YOUTH | Daniel Enjay Wong.
⇒Daniel Enjay Wong’s flash fiction “Youth” is rich in symbolism, but symbolism of the unforced, subtle variety. I appreciate that. I appreciate symbolism that makes the reader do a bit of the work.
This is a story about growing old. It is also a story about being young. Basically, our narrator/protagonist is a young guy, maybe 14 or 15, who meets up with his good friend Lane at the diner. We surmise they go to the diner because they can walk there and they don’t have access to a car or alcohol or any of the activities that the older kids get to enjoy. Thus we have one of the story’s many suggestions about what it is to be young: in this case, youth is a period of restricted freedom. This, of course, is not a unique outlook; presumably anyone who’s been young can appreciate that one’s younger years (I’m thinking in particular of one’s teens, since this is when we crave freedom the most) are greatly defined by rules and limitations. That probably goes for most of us, anyway.
Here are a few details about this great story: they eat garlic bread; the narrator is irritated by people who chew loudly; the narrator’s mom is quite passive, while his father is a raging, prolific breaker of household objects; Lane is the friend and confidante, but she’s got a pretty bleak outlook herself; he and Lane are “regulars” at this diner, sort of an old-person habit, it seems.
Here’s my favorite line in the story:
My skin was adolescent, the color of a fish belly. I could have been dead.
Beautiful, and full of contradiction. So we have these opposing forces, a desire to be older and freer and a simultaneous fear of growing old. The latter fear seems to be encapsulated best toward the end of the piece, when the young protagonist has a second-hand encounter with an elderly man. I won’t spoil what happens, but it’s very moving.
We all seem to understand that we live in a culture that fetishizes youth, that attempts to package and brand-stamp and peddle youthfulness every chance it gets. Consider those lists of the “Top Writers Under the Age of 35” (which lists, for the record, are shallow, cynical, and bullshit–you can quote me on that). Turn on the TV: Viagra and Rogaine commercials tell men they can be young again; Budweiser and Axe commercials tell us we can “enhance” our youth; etc. All advertising and pop culture phenomena are about two things, youth and sex–and these two subjects are intertwined anyway. And that goes for everything but those reverse-mortgage commercials they show on basic cable.
All of this is to say that “Youth” basically works against every modern cultural myth we hear about what it is to be young and healthy and adventurous and free. The narrator’s youthfulness is rife with trouble–conflict at home, lack of freedom, and a general, vague fear of what the immediate and distant future have in store for him. If this story is to be believed–and I suggest it’s far more reliable than most voices in mainstream, corporatized culture–if this story is to be believed, that image of youthfulness as a period of freedom and adventure and limitlessness–it’s a myth. It only happens in Pepsi commercials. And if we remember our youth as a period of freedom and fun and limitlessness, we’re remembering it wrong. I don’t know about you, but when I was a teenager, I was fucking miserable. Being older is so much better.