God Bless Us All
by Taylor Gould
The Montreal Review, January 2010
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When I arrive at class, they've already begun. I open the door and the professor looks at me, takes my name, and asks me to sit down.
"Today," he begins, "we venture into the woes of an existential depression. Do any of you know what that means?" A few kids raise their hands-half of them have the confidence of knowledge on their faces, the others the instability of lies, "Well, for those of you who don't, I'll ask you this one, very rhetorical-so don't fucking answer-this one question: Who are you?"
The class is silent as some people ponder, some people sit and stare, and others chew their gum with their shoes tied tightly, their feet firmly on the ground, and their heads screwed well onto their necks.
"It's this question-who are you?-that sparked a worldwide movement; from Venice, Italy, to Little Italy, Florida, at one point or another, the question was asked: Who am I?
"See, in fascist Italy during World War I, nothing was taken for granted. Your home, your job, your family, your life-it could all be taken from you so quickly you wouldn't even have noticed it was gone.
"Now, imagine every morning you wake up and look out the window to see two tall buildings and an oak tree. Don't ask me why it's an oak tree. for all you know I have some oak tree fetish, and none of us want to talk about that, do we? No. So, every morning, buildings, tree, yada yada, and it's the first thing you see in the morning. Now, let's imagine, also, that this was the house you had grown up in-since birth. When your parents died, they left it to you and, for the sake of the story, you stayed there, raising your family in the same house you were raised in. Let's imagine one morning, you wake up and open the blinds and surprise! You see two piles of rubble and a stump.
"This was common in fascist Italy during W-W-One. The thought process was; if these things-much greater than I-can be razed so easily, so effortlessly destroyed and, eventually, forgotten, what is to become of me? What am I here for? Who am I, and what is the significance of self? So again, I ask you, less in rhetoric this time: who are you?"
There's silence again. More people thinking, more people staring, and one boy in particular with his hands behind his head: feet firmly on the ground, shoes tight tightly, head screwed on. He says, "I'm Ian."
There are a few laughs that dissipate quickly as the professor shoots him an icy glare. "Well, Ian, I'm glad you've got such a formidable concept of self, but can I ask you. Who-or, what-is Ian ?"
"He's a human."
"Thank you very much, Mr. Fucking Literal, but what is a human?"
"A very confused, bipedal creature God put here, et cetera, et cetera. Mr. Shipps, I assume you've heard the story."
"Well first of all, Ian, I didn't go through all those years of college to be a mister, so please, have some respect in that regard. But second, I mean it, really, who is Ian ? What is Ian's significance?"
"I don't think we can know our significance until it's unfolded. God has a plan for everyone."
A girl raises her hand and begins speaking before she's called on. "But, Ian, what about stillborn babies? Or people who commit suicide?"
"They go to hell."
"Yes," she begins, "but, was that God's plan for them?"
"Thy kingdom come, thy will be done."
"Asshole." She says under her breath.
I can't leave it alone now, I can't let this kid say that kind of shit. I cut Professor Shipps off mid-sentence, "Ian-sorry professor, I have to say this-Ian, what about you? What about heaven and hell, and you? Where are you going?"
"Well, heaven I'd like to think."
"Well, great, but don't you smoke cigarettes? Don't you smoke weed? And, I mean, correct me if I'm wrong, but rumor has it you fucked Christie in the shower when you were drunk last Thursday. I think, and again, correct me if I'm wrong, that those sorts of things are a one way ticket to Hell, right?"
"Listen, man, I get it-you're an atheist, you hate Christians. Hate isn't the way to go."
"No, I hate Christians like you, Ian. The ones who don't keep their fucking mouths shut. If there's a god, Ian, and he's sitting up there crafting some immaculate plan for all of us, then why are we killing ourselves? Why are we killing each other? And I'm sorry, but if you think it's God's divine will that puts nooses around necks, then you're out of your mind. You're out of your mind, or the God we've got working on our behalf is just as sadistic and fucked up as the rest of us."
"I'm sure you'll feel that way when you're on your death bed, then, right?" Ian replies.
I've been on my deathbed for a year and a half now, Ian, and every day I sleep here I hate your god a little more , I say in my head.
And the class resumes as nothing had happened. As if I was not even there. As if I had never spoken.
"And what would that have meant," Abramson asked me, "to let him know he wasn't alone?"
"Well, isn't that why anyone does something like. what he did? Because they're alone? Because no one cares?"
