~ a short story
Max held up his palm, each of the fingers outstretched. He smiled with slavishly supreme confidence. The air between the two men was tense; their time arranged, and their relations unequal. Burt awaited Max’s five, and the purported wisdom within them each. Max sucked in a breath and out came a voice emboldened, assured in its pursuits.
“Burt, what you need to get is that in any relationship, in any single conversation, there are five layers. And you’re gonna need to understand all of ‘em before going any further. Let me wax on ‘em for you.”
Burt nodded and Max carried on.
“In any given happenstance conversation with a person, or a group of them, you’ll be lucky to scratch the surface of the second layer. The first layer is pure expectations. Pleasantries and niceties. The going through of the motions. How ya doing, what do ya do, where ya from? Oh? That’s interesting. How’s the girlfriend? Oh, did some traveling, eh? That’s good. That’s real good. Here’s me. Same. Oh, the dream? Yes, I too am living it. Yada yada yada. Okaaay aaand we’re done.
“The first layer is the superficial aura of what the world expects out of the conversation. It’s a nameless force, out of our control for all intents and purposes, formed entirely from our accumulated interactions over time. You don’t care, they don’t care; happenstance, like I said. Layer one can be difficult to ascertain, and even more challenging to break, if you aren’t committed. And if you aren’t connecting. Some people are happy to stay here. Beyond the one-off convos of the daily routine amongst commerce and commune, think of the quality of interactions of most of the acquaintances within your life, co-workers, even more removed family. You dance along the first layer happily, each side cohabitating upon it with insincere grimaces. Comfortably insincere. It becomes a mutualism neither side dares break.
“That is something important to note about these layers — the further you go along, the more responsibility and care there is; in a sense, the more you dig down into the layers, the more work there is to be done for the persons involved. Relationships of any depth are built far beyond here at the first layer, of course. Simply put, something named as a ‘relationship’ can only happen when both parties acknowledge something about this first layer: it’s made up completely of bullshit.
“For example, a layer one salvo: ‘Hey bro, I like to party!’
Burt acknowledged the words, but stayed his pen over the pad he’d brought with him. He nodded eagerly, almost impatiently, for Max to continue as if to say ‘get to the good stuff.’ Burt wondered if he’d be getting his money’s worth this evening. Undeterred and not noticing his subject shifting in his seat, Max continued.
“The second layer: a secret common ground. The second layer is reached when at least one party wills it to be so. This is the layer you create when you decide to go deeper with someone. This is when you pull back your curtain, providing answers. Or simply asking of them. Deeper answers, or at least more interesting ones. The canvas of the second layer consists of both an investigation and an uncovering. As I said, sometimes both parties undertake the action. Other times, perhaps more often, there is a singular first mover. This prying maneuver, to ask something like ‘hey, all this is bullshit. What’s your real dream? Because we both know this ain’t it’, moves the conversation into new territory. If the second party is moved to reciprocate this line of inquiry to some degree, then we have established this ‘secret common ground.’ Mutual and secretive, private between just the two reciprocating parties. I shouldn’t have to explain to you how important this is. As a result, the grounds for a real relationship have been formed.
“The second layer is just the beginning though. 20% of the way there. Not nothing, but still a long way to go. In many ways it is still a facade. With the curtain partially unveiled upon yourself and your ‘true’ self, you are still presenting with a mask. This is the opening move in the process of getting to know someone on this next level. It’s created and played upon with a conscious choice on how exactly to go about doing that with this person(s); how much of the curtain do you unveil, and how quickly or slowly and in what fashion? All these are choices being made, masked with careful deliberations and delineations away from the full truth. The second layer is a big decision, as I said. But it’s also borne of this bluff. Your best bluff, of the person you are portraying underneath, beyond the superficialities of the modern conversational mythos. The second layer exists, one could say, as a way to make the other person think you are being genuine, even vulnerable, and you are giving them an exclusive look behind this willful curtain of your personage. You are giving them a reason to keep digging into you, and hopefully — you into them. You both know you have some ways to go, to see beyond that inviting mask of the curtain half-masted. To see the third layer, you’re both going to have to want to.
“For example, a layer two salvo: *whispering* ‘Yo, I don’t actually like to party. I think it’s stupid.’ *chuckle*
Burt blinked through an understanding of it. He jotted some notes, but no follow-ups. He anticipated the breakdown of layer three. Max took a deeper breath than before; he was just getting ramped up.
