Your routine hasn’t changed in twelve years. This length of time—twelve years—distresses you. Twelve years of riding the same train to work, hands crossed over the lap, swaying quietly like a monk without beer or belief, lights splaying eyelash shadows on the ashen walls of the passenger cars. Twelve years eating the same lunches. Sandwich on Monday. Korean on Tuesday. Indian on Wednesday (extra antacid on Wednesday). Ramen on Thursday. Pho on Friday. Hitting all the continents. Your only form of travel in twelve years. Screensavers of the Taj Mahal, of broad skies, of circuit boards from the nineties. Twelve years. Twelve years with the same boss, the one who vaguely cares about you, in that cold corporate way, as if he read about it in a book about twelve years ago. His hand on your upper back while he peers over your shoulder at an email. At a diagram you cobbled together. An encouraging (but not too encouraging) smile. Cursing when appropriate. You Millenials curse more than your predecessors, they say. Average focal reviews. Average cost-of-living increase. Twelve years of mediocrity.
Five minutes every hour reading punchy headlines on your second screen. Another fifteen in the afternoon watching YouTube video on the toilet. Hemorrhoids. Hemorrhoid creams. The healthiest positions (squatting) for bowel movements. Gym selfies by women in leggings with those vaguely sexy sheer strips at the calves. The latest blood thinning medicine. A taco made of chicken skins. Activists using words like emolument and rhetoric. You feel unspecific outrage, which is the best kind of outrage because you don’t actually have to do anything about it. You’ll never guess what Jennifer Lopez is up to. Twelve years and Jennifer Lopez is still around, a static reference point leaving you frozen like Sylvester Stallone in Demolition Man. Jennifer Lopez since your first sexual awakening before it went back to sleep. Stuck in your twenties, though you aren’t. Those days are long gone but nothing’s really happened in the interim so maybe they haven’t. Twelve years of not much happening other than that one trip to Panama but you don’t even yearn for it anymore. That’s when memories die: when yearning fades. Twelve years of nebulous observations about the nature of memories and brain function. Twelve years of self-importance.
Twelve years of watching men in regular-looking jackets step in front of the train after work. Seven men, in total. Seven men in twelve years stepping casually off the platform, as if they’d forgotten something on the tracks, as if they had an appointment between the rails. Each one normalizing the not being. Twelve years of the morbid turning mundane until not even brain matter blotting out the headlines of a train engine will evoke a reaction. At least you have good skin. They always say, Where are your laugh lines? Your worry lines? You have, like, no wrinkles. And you want to explain that this is because the last time you laughed or worried was some time back in the nineties. Twelve years without provocation. Twelve years of watching the painted yellow rubber that demarcates the lip of the platform, scuffling along, watching blind men step carefully along its edge.
Twelve years, three romances, if you can call them that. The first you met at a bookstore; you started talking about the book they were holding and later went and got coffee (which they paid for) and two beers (which you paid for). You mistook your feelings about the book, a novel in which a man walks along a road observing the swaying of trees, as affection for the person holding the book. The second you met on an online dating site. They asked you to choke them on a second date and you sidled out of their apartment, unable to look at your hands for weeks. The last was a coworker—they’d gotten too drunk and mistook you for someone else. Two kisses before your anise toothpaste corrected the mistake. Twelve years of people mistaking you for someone else. You have that face, they say. That kind of face. That projector screen face. Generous dollop of nose and ears, not much else. Causes face recognition software to crash sort of face. Stand before the mirror pulling nose hair in silence sort of face. Twelve years of pulling nose hairs and staring in silence.
You’ve read so many self-help books, the titles meld in your mind. Ten Habits of Successful People. How to Induce Change. Why Your Mother is Responsible for Your Various Hurts. Yearning: A Lesson in Futility. Twelve years of living in potential, a potion of potentialities. Vision boards, pasted with fast cars and beautiful models, cluttering your bedroom. Not much art, otherwise. A sketch pinned to a bare fridge from when you took that figure drawing class because you wanted to see the naked bodies of strangers, like it might invoke something in you. It didn’t, beyond an adolescent pining. Twelve years of imagining your life as a poet, a pilot, a philanthropist. Maybe even a philanderer. Or both. A philandering philanthropist. Yachts and impassioned speeches. Impassioned speeches on yachts. Listening to George Gershwin every night, imagining the complex power of the human mind, cowering from your own inadequacy, hearing the churning of locomotives like George must have all those years ago. Twelve years of yearning and listening for the churning of steam engines.
Twelve years of waiting for an inciting incident. Twelve years of reading novels and seeking narrative in the mundane, of attempting to take note of threads pulled from pilfered rugs. The addicts on the corner sway to their own song and you can’t help but see yourself, Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin tormented by his dark double. Twelve years of looking over your shoulder and seeing nothing but shadows and hastily-scrawled to-do lists. You hear your name on addicts’ lips, wondering at their pilfering abilities, how you might survive tomorrow if you were laid off. What drugs you might adopt to numb the way your mechanized hands have been doing for twelve years. How many blood clots, how many varicose veins, how swollen your ankles in your unstrapped boots.
You continue to ride the train because you sense there is satisfaction just beyond your reach: you see it in strangers gesticulating finger-heavy about the latest buzzing device, that innovative technology for bridges we’ve yet to find the budget for. You hear it in a conversation in Portuguese, a reminder that emphatic is a feeling not reserved for men with rifles. You feel okay with your boss, his fingers on your shoulder, because at least he’s trying. There is no guidebook to being human. If there was, it would contain one artist rendering of a cat and a caption that reads, stop hiding under the bed. You get a promotion, the word Senior prefixed to your existing title, and your ego swells for a moment to the size of the train car, until a twenty-three-year-old with a clever logo of Robin Hood tattooed on her forearm shows up with a Tesla and a feeling of having helped improve outcomes for the underprivileged. Self-flagellating congratulations the last blastoff before an easy life of two-car garages and an adoration for collecting wine cellars. You see your future, twelve years from now, the same as today. You can’t climb up the water slide of your past decisions.
Twelve years of jargon, the first vestige of job security. Expressions like circle back and workflow clutter your mind like so many songs your mind has memorized, unrequited terms that will not love you back, that will never have your back. Twelve years of slipping into capitalism’s seams because you were never taught another way of being. Perhaps you will one day be the propagator, the proselytizing Trump-lover who beats his chest and proclaims mine and this too could be you. That’s the way it works: a hoarding selfishness, marbles gathered in your grandmother’s bowl, a stolen bill you slipped in your self-righteous pocket. Just desserts. Twelve years of exactly what you get.