I spent the five dollars on those little dinosaur sponges that expand in water. I could see it: the T-Rex lying in the driveway, gathering water to itself, growing, growing, towering over the garage, roaring. I set it down and backed off to a safe distance, sprayed it with the hose. It got puffy and soggy and the hose water ran down the driveway and the T-Rex floated on top of the water and into the street and down the gutter with a sloppy little gurgle. I had sold my soul for that five dollars. Convinced that the soul didn’t exist, that it was invented to force you to behave, I had sold my soul to a friend for five dollars. It had seemed like a lot of money, but now, watching the water dry on the pavement, the T-Rex gone forever into the sewer system, I knew how little it was, five dollars, how insignificant. I looked at the package that the T-Rex had come in. There were two more dino-sponges in there, a Stegosaurus and a Triceratops. It was so obvious that they could not meet my expectations, that I had imagined something impossible and staked everything on it. How could I not see it before—that the sponges were myself?
Sgt. Jeffrey Sarver diffuses bombs. He flies in helicopters. He drinks beer. He goes to the movies. “That’s me,” he says. He is Sgt. Will James. Blonde haired and blue eyed. He watches himself. He is heroic and human, on the screen, and he is twelve feet tall. Coming out of the movie theater, he feels like he is still watching himself, watching from high above, feels like he is some winged but body-less creature with the ability to go anywhere, to see anything, but which was somehow stuck to this one person, this Jeffrey Sarver. He feels trapped. Like he is sleeping. Like he is in one of those dreams where the rifles are firing and the heat is making the air between himself and his body-armor bubble, and he knows its a dream, he knows that at any moment he will wake up and be in his sweat-soaked bed and be safe, but he can’t pull himself away, he can’t make his legs work, he can’t find cover. He is hunched down behind a smoking truck and he knows both that the truck is about to explode and that he is about to wake up, but he can’t make either happen. He can’t make reality of his certainties. And that is how he feels walking through the parking lot: certain that he is both Jeffrey Sarver and Will James but unable to feel truly like one or the other.
I put some ash in a balloon and inflate it over a cardboard city. The balloon is sitting in a hole right in the center of the city. The city is floating, but it has everything you would expect of a regular city (tall buildings, a world-class subway system, a bank) except there are no people. You have to imagine them. You have to imagine them walking around, living their lives, going to the grocer, calling their friends. You have to imagine them completely unaware of what is about to happen. I pop the balloon. Ash hisses from its frayed bottom, forming a little pile on the driveway beneath the city. The city is unharmed. My parents stand around for a minute and then walk away. I call Scott. “It didn’t work,” I say. “No offense,” says Scott, my partner in a presentation on nuclear bombs, “but I knew it wouldn’t.” But I had been so sure that it would, had been certain that my idea would accurately show the blast radius of a nuclear bomb, and to chilling effect. That all of the other students in our eighth grade science class would look up on this dead city covered in ashes with disquiet and awe and they would imagine all the people who might have lived there, they would imagine that they themselves might live there someday, and they would forever be proponents of nuclear disarmament. Instead, the cardboard city was scrapped, thrown into our woodstove, and Scott and I made a poster board filled with bullet-pointed facts and pictures of mushroom clouds. No one was impressed. Everyone has seen those pictures of mushroom clouds a thousand times, and facts convey no emotion. It seems to me that to really see the world as it is—to see it anew, to see all of its consequences and possibilities—you must look instead at an imagined world.
Jake Pavelka has a decision to make. He is in love with two women. He says this over and over again: I am in love with two women. One of the women has something important for Jake. It’s a letter and a ring. One of the producers leans over and says, “Read the letter out loud.” Jake does. He walks down a hallway and stands on a balcony and looks out on a tropical sea. He listens to the waves and some chirping birds. When he was a boy, he loved only his mother. He never imagined loving anybody else. One of the producers taps him on the shoulder. “Can we get you walking down the hallway again? We want to capture your silhouette.” Jake walks back down the hallway. Someone hands him a sparkling water. He takes a drink, turns around, walks down the hallway again to stand on the balcony. He listens for the birds but the birds are gone. The waves are drowned out by a helicopter circling around, getting distance shots.
