There are 86,400 seconds in a day. During this time, the Earth travels approximately 93 million miles through space at a speed of 67,000 miles per hour. The average human heart beats 100,000 times. More than 360,000 babies are born. Almost 152,000 people die. Billions of words are written.
Some of them are mine.
My therapist looks at me. She has a small notebook in her hand. Her gaze alternates between me and the notebook. She peers down her nose at the neat, blue script on the page through thin, wire-framed bifocals. She glances up and asks me why I drink.
“To quiet the voices,” I say, forcing a smile. To let her in on the joke. She writes something down. Without looking up, she asks me what the voices say.
I haven’t taken a drink in eleven months (28,512,000 seconds). I haven’t seen my therapist in two years (62,899,200 seconds).
Do not rely on the humor of therapists.
I live in a bland, sterile suburban apartment “community.” The type of place where signs reminding dog owners to leash and pick up after their pets also say, “Grrr. Bark. Woof. Good dog.”
The people who live here never smile.
Every morning, I take the “shuttle” from my suburban apartment community to the train station roughly one mile away. The shuttle is a pale blue Dodge minivan with a small dent in the front bumper, worn upholstery, and two peeling white stickers with the name of the apartment community stuck to the rear doors. Morris drives the shuttle. The drive takes approximately eight minutes (480 seconds), depending on traffic. Sometimes Morris and I talk, though only when he and I are alone.
One day, my car breaks down just outside the road leading into my apartment community. Morris pulls up, asks me if I need a ride. I tell him I do, that I have to go to the pharmacy to pick up my wife’s albuterol inhaler. As we drive, I feel compelled to tell him I also need to pick up my alprazolam, the anxiolytic benzodiazepine I take for anxiety.
“The little yellow footballs?” Morris says. “Doctor gave me those after my accident. Helped me sleep.”
I don’t ask about the accident. I don’t tell him I can’t sleep.
Pass. Block. Intercept. Little yellow footballs.
I am a pharmacological athlete at the top of my game.
I find the immutable truth of mathematics comforting. The stoicism of numbers is reassuring to me. Somehow, they work. There is order in numbers. Logic. They do not change. They do not shift. They simply are. Some say mathematics is the language of God. I cannot speak to God, but I trust that He is somehow there, hidden behind the arcane symbols of mathematical formulae I will never understand.
Words, on the other hand, are deceitful. Words betray you. They often say one thing but mean another. Studies have shown that children as young as thirty months (77,414,400 seconds) old can exhibit behavior indicative of lying.
Words lie to you from the moment you can hear them.
“Craft” is a word I hear over and over again. Focus on your craft. Improve your craft. Hone your craft, as if my words were a blade, sharp and deadly. A weapon. Words become lies become the truth.
The pen is mightier than the sword. I feel my grip slipping from both.
When I drink, bad things happen. I know this anecdotally, as I can rarely remember firsthand. I am forced to rely on the eyewitness reports of others. When my wife drinks, she stays up late and cleans our apartment. The more she drinks, the cleaner our home becomes. Overnight transformations fueled by chocolate stout or pumpkin IPAs or Bacardi and diet ginger ale.
One morning, I awake to a spotless apartment. There is a piece of paper on our small kitchen table—a certificate for schoolchildren published in 1986. A small plane, round and fat with large shy eyes, tows a balloon on a string in its innocuous chemtrail. Curvy, bulbous letters spell the words “Certificate of Outstanding Achievement.” To the right of the illustration is a blank section in which the teacher can personalize the certificate for the deserving student.
My certificate says, “To Dan, for dealing with my shit.” Beneath this brief message, my wife’s thick, squiggly signature written in blue Sharpie, yesterday’s date.
My wife does not realize it is she who deserves this certificate. Only the names need to be changed.
“The Waiting” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers spent six consecutive weeks (2,419,000 seconds) at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart in 1981, the year before I was born. Exactly 50 seconds after the introductory G chord, Mr. Petty sings the words, “The waiting, is the hardest part.”
Sometimes, writing is the hardest part. Most of the time, though, Mr. Petty is right.
Many writers say they prefer having written something to the act of writing itself. Less is said of the patience and discipline required to endure the interminably long periods of waiting that often follow the completion of writing.
Telling lies is easy. Waiting for those lies to be exposed is much harder.
I am a child performing handstands and cartwheels for parents who do not see me.
Genetic predisposition. A proclivity for substance abuse. Gradual desensitization of the gamma-aminobutyric acid receptors in my brain. I am less concerned with why I need the little yellow footballs rattling around in my pocket than I am about the sound they make as I walk.
I am terrified that somebody at my office will recognize the telltale sound of the pills in the prescription medication bottle in my pocket as I walk past. I know that nobody will ask what the sound is, yet I find myself devising suitably convincing explanations as I walk from the train station to my office. Oh, that? I’d say. Advil. Antihistamines. Lime and orange-flavor Tic Tacs.
I remind myself that few of my colleagues will have the time or inclination to notice such an inconspicuous detail. It doesn’t help. The little yellow footballs in the bottle in my right-hip pocket threaten to betray me with every step. I put my hand in my pocket, try to stifle their treacherous chatter by clutching the bottle. My palm is clammy. I wait for the crowd at the coffee machine to disperse before getting my morning cup of house blend, my smile too wide.
It takes 134 seconds for the machine to dispense the delicious beverage that I am about to enjoy, which may be very hot.
I am better. I feel fine. Everything is fine.
On February 2, 2014, the actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman died. He was forty-six years (1,450,656,000 seconds) old. On the day he fatally overdosed on a particularly potent batch of what police would later reveal was heroin in his West Village apartment, I wondered if I would ever be as talented an actor as he was.
The performance is everything. There are few lines to memorize. No crowds of expectant faces leaning ever so slightly forward in their seats, bony arms folded, eyes fixed intently on me. No withering reviews in the pages of Variety or the Hollywood Reporter or the New York Times. Still, one must be prepared. Missing cues is for amateurs. How are you? How’s it going? Are you okay?
I give the audience the lies they crave, my timing impeccable. My unwitting costars smile, nod, exit stage left. Art imitates life imitates art.
Every day is a rehearsal, every conversation a scene.
Sometimes, I forget my lines.
Studies have shown that children as young as thirty months (77,414,400 seconds) old can exhibit behavior indicative of lying. It took me twenty-three years (725,328,000 seconds) to learn to tell the kinds of lies that people want to hear; the familiar scripted deceits that circumnavigate the ad-libbed truths that make people uncomfortable.
I didn’t start taking the little yellow footballs until I was twenty-nine years (914,544,000 seconds) old, less than one year (a paltry 31,536,000 seconds) before I chose to write lies for a living. Like athletes who discover that performance-enhancing steroids can push them far beyond the fragile limits of lesser mortals, I have come to depend on them to make my deceptions—whether written or spoken—better, higher, faster. I memorize my lines, take a little yellow football twice every twenty-four hours (one roughly every 43,200 seconds), and hone my craft.
Actor. Athlete. Writer. I am all and none of these things.
The one thing I have always been, for as long as I can remember, is a liar.
Rumpus original art by Marc Pearson.