The New Hedonism
BY SHAWN MORGAN
I’ve lost my share of friends. Not in the mortal sense, but the economic. I grew up in a middle class-community, one that was built to house the post-boomer generation as they started families. Since they were low-level employees, they didn’t have any real say over how their employers behaved. As the local companies grew, they relocated, and our neighbors all moved before their kids were grown. Thus, I was in a position where my favorite peers and playmates (a child’s Raison D’etré) could up and vanish the moment I turned my head.
I met with one such friend the other day. His parents had a lucky break and finally returned home. However, he hadn’t. He had left for college to pursue career training, only to return a few years later. “It wasn’t for me” he said, “It cost way, waytoo much.” He must have forgotten how to use a phonebook, because he spent over an hour searching the town to see if I still lived there. He only found me because I ran into him.
We wasted no time starting conversation. All the expected stuff, “How have you been, have you seen this person, what do you do for work?” But then, on a whim, I decided to ask a new one.
“Hey, did you lose weight or something? You look different.”
We walked. He took me back a few years, to the time when he first moved to University. He had excellent scores from high school and, after conversations with his school administrators, he was all charged up about his future. People with a degree get better jobs than their parents, so maybe he could land a career where he didn’t have to move. He spent more than a few months rotating between social groups, trying to find a certain something to fill out his time. No matter where he ended up, there was the potential for more. After a few weeks, the first round of tests came up. He had to give up on friends, because his studies held more weight. He tried to compensate with extracurricular, clubs and such, but that was an even larger investment. Frustrated now, he flirted with the possibility of a nightlife, but he had no one left to go with. Besides, it was later in the semester, and there were more quizzes, tests, projects, presentations, and papers. His studies always held more weight.
It was an unsustainable system. He began to feel he was no longer moving forward but instead gathering rust while the world blew past him. Like a car in the desert, he began to erode. First, he lost interest. Then lost sleep. Then he lost his sense of time. Finally, he lost his balance, and fell under the weight of his own metaphorical backpack.
He had bought a brand-new laptop to store all his projects. He fucking smashed it against the wall.
“Anyway” he said “My folks are out, so I’m having some friends over tonight. Kind of like a reunion, even though it isn’t. I’d love for you to come, just make sure you have a ride or something because we willbe drinking. Stay, uhhh, stay cool.”
Well, that was a lot to unpack. I spent the afternoon doing chores while my mind ran in circles. What the hell happened to him? Is he safe to be around? Is he an addict now? Or some kind of psycho? Do his parents know about this?Eventually, I got around to the real question, the one most dangerous and self-serving. Should I go?My parents considered celebration like this to be a distraction, so they took extensive steps to shield me from such behavior. I had never been to a school dance, much less to a drinking party.
Before I could stop myself, I was in front of the mirror, dressed as good as one can for drinking. My chest was thumping. I stared for a long minute, diving into the lines and colors of my face. If I did go, I would be telling him (and myself) that his freak-out was normal, and there was nothing wrong or unsafe or irresponsible about all this. If I didn’t go, however, the results could be worse. I missed the hell out of him, and if I wasn’t there to at least push him in the right direction, he could somehow continue on his downward spiral. After all, he didn’t seem drunk when I saw him, so there was a chance that he was fine. Maybe I’m overreacting? Yeah, that’s it! I’m overreacting! Besides, I haven’t had a night off in a while. I may have work tomorrow, but I can choose to stay sober. This way, I can give him the support he needs without losing myself.
It’s amazing how fun wins over reason. Despite the mental gymnastics, I found myself in his living room, sipping a tall glass of liquor. We were playing cards, although the rules seemed secondary and the game implied. The real fun was watching our guests draw garbage and swear. A tossed hand netted extra laughs, and the worst hand awarded more drinks. There were no faces I recognized, although that seemed to matter little. We found ourselves talking as if we had grown old together. I tried my best to learn their names, but there were too many, so I went by faces and clothing and did well enough. That is, until the dress code changed.
Jack was the first to lose his shirt. Molly went next to prove a point. Couldn’t tell you why it happened, something about who was better at sports. They spent the next few comparing abs before Ed joined and beat them both. Ed was fat, but he didn’t seem ashamed to draw attention to it. According to his girlfriend, he had actually been losing weight, and had grown some muscles during the process. The three of them did pushups, and Spencer ditched his button-up while complaining of the heat. I cracked the window, but Izzy (probably not her name) stole my hat and hid in the corner. She made dinosaur noises if I came too close.
After several more costume switches, we poured more drinks. I was on my fourth drink by now, so I wasn’t sure exactly where I was. I wasn’t looking at myself anymore. It was like the world was supposed to be a stage play except everyone forgot the script, so the show devolved into a wild burlesque. People started dancing, Spencer sang sea shanties, and Ed’s girl played Spanish music from her phone. She and Ed tried teaching a dance, but no one was sober enough to get it. I was so smashed, I can’t even remember what it’s called.
It was several hours past dark, and the house smelled like an armpit. Since someone brought a Frisbee, the guests gathered their clothes and ran to the evening air. My friend and I decided to stay in. I found some water while he lit a handmade cigarette. It didn’t smell like tobacco. We stared out the window for, who knows how long, and small talked. Same expected lines as before: How we were doing? What was our work? Useless stuff. Eventually, I gathered myself and broke the charade. “Are you ok?” He paused, looking drained, then snapped to me.
“Did you ever readThe Crucible? Arthur Miller?”
“For class, yeah.”
“Did you ever wonder why…Giles Corey decided to die the way he did? Demanding ‘More weight’?”
I paused, I wasn’t that interested in The Crucible. “No.”
“Neither did I, but…I thought about it, and I think I figured it out. He died like that because he had something to prove.” He shifted in his seat. He now sat stooped and tired, like he was watching fish in a river. “If you die like that, it’s special, because it makes you look tough.” He straightened up “Makes all the fucking difference in the world, doesn’t it, when people die in noble ways? Makes you forget the fact that they’re dead.”
He stopped. I said nothing. “You know, I realized something else, something else about dying. It doesn’t matter how you die, or how heroic or memorable it is, when you die you’re gone. I think that’s what’s buggin’ me, you know? Knowin’ that, it doesn’t matter how much I accomplish because I won’t be able to get back the time I spent doin’ it. I’m gonna die, but I don’t want to die, man, I wanna live and I want to celebrate. That’s why I wanted to see you, and that’s why I met them, because you’re good people and…I love being with you.”
He lost eye contact. I was too sober. I figured it was time to go.
There are only two more things I’m sure I remember. One is Izzy driving me home, the other is how I felt once I got there. I stared at the mirror, again, which was a mistake. Once I started, I found it really hard to stop. I was still in my passive voice, so I wasn’t looking at me as much as the space around me. I saw all the lines, and bumps, and hairs. I could see the cells and the atoms and the past at that intersection where it swallows up the future. I could see emotions passing like playing cards, flying off the deck. I saw parts making a whole, and a whole regarding its parts.
I saw me. I saw what I wasn’t. I saw what I never will be.
I’ve lost my share of friends. Not in the mortal sense, but the economic. Once, they were passionate and full of light, but they squeezed themselves dry just to stand out. Now there’s nothing left; except for empty memories, and a deep, hollow craving.
That void is the New Hedonism.