Lee stood in the middle of the nature preserve, his crosstraining shoes upon the concrete path of the city greenway, and looked up through light pollution at the dim outlined threads of the Milky Way galaxy.
The ends of his toes were calloused from running inside shoes a half-size too small, Lee unable to afford a new pair, his three-dollar pair of running shorts and twenty-year old T-shirt a reminder that the life of a middle-aged ascète led him to austerity years before austerity was cool all over again for the very next time.
He felt a pain on the left side of his neck that throbbed through the back of his shoulder, down into his left shoulder blade like a thick rubber band freezing up.
He was tired, a deep-seated nervousness gripping him like an invisible creature digging its claws into his upper back, its body hovering over him, hunching him over like a crooked old man.
Recent phrases echoed in his head, repeatedly refreshing themselves in volume before decaying into icy pain in his neck. “It’s not about what’s in your pants,” which translated into “You’re not attractive as a man.” “You’re one of my weird friends,” which translated into “You’re lucky I consider you a friend because otherwise you wouldn’t have any.” “He’s very passive-aggressive with his wife,” which translated into “Every time I see you, I talk about another person being passive-aggressive to hint to you about your own passive-aggressive issues.”
Lee took a deep breath.
He knew that writing stories was his way of dealing with a world he didn’t understand, his coping mechanism, his stress relief, his private conversation with himself as his own best friend because he trusted no one else to listen to him without judgement or reinterpretation.
His arms and hands drooped by his side.
Lee felt small, like the iridescent insects that hunkered down in the grass next to the greenway, their eyes or wing shells reflecting the light of the LED headlamp he wore while running after dark.
He had always been uncomfortable in his body, hearing kids make fun of his clumsiness, overhearing his father tell other fathers it’s not always what a kid can’t do on the ballfield that counts, his father bragging about Lee’s academic study habits and keen interest in both science and sports.
Lee put his hands on his hips, watching puffs of his breath rise up through the light beam pointing off his forehead.
He had only pretended to be interested in science and sports to keep his father’s anger directed away from Lee.
Lee knew at an early age that it was not his own interests that kept peace in the family, it was ensuring that his father’s anger was kept under control.
Thus, Lee had learned it was not what he liked that mattered.
He walked the world in fear. He developed a survivor’s mentality. He could easily tick off on his fingers what he didn’t like but had no idea what he liked for himself.
Writing was therapy, a purifying source of anti-joy that propped him up.
His thought patterns started splitting themselves into what made his father leave him alone, what made school bullies leave him alone and whatever else kept controversy and the fear of physical/mental abuse to a minimum.
After an automobile smashup in his teens, a lot of his thought patterns were reshuffled, his fears realigned, the noise in his thoughts, a kind of screaming pain with no source, making him wish every day that he was dead if the pain of the discordant thoughts would just go away and leave him alone in peace.
Years of self therapy ensued.
He depended upon the kindness of strangers to see his body in their own image, awarding him a four-year university scholarship based more on imagery than cold, hard facts. The facade quickly crumbled when Lee arrived at university, with no study skills, no motivation and little in the way of a support network for Lee himself rather than a system that was geared to keep him going down the road toward an officer’s commission in the U.S. Navy.
He spent hours in the Georgia Tech library looking at diagrams of early personal computers, dreaming of building his own, back in his parents’ basement when he was in high school playing with hand-assembled CPU systems that did little more than accept octal code in memory and display it back, Lee unable to understand how to go any further, his brain lacking logic circuitry to convert opcodes into useful subroutines and programs that weren’t spelled out in a programmer’s cookbook.
He walked the streets of Atlanta by himself, fearful of local gangs looking to protect their turf by beating a white kid in nominally black neighbourhoods.
He let his charm and innocent, nonthreatening personality protect him, which they did.
He never cared about his grades. He barely studied for the freshman calculus and chemistry classes that felt like his father’s threats all over again, leaving him no escape this time, finally showing his father the falsehood, failure and disappointment that Lee had felt he had been to his father, who had based his pride on a son simply hoping to survive childhood, if not die by a random mugging in some dark downtown Atlanta alleyway.
Those nine months in Atlanta taught Lee he had no friends. He had people who wanted to be friends with him until Lee shared his odd thought patterns with them, breaking the iconic imagery he represented in their thoughts, quickly walking away, watching them shake their heads as they wondered who he was.
Years of loneliness followed as Lee wandered from one person’s pretend image of him to the next.
He kept his thoughts to himself, burying them deeper.
He believed he was a gentle soul who just wanted to live in a cabin in the woods, freed from the cycle of first impressing and then unimpressing people, tired of one disappointment after another.
The girl from his summer camp days, with whom he had exchanged handwritten letters in the mail, seemed to be the only one who never saw Lee as strange or disappointing.
He loved her and hated her for accepting him as he was because by loving him she accepted him as a product of his father whom he feared which meant that Lee feared her, too.
Lee’s thoughts drifted, returning to the present.
How long had he stood by himself under the stars on a concrete path surrounded by woodland wrapped by suburban tracts filled with thousands of people?
He held the contemplative thoughts in as close a sequence as possible for writing down later on.
His thoughts were the only thing that mattered to him, worth more than gold.
He had once been a person who negotiated multimillion-dollar international contracts, flying across the globe for meetings, wondering when he was going to fulfill his dream of an ascète, withdrawing from the world his only hope for quieting the painful noise in his thoughts that never went away except when he was drunk or asleep, constantly on alert to cocoon himself from his business colleagues so they wouldn’t see his brain was crisscrossed with insane thought patterns.
The numbed ends of his toes and the needlepoint pains in his hips woke him from his daydream.
He shuffle-jogged over the concrete pathway, knowing he had forty-five more minutes with himself on the trail and roadside to add to his thoughts that he’d write down after he returned home, kissed his wife, petted the cats and showered.
The life of the frugal millionaire was coming back to him again, as close to happiness as a hunched-over simple man could ask for before he died, as entertained by a caterpillar munching on a redbud leaf outside the window as by the behaviour of his species in its desire to develop and maintain weapons of mass destruction as a form of godlike deterrent against the use of our worst hatred toward people unlike us.
Lee had learned to manage his fear. What about the other seven-plus billion of us?