Sgt. Sarver thinks about it long and hard, concludes that if this is his life, after all, that if he is both Jeffrey Sarver and Will James, then he alone should own those lives. He should, for once, have the control. He decides that he will no longer be a winged spirit watching himself, watching all of his selves; he decides to take action. He calls a lawyer. “Fiction,” he says, “it definitely is not. No way. It’s the truth.” The lawyer agrees: “Your life experience is amassing considerable financial gains and you are entitled to them.” Mark Boal gets a letter about the lawsuit. It says that he appropriated Sgt. Sarver’s life for his “fictions.” Mark remembers sitting behind a blockade while Sgt. Sarver walked down a dusty street in one-hundred pounds of gear; how Sarver appeared wavering and gaseous in the heat, a mirage; how dense the silence was, like being surrounded by water; how the thought of water made him feel dried out and brittle; how long it took Sarver to reach the bomb: forever. It took him forever to reach the bomb, and he spent another forever standing over it, and another leaning down in front of it, and all the while Mark’s throat was squeezed shut and the sweat dripped all over his face and it felt like flies were landing on him and flying away and landing again, but it was just the sweat. It was the sweat popping at random from his skin and trickling down for an instant before evaporating. And he thought: how will I tell people? How can I make people understand what this feels like?
I had a dream about my soul. Everyone had one but me. They were all playing with their souls. Jumping rope. Swinging on the swings. Freeze tag. And then everyone and their soul got into little canoes and began paddling out across this lake. I didn’t have a soul and I kept going in circles.
Jake sits on a couch. There is an audience behind him hidden in blue shadow, and in front of him on bleacher seats are all the women he loved and let go and the women he kind of loved and the women he couldn’t love, not in a million years. He is being asked questions. “What was the hardest moment for you?” Jake doesn’t have to think about the answer, but he has to think about how to say it. “There were so many,” he says, making eye contact with specific women, “but the hardest moment, you know, it hasn’t aired yet, so I can’t talk about it.” Sometimes, lying in bed and shuttling in and out of sleep, his mind clings to this image of himself steering a speedboat on some wide open water, and behind him are all these people trying to catch up—women waving their arms and reporters waving tape recorders—and they’re on water skis and he’s pulling them. He is way out ahead of them and they will never catch up but he feels the need to keep looking over his shoulder, to stay vigilant.
In a week the boat will capsize and the ropes will swirl around him and the women will drift into him and he’ll be standing backstage watching an extreme closeup of his face as he chooses to love one woman forever and to stop loving another woman altogether. He will see himself standing alone on the pinnacle of some island. He will see her face again and again he’ll spot the exact moment she understands what he’s trying to say and again it will make him feel emptied out and cold. There will be a little freezing bolt of something like lightning shooting up from his stomach and through his chest and out his dizzy head. It’s that part of him that loves her and it’s dying, or it’s that version of himself that chose her and its going off to live in its own universe, going off to live with that version of her that was chosen, and they both go streaking off into the cosmos, white-hot bolts of potential leaving this world forever. Whatever it is, he’ll feel it all again as he watches it happen, watches it in angles close and wide with a symphonic soundtrack, and he’ll see himself feeling it, and it will be as though he’s feeling it twice at once; but in the years to come the feeling will get divided between himself and this image of himself until he won’t feel it anymore. And then, if he thinks about it at all, he’ll think of it as a story he heard about something that happened to somebody else.
I had this friend—my only friend. I had sold him my soul for nothing, because I didn’t believe that I even had one. Even once it was done and the money was spent, I wasn’t sure, wasn’t totally convinced that the soul was real, but I was pretty certain that, if I did have one, that it should be worth more than five dollars. For days I walked around feeling so lonely it made me sick. Or, I was thinking of someone who felt that lonely, because I couldn’t really feel anything. In my mind I created the image of a person feeling sad and lonely, empty, sick, and I pulled this image from across the great distance of my imagination and believed it was myself. I had to concentrate constantly on maintaining the appearance that I existed.
Finally, I went over to his house. He was playing in the backyard, playing with green plastic army men and a tiny tank. He had built a little mound of mud; the soldiers were holding position around the mound; the tanks were advancing; on top of the mound was my soul. The armies of the world were fighting for my soul. I asked once more if I could have it back. He turned his glassy blue eyes to me and said, “But we had a deal.” And I went walking home, squinting. It wasn’t that I was trying to hold back tears; I was trying to find something at the horizon to pull towards myself, trying to find something big and full of light, something that everyone could see, something that I could say was still me.
