If you can't attend this season's fetes
Simply send in your regrets
When a guy needs your reply
You don't have to lie
Use the two-letter word that's so taboo
If I can say it, so can you
Some men will shrug politely
Other men will sit quietly
Some people just can't say no, I can't say anything but
Some ladies will say maybe
Others'll utter a "hm, we'll see"
Some people just can't say no, I can't say anything but
Silence is golden
Unless you're holdin'
A ticket to your colleague's one-man show
You know you should go,
But it fills you with dread
So you lie and say you're sick in bed instead
When I receive an invitation for a night out on the town
I am of the inclination to turn that invite down
In response to your rsvp, you don't need to guess
I won't need a party dress when I don't circle yes
When someone makes you a resistible offer
There's one answer that you can proffer
If you're prone to give the cold shoulder
Throw 'em a bone, be a bit bolder
Forget the brush off, don't simply rush off
Why keep 'em in suspense and make a situation tense
Give it go, deliver the blow and just say no
There once was a fella called Marc
who was jonesin' for a caffeine spark
When he ordered his coffee
he said "Marc with a C"
But the barista made a latte for Cark
That's certainly the legend spreading across the vast Internet superhighway, anyway. My name is Cark and I am Internet famous. Or, rather, my name is Internet famous. One year ago, on an ordinary Tuesday, I ordered my regular fancy coffee drink from a popular fancy coffee chain, like I do on ordinary Tuesdays. I recall this particular Tuesday because I made a special trip to renew my gold status in the rewards program, which was set to expire that week. In the months prior, I'd shifted my loyalties to the independent coffee place in my office building. But I still like to treat myself during birthday week to a free frothy mocha drink, courtesy of the rewards program. So I went in, queued up, placed my order for my grande, half-caf soy cinnamon latte with caramel drizzle, picked it up at the end of the counter, then continued with the rest of my boring little day. Three days later, my sister sent me a link to a photo posted on snapchat that was going viral. It was my cup with my name and the code for my complex concoction with the caption "i said my name was marc with a c."
Suddenly, it was everywhere. My cup was being shared by strangers on Reddit, Tumblr, Facebook, Flickr, Instagram, Pinterest, and even the long neglected LiveJournal. Every man called Marc is now being forwarded a photo of my Starbucks cup with the caption "I said my name was Marc with a C." People comment to complain about baristas forever bungling simple names. There are Tumblrs dedicated to sharing cups with mangled monikers. It was through one of these blogs that I happened to see the "I said my name was Stephen with a PH" meme featuring a receipt spelling the name "Phteven." Phteven predates my meme by several months. It seems that some social media expert must have deduced that Cark is catchier, zippier than Phteven, and has better traction for virality several times over.
I am no stranger to being misidentified. Throughout grade school, my teachers called me Clark. My first girlfriend called me Carl for three months. My supervisor's boss insists that my name is Kirk. My own Starbucks cup has come up as Carla on several occasions. This meme, however, is a first.
Cark is an old family name. When the last of the Carks perished, new generations elected to honour the memory by bestowing the former surname onto newer generations. The rest of the men in my family leave the name safely buried in the middle, reducing it to an initial and going about their life Cark-free. My parents were saddled with the chore of paying homage to two great dead men, which is how I came to be known as Evelyn Cark Schmutzfänger. I've pleaded with my mother to let me change one of my names but family tradition was more important than the relentless torment of her precious child. For a few glorious years—thanks to high metabolism and a pallor befitting a guy with a proclivity for staying indoors with television and video games—I was given the slightly cooler nickname Carcass.
Now I'm just plain old Cark. Or, I was until Carkbucks happened and every guy called Marc who's ever had to say "It's Marc with a 'C'" suddenly gets this Cark cup meme from people they haven't heard from in years—school friends, distant relatives, the ex-girlfriends of guys Marc doesn't even hang out with anymore. I know what the Marcs are going through because some of them have tracked down my email and complained, at length, about how they're getting this "joke" sent to them. A couple of them have sent nasty messages telling me to stop mocking them, to stop encouraging the meme. They believe that my name on my social media profile is taking the "joke" too far.
On my Instagram, I posted a photo of my most recent Starbucks cup with my name hastily scribbled on the side and my cherished gold card, with my name clearly printed on the front. Cark Schmutzfanger — member since 2013, long before this stupid meme. People just laugh, tack it onto the original Snapchat image and claim Sbux just gets it wrong everywhere.
Is it fair to blame the employees of an international coffee chain? Sure, baristas are notorious for getting names wrong, but who wouldn't, with the din and buzz and whirring blenders at the height of the morning rush. Coffee cups aren't the only way our names get screwed up. In general everyday conversation, people are constantly misunderstanding each other and using their internal—frequently faulty—auto-fill and auto-correct functions. They only listen to the first part of a name, question, or answer to a basic inquiry, and fill in the rest automatically under the assumption that they know what you mean. Sometimes they believe they misheard you—or you misspoke—and adjust what they heard to what they believe you meant. Hilarity ensues. Embarrassment abounds. Cark becomes Clark and Carl and Kirk and Carol and Cartman and Corky and Cook and Mark. And when you try to correct them, they'll make excuses like, "Well, you look like a Carl" or "I guess I'm thinking of someone else this guy's introduced me to." The coffee industry isn't a threat to personal brands—it's the whole human race.
I changed my name on Facebook for a while, at the height of Carkbucks. When I shared a link to a news story about how there's so much garbage in the ocean, we pretty much definitely have plastic in our diet, an aunt posted a comment underneath that said "Yikes. Hey, why did you change your name? I didn't recognize you and almost unfriended you." This from the woman who, for my last birthday commented "HBD Cerk." What hope can we have for humanity when our Facebook friends can't get the spelling of our names correct while wishing us happy birthdays when the name right there next to the box they just typed hbd into?