"I don't know," he replied, "you tell me. Why did you try and harm yourself, especially after what happened with John, with knowing how much hurt it causes people?"
"At some point, I guess you have to look out for yourself."
"That seems a little. contradictory, don't you think? Look out for yourself by trying to kill yourself?"
"No, not at all."
And there is thick silence, where I comprehend the falsehoods of what I said, and Doctor Abramson comprehends the truths.
"And Abigail, what about Abigail? How does she feel about the things you've tried to do to yourself?"
"It hurts her. She knows the position she's in, it's delicate. It's right where I was with John, and she, I don't know, sees me slipping away the same I way I saw him slipping away."
"And does that scare her?"
"It scares the hell out of her. Jesus, it scares the hell out of me."
"You think you're. on the wrong path?"
"It's not a path anymore, not at all. We choose the paths we take. I've come to a precipice, and I'm sliding down its side a little further every day."
Things are calm for a Friday evening. I can hear the sound of a saxophone playing faintly down the hall. Someone knocks on my door.
"Come in," I say, "it's open."
A round-faced girl with freckles from her right cheek, over the bridge of her nose, and to the left cheek enters the room. She's pale with red hair, and the green shirt she has on makes me think of leprechauns.
"Are you the guy who hooked up with Renee?"
"Well. I mean, yeah, that's me."
And she takes two round-faced, redheaded, leprechaun steps toward me and slaps me in the mouth.
"Asshole," she says, and she turns and walks, round-faced, redheaded, and triumphant, away.
"Then how do you, in keeping with that metaphor, climb back?" he asked.
"You grab the hands that reach to pull you up," I replied.
"And are they reaching for you?"
"And are you grabbing?"
I'm at work when I get the call from my sister. I pick up the phone to the sound of harried, but excited, breathing, and the sound of girls talking like girls talk when girls get together to talk.
"Joe asked me to marry him today! Can you believe it? A one karat diamond with garnet all around it. How. Amazing. Is. That?" And I hear more of her friends gushing and swooning in the background. They sound like a pack of geese being hit by an 18-wheeler.
"That's really awesome, Jess. I'm really happy for you."
"Yeah, you totally sound excited."
"Sorry. I'm at work."
"Jesus, come on, can't you just think of someone other than yourself? Once? I'm engaged , can't you be happy for me?"
"God, Jess, I'm happy for you. Sorry if I don't drop the phone and do fucking cartwheels. I'm at work, alright? Congratulations. I have to go."
And I hang up.
The process of alienating yourself is an amazing thing. One can be everything to no one and nothing to everyone if they want. If they want, they can be everything to everyone and nothing to themselves. They can have a family whose love has pocketfuls of fear, resentment, and sorrow. If one so desires, they can be nothing to no one and no one to everything. They can pull the hood of life down over their eyes and walk with their face obscured by the shadow of doubt. The process of alienating yourself, I've found, is-
"Hey!" my supervisor says as he leans down over my desk, his loosened necktie and unbuttoned collar exposing his tan, hairy chest, "you all good on those press releases?"
"No, not yet, I-"
"Well, I need them. Today. Those have to get done before you leave," he smiles, always, even when he's chewing ass, "you better get your work ethic in motion, 'kay? Or I'll be on the lookout for someone who already has."
-a very taxing, amazing thing. I flip him the bird as he walks off. As the thought of being alone begins to stick to me like wet saran wrap, my cell goes off again. I pull my phone out to find a text from Paige, one of the geese, my sister's friend.
"Ur such an asshole. Ur sister is cryin now. She called u 1st and u blew her off."
I stare at the text for a moment, thinking. She called me first? And I feel, for the first time, what it's like to shed a tear directly from my bleeding heart.
The stall door shuts itself behind me as I sit down on the toilet with my face in my hands, pushing my thumbs, hard, into my eye sockets. Snot runs out my nose and down over my lips like I've hit a button or turned on a faucet, my face is red and blotchy. I take a deep breath and clear my throat before getting up to wash my face and wipe away the tears.
As I splash my cheeks with water and look up at the mirror, I think of my family. I think of my life. And I think of class the other night.:
"The thought process was; if these things-much greater than I-can be razed so easily, so effortlessly destroyed and, eventually, forgotten, what is to become of me? What am I here for? Who am I, and what is the significance of self. So again, I ask you, less in rhetoric this time: who are you?"
