In the middle of the darkness of the pandemic, I found a light..
by A.E. Pole
Come join me on a little story…I assume you are somewhat like me and you enjoy reading and writing and all that comes with enjoying such pleasures. I have recently had an experience that kind of blows my mind, and has reminded me what reading and writing really mean to me. I worry somewhat that what blows my mind might not blow your mind but I also hope you are the type of reader that has the talent to imagine things through the writer’s mind and be a little empathetic.
So now that you know where I hope to end on, let’s start this true story. Many years ago I had my heart, romantically, completely shattered. I don’t know if this has ever happened to you; my guess is many of you have. You have my sympathies. I think I might know how you feel, as you might know how I feel.
So when I talk about having my heart broken, I mean my heart took a beating. The kind of broken heart that takes on not just an emotional pain, but a physical hurt – even an existential agony. It was the kind of broken heart that makes you want to listen to blues music to the point where you start to worry people. I seriously wondered whether this was what my life was about – to endure this pain.
It took me years to recover. I totally understand why some people never recover from things. People may in good conscious say get over it but you don’t go to those dark places in life if it was that simple to get out. Yet people can find the way out of a maze of despair. I did. But, I think it was more luck than effort or planning.
For me, I did what many humans before me have done. They left their home to look for a better life someplace else. As someone who always imagined writing the so-called “Great American Novel,” this seemed like the theme that I would like to write about. Yet, I didn’t really think about that. I was far too beaten to think consciously about it. But somewhere lurking under the surface, maybe in my unconscious, it was percolating in there.
So, I went to South Korea and I started a new life. And eventually, I fell in love, married, had children and lived happily ever after and that place that hurt was forgotten. But, it did not go away. I just didn’t think about it. I am sure you all understand. We have probably all been there.
After twenty odd years, I returned to the US and I wrote a work of fiction called, “You Can’t Get Jack Out of This! (Or the story of Language Whore). Jack is both character, a ghost mostly, as well as slang and metaphor. Jack is both literal and symbolic. The title refers to saving Jack, or not being able to, but it is also a punk-ish challenge to the reader to see if they could or could not make sense of it all. “Language Whore,” obviously, because I sold my language for money in South Korea, and it fits my sense of humor. And the story, though fictional, is based on my experiences in the English language teaching industry in South Korea and some of the humor, tragedy, insights and ultimate triumphs.
I was going through some different things then. I was playing single father, with my wife still in South Korea. I was shepherding my sons through their first extended stay with American culture and American school life. While they were at school, I was writing and doing what no human should do, watch cable news. It was full of Trump and how divided Americans had become. And, I thought about my own life. The kids I grew up with. The kid I once was. How separated I felt from them, from me. I dreamed of a way to bring people together again. To be the friend I once was. To be the person I once was. Even to be American again. Somehow it all got interwoven into the story.
Tears run down my face as I write this but I didn’t realize that there was a real ghost in this story. Yeah, it is her. I call her the one that got away. I never realized how much of her was in that story. I never even realized it when I should have realized it. I am such a hopeless person at times.
Then, the Trump first term ended in a pandemic like we hadn’t seen in a hundred years – I guess – that is what the pundits all compared it to, the Spanish Flu epidemic. Life seemed so surreal. You know. You all lived through it, too. We all thought the world was going to end. We gathered our canned food, our toilet paper, our collections of scotch and vodka, and hunkered down in our homes and waiting for the world to either end or hear the all clear signal as if it had been a World War II air raid. It all seems so absurd and funny now – I wonder what we will tell our grandchildren?
Well, one thing I would have to say is that a miracle happened. Yeah, the one that got away somehow returned to my life. Her. The one that had broken my heart. It is such a basic, common thing. But, yeah, it was the internet. Yeah, it was Facebook. And, yeah, there was some drinking involved. But, after 25 years, we reconnected.
