(TW: depression and suicidal ideation)
Enlightenment as described in the yoga sutras isn’t a state of eternal bliss, it’s the ability to decouple the self from all external influence, and, as a result, feel nothing. You’re aiming for no karma, not good karma. Only then can the cycle of reincarnation be broken.
If that idea of enlightenment held any water, given that she couldn’t come up with a way to definitively prove reaching enlightenment is possible, Aileen figured she was close.
She barely felt anything anymore.
Right now, her focus was on the bannister, which although light-colored, had begun to collect individual flecks of dust she could see if she brought her eyes to hand-level and squinted hard enough. It had accumulated to where she couldn’t make out individual particles inside the acute crevice where the handrail met the post. She disturbed them with a sharp puff of breath. The largest dislodged particle was helical, and although it would have been satisfying to see it move like a tiny spring, it instead shot up three times its height and floated an unimpressive half-inch away from its initial position. Blowing it again wouldn’t be worth the effort. The measly half-inch was still probably the most exciting thing to happen to that slinky-looking piece of fluff since her son moved out; a couple weeks ago, it may have been shaken loose by shockwaves of thumping feet or caught in a fingerprint, but now it and thousands of its barely macroscopic peers had taken up permanent residence all up and down the handrail where hands didn’t touch.
It didn’t register to Aileen that the presence of a staircase implied her house had a second story. Her domain had been the porch and study, where the upstairs was used primarily as an art room, then later for toys and toddler beds and dollhouses, later still for homework desks and chemistry sets, places for her son and most of the neighborhood’s teenage girls to sleep, and on one occasion a makeshift bedroom for her closeted spouse during a week she’d rather forget. Nowadays, she made a round through the seven downstairs rooms at least once per day, making sure to use both bathrooms equally so they’d dirty at the same rate. She learned that the echo of her footsteps felt less empty if she stayed on rugs and carpet or wore socks. Sometimes she’d imagine a time-lapse of her cleaning the apartment, so it looked like there were dozens of busy Aileens in every room, but the fantasy always stopped before she ran out of tchotchkes to inspect and planted herself at her writing desk for hours. Doing nothing.
She would tell herself she was going to write and then sit down and pick at her skin and at times her eyes would wander searching for new imperfections on her body or the desk. Sometimes there was something interesting to look at, like a collection of Khalil Gibran poems, but lately she’d had to move all books to the living room. The sight of a book reminded her of a time when she used to be productive, when she could absolutely just beam positivity and preach self-love and self-care to an audience of people who’d maybe gotten out of worse situations than the one Aileen found herself in right now. And then those same people stopped her on the street to rave about how much her book helped them realize it was their fault they were upset, how they couldn’t change the world but they could change the way they saw the world, and that doing so made them happier, better, more productive people in general. She couldn’t understand why she’d felt okay putting her face on those fucking books.
Visualizing what you wanted was one of the ten or so concepts Aileen had made a living off of, one she had spent as many late nights rewording for various target demographics so that the message reached as many people as possible. So what she was trying to do was to take this message to heart, something she thought she’d done in the past but apparently could go further with, anyway she was trying to sit down and have a Ritual in Ceremony Space in which she imagined the directions her life could go and set an intention to direct the flow of her energy towards taking the one that spoke to her the most from fantasy to reality. Option 1 was to spend her adulthood and final days sitting alone at her desk in her clean-but-empty house having a Ceremony Space as she tried to figure out what to do. Option 2 was to marry either Matt or Derrick; Josh was out of the question, even though with that union she’d get back some of the art he stole.
Option 2 seemed to be just outside the peripherals of Aileen’s mind’s eye. She would always start with the wedding, and the wedding went alright, just some sort of basic shit with jars and twine and some fairy lights, foolproof and preplanned so she didn’t have to spend what little energy she had these days on something so transient. Then either Derrick would come home every day and tell Aileen what happened at crossfit or Matt would come home and not tell her what he was thinking. This is where the thought experiment kept turning into an anxiety hypothesis. Certainly there was no shortage of dead men for either suitor to run off into a fated perfect romance with, but she had no problem envisioning several hundred other ways she could ruin the relationship. Best case, she’d be stuck watching them slowly wither away to nothing.
