Nonfiction reflection is my native genre, my homeland in the world of writing. I started my musings in LiveJournal as a place to collect my teenage thoughts and give them significance. By the time I began “Reverse Exiled”, the impulse to journal was part of my mental machinery. Yet, I never intended for it to be that way. At an early stage, I contemplated leaving my own plot behind. Why I never made the jump is of great import, for me, but probably not of great interest to my audience. What you all need to know is that we are at the fucking mall. Right-the-fuck-now. You can smell pleather at the overpriced belt and hat stand in the middle of the Pentagon City Mall food court. There is actually a stand that sells sports-team themed spatulas but those are hard to smell so it became a belt & hat stand for the sake of your nostrils.
I needed to find a thin place in the universe: a singularly, an anomalous zone where the autobiographical and fictitious dimensions could be close enough to wade from one to the other rather than needing to build a ‘ship’. I never had the rocket-power I needed to reach escape velocity, in Grand Rapids, and jettison from the heavy places I reached (not entirely of my own volition). I wanted an escape: there may be some cold, surreal portal through inter-stellar space hidden in the deep vacuum between galaxies but I turned toward the whirling bulge in the middle and… that is where the singularity is: the black-hole, the rip in space. Not on the whispering shores of Lake Michigan where I long to be but at the damn mall where people rush around the food court, swung to-and-fro by something infinitesimally small and equally massive. I bet it was under that cracked tile next to the Starbucks island — the orbits were most intense in its vicinity.
Making astronomical metaphors is one thing but actually kneading those powerful images into scene takes a higher level of prowess. My Creative Writing classes brought me closer but I was missing a key component: insistence. More than persistence, insistence is the ability to continue producing coarse content with the trust that quality material can be produced. I never gave myself the space, especially emotionally, to do all the bad writing I needed to do in order to produce fiction and poetry — to be a story-teller. I wanted to be a prodigy: accolades on the first attempt.
As I’ll pick-up in later journal entry, I wanted success. I have clung to my technical ability to produce grants, prayers, newsletters, and other defined-products. When I walked into the mall I expected to see a clear picture of rampant materialism that I could deconstruct and critique using experiential lenses. That was the case at first. Then I became uncomfortable: I was losing the mental strength to hold all the stimuli steady — I wanted out but I resisted and started journaling instead. The volatile corners of that world creased and collapsed upon themselves.
Suddenly, I knew how Neil might be feeling. From time to time, over the past few months, I try to think about what Neil is going through right now. Neil spent three months in the West Bank. He’s from the DC-area but he studied civil engineering at a Big-Ten school — imagine trying to make sense of the separation barrier with his background. He is someone who believes that infrastructure should make commerce — and life — better for communities, coming into contact with (as I called it in my New World Outlook article) a ‘titanic millipede chewing through the countryside’. All of that is packed away, though, along with many other emotions. Our minds, Neil’s and mine, are like the neighborhoods and villages we knew, where it took much longer to get from one place to another — from one thought to another, one memory to another — because of physical obstructions, dangerous passages, roads in shambles, and points of unpredictability and/or hassle (check-points).
Having undergone that kind of fragmentation, Neil emerged from a fog in the Pentagon City Mall, just before Christmas. The holiday season was in full tilt and the Starbucks smells like artificial-peppermint-syrup. The mall was built as several white tiers where every floor was a little narrower than the one below it, like a wedding-cake turned inside-out. Neil sweeps his gaze across the spacious atrium, noticing bedazzled teddies in the Victoria’s Secret display window on the second-floor but quickly fixing his eyes on the apple store. From that distance, the panels of animated LED lights looked like fairies — no, they looked like they could be a cybernetic race of lightning-beetles, flying in formation of their own accord to form a reindeer, then an iPod.
He is supposed to be meeting some friends [what are their names? He used to know their names…] but they aren’t where they said they were. They said they were going to be on ground level, beneath an overhang, next to the window-display at a Hallmark store (is there even a Hallmark there? I guess there is…] one floor higher than subway level. Squeezing through the swarms buying their holiday cards, Neil realized that he was critically late to their meeting point. He knew they would not have waited: the search began. He drifted with the flow of the crowd for a minute.
As he turned to walk away, a television monitor glided from the wall and settled on his shoulder.
“The you take the Neil and just give’m a chop chop chop…”
“Oh Holy Fuck!” he gasped, spinning around. By that time, it was almost back to its perch over the door. That really happened. The television speaker was right in our ears, whispering our names. A fit woman is smiling and explaining how to make a ‘delicious’ salad to restore the body after an exercise routine. Obviously, a pitch for overpriced knives being sold in the home-furnishings store below but Neil was impressed. He knew the Mall would be confusing, like the directory where the label for a store would move when he tried to slide his glasses up on the bridge of his nose. The fact that surreal shit would actually begin to happen, really, was something I had not anticipated either. In my case, the television was only a ventriloquist. It never moved, it made my shirt-collar start talking: “…then add some tomatoes to your kale…” He misheard. Kale, not Neil. “—next on our count-down—” chimes the neighboring monitor, “is someone we have not heart from in a few years—”
“Seems like a couple months ago, to me…”
Neil makes his way onto the escalator and notices a short lady with long, wavy hair carrying a zebra-striped purse. He knows he has seen her before but, because he cannot think of her name, he cannot say anything. Will not, really. She is already walking briskly from the top of the escalator toward another corridor, sometimes flickering. You know? A person can flicker a little, as their image passes through so much tumult. It must be true because I just ‘remembered’ it and put it here, without even modifying it. It is an idea. The zebra-purse helped, you know. Zebras flicker a little to make it harder for the lions to track them visually. As long as he was searching for friends, he could be searching for anyone or anything. The woman never appeared again but he was already going down that corridor, fascinated: a tourist, a pilgrim in his own city.
* * *
I don’t truly want to stop before I tell you what happened when he went into Nordstrom. The department stores are a fresh dose of ergot. Eventually, he finds two more Hallmark stores but his friends are actually at… well, I’ll tell you in the book if it ever gets written.
I cannot stress enough how relieved I was to freak-out. All of this time, I thought I might feel ridiculous when I visited the mall and learned that it was composed sensibly and populated by well-adjusted folks but I found none of that. Some people were bound to be well-adjusted, of course, but the mall is an actual hot-bed of para-normality. It was both vindicating and freeing because I did not feel as if I needed to critique the mall and add artificial tints to enhance its features — to fictionalize it. The mall was already so close to being fiction that all I needed to do was not allow myself to become grounded. I refused to change my reference points to adjust to that kind of insanity: I allowed the craziness to dawn on me.