any of these things will only lead to disappointment. My enlightenment was no accident and it was certainly no unexpected twist of fate. The plot moved along straight and steady. There was no surprise ending, no derailment, no car crash. In fact, a very simple, seemingly uninteresting observation was all it took. For thirty-six years I was asleep. It was inevitable that one day I would wake up.
The day was cold and uneventful. January had taken over, dulling life and hurrying death. I stopped in front of the coffee shop down on Main street and stared at my reflection in the window. Just the same haggard face I woke up to everyday. I pawed at the stubble and droopy eyes. Sometimes I was surprised my face was still attached to my skull. It always seemed as if it might slide off at any second. I looked past my ghostly body into the shop, to a table in the back corner, next to the counter. Ray would have sat there, staring up at the ceiling tiles, the day he blew his brains out. I blinked - Blood covered the table top.
The way the cops figured it, he walked out of the shop, went straight home and did himself in. He was about my age. Always pretty paranoid, thought people were constantly accusing him of things. That I can understand, at least. The lives of the general public are no longer public. People are wary about letting even the most minute private detail slip. They got to him long before his revolver did. Everyday for thirty-five years hundreds of accusations from people just as paranoid as he was pierced his flesh; the gun merely finished the job.
So I stood in the middle of the sidewalk, lost in thought, staring at myself when I was shocked back into reality by the same words my girlfriend spat at me the day she left me. "Get out of my way!" some woman shouted at me and shoved me aside. Only when my girlfriend said those words, they were followed by this long spiel about "you've held me back for too long, James. You're a lowlife and you're going nowhere. And goddammit, you're not taking me with you!" Blahblahblah. None of that really matters now. She doesn't matter. Raymond doesn't really matter either. They're all gone and they're not coming back. That's what I had been thinking when that lady nearly took me out. I stared after her, not entirely back in this world yet, and watched her large frame shuffle along, as if she hadn't really seen me. All she knew was that something was in her path, her all important path to nowhere.
Once I regained full awareness, I realized I was freezing so I rushed into the shop along with everyone else running about trying to finish their business for the day. All anyone really wanted was to shut themselves in their cozy little houses, curl up on the couch, and wallow in the artificial light that makes buttery yellow walls all the warmer and illuminates their possessions just enough to induce the feeling of home. My white walls, however, are uninviting even on the harshest winter days so I was in no hurry to return to my apartment. It was for that reason alone that I ventured out into such nasty weather. I've never taken the time to fully decorate the place. The couple of paintings I've hung only amplify the misery. It's pathetic, really. And after a while, Bob Dylan and a ten dollar bottle of wine aren't enough to keep away the demons. I hadn't slept in about a week and the walls taunted me worse than ever. I had to get out before I was taken by the temptation to drink myself to death. Sometimes I think Ray had the right idea.
After paying I found myself sitting where I imagined he would have sat the day he died, in the far back corner, next to the counter. Maybe he did still matter. I shook the thought out of my head as I settled in with my coffee and the day's paper. As the cafe filled with women brushing snow from their hair and men rubbing their gloved hands together, I found myself staring at their shoes. One man had a new pair of reddish brown dress shoes. A woman had on three-inch heeled knee-high boots. A pair of paint-splattered sneakers, tan work boots with a scuff mark across the toes of a man's left foot, lipstick red stilettos. In the two hours I sat there, I'm sure I never glanced at a single face, only shoes. Their faces, their hair, clothing, who they were with, if they were alone - none of that mattered. Their shoes told me everything I could possibly want to know about them. Their shoes gave them lives, hearts, loves, hates, feelings, plans, family, friends, goals, disappointments, struggles, triumphs, blood. Made them human. I realized that these were people. They have issues to resolve and get over and problems to worry about. They have things they look forward to doing and people they can't wait to see. Someone not wearing shoes gives off this air of being invincible. The shoeless are untouchable. Putting shoes on is a way of telling everyone else that you're one of them and you're vulnerable. I remembered that I was one of them, that I was human. It seems like a silly thing to forget but you spend a lifetime of being told that you are one thing without questioning it or even thinking about it, and suddenly you're forced to recognize that you belong not only to yourself but to an entire race of the overworked and underpaid. There's no obvious reason for this that I can find. I never realized the meaning of it all and maybe I never will. I was simply overwhelmed, for the first time in my life, by a sense of being.
Upon returning to my apartment, the walls still stared dully at me as I took off Blonde on Blonde and replaced it with The Beatles' Let It Be. As the needle struck up the first tune, I chanced a look up at the starkness surrounding me and my breath caught in my throat. I no longer saw a prison cell. I now saw a vast expanse. An endless space to fill with the life ahead of me.