The Life Cycle of a Mayfly
by Nathan Goldschot
Fueled by teenage restlessness, I began restoring all the 2-cycle dirt bikes rusting in outbuildings on my family’s farm. By the time I turned 16, four of the motorcycles had been returned to running condition. Impressed by my efforts, my uncle towed his 1966 Dodge Dart to a patch of dirt behind the farmhouse. He put the car’s title in my hands but warned me the engine hadn’t turned over in at least a decade. Undeterred, I pushed the car into an empty shed and started working on the motor. My head began to swell with dreams of leaving my stifling, small-town existence.
After two years of bloody knuckles and bent tools, my hopes of escape remained as broken as the Dart’s Slant-6. My backup plan to ride out of town on a full scholarship was killed by a lack of extracurricular activities. With my liberation from Boring, Oregon becoming increasingly unlikely, I put down my socket wrench and picked up a bottle. I worked a series of odd jobs under the table to sustain a new habit of drinking myself under a barstool.
Relegated to my rut, I grew bitter and despondent. My belligerent behavior soon led to my expulsion from every available social circle. Frustrated with myself, I vowed to finish what I had started. I stopped drinking and refocused on fixing the Dart. When the engine finally turned over I let it run for an hour, worried it may never start again. With each subsequent twist of the key proving reliable, I found a late-night gig delivering newspapers out of my trunk. I hoped to make enough cash on my route to put down a deposit on an apartment in Portland or Salem–anywhere I could find a decent job and make some real money.
After finishing my deliveries in the dead of night, I usually stopped for breakfast at The Flying F–a greasy truck-stop on the edge of town. One impossibly early morning while flipping through a freshly printed newspaper and sipping coffee, I spied a striking young woman I’d never seen before. To eyes acclimated to the sepia shades of rural life she appeared beyond exotic. The leather jacket she sported was covered in anarchy symbols and punk rock patches. Her moss-green hair gleamed like an oil slick. I knew she couldn’t be a local—perhaps a hitchhiker.
The flicker of purpose I had been following went dim as my hormones elevated the truck-stop angel above all other concerns. I was working up the courage to approach her when I noticed she was already making her way across the checkerboard tiles to my booth.
She plopped herself across from me, causing the chains laced through her epaulets to rattle. “Hey…you got any creamer over here that isn’t spoiled?”
“Uh, yeah,” I said, pushing a few tubs of non-dairy slurry across the table.
“Do you have any coffee to go with this?”
I nodded and handed her my cup.
Her icy blue eyes shined at me over the rim of the mug as she took a sip. “Mind if I just have this?”
“I don’t mind,” I replied.
She looked side to side suspiciously, then pulled a tiny flask from her vest pocket and poured some booze in my…her…cup. “Screw the creamer. What’s a sip without a nip?”
I learned my angel’s name was Amy Gillanders. Even though she hailed from a town in the Midwest I’d never heard of, we shared the same sense of ennui–a byproduct of being raised in bucolic isolation. Her sharp tongue and wild charms kept me spellbound.
“So, you live in this burg?” Amy asked me.
Before I could answer she waved a hand in my face. “Wait…now I can see it.”
“See what?” I asked, taken aback by her stare.
“The steely-eyed look of an outsider trapped on the inside. Ever read Bukowski?”
“Nope.” I wanted to sound cool but I didn’t want to be trapped in a lie.
“You don’t talk much, I like that. Do you have a car?”
“Yeah, I do.”
Amy’s face lit up. “Great!”
I listened to Amy wax existential and political over an endless cup of coffee. By the time she finished her rant, I had developed an intense hatred of America’s corrupt, capitalist system. The injustices perpetrated under the guise of democracy suddenly sickened me. I was an instant anarchist—just add infatuation.
“Was Bukowski an anarchist?” I asked.
Amy’s laugh filled the restaurant.
I was glad she found me amusing, but also eager to change the subject. “So, have you been traveling alone?”
“My boyfriend dumped me–literally–back in Boise,” said Amy, her smile lowering. “I’ve been hitchhiking my way through the northwest.”
“It’s a hell of a lot easier to find rides now that Andrew’s out of the picture, but it also means I keep a little knife hidden in my bra…just in case someone gets handsy.” Amy paused to draw a little heart in a puddle of spilled creamer with her fingertip. “Hey Bukowski…do you want to leave town with me?”
“Yes.” The word rolled out of my mouth with no consideration of the weight it carried. My reply was so quick it made Amy laugh again.
