He was becoming increasingly alarmed at the material achievements of his friends. What was also alarming and unsettling about this was that he once believed he was above such pettiness, such base feelings of jealously. Even though the middle-class was supposed to be dead, houses were being bought and Facebook postings were conveying a seemingly neat, linear, and rationally-planned ascendancy through what appeared to be the accepted stages of middle-class respectability. People were not getting divorced. They were not seeking exotic hardships in Third World post-colonies. They had stopped wearing backpacks after their undergraduate years and were succeeding at everything. He would console himself with the thought that, in fact, most of them had stopped at their undergraduate degrees, period, and, without any sense of regret or irony, started working, building families, settling down. They had stopped acting like life was summer. How boring that must all be.
So, with each major acquisition by distant online affiliations came complex feelings of immediate, real-time regret tangled with jealously, rage at himself for not having settled down sooner, anger at his parents for not having instilled in him the discipline required to buckle down and take responsibility for a respectable career, a definable career, at a much earlier stage in life. Anger at their inability to provide any sort of guidance through the more sophisticated twilight phases of capitalism because when they were coming of age there was no need for guidance, or an instruction manual. Everything just took care of itself through the passage of time. The white dream of the middle class was attained despite major screw-ups, stupid decisions, too much alcohol, accidents, guns, diseases, smoking, extramarital affairs. Such was the power of the Great Society, that it could hold people up despite their own irrational acts rooted in psychological weakness. They still achieved the house, the two cars in the driveway, the lawn, the dog, kids going to college. Repeat, repeat, repeat for decades. No one had prepared him for the need to be innovative, creative, cunning, clever, ruthless, driven. The real American Dream was that people could be middling and still maintain a secure position in what was once called the middle class. If one didn’t want to work so hard at being exceptional there was always the option of simply following the rules, or so the mythology went. Now the rules were unclear and to get ahead one has to make heroic strides, or at least maintain the appearance of this. Architecture had proven to be the perfect venue for this, so much of it being about appearances…not buildings.
These friends acquiring houses were not his architecture friends but the other ones, the ones left behind in the wake of his all-consuming pursuit of architecture. Like James. Left behind years ago. Not even an online presence for James. No way to measure where he was or what he was now. It was possible James didn’t have a house and this gave him some sense of well-being. It was helpful to think that there were some individuals in his social circle who were doing worse than he was. Maybe someone living in a van. Maybe a few who had to move back in with their parents. The one instance where Facebook proved to be useful was when he looked up some people from high school, hoping to find that the popular people had all peaked in senior year and had achieved nothing of significance as adults. This is how he had learned that his old friend Gil had met an untimely death. When he floated the curser finger over Gil’s scanned yearbook photo the word “RIP” appeared. As a comment someone had written, “Whoa! What happened to him? We used to be friends. Does anyone know what happened?” He had mixed feelings about this. They had been friends, yes. But Gil had also turned out to be a ruthless tormentor and saboteur. Something not right with him must have finally snapped at puberty. He almost hit the “Like” button but thought better of it. Not because it would look like he liked that his classmate was dead but because it would be getting too close to the past. He never gave it much thought before, but it was strange to be able to access elements of his past in this manner. It was bad enough his own yearbook photo was up. Nothing came up when he floated the curser over it.
In China, the firewall made such online escapades (mostly wastes of time, anyway) impossible. But he had tried James numerous times before. At home, Aphex Twin, Selected Ambient Works Volume II as background, wife and children asleep upstairs. No James. Looking back, he can’t remember exactly how they lost track of one another. He thinks it must have been his fault. He had stopped communicating. When the world of architecture school opened up, the old world of friends, of earlier, more solid relationships had shut almost immediately and completely. Solidity passed into air.
There was the one time James had visited the school. There had been no time. He showed James his studio space. Gave him the five-minute tour. There was simply too much to do and never enough time. Like the White Rabbit with his pocketwatch. No time. Spraying, cutting, sanding, covered in dust. Dirty face mask. Black, sleepless eyes. Walked him through the jungle of cables, lamps, spray cans, the kids with band-aids and stains on their hands, pale ghosts in their dirty rags sucked into little computer worlds, the California sun unable to reach them. To James, it must have seemed like an asylum.
It now seemed to him that proudly showing James around the school like that, all those years ago, after his father had died and after the house, must have been the ultimate moment of non-recognition. Showing him around like he had finally made it, like he had found a new home. How pathetic and self-centered. Of course James wanted nothing to do with him after that.
This foray into architecture school, to any normal person, must have seemed like a break of major proportions. He remembers a flash of insight he had while leading James around, stupidly introducing him to other asylum inhabitants (here’s Martini, this is Washington, that’s Turkle, and here’s Nurse Ratched!) that James must have realized this was the last time he would see his friend. There was nothing for James to hold onto in this insane world. Architecture school was the new impossible girlfriend, the new reason to not hang out, not visit, not call, to stay away. Maybe Dean will come to his senses and realize she is crazy, James must have thought. But it seems he didn’t think this and instead just concluded his friend was completely gone.
It must have been like visiting a cult where everyone on the inside experiences it as completely normal, a sort of life. The outsider, alone and unbent by the mental and physical force the cult projects, sees it for what it is: a blip, a mirage, a type of scenography, a circus, an act, a seductive trap. Those not in the sway of a cult’s phenomenology see the staging, the props, the near-invisible wires as implements of manipulation. The believers, not blind to these phantasms, invest them with a different significance upon which they will build careers. A series of play acts gradually become the sequencing of a new reality. This is what it takes, they say. This is how you survive. This is what was chosen.
Too much to do and more piled on. Crushing, total annihilation of his past lives. Every action and thought in studio seemed designed to make him forget everything. How do you train a human to become a soldier, a killer of other humans? How to train a human to become an architect? So intrinsic to nature, but still somehow totally against nature. To be an architect, to learn how to become an architect was learning how to become Shiva, creator and destroyer of worlds and to do this it almost seemed like he had to destroy himself first. Destroy his past and start over. Not impossible.
Becoming an architect, not even that, but learning how to learn how to become an architect was an act of breathing the fire that consumes you. By the time he left school, he was ash. He was a pile of ash and his entire life seemed made of ash. He can’t remember most of it. The evidence is now boxed in the garage. He lost track of everyone. Improbably, other people had died during that time. Architecture had cleansed everything. Buildings. He had lost homes during architecture school. It began with his dad’s house then the apartment getting torn down. His grandmother’s house was next to go. Then, during Thesis, his mother’s. The closer he got to architecture in a broader sense the more the meaningful architecture in his life seemed to disappear. The irony of that was sickening. They were never just buildings. It was never just about buildings. Not for him. Is it for anybody, he wonders. Now he’s left wondering if all these designs in faraway places are about filling that void of personal architecture, the loss of his own empire of signs replaced with substitutes.
Facebook, he has decided, is just too depressing. It’s healthier for all of China that it is firewalled. They don’t need any more falsehood. No one posts their regrets, their failures, their loss of optimism. He would like to post, “does not care about your stupid new houses!” but he can’t because he is in China and cannot open Facebook.