Contra Iago

The following essay received Honorable Mention in the 2014 Inner Moonlight personal essay competition, administered by the League for Literary Innovation.

 

I

I am in a crowd in a street between fences between buildings, tight, like soaked beans in a too-small container. It’s probably loud but I can’t hear; my ears are fine, but my mind is occupied. Somewhere behind me, the bulls are coming.

 

I’ve come here fresh from walking across Spain. There’s a trail from the French border to the western coast that pilgrims and other hardy souls have traversed for a thousand years, and I have just graduatedthe ranks of these rugged, pan-country perambulators. In the past month, I have cut open blisters on my feet each morning, I have slept in town squares and fields, I have learned to roll cigarettes and swear enEspanol. A child of a nation of men, I have never felt more one of them, never been closer to the character I wish to be.

 

Now I am in Pamplona, at the annual running of the bulls, whence Hemingway modeled his masculine mythology and where today, a century later, boys and men from Spain and the world pile into this squeezed, long corridor. In our white clothes and red neckerchiefs, eyes wide, jaws set, fists clenched, pulses dancing, armpits damp and feet compulsively jangling like caught carp on a fishing line—here, now, we–I–will run.

 

The sun is brighter than you’d expect. Its heat invigorates the waking city’s scents: spilled wine and urine, frying olive oil, burnt coffee, dog stool, cheap cigarettes. Most of all, us: the human odor that emerges when celebration or disaster prevent daily showers. Pamplona has been drunk for a week. Instead of coconut body wash and cool deodorant, I smell old sweat and yellowing teeth. We’re unwashed, stubbled, and ready for action: we’re men.

 

There’s a light, almost comical pop! from above. It’s the first rocket, the one that signals that the bulls have been released. There’s some yelling from way back behind–by this time, we’re all crouched like sprinters at the Olympics–and then, without transition, we’re moving: human liquid surging through a gutter. The roar of the crowd assembled on either side of the street, safe behind their fences, is so loud that sound ceases; I am swallowed into a stomach of white noise.

 

The tricky thing about the running of the bulls, it turns out, isn’t the bulls but the running. No one tells you how difficult it is to sprint amid compacted human bodies, like a finger trying to escape a fist. I slip and stumble back and forth, bouncing off shoulders and abdomens. I have no agency; either I go with the flow or I’m roadkill. From my perspective, I’m not so much running across Pamplona as I’m hurrying to stay in place within this stumbling mob.

 

It’s funny how different imagining yourself in danger is from actual danger. The old reptile brain takes over, instincts kick in, and you find yourself a bystander to your own actions as your body transforms into a survival tool. The men on either side are my obstacles, the air is my gasoline, and fatigue is buried deep beneath the overwhelming imperative to Move. I feel no pain. But I do feel fear: its weight draped around my body like wet wool, its buzzing electricity in every nerve as if termites are devouring me from the inside. For the first time, I notice the fragility of my body, and wonder how this collection of twiggish bones, soft meat, and wet blood will ever get out alive. “Brave”: what I learn today is that that’s another word for reckless stupidity followed by frantic scramble to safety.

 

Another thing no one tells you is that the runners don’t really see the bulls: being the spectacle, we can afford no spectation. Behind me I feel a wave of hands and elbows shove into my ribs. There’s a dark blur and the sound of an engineless train on my periphery…and then we’re just running again. The bulls pass through the mob like an amoeba through water, a clump of brown and black surrounded by a perimeter of lunging bodies.

 

Before I know it, we’ve made it to the arena. I enter within a swell of red-faced runners. The crowd in the stands is screaming like a musical at the gates of hell, thousands upon thousands of tiny, fleshy dots jazzed up on red wine and expectation. They rode the wave of their peers to get here, just like I did, and we stare at each other, foreign siblings at a circus.