“Don’t you even want to know where I’m heading?” Amy asked with a grin.
I shook my head. “It doesn’t matter.”
When you find someone’s snorting laugh endearing you know you’re in love.
I hit the highway with Amy in my rust-bitten Dart, ready to leave my Boring life behind. I made a quick stop at the farmhouse on our way out of town to collect a few things and let my grandfather know I was leaving. He had always supported me and was well-aware of my ceaseless desire to bolt.
“I’ll be right back,” I told Amy as I stepped out of the car.
“What’s to stop me from just driving off with your ride while you’re in the house?” asked Amy with a grin. “After all, we barely know each other. Maybe you should take the keys with you.”
I honestly hadn’t considered Amy’s scenario. “I trust you.”
Amy leaned back and dangled her feet out the window. “Huh. Well, that’s your first mistake. Go on, then.”
I shook my head at Amy with a smile and walked up to the house. Like usual, the front door was unlocked. Once inside, I carefully stepped over our old, deaf dog as he snored contentedly in the hallway. I sneaked past my parents’ room, knowing we’d just get in a fight if I tried to tell them goodbye. After filling a duffel bag with some clothes, I went to find my grandfather.
I found ‘Pop’ snoozing in his favorite chair in the den. I put my hands on his shoulders and gave him a gentle shake. He sat up with a jolt and his eyes popped open. His health had been steadily improving since his cancer went into remission but I still felt bad waking him up so late. “Pop, it’s time. I’m leaving…tonight.”
Pop rubbed his neck and leaned closer to me. “Really? It’s a girl, right?”
My face said it all. “Pop–”
“It’s fine. You’re allowed to be impulsive while you’re young. Just get out of here and don’t look back. Degrees and certificates are overrated; you’re capable enough to navigate the world without them.”
“Thanks, Pop,” I told him, feeling some measure of relief.
“Just tell me she’s pretty.”
I nodded. “She is.”
“Then she must not be too smart to be hanging out with the likes of you.” My grandfather winked and sent a weak punch against my shoulder. “You’re destined for greatness, boy. Don’t let me down.”
The man always thought far too highly of me. I hugged him then left the house in a hurry, knowing I’d never be back.
Amy was still inside the Dart, waiting for me. Sometimes I wish she had made good on her threat to leave me in the dust.
The Dart ejected a black cloud of exhaust and lurched to a stop just outside of Seattle. Lacking the tools or means to resurrect the engine, Amy and I left the car on the shoulder of the highway and hiked into the city.
After a couple of nerve-wracking nights, we slid into the ranks of King County’s local activist group. We protested the pressing issue of the week in exchange for room and board in a variety of squalid squats. With Amy’s steady tutelage, I became filled with indignation over the state of the world. My passion for social justice was fueled by regular make-out sessions with my moss-mopped muse.
Amy kept me close as we climbed to the heights of self-importance together. We threw bricks, passed out pamphlets and held placards on an irregular basis. The rest of our days were occupied by sex, weed, couch-surfing and the recitation of bad poetry to each other (most of which we wrote ourselves). It pains me to recollect any words coming out of my mouth or pen during that time.
Just like all wildfires, ours burned-out quickly. Amy had become enthralled by the alpha male of a flock of anarchists from New York City who had swooped into to our activist group. Jeremy Dignin’s apathetic attitude, lean physique, and vintage clothing were undeniably seductive. My hobo-cred did nothing to overshadow the man’s magnificent beard, fox tail accessory and stack of slightly-better poetry.
I was surprised when Jeremy approached me at the annual Solstice bonfire, considering we had barely spoken a word to each other. I had gone out of my way to avoid him after seeing the way Amy’s eyes lit up like fairy lights when he first burst on the scene. Thankfully, she had decided to stay home and print flyers that evening.
“You’re Bukowski, right?” Jeremy asked, handing me his joint. I took a puff from it reluctantly. Even his weed was better than mine.
“Yeah, that’s what they call me,” I said with a cough.
“Right. I just wanted to let you know that Amy’s coming back to NYC with me. We think it’s best to concentrate our activism efforts in more populous areas of influence. She thought it would be easier to leave without telling you, but I figured you had the right to know.”
My shock eroded my desire to knock him out. His declaration was so matter-of-fact and beautifully succinct I couldn’t even respond.
“You can keep the joint,” said Jeremy with a sympathetic nod. I stared at his distressed leather jacket as he walked away, wondering how much it must have cost him.