I have ruined many great things. I have razed, like war, cities and lives and loves and hearts, libidos and capacities to care. I have ruined many great things, but to see this-Family-falling before me. I have to question, who am I that could allow this to happen?
I call her back, but there's no answer.
And I feel, for the first time, what it's like to shed a tear directly from my bleeding heart.
He looked at me for a moment, calculating his next step. He waited, it seemed, just long enough to start over, start anew with a different subject.
"Tell me about Abigail." He said.
"She's." I thought, hard, what was she to me at that time? "She's beautiful, and caring, and compassionate. and she hurts, a lot, for me and for her family and for her own life. I'm selfish," I said.
"Why are you selfish?"
"Because she's got pain, too. I feel awful. I feel stupid, and selfish, and. well, I guess that's it. Stupid and selfish. Stupid because I know I'm making things worse for her."
"Because I know it, and I can't stop."
"Have you ever thought that maybe she helps you because it helps her? Caring for you can help her fight through things in her own life?"
"God damn, I hope so, but. I just find that hard to believe."
"Then what? What do you believe?"
"That I don't deserve the love she gives me if I don't have the capacity to give that love back."
"With all due respect, and you know yourself better than I know you," he began, "the only passion I ever see in your eyes comes when we talk about your writing, or your girlfriend. I believe you love her very much."
"And that's. that's a problem."
"Why would it be a problem?"
"Because I'm leaving. I'm going away. To college. I'm going to have to leave it all behind."
"That's not necessarily true," he said, "greater distances have been conquered."
"But not greater minds, not greater hearts. Not greater hurts."
I arrive back at the dorms around 6:15pm, a mess of exhaustion, stress, sorrow, and business-casual. I wait for the elevators next to a girl with a beautiful face, but big legs and small boobs. I think she's beautiful and I don't know why.
She looks at me and says "Fuck waiting for elevators." And I am smitten.
She disappears into one as I stay behind.
Fuck waiting for elevators.
I grab the next one that comes and take it to my floor, exiting only to see big-legged, small-boobed beauty and smelling just the scent of something vanilla/lavender. "Hey!" I shout, she turns around, a little surprised, taken off-guard.
"Oh, hey," she responds, "I was wondering if you'd ever make it up here, y'know, what with not getting on elevators when they come and all. You live on this floor?"
"Yeah, I'm in-well, I'm right there," and I point to my place of living. It's small and has a "TEAM UP AGAINST DRUGS" ribbon hanging that my roommate had put up.
She says, "cool," and disappears into her room before I can even memorize which one it is.
I stand in the hallway for a minute and my stomach growls. I decide I'll go down to the dining hall, but before I do, I go back to my room, change into sweats and grab a sticky note. I leave it on her door with a poem written on it:
"In a world that smacks of stones and sticks,
with bones that breaks and joints that click,
all it takes is one good kiss
to make me love my lucky lips."
It's not Cummings, but it'll do for now, I suppose. I push the button to call the elevator, the LED display says it's on the third floor. I realize she could come out of her room, see the sticky, see me, and I will be vulnerable and look like a moron. My insides churn bile and fire and embarrassment as I waffle over taking the note off her door or just hoping to gods I don't believe in that the elevator will come quickly.
The thought is interrupted by the sound of a door opening, a mumbling of confusion, the sound of silence (the sound of reading), and then a face appears from a doorway.
"Did you leave this?"
"No." I lie, "Yes."
"That's fucking creepy."
Seriously? Fuck waiting for elevators.
"Then, what will become of it, do you think? What will become of you if you don't have her support?"
"God, I. I have no idea." I said, "it could be anything. I could be anything."
"Well, what seems most likely?"
"Well, dead. Either in a literal sense, or just. dead to the world. I know if I don't have her then. well, I. I'll hurt. I'll soak up love from every girl who offers it to me, and I'll give nothing back."
"Because I need it."
"Why?" he repeated, "Why do you need that love?"
"Because." and there was a long hold in the conversation, where all the reasons I needed love surfaced in my mind. I decided, finally, after all that thought, on the reason, "because John didn't have that love. He was alone. If I'm alone, I'll be right where he was: dangling from the rafters of a college dorm."
I wake up that morning at 2am with blood that begs for blistering burns. I feel John in my veins.
I met him playing baseball, before things were complicated and pubescent and disgusting and angry, and angry, and angry. I met him playing baseball, and to me, John is all of these things:
Broken truck doors
Blind characters in improv scenes
Fifty pound hay bails
Girls with diabetes
I make the list in my head, recounting everything I knew about him, and none of it sounds like a guy who'd hang himself in his college dorm. There was one particular exchange I remember.
