One Wrong Step

One wrong step

Walking back from the El Chico restaurant next-door, stuffed with fajitas and margaritas, I watched three shadows trace their way down the alley. It reminded me of Swift’s Tale of the Tub, for reasons that would take too long to explain, and I contemplated the shortcut down the retaining wall.

Don’t do it. One wrong step, you know what happens. All I did was get out of my car, and I fell down for four months. The ankle is still weak, and I can feel the metal plates protruding from the side. I can remember when I didn’t worry about that sort of thing. The only valuable things you achieve are always gained through taking chances. Risk is the friend of people who are alive. I walked so many thin lines, took so many chances when I was young. Why am I getting conservative? I don’t think it’s inevitable, and I don’t think it’s good.

I think it was the other wrong step— telling someone I could quit smoking when I couldn’t. Telling someone I could leave all my memories behind. I was more successful in the second respect; the memories did have to go, but for different reasons. That was the road that was slowly killing me. The long nights, the endless assumption of the pain of other people, listening to so many stories that in the end I didn’t feel like I had one of my own. I wanted to write a new story. But I couldn’t quit smoking.

And I left the cabinet doors open. And I forgot to turn out lights. I was careless, inconsiderate, self-absorbed. Not like her husband, who lived every waking moment for her. One wrong step. I suppose it was the step of believing that someone could care about me that much. Over six years now, that wrong step has haunted me. It’s always been a flaw of mine— not being able to tell the difference between friendship and love, between need and desire. I suppose that’s why I study these things. I don’t want to take another wrong step.

My discomfort with silence is offset by the fear of starting to care about people too much again. It’s a thin line. What makes a good photographer, or a good writer, is empathy. The ability to internalize other people’s feelings. But when you start becoming more comfortable with other people’s feelings than your own, you’ve stepped over the line. Crack. Something breaks. When you’re older, you don’t heal as fast. It’s harder to climb out on the ledge again.

Comfort with suspending my own feelings to take on the feelings of people in books is what makes literature so easy for me. I can feel it, as I read it— it becomes me, so I don’t need to deal with the fact that I’m broken. I still smoke. I still leave cabinet doors open. I’m still deathly afraid when people even hint that they might care for me. I know better. The feeling always passes.

I keep thinking about those three shadows. I keep thinking about myself as a photographer, as a writer, and as a person. They come from the same source, and yet they never converge. I only see them when they fall on someone else’s wall.

1 thought on “One Wrong Step”

  1. good personal essay. thanks for putting these thoughts into words.
    The only valuable things you achieve are always gained through taking chances. Risk is the friend of people who are alive,
    conservatism isn’t inevitable, but caution is. the fire
    can only burn once if you don’t put your hand back in it.
    maybe the trick is to know how much heat your hand can take.
    enjoyed this one and the one on audience.
    haven’t read the others yet.
    i think the only way we exist in this world,
    really live and be
    is thru the perceptions of others.
    is an internet
    perception any less valid
    than others?
    meanings inevitably get lost in translation
    from one mind to the next.
    and i can’t get to your photos
    and where is your poetry page?

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