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I Don’t Know What Else to Tell You

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by Fernando J. Contreras

When I see a writer working on a script while leafing through a “how-to” book, I think, Such a long road ahead! I picture what it’d be like to start from zero at my age, and it feels like being forced to date after the collapse of a twenty-year marriage. Having to relive fun parts of my youth would now symbolize the return to a less developed state: What’s your favorite music? Do you like to travel? Oh, so you want to change the world? How interesting!

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I imagine what it’d be like to be eternal. I bet it’s fun for a while. As you forget the names of your grandchildren and battle to get out of the couch, I’m winning the Olympics at the tender age of ninety-five. Then at ninety-nine. Then again at one hundred and three. It’s a nightmare. Every generation becomes a rerun of the previous one. Friendship and love lose meaning after every relationship is punctuated by an abrupt and hollow ending. Inevitably, human life ceases to exist, and I have to wait billions of years for organisms to turn into worms, worms into fish, fish into amphibians, and so on until the first human walks up straight. Compared to me, this human is an idiot, so I wait a few more thousand years before I can discuss the wonders of the wheel, or before I can try to convince the natives that the sun is not a god but an exploding ball of helium. But I’ve lived through the atomic bomb and nanotechnology, so these topics are not stimulating. No subject can cloud the fact that civilization always advances to a crumbling point regardless of how many iterations I experience.

Pondering eternity makes me think outside of myself. It’s as if I were not a human but a neutral presence. I hover above my head. I soar past the stratosphere and sit in silence. I look at Earth and challenge the rules of the game: If I were to craft a universe, why would I make creatures that must kill and consume each other to survive? Why not strictly create beings that feed from the sun? Why is life so short for these beings I created? Why generate so much space if its inhabitants can’t explore it? Why do I want a universe? Don’t I have better things to do?

I’m thinking of writing a story where the characters struggle with these questions. It wouldn’t need much plot or characterization. It’d be philosophical, the kind where you have to fill in the blanks. I pitch my idea to a friend, and he tells me, “These are good questions, but frankly, I don’t care. All I care about is that tomorrow I have to take my kid to school at eight, and it’s already two am. Do you want another drink? I’m having one more.”

Edward Hopper; Chop Suey, 1929.

My friend, this guy whose kid is often tardy, runs a catering business. He’s been growing his company since he graduated from university. That’s what he’s been doing for twenty years, and he’s going to be dead soon. As I hover in space and look at the planets and the suns, I wonder, What’s the difference between my friend and a starfish?

I have crossed that barrier where I don’t celebrate my birthday anymore. I tell myself birthdays merely register the completion of another trip around the sun. Hooray? The truth is that they have become a reminder of deterioration and loss. I’ll probably die before I turn one hundred, but say I live to two-hundred. Or five hundred. Hell, let’s assume I get to live one thousand years. I’ll still be dead for eternity, and eternity is way more than one thousand. My influence on Earth, regardless of how strong, will have an unexceptional value because whatever I do will be wiped out by time. But here’s the kicker: I’m coded with an ego that keeps me at the center of my story. It runs a script in the background which keeps telling me that I matter. It’s irrelevant whether the claim is valid. That script keeps me going while the rest of my hardware breaks down.

What’s weird is that this paradox can inhabit my mind peacefully, which means that the script in the background only cares about logic as long as it feeds my desire to survive. That seems to be the only purpose of truth.

I perceive time linearly, then in cycles, and every cycle adds a degree of anxiety. To alleviate the angst, I generate forward movement. I call it growth, progress. I’m all about growth these days. And progress. I keep saying that if my career progresses, then my time will have value. If I keep doing what I love, if I continue to write, if I get to build a steady readership, if I build the right relationships, if I build and build and build, then my anxiety will subside. This feeling of incompleteness is what keeps beings alive, so I doubt it’ll go away.

I want my writing to matter to others. I don’t know why I need validation. It’s my ego playing tricks. My ego inserts another script and plays a scenario for me: I sit across a publisher/producer to discuss the success of my stories. She likes them and wants more. We consider future projects. I tell her about my new production: it’s about a conversation between two people: Person A and Person B. They have coffee. Person A convinces Person B that we live inside a simulation, that there’s a “real” world in another dimension with different rules. Better rules. Once Person B believes this, he wonders if he could live in the “real” world. Person A says that the passage is only possible through death.

“This is like Inception meets The Matrix?” she asks.
“More like Christianity.” 
“Why don’t these characters have proper names? Where does this take place?”
“It doesn’t matter. It’s just two people talking.”
“The audience needs to relate to these people. We need to cheer for the hero,” she says.
“There are no heroes.”
“So, what’s the twist?”
“The twist is that Person B decides not to kill himself. He chooses to stay in the simulation and forgo the so-called real world.”
“Why stay in the simulation?”
“Perhaps Person B is hedging his bet: he is going to die anyway, so why rush it? Perhaps deep down he knows the “real” world is something Person A made up as a result of his fear of dying.”
“What happens to Person B?”
“He gets a job, gets married, has a family, then dies of pancreatic cancer at the age of 58. As the years pass, some remember him vaguely until they, too, die.”
“I don’t get it. Where’s the action, the drama, I don’t know, where’s the appeal to our hopes and dreams?”
“Exactly. Where are they? You tell me.”
“This story lacks forward movement.”
“Forward movement? We’re standing on a rock, going in circles around the sun over and over again, until one day the ride stops. I don’t know what else to tell you.”

Edward Hopper; Automat, 1927.

I hover down from space and return to my body. I open my eyes and stare at the blank page. I’m thinking of a story between two people. They are having coffee. This story will be devoid of the phoniness writers add to make the story feel “real.” The characterization will be kept to a minimum because we’ve seen humans before. We all have likes and dislikes. We’ve all lost someone. We are all in some degree of pain. We are incomplete. Where does the story take place? On Earth. Considering the size of the universe, that’s specific enough. Is it raining? Is it winter? Is anyone getting divorced? Anyone committing suicide?

Why would you kill yourself? You’ll be dead for the rest of time.

I wonder if people will be patient; if they’ll give it a chance. Maybe nobody will read it, and I’ll have to change jobs. I’ll have to start from scratch. Or perhaps I’ll keep writing. If I don’t matter and my work does not matter, at the very least that means I’m free and I can do whatever I want.

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