 

The bulls are gone to some underground lair where they’ll each be held until the bullfighter’s sword beckons. But before these masters thrill the crowd, our motley army of runners will get our own chance to turn danger into art. One at a time, young toros are released into the arena. At first I’m not sure what the crowd is reacting to, but then the field of bodies around me opens and the bull, a living tank, thunders past. It gallops around and around, splashing aside runners like an angry toddler in a ball pit. Because I’m about the same height as the height of everyone, I never see the bull until it’s basically on top of me. I manage a few close dodges, terror and adrenaline screaming in my head, and for a second I’m butted to the ground and rolling between hooves with appropriate panic.

 

Each time a new bull is about to be released, maybe a dozen men will crouch, as though praying, before its chute. The bull miraculously launches its terrific bulk above them and lands on solid dirt, hungry for a target.

 

Guess what I do upon noticing this.

 

I’m not sure how many times I join the scrum of kneeling, huddled, extremely optimistic men. Maybe three, maybe five. Each time the bull passes over us, I feel the rush of elation that five out of six Russian roulette players get, a jolt of invincibility with which I sprint back into the fray. Each time it jumps, I am afraid. And each time they huddle, I fearfully join. To fear and yet do: this is the freedom I came here for.

 

And then the last bull launches, and doesn’t land behind me. There’s a crunching sensation like snapped plywood, and I’m on my back, staring into an empty sky.

 

I was too far back in the scrum. The bull’s rear hoof must have landed on my shoulder. I feel distant pain, like a barely-visible traveler waving at me from the horizon, before instinct kicks in and I stumble to my feet. As I wobble toward the fence, the bull makes another pass but doesn’t aim for me. Finally I get through the tiny, human-sized gate, where assistants to the encierro hustle me toward a makeshift clinic beneath the stadium. The doctors will tell me my arm is sprained, but for this moment and many more, laughter pours out of me like pus from a wound. I can’t stop. I try to breath but it bubbles up through my trachea, a bleating chuckle only a live man could emit.

 

I’m in shock. But I’m also free.

 

II

A year later, I amin the Philippines with the Peace Corps.

 

One of my favorite books, formerly, was a Peace Corps recruitment paperback full of autobiographical essays about growth through service. “The hardest job you’ll ever love”: that was the promise of Peace Corps, and I swallowed it whole. When I enrolled in college, it was to eventualIy become one of the people in that book, and four years later, when my peers were busy worrying about the yawning vacuum that would follow graduation, I lounged comfortably in the knowledge of where my life was going.

 

I loved that book. I read about morning motorcycle rides through jungle and rice paddies, about soccer games with lovable barrio brats, about discovering true identity by losing oneself in love and charity toward the adorable, brown, generically poor people who festooned the cover like human wallpaper. This was Indiana Jones minus the cartoonish violence and racism: instead of knocking over fruitcarts and stealing native heirlooms, I would join these huddled masses as a friend and advocate. I would escape the shame of my privileged upbringing; I would prove myself a saint in the Philippines just as I’d proved myself a man in Pamplona. With the world’s poor as my supporting cast, I would dig wells, build schools, minister the sick, and trade stories over campfire. This would be my life’s work; this was my dream.

 

The problem with dreams, it turns out, is that they’re falsifiable. On my first day, in a swanky hotel at the Detroit airport, I am disoriented and lonely and miserable. My pilgrimage into the humble life of service has launched with silk sheets and fine dining. The other volunteers are cheerful aliens dressed in business-casual, unbothered that “America’s pre-eminent international service organization” has decided to blow scarce funding on $200 per head per night. They drink and socialize; I chain-smoke and journal.

 

48 hours later we arrive to a luxurious tropical resort near the Filipino capital for our initial week of monotoned, microphoned, PowerPointed orientation. Here I learn that the Peace Corps internally regards itself as a sort of glorified study-abroad program, more interested in “cultural exchange” of recipes and idioms than in reducing the number of Filipino toddlers who sleep on wet cardboard along the sidewalks of Manila and shout “Para! Para!” with their palms outstretched and shattered brown teeth smiling. We tour the city’s poverty, gawking and gawked at, tourists in the aftermath of American and Spanish empire. The watch on my wrist and the shoes on my feet and the soft bed waiting for me: all telltale hearts that shout my guilt each time I walk past another cardboard encampment.