One good thing had come out of her first marriage—she was confident in her ability to express what love meant for her. She knew enough to know it was nothing like what she felt for Matt or Derrick.
Option 1 or Option 2. Die in a loveless marriage, or die alone.
Aileen had written enough fiction to know where she was in the story: the low point right before the God of the Machine spits out an Option 3, hopefully centered around a tattooed Fabio who hated dust as much as he loved middle-aged single mothers. Option 3 was the one she’d been working on before she realized the same hundred-odd people lived in her world. Of those hundred-odd people, only two were single and remotely dateable. Matt and Derrick. So this Option 3 wasn’t possible in Aileen’s small world, her speck of dust. But there was another Option 3, one she thought about more than Options 1 and 2 combined.
She had the cowplant berries and a monthly pass to a spa with a sauna. Whether these were less painful, or electrocution, or one of the emotional deaths, or being exhausted in the 2×3 swimming pool she had installed to quiet her whims, she hadn’t been able to figure out yet. And it wasn’t like acknowledging it made it go away. She’d be brushing her teeth in the morning and it would pop into her head. Like Kramer. Like clockwork. Option 3.
Another one of Aileen’s golden self-help tips was to always surround yourself with a fantastic support system that Brings You Up instead of Puts You Down. The people that Brought Aileen Up were as impeccably trained in self-help and self-love as Aileen herself, with inhuman natural positivity to boot, and always had time to remind Aileen of the solution she already knew in her heart. The solution was to keep waiting. The solution was to keep waiting, keep envisioning, keep running her fingernail through the microscratches in the glass desk and the wrinkles around her knuckles, keep busy and get out of bed and do cardio and stay hydrated and go outside so you can meet your Fabio, he has to come eventually, he has to, because you have to have faith it’s going to happen.
But there’s not a man alive I haven’t talked to.
You have to keep searching, and if you give up searching, it’ll never happen.
But what if he just doesn’t exist?
You have to have faith that he does and it’ll just happen someday.
Instead of confronting her wonderful support system with people who Bring Her Up with the sad reality that they don’t have any proof this is going to happen, the number of times Option 3, the real one, pops into her head while she’s carrying out the blindingly obvious strategy of waiting and having faith, so simple a kindergartener could come up with it and it’s a miracle that someone experienced like Aileen couldn’t do it on her own, the fact that maybe no one, not even a perfectly executed support system whose Bringing-People-Up abilities have been compared to a genuine stairway to heaven, could come up with a solution because there is none. There’s no Deus Ex. There’s no happy ending. Aileen was a problem who couldn’t be solved.
But it clicked once for Aileen, in the middle of a lecture on how important it is to have hope from a woman who wore harem pants and ear cuffs, the latter of which could double as dread beads in a pinch, who had tan lines from toe rings and whose turquoise jewelry was charmingly, effortlessly authentic and not at all like the mass-produced baubles people bought to look like her, that the message wasn’t for Aileen herself. It was for them. It was for them to believe there’s no problem that couldn’t be fixed through a positive gung-ho attitude, which made it possible for they themselves to sustain that selfsame attitude and continue making the world a brighter place. Aileen’s negative thinking wasn’t serving her, she was a false Scotsman, a downer, she needed to do a training in India, she needed to learn true patience, she needed to let go of her expectations and separate herself from everything.
So she did, the first thing to go being the group whose onslaught of positivity was Putting Her Down. Claudia she kept. Claudia repeated the same platitudes as much as the rest of them combined, which only suggested to Aileen how thin the veneer was, that if Claudia really needed to hear “it gets better” that often, she at least had to be doing as poorly as Aileen. Claudia had a husband who was a Joke Star, besides, she could make it look like an accident and no one would be the wiser.