Will James lies across the dusty seats of an abandoned car all wired up with bombs. He has stripped away all of his protective gear, all the machinery of warfare and protocol; he is just himself, just a human man in the desert heat with sweat rolling down his forehead and the stink of his armpits and the smell of old metallic grime and his fingers thick but nimble plucking through the wires of a blinking detonation device like through the strings of a harp. Yes, he thinks, I am a musician. And he imagines himself alone on a stage in a cool dark auditorium with a single golden light shining down on him—but it isn’t him—it isn’t even a he, but it isn’t a she, either. It’s a diaphanous specter, gleaming and white and tinged with electric blue, without true shape or gender, without history or future; it’s an essence; it’s the thing itself, with all the bullshit stripped away; it’s the feeling you get right before you fall asleep and right before you wake up, and the song it plays is the sound of your thoughts before they become words.
Watching this, Sergeant Jeff Sarver thinks about when he was a little boy, in church. His friend had replaced all the hymnals with the lyrics to “In A Gadda Da Vida” by Iron Butterfly. The reverend wouldn’t let any of the children leave until someone confessed. Little Sarver looked out the window, saw a steely-eyed raven sitting in a tree, and—because he was a good boy who had been raised to love God and Country, who woke every morning to help his father scatter chicken feed and always stepped in with his fists clenched when someone small or weak was being pushed against a wall—he saw in the raven’s eyes the black promise of damnation. He saw that special place in Hell reserved for liars, and he knew that refusing to tell the truth is a kind of weak and cowardly lie. And so he told, told on his friend, who was no longer his friend after that. Over a prank, Sgt. Sarver thinks now. A prank. He watches Will James disarm bombs in an Iraq that looks something like the Iraq where he disarmed bombs, and he thinks that it is impossible for Will James, a character in a movie, to know anything about his experiences, his secrets, the whole life that led him to that war in the desert. And that’s the difference, he decides, the only difference: he has all of his secrets and all of his memories, all the sad ones and regretful ones, and Will James doesn’t. And Sarver thinks there is something unfair about that, it is unfair that Will James would only be an isolated part of himself and not the whole thing. If he could only be one, he would be Will James. He would choose one narrative for his life, single it out and exist wholly as that person, and leave behind all the messy parts that didn’t fit.
I walked the midnight-blue streets looking for my friend. I disappeared into the hissing fog. Even today, I will step out into the city late at night and watch the pavement glide away beneath me and look up into the darkness and imagine someone beside me. A friend. A more perfect version of myself. A me who is full of energy, who is only energy, who is like an extension cord without the protective plastics, a cord filled with fire and connected through an insignificant and tiny hole to every other house, every other person, running through their walls and out the screens of their televisions and up through their stovetops and out their heaters and glowing from their lamps, flickering in their eyes and on their skin and into their stomachs, into the great hot bubbling centers of them, and out again over the streets and through the skies to a spuming power plant with glittering emerald towers on a hill, a hill at the edge of a crystal blue and bottomless lake, a hill from behind which the sun rises. It is across the lake, paddling in their little canoes, that everyone and their souls have gone. It is towards this factory, this city, that they travel, leaving me behind. Alone in my canoe, I watch them disappear on the horizon. I look down into the water. My shimmering face on the surface blue and transparent.
Mark Boal goes into a coffee shop and orders a coffee and a bagel. He sits near the window and watches the sidewalk. People pass by. People holding hands, people walking dogs, people with newspapers folded under their arms, people in jogging pants, people with bleary eyes, people on their cell phones. He watches them and as he does he plucks them from the sidewalk and folds them with sharp creases in half and then in half again. He keeps them in mind. He looks down at the table. This is more or less my life, he thinks. A comfortable coffee shop on a breezy day, watching strangers, using their mannerisms to create characters, plucking snippets from their conversations to pattern dialogue. And he can do it all in anonymity. He is a silent observer, a kind of ghost moving through society, a person who looks like any other, who could be just about anyone, who could have on his mind the fortunes of his favorite baseball team or the issues related to some average, ho-hum, nine-to-five job—he could be a statistician for all anybody knew, or the manager at a retail store, an average joe with only his own problems and his own life on his mind. But instead his job is to observe, to take from the world around him what he needs to craft stories, stories which are about other people, never himself, and not even, really, about the people whose experiences he has used to fill in the outlines of his fictional characters. He likes to think that his stories are about ideas—ideas about the world we live in. He likes to think that his stories communicate to a wide audience a series of truths that they might not have known or considered before. He looks at the world around him and says, This is mine. But not really. He only borrows it. He borrows the world in order to give it back to itself.
