When I was first given an office, my friend Ken quietly slipped in and put a framed picture of Charles Bukowski on my desk. I had noticed it before in his office. That was Ken all over, quiet generosity and a silent salute. It shows Hank walking down a dank LA street, graffiti on the cement wall behind him, drinking from a large bottle. It’s been in every office I’ve had since.
Bukowsi may be known as the definitive Barfly, but he was a mess. He was an abused child. He had such bad acne he couldn’t even look a girl in the eye as a teenager. He was an alcoholic and a belligerent drunk. He had so little self-confidence that he couldn’t write unless he was drinking, much less read in front of a crowd. He wrote courageously, often outrageously, and always, it seemed to me, with his heart in his throat.
I was watching Bukowski: Born Into This the other night and in some special feature the filmmaker commented that he thought Hank wouldn’t have wanted him to make the film he did because it got too close—it showed the duker as vulnerable and often afraid. I thought, ‘Were you reading the same poetry I was?’ To my mind, vulnerability was the force behind every hard line that man ever wrote. If you were looking, you got close a long time ago.
It can be satisfying, in the short run, to stick to the surface. The tough guy act plays so slick, we don’t want to bother looking past it. Like those guys who saw Fight Club and then, missing the point, started hitting each other, in groups, at night. That kind of shortsightedness used to bother me. Okay, it still does. But what gets me going lately are the artificial king of pain guys.
People who attempt to parallel the brilliance of some tragic icon by approximating that person’s misery—they make me crazy. They see beauty in the expression of some pained genius and deduce that one must be gravely unhappy to be seriously creative. I want to shake them by their shoulders and spell it out for them: You don’t have to cultivate pain; it’s a weed. It grows everywhere. Fully experiencing the lot you get, that’s something else. A lot of people spend most of their lives avoiding that part.
Full disclosure: my last boyfriend turned out to be one of these guys. Like the rest of us he had real problems, but instead of facing them he chose to play the part of the tortured starving artist. It was a great guise. When you’re willing to sacrifice everything for the work, you can be incredibly selfish with a straight face. What a convenient way not to have to admit emotional immaturity. Playing that off, it might have been his most creative act.
I know that sounds ice cold, but I don’t blame him completely. I did my part and I know it. I loved him, but I never expected him to love me back. I decided to trust him because it was a more appealing option than not trusting him. But that’s not really trust or love. That’s showing up and seeing what happens.
The idea of maintaining a persona seems ridiculous to me because what you pretend to be is just a reverse diagram of what you’re trying to hide. I admit, subterfuge has never been my gift, but isn’t this the truth? And what are we all trying to hide? Weakness and fear. And what are we all afraid of? Rejection. It’s that simple and, taking into account that there are as many variations on this theme as there are people in this world, it’s totally not.
I always wondered what my vice would be if I were to turn out like the writers I loved to read. Who knows where I’ll end up, but I know what I do. I am afraid of every possible thing that may or may not happen once I walk out my front door. I have split second visions of derailing and pole-impalement when I ride the subway. I’ve mapped out escape scenarios in my mind for everything from elevator conversation to a malicious kidnapping attempt. And yet vulnerability is not something I do publicly. I’ll do everything in my power not to show it.
How I end up having any semblance of a life is I overcompensate. I sort of catapult myself over the wall and into the fray, expecting horror but choosing the unknown over letting the fear win. This works well with commuting and grocery shopping, not so much with actual people. I don’t know what happens for everyone else, but I imagine that most people are afraid of being rejected by someone they don’t know very well. Once they spend time with a person—being accepted by them, being reassured by the repetition of that reaction—I think they probably fear or expect rejection less.
I do not work this way. Generally, I am not that invested in a stranger’s opinion of me. People either like me or they don’t and I stopped taking it to heart a long time ago. It’s when I get close to someone that I get mixed up. I become a pleaser and forget to take my own needs into account. And I get way paranoid. The way my strange little mind sees it, the better I know you the more you can hurt me. If I depend on you, I’ve given you the opportunity to let me down. I am my own mess.
So, if all that is true, what are we doing here? What do I care what you think, dear unknown reader? Why do I spend so much time telling you about me?