Things That Used to be Safe

As a kid, Zero thought he hated dancing. Three times a week, during morning PE, he would have to line up with the rest of his class while the teacher played that same awful dancehall remix of “If I Were a Rich Man”–a joke at his expense that Zero didn’t understand until years later–and perform the steps exactly as dictated. Long, agonizing minutes during which the squeak of sneakers on hardwood overwhelmed drum and bass crackling from blown speakers, and all Zero could think about was how this cut into the time they could be spending on worthwhile activities like dodgeball and four square.

It wasn’t until near the end of middle school when Zero learned that dancing could be something more than the shuffling mimicry of line dancing. His first after-school dance also took place in the gym, the familiar space made nearly unrecognizable by disco lights and a rainbow cloud of balloons hanging overhead. When a classmate made the nervous trek to the usually off-limits boom box and placed his homemade CD in the tray, when the first driving chords of some boisterous pop song Zero didn’t recognize filled the room, he prepared himself for an evening of drudgery. But no teacher appeared to take the lead, and the other kids didn’t spread out to ensure they had enough distance between each other to prevent interference. Instead, they trickled onto the designated dance floor in small clumps of twos and threes and fours. Mostly the girls at first, but the boys followed. As Zero watched, they began to move in time to the music in ways he didn’t understand. There was no direction, only a rhythmic chaos, where nothing had a pattern yet everyone seemed to know what to do.

Milo, his best friend, grabbed Zero by the arm, pulling him away from the snack table. “Come on,” he said.

“I don’t know the steps,” shouted Zero.

“What steps?” Milo laughed. “There are no steps, man.” He waved an arm through the spinning blue lights. “You just do whatever.”

Zero didn’t understand, but he went anyway. And Milo kept laughing at him through the second song, while Zero stood rooted to the floor, his neck his only moving part as he tried to follow what was happening. By the third song, others had joined Milo. Not to laugh at Zero, but to will him to do something.

“Just move,” they urged.

And he did. Zero closed his eyes and let his body go, let his limbs wave and jerk without knowing why, or how, or what to do next. Looking back, he was sure he looked like an idiot. But by the end of that night, he’d learned what it was to express himself, to experience that had been set up around his life.

He was happy. Blissfully so. Safely so.

Zero started to ride a bike the same way as everyone else, with training wheels, and then without them. He fell down, he scraped his knees. He broke his wrist. But he didn’t put the training wheels back on once he’d removed them. Nobody does. He kept at it until he stopped falling. And then, having endured that pain, he earned autonomy. He could rove on his own, go places without needing his parents. He gained freedom. The risk was worth that reward.

Another metaphor to avoid actually talking about it.

Because talking about it was now on the list of things that used to be safe.

If he tried to describe what started it–the doubt–he would probably go back to that first school dance. Not that he’d ever tried. His doubt was also on that list. But in private moments, Zero imagined delivering spontaneous monologues so eloquent and precise that even his heresy would carry the undeniable weight of some ingrained truth. Not the Truth he’d grown up with. It would be his truth.

In those private daydreams, he could have that–a truth all his own.

The dance had been the type of singular event that etches itself into a person, becomes a touchstone in memory. It wasn’t profound, it wasn’t a fork in the road. It was more a signpost with a simple, matter-of-fact statement: “There are other ways.”

And with that, doubt. And with doubt, curiosity. Which was also on the list.

There was another day that stayed with Zero.

He and Milo would ride their bikes out together, heading in a random direction until he didn’t recognize the streets. He got the feeling of passing through an invisible membrane, of crossing a border encompassing the places and people who knew what he was still pretending to be. A temporary escape from his growing paranoia.

Milo, as a school friend and natural outsider, had become one of the few people he could talk to. Milo, who might have incubated the seed of doubt with his own questions, the innocent ones that Zero had cut off when they crossed the ill-defined line drawn around his knowledge. So, Milo had a good laugh when Zero suddenly became the one with the questions. Milo’s outsider status made him dangerous, but also safe.

Lying on the soft grass of a sloping riverbank, watching the slow-motion tidal wave of clouds cresting the horizon, Zero said: “It’s the same thing in reverse, which is probably ironic.”

“I don’t get it,” said Milo.

“It’s like,” said Zero. “It’s like I used to question everyone else. It didn’t make sense that they weren’t like me, didn’t know what I knew. How could they be so ignorant?” Zero shook his head, felt the gentle stab of the unmowed grass against his ears.

“Gee,” said Milo. “I guess I’m just glad you thought of me at all.”

“Maybe,” said Zero, eyes focused on something distant, “if my best friend wasn’t such an idiot, I’d have had a better opinion of the general population and this wouldn’t have taken so long.”

Milo chuckled, a little grunt from the back of his throat. “So explain it to me, then.”

