Sisyphus & Mary Jane
What do we do now, now that we are happy?
–Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot
You have to be meticulous, reverent. Strip the brittle stem and crush its leaves with the flat side of a cold fifty-cent coin. Now tear careful cardstock rectangles and wind them into tight spirals with your fingernails. (It’s best to use business cards. Steal them from local haunts, and choose carefully: The origin of these neat little scrolls makes a tangible difference in sentiment.) Temper the weed with a precise measure of tobacco, which should be soft and stringy and smell sweet and earthy. Two even piles of grass and wood: Fold them together and halve the heap again. Two rolling papers, side by side. One heap, sifted carefully onto each. Gum in the back, roach on the right side (careful to do this backwards for good luck). Roll between your fingers lovingly until the spliff begins to cohere. With your thumbs pulled all the way down, tuck with care, starting with the roach, twist up twice, salivate, lick, and seal. Once more now.
Mary Jane and I did all this two or three times a day, in a little room in our second floor apartment. It was not more than forty square feet, with a door to the balcony and cold white walls. Our church.
At the beginning we thought we were really cool. Well, I did; she had done it all before. We met on this island where the hilltops sprouted neon yellow flowers, and from every inch of our world you could smell the sea. The island is a way station for people in transition: lost twenty-somethings, recent divorcees, high school dropouts. You come for as long as you need to get your feet on the ground and your mind on the right track (as if neurons were little trains of thought, a whole railroad network inside of our heads), and then you leave. On the island, before doesn’t matter and neither does after.
You don’t understand: Everything here is perfect. We live in a beautiful place with no commitments except to cultivate the crispest possible appreciation for the present. Here is where the little green leaves come in: They spill onto the table from the backpack of a local friend. These are supposed to augment our experience. We breathe them in quickly, without savor, because we don’t know any better. The windows are open, and the wind is floating in. Green hills stud the skyline. We can feel the world turning around us, hugging us with great centripetal arms, pulling us along with it.
When they’re gone, the table looks empty. We look at each other. We decide to make a call. “This is a bad idea,” one of us says over the dial tone. We both laugh.
You probably visualize time as a line, with the future way out to the right, moving ever forwards and the past stretching backwards and left- wards. The present is a point, an infinitesimal differential, something and yet nothing. I have a very aggressive case of Spatial Sequence Synesthesia—in my head the months stretch around in a complete circle, with summer at the top and New Year’s at the bottom. With each year I go around and around, circling back over the previous February, March, April, and so on. It feels like a loss, a complete over-writing of the past.
As we slip into the rituals of worshipping these little green leaves, this becomes the central dogma to our two-person religion: Motion is pain. I mean time; I mean being pulled through the fourth dimension without brakes or acceleration. Moments are slippery, infinitesimally small and impossible to inhabit. We want to hold each one in our hands like a ceramic pot and examine it from every angle, but the past is melting into the future without pausing to catch its breath. Hours are viscous and lethal. Luckily we have built a sanctuary.
In the traditional sub-Saharan concept of time, there is no future. Time centers around two foci—zamani, the past, and sasa, the present. Events slowly fade from present consciousness into ancestral memory, belonging to an extensive repertoire of oral history and distant legend. Things that will happen, like next winter or tomorrow’s sunrise, belong in the sphere of potential time, occurrences that may soon become the present. All you can think is now.
Unlike the sub-Saharan, we had an end point. Each of us would leave, and most of us would leave soon. That ending, with nothing beyond it but a great unknown, squeezed the present into cover photos and Instagram, into attempts to make tangible and preserve ephemerality itself. The island’s beauty could only be appreciated through the hopeful awareness of future memories; the present existed for the sake of becoming a sweet past, and a sweet past was little consolation for a monotonous present becoming a past. You can drown in this paradox.
Which is worse? An ending or none? I think of Dante’s Limbo, where virtuous yet unbaptized souls flounder in perfectly pleasant conditions, crushed beneath the weight of forever. And yet, the anti-aging industry thrives on more than 80 billion dollars a year.
