Audio version read by George Atherton – Right-click to download
“I think Kafka knew it,” she said through pierced lips. Her eyes were dismal and tired, the words falling off her tongue into some abyss of futile thought.
“Knew what?” I asked, pulling the cigarette from my mouth and savoring the toxins filling my throat and lungs.
“He knew that at the center of all things, there’s something horrible and unknown,” she said, her eyes drifting up enough to briefly meet mine and then darting quickly back down to the hot concrete.
“You’re too ambiguous. I can’t answer you because I don’t know what you’re trying to say. And besides, if it’s unknown, then why is it so horrible?”
“Because,” she said, “it’s horrible precisely because it’s unknown. That’s why we’re afraid of the dark. It’s not the darkness itself that frightens us, but we’re scared shitless of what’s hiding behind the darkness. Fear was at the root of Kafka’s angst. So many thinkers and artists can’t cope with that same thing. Nietzsche was desperately ill, Pollock was a raving alcoholic, Cobain went crazy. That’s hardly the tip of the iceberg. These minds saw enough of the world to know the chaos surrounding it. They saw the horror and drowned in it.”
“I think you’re wrong. I think Kafka knew somewhere that there is something infinite and beautiful in and beyond life. But we are trapped by the human condition. We fail to see what is so obvious. We live for tomorrow but all we ever need is today. I think he knew that but could never embody it. I think his intellect prevented him from feeling peace, but he knew that at the center of things was not something horrible and unknown. No, he knew that at the center is something heaving, eternal and inexplicably divine. All Kafka really needed was to drop some acid on a sunny day.”
“I think you’re full of shit,” she said.
“Well,” I shot back, maybe too soon, “I don’t think you can just read Metamorphosis and pretend to know what the fuck you’re talking about!” I crushed the cigarette against the sole of my shoe and exhaled. This was the same talk we’d had a thousand times. It was just taking a new form this time. She was talking about life as some meaningless entity, something that we try desperately to see but can’t, like we’re staring into the sun. And I was the blind optimist, trying to see the beauty in those bright blue spots burned into the back of my mind.
“You don’t have to be so abrasive,” she said, obviously hurt and beginning to tremble.
“I’m sorry, babe,” I said. I had forgotten again how easy it was to shake her. I reached into my pocket for another cigarette. And to think I was contesting her nihilism. After finding out she was suicidal, her parents had been quick to sedate her with an endless supply of prescriptions. It was more lucrative for the medical world to treat her than to cure her, like swallowing saltwater to quench a thirst. They knew that every second she spent taking those damn pills was another moment of relative quiet. And the therapists could never help her. They were all too human.
“I just don’t know anymore,” she said, starting to cry. Her eyes were wet, beautiful against her skin. She had such a pure heart. It always hurt to see her like this.
“You never knew,” I joked. “And everyone is lost. You remember the American dream? Well here we are, spending our time watching television, rushing to get to jobs we hate, shopping for shit we don’t need, overeating, throwing up … and getting drunk to numb it all. The pain is universal. We’re all just treading water.”
She stayed still, her sobs beginning to quiet down. By the look of it, the weight of the world seemed to rest squarely on her alone. I would shoulder it as best as I could, but at night the weight would always come back to her. She would talk in her sleep, sharing her anxious abstractions, soft curses and cold sweats.
“Where did everyone go?” she said quietly, watching four lanes of traffic drift past us. “These people don’t look like they have lived a day in their lives.”
“They have,” I said, trying to calm her. “I’m sure they live at least two days a week.”
We both laughed.
“Things are going to get better, babe,” I said moving toward her, “trust in me, trust in beauty, trust in love.”
She kissed me and sighed. Then she started to giggle, enjoying the slight rush that sometimes comes after a cathartic cry.