Thoughts and possibilities roiled around in Zero’s mind like the storm moving toward them. He felt the pull in both directions, but Milo’s prompt added that little bit of extra weight that started him moving in earnest. Nobody else, none of his family or the mandatory group of friends–peers, really–he’d been forced to grow up with, would have given him that opening.

The same thing in reverse. Doubts about the world turned to doubts about himself. It wasn’t as easy as saying that he’d been taught the Truth his entire life. He was born into it. He lived it, experienced it with the same unthinking certainty as running water and a sun that rises and sets every morning and evening. That was his privilege, they’d told him, to have a running start while the rest of the human race fumbled through the dark.

“I thought something must be wrong with me,” said Zero. “The Truth has to be the truth. That doesn’t change. So if I don’t understand, don’t believe, it’s my fault. I’m the one who is wrong. And now.” And now. Zero sat up, put a hand out to catch a raindrop. “And now I just don’t know.”

As he grew older, Zero found himself increasingly preoccupied with notions of context, something he’d rarely thought about before. When you have the Truth, when you have that bedrock of axiomatic certainty underpinning your life, context comes prepackaged.

“What have you been reading lately?” asked his father while they ate a late Sunday dinner. Normal mealtime conversation. A completely innocuous live grenade tossed into Zero’s lap.

Chewing slowly to buy time, Zero pushed sudden panic aside. It should have been easy, should have been safe. He would tell the truth: “I’ve been reading neuropsychology case studies.” Or, “I’ve been reading about Taoism and evolutionary biology.” Or, “Any annotated version of a holy text I can find in the public library.”

They could have a discussion. “Is that so? Tell me about it.” And Zero would admit that he really didn’t understand any of it, and they could have a good-natured laugh at his expense. Instead, Zero had books by Freud and Jung and Nietzsche hidden under his mattress like porn, because he knew enough to know what he couldn’t say, what the cost of forbidden knowledge could be.

Something neutral instead. “Bullfinch’s Mythology.”

Context was his anchor, both holding him steady and dragging him down. Context was what changed a missed call from a meaningless accident into a telling sign of guilt, changed silence from having nothing to say into not being able to say anything.

“We missed you at church,” said his mother. “Where were you?”

“Had to help Milo,” said Zero. “Studying emergency. You know, with finals coming up.” A simple lie that needed no further elaboration. He’d grown up in the Church as much as he had his own house, but now it felt like he was entering an alternate dimension whenever he set foot in that building. The people there, the pious energy suffusing the place, made him feel like an alien amongst aliens.

His parents shrugged. They continued eating. The subject changed. Zero watched his father, hands animated in the unnecessary explanation of the punchline to a joke. A brief fantasy, instant montage, in which Zero made his declaration and his family stood by him, and their friends didn’t turn their backs, as they would be ordered to. An inevitable sequence of actions that collapsed the whole enterprise like a house of cards. Then reality as a sharp contrast. The people he’d known to just disappear, instantly excised from the Church and its surrounding social circles so completely that it sometimes created doubt that they’d ever existed in the first place.

Would his parents choose their son over their Truth? Over their entire lives?

Could he force them to make that choice?

“What can I do for you, Zero?” asked the priest.

He had an open face, full of bright-eyed pleasantness and ready smiles. The kind of man who wanted to be trusted and who you wanted to trust. Zero took a seat across from the priest and spent several seconds working up the nerve to lift his gaze from the carpet. He got as far as a manila file folder on the desk before giving up, and it was only the mounting weight of awkwardness that finally squeezed the words out of him.

“How can I know it’s really the Truth?” asked Zero.

“If there’s something you need help understanding–” began the priest.

Shaking his head, Zero interrupted. “Not like that,” he said. “I understand the words, the intent. That’s not what I mean.”

The priest sat back in his chair. “Then tell me what you do mean.”

Deep breath. Zero tried to corral his thoughts. Here, in this room, so steeped in the granite certainty of the Truth, that underlying self-doubt rose up against him. What did he know that this man, who had spent longer studying and living the Truth than Zero had been alive, didn’t? As his rehearsed arguments fled, Zero focused on the list. This man had known Zero from birth, had never been unkind to him, so why was he afraid?

“You had a life before you came here,” said Zero. “You saw the difference. I didn’t, so how can I? How do I know what’s right if I don’t know what isn’t? How can I say the Truth is the only way if I don’t know any way but the Truth?”

The priest sat up a little straighter. “Are you proposing an alternative?” he asked with a hint of amusement.

“No,” said Zero. “Just a hypothetical.”

“Hypothetical,” repeated the priest. “I think I understand what you’re saying, Zero.” He leaned forward. “But how much do you really know? I don’t mean to question your intelligence. You’re a good student when you pay attention. But you’re young still, you’re just starting out, and you may not know as much as you think you do. Does that make sense?”

“Suppose so,” said Zero, feeling defeat set in.

