The Chaos of Truth

Not long ago, a friend emailed me a photograph. In it, I stand alone on a balcony. I wear a dress shirt and a borrowed tie, and the mustache I’d shaved a few weeks prior is still very much a joke. This was in Cincinnati in June, in a handsome park whose name I no longer recall. Below me, in the near distance, a pavilion was being readied for a wedding. Sweaty chefs made finger-foods in a jerry-rigged kitchen. Workers set up a P.A. and lugged ice chests filled with bottled water. Beyond the pavilion lay the Ohio River. And beyond that, on the grey-blue horizon, Kentucky. I’d spent the last month at a beach house in Virginia, where I’d worked harder on my writing than at any other time in my life. A novella had grown into a novel. A hazy idea for a website run by far-flung friends had become something tangible and exciting. I’d lived for five weeks out a of tiny suitcase, and though my travels had treated me well, I was happy to cap them off with this weekend of repose, to reunite with grad school friends in a state I’d never before visited. Fall would arrive soon enough, and I’d be back to New Orleans, back to the city and the job I loved. After two good but penniless years as an adjunct at UNO, my hard work had been recognized, and a salary-doubling promotion had been all but guaranteed. Life, in short, was looking up. And so, as I stood there on that balcony, staring down at the site where in less than an hour I’d witness two great friends get married, as I stood there in the Brooks Brothers suit my father bought me when I first started teaching, I took a deep breath and felt proud of myself. I had kept my promise to keep writing after grad school, and I’d published every year. I’d landed a good job in my field and somehow managed to beat the recession. I was twenty-seven years old, and for the first time ever, I felt like a grownup. And so that night, after vows were exchanged and drinks were drunk, I danced longer and with less reservation than any other time in my life. I danced because I’d had three martinis and was feeling lucky. But really I danced because I was happy.

The following day my flight from Lexington to San Antonio was cancelled. Not long after, my best friend from work, who’d left UNO to pursue a PhD, phoned and told me I should probably see why I’d yet to hear anything about my promotion. I said I would but never got the chance. My boss called the next morning. When I asked how he was doing, all he said was, “Not good.”

I don’t remember much of what was said after that. Talk of numbers, I guess. Sorrys and thank-yous. I don’t remember what questions I asked or if my voice was shaking or if I comported myself like an adult. What I do remember is this: for the entirety of our talk, as I stood there in my mother’s kitchen and started to process that the call I’d assumed would make me a relatively rich man had in fact left me without an income, I couldn’t stop picturing everything about my life in New Orleans—my friends, my office, the city itself—becoming all at once consumed in a blanket of mold-like darkness. I’d made a bowl of cereal just before the call, and as soon as I hung up, I dumped it into the sink like it was poison. “You’re unemployed,” I told myself. “You’re fucking unemployed.” I clicked on the disposal and let it run. Then I stared down into the drain and tried to make myself cry.

The book I’ve been working on for the last ten months is about a guy who finishes grad school at the peak of the recession and can’t find a job. With no better option in sight and with his head hung low, he returns to his hometown of Alamo Heights and works as a part-time yardman. His inability to find more meaningful work causes him great shame, and he’s desperate to avoid running into any of his former high school classmates—many of whom draw big salaries working handout jobs for family-owned businesses. But the area’s relative smallness makes such a goal impossible, and so he finds himself enduring encounters far more often than he’d like. Existential drama ensues. (Man v. Self.)

If my protagonist has a great struggle, it’s that he feels cheated. He’s jumped through the hoops of college and grad school, and yet, when all is said and done, he’s as jobless and poor as some dope who never made it through high school. To make matters worse, at the peak of his insecurity, he’s surrounded by scores of people whose lives, thanks to family money, have been all but figured out from the get-go. To cope, my protagonist tries to hone and embrace a sense of superiority. He is, after all, an artist—a writer—and while the path he’s chosen may be hard—and, at times, soul-crushingly difficult—in the end, it’s far more virtuous than, say, coming home and spending the rest of your life working for mommy and daddy. Or so he tells himself. Constantly. But, in reality, my protagonist’s great struggle is that he’s jealous—jealous not only of people’s wealth and comfort, but of their preternatural and seemingly effortless ability to live without thinking. Whereas my protagonist’s idle time is rife with self-doubt, guilt and a veritable multitude of other neuroses, those who surround him seem genuinely unencumbered. They leave their worries at the office. They buy flat screen TVs and weekend with friends at lake houses or hill country ranches. And though they may not have an artistic or meaningful thought in their brain, they don’t spend their lives upset with themselves—they don’t waste their days with worry and fret. It’s a cold truth he reflects upon in a passage near the end of the book’s first section:

