Nearly everyone I know my age is in crisis. Apparently, it comes with midlife.Luis, who had dedicated himself for years to saving a destitute relationship, acting like an emotional pack animal by taking on more and more weight of his partner’s pathologies, learned that the person sleeping next to him every night was texting in the darkness to someone else. His sudden awakening shattered his sense of reality. Carrying his partner’s burdens, far from simply being a sign of his kindheartedness, had actually facilitated the years of unhappiness on both ends, and the turning of backs in bed.
He is not the only one I know subjected to — or the subject of — a double or even triple life. Ariadne, for instance, survives the monotony of marriage by having anonymous sex with virtual strangers. Since she lives in a small town, she relies on her minivan, inconspicuously parked in the lot of her local grade school, to hook up with other parents who drive there for pick up.
Harley’s approach is perhaps more innocuous, but it has just as many contorted twists. Turning a blind eye to his partner’s infidelities and alternative sexual preferences, he souped up a muscular old motorcycle to mechanically parade his mutilated masculinity around on dark but congested streets.
At some point, it seems, life cracks. It breaks up. Half of it, or more, goes underground, if it wasn’t there before. People — or, at least, some people — go through the motions of work, relationships and home life, but only part of them is present. The rest is in some parallel universe that only they, or a few close friends, actually know. They smile to the world; they blink and look back at you as if nothing else were happening. They have become so accustomed to playing their lives that it is perfectly normal. The lie is simply real. You blink and look back.
Where did things go off track? Many of my closest friends seemed so together, but now their lives are coming apart at the seams or are barely stitched together. Why have I, for that matter, taken to submerging my own existence in fantasy by writing fiction, as if I could only observe the events of my life if externalized and contained, slowly circulating before me like fish in the digital aquarium of a computer screen?
As my sister once explained to me in one of many desperate phone calls I’ve made to her, aspirational tales dominate the first chapter of our lives. We are trained from an early age to constantly be looking up and on the ascent, working toward the next level. Our culture bombards us with legends of aspiration and ascension — in love, school, work, even play. Regardless of whether the narrative climax is one of success or failure, or some mix between the two, the implicit message is that the story ends there.
Yet our actual lives go on, like insignificant characters left by the wayside as the author pursued a more engaging plot. Our lives are dominated by mundane affairs now — hectic schedules, family logistics, mindless tasks. All of the major events are behind us.
The youthful dreams of a motorcycle trip through Latin America recede on the horizon of a desk filled with bills to pay. We wake up to realize that so much of life has simply happened to us, and that it is too late. We fell into lock step without even knowing it. And now there is no time for dreaming, as work and responsibilities saturate every second of the day.
A crisis is a crack in the code. It can occur when everything laid out for you, and all of the things that you have half-wittingly accepted, meet a desire to be something more than the skeletal image of your own dead dreams. It can also come with the realization that life trickles away quickly, and there’s no going back. A destructively liberating drive may arise, derailing you from the course of playing out your pre-established roles.
When I was a child, my father would routinely wake us up on Sunday mornings by playing songs from his vinyl collection at house-shaking volume. His favorite track was “Once in a Lifetime,” by the Talking Heads, and I was torn out of my dreams innumerable times by the shattering lyrics: “This is not my beautiful house!” “This is not my beautiful wife!” “My God! What have I done?” It is only now, that I am the same age as my father was at the time, that I understand the message he was shouting out in his silence through the voice of someone else.
Cracks in the foundations of our life narratives can have the surprising effect of clearing space for unforeseeable developments. Like the seeds that sprout in toxic soil, or push up through slabs of oppressive concrete, re-emergence and reinvention become possible. Instead of playing out familiar plotlines, which would otherwise escort us all the way to the tomb, we can take over the screenplays of our lives, and we can begin to spin the most quixotic yarns, set in a wilderness untamed by moralism, careerism and the strictures of conformism.
Although these types of crisis are typically affiliated with midlife, they can, and of course do, happen at any time. From childhood to old age, there is hardly a moment when one is not confronted by scripted life.
When I was in the abyss of my own fishbowl-framed crisis, my brother reminded me of a time I had oddly forgotten when I, as an awkward teenager, was surprisingly given the lead role in our school play. An essential prop, which functioned as the linchpin for the entire plot and its climactic ascension, was supposed to be brought to me on stage in a basket. There was a long moment of silence, as the suspense was building, before I revealed the prop. However, on opening night, the basket was empty.
As if I had been waiting for a crisis moment that would force me to squeeze out of the straitjacket of the script, I immediately began improvising my own story and the other actors followed suit. When the curtain fell, no one in the audience actually realized that, in weathering the crisis of the missing prop, we had all moved from being actors to playwrights.
When I talk to Luis on the phone now, his entire life has been reshuffled. He jokes about the fact that he feels so liberated from his suffocating relationship that he would like to send a thank-you letter to his ex’s late-night lover. Describing a long series of intense polyqueer experiments and hilarious-only-in-retrospect Tinder escapades, his voice then quivers and hesitates as he invokes what he calls “the extraterrestrial.”
I have never heard anyone successfully use this word as a term of endearment, but Luis slowly and carefully articulates what it is like to meet someone who completely transcends your world and all of the codes that have encased it. He refuses to call his extra-worldly encounter a love story because they are both inventing — rather than simply living out — its plot.
Crisis is also about accepting the fact that life does not sew up its loose ends like a well-crafted narrative. It is messy and confused, recalcitrant to the simple moral judgments of the uninitiated. Ariadne continues to get her kicks in the parking lot, scripting her own impetuous adventure. I wonder if passers-by occasionally catch a glimpse of life’s conundrums as they marvel at the rocking of the driverless van.