As she speaks, I shiver and sense a shift as the objects around me expose themselves, becoming reduced to a skeletal framework with a mere capacity to hold worlds.
A moment earlier, my world had been filled with concrete certainties: tangible and thick like the gold dome of the Old Capital shining proudly in the sunlight; like the warm stairs supporting my weight; like the verdant blades of grass prickling in the lawn; like the trees exploding in a fury of colors by the river below. Her words reveal these objects to be nothing but a bare skeletal framework capable of supporting a world. I see how they had anchored parts of my soul, feel them exhaling my spirit from them, watch as the things that were my old friends slough off their former habits of presentation and become alien entities in a hostile environment. Nothing felt like home. She breathes out, “Nothing can fix us,” and smiling, slides a plastic spoon piled with frozen yogurt into her mouth.
She has done nothing wrong, having prepared me for these words with little slights, knowing it would be hard. Knowing it is hard does nothing. Knowing her words were inevitable had generated a work of unweaving, fraying the framework that had held me together for four years of joy. I feel her utterance unknit into nothingness the fragile faith that some love lingered in certain co-existence. Clinging to this belief had enabled me to haunt the skeleton of the city as though it were still the world we shared, refusing intrusions of its public emptiness, keeping alive private passages through classrooms and hallways, allowing them to stay friends and guardians preserving my world. I see as the railing bounding the sidewalk below, a onetime ally that concretized our first flirtatious dance, transforms into stony indifference, giving no sign of the former richness of its depths.
I sink inside, realizing in shame how I had nourished myself with weak and tepid hopes that were nothing more than projections of secret dreams. She had vanished from our world and had been only temporarily summoned in unwilling solidity from the foreign places she now travels. She is back in my ghostworld, which she experiences as the past. She was a something in my nothingness, but her soft words now spoken sever us and destroy our world. Horror floods me: I realize I had nothing without her; I now have nothing with her.
Her smile erases the little triumphs and small scars that had made her unique to me, made her other than part of the background. Her face reveals nothing now. I want to mine and mirror that expression, to share and taste one last trait, even if it is nothing. I want to shrug off her presence the way the stones shed it, with a cold indifference that receives imprints without permanence. After a strained silence, she stands and walks off, carelessly tossing the remains of her treat into the trash.
I breathe in and empty my lungs into a now-empty world. I feel my dead heart push old blood through decaying limbs. It is an old habit. Nothing excites me. I chuckle, then laugh. It excites me, nothing. I can create nothing. I can dive into the deep places of my undone heart and extract the nothingness growing within it, spilling it into the world. I have nothing to do. I can do nothing. I look into the once friendly landscape and see the now-hostile trees that reflect back to me the nothingness that has replaced the love I once projected into the world. I see the nothingness on passing busses and the faces of idle pedestrians. I see it everywhere, now. I smile because now I have nothing to look forward to.
I move south, passing the math building, seeing cars and busses bustle as bikers curse the steep hill ahead: everyone attends to their business as though nothing is changing. I grasp this nothing as a comfort, seeing us reflected through it and watching it transform us into an unchanging union: unspecial, undifferent. But with an insistence, my heart breaks against their massive, anonymous nothingness, refusing its numbing comfort, throbbing with a recognition that their bland nothing could replace my particular nothingness, the annihilation of everything I once honored, respected, desired and loved.
Revulsed, I tremble with horror: I despise that nothingness—it is not mine or ours. My acts of annihilation, my making-nothing, will leave the banal skeleton world of steps and streets and stairs untouched—it will negate only the way of understanding the world that we had learned together, the peculiar navigations of memories and desires that had seemed more the marrow of the world instead of lines painted on a map. I never suspected how fragile something so seemingly certain could become, how quickly something so vast and meaningful becomes a trace of memory lost.
Echoes from my last steps momentarily fill the empty spaces around me, but quickly die away. They disclose the blank vastness I walk into, anchoring me into nothingness and liberating me from the shattered fragments I leave behind. I sense only her absence, a loss haunting everything, an emptiness that makes my surroundings seem grotesquely flaccid, as though skin overlaying the sinews of society had become loose and baggy. Everything about me, robbed of her, void of love, possesses only the emptiness of nowness, the bland and abstract impartiality of quick, hurried movements. The appearance of change disguises, but does not erase, the underlying nothingness that I feel supporting the echoes of each step I take toward nothing.
A familiar voice arrests me, breaking into my thoughts: “Hey man! What’s wrong?” I cannot place if the words issue from a friend or a stranger. I have no friends. I am a stranger.
I hear my response: “Nothing.” I realize that this is true. When something is wrong, solutions are possible. When nothing is wrong, the problem haunts you forever.
Daniel Boscaljon, author of Vigilant Faith, is a theologian and a literary scholar who will spend the year teaching about secularism in the Department of English at the U of I.