We always had long conversations over the phone. Usually, I called her. She would always say wait one second let me get some cigarettes because she loved to talk and smoke. We would talk well into the night about everything. We tried so hard to understand the world, our place in it, what it all meant, even what we hoped to get out of it. Like many young people, such conversations never exhausted us. And it exhilarated us to find such connection, and such easy sounding board where connection did not exist. Until the pressures of an actual relationship and the separation of our academic pursuits took us in different directions, and ultimately our own psychological problems and fears, brought it all to an end.
And now we were hunkered down in our distant homes talking into the night again. It was so weird. So freaky. In the darkness of the pandemic, there was this light for me. This reunion. It was kind of like what I was trying to write about in Jack… It really was weird for me.
And this is the miracle. She read my novel. (And she might be the only one to read it cover to cover.) And she absolutely loved it. She gushed. I mean she had a criticism. She thought I worked so hard for the build up that what came after was too short. And maybe she had a point, but she loved the ending. I felt so fulfilled to hear her words.
After she read it, and we talked about it, I kind of played things coolly. I mean we had a lot of catching up to do and it was a burst of energy at first but I didn’t really want to be fully integrated into her life. She had her life. I had mine. Neither wanted to change that. It wasn’t like that at all. But we had been important people in each others lives at one time. And there were probably parts of each other inside us lurking, maybe even in ways we didn’t realize. It was certainly true for me.
I never asked her. I never had the chance. Maybe I would have never been brave enough to. Because after not talking to each other for a couple of months, I decided to say hello, but she was gone. She had quit facebook. Never told me. Never said a word. Just gone. I even googled obituaries but nothing.
It was only now, in her absence, that I realized how much of her had seeped into that story. I really had told myself it was other people, other experiences, but it was her after all. I wonder if she had recognized it? If she had, she never said anything…but sometimes I wonder if that is why she liked my story.
Now, it all seemed like some crazy dream. Did she really exist? Did she really briefly return to my life during some dark time to just lighten things up and then disappear again? Was it all just a dream? No, facebook has preserved our thread of private messages. It really did happen. But, it feels like a feverish dream. She had become a ghost in my real life, somewhat like the fictional Jack had become in my story.
Yet, it really was a blessing, even if it were temporary. In the middle of the pandemic, when everyone felt so isolated, I had this re-connection.
And I can’t believe she read my novel. And I was so gratified that she liked it. Knowing that means the world to me. I can die at peace, even if no one else reads it. It still had found a worthy audience, a worthy reader. And that is what every writer wants – a worthy reader. It is a connection of two (or more) people in a common experience. It really is a relationship.
It is what everyone wants – somehow. Those conversations through the night with the one that got away are no different than my novel. A novel is more disconnected though. The writer howls into space and hopes somewhere out there is someone to listen. It can seem like messages in a bottle until you become popular, even famous enough to have more regular connections.
We all like fame and money (of course until it ruins you) but what a writer and a reader really want besides respite from the real world, is a connection. I think many people seek connections otherwise, and never become writers. And while there are a small handful of literary craftsman that have learned to write as a trade, many writers are just looking for someone to listen to them. To have readers lend an ear. And sometimes that makes for uncomfortable reading but other times, there really is something special in that connection.
I once saw a lecture by science fiction writer Kurt Vonnegut. It was a special night. He was hilarious. He was really down home American as well. There was something Mark Twain-ish about him. He explained to his audience, with what seemed like a twinkle in his eye, that reading was like Western culture meditation. It was like prayer, I think he said. I would add, it is like a relationship. I think Vonnegut would have liked that because he also talked about how important it was to have more relationships. He talked about talking to the people at the post office because humans needed to feel connected. Maybe, we need to make more efforts to feel connected to others. Maybe we should stop blaming social media and just do it.
If we did maybe we could bring together the disparate parts that the powers that be seemingly have broke apart. Maybe we could get Jack out of this.
Maybe, you could read my message in a bottle…
A.E. Pole is the author of You Can’t Get Jack Out of This (or the story of Language Whore) and a companion book of poetry titled, “Truth is Cheap, Thrills are Expensive.” You can find them at Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/A-E-Pole