White Number On a Red Plain

The message notification pinged, tickling something deep in my brain; a Pavlovian trigger that caused me to roll over on my back and open my eyes to stare at the ceiling. It was hot and my mouth was dry. A burning shaft of sunlight knifed in through a crack in the curtains and seared my naked shins. You couldn't win against the summer if you wanted to stay indoors and work. Too bright, too hot. Too many sounds of enjoyment wafting in through the open windows. But I couldn't go out. I couldn't face it.

I don't really know when the aversion to people started. I'd spent nearly a decade of my life holding dozens of daily face-to-face meetings with complete strangers, some alone and some in groups, even on occasion large halls filled with them. I remember starting that work with a dread sweat, nervous that the audience would see through my charade, out me as a pretender, expose me for the fake I was. Because I was a fake. I'd become an actor, exercising my dramatic skills from dawn to dusk in a land that didn't want me there. I'd somehow managed to shoehorn myself into a culture so averse to my presence that it chafed. It chafed on the trains; it chafed in the convenience stores; it chafed in the daily theater I was forced to perform. At some point along the way I developed the callouses necessary to ignore the pain, but still the dull ache of being a stranger in a strange land seeped in through the rough cracks in the skin. But for a time I'd mastered the art of interpersonal and intercultural communication; become a master of toasts and ceremonies.

Then I'd left that world behind. I left behind the love of my life and fled to a place that my heart seemed to think was important. I felt my passions fade, and an easy living was replaced with the heavy humiliation of re-education, surrounded by people almost half my age who were living out entirely different fantasies than the one I'd set up for myself. Yet I'd survived even that, two years in a dark hole. And somehow, through all of that, the love I'd left behind in that foreign land stayed true to me, and I to it.

Then the distance and the trials wore us down. It dissolved the thin tendrils of hope that had kept us connected across the sea. Different paths were struck and a promised future forgotten. And I fell ever deeper into darkness, and lost myself in the work I'd chosen: the empire-building.

And finally, one hot afternoon as I lay in bed wishing for the cool night to come so that I could once again do battle with the monsters that I was birthing, the message notification pinged.


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