A Series of Accidents & Punctuation Marks
On a night like this, on top of the world (which is for the moment the roof outside your latest lover's window, the one with the teeth) you remember something you were told by someone whose face you can't remember but whose birthday was the same as yours. He leaned over you in the dark and whispered in your ear and with every sound uttered you realized that you agreed, you agreed completely, and you memorized the entire murmured monologue without even trying:
You are a story. More precisely, you are the result of one. Of a series of them. Put another way, words lined up in a certain order made you who and what you have become.
Do you need proof?
The stars are somewhere above you but you can’t see them. You trust they are there, with the same blind foolishness as you trusted the man with the monologue.
The beginning is usually the best place to start. There was a word there. Not chaos. Not god. There was a word, and who knows which it was. It’s a chicken and egg kind of problem. But what is known is that the word was followed by another. And possibly several more after that. Together, they made pictures inside of people’s heads. They explained how things worked. There were many questions, in the beginning. These were balanced by discoveries, exclamations of intent and conviction.
The man with the rasping whisper had distributed his weight evenly over you while he spoke. His toes were on top of your toes. His thighs were on top of your thighs. His groin was on top of yours. His face was the only thing that wasn’t directly on top of you. Its forehead was on the carpet so that his lips and breath and voice had the best access to your ear.
More recently than the beginning, your mother and father met under auspicious circumstances. Something aligned - maybe the stars, maybe the subway cars - and brought them together. Words were exchanged. Hello, probably. How are you, possibly. I love you, hopefully. Marry me, not necessarily. The two future copulators may have only gazed longingly at one another before rushing into the arms and orifices of the one opposite. Even if no words were spoken, they were thought. They described the event, narrated inside their heads. Your mother may have thought: my, what fine muscle, or flab, or hair. Your father might have pondered the weight of breast and buttock.
You had scoffed and were told not to. The breeze on the rooftop chills you as much as that order had. You wrap your arms around your knees and look up into the faceless monstrous skyscrapers that seem to be leaning towards you, converging, conspiring to topple over and bury you.
Don't scoff. And get that phlegm-ridden scowl off your face. There are bathrooms and loos and double-u-cees filled with more stories than your average family home. Each nick in the wall and scrawl on the door is evidence, precious because of its momentary testament. Every insert-name-here-was-here and blank-loves-blank and big-cock-call-me-for-satisfaction is the carbon copy of a story's beginning, middle, end or all three.
He thought he could teach you something. He had a scar on every finger and a razor handy at all times. He had a good body and a better mind.
Pretend, if it is easier for you, that you were not conceived in a bathroom stall on Route I-95 in the era of long skirts and big flowers inhabiting hair as often as lice. Your creators may have met at a funeral. A bar. A second-hand car lot. Maybe he sold her sunglasses. Maybe she gave him a nickel for the bus. Maybe there was a date.
He had told you to ask them. To demand to be told. To ply them for details. If you can’t, he told you, invent the details and keep them alive by repetition. No truth is more important than a well-crafted fiction.
If nothing else, you can be certain that there were many question marks leading up to your birth. Commas, fat and bold, tripped up sentences along the way. Pregnant pauses marking the ellipses. Run on sentences that went round and round in circles like run on sentences and never led much of anywhere except to more words that were sometimes stopped in the midd
You are particularly aware of your homosapien qualities on top of this roof. You lack the useful tools to blend in, to cling to surfaces, to prey successfully and without consequence. You are covered in useless fine hair that doesn’t keep you warm. You can’t stalk, you can’t build a home, you can’t migrate without baggage.
You were a story inside someone's belly. Happy, sad, ambivalent, you were there as solidly as a full stop. You were a growing organism that fed like a parasite off a woman. All things may be equal but you can be certain that you were inside of a woman for some period of time. You were nothing at all one moment, and the next you were a something. One moment you were not. Next moment you were.
The man with the weight and the monologue and the tickling moustache and curling chest hair might belong to one of the lights of the city splayed out above and beneath you. Or he is somewhere else. Or he is not at all anymore.
Have you ever thought of what happens in between? Think of it as a colon. There were things that happened before, things that were important to your becoming and then: a conception, a pregnancy, a birth, and you.
Your current lover, the one with the teeth, stretches a head out the window and shouts that it’s cold. You should go in. You stay outside.
You were not, of course, really you quite yet. You were telling stories from the very second you became, but that is not enough. It takes a great many stories to make a person. To make a mind. That does not mean that babies who die in their first week are not people. They have told a great many stories by then. Dead babies have told the story of their hunger, the story of their weak lungs, the story of their aching belly or tumor-ridden brain. By the time a baby has died, it has discovered the joints in its hands or the tickle in its feet. It has learned that there are sounds and sights and flavors, and if it has not had any of those, it has at least had the story of blood running through veins and thrumming through the small of its back and the thick artery at the side of the neck that juts out when it needs to.
But you lived, because here you are, solid and yielding to the pleasures and pains of the world. You slept your first nights through or woke someone up with shouts of exhilarated new need. You were picked up and dandled or left in your crib to cry. You were shaped by the decisions that were made about you long before you became the bearer of your own yeses and nos.
If you happened to see the man again one day, the man with the monologue and the lullabies and the coffee in the morning and the love poems at night, you would tell him a story. You tap a rhythm with your unscarred fingertips on the brick ledge you sit on and you try to narrate the life you have lived since he left it. You wonder if there are words enough in the universe to close the gap between a time of being and a time of not.
You are a story and you always will be a story. You are the one on the rooftop and the one in my bed and the one sitting alone in a diner and picking at your eggs. You will be in my pages and I will be in yours. And there is no truth more important than that.
You suck at the ink-stain on your finger and wonder whose page you’re on, yours or his.
About the Writer
Ilana Masad is an Israeli-American writer living in NYC. Her fiction, non-fiction, and reviews have appeared in The New Yorker, Printer's Row, Tin House's Open Bar, McSweeney's, The Toast, The Rumpus, Hypertext Magazine, and more. She is also the founder of TheOtherStories.org, a podcast featuring new, emerging, and struggling writers. She is unfortunately an obsessive tweeter (@ilanaslightly) and more of her work can be found at slightlyignorant.com.