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YOU WAKE UP at Air Harbor International.
Every takeoff and landing, when the plane banked too much to one side, I prayed for a crash. That moment cures my insomnia with narcolepsy when we might die helpless and packed human tobacco in the fuselage.
This is how I met Tyler Durden.
You wake up at O'Hare.
You wake up at LaGuardia.
You wake up at Logan.
Tyler worked part-time as a movie projectionist. Because of his nature, Tyler could only work night jobs. If a projectionist called in sick, the union called Tyler.
Some people are night people. Some people are day people. I could only work a day job.
You wake up at Dulles.
Life insurance pays off triple if you die on a business trip. I prayed for wind shear effect. I prayed for pelicans sucked into the turbines and loose bolts and ice on the wings. On takeoff, as the plane pushed down the runway and the flaps tilted up, with our seats in their full upright position and our tray tables stowed and all personal carry-on baggage in the overhead compartment, as the end of the runway ran up to meet us with our smoking materials extinguished, I prayed for a crash.
You wake up at Love Field.
In a projection booth, Tyler did changeovers if the theater was old enough. With changeovers, you have two projectors in the booth, and one projector is running.
I know this because Tyler knows this.
The second projector is set up with the next reel of film. Most movies are six or seven small reels of film played in a certain order. Newer theaters, they splice all the reels together into one five-foot reel. This way, you don't have to run two projectors and do changeovers, switch back and forth, reel one, switch, reel two on the other projector, switch, reel three on the first projector.
You wake up at SeaTac.
I study the people on the laminated airline seat card. A woman floats in the ocean, her brown hair spread out behind her, her seat cushion clutched to her chest. The eyes are wide open, but the woman doesn't smile or frown. In another picture, people calm as Hindu cows reach up from their seats toward oxygen masks sprung out of the ceiling.
This must be an emergency.
We've lost cabin pressure.
You wake up, and you're at Willow Run.
Old theater, new theater, to ship a movie to the next theater, Tyler has to break the movie back down to the original six or seven reels. The small reels pack into a pair of hexagonal steel suitcases. Each suitcase has a handle on top. Pick one up, and you'll dislocate a shoulder.
They weigh that much.
Tyler's a banquet waiter, waiting tables at a hotel, downtown, and Tyler's a projectionist with the projector operator's union. I don't know how long Tyler had been working on all those nights I couldn't sleep.
The old theaters that run a movie with two projectors, a projectionist has to stand right there to change projectors at the exact second so the audience never sees the break when one reel starts and one reel ran out. You have to look for the white dots in the top, right-hand corner of the screen. This is the warning. Watch the movie, and you'll see two dots at the end of a reel.
"Cigarette burns," they're called in the business.
The first white dot, this is the two-minute warning. You get the second projector started so it will be running up to speed.
The second white dot is the five-second warning. Excitement. You're standing between the two projectors and the booth is sweating hot from the xenon bulbs that if you looked right at them you're blind. The first dot flashes on the screen. The sound in a movie comes from a big speaker behind the screen. The projectionist booth is soundproof because inside the booth is the racket of sprockets snapping film past the lens at six feet a second, ten frames a foot, sixty frames a second snapping through, clattering Gatling-gun fire. The two projectors running, you stand between and hold the shutter lever on each. On really old projectors, you have an alarm on the hub of the feed reel.
Even after the movie's on television, the warning dots will still be there. Even on airplane movies.
As most of the movie rolls onto the take-up reel, the take-up reel turns slower and the feed reel has to turn faster. At the end of a reel, the feed reel turns so fast the alarm will start ringing to warn you that a changeover is coming up.
The dark is hot from the bulbs inside the projectors, and the alarm is ringing. Stand there between the two projectors with a lever in each hand, and watch the corner of the screen. The second dot flashes. Count to five. Switch one shutter closed. At the same time, open the other shutter.
The movie goes on.
Nobody in the audience has any idea.
The alarm is on the feed reel so the movie projectionist can nap. A movie projectionist does a lot he's not supposed to. Not every projector has the alarm. At home, you'll sometimes wake up in your dark bed with the terror you've fallen asleep in the booth and missed a changeover. The audience will be cursing you. The audience, their movie dream is ruined, and the manager will be calling the union.
You wake up at Krissy Field.
The charm of traveling is everywhere I go, tiny life. I go to the hotel, tiny soap, tiny shampoos, single-serving butter, tiny mouthwash and a single-use toothbrush. Fold into the standard airplane seat. You're a giant. The problem is your shoulders are too big. Your Alice in Wonderland legs are all of a sudden miles so long they touch the feet of the person in front. Dinner arrives, a miniature do-it-yourself Chicken Cordon Bleu hobby kit, sort of a put-it together project to keep you busy.
