a study in nihilism
By Megan Xing
A short story about what happens when dreamers give in to hopelessness and futility.
Beth isn’t exactly sure when she became a nihilist. When finding her high school friends’ wedding pictures on Instagram and promotion announcements on Twitter stopped leaving a bitter taste in her mouth, and her mother’s increasingly unsubtle texts stopped making her heart twinge with guilt. When she stopped wearing the cross necklace she never took off throughout high school and donated her Bible to the used bookstore. Probably around the same indeterminate time her impulsive lifestyle settled into dull, pragmatic routine, when the clouds stopped looking like cotton candy and she no longer dreamt of other worlds. She still remembers her bold vow to study Creative Writing at a reputable university and earn her MFA. To live a life unbridled by routine, basking in the millions made by her numerous bestselling novels. To open a quaint little bookstore, a secret gem nestled between a Brooklyn crystal shop and a cozy cafe, and never worry about profits or the dying industry because of her immense wealth and generationally rich, mostly decorative husband.
At twenty-six, her life is a far cry from her childhood fantasies. Every day, she rolls grudgingly out of bed at 8 am and dresses in a nondescript white blouse and black pencil skirt. (She used to make more of an effort—glam it up with jewelry and three daringly open buttons—but she has long since sunk into apathy.) Walks to the subway station from her crappy apartment in increasingly gentrified Brooklyn and tries not to think about how the prices are rapidly rocketing out of her pay range. (The other day, she walked into her corner bodega to find that a sandwich now costs $6.79.) Pours coffee for tax accountants at her retired mother’s old office. Places the same coffee order at Dunkin’ Donuts. Wearily says “It’s Beth” when her persistent co-worker calls “Over here, Elizabeth!” during their thirty-minute lunch break. Fiddles with the Muji pens in her Canada Moose cup holder (she hasn’t bought a new one since high school) and reflects on her last disastrous date. Thinks about the high school friends who tearily swore to stay in touch (the ones who never bothered to check up, or check in, or even text first. The ones she eventually stopped talking to, who might not have even noticed.). Sometimes she thinks every friend is like that, even the ones she thought were different. That’s when the depression sets in, and she reaches for the cheap vodka that she suspects is actually just drain cleaner with a home-printed label slapped on.
Same old, every day. Constant. Unchanging. Invariable.
Sometimes she thinks of the dreamer she used to be and feels hollow inside. She stopped thinking she was anyone special long ago—middle and high school thoroughly disabused her of that notion—but she supposes she always held on to that small kernel of absolute conviction that someday, somehow, she would be someone. Not the stereotypical college graduate barely scraping up grocery money. Not the stubborn twentysomething with no hope and no confidence and no faith and constant, borderline suicidal thoughts.
Taking Root: The Girls Write Now 2022 Anthology
For more than two years, our young writers have weathered an adolescence shaped by an ongoing global pandemic. But a harsh climate can also produce work of rare depth, complexity, nuance and humor. The Girls Write Now mentees in this collection have found new ways to build community and take root. This anthology is a catalog of seeds—each young writer cultivating a shimmering, emergent voice. In short stories, personal essays, poetry, and more, they reflect on life-altering topics like heartbreak, self-care and friendship. The result is a stunning book with global relevance of all this generation has endured and transformed.
Most days, Beth can’t find it in herself to push her hopelessness aside and don the mask of a functioning member of society. Rage surges beneath her skin, bubbling readily beneath the surface like magma in the mouth of a volcano. When her boss makes an unreasonable demand, when her mother phones with another pointless scolding, when her coworkers look at her with poorly masked disdain.
Once, words were her solace. Now, she knows that all they ever are is an unbearable curse. A constant taunt, an omnipresent reminder that the dreamer she once was has settled into a bitter, hateful person. An infinitely recursive mantra, lurking in every corner of her consciousness.
This is what you could have been.
I am often told that journalism—and writing in general—is a dying field, and though this piece seems quite depressive it’s a reflection on what happens when we give up on dreams. I worry about the future a lot, but as I was writing this, it reinforced how much I don’t want this to be me. Even if it means holding on to hope for longer than is probably realistic, I will do my best to keep dreaming.
A junior in high school, Megan Xing began writing at a very young age. She had loved to read even before she started school, and upon discovering her father’s computer in kindergarten, she learned she had an attraction to writing as well. Her favorite genres are narrative, memoir, fiction and fantasy, and she is increasingly eager to explore the worlds of poetry and film as well.