Look, it was my cup. It was presumptuous of that Marc guy to lay claim to it. Now Marcs the world over are getting Cark cups and I'm getting harassed because a lot of people have a banal sense of humour. I can't even order fancy coffee drinks with my own name anymore because the baristas are hip to the meme now. When I give my name, the kid scribbling on my cup gives me a knowing smirk, like I'm trying to trick him. I can't go to other cafes with pick-up counters where they shout your name for fear of a Marc encounter. My gold reward membership status is in serious danger. The worst part is that neither I nor the originator of the meme can parlay this Internet fame into monetary gains. Hashtag: first world problem.
Eventually the meme will be forgotten by the masses. Aunts and acquaintances will pass along another viral LOL they picked up from their cousins and church buddies. They won't understand the lingering resentment, irritation, fear, and pain caused by their clueless Carkening. My friends will go back to ridiculing my top knot and my keytar instead of saying, "Hey, did you see that meme? That's hiLARious!" But I'll never again be able to meet a Marc without apologizing for my own name. At least I know my name isn't Phteven.
[The above was a work of fiction. Here's a YouTube video from the "original" Marc (with a 'C') about The Carkening.]
Someone in this coffee shop is going to die. Well, he wants to die. Well, he thinks he wants to die. He feels like he's already dead, a ghost who has commandeered a human suit but has lost whatever it is that drives people to lead vibrant, productive lives. It is this feeling, or lack of feeling, that motivated Adam to pull one of the tabs on the "Planning a suicide? Call this number" flyer on the coffee shop's community bulletin board. Unable to overcome his phone anxiety, he texts the number and receives an immediate reply to meet up this afternoon. He agrees and waits at his regular table.
The coffee shop is buzzing as the late afternoon crowd queues up for their post-lunch fix. It's always the same mix of business casual clientele bribing themselves with frothy treats to push through the rest of the work day, the bone-tired workers in danger of falling asleep again on their long commute home, and the telecommuters who ran out of coffee and clean pajamas at home. The other tables are full of the sort of characters you expect to see at three-thirty on a Wednesday afternoon. The gossiping high schoolers gab over caffeinated milkshakes near the window. Two business guys chug black coffee in their rolled up shirtsleeves while testing the boundaries of political incorrectness in banter and behaviour. Across the aisle, an ill-timed job interview is taking place. An employer's attempt to seem casual backfires as the overdressed applicant, already jittery from nerves, tries to overcome sweaty palms and dry mouth while sneaking sips of her latte between questions about what kind of animal she would be in an office emergency and what weaknesses will she have in five years. Adam's tiny two-top table tucked next to the condiment counter is prime observation real estate. He, however, is unaffected by the crowds, even as people lightly bump his seat as they load their coffee drinks with extra milk and sugar and the occasional dusting of cinnamon.
He takes no notice as Sue breezes into the shop and finds the quickest path to his table. Sue immediately recognizes the man who called for help—the ratty college hoodie, the neglected neck stubble, the faint aroma of someone who said goodbye to good hygiene some time ago, vacant stare into the middle distance—Adam displays all the classic signs of a man who's not only given up hope, he's driven it out to a desert, chained it to a cactus, sliced open its belly and left it to bleed out alone in the sweltering heat. He barely blinks as she pulls the empty chair out just enough to squeeze into it and sets her oversized leather handbag on the floor.
"Yes?" he confirms.
"Hi, Adam, I'm Sue. I got your texts."
"So! You’re planning a suicide!"
Sue's enthusiasm is just the thing to lift Adam's fog of indifference. He blinks and focuses on the young extrovert now perched across from him. Sue retrieves a business card from her bag and passes it off to Adam. The card reads:
Personal Mortality Strategist
Adam studies her as she scrolls through her phone to adjust notification settings. Severe is the first word that jumps to mind—her hair pulled back just a touch too tight and her bun just a little too neat. She wears a navy blue suit, polyester with a fake light blue pocket square peeking out from a fake breast pocket. The skirt length hasn't been in vogue since the early-aughts. The whole thing was probably bought in haste from a mall boutique for a job interview in the neighbouring corporate complex. She aims for successful entrepreneur look but falls just shy of a junior stewardess.
"Oh, erm, well…I have been thinking about it," he replies.
"Mm-hmm, well, as you know, suicide is a big step. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime event for most people. I mean, it’s a huge commitment. And it requires more preparation than you might think."
Adam nods and says, "I understand. I just don’t know what my options are."
Sue reaches down to her handbag and pulls out an overstuffed binder which lands with such a thud as her sets it on the table that it even distracts the gabbing girls from their milkshakes and boy band debate.
"You called at the right time then. There are tons of options!" Sue opens the binder and starts flipping through pages of stationery samples, checklists, vision boards, and graphic scenes of suicide attempts.
"So, this is your first attempt at suicide, right?"
"Good. We can start from scratch. What people don't grasp is that suicide requires a LOT of planning. Like, you have to decide how do you want to be found, what you want to wear, is it a destination suicide or an intimate home affair? How much are you looking to spend? Do you want to go cheap or spend every last dime? If you just wanna do something simple at home, that's a popular choice, but it lacks oomph. If you want to stage your event somewhere else, you have to book the venue, make sure you have the proper permits, and, oh, you've gotta hire a clean up crew! No one ever really thinks about clean up. And it doesn't matter how simple or elaborate, there's always a mess, but once the guest of honour is gone, who's left to pick up the pieces?