 

I take up jogging in the evenings. I am trying to beat my brain into submission, to force myself to relax through sheer physical exhaustion. As I run down the jagged shoulder of the local highway, trucks overloaded with bamboo lumber and fat buses crammed full of commuters rumble past, farting black smoke that dissipates into a permanent haze. If I run hard enough, for a few seconds my legs become someone else’s, my mind floats upward, and I find tears pouring out onto my already-wet face. For those few seconds, I’m free. And afterwards, I feel calm and clean and whole, for a while. So I keep running in the evenings, running to escape my new life.

 

From my first day in the Peace Corps to my last, my basic problem is that I’m useless and friendless. Friendless, because I suck at making friends: lacking the glands of social lubricant, I only feel comfortable when I’m performing a function. Useless, because I have neither skill nor temperament for this work. Apparently social lubrication–schmoozing–is the one ability that’s absolutely required of Peace Corps volunteers. You can be brilliant and strong and dedicated and fearless, but if you can’t hang out, you’ve failed. These two incompetencies reinforce each other like mutually-chasing dogs, and it’s not long before, untethered and alone, I find the one local pastime at which I can excel: drinking. Which adds a third dog to the race.

 

A little while after arriving to my work site–a health clinic that knows not what to do with me–I join a few visiting volunteers at a karaoke bar. As the night progresses so does my drinking: I go from the light buzz of feeling like I’ve slipped into a warm bath to a surreal whirlpool in which self-awareness and -regulation bubble and dissolve. I try to smash my cell phone against a bamboo bench, afraid that in a moment of weakness I’ll text “I quit” to the country director. Then I vomit in a urinal, dash out the front door, and sprint down muggy, unfamiliar streets until shallow lungs force me motionless. I am wasted and lost in an unknown land. I feel that I’d rather die than stay here but something hard inside me says “No.” I’m stuck. I can’t quit, and I can’t stay. I hide behind a bush and cry until two comrades putter along in a tricycle-taxi, and my sheepish figure wobbles out to meet them.

 

A year later I fly to Manila. At the Country Office, my boss tells me I’m done: my host agency finally got tired of having a volunteer without a job, and so I’m headed back to the States. I try to haggle: even now, I cannot let go of the dream, despite all evidence and every reason. But when he tells me it’s final, that the decision is out of my hands, I have the sensation of surfacing, of breathing for the first time in over a year. I never gave up, never sent that text to the country director. And now, I’m going home.

 

We shake hands. I cannot stop smiling.

 

III

Can I say that I’ve learned? That my masculine footrace and my saintly marathon illuminated, in the end, their own pointlessness?

 

In a limited way, I can, and they did. The Big Truth I learned in Pamplona isn’t about my mortality or the Meaning of Life; it’s that there’s no such thing as Men, just large boys and gendered advertising. The Big Truths I learned in the Philippines are that strength isn’t the same thing as pretending you’re not miserable and that the Self is realer than any flattering, invented self-image.

 

But I’m still a ward of my dreams–of the same dreams, in fact. Instead of running with bulls, I now bicycle in heavy traffic. Instead of patronizing the Third World, I rabble-rouse the 99%. My perceptions have changed and my methods have evolved, but one thing that’s never new under the sun is my unshakable belief in the world’s mutability–that what exists is just one face of an infinite, rolling die. It is only ignorance of history that allows us to think that anything is as it’s always been, and my personal history has shown me some of the limits and potential of this thing I call Casey.

 

I am a dreamer. This makes me stupid–hope is an opiate, as I learned in the Peace Corps–but it also makes me dangerous, because I am willing to test the limits of what can be. And while it’s easy to cast as failures the experiments in life here detailed, the long view says that they were growing pains: the difficult, necessary, indirect lessons that are youth’s folly and age’s wisdom. I’m neither a Man nor a saint; contra Iago, I am what I am. Writer, student, tutor, journalist, lover, revolutionary: a series of accidents coalesced into a whole. My eyes remain bigger than my stomach. And they are ever open wide.

 

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