Allegory for the 21st century

After a night’s sins, an invisible voyeur relives his delusions with sober eyes. This immersive fictional one night odyssey shows a fight with fear, trust, authenticity and perception.

March 7, 2022

A pink tinted building, dark cloudy sky with tree branches and leaves.
A curly-haired man sitting on a rooftop with pink around the edges of his body.

There it is — warmth spreading through my chest, starting to wash away the paralyzing agents. This happens every day, whether I like it or not, since I don’t remember when. Same spot, same things, same me. Gaze locked forward, waiting for the answer to a problem I’ve yet to know. It seems I can’t get to tomorrow faster, but find myself completely lost in today — the outcome of my wishes unsatisfactory to my projections.

Can’t catch a break, even on a beautiful night. Clear and warm at the end of season, a few stars glimmering overhead — hinting at some possibility in the face of total oblivion. My deep breath is fresh, not too heavy. The flow laced with a flame, tickling my lungs, and I can’t help but let out a cough.

A man sits on a rooftop with shiny bracelets and rings, all tinted blue.

Handing the beautiful work of craftsmanship to Parker, my eyes fix on his fine silver jewelry glistening in the nighttime city glow. I savor these rare moments we share — he’s so often wrapped up in each creative project that I hardly see him once they start. There seems to always be the next thing. But I can’t pretend I don’t understand. He erupts in deep, crackling coughs.

“Are you ok?”

“Yes,” he chokes out.

I hear the stone crack of a few attempts to keep a flame, but something is immediately off as the gentle city light begins to brighten around us. The aged, warm glow we’re familiar with cools to a pale green. The light hangs through the air like gas, breathing and growing brighter until its tumult envelops us.

The same man sits with a glowing green light.
The glowing green light grows brighter.

I can only compare it to what I imagine the death of a star would look like. The space is entirely flooded with the green haze, climbing brighter and brighter until I’m surrounded by pure white. The physical world I’ve known my whole life ceases to exist. Time begins to unwind; unfurling before my eyes, manipulable, flexible to one’s whim — a dimension in space, like a library of the history of existence. 

Then all at once, it’s gone. The dark returns, heavier now, with depths of unknown. Corners that I can’t reach, an entire civilization that I can barely make out. But then shapes start to become clear. 

Slowly, I realize I’m back on the roof. Still struggling to see, I finally make out Parker’s stark white polo. The silence screams in my ears as I try to make clear the familiar place around me. Finally the look in Parker’s eyes became clear to me. Tears brimming, arm extended just past my left shoulder: complete terror. Turning around is like I’ve closed my eyes, the darkness overflowing. The veil slowly lifts and —

A shadowy figure in gray darkness; tower glows behind.
A man in a white polo points to the left.

⋅⋅⋅

A hallway in pink and purple light with a mirror reflecting back into a bedroom.
Three blurry-faced people stand in front of someone’s shoulder.

When did my friends get so hard to talk to? I feel like the kid wandering around his parents’ party, yanking on their pant leg as they try to continue a conversation. Actually wandering around doesn’t seem to provide much entertainment either. After all, I know this apartment too well already, and I always seem to end up in the same place. 

Stepping back, the party seems to operate like a well-oiled machine. Dialogue flows, a harmony woven in and out of each conversation as I maneuver around the loft. I see it all and yet feel like I can’t find my place within.

On my way to the bathroom I bump into Laeticia and Ella. I haven’t seen them in ages, but we’ve shared countless incredible nights together — talking and dancing until the sun streams in through the curtains.

“How is your band?” I ask, as a fan as much as a friend.

Rather than a response, Laeticia giggles back to me, and then turns to Ella and whispers something into her ear. I stand silently stunned, expecting Ella to relay whatever Laeticia said, but she just returns the stare, mute. 

I redirect my attempts at conversation to her, “Are you still modeling?”

Silence. And then following suit, she turns her response to Laeticia’s ear. I chuckle, wish them my love and return to my path.

A person whispers into someone else’s ear.

As I exit the bathroom I check behind me, genuinely unsure if I somehow walked out of the wrong door. I’m faced with a scene painted in watercolor by an unstable club kid. People are interacting with me, so I try my best to give off the impression that they appear as more than gaseous pools of color in a twisting marble.

A pink and blue painted scene of a person-shaped object.

Investigating what I think to be the corner of two walls, my arm extended, I am convinced the overlapping shadows are deeper than they should be —

I’m pulled out of my expedition by rumblings that we’re leaving soon, so I finish my glass in an effort to prepare for the kaleidoscope odyssey ahead.

