Sometimes you imagine that everything could have been different for you, that if only you had gone right one day when you chose to go left, you would be living a life you could never have anticipated. But at other times you think there was no other way forward-that you were always bound to end up exactly where you have.
How often, you wonder, has the direction of your life been shaped by such misunderstandings? How many opportunities have you been denied-or, for that matter, awarded-because someone failed to see you properly? How many friends have you lost, how many have you gained, because they glimpsed some element of your personality that shone through for only an instant, and in circumstances you could never reproduce? An illusion of water shimmering at the far bend of a highway.
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He has always been the kid who cries too easily and laughs too easily, the kid who begins giggling in church for no reason at all, who blinks hotly in shame and frustration whenever he misses a question in class, living in an otherland of sparkling daydreams and imaginary catastrophes.
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You never really know. Lately Kevin has been bothering himself with the idea that nothing is certain, nothing can be proven. Not one thing, not in all the world. The sun will rise tomorrow. Prove it. The sun rose this morning. Prove it. The sun is in the sky. Prove it. There's a sun at all. Prove it. The world is like a box of Kleenex, every doubt pulling another along behind it. You can always find a new reason to distrust the facts.
You remember having friends who used to lampoon the world so effortlessly, crouching at the verge of every joke and waiting to pounce on it, and you remember how they changed as they grew older and the joy of questioning everything slowly became transformed into the pain of questioning everything, like a star consuming its own core.
You could not presume that people were healthy. You could not presume that they would welcome the little nudges and jostlings of life. You had to behave as though everyone you met was walking a thin wire far above the earth, where the slightest wind might rock them off their balance and send them tumbling to the ground.
[I]f he had to guess, he would say that the reason he doesn't want to loan the book out, to Ethan or anyone else, is because of the part of his personality that is one gigantic record-keeping system, a complex sifting and filing scheme that dictates what goes here and what goes there, turning his life into so many marks on a tablet. His mind would busy itself with the book's whereabouts every second it was away. He knows it would.
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The truth is he spends thirty minutes of every hour suspecting he has missed some essential clue about himself. And not only himself-he has a recurring fantasy that one night, while he was asleep, the entire world was transformed into an alien planet, but no one bothered to tell him, and he didn't have the instinct to figure it out, and here he is now on a wild new Earth, walking around like an imbecile, as if everything he knows hasn't fallen away behind him like a river plummeting over a precipice.
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A successful song comes to sing itself inside the listener. It is cellular and seismic, a wave coalescing in the mind and in the flesh. There is a message outside and a message inside, and those messages are the same, like the pat and thud of two heartbeats, one within you, one surrounding. The message of the lullaby is that it's okay to dim the eyes for a time, to lose sight of yourself as you sleep and as you grow: if you drift, it says, you'll drift ashore: if you fall, you will fall into place.
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Occasionally, in the stillness of a taxi or an airplane, she would catalog the pleasures she had lost. Cigarettes. Chewing gum. Strong mint toothpaste. Any food with hard edges or sharp corners that could pierce or abrade the inside of her mouth: potato chips, croutons, crunchy peanut butter. Any food that was more than infinitesimally, protozoically, spicy or tangy or salty or acidic: pesto or Worcestershire sauce, wasabi or anchovies, tomato juice or movie-theater popcorn. Certain pamphlets and magazines whose paper carried a caustic wafting chemical scent she could taste as she turned the pages. Perfume. Incense. Library books. Long hours of easy conversation. The ability to lick an envelope without worrying that the glue had irritated her mouth. The knowledge that if she heard a song she liked, she could sing along to it in all her dreadful jubilant tunelessness. The faith that if she bit her tongue, she would soon feel better rather than worse.
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But love doesn't always generate hope. Anyone who has ever experienced love knows that you can have too much love or too little. You can have love that parches, love that defeats. You can have love measured out in the wrong proportions. It's like your sunlight and water-the wrong kind of love is just as likely to stifle hope as it is to nourish it.