The words “activism efforts” kept running through my brain. I gathered my peer group together, hoping they’d rally behind my efforts to dismiss Jeremy as a sell-out. Sadly, my pitch to exile him proved futile.
After the bonfire, I returned to Amy in a state of denial and we reentered our daily routines as if nothing was about to change. I naively believed the blinding light of my sincerity would somehow outshine my rival’s grimy patina. In all honesty, Amy and I had been steadily drifting apart long before Jeremy arrived. The writing was on the wall, right next to someone’s spray-painted tag.
“I’m going to New York with Jeremy,” said Amy, apropos of nothing one morning. We had just finished sharing a box of Fruit Loops together in a stranger’s house.
“Oh,” I replied, hamstrung by my inalienable emotional distance.
Amy gave me a kiss on the forehead and got up from the couch. I still remember how pale her skinny legs looked jutting from my…her…black t-shirt.
“So, we’re over?” I asked, even though her declaration had been staler than the Fruit Loops.
“I’m sorry, but yeah, it’s over. Try not to dwell.” It was obvious Amy was feeling some measure of guilt, which I found surprising. She had endured years of abuse long before I met her, making her loathe to give too many damns about anyone but herself. It was an understandable response to trauma–one I had steadily come to terms with–or so I thought.
Amy turned her head slightly and gave me a pained smile before walking into the kitchen. I realized our nights of couch surfing together were at an end–you can’t occupy a person’s heart once they want you out of their lives.
A few minutes later I heard the back screen door of the hovel slap shut. I never expected to see Amy again.
Extended moping followed our breakup until my pre-Amy mindset returned. I was done with anarchy. My idealism had only been maintained by constant bouts of wild sex and the thrill of an uncertain future. I had quickly burned through all my cash and favors while lost in the haze of love. All my friends had been Amy’s first, meaning they were no longer mine. My destiny seemed certain–I was going die alone and penniless.
I had hooked my cart to Amy’s manic momentum. With her gone, I was spiraling out of control. Pain sloughed away my resolve and altered principles I once believed were unshakable. My values took a 180 degree turn. I no longer cared about revolution, sustainable practices, renewable energy or social justice—I wanted my own couch, a steak, and some goddamn cash.
A lust for wealth and creature comforts plugged the void in my chest. Greed gave me newfound purpose, and purpose had always been my drug of choice. After embracing my antimatter, I found myself driven, thick-skinned and ready to leave my mark on the world. I scrounged up enough money to get into a decent business school in southern California and emerged a few years later with an adequate degree and a chip on my shoulder.
I began acting purely in my own self-interest, impervious to the judgments of others. Well aware an altruistic life was the only path to lasting happiness, I instead embraced a Randian philosophy and did everything in my power to get rich. My self-loathing was already all encompassing; a few extra layers of guilt springing a series of selfish decisions weren’t going to change anything.
Utilizing a list of business contacts I had acquired by kissing the asses of my professors, I established a clean energy startup while the industry was balancing precariously on a bubble. Realizing an oil boom in North Dakota was about to kill many a green dream, I sold my startup’s ballooning shares to my shocked associates. Afterwards, I quickly invested all my capital into a firm specializing in refinery technology and energy exploration. I endured the tectonic shifts of the political landscape from the safety of a pile of cash, taking pride in my sense of timing–and irony.
After taking my place among the board of directors, I pushed the company toward a philosophy of aggressive profit mongering. I stepped on, over, or through “the little guy” without hesitation, eager to see just how big we could get. Despite the company’s rapid growth, my compatriots grew weary of my draconian methods and took measures to push me out. Undeterred, I became the sole shareholder of a rival firm and drove my former partners out of the industry. If I couldn’t be a true oligarch, I at least wanted to hear the accusation being bandied about in the press.
Fading remnants of my time with Amy Gillanders gave me a few moments of weakness. These brief crises of conscience compelled me to give back to the world and attempt to make it a better place, but it wasn’t long before I tired of the cliché. Idealistic pipe dreams are more suitable as charitable tax breaks—fully deductible stepping stones on the path of success.
I couldn’t bring myself to fully reject the ideals Amy held so dear. The truth underlying her fashionable faux anarchy was undeniably potent. Even at the peak of my “ethical egoism,” I was fully aware of the shit-storm of corporate greed and corrupt political policies wringing every last cent from our fragile planet. I couldn’t help but think of Amy as my new company made a substantial contribution to the world’s problems.
