Stephen O’Connor

We Want So Much to Be Ourselves

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Roland’s longing trailed after him as he walked, a sort of dirigible, attached by a silver filament that tugged and tugged without ever lightening his step.

“Why’s that thing always following you around?” his brother asked. “Haven’t you already got everything you could possibly want?”

Roland didn’t bother to argue, not because his brother was right (wasn’t it simple fact that human desire was endlessly replenishable?), but because his brother was a very small man with the jaw of someone twice his size. He walked with his jaw foremost, his shoulders hunched and his elbows back, as if he were being bent nearly to the ground by the burden of all the things he couldn’t have. If anyone were to be followed around by a dirigible of longing, it ought to have been Roland’s brother, but the air above his hunched shoulders was a void. And this seemed sad to Roland, although many things struck him as sad.

What is longing, but joy as a form of pain? An alertness of the whole body to a focal point in the ideal? Or an alertness to life itself, which is nothing, after all, but desire’s endless battle with possibility? Or is it grief in reverse? A sorrow-inflected celebration of something yet to be? Of something, perhaps, on the next train? Or a few blocks down, walking the boulevard with a lost look in its eyes? Or asleep in that sun-gilded field just there, beside the current-braided brook?

Roland’s girlfriend asked him the same question as his brother on numerous occasions, mostly at night, when he would haul the dirigible down out of the sky and tether it to a tree in his back yard. Often the dirigible would shift restlessly in the constant nocturnal rearrangement of the atmosphere, and the soft wumphs of its inflated flanks would sound along the whole length of the bedroom wall. “I don’t know,” he would tell her. “I can’t help it. It’s not like I want it hanging around like this.” He knew, of course, that what she really objected to was that she wasn’t enough all on her own to satisfy his longings. He wanted to tell her that just because in the midst of this perfectly okay world there was (dirigible-shaped, lighter than air) the chance of a better world didn’t mean he loved her any less, but he couldn’t figure out how to say that without insulting her.

His longing was an embarrassment. Everywhere he went, there it was: hovering over roofs and treetops, silent, silver, like an enormous fish, but eyeless and finless, drifting diagonally against the sky. Strangers on the bus would shake their heads ruefully. Others would roll their eyes, make laughlike noises, and wink, as if they knew him, as if they had drunk with him late into the night and watched the sunrise at his side, as if they had sniffed the very air of his longing and it had made them giddy and duck-voiced.

One day he turned onto a crooked street and found himself alone, except for a young woman in flip-flops, a backpack slung off one shoulder. Hers was the gentle contentedness of someone who has done no wrong. But, as the shadow of his dirigible passed over her, he saw her surprise turn into a crippling sort of weakness. In one instant she could no longer move, her eyes upturned toward the sky. Then she began to shrink and break into her constituent parts, which themselves turned into clumps of pale ash as they came to rest on the cobblestones. A wind blew. Not very strong. Eddying around the lampposts. Then she was gone: a wisp sweeping fleetly to the far end of the street, then out onto the sunlit avenue.

Roland’s boss: a squat man in light-warping glasses, his gray stubble turning black as it descended his temples to his cheeks and chin. “Here,” he said, handing Roland a pair of industrial-grade shears.

“What?” said Roland, the shears feeling rifle-heavy in his hands, their edges glinting purple and pink, so sharp he worried they’d make the air bleed.

“You know,” his boss said, gesturing with his chin at the ascending filament. “Snip!” he said. And then he said, “I’ve got a better one for you.” He jerked his thumb over his shoulder in the direction of a new dirigible: turbo-powered, doing that heavy hum-tremble of things possessed-of-but-not-yet-using terrific force. Actually, it was a light palace, the kind that hangs in the emptiness between towering clouds on dazzling summer days. “This is perfect for you,” Roland’s boss said. “It’s what you should have had all along.” He gestured, once again, with his chin. “Go on: Snip!

The new dirigible: so faster-than-light! So capaciously ecstatic! But cold, perhaps. Maybe not quite human. But wasn’t it all the more beautiful for exactly that reason?

Roland lifted the shears, and the air did bleed a little. Dribbles of purple and pink. The filament arcing upward: so thin! As perishable as a dust-strung strand of cobweb! And then he heard it: the plaintive shrieking, insect-loud—though whether it came from the silver filament or the wounded air was impossible to tell.

“No,” he said, lowering the shears. “I can’t.”

“Suit yourself,” said his boss, grabbing the shears by their brilliant blades.

And then the lights went out, and Roland was alone on a cinder plain, the clouds low and heavy and tinged with brown.

His girlfriend left him, and then she too became a part of his longing, the interior of the dirigible echoing with her laughs, her love coos, her orgasmic keening. Their happiness that afternoon beside the wind-riffled lake so filled his dirigible that he felt sure it would burst. “Stay away from me!” she shouted a week later, when he approached her on the sidewalk in front of her building. “You’re useless,” she said. “You are so fucking sick!”

It is true that the tugging did not make him lighter of step. In fact, there was a distinct minor key reverberation to his every footfall. His most characteristic expression? Something along the lines of a teary wince. But the interior of his dirigible was another world. There, everything was light—in the sense of capable of flight, in the sense of angelic brilliance. What is hope, after all but the fluorescence of longing? Where there is no hope, the world is inside-of-rock rigid and dark. But inside his dirigible: the Eden of “why not?” And amid the body-warm fronds of that summery world, he and his girlfriend walked barefoot, arm in arm. His boss had hired him back with a modest raise and an extra week of vacation. Justice was only celebrated there, and never called upon to inspire outrage. And those diamonds in the sidewalk cement: what were they but sentiments so kind they apotheosed ceaselessly into winks of light?

Sometimes in barrooms he would get belligerent. The world invaded his brain with slaughterhouse truth. Everyone was beef-faced and fact-obsessed, but behind every pair of eyes a different fact, and that fact alone. Often people were kindly with their facts. They would put them down on the table and say, “Here, this is your fact too. Go ahead, I don’t mind.”

“What is this?” Roland would shout. “A mutual admiration society of the witless? Are we all just dung beetles, parading our big balls of shit?”

That’s when the black sadness would begin—although Roland always thought of the sadness as belonging to all those shoulders turned in his direction, all those averted cheeks, those eyes with the shades pulled down. “Hey!” he would shout, banging the table with his rolled-up hand. “Hey, numbskulls! Ding-dong! Can’t you see what’s right before your eyes?”

Sometimes he would bang his hand down so hard his feet would lift off the floor. Sometimes he would become so convinced of his superiority that he himself would become lighter than air, and drift radiantly in the dark zone between head-tops and ceiling fans.

But the end was always the same: Panic. Roland reeling up limp filament from the beer-grimed floor, racing out onto the empty street, where sodium lamps erased the sky with their orange novas. Then he would listen above the buffalo galloping of his own heart for the hush of night breeze against metallized silk, for that singing of filament amid mobile air.