"Now, as a suicide strategist, I can source venues and provide all the paperwork, even make arrangements for any pre-event rituals or activities. Legally, however, I cannot be on site or assist at the time of the actual event.
"Have you given any thought to how you want to do it? Where? When? Like, a sunset suicide is really dramatic if you prefer to hang yourself, especially if you find the perfect tree on a hilltop. A silhouette corpse dangling from a tree against a brilliant orange sunset. Soooo stunning. Very Gone With the Wind. But you could also set it at your childhood home or outside the home or office of your biggest nemesis. Lots of options to consider.”
Adam silently mulls the onslaught of suicidal possibilities laid out before him. 'Destination suicide? Who sets aside money to spend on killing themselves? Rich dying guys, probably. Is this what suicidal people think about, fantasizing over how they want to die? What if you haven't obsessed on your own dying moments, does that mean you're not serious in contemplating suicide?'
The delayed and subdued responses from Adam arouses Sue's anxiety. Sensing this prospective client requires some cajoling, she turns her attention to her binder, flipping through her specially designed forms and worksheets for the client suicide checklist, a document she created for people like, well, Adam, she guessed. She looks up from her binder and addresses Adam again, "So, have you decided on your method?"
"No. I mean, I guess I've considered a few things. I don't like pain."
"Who does, right?! Most of my clients inquire about painless and peaceful options."
"Like sleeping pills?"
"Surprisingly, sleeping pills are not that effective. There’s a lot of romantic notions about overdosing when the truth is it takes a looooong time and it’s not the pain-free escape that most people think. Overdosing is what you do when you’re actually hoping to be rescued by your lover when they’re about to break up with you or leave town. Actually, according to statistics, the most successful method in terms of lethality is the classic shotgun to the head. Go out with a bang is the surefire quickest method with the least agony, but it is messy and you’ve really got to have the motivation to follow through. If guns aren’t your thing, there are other methods but the pain factor increases as well as the time it takes. You can really put on a show and set yourself on fire or literally take a flying leap, depending on how theatrical you want your final moments to be. However, your risk of survival does increase with those methods, so you’d need to be prepared for that likelihood."
In his 43 years, Adam had never thought about death and dying as much as in these last fifteen minutes. He wasn't sure that he really wanted to die. 'Isn't there some way to just...stop existing for a while? Has science invented invisibility yet? How can you disappear, guilt-free from responsibilities and expectations, but still be able to watch television?' As he considers the expense of suspended animation, Sue pushes on with her suicide checklist.
"Oh! Have you written a note?"
"You really gotta leave a note. You don’t want to leave your death open to speculation."
"I guess not?"
"Now, these days, people don't like reading so much, so you could make a suicide video for YouTube or even something super short, like a Vine or Instagram. You don't wanna leave a Facebook status update because that'll never show up in the newsfeed. Just between you and me, my business has nearly tripled since Facebook. I mean, jeez, no one clicked 'like' on the meme you posted four minutes ago and you think that's a reason to kill yourself? Like, c'mon! What's your online reach?"
"Friends, followers, subscribers...what are your numbers?"
"Uh, I've got a few followers on Twitter. My network is pretty big on Google Plus."
"Is that bad?"
"I can see why you called for help. It'll be tough, but I think we can work with that. How far in advance do you want to organize this? Do you have a list of people to notify? Most of my clients plan about three months ahead, to give friends and family ample time to respond."
'Since when is death something to be celebrated and promoted? Are we really sending out invitations to our self-destruction? People arrange their own funerals,' Adam muses. He hasn't even told her that he wants to die. She hasn't asked. What would he say if she did ask? Does he even have a choice at this point? Adam decides it's time to speak up.
"Okay, I phoned thinking someone would talk me through this."
"Yeah, that's what I'm doing."
"No, I mean, help me get past these thoughts."
"So, this is more like a cry for help thing?"
"Yeah, you don't need a stranger talking you down. This is for close friends to rally around to give support. What better way to find who your true besties are than a suicide announcement?"
"Sure, we'll print some invites and send 'em to your nearest dearest. We'll work out all the details for the event. Or you could throw a bequeathal, kind of like a bridal shower but instead of getting gifts, you'll give things away. Or we could go really simple with save the date cards."
"Shouldn't you at least try to talk me out of killing myself?"
Sue closes the binder and feels her face flush from the realization of her faux pas. Here she has launched into full strategist mode without asking perhaps the most important question. Other clients were eager to divulge their suicide schemes to her without encouragement. She'd become desensitized to the process and now came to expect immediate immersion into the macabre.
"Aren't you even going to ask me why?"
"Why? Why you want to kill yourself? Why does anyone decide to do anything? Why do people get married? Why do they get divorced six months later? Why do they throw lavish parties for puppies and newborn babies? Why do people hire specialists to clean out their messy closets? Why do people move across the country or across the world? Why do they volunteer in third world countries? Why do we cut our hair and get tattoos and go along with pretentious diet fads? We're all just grasping at something, anything to give our lives meaning. We need definition and purpose to our lives, otherwise what's the point? It's like we're all set on this path that we're supposed to follow in order to live the Ideal Life. If you stray from that path at any point, you feel like you've failed. If you discover the path is ultimately unfulfilling, you feel like a failure. If you decide to avoid the path altogether, everyone else makes you feel like a failure. Adam, do you have a job?"
"Yeah, but it makes me miserable."
"Do you think being a 'suicide strategist' is my dream job?"
"I really want to say no."