⋅⋅⋅

What is that, there, peeking over the tops of the buildings? A hot pink border seems to flutter behind the caps. I look down, heels clicking one in front of the other, but I didn’t know I was walking. Well, of course, I saw the city blocks moving. But I didn’t realize —

A red silhouette of a building

The answer to my queries appears as we turn the corner. The alley does a much better job containing the muffled thump of dance music than it does the bright pink glow. I stop sharply as everyone else continues the final steps to our destination. 

I raise my arms on both sides, and it’s not a party trick at all. Turning in place, I cause the haze to ripple. The waves seem familiar but behave like nothing I’ve seen before in my life. I cup a portion in my hands and bring it to my ear. The warm buzz in the air — not bleed from an overworked sound system, but them. Each person inside, I could hear them. Bits and fragments, my brain incapable of reassembling them. I look back at the facade and —

⋅⋅⋅

I think I’ve entered the club. The music has reached a new level of presence, engaging frequencies that, again, felt familiar, but aren’t like anything I can recall. Like the speakers could connect to sounds from a dream.

A DJ with a bridge view behind and a mirror reflecting their body.
A red fuzzy blob.

The four-on-the-floor is centering, a guiding rhythm keeping all alive. The dance floor doesn’t contain faces, more like unbound masses of energy. Bodies exist in front of me as one central cloud, swaying as one at one-quarter time. Yet at once it contains multitudes of depth. Like rigid rows of soldiers repeating in more than every conceivable dimension. It’s as though I have a glimpse at more than what they are, but what they can be. 

A red blur of people dancing.

A hand gently grips my elbow, and I turn to see Cameron, who reminds me, with a more than generous amount of elitism, that I was invited to this party — ushering me towards the velvet rope. She exchanges a knowing glare at the man in the black suit, and places me down on an overstuffed black leather couch between my best friends. Cameron is the Editor — wait, maybe she does PR, actually? …No, I think… It’s irrelevant. She does something at some magazine. 

“So good to see you!”

⋅⋅⋅

Two people lean over.

I don’t know how many bottles we’ve finished. I probably put down a Patrón and a half myself, not counting spills. For the first time in a while I take a moment to pause and take in my surroundings. All of us are smiling, laughing, filling napkins with ideas that are bound to be award winning. All of my inconceivable worries dissipate; flutter away behind me. Hours behind me is the lethargy; searching for answers in the faces of the faceless.

Two faces with smiles in motion.
A silhouette of a curly-haired man with glowing city lights behind.

The atmosphere is electric. But I’m suddenly frozen in my tracks. The DJ drops a Thomas Bangalter deep cut, and just as fast, I’m up and moving. Without any regard about how I look, I attempt to catharize the night’s demons through the thriving bassline. The bouncing hi-hat seems to expand, and the roof above me is pushed away with as much strength as it takes to turn a page. 

The sky above is clear, except for the twinkle of a handful of stars that bless the city with their light. Looking around, I’ve inspired a dance revolution. Friends new and old are moving as one, commanded by a beat older than all of them.

Someone made the fateful suggestion to smoke a cigarette. Complete contrast from our unfaltering connection to the dance floor moments before, suddenly we’re moving together as a unit, the entire VIP shuffling full speed towards the roof deck. A carton of Marlboro Golds is passed around from one generous donor as each kid takes their piece. But as I cup my hand to light up, I feel something is off. My eyes find my boots, and there it is, the darkest dark, slipping up between the bricks on the 29th floor

A curly-haired man smokes a cigarette with building windows behind.

My eyes fix on our best friend for the night, Ash. They’re gazing out towards the bottom of town, pensively running their fingers through their hair. They seem to give in and turn back to the energy. My eyes bounce to something as far away as I can find in an effort not to be caught. When my eyes find them again their gaze is locked on the floor just ahead of them. A cigarette burns untouched between their hands — the ash seconds away from burning their exposed fingertips. Their lips move fast, even for tonight’s scale, but I can’t make out any words. That mumbling quickly escalates to yelling, and just as fast, I am no longer the only one fixed on them.

A person standing in red shadow gazes at a skyline.
A blob of three heads.

They scream and scream. At friends, acquaintances, or strangers with no hesitation. Moving at such a speed it’s as though they’ve multiplied. 

“What are you doing here? Why do you spend all your time together competing? What’s the point of all this drinking?”