We were drunk at a pool party at my friend Jordan's house. We had all been drinking vodka, but John brought his own bottle of Jameson. We were all stripped down to our underwear-girls, too-and John walked up to me with a massive erection.
"There are tits. Everywhere." He said, "I would like to own a pair."
"They are fantastic things, tits, you're right," I replied, "just. buy a pair to carry around with you all the time."
"Take 'em out of your pocket and put 'em in your mouth, or just squeeze them," he said, tilting his head upward to imagine the possibilities.
"What a wonderful world that would be."
"I think they sell them in vending machines in Japan, actually."
"Shit. if only treading thousands of miles of ocean were easier. I'd swim there right now," I said.
"I'm gonna do it!" he said, and he grabbed his keys from his jean pockets and sprinted out the door.
"John!" I called after him, "You're hammered, man, swim there in the morning! Come back inside."
"Nope! I'm driving to the coast and swimming to Japan!"
"Dude, you try to drive like this and you'll fucking kill yourself."
And this is where memory is repressed, where something nicely Freudian has happened and that particular part of my memory is so hard to remember. This is where it gets blurry, hazy, where I think I must not remember because I was drunk or it was a long time ago or I probably didn't even hear him , but someplace, deep down, someplace nicely Freudian, there is a piece of me that thinks-knows-wonders-hopes-to-all-the-beautiful-things-in-the-world-it-didn't-happen-like-this:
He said, "That doesn't sound too bad."
And he put the keys in the ignition, turned on his truck, and drove away.
I don't feel okay thinking this. I sit there with blood that begs for blistering burns. I feel him in my veins. I pick my lighter up off the bureau and flick it so a nice blue-into-orange light comes out of it, distorting the background for millimeters around the flame. I hold it there like this, contemplating how hot to make it, how much will it take to shut this off.
I hold the fluid release down for what seems like a minute, but may've been fifteen seconds, and I quickly-before cooling can happen-hold it onto my left wrist.
And the last thing I hear is the sound of someone gasping for air, someone in great pain, someone escaping something.
Then it's silence.
One, two, three, four, I count, five, six, seven, eight, and I'm back to reality.
This will blister in the morning and will split and pus tomorrow afternoon. It will be red and engorged for five days. Then it will start to fade away, leaving only a maroon-then-red-then-pink scar behind, and time will help you forget your pain-even the pain you have caused yourself.
Someone knocks on my door and I stuff my hand in my pocket and open it up. I must have forgotten to wipe the tears from my bloodshot eyes, as the person standing there looks at me through two beautiful brown eyes inside a head on a neck that's attached to a chest with small boobs that leads to a stomach that's a little bigger than average and legs that are large and unattractive. She is beautiful and ugly and frumpy and I would like her to take my head into that tiny bosom of hers and tell me everything is fine, it's not my fault, and that all John really said was "You're right, I'll come inside."
I see in her right eye a man who was once a boy, and that boy got out of the truck and put down the whiskey for awhile and told people how he was feeling. I see in her left a man who was a boy who never had to learn why dress shirts, ties, and black pants can be the saddest clothes in the world. I see these two men who grew up right, and the real boys behind them. The one who never got to grow up into that man, and the one that had to grow up so much faster than he wishes he'd had to.
"I just," I grumble, and I wrap my arms around her. She doesn't push me away, but her hands hang limply to the side for a moment. It's five beautiful seconds before I feel her stroking my hair, feel the wetness of tears I didn't know I was crying against my cheek as they soak into her shirt, feel like I am home again. A boy who never had to grow up, who never had to say that I just, "need somebody."
"Do you really think that," asked Doctor Abramson, "do you really think without love, without company, that you'd kill yourself?"
"I don't know for sure," I replied, "I can't know for sure. But we'll see."
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Walking away for somewhere (32 x 40 in. Oil on canvas) by Daniel Ross.
"My art has, and continues, to search for ways to express how I feel at particular moments in my life. And, if I'm successful in this attempt, I understand those moments better. Furthermore my work is an expression of personal vision dealing heavily with various emotions, personalities and interpretations of self, whether good or bad."
Dan Ross's works can be purchased at Gallerie D'Avignon (102, avenue Laurier Ouest, Montreal, Qc, Canada, H2T 2N7, Tel. 514.278.4777