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How to Build a Wall

I want to sleep, but my dreams elude me.

My mind drifts in the silence of the night. It floats alone, empty and devoid of any meaning, eyes ever drifting back to where we’ve been. My eyes see the past unfolding behind me, thousands of variables coalescing into a tragic, lonely, empty story, void of meaning. And not far behind, the tides of time washing up against the shores of recollection, ever rising, blurring away some of the definition from the tale.

I am nineteen years old. I am alone, in a dormitory in Bloomington, Indiana. There is a knock on the door. The door is somewhere between wood and plastic, having started life as a tree but manufactured into something not quite natural. It makes a sharp, commanding sound when knocked against, even by dainty knuckles. I am startled from my reverie by the knock. I open the door.

Before me stands the most beautiful girl I ever want to see, an angel in a green dress. My throat dries. I forget all the words in the English language. My tongue swells to three times the size of my mouth. She grabs my arm, laughing, dragging me out into the hallway. We’re going to the opera, she sings. She loves art. For a moment – a brief and tantalizing second – I love her too. The way that a person should love, unconditionally. Completely. I decide then and there that I would give anything for this girl. I decide I want to be a man, not a boy.

But I’m still a boy without words. Laughing, I follow. I adjust my jacket. I will always follow.

I’m thirty years old and I see the girl for the first time in five years. She is as beautiful as I remember her. My heart jumps as she nears. My throat is dry, but I have a wall now, and I have the words. I am both within the wall and without the wall, I am thirty years old and I am twenty years old. I am the binary man, entangled with the boy I was ten years ago, standing before the most beautiful girl I had known, now a woman. And we hug, and we laugh, and we talk, and with every syllable of her words, with every breath I take, with every second that passes, I remember. I am thirty, and I am twenty, and I am eternal.

Somehow the night has passed. We’ve had drinks, and we’ve had dinner, and now I am driving her home. I had not thought that dinner would go so well. She wants me to keep driving. I have a long drive home, but I am happy to oblige. There will be pain in the morning, but some things are worth a little bit of pain.

I’m twenty nine years old, and I’m staring at the ruins of a wall. I had been building that wall for almost ten years. The wall was meant to protect me – protect my heart. It had started life as a mask, just a cold and convenient think I could slip in and out of whenever I needed to. Whenever I was in pain or distress, I would put on the mask, and I would be the Shadow. The mask did not betray emotion. The frozen mask just smiled. Then came a day when I did not take off the mask. I felt myself strong inside the mask. So I built a wall.

The wall was strong, and thick, and made of stone. I built it around my heart so that no one could touch it. I built it around myself so that I would not have to feel anything. I built it around myself to contain the thing I felt living inside of me, that dreaded weakness of human frailty. It was meant to keep something in, as well as keep everyone out.

I’m twenty two years old and about to go to law school. There are tears in my eyes. I have been up all night, crying. I am dehydrated. I have watched The Alamo in its entirety, and still, sleep eludes me. I am about to start building a wall, but at the moment I do not know this. I am about to lose my first true love – this I know. I am the one who will do this. I am the one who will put the knife inside of myself, who will twist the ragged edge of the blade into my beating, frail, young heart, and through its torrent of blood, I shall empty myself of feeling, and kill the human within. There is a voice in my head that tells me it is for the best, that we are growing too far apart, and that the physical distance will be too much to overcome. The voice tells me that we are young, that we will be okay, and that someday, maybe, in the future, we’ll come together again, if it were meant to be.

I still believed in “meant to be’s” when I was twenty two years old. So I plunged the hated dagger inside of myself, and let my emotions drain. I call her on the phone and I tell her. “I’m sorry, Sarah,” the words echo across my memory. “I can’t do it. I have to let you go.” It’s not fair to either of us. I am too young, too stupid, too naive to know the damage I am wrecking. I am thirty one years old and I am crying for the boy I was at twenty two.

The wall came shortly after. The bleeding never stopped, so I wore the mask full time.

I do not have many happy memories of law school. Building a wall is hard, and lonely, work. I am cold through most of it. Some come to try and cross the distance, but I am certain that I drive them away. They came for the human, but there’s a hole in my heart where the human once lived. There is only the mask, and the wall.

I am twenty seven years old and I sit in my office, working on a motion. My best friend drops a bombshell at my feet: there is a crack in the wall. There is a weakness in my carefully engineered work. She’s come and she’s wrecked everything I spent such a long time building. And I was oblivious. The bleeding in my heart had stopped. At some point, when I had stopped looking, I had healed. The man was once more. And he was digging his way out.

I stare at the cracks in my wall, and I know I have to build them strong once more. There is nothing left but disaster if I don’t. My best friend tells me not to worry. She tells me she has never seen me happier. I know that she is right. She tells me that I can live with the cracks in the wall. In this, I know that she is wrong. But I allow myself to be convinced. I allow the cracks to widen, and I allow my wall to weaken.

I am twenty nine years old, and I am rebuilding my wall. Stone was too brittle. My next wall shall be of iron, born in fire. I shall make me a wall of anger, hate and distrust. Every negative emotion I have ever felt, or ever will feel, I pour into the mortar of my new protection. And I plant, and I rebuild, and I swear that I shall be strong once more. But I am lying to myself.

I am thirty one years old, and sleep eludes me. I float in a void of memory, an ocean of regret. Behind me I can see what’s left of my wall; my tower of iron and hate, shattered into a million pieces. I thought I would be strong, living in that tower. But then I’m twenty one years old again, and I am telling the most beautiful girl that I am in love with her, and she is turning me away. And I am thirty one years old, and I open myself up to her again, and again she turns me away. With a single night, she unmade me. With a single blunder, I remade myself.

I am thirty one years old, and for the first time in almost ten years, the man is free to walk the world again. I take a step forward, and find my limbs are weak. The mask beckons. I see its gleaming, frozen smile.

I reach out for it.

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