“self-awareness” by Allan Shapiro
The words are “don’t” and “please” and they are good words, you enjoy saying them, especially when you say them together, and especially while staring at the empty room with a single light in the building across the street. These words can be said in many different ways, but they come out best when whispered. They make you smile. They make you want to say them again and again.
You whisper the words “Don’t, please” and smile, turning your back on the empty room with the single light and make your way to your bed. You sit on your bed and stare at the room and look at your phone. It doesn’t matter what her name is, but you say that too, in a whisper, and then you stare at your hands and take another drink.
Night now and the air is thick and difficult to inhale. You try to sleep, but you can’t. You realize you should be more polite so you whisper the words “Please don’t.” It works, and despite the air, you fall asleep. You dream of pulling out your thumbnails, saying to yourself, “The point is the pain.”
You awake the next morning, and though it doesn’t matter what her name is, you say it again, and then again, even as the water from the shower fills your mouth. Then you say, “I’m sorry.” It is important to be polite, especially when being apologetic, even if your anger may be justified, almost drowning from saying her name in the shower. Angrily, you say, “I’m sorry,” but it doesn’t make you feel any better.
This is not the first morning this has happened, nor was the night before the first night you stared into the empty room with a single light in the building across the street. But for some reason, you feel different. And since you feel different, you are different. And since you are different, you stare at who you are in the bathroom mirror. The difference is apparent. “My name is Samuel L. Jackson,” he says.
His name is Samuel L. Jackson, sometimes Samuel L. Fucking Jackson, sometimes just Samuel L. He smiles all the time and when he says, “Don’t, please,” it sounds different, even when he says it while he’s smiling.
You follow Samuel L. Jackson as he walks into your bedroom to get dressed. You turn away politely, though you suspect he wouldn’t mind if you watch him. He thinks your politeness is funny and he laughs at you, but he does not yell the words, “Look into my eyes!” like you are afraid he might. Perhaps he is being polite too.
When you hear him zip up his fly, you turn back around. He is staring out the patio door into the empty room with the single light in the building across the street. It doesn’t matter whether the light in the room is on or not during the day since nothing can be seen in it anyway, even if you just want to see its emptiness. You hear Samuel L. Jackson say, “It isn’t empty if you can’t see inside it,” but you’re not sure you agree.
“I’m not sure I agree,” you say.
Samuel L. Jackson looks you in the eyes and smiles. You wait for him to say, “Look into my eyes!” but he doesn’t. He only smiles.
You appreciate his smile and then you say, “I’m sorry.”
Sometimes they throw Samuel L. Jackson into empty rooms with a single light, but he always finds a way out, even when they lock the door behind them. Sometimes he jumps out windows, leaving a red curtain to billow through the broken glass as he lands on the roof of an adjacent building. They’ll return to the room with guns drawn, one of them holding a pair of pliers, which they had intended to use to pull out his thumbnails, but they’ll only find an empty room. They’ll see the broken glass and the red curtain and realize how hard it is to contain a man like Samuel L. Jackson, and even harder to pull out his thumbnails.
Down steps and open doors and you’re following Samuel L. Jackson outside. It is safe to be outside now. She is not waiting for you at the door; she is not walking towards you when you reach the sidewalk; she is not drinking coffee in the place where you’ll be going. Samuel L. Jackson knows it doesn’t matter what her name is and therefore, you know it doesn’t matter too. You don’t even check your phone to see if you missed her call. But when you accidentally whisper her name, Samuel L. Jackson looks you in the eyes and says, “Please…don’t,” in a way you’ve never heard him say such a thing before. You look away angrily, and apologize as apologetically as you can.
Samuel L. Jackson never walks. Even when he jumps out windows of empty rooms, there is usually a car waiting for him, either that or he takes a cab. You prefer to walk. You prefer to walk late at night with no particular destination in mind. You remember that night in Paris, walking along the Seine in the cold rain. Samuel L. Jackson wasn’t with you that night. Perhaps if he had been, you’d have driven, and you wouldn’t have seen what Notre Dame looks like at night.
But you have not walked in a while, and you are not even sure if you are still capable of such a thing, so you gladly follow Samuel L. Jackson onto the bus and happily take a seat next to him in the front.
A man sits across from you. He is a normal man. He is nothing like Samuel L. Jackson.
He stares at you, perhaps because you are staring at him. You look over to see Samuel L. Jackson staring at him too, except he is also smiling. You look back at the man and try to smile. You wait for the man to ask what you are looking at so you can say, “Don’t, please,” while Samuel L. Jackson calls the man a motherfucker. You have never called a man a motherfucker before and would really like to hear what it sounds like. The man doesn’t ask, “What are you looking at?” Instead he just narrows his eyes and says, “Why are you crying?”
You don’t understand why the man would ask a thing like that, especially after turning to Samuel L. Jackson to see no tears in his eyes at all. Just that smile on his face, like how he always has a smile on his face. You turn back to the man. You open your mouth to say something, but it’s Samuel L. Jackson who speaks, and when he speaks he’s speaking to you, and what he says is, “Please don’t.”
So you don’t.
The bus stops at a grocery store and you follow Samuel L. Jackson off the bus. Normally you avoid grocery stores. There are many people who aimlessly roam the aisles and whether they do so in desperation or utter calmness, it never fails to depress you. Even more depressing is the awareness of what other people eat. The lights are bright and whatever song is playing will undoubtedly repeat itself endlessly in your head for the rest of the day, no matter what that song may be. So naturally you avoid such a thing, and yet, you follow Samuel L. Jackson inside as if there was no other normal thing in the world to do, as if it were normal to be normal.