Directing an attack on anyone in reach. Their tirade escalates to the loudest they are capable of, and while it’s impossible not to hear, I can’t put together everything they’re saying. 

“What am I doing? What are you doing? Oh, I’m embarrassing you — I’m causing a scene? I don’t care! I’m not afraid — I’m not afraid to be me! You’re a character! You’re playing a game!”

After repeated attempts at calming them, they push away from their guards and in no time they’re standing atop the stone ledge around the roof. The screams around me strike a chilling chord, scoring a nightmare I’m living in real time. I stomp my smoke in stride towards the narrow entry back inside amongst more people than I thought were in the club in total.

A kaleidoscope of light. Abstract swirls and lines lead to the center.

Inside, I’ve entered a rainforest, unrecognizable from the coziness I remembered. My overwhelmed state quickly turns to panic as it’s nearly impossible to find a path to freedom amongst the maze of appendages growing and shrinking away, twisting like strands of DNA blown up to the size of a child. Someone grabs my bicep and I’m swiftly led to the street below.

⋅⋅⋅

The air replenishes whatever I lost in the time spent many floors above, and my breath seems to slow down time. It’s like my lungs are endless. Air streams in and continues, trying to fill every space. I feel the oxygen permeate my blood and my whole body throbs with each beat. A glimmer catches my eye from the direction we exited, so I turn to investigate. 

What was that? All I see are tall glass window panes, and —

It’s back. All it takes is my attention, and I’m consumed by it. Unlike times past we’re eye to eye, still. Without the flashing, the toying with my inferior lens, I’m finally granted the opportunity to really look at it. The curvatures catching the dim highlights and defining chiseled shadows. I know this face.

Soft gray shadows and the outline of a building in the background and human curves in front.
A previous image but brighter. The same curly-haired man from the beginning.

Without realizing, I’m digging my toes deep into the ground they sit atop. Sand. I look down at my feet, my hands, finally ahead at the sunset before me. I recognize it. The sand, the sun, the towering skyline. Turning around, it clicks. 

I’m ten. I’ve always loved the beach. But usually at this time of night my family leaves, because this is when the pot-smoking teenagers arrive to cause trouble. Only on special days did I get to stay after hours.

My mother smiles from her heart when I look over, and I wave with that giddy enthusiasm that only children express. Without thinking, I start dancing. Maybe more akin to a flail, I just move with unwavering support, complete freedom.

A blurry beach and city skyline with the moon overhead. Someone in motion on the sand next to purple light.
A blurry beach and city skyline with the moon overhead. Someone in motion on the sand next to purple light.
A blurry beach and city skyline with the moon overhead. Someone in motion on the sand next to purple light.

I sit down by the surf where the waves can gently brush against me — staying without time, losing myself into the natural rhythm. I noticed my breath matching up with the foamy white residue left behind by the recession of each new break. I focused my attention on that point, realizing the waves were breathing themselves. Quick but powerful inhales followed by a lasting crash, repulsing everything it sucked up. The longer I stay, the deeper we align. My heartbeat pounds alongside each break, my blood pumping as the Earth’s spills. Their rhythm became mine.

I found myself sitting there empty to the mouth of life allowing myself to be filled by something greater. Letting go, following an unwritten script. Time had no effect over me, and from a place of true gratitude I took in every moment. It hit me that not every day does someone get an encore. Once we walk off every stage, every scene, we can’t return. 

So I remain seated with eyes locked forward at the vast endlessness from where all came.

I finally turn from the coast, tearing a brutal end to what just was. I knew the roof immediately. Pushing myself up off of the much harsher metal and brushing off the dust, I find that I’m not alone. 

There I am. 

But, here I am. 

Parker is here. 

I look around, blink a few dozen times — like you see in the movies — yet here we all are. My eyes bounce between the two of them waiting for someone to finally say something. But they don’t.

A red rooftop and a curly haired silhouette. An office building with lights on in the green background.

They don’t say anything at all. Just sitting lethargically, eyes locked on nothing. I walk slowly across the roof, trying to incite a reaction, but I’m left feeling foolish for cartoon tip-toeing for an audience of just me.

The one sitting in front of me was still frozen in a gaze. Ignorant to the Empire State Building behind my back. The countless times I’ve come to sit out on this rooftop I’ve always turned to face away. In the clear night sky the glow of its illuminated white spire spreads far beyond its reach. 

This is earlier. I saw this scene just hours ago, yet here I stand as an audience of one. I look but can’t touch, so I decide to just reflect as I watch it all play out again. They continue on their marks, oblivious to the voyeur. I wonder how many times I haven’t been as alone as I thought. 

