In the twentieth issue of The Sandman, Neil Gaiman obliterates my heart. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Sandman.
I’m just going to first say that if you loved the way that identity, depression, and violence was handled here in this issue, you need to read Persepolis. Actually, even if you didn’t, you still need to read it because it’s fucking incredible, but that’s a whole different point. Much of The Sandman so far has been alternating between the surreal and the horrifying. For the first time in the series, Gaiman takes Dream out of the picture, and he gives us a sobering, emotional portrait of identity and Death. To be honest, I had to look up who Element Girl even was, which, in itself, is a horrifyingly depressing commentary on this story, too. She’s forgotten, and I think that’s the entire reason Gaiman chose to use her as the focus of “Façade.” Even those of us who consider ourselves fans of comic books don’t really know her all too well.
There’s a powerful statement at the heart of this story, but it’s one that’s hard to get to. This is one of the most gut-wrenching comics I’ve ever read, and my own struggles with depression and my place in a world that seemed to have forgotten me made it all the more difficult. As much as I must admit that I clearly didn’t live the same life as Urania Blackwell, the parallel was there. After being forced to drop out of school during my senior year of college, I can’t tell you how many nights I spent alone in my apartment in Silverlake, fearing any public interaction, cutting off contact with everyone I once knew and was close with. This was in the summer 2005, and it was one of the darkest times in my life. I’d been framed for theft and fired from a decently-paying job, and I was close to being evicted. I ended up bailing on my apartment to live in an attic in Silverlake for just $150 a month, and the place was little more than a storage room. It fit a twin bed, a tiny dresser, and a footstool that I used to stack books on in an impossibly high tower. I’d spent so many years in school being the genius valedictorian, and now, because of powers beyond my control, I was now a college dropout with no money, no savings, and no network of people to help me out. I had just abandoned living with my two close friends because I feared that I wouldn’t be able to afford rent anymore.
And that summer was supposed to be a big deal to me because I should have just graduated from college a year early. All those AP and IB classes were supposed to pay off, allowing me to continue with work or further my education after a summer off from everything. Instead, I found myself wandering the streets of Los Angeles on buses and trains, sometimes going days without saying a word to anyone, feeling like I’d slipped off the track of the world. The entire universe was a spinning record, and I was on the wrong groove. My friends stopped talking to me, and to be honest, I don’t blame them. What were they supposed to say? How could they help me? Most were poor themselves, working jobs without joy and scraping by on a day-to-day basis. How were they that much better than I was? As what little money I had began to disappear, I stopped taking the Metro around town. I’d walk. One day, I walked from Silverlake to Santa Monica – all along Santa Monica Blvd – and then sat at the end of the Santa Monica pier, wondering what my life had become, pondering life among the strangers and tourists who all came to gape out at the ocean.
The Pacific Ocean has this strange way of making me feel both lonely and comforted. The sheer size of it is overwhelming, and I tend to feel unimportant and insignificant when I would stare out at the horizon, knowing that it went on and on far beyond what I could see, and that I was just one person on a planet full of millions of people like me. But I spent most of my life in Southern California, and the beach had been close to me the whole time. So at the same time, the scope of that ocean confirmed what I already knew, and that was comforting. I really was just a tiny speck on the surface of the earth, and it’s entirely true that if I sat around and did nothing, I wouldn’t matter. I’d be forgotten, disposed of by nature’s unstoppable entropy, and the world would go on without me.
It took me months to fully understand that idea, and I did not walk the fifteen miles home with a beautiful epiphany in my head. I was lonely, forgotten, and disposable that day, or at least that’s how I felt. It wasn’t long after that day that an old friend from high school came to visit me, and I had to admit to her that I was not in school anymore, that I wasn’t using my education in the slightest, and that I was about to start a job that was mindless and banal. It paid minimum wage, and it paid the rent. She was excited to see me, but it was clear in her face that she was disappointed that my success had disappeared. I wasn’t the genius valedictorian anymore, and I wasn’t doing a single thing with my life that held any sort of meaning or happiness. We ended our lunch early, and I spent the rest of the day down at a local bar I had begun to frequent.
I didn’t drink then, as I don’t drink now, and the bartenders learned to tolerate (and later enjoy) my silent company as I sat in that dark, L-shaped bar, drinking soda or water and reading by the light of the neon beer signs, always turning down what little attention I got by men who passed through. I was a straight edge kid spending his nights at a gay bar until it closed, never drinking and never leaving with anyone else. It made no sense to anyone there, but they accepted that this was where I was in life, and it was towards the end of that summer in Silverlake that I started writing again. First, it was pieces of prose on the back of napkins, sappy and puerile musings about my place in the world and how persecuted I felt for being brilliant and alone. But those involved into bigger thoughts, and I found myself crafting vignettes and tales about people who passed through that bar, especially the ones I’d see every night, the ones who would nod to me as if we were ancient friends or distant rivals, and these stories soon filled a spiral-bound notebook with a Bad Religion crossbuster stickered on the front. It only took me a month for that thing to be full from cover to cover, and I later wasted it as a gift for Christmas in 2006 to a man I thought I loved and loved me back. He lost it during a coke binge of his, but it was months after he dissolved our relationship. There’s a stranger in West Hollywood somewhere who got that notebook after my ex left it at his house, and he keeps it on his bookshelf, and occasionally, he’ll take it out, and he’ll read the story about Victor, a man I once knew and spoke with often at that bar in Silverlake that I lived at in the summer of 2005. He’ll see himself in the story of a man who drank half his weight in beer and vodka while wearing a suit worth more than a month’s wages of mine, and he’ll wonder where that notebook came from before setting it back on his shelf.
At least, that’s what I’d love to believe about it. It probably got thrown out, and I’m sure it’s been forgotten. I don’t even remember it anymore, and it was my creation.
My journey out of this little hell of mine took months; it wasn’t a sudden thing. I didn’t just wake up into perfection. It wasn’t until I was hired on at Buzznet as a contracted content manager in early 2006 that I found happiness, but even then, it was tainted by the pain of my first boyfriend, and later that year, to the death of my father. So that’s where my story differs from Urania’s. Death helps her find the courage to ask for mercy, but I had to find that all on my own. I was hopelessly hard on myself in 2005, but I soon learned that this phase in my life was just that: a phase. That’s not to say it’s that way for everyone, but it needed to happen. I needed to experience it as an adult for me to move along my path towards accepting myself. Hell, I’m still on that journey, but I think I’ve found a way to channel my loneliness and my competing identities into something positive and fulfilling. Well, I least I hope that’s what this all is. It feels right to me to put these stories and experiences into words, so I’m going to keep on doing it. Perhaps this way, I won’t be forgotten, and I won’t feel so disposable.
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