"Of course I don't want to be a suicide planner! I haven't had a steady, secure job since before the recession. I've got a master's degree in event management but there's only so many events to be managed by one company. I've tried doing other things—I've been a wedding organizer, personal brand consultant, bark mitzvah planner, personal grocery logistics and transportation coordinator, flash mob supervisor, and a personal priorities manager. Sometimes you fall down and sometimes there's no one around to pick you up and you have to decide whether it's worth picking yourself up and starting over again.
"So, why do you want to die, Adam? And why should I, a complete stranger, try to second guess your motivation? Who am I to say a life should continue or not? Do you really need someone to spew a bunch of life-affirming cliches while you're in your darkest hour?
"Did your parents stop talking to you? You've had too many failed relationships? You've been swiped left too many times or that job never turned into a career, and all your friends moved on with their lives and left no forwarding address? Maybe you've had to start over again so many times that you're exhausted and no one understands how hard it is to get up in the morning and send out another round of CVs and face another day of silent rejection. Maybe you've tried everything and have become so numb that you find no joy in anything. Sunrises and sunsets and raindrops and brownies and Julie frickin' Andrews herself just don't do it for you anymore. You've heard all the music, read all the books, seen all the movies and none of it sparked joy or inspired an interest in life beyond the dark void inside you?
"It doesn't matter what's pushed you over the edge to rock bottom or what put the last straw on the camel's back. The fact is you're here, so why not get some attention? So we send out announcements and write thank you notes to the few people who are still important to you. We go through every detail leading up to that fatal day to make it seem like the most important day of your life. Because it is."
The late afternoon rush turns to an early-evening hush. Aside from Adam and Sue, a trio of elderly Ukranian women discussing Canadian politics over tea have replaced the gaggle of teenage girls. In the prolonged quiet following her monologue, Sue recognizes how callous she's been, not just with Adam but with all her clients and about the overall subject of death. She's self-conscious and embarrassed, wondering whether she should quietly excuse herself, remove her flyer from the community bulletin board, and consider going back to school to study economics or digital archiving. Instead, Adam breaks the somber silence between them.
"I never thought about all that. Death, life...living. I just shut down, became numb to everything. You've made some valid points. I failed or, rather, I feel like I've failed. I'm 43 with no family, no friends, no career. I was on the path and didn't realize early enough that I needed to take action to make things happen. I was always waiting for things to happen to me. And when things didn't happen to me, I just wondered what was wrong with me that I didn't get the girl or the job or the fruits of the middle-class American Dream placed in my entitled little hands without really trying. I was waiting for you to help me in the way that I've been conditioned to want help, all the while you have been helping me from the moment you sat down. I don't know how to fix my life. Can it be fixed? Can I take up a new hobby and find new passion without feeling judged that I left it too late? Do I want to? Is it too late to be discovered as an artistic genius or do I settle for being discovered some early morning, floating face down in the neighbour's above ground pool? It's not your job to tell me what to do or try to fix me. It's not anyone else's job."
Adam reaches across the table for the binder, pulls it around to face him, and starts flipping through pages.
"You're sure this is the direction you want to go?"
"It's a jumping off point. I mean, it's something to do, at least. Most people aren’t in control of their own death. Maybe some people buy burial plots and coffins, maybe people make a will, some create a mix tape to be played at their funeral. We tend to leave the actual dying up to fate. What if your death doesn't live up to your legacy? What if I can make my death more spectacular than my life?"
"Right. Okay. If you really want to start this process, here's my rate sheet. You'll see all the services itemized. Here, I'm giving a seminar on suicide planning at the Ramada Plaza this weekend. Why don't you come out, meet some of my other clients and get a better idea about services and whatnot?"
Adam turns to the invitation samples in the binder and pulls a simple cream-coloured card with a dark burgundy border from its matching envelope.
"This looks nice for a bequeathal announcement."
"That is one of the more popular designs. I just attended one last weekend. It's a really good way to clear junk out of the garage!"
The coffee shop staff grows restless as closing time nears, becoming more intrusive with nearby tables and cleaning up the condiment station. Sue takes the cue and loads the binder into her handbag.
"Well, Adam, it was a pleasure to meet you and I think, going forward, we'll be successful in embarking on your end-of-life endeavour."
Adam rises from his seat for the first time since arriving two hours prior. He notices a slight ache in the left buttock of his human suit, likely from sitting on the round wooden cafe chair for so long. The twinge doesn't set off the usual "all life is pain and why even bother" internal spiel. He grabs Sue's free hand with both of his hands and with all the sincerity his ghost pilot can muster, says, "Thank you, Sue. Really, thank you."
"No worries, Adam. We'll touch base soon."
With that, Sue quickly walks to the door and out onto the street before he can see the tears welling. She made too many missteps with this prospective client—too candid, too rough, too vulnerable. How often has she neglected the needs, the cries for help with other clients? How many people is she shoving towards the grave? No one has taken action, but she hasn’t actually tried to stop them either. Despite her glaring lack of compassion, a trait she's vowed to remedy in future encounters, perhaps she is saving lives in her own odd way.
Adam exits the coffee shop and starts off in the opposite direction of Sue. As he skims the back of the brochure for the suicide planning workshop, he notices how much lighter he feels. While not quite hopeful, he catches himself actually looking forward to the workshop and Sue. Beautiful, strange Sue. He's caught up in thoughts of Sue as he crosses the street that he is oblivious to the screech of the approaching truck.
Ladies and Gentlemen, if I could offer you one thing, background noise would be it. The long term benefits of background noise have been proven in rec rooms and bedrooms for years, while the rest of my advice is nothing more than my own meandering experience. I will dispense the background noise now.
Enjoy the power and beauty of classic sitcoms like Dobie Gillis. Never mind, you will never understand the power and the beauty of Dobie and Maynard until they've faded. But trust me, in twenty years, you will look back and recall in a way you can't grasp now, how funny they were and how much impact Maynard G. Krebs had on the slacker generation.