Imagine my surprise when my office assistant told me Amy Gillanders was on the line and wished to speak with me. I put down a quarterly report and picked up my phone with no shortage of trepidation. “Amy?”
“Hey. It’s been awhile.”
“That it has. How are things?”
“Can we save the awkward bullshit until we’re face to face? I’m in town for a few days and I thought we might be able to meet up.”
Amy obviously hadn’t changed much over the years. “Sure. Let’s get together for dinner.”
“Coffee. Nothing fancy.”
“Alright. There’s a quiet coffee shop named Java Land a couple blocks from my offices. Have you seen the building?”
Amy chuckled. “Everyone in the city can see your ivory tower. Java Land you said?”
“I’m sure I can find the place. How about 2 o’clock tomorrow?”
“Yeah, that sound fine.” I had appointments, but I could cancel them. For some reason, I felt obligated to meet her.
“Your voice sounds fatter. Did you get fat?”
I laughed. Amy was blunt as ever. “I might have put on a couple of pounds, but I do have a gym membership.”
“It doesn’t matter, I was just curious. I’ll see you tomorrow.” With that, she hung up.
The next day I wandered from my office to the coffee shop, which was no more than a closet stuffed between a book store and a posh boutique. The décor was sparse, the jazz was challenging, and the baristas were withdrawn—all things I appreciated. I saw Amy across the room as soon as I walked in. She looked nearly the same as I remembered, aside from the business-casual attire and some laugh lines giving character to her face. Her mossy hair was now blonde.
After ordering my coffee, I walked to Amy’s table. She stood up and surprised me with a hug. When the embrace ended, we sat down across from each other.
“You seem…healthy,” said Amy. “That’s a friendly way to tell people they’re out of shape.”
Her acerbic wit was already fired-up. “Right. Well, you look good. Not healthy at all.”
Amy smiled. “I’m just messing with you. Nice suit. Armani?”
“Thanks, yes.” Even after so many years and so many changes, I still felt intimidated by Amy.
“So, I wouldn’t blame you for thinking so, but this isn’t part of a ‘making amends’ portion of a 12-step program…and I’m not here to ask for money.”
“I was so shocked to hear from you, I never thought to question your motives,” I replied. “So what’s on your mind?”
“Honestly, I’m writing a book about my formative years, and you were part of them. After hearing about how much you had changed, I wanted a first-hand account of your…transformation…before I attempted to figure it out on my own.”
“You’re a writer? Have you published anything yet?”
“This will be my first nonfiction book. My publisher made a decent return on my last novel, so they’re itching for more.”
I had actually read Amy’s novel and enjoyed it. I wasn’t sure why I lied–maybe I didn’t want to give her the satisfaction of knowing I had thought about her. “That’s great.”
Amy sighed. “I have one more thing to say before we cut the bullshit and get down to brass tacks…I mean, if you’re game.”
“Yeah, I’m game. I’m an open book.”
Amy leaned back in her chair. “I’m sorry how things ended. I was a tad impulsive back then. I suppose I still am.”
“I knew what I was getting into…at least, I thought I did. It’s alright. That was a long time ago.”
“Good. Things got a little weird in New York. Jeremy just wanted to get inside my pants, which was what I wanted too, but he got boring real fast. Sadly, I’m not nearly as political anymore.”
Amy laughed. “Obviously! You’ve built quite an empire here. I’m not going to waste any breath telling you how misguided you are. Okay, maybe one.”
“I’m not misguided,” I told her.
Amy raised an eyebrow. “In case you haven’t noticed, your company is actively obliterating the planet.”
Here we go, I thought. “Everyone–including myself–is aware of the destruction being wrought upon the world’s ecosystems by industry. Because the problem is so widespread, most people assume the damage is irreversible and turn a blind eye. When you feel powerless to effect change, ignoring the problem might be the only sane decision.”
Amy sipped her cappuccino. “Ignoring the problem won’t make it go away. Are you telling me you have no qualms about hastening Earth’s doom?”
“Unlike a lot of people in my position, I am vitally aware of the harm I’m causing.”
“Then stop. If anyone could effect change, it’s you! It’s not like you’re living paycheck to paycheck to keep the lights on.”
“One man throwing money at the problem won’t solve anything. Humanity has had plenty of opportunities to change its ways. If we were all serious about stepping off the path of mutually-assured destruction, wouldn’t we have done so by now?”
