When you wake up for the first time, everything is soft. Your bones, your skin, the blanket that surrounds you. Your retinas are soft, so the images transmitted through them are also soft— blurred and weak, cornerless and watered-down. You can barely hear, what with your soft, underdeveloped eardrums. Most importantly, everyone treats you with care because of how soft you are: you get whispers, gentle caresses, pastels, terrycloth. It is an easy, comfortable way to live. For a while, you are the only thing that matters.
In time, you learn pain, hunger, and despair. You roll over on a hard surface and bump your head. You get rashes, intestinal gas, and a runny nose. It isn’t all bad, though. You smile and laugh, and you learn the boring pleasure of a full stomach—a boring pleasure that will drive many decisions you end up making in life. As will a particular expression of happy pride that sometimes appears on the faces that surround you, whether they’re faces you know or faces you don’t. That’s another thing. You start to recognize faces. A face can mean everything or it can mean nothing, which is something you don’t consider nearly as often as you should.
You grow larger and go to school. Everything gets a little bit sharper. You draw and run and hide and cry and scrape your knee and learn to read. The other kids, your teachers, your parents: they all tell you what is right and what’s wrong. And you believe what they say, every scrap. The idea of being good, and that particular expression of happy pride, become your goal. You start to think you might actually be the best there ever was, the best there ever will be.
One night, you go to the movies with your mom and dad, and when two grown-ups on screen get together and act like jungle animals, a sweet, guilty warmth appears out of nowhere at the bottom of your stomach and spreads throughout your body. You never tell anyone. The kids at school get mean for no reason. They tell you to stop whining and eat more vegetables and read harder books. And you listen, you believe what they say, every scrap. You learn what it means to be fat, why it is bad to be fat, and begin to fear that you are. In front of the mirror, or at night in bed, you grab the handles around your waist and fantasize about cleaving them off. You feel most at peace when you’re suspended in chlorine water, eating pasta, or reading a book in your parents’ enormous, warm-sheeted bed.
Your parents split up and your friends get boyfriends and girlfriends. Big changes seem to be happening all around you but you somehow remain still, like a marble frozen inside a cup of Jell-O. You learn about consequences. Sometimes they come as a result of something bad, like stealing from the store or skipping school. Other times they just exist regardless. This test has consequences. This application has consequences. This track meet has consequences. You start running track because you don’t want to be fat. You tell everyone how much you love running but it’s a lie. Running is painful and tiring, and competing makes you more uncomfortable than just about anything.
You move to a new city and that Jell-O begins to fall apart. You finally grasp how little you matter. It’s a good thing to learn, but it hurts in the beginning. You grasp it when you take public transportation, go to a concert, and count the other people shopping in the grocery store. There are so many other people. And when things get difficult—when you feel you’re less intelligent, less motivated, and less attractive than pretty much everyone—you think not only would it not matter if you died, but that it might actually be a good thing. Still, you never follow the steps that would remove you from the living world. You’re a good kid, people say, even though you’re not really a kid anymore. You try to believe it. You study and you don’t have sex or drink alcohol. You help those who are younger and poorer than you are, as long as it doesn’t take up too much of your time. But if you’re honest, the only reason you haven’t tried to kill yourself is that you’re afraid of how it might feel—in your throat, in your head, in your slowed-down heart.
You find a job. It’s easy but boring and it makes no difference whether you’re great at it or terrible. You are not changing the world. You start to drink and have sex because you need something to worry about. Some mornings you wake up after a particularly long night and feel like a pile of garbage. But other times, when you’re lucky, you get to enjoy those delicious expressions of happy pride. You see them when you do the absolute minimum at work, when you stare down the pupils of someone immediately after sleeping with them. You often wonder if everyone cares as much about that expression, needs it, as much as you do.
Your decision to go back to school is a risky one, but you think it will be good to do something different. To shake things up. Besides, you didn’t know your calling back then. Now you do. That’s what you say, anyway. What you don’t say is that the best part is not learning or teaching or becoming an expert. The best part is telling them: you got into school, you’re going to school, you’re almost done with school. They are all so proud. They are impressed and a little bit jealous. They knew you could do it.