Sing theme songs.
Don't waste your time with channel surfing. Sometimes there's something good, sometimes there's not. In the end, you go back to the first show you were watching.
Remember the good programs, forget the horrible ones. If you succeed in this, tell me how.
Stretch out on the sofa.
Don't feel guilty if you don't know what you want to do with your life. Doogie Howser knew at 15 what he wanted to do. George from Seinfeld still doesn't know.
Maybe Rhoda's sister will marry, maybe she won't. Maybe Martha Stewart will do a children's show, maybe she won't. Maybe Growing Pains will have a reunion show on their 15th anniversary and we'll remember Ben's real name.
Dance. Even if it's to a Rhino Records compilation CD commercial.
Read the small print on life insurance commercials, even if you have to squint.
Do not watch E!'s Fashion Emergency, it will only make you feel ugly.
Get to know your parents. They watch television, too.
Be nice to your siblings. They are your best link to your past and the people most likely to join you around the kitchen table for a clip show.
Understand that F*r*i*e*n*d*s come and go, but there's always syndication.
Live in New York once, but leave before you upset the Soup Nazi.
Live in California once, but leave before you start saying "It's like, you know."
Accept certain inalienable truths, commercials will air, TV movies starring Valerie Bertinelli will be made, U2 will get old and you'll fantasize that commercials were witty, Valerie Bertinelli was a good actress, and U2 was a great band.
Don't expect anyone to like the same shows as you. Use the remote for good. Be careful not to lose it, but know that if it does get lost, it will turn up somewhere.
Don't have the volume up too loud or when you're 40, you'll hear like you're 85.
Be careful which channels you watch, and be patient with the cable service that provides it. Television programs are a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of taking good ideas from the past, modernizing it and recycling it for more than it's worth. But trust me on the background noise.
(heavily influenced by "Wear Sunscreen")
written in 1999, recently discovered amongst the dusty bytes and pixels. We're having a .wav rave later. BYOBMPs.
You Are Here. So says this mall directory. It's really "you are here" scribbled a neon orange sticker that's been stuck on this backlit map for Eastdale Mall. And it is true, X marks the spot of this shady mall corridor with the shoe repair, one of three nail salons, and a travel agent, which used to be a comic shop or a collectable baseball card place. I don't need to be here. I mean, I've been coming to this mall since before I could walk. I know where all the stores are, that the flagship stores used to be Pizzitz's and Gaylord's before they were Dillards and Sears. I just don't know why I'm here today.
I woke up this morning feeling a bit lost, so I instinctively came to the mall, this shrine to commerce and capitalism full of shop windows glittering with potential and promises—and price tags carefully tucked out of sight. Mild dissatisfaction with life can be temporarily assuaged with plastic goods and fried foods. I consider walking into the travel agency and asking for a one-way ticket to Anywheresville.
I've been standing here, staring at this map, for probably fifteen minutes. I'm lost in a daydream about some adventure where I become a new Doctor Who companion and go off to do space battles. It starts where I'm standing and the Doctor runs up to me and tells me he needs my help. How's he know whether I can help him or not? How's he get any of these girls? What if it's all some weird coma dream, like all these companion types are in comas and having these fantasies and the Doctor is just their real ordinary doctor filtering through into their dreamscapes? I never really make it to actual space battles because I'm always sidetracked by these questions. The fantasy and the reality of being approached by a strange man in a shopping mall are vastly different. In reality, if you're invited to join some random dude in his van, you're probably gonna wind up on tomorrow night's news. But I grew up with fanciful tales of girls running off and having adventures, sometimes stealing away with a mysterious gentleman, and I fully expected this to happen to me. Forget Prince Charming, I'd rather have the Goblin King or a Time Lord. Wandering these corridors of consumerism, I've often hoped a stranger would swoop in and offer the chance to go somewhere and do something, without care that it might lead to danger or death. My picture on a milk carton was the least of my concerns.
This is where I am when the voice behind me says, "It's weird how we never really get to see our own skulls, innit?"
The reflection in the mall directory reveals a man. My initial instinct is to remain still and ignore him in the hopes that he'll move on. Nothing good can come of an interaction that begins with a comment about human skulls. Right? He sounds British, though. Is he British? Is he the Doctor?
He speaks again, "I mean, there's x-rays and stuff, but that's all imaging. But it's like the one thing that belongs to us that no one's trying to tell us how to change or make it better because no one can see the thing. If we could, there'd be all sorts of bone whiteners and skull etchings and shit. Sorry. Shit. Have I freaked you out a bit? I've freaked you out. Shit. Sorry. I'm not a murderer. Of course, that's what a murderer would say."
As he babbled on, I studied his reflection. He looks pale but fit; his tight black t-shirt accentuating his broad shoulders and muscular arms, skinny red plaid pants, and silver Doc Martens. His hair black and shaggy. Atop his head is a tiny bowler hat fascinator. What is this dude's deal? Do I turn around? Do I run?
Apparently, I speak. "I'm Sarah."
Well, now I've done it. Might as well turn around and face the...holy hell, he's pretty.
"I'm Geoff. With a G...ah, and an O, I suppose."
Geoff with a G is wearing full eye makeup and shiny, bubble gum-tinted lip gloss, details not accurately reflected in the mall directory. He's pretty but not in a campy way. This is a man who knows how to accentuate his features. Oh God, I haven't eliminated all my embarrassing Instagram selfies. If this turns bad, the media will choose the one from my 26th birthday where sipping wine from an oversized bottle through a novelty straw while wearing an old-fashioned soda jerk paper hat.
