A Map For Avoiding Certain People: An Excerpt from Mark Cronin’s “The Perforated Nothingness”

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In 2013, we published an excerpt from Mark Cronin’s collection Gigantic Failures. Two years later, Cronin has returned with a novel, The Perforated Nothingness; an excerpt can be read below. Of the novel, Kevin Killian had this to say: “As a jeremiad of the inner emptiness of American lives, Cronin’s writing rarely modulates the anger, but he is a master of pitch and can make you gasp from sixty yards away. “

***

It started with a gesture, a second glance. It started so innocently. There you were and there they were. The first time was fine. It wasn’t bad. But as time went on and the people grew in number—gesturing, chuckling, making pained sounds. Jesus, how have you been? What have you been up to? Where do you work? Do you have any kids? Did you hear about— You began avoiding these interactions, thwarted by your hustling out of a line, or else the wave was ignored, passed with a glance over your shoulder: they’re looking at someone else. It’s an easy enough mistake to make: thinking someone is looking at you, waving at you. Maybe you didn’t seem like such a bad person. These people had to know this sort of thing happened. People mistake people for others. It’s something that happens, it’s unavoidable. Your cell phone became a viable deterrent to being noticed. You kept your face to its screen as if you and it were lovers perpetually preparing to kiss. When you couldn’t dodge the initial recognition you made your way quickly out of the conversation. You bought a watch just to have something to glance at. You never even set the time.

Oh my, you’d say, I really have to get going. I have a meeting in ten minutes. Sorry.

Oh my, look at the time. I really must be going, you know how it goes. Busy busy, all the time, ha ha. But hey, I’ll see ya around.

It was so great to run into you but I have a dentist appointment in twenty. I think I still have your number.

It wore you down: all this pretending, all this idle small talk. It got to you. It made you a less happy person. It caused depressive symptoms. Work suffered because of it, and in the end you decided something of this caliber needed a whole new approach.

That’s where the idea for the map came from.

You’d sit at your desk in your apartment alone with a sheet of tracing paper and a road atlas splayed out, open to a detailed satellite rendering of the area where you lived. What you were doing was slowly overlaying all the locations that you’d seen people who you didn’t wish to see, whether it was a place one of these people worked: a store, a carwash, a bar; wherever, it didn’t matter. You marked it down, traced the location on the map, and wrote the time and date you saw them. Even if they just so happened to be in a place at the same moment you were, you drew it up. It didn’t matter the circumstances, you just needed to know for future reference where these people had been and thusly where they might be again, so you could avoid those places and the people you associated with them.

At first the whole exercise seemed a little absurd: drawing a map for avoiding certain people? Jesus, what does that make me? you thought, but the more you contemplated it the more essential it became. It wasn’t just for you. It was for the other people as well. Everyone knows that when you run into someone from your past it’s an unstated rule that you must engage him or her, but why? The past is the past. Why drudge it up for a few moments of chitchat in a waiting room? Especially since more often than not the people you found yourself running into weren’t ever your friends. They’re just a person who recognized you, which doesn’t make it ok for them to enter or reenter your life. They were strays vying for some attention, maybe to feel some sense of nostalgia. Whatever it was, it wasn’t for you. All you wanted was your privacy. You wanted to be left alone. These people who were on your little league team or were student teachers when you were in fourth grade, what are you supposed to say to them after all of these years? Why is it considered common courtesy to give a feigned smile and limp handshake, a slight chuckle? Why is that the norm? You enjoyed the distance you had kept between you and other people, it was freeing. You didn’t need or want reminders of a life you were trying desperately to leave in the dark where it belonged.

The map grew more intricate as time went on, you went to great lengths to recall identifiers: new hair styles, weight fluctuation, tattoos, and children, for God’s sake: two sometimes three years old. Had it been that long? It had. There you were: still unmarried, childless; a disappointment to your family, as if the only passage into maturity was finding a mate and procreating. How primitive that was, you thought. How archaic. Why was it that all people seemed to care about anymore was what you were doing with your life? What about how you felt? What about what you wanted?

If there was one thing you’d learned in the time you’d spent on Earth it was that the only person you should look out for is you. It cut down on the risks. You found the people you respect, who respect you, and everyone else was just static; white noise. You didn’t need a wife or child to feel fulfilled. In fact the more you thought of those options the more repulsed you grew by them. What a burden. What a weight to carry.

And so the map continued to grow until it covered half of the wall in your kitchen. You continued to see people, others you hadn’t seen before, all of them interested in ‘catching up’, if only for a minute. It was always the same thing: It left you so tired and angry. Why me? You asked yourself. Why do I have to constantly be seeing these people?

You felt like you were being backed into a corner. You were considering never leaving your apartment again, though you knew that was impossible: You had work. You had responsibilities. Still, wariness was beginning to get the best of you and showed all over your face, in the trembling of your hands. One of the people you respected, a coworker, saw this and asked you if you were ok.