The pilot has turned on the seat-belt sign, and we would ask you to refrain from moving about the cabin.
You wake up at Meigs Field.
Sometimes, Tyler wakes up in the dark, buzzing with the terror that he's missed a reel change or the movie has broken or the movie has slipped just enough in the projector that the sprockets are punching a line of holes through the sound track.
After a movie has been sprocket run, the light of the bulb shines through the sound track and instead of talk, you're blasted with the helicopter blade sound of whop whop whop as each burst of light comes through a sprocket hole.
What else a projectionist shouldn't do: Tyler makes slides out of the best single frames from a movie. The first full frontal movie anyone can remember had the naked actress Angle Dickinson.
By the time a print of this movie had shipped from the West Coast theaters to the East Coast theaters, the nude scene was gone. One projectionist took a frame. Another projectionist took a frame. Everybody wanted to make a naked slide of Angle Dickinson. Porno got into theaters and these projectionists, some guys they built collections that got epic.
You wake up at Boeing Field.
You wake up at LAX.
We have an almost empty flight, tonight, so feel free to fold the armrests up into the seatbacks and stretch out. You stretch out, zigzag, knees bent, waist bent, elbows bent across three or four seats. I set my watch two hours earlier or three hours later, Pacific, Mountain, Central, or Eastern time; lose an hour, gain an hour.
This is your life, and it's ending one minute at a time.
You wake up at Cleveland Hopkins.
You wake up at SeaTac, again.
You're a projectionist and you're tired and angry, but mostly you're bored so you start by taking a single frame of pornography collected by some other projectionist that you find stashed away in the booth, and you splice this frame of a lunging red penis or a yawning wet vagina closeup into another feature movie.
This is one of those pet adventures, when the dog and cat are left behind by a traveling family and must find their way home. In reel three, just after the dog and cat, who have human voices and talk to each other, have eaten out of a garbage can, there's the flash of an erection.
Tyler does this.
A single frame in a movie is on the screen for one-sixtieth of a second. Divide a second into sixty equal parts. That's how long the erection is. Towering four stories tall over the popcorn auditorium, slippery red and terrible, and no one sees it.
You wake up at Logan, again.
This is a terrible way to travel. I go to meetings my boss doesn't want to attend. I take notes. I'll get back to you.
Wherever I'm going, I'll be there to apply the formula. I'll keep the secret intact.
It's simple arithmetic.
It's a story problem.
If a new car built by my company leaves Chicago traveling west at 60 miles per hour, and the rear differential locks up, and the car crashes and burns with everyone trapped inside, does my company initiate a recall?
You take the population of vehicles in the field (A) and multiply it by the probable rate of failure (B), then multiply the result by the average cost of an out-of-court settlement (C).
A times B times C equals X. This is what it will cost if we don't initiate a recall.
If X is greater than the cost of a recall, we recall the cars and no one gets hurt.
If X is less than the cost of a recall, then we don't recall.
Everywhere I go, there's the burned-up wadded-up shell of a car waiting for me. I know where all the skeletons are. Consider this my job security.
Hotel time, restaurant food. Everywhere I go, I make tiny friendships with the people sitting beside me from Logan to Krissy to Willow Run.
What I am is a recall campaign coordinator, I tell the single-serving friend sitting next to me, but I'm working toward a career as a dishwasher.
You wake up at O'Hare, again.
Tyler spliced a penis into everything after that. Usually, close-ups, or a Grand Canyon vagina with an echo, four stories tall and twitching with blood pressure as Cinderella danced with her Prince Charming and people watched. Nobody complained. People ate and drank, but the evening wasn't the same. People feel sick or start to cry and don't know why. Only a hummingbird could have caught Tyler at work.
You wake up at JFK.
I melt and swell at the moment of landing when one wheel thuds on the runway but the plane leans to one side and hangs in the decision to right itself or roll. For this moment, nothing matters. Look up into the stars and you're gone. Not your luggage. Nothing matters. Not your bad breath. The windows are dark outside and the turbine engines roar backward. The cabin hangs at the wrong angle under the roar of the turbines, and you will never have to file another expense account claim. Receipt required for items over twenty-five dollars. You will never have to get another haircut.
A thud, and the second wheel hits the tarmac. The staccato of a hundred seatbelt buckles snapping open, and the single-use friend you almost died sitting next to says:
I hope you make your connection.
Yeah, me too.
