Violence is useless here. Anger is useless. But even knowing it would get me nowhere did nothing to diminish what I felt. A directionless frustration with no constructive outlet. For fuck’s sake, none of this should even be possible!
Just then I wished for somebody to gesture incredulously to, as if to say “Are you seeing this?” Really though, I mostly just wished for any company at all. Even my worst enemy would’ve been welcome.
Funny how diplomatic and forgiving a cold, wet night can make you feel. The bright lights and saturated colors of the posters are little comfort. All the photogenic families with their shiny, slick hair…all of them beaming at me with wide eyes and manic grins.
As I once again walk down the rows upon rows of automotive products, I reflect on how much shit I need to own just to have a car. Not just the expensive insurance but all the little bits and bobs I unwittingly signed on to periodically buy over the years, just to keep the damned thing running.
All so I could be like the guy in the poster. Smiling wide, his arm around a beautiful woman who looks equally delirious. That’s what these ads promise you. To be happy, you need love. To get love, you need a fast, beautiful car.
Of course to get the car, you need money. To get money, you need to work. That means fifty years on the treadmill while your boss gobbles up all the surplus value you generate. It’s never been more clear to me than it is now, as I stare at these posters, how the system I live in leverages the strongest biological urge of humanity to coerce economic participation.
It’s not just how the ads imply you need a car to get married. Intimacy itself has been put behind a paywall. The drive to reproduce is like a tireless mule to which the farmer’s wagon is hitched. The mule eats only a small fraction of the crops he helps to cultivate. The mule may eventually get what it’s after, but only if and when the farmer allows.
As I stood there in silence, I eventually realized something was missing. I couldn’t put my finger on it until I next ventured outside and discovered it was no longer raining. I’d become so accustomed to the constant white noise of falling raindrops that it vanished almost without my notice.
The next surprise came when I checked my phone. Five in the morning. Maybe I’m just tired, I thought. Maybe I just missed everything between four and five because my bloodshot, puffy eyes only saw what they expected to.
But when I turned around to head back into the gas station, it was gone. Only a rusty street lamp where it’d been a moment earlier. I stumbled backwards. Then inched towards the base of the lamp, hand outstretched, as if it could be some sort of illusion.
Nope. I knelt and touched the metal to be absolutely sure. Freezing cold, and the rough texture was supremely unwelcoming. Still, real as could be. Only now, for reasons I struggle to account for, did I begin to suspect something truly out of the ordinary was going on.
I’m not just tired, I realized. That could explain the crash. That could explain misreading the phone. But unless I somehow imagined that gas station, down to every last pristine detail…Still, does that change anything? Have my options increased?
They haven’t. I’m still stranded out here in the boondocks at four…no, five…in the morning. It’s at least not raining anymore but there’s still just me and the road. Not a whole lot of possibilities there. I can keep pressing ahead, or double back the way I came.
Clutching the edges of my jacket in a futile effort to wrap it even more tightly around my shivering body, I forged ahead. That’s how I found this highway. That’s how I found the gas station…if there ever was one.
As I trudged along, I was struck by the strange beauty of the shadows which trees to either side of me cast upon themselves. The light coming from nearby street lamps only faintly illuminated the leafy branches, creating confusing shadows which shifted and danced as wind caused the branches to sway. Almost as if something hid behind them, ready to pounce.
It’s a side of nature I’ve only rarely glimpsed. Now and then, stress from my failing business conspired to keep me up into the wee hours. My sleep cycle would invert, sometimes for weeks at a time, and I’d find myself slowly cruising the streets around my home just for something to do until the sun came up.
It’s an entirely different world I fell into, which I came to refer to as the Nightlands. A world with it’s own set of customs, names and faces. When I grew hungry I’d stop by one of the few diners or cafes that were open 24/7. As much to people watch as to eat, really.
What I saw there was an insomniac cross section of society. Ships passing in the night, as we were unlikely ever to run into each other during the daylight hours. Outside the windows, set against uncompromising darkness, there twinkled a handful of street lamps.
Like tiny stars yanked down from the heavens for our convenience, flickering at an almost imperceptibly rapid frequency. Confused moths flitter about the lights, mistaking them for the Moon which their ancestors navigated by…before humans invented candles, light bulbs and other sources of light pollution.
Once you become comfortable with it, the dark is no longer frightening. Because you’re no longer a trespasser in it, you’re a native of the shadows who belongs there. Like the biologist who lives in the field for weeks or months in order to witness rare sights they never could during brief visits, the long-term inversion of my sleep cycle forever changed the way I look at the night-time world.
Insomnia is a trap I fall into easily, having always been a night owl with an addiction to the internet and gaming. I’m certain it’s terrible for my health as it gave me my distinctively pallid complexion, permanent bags under my eyes and a feeling of weakness in spite of all the lifting I do.
90% of businesses are off limits to the nocturnal human. But that’s somewhat helpful. The normally paralyzing over-abundance of choice swept away, I was instead presented with a small selection of places to eat, drink, and write that I might never have noticed or considered patronizing during the day.
Who were those strangers I’d often see awake and out walking along the sidewalk at such an improbable hour? Who could they be? What’s their story? Did they have legitimate business which kept them up so late, or were they like me? Trapped in a vicious cycle from which no escape seems possible.
That lifestyle almost seemed tenable. Once I eased into it and became acclimated, I mean. My energy returned to me an hour or so after I awoke, the same rush I get about an hour after waking up in the morning. I’d go through my normal morning routine of a shit, shower, brush and a shave, the only difference was the darkness outside my window.
Maybe just because it amused me, I’d sometimes fix a bowl of cereal. More than once I visited a local park, as living that way didn’t diminish my desire to be immersed in flora every so often. I never used the car’s heater on the way there. It turns out the human body is more malleable than I ever suspected.
If you make a habit of being outside at night, eventually your body begins to acclimate to that temperature range. Eventually, I even began to feel it unbearably hot and bright to go out in the daytime. The night air cooled my blood in a lasting way, and I worried it would be such trouble to transition back that perhaps I should just keep living nocturnally.
There was a certain appeal to the mostly empty streets. Driving was less stressful. I could jog without feeling self-conscious. At times, during the brief periods when I could see no trace of human activity in any direction around me, it felt like I was standing alone at the end of the world.
Perhaps I finally am? Time will tell. If it ever budges again, I mean. A glance down at my phone revealed it was somehow still five in the morning. I don’t know what to do, so I just keep walking. The moon looming large above me, as I desperately wish for any human voice besides my own to listen to.
How did I wind up like this? It’s not like I ever had any shortage of friends. Even here in Michigan, I’m surrounded by people who love me…during the day. But a few hours after the sun goes down, all of that disappears. Just me, all alone in a cold, dark world except for my own heartbeat, and the sound of my breathing.
Stay Tuned for Part 7!