He says, "You look like you could do with a bit of something. Adventure? Travel? A Cinnabon?"
"Which are you offering?"
"How would you like to join a ragtag collective of vampire pirates pissing about on a boat?"
An otherworldly creature offering a grand adventure? Fuck marriage and babies — this is every little girl's dream. Wait. "You're a vampire? It's mid-morning, though. And I can see your reflection."
"Yeah, there's a lot of misinformation spread about vampires. Like, we're not all sparkly bats who can be brought down by garlic and daytime. Brian does haves a garlic allergy but that just means we don't use pesto on pasta night..."
Geoff continues on about light sensitivity and different strains of vampirism. Do I go to mall security or dash off to the ladies room? He could be on the level or completely mad. He might actually follow me into the washroom.
"...while some doctors reckon it's a blood disorder that could be treated if we were willing to sacrifice our bodies for science. Anyway, Bobby's put together a stellar pamphlet about vampire myths. He usually does the recruiting."
"Are you, what'd you say, on a recruiting mission?"
"Nah, I'm just here for a new pair of boots and some sunnies. But you were standing there, looking sad and lost and I thought you could do with some company."
It's a public place, I know all the exits, and I've got a penknife in my bag. What's the harm in taking a little stroll around the mall with this guy? "I could help you pick out some boots. Maybe you could tell me more about your...pirate boat?"
"Brill! Do they have bubble tea here?"
Geoff and I set off in search of boots and bubble tea. He notes that we're both wearing the same brand of dark blue nail polish, Midnight in Minnetonka. We chat about ironic t-shirts and whether Slim Jeggings is a brand of clothing or a crotchety old blues singer. Geoff says he likes to call himself a Glampire, which is fitting because he does love make-up and glitter and hair products. He's no Ziggy Stardust but more like if Bowie were a Girl Scouts leader. His overall vibe is less Labyrinth and more Troop Beverly Hills. Is he the leader of vampire...pirates?
Stopping to admire the mannequins in the Hot Topic window, Geoff declares, "It's really a brilliant time to exist. Everyone's a freak now. I love it!"
"So, how long have you been a vampire pirate? Vampirate?"
"Vampirate! Love it. You're a clever bird, you know? Guys are gonna dig that. How long have I been a vamper? Not that long, comparatively. I was hooking up with this bird after one night in a speakeasy, it gets a bit kinky and she starts biting me. It's like she's feeding off me and I go 'Wot's this, luv?' and she goes, 'Oh, I'm a vampire, I thought you knew.' Well, I just thought she was really into Victorian gothic shit. After that, I started feeling a bit sick and the doc gave me some pills, gave me a lecture about bloodlust and whatnot. And I been this fabulous thing ever since. That was, what, 1932, I think."
"Wow. And you were a pirate? Were there many pirates in the 1930s?"
"Well, we're not real pirates. I mean, we're not raping and pillaging and chasing after trunks of jewels. We're more like sea hobos; instead of stowing away on trains, we just hang out on this ship. We do steal things but rarely. We will torrent some movies and telly and we're always nicking someone else's wifi. Of course, nobody's volunteering their blood for nothing. But we try not to do murders. We don't like to rape because we've got too much respect for women. You might be surprised how many birds are actually into the idea of becoming a vampire, though. I think maybe we've got to stop dressing like rock stars when we go carousing. It might be the pleather pants. Pleather makes women weak. Anyway, I was brought onto the ship in the '70s cos I happened to be hanging round the docks. I thought this bloke was looking for a good time, but it turned out he could sense I was like him, something about my aura or odor or, I dunno, Ambrose is an odd duck. He brought me to the ship, introduced me around and there's your fish. Am I going on too much? I always feel like I'm vomiting up my entire life story whenever I meet new people. I feel like I'm going on too much. Am I?"
"No, no. My thing is that I’m basically all questions and naturally, I'm curious about your whole situation and, well, there's just a lot to consider if I'm going to join you."
"...Did you not ask …earlier? Oh, God. You didn't mean it. I'm an idiot."
"I did! I did ask. No. Yes. Of course, you're welcome! Come with us! Spend your gap year with us. Spend the rest of your life, if you like. We could do with a bit of fresh blood, sorry. New energy? Company is what we need. We're all bloody sick of ourselves and our stories are stale. We're shit pirates and we're shit vampires. It's a wonder we haven't driven stakes into our own hearts, really."
"Are you sure? Do I need to talk to Bobby first? Sign a contract? Read a pamphlet?"
"Nah, I'm the cap'n. I can bring whoever I like and I like you. 'Course, I'm only captain cos we drew straws. Ambrose decided to retire to a castle, bit cliche if you ask me, and we had to pick a new leader. Teddy's got actual seniority, being the eldest. He even saw Billy Shakes live at the Globe! How wild is that? Clive and Owen are legit trained pirates from the olden days, so they handle all the boat stuff. Owen's got a wicked Powerpoint presentation teaching the how-tos of pillaging. Well, you'll see. Hm. I don't actually do any captain-y stuff. Maybe I'm more of a mascot. Are you hungry? Fancy a snack from the food court?"
In the words of The Clash — do I stay or do I go? Or are my new Converse hi-tops enough to ease today's discontent? If I don't go, I'll always wonder and regret the what-if. If I go, this dude might fashion my eyeballs into cufflinks. Or it will be a lovely time and I'll come back all the better for it. If I come back. It's a tired trope, the young girl dissatisfied with her life running away with enchanting strangers. Eventually she grows disenchanted and returns to normal life slightly wiser. It's not space battles with the Doctor. Well, I don't know what this is. Do I need to pack? I'm not impulsive enough to just pick up and take off! Do I need money? Sanitary products? Are there any ladies on the ship? Where will I sleep? I can't swim! Wait...vampires? Geoff is gonna have to answer a whole lot of questions over that Cinnabon.
