By Makella Brems
Reprinted from Shake It Up, 2018
To maintain that one’s own life is paramount in a city of 8.5 million people requires an exercise in extreme pretending. The affront to the ego begins as soon as you step out of your apartment on a weekday morning. Off to work! Very important business to attend to! I am important! I am important! I am import-umph! You bump into the line of commuters dressed in the same ill-fitting slacks (mine don’t fit like that, right?), all shuffling down the stairs into the train station.
You put in your headphones as you wait for the train and listen to an educational podcast, something that advances your worldly knowledge. Certainly no one else waiting for the train is using their time so wisely. You are a go-getter.
The train pulls into the station and stops so that the subway car doors line up perfectly with where you’re standing. Ha! You hold the power! The doors open and commuters barrel their way in, under, over, and through you. You are pushed onto the train and into a cramped corner. You missed what the podcast guest, a former ambassador to…where was it? Somewhere in the Middle East? … was predicting about how increased tariffs would undo progress made by years of cautious diplomacy.
You look around at the other commuters. There are young ones like you, with wireless apple headphones, nodding and smirking to themselves periodically, making you realize that they, too, are listening to educational podcasts. They sport large watches and exude “promise”. Their bosses might say about him, “He is going places.”
Then there are old ones. These are sad grown-ups – beyond grown-ups, they are on their way growing down, shrinking into old age – whose faces tell you that pretending is a futile exercise. Their dull, tired eyes tell you to accept the mindless repetition. Accept mediocrity. Accept nothingness. You try to ignore them.
You get off the train and ascend into a cross-current of business men and women making haste and talking loudly into iPhones that are looking every day more like iPads. “We need the slide deck for Q1 before 10am, Grace. I slacked you about this two days ago!” “The Eco Global campaign is definitely the way to position ourselves with the new target market.” “I don’t have the bandwidth for this, and you know that! Take it up with Sean.” “I’ll loop you into the call with Unestic so you can draft up some deliverables for product.” Any committed pretender knows that part of the game is learning the pretend language. Then you can all pretend together.
You suddenly get the urge to scream very loudly, but you dig the nail of your pointer finger into your thumb instead. The pressure of your fingers distracts from your surroundings. You feel yourself in that far off place, the one that first came only as a vague image of warm light refracting off water and hands crusted with dirt. But each time you think of it, the place builds out more of a scene in your mind.
You are sun-baked. Your hair is thick and coarse with salt and sand, or maybe it is the silt from a river. You are strong. You are tired. It is the good kind of tired where your body sinks heavy into whatever surface it lies on and slips away into deep rest through the heat of the afternoon. You are far from where you came, but you do not feel alone.
“Where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.”
You know that if you don’t answer the call, you will become so good at pretending that you forget you are pretending at all. You will have wasted your most precious gift, and slowly, painfully, you will waste away.
Makella is a 25-year-old with lots of change behind and ahead of her. Her time so far in New York City has challenged her in every way, and she is better for it. Embarking on her next adventure, she will be heading to South Bend in the fall to begin earning her PhD.