I’m not even sure it’s a valid question. Someone once told me that in your last moments, your perception of time follows a similar path to Zeno’s arrow, halving and halving again its distance from its target ad infinitum. You never arrive.
If we did have a past, it would be something like this: both of us sprinting at equal velocity in opposite directions. I was running towards being something, accelerating through college admissions toward the foggy endpoint of “success.” I ran hard sprints, crammed between myriad commitments. She was running to become nothing: three-hour jog sessions in baggy clothes, grasping for some kind of control over her body, her mind.
MJ and I arrive to the island separately. We are both at the edges of our respective cliffs; we have both recently decided to try stillness. We imagine we can subvert the pain of growing up by subduing our attentiveness.
Little baggies come from off-island in kilo-packs, we soon learn, traveling impressive distances to spill onto our table. We start to share tobacco and laundry detergent and mental space. Quickly we stop needing to talk to communicate and start forgetting to spend time apart. We propose a merger: No sensation will go unshared, no thought without voice, no spliff unpassed.
I go on a couple dates with an island bartender. He is twenty-six, with a septum piercing and a tattoo for Led Zep (John Bonham is my god, he says when I ask).A few nights a week I go to see him on his graveyard shift, after MJ is asleep.
The winds are rising, hissing in the valleys and shattering windows against their own frames. They carry chalky red dust from the Sahara and turn the white houses orange. The waves break over the roads, and everyone forgets where the sea is supposed to end and the island is supposed to begin. People who have been here long enough to know say the wind makes people crazy. They call it the scirocco, and when it blows for longer than five days “weather-induced insanity” becomes a legitimate legal defense.
We are attempting to recreate the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment in my living room, testing how far we can delay gratification as if it can predict our future life success. Our dogma is one of pleasure optimization. Once upon a time this was about getting the most bang for our buck, but now it’s obsession: How far can we push ourselves? The grown-up version involves fewer marshmallows. Instead, we sew hand-bound sketchbooks, set chickpeas to soak, scrub some shine into a week’s worth of dishes, pre-roll enough cigarettes to permanently steal a voice. We have nothing to prove: There’s no way to win and no way to lose because it always ends the same.
We cave. Everything we do we do for this moment—your thumb on the sparkwheel, spliff in your teeth. But it has to pass: the gas flame hits the tip, and something that was once a living plant transmutes itself into light and heat. It hits your lungs.
It feels—wait, what does it feel? Good? Relaxing? It feels like I am doing a desperate breast-stroke through a lap-lane of honey. What was I expecting? Sweet harmony, bliss, perfect serenity where all of my past selves wrap their arms around me into a tight warm knot, or yellow blossoms shimmying up my spinal cord and whispering you are okay, you are okay, you are okay.
I keep smiling until it’s down to the roach because if I don’t MJ won’t. We could stop smoking, I think. But these days with every drag of a spliff we inhale not just THC and toxins and additives but also each other, our secret love club running on biofuel. I want to burn in her throat.
We put the roach to bed. I press a hand over the ashtray so it can’t breathe. I think about all the things I could do now, all the directions in which my fourth dimensional self could branch. I list them in order from hard to easy. Hard: painting. Less hard: taking out the trash. Easy: going for a swim. Even easier: lie here until it feels appropriate to roll another.
Why do we do this? Remember: Our model of time does not contain a concept of future. There is nothing to fuck up. There is no lung cancer, and there are no brain cells. There is now, and maybe there is tomorrow, and there is the end that is always on its way. Then, nothing.
The wind blows slightly stronger with each passing minute. Classes are cancelled indefinitely; we take refuge in my little living room, faces sinking into pillows, our bodies splayed still and horizontal. Initially we make the occasional trip for fresh produce, liquor, bags of brown rice, and tins of olive oil, but mostly we stare at my ceiling like it has something to tell us.
As it turns out, our basic calculus is wrong. One plus one makes one. We become lonely in eachother, wrapped so tightly around the other that we have become a single entity. The angsty corners of our barely-adult brains have fused to become one mass of routine. With this greater mass we like to think we have gained gravity, with which to give weight to the day-ins and day-outs that make up the bulk of our lives.