…you can’t help but clench your fists and wish you were someone else, that you were one of these Alamo Heights assholes whose mommies and daddies inherited lives of wealth and ease and then passed them onto their kids as thoughtlessly as they did their genes, someone like Wally Patterson, Wally the prince of car dealerships Patterson, who strolls through life swiping his pre-filled debit card, and who leaves his fake job each day and heads straight for the bar, someone like Wally Patterson, who wantonly drinks himself into oblivion, only to rise and greet the next day with a shrug of his broad shoulders, only to wake up and find himself not drowning in guilt. And how in the world, you wonder, can such a life be possible? How on Earth can he do this so easily when you so fundamentally cannot? How is it that a person can manage to live without thinking, without feeling? How can a person be so lucky?

My book’s main character is, of course, plainly me. In the summer of 2010, after finishing an MFA and sending out upwards of fifty unanswered job applications, I packed up my life and came home to Texas, where I worked part-time helping a friend manage his five-acre property. Aside from a few weekend trips to Austin, the better part of that summer saw me hiding at my mother’s, and the few run-ins I did endure with former classmates left me feeling nothing if not pathetic and meek. “What are you up to these days?” they’d ask. “Where are you living?” And while questions like these might seem innocuous, each of them hit my ears like perfect persecution. In response, I could muster only vague answers about taking some time to figure things out. Or worse: I’d launch into ignorant tirades about the economy, casting myself as the helpless victim in a nation spoiled by Wall Street greed. Of course, when I was living through these experiences, I hadn’t the faintest idea that, less than two years later, they’d become the framework for my first novel. Back then, it was simply my life, and it was more than a little depressing. In truth, the only thing I thought about in those days was how miserable I was. I needed to save myself. I needed a way out.

In my book’s inchoate and unwritten sections, my protagonist finds escape from his malaise by witnessing the more legitimate suffering of the novel’s supporting cast—from a waitress who’s left school to care for her newly widowed mother, to his own mother, an arthritic realtor whose boom-years spending habits have pushed her to the financial brink. Ultimately, he accepts that achieving adulthood—and happiness—is not a journey with a beginning and an end, but a lifelong practice, and one that takes a determination and a lot of hard work. He sees that, really, he doesn’t have it so bad after all—that no one simply wakes up one day in their twenties and feels like a well-adjusted, fulfilled grownup.

But here’s where autobiographical fiction breaks with reality. In my own life, the existential dilemma I knew in the summer of 2010 came to its resolve when, instead of accepting my current position and choosing to make the best of it, I rather impulsively decided to run away from Texas and move to New Orleans. There, I quickly found work at UNO, reunited with friends from college and, generally speaking, resumed a stasis of normalcy. Over the course of my two years there, I met great friends, had flings with some delightful and attractive young women, wrote a few good stories, made a name for myself at work, and had a hell of a lot of fun—all of which came to an abrupt end thanks to a phone call on a random day in June.

Upon losing my job, I couldn’t help but note the irony. Here I was, a young man who’s jobless and stuck at his mother’s in San Antonio writing a book about a young man who’s jobless and stuck at his mother’s in San Antonio. (Here it also bears mentioning that this summer, like nearly every other summer since I was nineteen, I was indeed employed as a part-time yardman.) I found myself suddenly—and perhaps permanently—re-engrained in the very setting I was trying to dramatize, and the effect was overwhelming and, at times, surreal. And while being forced out of my happy life in New Orleans was certainly depressing, I couldn’t help but note that being at loose ends now, as opposed to the summer of 2010, offered me something of a rare opportunity. When I last found myself in this position, I was younger, far less confident in my writing and without a concrete idea for a major fiction project. The notion then of staying at my mother’s, of being bored and, at best, severely underemployed, was anathema to me. I worried that if I lingered, I was bound to fade fast into obscurity. “Whatever happened to that Will Torrey guy?” I pictured friends asking. And so, in a way that was daring but not too daring, I ran away, ran back to my college milieu, where dozens of drinking buddies—not to mention endless alcohol-fueled fun—lay readily in wait. And while I don’t regret the decision to move to New Orleans—not for a second—my two years there had taught me some valuable lessons. Four semesters as an adjunct had given me an acute idea of the pain one endures when forced to spend ten weeks a year buried beneath a mountain of god-awful, half-assed freshmen essays. I knew, too, how hard it was to be productive when you lived in a city filled with the same guys you’d spent the better part of a half-decade actively destroying your liver—all of whom were anxious to have boozy dinner parties on weeknights; none of whom were writers themselves and so could afford to lose their mornings to foggy-headed hangovers. In short, my time in New Orleans made me understand why so many talented people finish grad school and never write again: life—and relationships and jobs and drinking—simply gets in the way.