And this is how long your moment lasted. And life goes on.
And somehow, by accident, Tyler and I met.
It was time for a vacation.
You wake up at LAX.
How I met Tyler was I went to a nude beach. This was the very end of summer, and I was asleep. Tyler was naked and sweating, gritty with sand, his hair wet and stringy, hanging in his face.
Tyler had been around a long time before we met.
Tyler was pulling driftwood logs out of the surf and dragging them up the beach. In the wet sand, he'd already planted a half circle of logs so they stood a few inches apart and as tall as his eyes. There were four logs, and when I woke up, I watched Tyler pull a fifth log up the beach. Tyler dug a hole under one end of the log, then lifted the other end until the log slid into the hole and stood there at a slight angle.
You wake up at the beach.
We were the only people on the beach.
With a stick, Tyler drew a straight line in the sand several feet away. Tyler went back to straighten the log by stamping sand around its base.
I was the only person watching this.
Tyler called over, "Do you know what time it is?"
I always wear a watch.
"Do you know what time it is?"
I asked, where?
"Right here," Tyler said. "Right now."
It was 4:06 P.m.
After a while, Tyler sat cross-legged in the shadow of the standing logs. Tyler sat for a few minutes, got up and took a swim, pulled on a T-shirt and a pair of sweatpants, and started to leave. I had to ask.
I had to know what Tyler was doing while I was asleep.
If I could wake up in a different place, at a different time, could I wake up as a different person?
I asked if Tyler was an artist.
Tyler shrugged and showed me how the five standing logs were wider at the base. Tyler showed me the line he'd drawn in the sand, and how he'd use the line to gauge the shadow cast by each log.
Sometimes, you wake up and have to ask where you are.
What Tyler had created was the shadow of a giant hand. Only now the fingers were Nosferatu-long and the thumb was too short, but he said how at exactly four-thirty the hand was perfect. The giant shadow hand was perfect for one minute, and for one perfect minute Tyler had sat in the palm of a perfection he'd created himself.
You wake up, and you're nowhere.
One minute was enough, Tyler said, a person had to work hard for it, but a minute of perfection was worth the effort. A moment was the most you could ever expect from perfection.
You wake up, and that's enough.
His name was Tyler Durden, and he was a movie projectionist with the union, and he was a banquet waiter at a hotel, downtown, and he gave me his phone number.
And this is how we met.
ALL THE USUAL brain parasites are here, tonight. Above and Beyond always gets a big turnout. This is Peter. This is Aldo. This is Marcy.
The introductions, everybody, this is Marla Singer, and this is her first time with us.
At Above and Beyond, we start with the Catch-Up Rap. The group isn't called Parasitic Brain Parasites. You'll never hear anyone say "parasite." Everybody is always getting better. Oh, this new medication. Everyone's always just turned the corner. Still, everywhere, there's the squint of a five-day headache. A woman wipes at involuntary tears. Everyone gets a name tag, and people you've met every Tuesday night for a year, they come at you, handshake hand ready and their eyes on your name tag.
I don't believe we've met.
No one will ever say parasite. They'll say, agent.
They don't say cure. They'll say, treatment.
In Catch-Up Rap, someone will say how the agent has spread into his spinal column and now all of a sudden he'll have no control of his left hand. The agent, someone will say, has dried the lining of his brain so now the brain pulls away from the inside of his skull, causing seizures.
The last time I was here, the woman named Chloe announced the only good news she had. Chloe pushed herself to her feet against the wooden arms of her chair and said she no longer had any fear of death.
Tonight, after the introductions and Catch-Up Rap, a girl I don't know, with a name tag that says Glenda, says she's Chloe's sister and that at two in the morning last Tuesday, Chloe finally died.
Oh, this should be so sweet. For two years, Chloe's been crying in my arms during hug time, and now she's dead, dead in the ground, dead in an urn, mausoleum, columbarium. Oh, the proof that one day you're thinking and hauling yourself around, and the next, you're cold fertilizer, worm buffet. This is the amazing miracle of death, and it should be so sweet if it weren't for, oh, that one.
Oh, and Marla's looking at me again, singled out among all the brain parasites.
Marla's the faker. You're the faker. Everyone around when they wince or twitch and fall down barking and the crotch of their jeans turns dark blue, well, it's all just a big act.
Guided meditation all of a sudden won't take me anywhere, tonight. Behind each of the seven palace doors, the green door, the orange door, Marla. The blue door, Marla stands there. Liar. In the guided meditation through the cave of my power animal, my power animal is Marla. Smoking her cigarette, Marla, rolling her eyes. Liar. Black hair and pillowy French lips. Faker. Italian dark leather sofa lips. You can't escape.