“Some of us are still trying. You just stopped paying attention.”
I looked Amy in the eye. “Sustainability is a lie. You, me…we’re just two of 7.5 billion people sucking away the planet’s finite resources. Solving that issue…well…no one wants to go there.”
“Are you implying we should gas world populations down to a manageable number? Your attitude is veering toward the fascistic.”
“Of course not. People have every right to survive and thrive. I don’t claim to have any answers. I just know what’s best for me.”
“Right. No answers, but you certainly have a lot of words. I think I liked you better when you were monosyllabic.”
“Those who acknowledge the dire state of the world are a rare breed. They should probably be considered masochists, maybe even sociopaths.”
“So, I’m the damaged one…and you’re not?”
“I’m just as damaged as you are. People who accept the truth, like us, are left with a difficult choice. They can either harness their empathy and struggle to create change, or accept the current state of reality and use it to their personal advantage.”
Amy shook her head. “Wow, you’ve really spit-polished your justifications. Does this shit help you sleep at night?”
I ignored her and kept going. “A successful business man needs to appreciate of the consequences of every action to stay ahead of the competition. Because I understand the machinations of the world–good and bad–I’ve been able to insert myself between the cogs and change the way the engine runs.”
“Those gears turn in both directions!” protested Amy. “If enough people join together, real, lasting change is possible. I’ve witnessed and wrote about several communities across the world who’ve abandoned their destructive practices to achieve harmony with the planet. It’s not impossible.”
I sipped my Americano. “Oh, I believe you. Sadly, I lack the strength to martyr myself for a larger cause. I chose the easier path of fortune and self-fulfillment. I admire anyone who maintains their idealism, but it’s no way to make absurd amounts of money.”
Amy shook her head. “Are you married? Aren’t you worried about the future you’re leaving for your kids?”
“I’m alone by design. I’ve accepted that my happiness must be obtained on a surface level, mostly because I cannot face the prospect of leaving a world like this to anyone I truly cared about. I have no kids, no obligations to pass on, and no personal legacy to speak of—which leaves me in a prime position to fully embrace capitalism, with all its faults. I’m sure I sound like a monster, but I’m just a realist.”
I was expecting a look of disgust, but Amy just seemed disappointed. “I don’t think you’re a monster. Mostly, I just find you pathetic.”
I shrugged. “Life is comically short and I plan to live it to the fullest before I am returned to dust. I may never experience love again and that’s okay.” I paused. “I found it once and it was…enough.”
“I loved you once,” said Amy. “If I helped you turn into…this…in even a small way, I’m sorry.” She was fighting back tears.
I gently grabbed her hands across the table. “Our breakup may have been the storm pushing my ship off course, but I was the one who kept up the sails.” I noticed her wedding ring. “You’re married.”
Amy slowly drew her hands back. “I was. It’s been…hard.”
“Don’t be. Being sorry doesn’t fit your modus operandi, right?”
“Amy, it’s not—”
Amy stood up, looking eager to end the conversation. “I better get going. You sure you’re alright with me quoting you?”
“It’s fine, really.”
Amy leaned down and kissed me on the forehead. “See you around, Bukowski.”
“Goodbye, Amy.” I turned and watched her leave, feeling my pulse quicken. Amy Gillanders was the only person who could ever stoke my self-doubt.
My brief stint in the counter culture taught me apathy is cheaper than empathy. Pessimism is the world in its resting state and there’s little use fighting against it. At least, that’s what I’m telling myself while my company, Mayfly Corp, makes millions fracking oil from shale deposits deep within the earth. 150 billion more barrels are stuck beneath “protected” lands, but it will only take some lobbying money and a few pen swipes to alleviate such problems–but I digress.
I told Amy we were from a rare breed of damaged people who accept the truth, but deep down, everyone knows the score. It’s time for humanity to own up to their collective damage. Our ability to drift through life in ignorant bliss has long been compromised. We will all experience pain until we’ve made The Choice.
Will we struggle to repair the damaged engine of the Earth? Are we willing to keep our hopes wrapped up in a nebulous future as we fight to provide stability for future generations? Can love alone possibly sustain us?
Or, will we live our lives solely in the moment, beholden to no one as we strive to rise above our peers. Will we labor in the service of our own happiness, obtaining as many riches as we can while the world spins toward its inevitable conclusion?
I made my decision. Amy made hers. Now, the choice is yours.