And so I very uncharacteristically took a look at the bright side. I could swallow my pride, find a part-time job and spend the next year in San Antonio doubling down on my novel. I could drink less, not waste my days grading shitty papers and get a lot of real work done. And though it would be tough to be away from my friends and to give up the freedom that comes from living on one’s own, I figured that, deep down, a quiet year would be good for me. In the end, I’d be better for it. In the end, I’d be just fine.

But shortly thereafter, life imitated art yet again, and I found myself face-to-face with a former classmate in the parking lot of the local grocery chain, a setup that mirrors almost perfectly my book’s opening lines:

Of course the first person you run into is Wally Patterson. 

You’re both at Central Market, in the produce section. Wally’s at the olive bar, scooping tapenade. You’re picking up last-minute avocados for the taco salad mom’s making back at the house. It’s been two weeks since you came home to San Antonio. Time enough to establish taco salad as Friday night dinner. Time enough to start feeling like a ghost.  

The two of us proceeded to hash it out in the manner that people who like each other but aren’t really friends always hash it out. He told me about his job (“A finance guy”) and his upcoming marriage (“Houston in September”). But when the time came for me to talk about my life, I found myself helpless to do anything but lie. “Just in town for the weekend,” I told him. “Headed home to New Orleans soon.” Then two of us shook hands and said goodbye, and as I walked into the store, I felt sick enough to puke.

It was all too depressing—too strange of an echo-chamber existence to try to live and work in the actual setting of a book I was writing about myself. I saw then that, if I stayed in San Antonio, I wouldn’t become the writer who took himself out of his own life for a year to finish his novel; I would become instead my protagonist—and not the protagonist at book’s end, who demonstrates growth and learns to appreciate the lesson about life he’s supposed to learn. No, I’d become the jealous and reclusive protagonist of section one, the guy who lives at his mom’s and works as a part-time yardman—the guy who’d tell people he was working on a book but who really wasn’t. The guy who was miserable and needed escape.

And so I scrambled to write a new cover letter and blanketed universities across the southeastern United States for adjunct teaching work. And in less than a month’s time, I went from accepting a year at my mother’s in San Antonio to standing with my mother at an Enterprise Rental Car lot in Nacogdoches, TX, helping her load her suitcase into the mid-sized SUV she’d secured before I watched her drive away. Then, alone, I headed back to the tiny backhouse I rent on Wettermark Street, back to the new home in the new city where I’d found a new job and didn’t know a soul.

From the time I was seventeen to the start of my final year of grad school, I kept a regular online journal. It was something I could turn to in times of loneliness or boredom, a place where I could express myself without reservation. Most importantly, it was where, over years of constantly writing about myself and my experiences, I stumbled upon my want to become a writer. My journal offers hundreds of episodes from my life, from topics as generic and predictable as teenage ennui to meditations on subjects more serious, like struggling through an eating disorder and weighing the decision to leave LSU after a freshman year of borderline self-destruction. It is a memory bank, a candid time capsule preserved forever online.