I was supposed to change her life.
We first met three years ago, under the unflattering fluorescents of the neighbourhood Shoppers. She lingered in my aisle for what then seemed like eternity, studying every label of every product. It was late spring but her hair was mostly stuffed up into a lumpy toque, with two long strands attempting an escape behind her left ear. The toque was meant to disguise what she determined to be a bleaching mishap but could easily pass as an intentional style choice. That insecurity would be the cause of many late night drug store decisions. She stood directly in front of me, completely oblivious to my existence, as she considered the generic conditioners. She finally realized I was standing there all along and grabbed ahold of me as if she thought I was the answer to all of her problems.
She took me home that day and almost immediately took me in the shower. She was eager and determined and desperate, so sure that I would undo all the years of heartbreak and poor decisions—and almost immediately disappointed. I could only promise so much and it was clear I fell short of her expectations. Despite our failed first attempt, she kept me around. But she sought instant gratification while I demand commitment and patience, and what I thought would be a daily occurrence became an occasional dalliance. Eventually she started ignoring me altogether, leaving me to witness her continuing streak of bad decisions and terrible habits. She barely touched me. Now, to get called for duty is a religious holiday. I am drained slowly.
I often recall our first meeting. She hemmed, she hawed, the fluorescents hummed. Back and forth she went between the orchid and vanilla passionfruit and the island coconut verbena. How much time she spent comparing smells and costs and product descriptions! Did she want bounce and shine or lustrous radiance? Did she want to restore her roots or protect her DIY dye job? All that investment into choosing one of us and all of my benefits, squandered. She wanted a miracle; she needed me. We never really got started but, three years on, she can't seem to let me go. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
When I took up residence in my spot on the ledge, I met my first mate. He was at half-life and intimated that he'd never had a companion in his time here. Our collaboration would be short-lived, but I estimated I wouldn't be too far behind him. Within weeks, he was gone while my shelf life continued to extend and my definition of eternity redefined. His replacement was a complete mismatch. We never had a chance of working together but were forced to stand shoulder to shoulder. Or shoulder to Head & Shoulders.
Occasionally a smaller, plucky sort takes residence next to me, his duty to protect the freshly coloured mane. He quickly finds we do not protect anything except the tub's ledge from muck beneath our bottoms. Lather. Rinse.
She could reach out to me so easily! If she would spare one minute. Sixty seconds more here and she'd save the three minutes she spends struggling against the tangles she's created. How much more smoothly her day would go if she'd just condition herself! Lather.
Living on the ledge, you see a lot of stuff. If you can call this living. I've been here for three years. I've seen colleagues come and go. Sometimes she brings in a perfect match for me but leaves me to watch him die a slow death. I once sat high upon a store shelf, surrounded by like-minded colleagues, all waiting to fulfill our duty. Now I stand with my back against the wall, surrounded by the residue of fallen comrades. The alchemy of moisture and dust have left a grey muck on my head and neck. It gathers around me. Mildew builds up behind me. The drain clogs before me. Lonely strings of hair stick to the tile above me. I was once part of a beautiful and fragile rainforest. I was supposed to unleash my herbal essences to tame and control and repair. Now she doesn’t even pick me up to rinse me off. Rinse! Rinse, goddammit!
This is a room of great vulnerability as clothes and inhibitions are shed. It's behind the bathroom door where you'll find deepest insecurities unveiled and darkest confessions revealed. I've been audience to one-sided arguments and witty retorts come too late, performances of half-remembered pop songs and acceptance speeches, and utterances of wishes and prayers and regrets. I've heard the secrets that lovers keep from each other and the sobs of the lovelorn. From the tub's back ledge, we see all the worst angles. We are privy to the most delicate, what even humans have not dared to see—the backs of knees, the undersides of bottoms, and all those hard-to-reach places. We see the spots and lumps that go unnoticed for years but can change someone’s life one innocent August afternoon.
I've looked on as she liberally applied shampoo to pixies and page boys, blunt cuts and bobs, and the unfortunate permanent, which, fortunately, wasn't. She's been brunette, blonde, ginger, black, and back to brunette again. Every change is an opportunity for us to reunite, to start that routine anew. Yet, here I stand, a bottle mostly full. Not that I’m alone in my neglect. I take solace from my view of a glass cabinet filled with lotions, creams, ointments, sprays, and capsules—a collection of whiteners and brighteners, all touting similar promises of life-changing results, some preceding my own arrival. The cabinet is a shrine to North American beauty standards of the new millennium. We look on as she pulls and pokes at herself instead of applying any of her products. She grimaces and grins at her reflection, inspecting every microscopic imperfection. She jabs her stubby fingernails into the red spots along her chin when a row of pimple creams and spot reducers are at arm’s length. Her morning routine consists of toothpaste, soap, and shampoo. Is she saving us for some special occasion that never comes?
But, what would become of me otherwise? Had we stayed the course from the beginning, my end would've come along ago. And then what? My body is comprised of 20% post-consumer recyclables. Would I be refashioned into something more useful, more sustainable? Would I come back to her? Would I find new life in a landfill, giving more body and volume to seagulls' feathers? Would it matter? If the shower door slid the other way, I'd have been too busy to consider my own fate, just done and gone one day. Lather. Rinse. Repeat as needed.