The problem is that everything you love starts to lose taste when consumed in excess. It’s like having too much chocolate or too much perfect weather or too much sleep. When your hobby becomes your entire life, it turns into a chore, a burden, an unpleasant reminder that in this world there is no such thing as true, pure, long-lasting enjoyment.
No one person is perfect for any other person. Two people were not, are not, and never will be made for each other. Aside from solutions to mathematical equations, perfection doesn’t exist. So when you get married, you do so knowing it won’t always feel quite right. You will at times feel bored, irritated, and full of unhappiness. You will feel like marriage is a never-ending project of improvement and compromise—that each time you clear a hurdle, another one appears before you, larger and trickier and more unwieldy than the last.
It isn’t all bad, though. You like sharing meals and mornings. You like knowing there is someone to call when you feel utterly lost. Sometimes, when you are reading in bed together, or holding hands during a long walk on the first day of spring, your eyes meet and a wave of gratitude, a feeling almost like pain, shudders across your chest. You imagine how your own face looks during these moments and hope its expression brings comfort. You remind yourself every day, every minute: perfection doesn’t exist. Perfection doesn’t exist.
You decide not to have children, and your nonchildren haunt you all of the time. When family, friends, or colleagues ask, you say that you don’t want to bring another person into a world that is so cruel and so full. Full to the gills with other people’s children. You offer casual, throwaway observations about adoption. But the truth, which you would never say out loud, is that you just don’t want to deal with it. None of it. Not the money, the emotions, or the excrement. Your DNA will die with you, and you are relieved knowing that whatever future generations ruin and deplete, it won’t be your fault.
Your nonchildren visit you in your dreams and run across your brain during slow days at work. They are the children you almost had but didn’t, whether they were halted before, during, or after. They are small versions of you with bigger eyes and sweeter dispositions. But sometimes they loathe you. They cry and scream and tell you all of the reasons why they hate being alive. And why are they alive? Because of you. It’s your fault. Perhaps their love is a love unlike any other, but it is a love you will never, ever know because you’d have to give up everything in order to feel it.
There is beauty in giving up. At 40, you give up on being thin. At 50, you give up drinking. It was a crutch that taught you how to speak, but you just don’t need it anymore. At 60, you give up on that slippery, intoxicating expression of happy pride. At best it has made you a slightly kinder person. At worst it drove you to lose yourself in the whims and wants of everyone you met.
At 70, you give up on the lies. You never liked running, you went back to school for the wrong reasons, and you didn’t have children because you’re lazy. At 75, every object, sound, and shade of color feels the sharpest it ever has. Your bed feels sharp against your bones, the light feels sharp against your eyes, and the people you encounter give you sharp, critical glances. Not that they glance at you often. Your shoes cut sharply into the skin of your feet and your headaches, the ones you first began to endure right after you got married, grow sharper every day.
At 80, you wonder what nearly a hundred years on earth has given you. And what you have given it in return. Certain memories play again and again bearing a stamp of significance whose origins you’ll never fully understand. A bald eagle seen out the window on a bus ride to a funeral. The moon at summer camp one night—it was so bright that your body left a shadow on the ground. The glide of a canoe across a thick green lake. The smell of fire, or what fire leaves behind, and the sound of a poorly-tuned guitar. Added up together, it makes you think that you probably should have spent more time outdoors.
At 90, all that previous sharpness dulls to a fuzzy ache. Light doesn’t hurt you anymore, and you’re no longer required to wear sharp shoes. You’re surrounded again by soft cloths and sounds and people. They speak softly and move you gently. When you look around, the images transmitted from your eyes to your brain are blurred and weak, cornerless and watered-down. But when you close your eyes you can imagine whatever you want, and these sights are the boldest, brightest, and most vibrant things you’ve ever seen.
Claire Stamler-Goody is a writer living in Chicago. Her previous work has appeared in TIMBER Journal, Cleaver Magazine, Linden Avenue Lit, and others. She can be found on Twitter @cstamlergoody.