Cloudscape (1939) by Paul Nash
Let’s relish this victory. There will always be a barren spot in the middle, unnerving, roots stretching through the soil, reaching out for each other but never touching. Let’s call it a win anyway.
He said: Why don’t you just tell the truth — concrete, plain, humble?
I said: All art is a form of seduction. What’s more direct, performative humility or honest grandiosity? I am the king, the queen’s hand, a tin soldier, an imaginary girlfriend, a loyal little brother, a working breed of dog. What else can I do with this army of misfit toys? They don’t want to live on an island. They like to work.
If I’m avoidant, it made me tougher. Let’s celebrate that. These vines crawl across gravel, over unforgiving hillsides, under the tides. I am your most devoted friend, your imperious handmaiden, your pandering demigod.
He said: What does it mean to keep running away?
I said: I don’t know but it turns me on.
He said: What does it mean to stop?
I said: It feels like that moment when you get back to the house after a run in the sparkling heat. You take in the dark chill and you say to the dog, I wish we had a Meyer lemon tree. I wish we could live in Italy for a year. I wish I could throw the world’s biggest dinner party, outside in the wind, tables in the middle of the street, seats six feet apart. Imagine how manic all the guests would be! Imagine the wild chatter, the interruptions, the random giggling, the spontaneous dancing, the joy bursting out all over. Blossoms planted six feet apart, explosions, flirtation, forgiveness, you turn me on, six feet apart, three hours, six years, five decades, twenty one centuries, feel every inch until the sidewalk ends, then gravel, then dust, a no-contact delivery, call it a win anyway.
Who really wants to know the humble details, cells expanding as the world collapses? How many dead people have written memoirs about this already? This story requires a shy knight, a demon, a distant war. I’m following my whims. My heart is a forest fire.
The doctor with the dead eyes didn’t ask me a single question. She didn’t see the difference between 1% and 2%. I thought: When it’s your blood and bones, you feel the difference. When it’s your heart and lungs and brain, you know what six feet under looks like, what 99 percent feels like, what “five years” sounds like, how love tastes. Love tastes like survival, pass the wine, I love you even more now.
Some people have trouble metabolizing risk. The difference between 1% and 2% is the difference between a person whose eyes are wide open and a person who squints and doesn’t ask questions, sidesteps pain and discomfort, refuses to celebrate the end of the war, cringes at the sound of bugles in the distance, flinches at unwelcome inquiries, dislikes rewards even more than risks, finds semantic distinctions distasteful. Dead eyes don’t like learning or connecting or revelry.
“You can do this, but I wouldn’t say it’s necessary,” the doctor said about something that’s really fucking hard to do, something that requires conviction and support. Forget the deli, this is the hard part: chemical fuck storms, emotional tsunamis, wicked and relentless. You’re getting clobbered on the field and during a timeout, your coach says, “You can quit at any time. I won’t care either way.”
Dead eyes think apathy is a selling point.
“If you don’t go for the win,” the doctor said, “I would support that choice, but not with conviction, no emotional reassurance intended or implied, zero facts or even anecdotal observations to back up my position. You’re on your own regardless.”
But that’s not what the dead say. The dead say: We’ve got your back. The dead say: Leave this office and never look back. She’s doing her job and she won’t fuck it up. But ask yourself: Whose face do you want to see as the clock ticks down?
Find the ones who always celebrate the end of the war. Find the ones who’ll show up at the mile-long table, smiling with their eyes, singing loudly behind their masks, relishing every risk and every reward, laughing with his head thrown back, slapping the table with her hands, wishing he could kiss you, telling you where her heart lives, raising his full glass, eyes filled to the brim with tears. The dead have come to feast with us. They want to celebrate even more than we do. You’re alive, motherfuckers. Can you feel it?
We’re alive, motherfuckers. Can you feel it? We’re alive, we’re alive, we’re alive.
Let’s keep it that way.
Heather Havrilesky is the author of the essay collection What If This Were Enough?, which was a Publisher’s Weekly Best Book of 2018. You can read Heather’s latest Ask Polly column on New York’s The Cut, where it’s published every other Wednesday. The other Wednesdays, Ask Polly lives here, so sign up, it’s free. Write to Molly: askmolly at protonmail.com.