On Seeking Joy in a Vacuum. Creative non-fiction by Madison Kerlan

I swallow joy in pill-capsules, two a night, hoping that while I sleep —if I sleep—the joy will seep into the empty cavities of my body and stop my bones from trembling in the morning when my dreams of somewhere else dissolve into the reality of here and now—of an entire planet perched precariously on the edge of collapse, gravity distended. Ear ly, before my alarm prods the sleep away, my partner crawls over my blanket -coddled body, an apparition clouded by my night-swept eyelashes, drifting off to work in the remote office of our living room. I smell that smell belonging to only them and think they may someday be the love of my life; I hear a hush, go back to sleep. Go back to sleep, they insist. Joy should live in my chest, wrapped tight against the flesh and pulsing arteries of my heart, but it doesn’t. I lay in bed alone, wondering what the future looks like suspended in the abyss of uncertainty, eyes pointed at the ceiling till my alarm prods my body into mechanical motion.

Winter blends into spring. You can see the fault lines separating and binding them at once, if you look closely: early spring is cold as winter but more hopeful, usually. The tulips in the lawn of my childhood home will bloom soon, usually. Petals crack the skin of the ground. The skin of my knuckles bleed from too much handwashing and not enough lotion. I sit cross-legged with bandaged fingers in unkept grass, in the lawn of the house I will inhabit for two months—till I have somewhere else to go. An empty carton of almond milk and an empty carton of cigarettes sit a few meters off. I watch the cartons in silence, feeling a beam of sunlight grace the back of my unshaven neck. I wonder who brought them here to commiserate with me and the broke n lawn chair at my side, with the tattered seat. “You’ve seen some shit,” I offer. For a moment, the breeze rustles the dry twigs of the skeleton bushes. We all sit together, thinking about circumstance. Spring blends into winter. I’ve lost track of the days of the week.

For years, I’ve been collecting joy in Polaroids, a jar of fireflies tucked away on the bookshelf for later. I shake the photo album out onto the carpet to remind myself of it. The joy seeps between my fingers as I hold the corners of the film loose and buzzing in my palms: “joy is driving nowhere and ending up in another state just because you can—just because you’re young and the world can afford to unbuckle you from its machinery for twenty-four hours of wandering, of going somewhere else,” says a photo of my best friends and I standing, arms raised, on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “Joy is a lonely vending machine on the outsk irts of town, the pin in the map marking the origin of a proper, rural adve nture,” says a photo of my favorite person sitting in gravel, can of Sprite in hand, tab popped. “Joy is a pair of gardening gloves, roller-skating pa ds, and a tangled heap of climbing rope,” says a photo of a childhood frien d crouched beneath the trestle of an abandoned canal bridge, victorious.

Joy is sitting on the balcony alone after midnight, eyeing streetlamps pinpricked along distant roads that curve out of focus.
Joy is in the pinpricks of the fading stick ‘n’ poke on my thigh, dotted by a friend of a friend while I crunched ice cubes horizontal on her kitchen floor.
Joy is the slap of wet footsteps echoing toward us, a stranger in briefs with an invitation to jump into the lake and the exchange of silent, agreeing nods that follows.
Joy is the crackle of a blown car stereo, resilient against the crescendo of volume.
Joy is the orange of a stolen traffic cone peeking out of the trunk—that gleefully welcomed fifth passenger.
Joy is a misplaced cigar on the dark and grassy crest of Flagstaff Hill, the smoke obscuring low-voiced stories shared in confidence.
Joy is a spoonful of honey and blackberry jam spread thick over buttery morning toast.
Joy is my mother waiting for me at the edge of the airport terminal, the descent from the escalator and into her arms.
Joy is drive-thru sherbet in the insurmountable heat of summer; leaving pennies on railroad tracks and waiting, cross-legged for hours, ears tuned to the whistle of the next commercial train on its way somewhere else; a beer on the roof of the family bar, waiting up for the long-awaited Sunday sunrise after my last shift of the week.