Parker’s coughs knock me off of this train, and I pan my glance in his direction. 

God, he is so stoned.

A red man with a bucket hat and yellow shirt, green blurry sky behind.

⋅⋅⋅

Three people sit around an orange light in a blue room.

Laughter. The overwhelming sound of laughter. Roaming the crowd led to no significant insights. The transcendent exchanges we announced ourselves to be having were little more than shallow rambling dives of exchanged affirmations. Where is the discourse, where is the obsession? What they don’t share are the cares that only they have. Intimate love deemed meaningless by a world striving for homogeneity. The cares that make you, you. The pieces that made us all friends. 

Yet something changes as time and distance are increased in a relationship. Suddenly, everyone is striving to retain each other’s interest by characters adopted, borrowed or stolen. We’re left feeling more distant than ever. You question the reason, but convince yourself it was all perfect as defense of the time gone by.

A hand holding a camera, a person standing with their head cropped off, and a person kneeling.

The conversations don’t demonstrate who any of us are, but who we want to be seen as. And frankly, here that seems to be taken literally. You’d think the incessant flashes were a deliberate act of Warholian performance art. More than a time to be with one another, this function served Instagram; a way to prove to yourself that you really are who you put out online. Forget reality, live here for a while.

girl in white shirt poses, touching her face.
A person taking a selfie in front of a brick wall.

⋅⋅⋅

The club seems a lot smaller. They — we — move like an animatronic carnival game. Heads turn right and left, up and down — sizing each other up — endlessly. Their hands extend and take, passing phones around in an attempt at social networking. 

Even if they could see me, they wouldn’t. They’re running at a speed that looks like a time lapse, spilling drinks more than they sip them, slurring speeches that run atop each other. Somehow they communicate, and I sit back and watch as statements pivot midway as they realize differing opinions. Or an opportunity to elevate themselves.

A silhouette of curly hair, a cloud of red smoke, people talking with cell phones raised behind.
A long-haired person sits looking at a cell phone.

Every so often they have these lulls. I didn’t remember this, nor the power they had. All the mania settles down and they sit back in the sound of the 808. Even the woman who was restocking our bottles was gripped by this trance. I wonder if there is a slight realization, “What am I doing here? No, what am I really doing here?”

A girl stands staring to the right with a motion trail behind.
A person sits with light on their right eye and forehead. People are blurry behind.

Realizing you’re running is a scary thing when you believe yourself to be standing still. I now see it all as what it is — what it was. Their fears individually vary, but it’s all the same. As I watch every person within the invisible box, it carries true for all. Fear leading one’s path. Making choices to avoid the demons boxed twice in the back corner of your mind. But by filling all of your time moving away from fear, you forget to find a direction to move towards. Knowing where you don’t want to go doesn’t create a path to where you do.

⋅⋅⋅

A silhouette of a face and fully saturated red curly hair; pipes run perpendicular behind.

Weeks went by and I waited to see the change in my life; a newly unlocked freedom with a stronger internal compass. But it wasn’t there. Life remained the same, routines unchanged. Me, still the same flawed, impulsive, me.

Throughout that time many things stuck out to me that reinforced my newfound aspirations; universal encouragements — I told myself. What began in words from great poets and artists crescendoed to a roar in the trains and the trees. But still I remained unmoved in my stagnant routine; habits that never served me continued to grind away at me like a puppy on a bedroom door.

Though I didn’t listen, I came to realize there will always be reasons to do so, yet the reasons have no power in implementing that change. That power lies in your choice. Only a choice can implement action; no thought, command, or desire alone will. 

I realized true change only comes when you truly welcome that change. You can force yourself to repress certain behaviors or traits, but this is merely avoidance, suppression, a continued running. Depriving yourself of something that is natural or habitual to you is not living changed, it is living confined. One can not know true clarity, total freedom if the mind is living within confines.

A curly-haired red silhouette, shadows block the sky, bits of blue peek through.

Understanding is only the beginning. Only the awareness of the journey at hand. The journey through the rough, cold, homogenous world to try to find oneself at peace; Centered and aligned with the Real World and the Universe — that which we can and cannot perceive.

The road is long, and rocky and while we so often question if it is worthwhile, the answer remains in our hearts. To live or to exist? The choice needs to be made every day, every hour of every day until we die. Only you can make that choice.

Contact Julian Hammond Santander at [email protected]

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