I have always been guided by my imagination, Jake thinks. It is all the things I was and all the things I want. It propels me forward. Everything I see, I can become. He thinks this and realizes that he has always thought this. He is someone who believes in following your dreams and, so far, he has done just that. He is a good-looking American man, a pilot, searching for love. My story could be anybody’s story, he thinks. It is the story everyone wants to live. The looks, the job, the women. He is riding in a helicopter with one of the women. They are circling around a beautiful island. They’ve been doing so for an hour. The cameramen keep telling them to look amazed, to look in awe of what they are seeing. They are trying to get a shot of both of their faces in profile with the tip of a fog shrouded volcano behind them. But the wind is not cooperating, and the helicopter is dipping in the choppy air and has to keep circling back to look for the proper angle. Jake feels stuck. Not because of the woman—she is beautiful, and he really does love her, he is certain that he does. But he feels like his story had a clear narrative until now, like he was going in a very definitive direction, and everything was falling into place, and now he has hit a snag. Wouldn’t it be something, to just go from one thing to the next. To never have to pause and reconsider, to never doubt, to never have to wait for the right ratio of wind and sunlight, to never have to delay, to never have to wait in a hotel room for the fog to blow off before going down to the beach. Wouldn’t it be something, to enjoy a foggy beach? To be content with a life where not everything was always perfect?
On leave, Will James goes grocery shopping. He isn’t covered in sweat and dust. Without his raging heart pounding in his chest to drown it all out, he can hear everything: shoes squeaking on linoleum, metal carts clanging, the butcher identifying cuts of meat, children laughing, children crying, half a cell phone conversation, Shania Twain on the radio, an announcement about a sale on cheese. He’s in the cereal aisle. There is nothing to focus on. Boxes. Colorful boxes with captains and rabbits, smiles, whole grains. He has to make a decision, but it doesn’t matter what it is. Sgt. Jeffrey Sarver wheels his cart past Will James. For a moment, there is a hiccup in the seemingly even breath of the universe: the music stops; the other shoppers pause in their conversations and their deliberations; credit cards hang in the air; the butcher’s knife sits gently on a hunk of red meat. For a moment, Will James and Jeffrey Sarver occupy the same space. The intersection of a man wholly of his life, carrying with him everything that has brought him to this moment, and the image of that man as others, as strangers, might perceive him: isolated in the moment, everything about him shaved away except for where he is and what he is doing. For a moment he is both the thing he believes himself to be and the external perception of who he might be. And then it passes. It was nothing. Nothing that anyone would notice. Even Sarver is unaware that for an instant he has passed through his own refracted self—save for a brief awareness of that dim, disquieting sensation—always present but usually contained in some deep, subconscious hollow—that he is an unknowable multitude, a stranger even to himself. Sgt. Sarver grabs a box of Cheerios, checks his list, wheels his cart toward the produce section.
Will James stands still for a second. Finally, with a sigh, he grabs a box of cereal, a box of whatever, and chucks it in his cart. A few weeks later he lands again in Iraq, a bag slung over his shoulder, and a few days after that there he goes, marching down a rubble strewn Baghdad street weighted down by his gear, boundless with purpose. Again and again this will happen. Again and again and again and again. And again and again and again.
The next time Sgt. Sarver goes to the grocery store, he’ll decide that he’s sick of Cheerios. He’ll get something else. It doesn’t matter what, he’ll just pick something else.
All the other children are enjoying their souls, and still I am spinning in circles in the middle of the lake. And I have come to believe—I have begun to tell myself—that the circling is my soul. I have not lost my soul, I have found it; I am not broken, I am whole. For all the others, their soul is a mirror image of themselves and they walk hand-in-hand, they accompany each other everywhere. For all the others, the soul is a constant companion, a lifelong friend, and no disagreement, no small betrayals, will ever shatter their bond. But me, I am accompanied by the circling; the constantly spinning search is my companion; when I look into the mirror it is the circling I see, the circling: water draining from a sink that will never empty.