The scirocco reaches hurricane speeds. Shops close; the radio advises us to leave our dwellings only in the case of emergencies. We find ourselves irreversibly implanted in my apartment in absurd meditation, rumination, chewing our mental cud. The sensuality of the whole ordeal is thinning quickly: Any anticipation evaporates, and our angst goes gray, losing its glittery sheen. We continue to roll the same perfect spliffs and light them purely out of habit. We don’t stamp them out but let the flames run their course in the ashtray. Let them have their fun.
As one of these roaches smolders, we hear rap- ping on the balcony door. MJ groans and buries her face in a pillow. I stand up and open it, ushering Sisyphus out of the scirocco and into our self-inflicted haze.
Sisy is our new friend, slowly replacing the bartender as the winds make the pre-dawn walk unthinkable. He is broad shouldered and smiles with yellow teeth and is probably some kind of shared hallucination. We can’t play music with him around: Every song winds him up. He sits at MJ’s feet and hums to himself under his breath. “Cig?” MJ offers, pulling one from the pack and tossing the lighter. He takes one miserly drag and, losing interest, stamps it out. The ashtray is full of these abandoned beginnings.
He hulks over us, filling a full quarter of the room. He seems to haul the air in and out of his lungs. He won’t look you in the eye, but he’ll stretch his lips into the widest of grins, a smile full of ecstasy and absolute death.
“When was the first time you smoked,” MJ asks me. We’re slowly working on merging our memories. I answer:
In a pulsing, boozy basement several years away a boy places a hand in the hollow of my back, guiding me out the fire door and up the cellar steps, into a small alcove full of skulking teen-age boys. He claps a lanky kid on the shoulder. The boy pulls a joint from the inner pocket of his fleece and holds a palm out to the skinny one, who swiftly provides a light. The yard fills with opaque smoke. The joint is a bad roll, mostly down to the roach by the time it makes it around. I clamp it between two fingers and drag hard, taking it swiftly into my nose without really meaning to. The lanky boy eyes me sideways.
“Did you just French that?” he asks. It was exciting, feeling cool.
Sisyphus smiles at me. I’m suddenly not sure when this memory happened, or if it has happened yet at all. I don’t feel very cool here. MJ pulls Sisy’s cigarette from the ashtray and reaches for a lighter.
The scirocco dies, and the silence is somehow more oppressive than the wind’s howls and the slamming shutters. I go to the bar, and the bartender is gone. Two of his friends have died in a drunk-driving accident, I hear from a friend. He returned to his hometown.
A lot of my best thinking during this period of time occurred lying on that couch in our living room and staring at a lighter flame, thumb pressed snug over the fork. Sometimes I thought about wasting lighter fluid, climate change, etc. Occasionally I thought about the quality of light. In 10th grade Chemistry, my disgruntled teacher taught us about wave-particle duality. Sometimes light acts like a particle, a contained and centered quantity of matter with mass and weight and volume. At other times, it appears as a frenetic wave, a disturbance, an oscillation, continually in tran- sit. The wave ferries energy to and fro, defined by constant motion, constant transfer: It is the physical manifestation of change itself. We were taught that, as usual, the answer hangs somewhere in between: Most situations can be accurately modeled through the combination of classical wave theory and a particle model updated with quantum mechanics. But the models have limitations. Light is simply light, and it does not care if we say it ought to act like this or that.
The end comes. Mary Jane gets on a boat that takes her away from the island. I lock up the balcony and tape the door to the living room closed, leaving a dusting of green leaves strewn across the table. I think I hear Sisyphus knock while I lay in bed in the early mornings or as I chop the vegetables for a late-night single-portion stir-fry. I keep the door closed and don’t enter the living room again.
As I board my own boat soon after, I think about the idols hidden behind that door: papers, a full ashtray, empty plastic baggies, an assortment of lighters infused with varying quantities of luck.
I should mention I changed MJ’s name for her privacy. It doesn’t really matter though, does it?
Sisyphus did like one song: Irene Cara’s “Fame.” When I remember him, I remember him bellowing on the balcony, voice drowned in the scirocco: I’m gonna live forever / I’m gonna learn how to fly (high!)