Over winter break, I went out with a few friends and took a train home alone through downtown Dallas. It was the late afternoon — too early for the post-bar bunch and too late for the usual work crowd. Soon after I chose my seat, a slender Casanova wannabe with a can of cheap beer and a green pullover jacket hobbled into the seat behind me. When a young woman entered our section a few stops later, the man took it upon himself to personally give her a warm welcome: “You married?” “Yes,” she said.
I shuffled past neighborhood streets with a new friend, proclaiming the 12th grade misadventures of love, football and Whataburger. Our conversation made its way into tales about my high school’s $60 million football stadium when she began her string of allegations of affluence. “Our stadium was a set of portable bleachers,” she said. “You told me you grew up in a middle class neighborhood.”
I scrambled to defend myself. “uhh… it was a big tax district and we were the only school for the money to be funneled into and…” I ran through the list of economic-struggle-related mumbo-jumbo to prove that anything in my life that was $60 million dollars was an anomaly.
Over the summer, I heard an old Drake song that mentions star projectors and soon became fixated on the idea of buying one myself. I think the appeal comes from childhood memories of seven-year-old astronaut-wannabe me, sprawled out on the carpet flooring of a friend’s bedroom, staring up at a fake version of the night sky as if seeing the real one when I went outside wasn’t enough. When last semester began, I made my pilgrimage to the toy section of a department store and bought a new star projector, for old times’ sake. Oddly enough, it feels deeply profound to lay on my hardwood bedroom floor and stare up at colorful light-shapes on the wall. It’s introspective and placid and energizing, all at the same time.
“You were real. That’s what made you so good to watch.”
If you’ve ever seen The Truman Show, you likely remember the film’s final scene, when Truman and Christof, the creator of the counterfeit world in which Truman lives, finally meet, partaking in the exchange above. The film is part social commentary and part absurd apologue, all centered on the story of an everyday man whose life, unbeknownst to him, is actually a popular TV show. As evidenced by sporadic cuts to images of various friend groups watching from their couches, the outside world loved the show and tuned in because it felt so genuine: Truman’s experiences and reactions were all real. Truman didn’t know he was on TV, which was the film’s most important narrative conceit.
Last summer, I fell victim to my longings for spontaneity and crashed a wedding. The hunt for viable festivities took guts and perseverance, but once I arrived at the venue’s floral walkway with my date for the evening, we knew our labor was worthwhile. Inside, it seemed to be the aftermath of a rowdy affair. The drunk aunts and uncles rocked and gyrated on the edge of the dance floor with blank stares that make you want to give them a pillow and a blanket. In the middle were the three of four most passionate couples, rubbing up against each other in slow motion as the DJ spun his late night playlist of R&B songs you don’t recognize until the chorus.
The period between the moment one casts their ballot and the moment the next President of the United States is announced feels far more heavy than I’d ever imagined. It’s the American population’s collective gasp — like that pause in music when the audience isn’t sure if the song is ending or if they’ve simply reached the silent millisecond before a beat drop. Last week, when I encountered my first introduction to this feeling, I watched a few campaign-recap videos to curb my pre-election jitters. The videos were reflective, taking an emotional look back at the election cycle and its ups and downs. To me, it all felt so personal: each scene a reminder of its context in my life.
I remember the first time I saw it: I was a few steps outside my townhouse, clamoring for something spontaneous to do when, as a godsend in response to my boredom, a girl I vaguely recognized invited me to join her and her friends in a trek to the forbidden lands of a new construction site on Cornell’s campus. Under the protective veil of a late Thursday night, we slipped into the bottom floor of what would soon be my home away from home: Klarman Hall. Back then, it was just stone and sawdust. Now, Klarman is the place where I do most of my work. Whether I’m lucky enough to earn my own chair or condemned to a spot on the floor, I usually find my way to somewhere in the building after my classes during the week.
The final scene in the movie Gravity has always stuck with me. It’s beautiful: after 90 minutes of nail-biting space hullabaloo, viewers watch Sandra Bullock’s character swim out from the underwater wreckage of a spacecraft and gratifyingly tread up to the surface. It’s a long-awaited denouement, the moment when she finally reaches home. When her head rises from the water, you can hear mosquitoes and see the outlines of mountains in the distance. Her gargantuan breaths feel like a chorus of voices proclaiming the magnificence of earth and everything in it.
A couple weeks ago, I met my hero in my own living room. He was in his early 20s with a tacky outfit and and a cheap haircut, sitting in a chair by the window. After eavesdropping on his conversation, I gathered that he was from Texas, so I, having grown up in Dallas, decided to introduce myself. Half-an-hour or so into our talk, I was able to piece together the story of who he was and how he found his way into my house:
Months ago, he graduated from a small college in rural Texas but didn’t yet want to join the workforce and sell his soul to the highest bidder. Instead, he decided, he would sell everything he owned, change his phone number and travel the country until he ran out of money.
To this day, one of my greatest accomplishments is the fact that I was able to change my name in my eighth grade yearbook. To me, it was proof that I could reinvent myself whenever I wanted. The book just had so much finality to it — locked into history forever. If you journey into the depths of the hidden basement archives of Curtis Middle School right now, you’ll find a 2010 picture of a short and skinny black kid named Rusty Russell. Looking for Paul Russell?