You’re not looking so good, this person said.

Naturally you replied that you were fine, that it’s kind of them to ask after your health and well-being, but really: I am A-OK, you said, and the coworker didn’t pry because they knew better: you were one who believed it wasn’t productive to discuss personal issues with others. You’d just get defensive. You’d deflect all their inquiries. They moved on, and you were happy they did.

The two of you were in this coworker’s car, on your way to a work oriented conference somewhere out of town. You didn’t like to drive long distances so the coworker agreed to do so. You both had worked for the same company for the same amount of years. This was a friend like most of the people you chose to know and respect were friends were also coworkers. You found these types of people perfect for the way in which you chose to order your life: you saw them every day and even went out with them occasionally, but they didn’t need to know you any further than what was on the surface, and more often than not they didn’t wish to. They were just looking for companionship; someone to sit next to them at a sporting event or talk to as they shopped.

It was an even exchange.

The conference the two of you were headed to was held yearly at a convocation center in the downtown hub of a major US city. You’d been going to them long enough that everyone was familiar and there was a routine in place: you and the coworker would meet up with a group of like-minded, respectable individuals; coworkers who came in separate cars or worked in different branches, and you’d stay with them for the duration of the weekend, drinking and shooting the shit and so on until you’d all said your goodbyes and ‘see you at the office Monday’s’ and you and your friend, the coworker, would drive back to your neighborhood and he’d drop you off at your apartment before returning to his own, wherever that might have been, since you didn’t know the particulars of this person’s life.

But the arrangement was disordered this particular year. You were shocked to find that instead of all the usual faces there was an outsider: a nearly perfect specimen from the opposite sex had replaced one of the essential members who you’d quickly learned had been promoted to a different position in the company somewhere outside the district, outside the state. Introductions were made and you tried to remain calm and composed but something was brimming, and as things moved forward you began to see this replacement person was not only attractive in all the ways you found members of the opposite sex attractive but that they were also funny and shared many of the same interests as you. So you got scared. You weren’t directly involved in the conversation but were eavesdropping. You were always an observer, listening intently, worrying that the moment would come when you would be forced to say something with substance. Up until a certain point you’d made all your comments short and to the point without inflection or unnecessary emotion. You wanted to appear cold and neutral, like a distant orbiting planet.

You drifted away from the others, thinking about the map: Will this become a site within its borders? Am I doomed to have to quit my job now?

That couldn’t be healthy, you thought: its growth in the last few months. It couldn’t be perceived as sane. And if it was soon to encompass the whole of your apartment wouldn’t that make it not just a map for avoiding certain people but a map for avoiding everyone, all interactions, however minuscule and inconsequential they might be?

You were thinking these things at the exact moment (out of the corner of your eye you saw) the newly introduced person in the group, the nearly perfect member of the opposite sex, was turning toward you, expectant, with a smile; nearly perfect looking and compatible given your tastes and theirs, and as your eyes met each other’s there was a question, something important, something the answer to would solidify for you and for this person the signals that you’d both felt were passed between bodies, between consciousness’s; that of attraction, and now is your chance, this moment, where all the possibilities could evolve into realities. . . .

But you slip up, literally, caught in your own self-absorbed maze of impossible life philosophies and neurotic labyrinthine thoughts. You couldn’t answer, were unable to or wouldn’t, as the newly introduced member of the opposite sex turned back to the group and made a quip about a cat having your tongue.

Under the humor you could hear the death rattle. Any chance you had was gone, leaving you just another person: totally unspectacular in every way; common. To this person you were nothing more than an interaction, a name easily learned and even more easily forgotten. Nothing. Nobody. Who? Not worth the time it takes to scan the memory bank.

Sorry, what’s your name again, and where did you say we met? I’m not very good with names. I’m not very good with faces.

For the first time that you could recall, as you and the co-worker were driving back from the convention, you felt a twinge of sadness, you actually wished you could just open your mouth and speak to your co-worker, your ‘friend’, but you felt unable to, something held you back. You sat dejectedly the whole ride home and your co-worker, knowing you as well as he did, didn’t ask or even look concernedly in your direction. He dropped you off at your complex’s front door and said goodbye rather quietly and then drove off as you took the first uneven steps toward your apartment. You knew what was coming; there was no avoiding it. It was there before you even had the key in the knob, it was gnawing at you, and as you entered the room the realization of a possible reality turned into reality as you crumpled and moaned and fell into the nearest wall, letting out a helpless gasp as the tears began to stream from your eyes. From where you were laid out, on the carpet, in your living room, you could see the map extending beyond the edge of the kitchen wall and you knew then that it was a pointless endeavor, it could never encompass all the people you would need to avoid, to do that you would have to avoid the single most unbearable encounter you had on a daily basis, the one with yourself.

 

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