How Hard, How Hard It Is to Be a Person
Parsons gets on flights and gets off later sometimes realizing he remembers nothing whatsoever about those hours in the air, kills routine delays in Chili’s and Wolfgang Puck’s and PF Chang’s nursing craft beers while working on client reports, buys breath mints after with the company card, arrives at the layover thinking it’s his destination, arrives at his destination thinking it’s his layover, arrives home anxious he’ll miss his flight out. Parsons’ home is Colorado Springs, but it could be anywhere, as much as he travels, a never-ending gauntlet necessitated by his boss’s insistence that clients value face-time, which maybe they do, though it seems to Parsons that what they value is any excuse to eat too much then play alpha dog afterward in scotch and cigar bars. Parsons is that excuse. Parsons’ actual title is “Associate Energy Consultant,” but his job is to fly and eat dinner. Parsons is thirty-one and single and clinically depressed, though undiagnosed. Parsons thinks this is his life, foreseeably.
Parsons plays a MMORPG called Lords of Chthon, in which he is a blacksmith orc or orcish blacksmith. Parsons’ orc’s name is Parsons1986 — the digits are his birthday year. Parsons immediately regretted naming his orc after himself, but once it was in the system it was impossible to change, and anyway it makes him identify a little more than he otherwise might with his avatar, an unprepossessing red and green creature forever falling into elvish Pits of Despair or getting ambushed by Goblin Militias. Parsons himself belongs to an orc guild and has made a couple of friends among the orcs, although “friends” might be pushing it. But he does feel a bond with them, especially an orc named Terrykins who always says hi to him and asks him how his day has been.
Parsons usually says “good you?” and lets the action proceed, but today, camped out at California Pizza Kitchen on a two hour delay, when Terrykins asks how he is, Parsons — or Parsons1986, technically — says “bad.” Parsons1986 tells Terrykins his life feels utterly unfulfilling and meaningless. Parsons1986 says he sometimes thinks about hurting himself. Parsons1986 apologizes, saying he knows people come to the Chthonic Realm to get away from this kind of thing, but he doesn’t really have anyone else to talk to. Parsons cannot talk to his boss or coworkers, and as for his family, don’t even get Parsons started on them. Parsons is lucky he turned out as well-adjusted as he did.
Parsons watches Parsons1986 watch Terrykins bob gently up and down in front of him, bow and arrow in hand, clearly unsure of how to respond. Parsons has a feeling Terrykins is about to kill Parsons1986 for the keks, so-called, so he slams his laptop shut, spilling his beer on his lap. Parsons gathers his bags and flees to the bathroom in a mincing shuffle of mortified dismay.
Parsons cleans up in the bathroom and looks at Parsons in the mirror. Parsons is not a bad-looking guy, save the dark stain on his crotch and a receding hairline that, like so many other things in his life, he cannot do anything about. Parsons thinks how strange it is that we walk around all the time looking at people, basing value judgments of others on how they look, on the casts of their faces, when anything could be going on inside; the man looking back at him in the mirror, for example, might be a happy person in a fulfilling job and relationship — even though the Parsons in the mirror is himself, he has a slightly hard time divining Mirror Parsons’ mental state.
Parsons leaves the bathroom marginally comforted by the thought that the people passing by cannot read his mind, do not know anything about him, although this thought becomes somewhat uncomforting the longer he dwells on it. Parsons partly wishes people could read his mind, know the pain he is in, although he’s not sure why he wishes that — after all, if he hasn’t been able to do anything about the way he feels in three decades, what could a stranger do? Parsons has always had trouble connecting with other people, and his attempts to share his loneliness have not exactly been fruitful, take Terrykins, for example. Parsons is put in mind of a date he went on recently, in Atlanta, with a woman he’d met on a gaming chat site. Parsons had thought of it as a date, anyway, but the woman showed up to the fancy restaurant he’d booked wearing frayed white jeans, and an unmistakable look of confusion on her face. Parsons got through the dinner by drinking and lying a lot. Parsons told her that he was married, had four (four!) children. Parsons told her he was working in biotech, a field he could barely describe to himself let alone someone else. Parsons thought about killing himself that night, though Parsons increasingly often thinks about killing himself, including how he might do it.
Parsons has variously considered jumping off something tall (probably the easiest way to go, though there might be incredible pain in that last millisecond) and shooting himself (probably painless or close to it, but he doesn’t know how to get a gun or want to go through that process, and anyway, the thought of disfigurement, even in death, is disturbing, though he knows that is irrational), but he has in fact gradually, without consciously making the choice, settled on a default suicide plan. Parsons’ bathroom counter features a large bottle of Ambien and two bottles of Lorazepam sitting beside each other, like soldiers awaiting deployment orders from Parsons, who stands before them nightly. Parsons imagines swallowing all of them, lying down on his Tempur-Pedic mattress, and being swallowed by the foam, just disappearing down into the Chthonic Realm.
Parsons sits in a plastic chair at Gate C7, with an hour to spare before the delayed flight will purportedly arrive. Parsons’ crotch is still damp. Parsons realizes he has decided to kill himself when he gets home; no, this not quite right — the decision was made long ago, it simply now feels like the right time. Parsons is frightened by the thought, the resolution he feels. Parsons makes a deal with himself: if Terrykins has killed Parsons1986, Parsons will end things tonight; if Terrykins hasn’t… he still might, but it’s not definite. Parsons opens his laptop. Parsons logs in. Parsons opens Lords of Chthon. Parsons finds Parsons1986 dead. Parsons’ gut wrenches in a sick twist of terrified relief. Parsons sees unread messages in the dialogue box. Parson reads these messages, in which Terrykins expresses sympathy and tells Parsons to send a PM, then lists a phone number and says Parsons should call him or her, then warns him of an axe-wielding troll creeping up behind. Parsons’ gut wrenches again in a sick twist of relieved terror. Parsons begins crying silently. Parsons shakes in his seat, shakes so hard that a girl texting on her phone across from him looks up in alarm and scuttles away.
Parsons, later on during the flight, attempts to work on a spreadsheet, but he cannot focus. Parsons feels ashamed of his earlier outburst, but then he looks down the metal tube in front of him, and he is suddenly overcome by a great affection for his fellow passengers, these strangers sharing this cramped space and stale air while trapped utterly in their own heads, and in this fleeting moment he forgives himself, thinking how hard, how hard it is to be a person! Parsons leans his head against the pillow, falls quickly asleep, and dreams of a horde of monstrous avatars rushing across a sweeping plain, joyful in their movements and weaponry, the arrows they launch like wishes into distant battlements.
Adam O’Fallon Price is a writer and teacher living in Carrboro, NC. His first novel, The Grand Tour, was released in 2016 by Doubleday, and the paperback will be published by Anchor Books in July. His podcast, Fan’s Notes, is a bi-monthly discussion about books and basketball. He can be found online at adamofallonprice.com and on Twitter at @AdamOPrice.