Chloe was the genuine article.
Chloe was the way Joni Mitchell's skeleton would look if you made it smile and walk around a party being extra special nice to everyone. Picture Chloe's popular skeleton the size of an insect, running through the vaults and galleries of her innards at two in the morning. Her pulse a siren overhead, announcing: Prepare for death in ten, in nine, in eight seconds. Death will commence in seven, six...
At night, Chloe ran around the maze of her own collapsing veins and burst tubes spraying hot lymph. Nerves surface as trip wires in the tissue. Abscesses swell in the tissue around her as hot white pearls.
The overhead announcement, prepare to evacuate bowels in ten, in nine, eight, seven.
Prepare to evacuate soul in ten, in nine, eight.
Chloe's splashing through the ankle-deep backup of renal fluid from her failed kidneys.
Death will commence in five.
Around her, parasitic life spray paints her heart.
Chloe climbs hand-over-hand up the curdled lining of her own throat.
Death to commence in three, in two.
Moonlight shines in through the open mouth.
Prepare for the last breath, now.
Soul clear of body.
Oh, this should be so sweet, the remembered warm jumble of Chloe still in my arms and Chloe dead somewhere.
But no, I'm watched by Marla.
In guided meditation, I open my arms to receive my inner child, and the child is Marla smoking her cigarette. No white healing ball of light. Liar. No chakras. Picture your chakras opening as flowers and at the center of each is a slow motion explosion of sweet light.
My chakras stay closed.
When meditation ends, everyone is stretching and twisting their heads and pulling each other to their feet in preparation. Therapeutic physical contact. For the hug, I cross in three steps to stand against Marla who looks up into my face as I watch everyone else for the cue.
Let's all, the cue comes, embrace someone near us.
My arms clamp around Marla.
Pick someone special to you, tonight.
Marla's cigarette hands are pinned to her waist.
Tell this someone how you feel.
Marla doesn't have testicular cancer. Marla doesn't have tuberculosis. She isn't dying. Okay in that brainy brain-food philosophy way, we're all dying, but Marla isn't dying the way Chloe was dying.
The cue comes, share yourself.
So, Marla, how do you like them apples?
Share yourself completely.
So, Marla, get out. Get out. Get out.
Go ahead and cry if you have to.
Marla stares up at me. Her eyes are brown. Her earlobes pucker around earring holes, no earrings. Her chapped lips are frosted with dead skin.
Go ahead and cry.
"You're not dying either," Marla says.
Around us, couples stand sobbing, propped against each other.
"You tell on me," Marla says, "and I'll tell on you."
Then we can split the week, I say. Marla can have bone disease, brain parasites, and tuberculosis. I'll keep testicular cancer, blood parasites, and organic brain dementia.
Marla says, "What about ascending bowel cancers?"
The girl has done her homework.
We'll split bowel cancer. She gets it the first and third Sunday of every month.
"No," Marla says. No, she wants it all. The cancers, the parasites. Marla's eyes narrow. She never dreamed she could feel so marvelous. She actually felt alive. Her skin was clearing up. All her life, she never saw a dead person. There was no real sense of life because she had nothing to contrast it with. Oh, but now there was dying and death and loss and grief. Weeping and shuddering, terror and remorse. Now that she knows where we're all going, Marla feels every moment of her life.
No, she wasn't leaving any group.
"Not and go back to the way life felt before," Marla says. "I used to work in a funeral home to feel good about myself, just the fact I was breathing. So what if I couldn't get a job in my field."
Then go back to your funeral home, I say.
"Funerals are nothing compared to this," Marla says. "Funerals are all abstract ceremony. Here, you have a real experience of death."
Couples around the two of us are drying their tears, sniffing, patting each other on the back and letting go.
We can't both come, I tell her.
"Then don't come." I need this. "Then go to funerals." Everyone else has broken apart and they're joining hands for the closing prayer. I let Marla go. "How long have you been coming here?" The closing prayer. Two years. A man in the prayer circle takes my hand. A man takes Marla's hand. These prayers start and usually, my breathing is blown. Oh, bless us. Oh, bless us in our anger and our fear. "Two years?" Marla tilts her head to whisper. Oh, bless us and hold us. Anyone who might've noticed me in two years has either died or recovered and never came back. Help us and help us. "Okay," Marla says, "okay, okay, you can have testicular cancer." Big Bob the big cheesebread crying all over me. Thanks. Bring us to our destiny. Bring us peace. "Don't mention it." This is how I met Marla.
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