Bear with me.
A bucket list item checked off and a high school dream come true, this year, someone dresses as me for Halloween. I’m easy to replicate, but I’m particular, and a few mistakes are noticeable: the hat, too new (a Detroit Tigers ball cap, yes, but not sun-bleached, no sweat stains); the plaid shirt’s squares are too small, and the color, a dull shade between late-autumn tan and dying feather grass, something that goes well with chiropractic waiting room chairs, a shirt that says suburban weekend-warrior at an in-law’s barbecue; the shoes have no red; black socks instead of stretched, holey, and dirty white. The beard, drawn on. The jeans, however, are right: carpenter and just loose enough, an out-of-date, but working, T9 phone in the side pocket. The black hoodie is acceptable, and so is the undershirt, gray with mostly unseen writing, but it has not been given to him by my father as an afterthought with a stack of old mail. Otherwise, notable effort.
With this list, I admit my own life has a style guide, that these are the rules I must follow just to be myself, an odd but completing satisfaction unearthed in high school when I found out others knew me as that guy who wears plaid. This everyday attire had nothing to do with me liking plaid; it had everything to do with me believing plaid is slimming. Since then I’ve maintained a life of consistency. Summers are hot under layers, but I have what every adolescent begs for: an identity. This is Tim: he likes plaid. He likes hats. He likes golf. He’s grumpy. Don’t say anything about thin crust pizza. Avoid topics that could lead to Adam Sandler. Never bring up parallel parking.
During Halloween night, other-me, out of character, says something along the lines of he sees why I do this loose-plaid-and-jeans lifestyle; he’s never been more comfortable, never felt so relaxed. Others disagree, say my style looks fine on me but on him, a man whose everyday clothing is fashionable and snug, is unappealing and borderline wino. This is not when I become agitated. I become agitated when we sit next to each other on the couch, right legs crossed over our left knees. I think of Harpo Marx and Lucille Ball, their speechless mirroring of each other, but this isn’t what bothers me. What bothers me is that we are not speechless. I speak. I point to a rug, the fireplace, the TV, teaching him, You hate that rug. You hate that fireplace. You hate that TV. But I don’t. I’m upsetting myself. I like that rug. And that fireplace. I could do without the TV, but it hasn’t done anything personal to me. He repeats everything, tries to get the tone of my voice just right, I hate that rug. I hate that fireplace. To hell with that TV. The voice is off, a cookie-cutter stoner haze of words. A slow, sleepy monotone. Tom Waits, circa 1989.
He wasn’t close to becoming me. The clothes, the monotone, the expected distain—all a forced exaggeration of me. However (and this is the point I’m ultimately trying to make), I’m already an exaggeration of something that isn’t completely me. This exaggeration of me is a tiny version of myself (say, three percent), the side of me who’s on guard, who’s aware of surroundings, who keeps others at a distance from my true self; my true self, who only makes an appearance when I drive long-distance alone. And that person is nuts. And not monotone. He ranges from bass to quite an impressive alto. Hates novelty mailboxes. Loves red houses and barns and June-high corn fields. He air-banjos. He sings along to The Beatles, Diana Ross, and The Beastie Boys as a second-rate Bob Dylan impersonator. Speaks Spanish and faux-Russian to oncoming traffic, to passers-by.
But that loose psych ward patient (who points and shouts to Ohio drivers as people once projected to lepers: Unclean! Unclean! (Sorry.)) is not my writing voice. This, now, is my writing voice, another nameless being within me who believes that sometimes a series of pretty words can trump the cohesiveness of straight-forward narration. Imagine Chaplin’s Tamp while singing his nonsense song in Modern Times (also allow this comparison so show you just how full of myself I am—Sing!! Never mind the words.). Who I am in reality has nothing to do with this writing-voice you read. Even if I were to read it aloud, my voice would become manipulated, would strain pitches and heartfelt tones in all the right spots, would forget to breathe, would pause for the laughs, would refuse to look up before and after transitions. Add in all the ahs, ums, grunts and jaw clenches you want, it’ll never come close to how I speak normally: unarticulated, lazy emphasis on Ts and Ws, elongated Os, uses four words when eight will do, substitutes noises for most responses requiring yes or no or I don’t know.
I don’t know anybody different, don’t know of anyone who speaks the way they write. Aside from maybe Hunter Thompson. Maybe James Baldwin. Maybe David Mamet. Maybe Truman Capote. Maybe, and hopefully, Bill Watterson. Probably hundreds and thousands of others. I’m okay admitting I’m wrong, but I can’t end every paragraph apologizing for idiocy. Even though I should.
If you choose to believe me, what does this say of the essay? What is the essay (What is tree bark? What are IKEA instructions? What are Kraft American cheese slices?)? Does the voice you use in the essay absolutely have to represent your true self? For me, it’s imperative that it doesn’t, because my fake-esque writing voice is what makes me readable, what turns my boring grocery list of apples; cumin; flour; cereal; pie pan into do not buy the honey crisp, it’s out of season; avoid stickerless avocados and bananas—what’s the point? nod to the produce man, treat him has a human. Could make a difference. He works hard and seems lonely. This is (not the greatest example of) style. An act, a performance, a ruse, a mildly-inaccurate costume worn every time I write, hoping the consistency makes my words true (however false they will always be), something that teases deep within, look at me be you.
I look at the essay as a self-love letter read by strangers; it’s the duty of the writer to lay out the perception of the heart, mind, and soul as accurately as possible, and it falls on the reader to have blind faith, to retain that meaning, flip it around and make sense of it as best as one can with whatever’s offered. Voice is the symmetrical face and steady bank account, silver bows on red boxes. Meaning is the secrets learned in the dark that take away that superficial flavor. Reader and writer must have faith in that voice, trust it, and fall in love with it so deeply that nothing would ever tear it away. Reader and writer must accept, simultaneously, that there is always a chance to be let down hard (consider this very conclusion). If this pain is worthwhile, appreciate what you take and eventually lose, grow and disintegrate with all of it, but know that the essay, and all the baggage that comes with it, is never (and shouldn’t ever be) completely understood. And if you truly do understand it all, listen to me: you hate that rug. You hate that fireplace. You hate that goddamn TV.
Bio: Timston Johnston received his MFA from Northern Michigan University and is the fiction editor of Passages North and the founding editor of Little Presque Books. His work appears in Midwestern Gothic, Ghost Town, Cartagena, and Cheap Pop. If he’s being completely honest, he only likes the let-the-sunshine-in part of “Aquarius.”