You watch people aimlessly roam the aisles and the lights are bright. “Let It Be” is playing persistently in the background and you have to resist the urge to vomit. You know what Samuel L. Jackson is going to say so you quickly recover before he has a chance to say it and you follow him deeper into the store. You are sweating profusely.
You buy a large quantity of alcohol. You buy many cigarettes. You buy underarm deodorant. At one point during checkout, you feel like you might lose it. The clerk at the register asks you for your ID and your knees go weak and you start shaking all over. Samuel L. Jackson takes you by the arm, turns you around so you are facing him and says simply, “Look into my eyes.”
But you don’t, cause you can’t, and you quickly hand the clerk your ID. The remainder of the checkout is accomplished without incident.
You return home. It is getting dark and you look forward to another night of staring at the empty room with a single light in the building across the street. Perhaps tonight will be the night you see someone staring back at you. Perhaps tonight will be the night someone will turn off the light. Samuel L. Jackson is on the phone while you are pouring yourself your first drink. You light a cigarette. You take a drink. You ask Samuel L. Jackson whom he is talking to.
“It doesn’t matter,” he says.
“If it doesn’t matter then why are you doing it,” you say.
Samuel L. Jackson smiles, he’s always smiling. “Don’t,” he says, and then a little later, “Please.”
So you don’t, and you stare at the room in the building across the street, and you can’t wait until it is dark enough to see how empty is, but then a knock comes from the front door, and then another.
You follow Samuel L. Jackson to the front door. You are aware of everything now. You can feel each nerve running the length of your body. You can feel the painless nature of your thumbnails, as they are not being pulled out from your thumbs. You can feel the politeness of your approach to the front door.
Samuel L. Jackson opens the door and before he closes it, she walks inside. She does not say hello. She only says, “So what’s wrong?”
Samuel L. Jackson is still smiling after he closes the door and you wonder why he would still be smiling at a moment like this. He does not look at you. He does not look at her. He only says, “Follow me,” and you wonder whom he is talking to.
You follow them into your room. They are already standing at your patio door. They are already staring at the empty room with the single light in the building across the street. You are standing in the doorway. You are aware of where you are. You are aware of who you are. You are told to turn off the light.
You turn off the light and then you wait. You take a step forward. You look out the patio doors at the building across the street. You look for the empty room but you can’t find it. You hear yourself say, “Why didn’t I think of that?”
Samuel L. Jackson laughs and tells you to turn the light back on, so you do. You expect to see something, but you don’t. You only see Samuel L. Jackson smiling back at you. He’s always smiling back at you. You look around the room for where she might be, but it’s a small room, and though she’s a small girl, there’s no place for her to hide. You turn back to Samuel L. Jackson.
You want to say, “I don’t understand.” You want to say, “It doesn’t make sense.” You want to say, “Why doesn’t it make sense.” But you don’t, and you don’t even have to say please first.
Instead, you walk to the patio doors and direct your attention to the building. The light is on. The room is empty. Except this time, a red curtain billows out a broken window.
Samuel L. Jackson laughs. Then he pours you another drink and lights another cigarette.
Soon you sleep.
Samuel L. Jackson refuses to spoon.
Allan Shapiro is a writer and a social worker living in Los Angeles.
To read Allan Shapiro’s comments on A.K. Small’s “The Diving Board,” click here.
Notes from Chad Peterson, Managing Editor
Creative and unusual, fresh and funny and, of course, very, very odd. And yet, this story grew more and more intriguing for me the more time I spent with it. The unusual voice is wielded expertly by an author who seems both comfortable and confident in what he means to accomplish by it. And despite the “theatre of the absurd” bent (or perhaps because of it) there’s a sense of emotional weight to the piece, with great use of repetition (“Don’t, please.”) and a strong forward momentum that I found riveting. In the end, this story provided a welcome detour for me, and I’m pleased that we’re able to find a place for it in 10,000 Tons of Black Ink. It is certainly deserving.
Comments on this story by Candida Pugh, author of “What I Wouldn’t Do For You”
There is something coy about the room with the single light bulb, across from which you make your way to your bed, and about Samuel L. Jackson’s enigmatic, persistent smile with his own repetition of “don’t” and “please.” Jackson’s refusal in the final sentence “to spoon” adds an erotic note. Toward the end, Jackson makes a phone call that “doesn’t matter,” as you and he approach the bedroom. Your chronic angst shows things matter too much.
The ambiguous “Don’t, please” in “self-awareness” forces consideration of its oxymoronic side. Please, after all, is a request for something desired, while don’t asks for a negative. Negations riddle “self-awareness” (pun intended): “you” wanting to call someone a “motherfucker” but instead weeping; “you” treating as normal a trip to the grocery store when such a trip is the essence of normalcy. “Let It Be” pumping into the store as “you” resist the urge to vomit; the room that “isn’t empty if you can’t see it.” But the most intense negation is the title of the story from which all self-awareness has been erased. “Look into my eyes,” Jackson tells “you” at the moment you are obliged to produce your ID. The fusion of the weak victim with the heroic villain creates a wonderful tension that drives “self-awareness.”
To hold interest through confusion shows tremendous skill in a writer and “self-awareness” shows Alan Shapiro’s talent quite nicely.
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