Brian was miserable.
There was no trend he could set that would not be adopted or stolen, first by his friends, acquaintances, strangers, and then the masses. He had brought back the mustache, then the beard. He had tipped the bill of his hat towards the heavens. He had cut his shorts way too short. His ears had been gauged before anyone’s. He had freed his T-shirts from sleevery. He had stopped eating meat right before it was cool again. And he had stopped using shampoo, then soap. Whatever he did, he was, without fail, mocked, ridiculed, and attacked by strangers, only to be copied, mimicked, and imitated by his friends.
Sitting in the coffee shop he worked at, Brian hunched over his iPhone, pretending to read a Henry James story. As a customer politely tried breaking through his depressed reverie, simply desiring to get a little more honey for her chamomile tea, he decided, then and there, that he was going to be different. He was going to make a change in his life—a change so drastic and so ironic that it couldn’t be copied.
As soon as he got home, Brian stormed upstairs and ripped his favorite posters off his bedroom wall—posters of Lou Reed, The Refused, Banksy, and other things you probably haven’t heard of. His roommates, Robb and Sikorski, were sitting on a couch in their living room, getting stoned and making fun of a bad movie. Brian came in and told them that he was moving out.
“Why?” Sikorski asked.
“Yeah, why, man?” said Robb.
“This isn’t living,” Brian said. “This is fading. We’re existing in a world that someone else constructed for us. I want to construct it. I want to be a hammer—not a nail.”
Brian was incredibly proud of this little speech, having concocted it during his walk from the coffee shop to his apartment building.
With that, Brian left. The sun was quietly expiring on the horizon above the hills, turning the sky dark orange and red. His roommates, having been stoned, already forgot that he had made this little speech and moved out, only remembering his declaration when their rent was due; but, by that time, Brian had already enrolled in accounting classes at Danville Community College, ready to begin anew.
Brian shaved his face clean.
He bought regular-fit jeans and a short-sleeve button-down shirt from Kenneth Cole (at a thrift store–baby steps). He tried enjoying his new look, but the collar scratched the back of his neck, and he missed the weight of gel in his hair; he knew this wouldn’t be easy.
He was living with his mother and her longtime boyfriend, Chadwick. Friends texted him, and girls Facebook-messaged him, but Brian was focused on his new life, determined to change his existence into one that could not be carbon-copied.
In his second year at Danville Community College, as Brian got closer to becoming a Certified Public Accountant (CPA), he met a girl named Ashley, a student in the school’s nursing program. She was responsible and had great teeth and a nice laugh; she was also incredibly uninteresting. She’s perfect, he thought.
After a year of dating Ashley, he asked her to marry him, as he had promised, and she said, “Okay.” She smiled and leaned over to kiss his neck, and he felt good. Maybe I’ll love her later, he thought.
They married. Years went by, and presidents went by, and their lives were okay. He never thought about his old life, for he did not care about his old life, a life filled with the ephemeral popularity of instant art, of internet videos, of bands that released only one good song over six EPs. He cared about his work and his family. He thought about how to meet each week’s end. He didn’t dream of becoming a writer—he made a living as an accounts manager for ITC Tech in Danville.
Twice a year, Brian traveled around the world with Ashley and their daughters, Madison and Keira, because his job allowed him to do so. He was succeeding at living his life, not failing at pretending to be an artist. He made a difference in his clients’ lives and his co-workers’ lives, and he was generous to his family.
On the side, he grew a respectable mustache and started collecting wine. Once a week, he went to San Francisco to get laser treatment, aiming to take off that stain of a tattoo on his neck—a symbol of his old life. A free health clinic in the Bay Area had a program that helped rehabilitate inner-city gang members and get their life back on track. When he heard of this, Brian thought to himself, I need this.
One weekend, Brian left Danville for a technical colleges conference in Denver. The conferences were regimented and structured, and though he had never told anyone, in truth, he found these enormous management gatherings incredibly boring. But they had become a part of his life; these conferences were his rite of passage to the comfortable life he loved with the family he liked. He did enjoy getting to see new cities, and he loved the smell of the four-star hotels. For him, these little perks made the hours of drab speeches worthwhile.
On the second morning of the conference, Brian spotted a man dressed in an impeccable navy suit standing in the lobby of the hotel, making a group of men in similarly impeccable navy suits roar in torrents of laughter. Who is that man? He thought he recognized him. Then, he noticed another man standing beside him. It hit him—they were Robb and Sikorski, his old roommates from San Francisco, standing in the lobby, dressed to the nines!
Brian grew paranoid. His mind drifted off, confused as to why they had chosen the same path as he. I’m a hammer, and they’re supposed to be the nails, he thought. Or am I still a nail?
Brian’s ponderous trance was shattered, as Robb told him that Sikorski was the main speaker at the conference.
Now, this was Sikorski—the guy who had once shoved acid up his ass to trip “balls harder,” the guy who had once shit in their refrigerator’s vegetable crisper, the guy who was once arrested for publicly pissing in a playground at one o’clock in the afternoon, the guy who was once caught masturbating to 2001: A Space Odyssey—and he was DeVry University’s accounts manager, the person everyone at the conference wanted to see. He was not just a hammer; he was The Hammer.
Brian’s voice trembled as he told Sikorski—the guy who had once tried drinking two 2-gallon jugs of chocolate milk, simply for the amusement of his hipster friends, before violently vomiting in their kitchen—“Congratulations.”
Brian, alone, took his seat in the Denver Civic Center auditorium. He hunched in his seat, watching with vicious jealousy as Sikorski effortlessly entertained the crowd.
Sikorski was was funny, eloquent, articulate, and informative.
Brian was miserable.
As the crowd roared with laughter at another one of Sikorski’s jokes, Brian stood up, peeled off his nametag, and walked out the auditorium and into the lobby, drifting in and out of a depressed reverie. ♦