I lay on the carpet like a chalk outline, lined with evidence of joy. Gathering the photos in my hands, I return the fireflies to their plastic album sleeves—all but one: “joy is my grandmother’s wide grin, a black jellybean pressed to her front tooth,” says a photo of us holding one another behind the bar counter. Today is her birthday and we are not celebrating this year because she has been dead for months. The illusion dissipates in a plume of smoke. I find the world still ablaze outside my window. I leave the bedroom to join the almond milk, the Marlboros, and the busted lawn chair, eating the blackberries I used to pluck from her garden bushes and watching over deserted city streets, the image of an impending dystopia, the air stale and timeless. To touch a memory does not emulate joy. It emulates the desire for joy.

I wonder how my desire for joy fits into the puzzled frame of a global crisis; how desire spoils rancid when people around you are dying in the past and the present and the future. When the clouds loom and the city is painted in ruins, overcast and forgot ten in isolation. When the grass reaches unkept and untrampled around your bare ankles, pleading for company. When a centipede steals into the dark polyester of the bedsheets, seeking refuge from somewhere else: “you’ve seen some shit,” I offer, extending a broken hand. When the posters peel from the ceiling; a mounted record shatters against the dresser; the television grows fussy; the strings of lights swing from the doorframe during the night, which is too quiet even with the windows propped open. “It ’s an extended metaphor,” my partner says.

We sit on the third step of a wooden-railed staircase, an appendage of the deserted bedroom of a former housemate. Smoke twists and drifts in tendrils rising from a spiraled glass bowl, a potent dose of bud that could be medical grade but isn’t. Stars pocket the space of the sky and I lean back against the ridges of wooden planks, breathing. The constellations seem to line themselves tonight, stars extending, joining hands in a galactic game of connect the dots. My knees bump against the knees beside me, important knees, cherished knees, their knees. They have been talking for a while about the world and its intricate mechanics—about everything and nothing in particular at once—emptying vessels of thoughts like glistening nectar beneath the moonlight. I watch the way their mouth moves as they speak, their upper lip tugging, energized by the bud and a lowered guard. The canvas of stars lines the profile of their face, cross-illuminated by the lamp sitting warm behind the basement windowsill and the lights of tired trucks rumbling down empty 3am highways, en route somewhere else. “This is a nice memory,” they say at last, clasping my knee, head titled upward. I feel joy for the first time in weeks and I hold onto it tight, arms wrapped around their shoulders in the silent hum of the evening, the soothing rush of the wind.

Every so often, joy turns up in the crevices of small moments, looking only slightly different from before. I can feel it in the familiar laughter of my therapist over the phone; in my professor introducing their dog in the last thirty seconds of a pre-recorded lecture; in wearing overalls and sandals on the porch; in the morning fire alarm sounding like clockwork when my partner fries bacon; in rolling over into them in the middle of the night and being lulled back to sleep by the rhythm of their rising chest; in the words “I love you” ringing from my best friend’s mouth; in smoking a joint with my housemates, wrapped in blankets from the couch; in watching the reliable sunrise seep through the bedroom window; in listening to music with the forgotten blades of grass and the trash on the back lawn. The world may feel different, but the air is the same and every evening the stars return to the sky again. Joy is tender, fragile, and fleeting, b ut joy is not gone. If you’re quiet, you can still find joy at the bottom of a pot of coffee or between the folds of fresh linens, in the bree ze of a mild afternoon or waiting at the edge of the porch steps after rain fall, in the echo of a familiar voice and the brush of cherished knees agai nst your own, nudging your mind alive, reminding you of what remains in the rubble. To desire joy amid suffering is to remain hopeful for all that is left.


Undergraduate student at the University of Pittsburgh, particularly interested in intersectional writing on issues of social justice, freedom of speech & creative expression, and the lives of queer people (particularly poets) in the global landscape: https://twitter.com/mlkerlan

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