That’s the other half of why Aileen’s house is empty so often. Some information can’t be communicated by talking, or at all, because it has to be realized by each person individually. Often these are the simplest statements. Be yourself. Empty, until the person who the command is directed at understands what that means. It can take years to know what that means, to be yourself. Understanding that you’re going to die—not intellectually, actually coming to terms with your own death—no matter how knowledgable or virtuous one’s life was, is another such bit of information. Aileen knew her friends weren’t ready to hear that. She didn’t need to remind them that for someone who didn’t believe in reincarnation, the only easy way out was a hard restart, and if she tried that, she wasn’t coming back. She was the unresolvable problem, and she was Putting People Down.
And Aileen knew that, compared to Claudia’s shaky veneer held together with tequila and a prayer, these friends had self-helped themselves into an impenetrable barricade. A whole forest of positivity. A forest that would either be brought down, toothpick by toothpick, or blackened in one spectacular inferno, or perhaps a combination of both, until the beautiful greenery of regeneration and hope vanished and one truth remained. The pain of shared existence.
“Joy bonds people for an instant. Pain bonds them for a lifetime.”
Except as soon as the words appeared in Aileen’s mind, she knew they weren’t true. There was no guarantee. What if two people experience a traumatic event together, but the trauma was the only thing they had in common, and they can barely stand each other when it ends? What if the pain causes irreparable neurological damage?
Aileen spread the sebum around on her face and considered that, maybe, she had been the problem all along. The inevitability of death, of suffering, of uncertainty—words every child knows, like the mandate to Be Yourself, meaningless until given individual meaning—these are universal. So why can’t she go about her day like everyone else?
There was a time she could, as a self-help author. She’d been happier when she was pretending to have the answers. She’d been happier sharing her truth, stomping around in her own barricade with her face on the fucking back cover, again why’d she do that, possibly alienating the people who, like she did now, needed it most and knew none of it was real. That guilt alone made her cringe on a good day, on a bad day sent her back to bed bawling and needing to rid the world of the one self-help author she’d feel no remorse about culling, telling herself to do it before she recovers to spread more divisive mistruths.
But then she had been chosen as the poet of a truth where the action of forming a narrative perverts it. Aileen had tapped into a pain shared by all living beings, marinated in the River Styx. Doomed by a feeling she couldn’t ignore or communicate. She understood the prophet Cassandra, the prophet cursed to deliver prophecies no one would believe, understood that the people who wouldn’t believe Cassandra weren’t fools, and yet Aileen was spared even the smug satisfaction of believing herself.
“Joy bonds people for an instant. Pain bonds them for a lifetime.”
And yet it was untrue, and yet Aileen could point to her baptism in suffering as the one thing she loved about herself. She felt the pain of the calf being lead to slaughter, the butterfly limping at the end of its lifespan, the grass crushed beneath the sole of a shoe. She felt the smoke in the lungs of San Myshuno residents, the bleaching of the Sulani corals, the horror of a Strangervillian losing control of their body. She walked by tombstones and neither ignored nor wept, but nodded in acknowledgment. She understood the people in her support group were connected to the same pain, just as she was to the flora, fauna, and people, no matter how sterilized their lives are, no matter how hard they work to fight it.
There would come a day where it would bubble under the surface no longer, and overflow, making a wretch of the deniers. And then Aileen would listen as she wanted to be listened to, and feel what the speaker felt, and share what she couldn’t.
The thoughts were still there. They were there, but now Aileen thought them with the weeds and the rabbits and the mourners and the lost and the oppressed and the oppressors and her friend in the yellow sweater, and was driven by gratitude, pure artistic compulsion, to awaken this connection when it was needed most. She couldn’t envision fixing the unfixable, but would die trying to express the inexpressible.
But as much as she hated to admit it, it was too empty, the old house. It would be poetic to live alone but honest to acknowledge her physiological needs; having another person around would make her just content enough to keep going.
She pocketed her old engagement ring, went to a bar, pinned two names to a dartboard and took a shot.
Matt it was.
END OF BOOK ONE
Wallbreaking Epilogue: Matt rejected Aileen’s first proposal. You know something’s fucked when even the NPCs know it’s fucked.
Aileen’s real wedding (not the staged one in Grey Wedding) was as low-effort as possible, and it actually did rain. She picked out the eyeball ring herself.
Here’s the link to Grey Wedding if you want to see how some of the lines read with the new context.