Today, she looks quite different from our first meeting. Older, yes, but sullen and raw and bald. The toque fits loosely on her shorn scalp. She removes it and takes her usual position in front of the mirror. She doesn’t poke at the red spots on her chin or pull at the skin around her eyes. She simply stares into her tired reflection. She exits and returns with a cardboard box, into which she deposits the contents from the glass cabinet. All of the bottles and tubes of emollients, exfoliants, salves, and balms tumble and clatter against each other as they land in the box. She turns her attention to the tub, picking out the dull razors, the body scrubbers, and the tiny remnants of forgotten soaps. She stops and stares at me, or perhaps through me, just for a moment and her gaze softens.
Now, after three years, I know her better than she knows herself. I know she'll never come back to me—at least not for the purpose found on my fading label, words penned by a copywriter thumbing through his thesaurus for another way to make hydroxypropyl methylcellulose sound sexy: Lather. Rinse. Repeat. I now realize that I bring her comfort. I am not merely a hair detangler, but a bottle of good intentions and the promise of a better hair day. A shinier outlook is just a dime-sized dollop away. I am her someday.
Smart phones are the new cigarettes. We’ve replaced one addiction with another, trading the experience of taking a drag and having an idle ponder for dragging our fingers across a screen in search of idle distraction.
Ten years ago, it was still rare to see someone texting in public. The only people photographing their food were actual photographers and tourists. Blogs went months without an update. We barely had statuses to update. Those were quaint times. Not as quaint as the previous years of typewriters and phonographs and word processors and one-hour film developing booths. Ten years ago, we were complaining about the abbreviation of “app” for “appetizer” at TGIFriday’s. Ten years ago, it was rare to find a hotel with an in-room ethernet hook-up for internet access. Now the wi-fi waters run (mostly) free and deep and everyone’s texting and tweeting and snapping pics of everything everywhere. Instant messaging is now more instant-y than ever and there’s no excuse for being AFK or opportunity to BRB.
Look, I love the glowing screens. I experience minor panic whenever I’m thrust into a situation without a television and/or internet access. Television was my nanny, my first love, and my connection to the outside world. My addiction predates smart phones, social media, Web 2.0, Mac OSX, and the birth of the average Tumblr user. But even I need a break sometimes. I know when it’s time to step away from the black mirror and join the rest of humanity in meatspace. Unfortunately, meatspace is now overrun with earbuds and little glowing rectangles. And once again, I find myself in a minority.
When I go out, it’s usually to get away from the devices. I stay away from the cafes filled with laptop workers and I leave the wi-fi connection off on my ipod. I pretend to smoke and let my mind wander, free from the compulsion to press a button to release a bit of information that it won’t retain. Are we retaining any of the information we consume from our constant connection? Can you recall which site had that headline that you skimmed before checking Twitter for reactions to that headline? Can you remember whose baby-smeared-with-food photo showed up in your News Feed?
We’ve been conditioned to check email and social networking sites with the possibility of a reward. “Has so-and-so responded to my text? Oh, who clicked ‘like’ on my pic? Have there been any new tweets in the last thirty seconds?” We satisfy that mental itch only to be sent scratching away mere moments later. My diminutive social network does not minimize my own urges to switch between the Facebook and Twitter tabs/apps. The rewards are minimal (or non-existent, if you’re in the mood to be hurtful), making my behaviour more inexplicable.
To cut oneself off from “social media,” to declare “email bankruptcy,” to disconnect from the internet entirely is a lovely fantasy. What must it be like to be without computers, mobile phones, televisions and toaster ovens, refrigerators and stereos? Oh, the sweet relief from electronic hums! Except toast is delicious and refrigerators are quite handy. You could purge yourself of all technology, but you’d be leading an inconvenient life in the modern world. Every generation, or sub-generation, now has to make the choice of being deemed irrelevant or adopt and adapt every new technological “upgrade” and social media “innovation.” It’s becoming impossible to say “No, thank you. I’ll sit this technology fad out and join in again later.” Mostly it’s impossible because technology won’t allow it. Which is why we went through five generations of iPhones in just five years.
Built-in cameras mean that everyone’s a photographer now. Take a photo, slap a filter on it, and post it on the Internet. Welcome to everyone’s holiday slideshow. It’s easy to dismiss the glut of candid photos and videos as noise until something big happens. We live in the era of Threat-Level Scary and crime procedurals, which fuels the need to capture every moment for the what-ifs. Every event has the potential for a breakout buzzy moment. Someone could jump on a stage and do something wacky. Something could erupt. History is being made somewhere. Concerned citizens become journalists and paparazzi. The rest of us become observers and commenters.
On the average day, the smart phone just contributes to man’s obliviousness to man. People are in the cinema right now, blithely texting away like they’re in their living room, unable (or unwilling) to notice how bright their little rectangles glow in a darkened room, unaware that their faces are illuminated by their ignorance.
Will the pendulum swing back to more natural pursuits? Will Pinterest links to DIY tutorials pique the general public’s interest in making and doing things for themselves? Will we ever yearn for the reward of hard work and manual labour? Isn’t the result of churning one’s own butter or mending one’s own trousers much more satisfying than the swiping of screens and pressing of buttons in pursuit of “information”? The possibility remains that we’ll kick this technological dependency in my lifetime, by choice or by force. Some entrepreneur will tire of his food truck and discover there’s money to be made in technology rehabilitation centres. In another ten years, I could be sat in some hospital playing with a grown-up busy box to break myself of my crippling addiction to refreshing the Facebook home page. Maybe then I’ll finally learn a skill that can be monetized in the real world.
Step away from your electronic device. Go look at the sunset. Watch the squirrels. Look at how the sun streams into your backyard at a particular time of day and illuminates a spider web that’s seemingly floating in midair. Have you noticed that before? How many times have you almost walked into that thing? Is that squirrel smoking a cigarette?