I tend to revisit these journals whenever I find myself someplace new, and my transition to Nacogdoches has proved no exception. Life in East Texas is still strange and at times rather difficult. I’ve had no trouble making friends, but those I’ve made are a bit older, and all of them are either married, have children or both. Thus, much of my free time—and all of my weekends—is spent alone. And while the solitude here can be a little sad, I’ve found real comfort in reading through old entries; they are, after all, nothing if not a historical record of my ability to deal with change. My journal was there for me when I struggled to redefine my identity after losing a hundred pounds in my first year of college, and it was there for me in grad school as I suffered through the transition from a culture of bingeing to one of relative productivity. Of course, seeing so many examples of myself surviving—and often thriving—in these stressful times never fails to reassure me. But in my recent re-readings, I’ve caught myself wondering why, as my final year of grad school began, I so abruptly quit writing in my journal altogether. Perhaps it was because I was too busy with fiction and had to focus on finishing my thesis. Maybe, at twenty-four, I’d started to see the journal as a sort of self-obsessed diversion. Or maybe it was because I knew all too well that another big change was on its way, the biggest one ever, the one where I’d go from student to adult. Maybe I saw then more plainly life’s endlessly elliptical patterns: a man starts over; he gets comfortable; and then he starts over again. And maybe once I recognized that pattern, I saw, too, that I didn’t need to keep recording it. My journal’s final entry, a recap of my last summer as a grad student, ends like this:

As soon as I stepped onto my front porch and slid my key into the door, I knew that summer ’09 was over, and for that I felt both enlivened and sad. And now, when I look at [Milledgeville], this funky little town where I’ve resided since August of 2007, I know that I’m about to leave it, that I’m about be cast again into the unpredictable movements of life.    

So then what’s the point of this essay? Why am I writing this?

In the end, I guess it all goes back to that photo I received—the one of me at the wedding, the one of me alone on the balcony. I first saw it on a night not long after I got settled here. I was sitting at my kitchen table when the email arrived, and when I opened the file, I felt such a barrage of emotions, I found myself short of breath. In the span of something like sixty days, I’d gone from an almost Zen-like feeling of control to one of absolute and frightful waywardness. In that moment, as I gazed into that image of myself, I felt unhinged and afraid. And so I stood up and shook a big martini. And in the ensuing drunkenness, I let myself think.

Sometimes you find yourself surrounded by friends at a beach house in Virginia. You’re all struggling like hell to write books, but you’re not alone; you’re struggling there together. Sometimes you find yourself in a pavilion in a park in Ohio. It’s dark outside and music is playing and the people you love are dancing. And sometimes, on nights like those, you have to steal a moment alone on a balcony just to reflect on how good you’ve got it—how far you’ve come, how much you’ve grown, and how life will only get better from here. But then again, sometimes a phone call sets you reeling, and you find yourself alone in an East Texas town where you know no one and have no friends. You’re drunk and upset and staring into your bathroom mirror—staring at the stupid joke of a mustache that’s adorned your face now for months. And on nights like those, it’s important to lather your skin, to take the razor in your hand and shave as fast as you can—never mind that you’ve had too much gin to be doing this, never mind that you’ll end up taking a gash out of your chin. And when all is done, and you’re staring into your newly-naked face, sometimes it’s important, if only for a moment, to stand there and let yourself bleed—to sneer at your goofy, kid-face and remind yourself just how little control you’ve got. How you thought you’d live in New Orleans until you published your first book. How you wanted to write fiction to form new worlds but ended up just writing about yourself.

It’s easy to fool yourself into thinking you’ve got life figured out. That this time everything has permanence, that this time everything will click. It’s far less easy to stare at yourself in the mirror and be angry, to be saddened by your own naiveté, for being complicit in pretending you don’t understand the everyday chaos, the simple but hard truths of life you’ve understood since you were an MFA student writing in your journal about a memory from your last year at LSU:

Two years ago, I was a senior in college, on a boozy pleasure trip to Slidell, LA, with Sambo, Dunn, Ashley and Mike Sage. Besides getting drunk and high and swimming in a too-cold pool, I remember that weekend most for its being filled with curiosity about my life’s next juncture. I’d already been declined from a number of MFA programs, but Georgia College had sent me an encouraging e-mail, saying that they’d soon make a decision about my acceptance. Nothing was concrete then.

Two years from now, I could be anywhere. I go through my days with some abstract sense that I have a plan for the future. Then I sit back and think about it and realize that I don’t.

I wrote this passage at twenty-four. In the intervening years, I’ve written lines far prettier and more effective. But I don’t think I’ve written anything that comes even close to so accurately capturing the truth.

William Torrey lives and works in Baton Rouge. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Florida Review, The North American Review, Washington Square Review, Colorado Review, the Hawai'i Review, New Madrid and Zone 3, where his story "Trabajar" won the 2011 Editors' Prize. He is currently at work on a novel. @wshametorrey |