“It’s normal to ask questions,” said the priest. “But I’m just saying that you might want to give it a real chance first. Agreed?”

Zero nodded.

“And I’ve got just the thing for that, if you’re interested.”

Zero thought he made a sincere attempt when he volunteered in the Church’s youth group for the summer, but all he ended up with was a surer conviction that he was no longer a part of the world he’d been raised in. Interactions with his peers were the most difficult, with his default involvement in their bright-eyed discussions about the overwhelming depravity of the outside world, the moral and political failings of the unenlightened masses. Their self-righteous zealotry had always bothered him, which was one reason Zero counted few of them as friends. The expectation that he would hold up his end of the blanket condemnations against became exhausting.

He still knew all the right words, could recite them without hesitation. Which is what really stuck in Zero’s craw. He now saw the other members of the youth group as reflections, however ugly or distorted, of his past and the future he’d grown up with. Maybe he’d never been as overt about it, but he’d said or thought those things himself at one time or another, and in earnest.

“So, what about that Milo guy you hang out with?” asked one of the other boys as they ate lunch. “I heard he’s, you know.” A dramatic wrist flop, derisive snorts from the rest of the table.

And that was it. To them, Milo was an unperson, and that meant guilt by association once someone reported it. Which they would. Their glib expressions as they waited for Zero to offer his best friend up as a ritualistic sacrifice told him he’d reached the point of no return. If he didn’t make a choice–his best friend or them–it would be made for him.

It was almost a relief that they’d made it so easy.

When it was finally over, Zero felt mostly disappointed that his imagined eloquence failed to manifest. There was a lot more swearing than his limited planning accounted for, but the anger still surging through his veins assured him that was just as good. On the bus ride back home, it cooled some. Not so much that it left him, but enough that he realized he couldn’t face what waited for him there. He turned off his phone and exited a stop early.

Milo offered him a sleeping bag and a place on his floor when Zero turned up red-eyed and out of breath from his flight. “Just need a bit of space,” he said. Milo waved the words away, assuring Zero that he didn’t require explanations or justifications.

“What will you do now?” asked Milo.

Feeling the dead weight of his phone in his hand, wiping smudges away from the blank screen with a thumb, Zero shrugged. “Something other than what I thought I’d be doing.”

He ate dinner with Milo’s family. Zero hunched his shoulders against the smothering silence, pretended not to notice the significant looks Milo shared with his parents. But after a vigorously negative head shake barely stopped his friend’s sister from saying something, Zero excused himself and left the table without finishing.

Milo found him lying in the worn hammock out back. “Mom’s still going to call your parents,” he said. “She thinks you’re running away or something.”

“It’s fine,” said Zero.

“You sure?” asked Milo.

“Yeah.”

Zero saw his friend as a lean silhouette against the setting sun. Milo just stood there, not saying anything, and Zero realized he couldn’t add that to the list as well. He couldn’t let his best friend think this was off limits, not when he was the only one who tried to understand.

“How do you do it?” he wondered.

“Do what?” asked Milo.

“Not know,” said Zero. “You always thought it was wrong, but I grew up knowing. I had the answers to every question. And even when I didn’t know personally, I knew someone else did, could show me it in a text. It was there, somewhere.” Zero sat up. “You know how I told you about the school dance?”

Milo nodded.

“I thought that was about being able to do it the way you wanted,” said Zero. “Not the dancing, but whatever. Life. It would be a choice. But you know all those books I read, all the lectures I listened to. Those were the options, But they aren’t. Not in the same way.”

Milo leaned against one of the trees holding up the hammock. “What do you mean?”

“I mean they don’t know,” said Zero. “I kept looking because I guess I figured there’d be other answers and maybe I could pick the ones I liked. Or something. It’s hard to say. I just thought that if there’s a wrong answer, there has to a be right one, and I’d find it. I’d be able to point at it and tell them all that they’re wrong, and here’s why, and this is right. But I didn’t find it, and now it’s just me.”

“Maybe you don’t have all the answers anymore,” said Milo. “But, really, you didn’t before, did you? And nobody does. That’s just life.”

“Yeah,” said Zero. “And I have no idea how to do it now.”

“And come on, man,” said Milo, putting a hand on Zero’s shoulder. “You know you aren’t alone.”

Zero turned away and wiped at his eyes with a sleeve.

That night, Zero lay awake and listened to his friend snore softly. They’d talked for hours. Zero, with his endless loops of words that never quite said what he wanted them to, and Milo trying to understand. And, Zero supposed, that was as much a part of life as anything else.

Thinking about the future was now on the list of things that used to be safe. But safety wasn’t everything.

In the morning he would call his parents and talk it out. He might say some things that weren’t safe, and he didn’t know what would happen after that. But he knew it would be his decision, his choice, and whatever the consequence, his life.

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