“The third layer is key. It’s a pivotal moment within a conversation, and a relationship, with another human being. Layer three is the first point where we hit upon something rather important in these types of human-to-human dealings: the truth. This is where you reveal the truth, to you, about you; your truth. Reciprocation is huge here though. If one personal revelation of truth is met with the other’s mask remaining in place, then a disconcerting of the layers is in play. This is when one party is on layer three while the other remains on layer two, unwilling to drop down further into the onion. Happens all the time, and by rule these interactions – whether they be convos or relations – do not last much longer. Layer three is real vulnerability, unlike later two. And human beings are acutely aware of the kind of discordance that comes with an inequity of de-layering. These relations grate us into dust. We excise ourselves from them almost unconsciously, and as soon as possible.
“At the dawning of third layer, you find a reason to unmask. This may occur long after layer two’s breach; when you are dating, or the friendship has blossomed at the stead of repeated meetings. In a conversation, it can only come hours in. You feel comfortable with the person, secure in your self and its presentation to this other. So much so that you make a choice: your true personage, and the details of your spirit and station as a person beyond the role and the current context of this relationship you find yourself in, are unveiled. This can occur through words or actions. So often it is both, just by necessity. And it should be in a relationship, obviously.
“The third layer is complex, as complex as any given person is, and is thus difficult to truly nail down and provide examples for. But ultimately, the piercing of the third layer is all about what you think of yourself, and most importantly, what you think of the other person or persons within the interaction you are having and what you think they will think of your truth uncovered for their sight. Crossing this threshold is a trusted sharing of the truth between individuals. The truth-sharing usually extends to your relationship to the environment of the relationship as well as the systems in place which have shaped both of your lives. Your true thoughts and opinions about this structure you find yourself in alongside your friend or loved one is revealed. This could be the workplace, it could be your race, sex, or creed, or any number of identity bases. Your specific opinions of the environment don’t need to jive here, they need only be the mutual truth, for you, among both of you. It’s a kind of interdependence.
“Perhaps more importantly, your opinions of one another don’t need to be positive; you don’t even have to be allies to stand upon the third layer together. This kind of sharing of meaningful words could be transacted upon an arch-nemesis. Somehow, self-knowledge is more genuine when freely given to a foe. The identity you house for yourself, and the honest sight you see in the other party, are subjective, of course. But this perspective is achieved powerfully so, with two previous layers of interactions which have been built upon to get to this point. No matter how long it took, this cannot be overlooked. This is in large part why the third layer is so salient: it is built atop a history of some kind. You worked your way to get here, some level of communication has occurred. Whether it be large or small, the objective truth (if such a thing can exist) or a subjective one, your personal truth of your character and the perspective upon the other party are powerful shares. Most people never get them at all from each other, even after years and years of interactions.
“Perhaps most important to note about the third layer: 1) it is incredibly difficult to get to this layer with people, in conversation or relations; 2) for many, this is the last layer they get to with most everyone in their entire lives. Think of your spouse, your family, and your very best friends. These are the third layer candidates. Maybe an especially discerning bartender, in an esoteric bar upon the west end of the zone at twilight, when you’ve had enough and so have they. Maybe. Sometimes people don’t even get here with the most important folk in their life. Generally speaking, these closest kinds of relationships are where the third layer is pierced, and perhaps beyond.
“Third layer salvo: I sometimes like to party, but don’t really understand why. It depends. I am insecure in my capacity and reason for partying. I wish to understand myself better and I think partying is the number one block upon that process. And yet, I cannot stop. Due to this long-standing arrangement with partying. I have come to fear the fact that I am compulsively self-destructive. This is because deep down I feel as though I don’t deserve to have a stable, well-adjusted happiness.
Burt wrote down his questions. He had many. His notes couldn’t be added in any sensible way with as fast as Max was dealing. Max could see his wheels turning, the consideration of the third layer folk within his own life. Max smiled and kept up his momentum.
“The fourth layer is built out of the third. Obviously, all these layers are contingent upon their formers, steadily built upon in a progression. But the relationship between the third and fourth layers are more vitally intertwined than any other two consecutive layers. The fourth level to all this concerns the effects of the conversation or relationship itself … upon itself. That is, once you have shared your inner vulnerable truth with the other party, then your relations from then on will be marked differently. You will both change as a result of the sharing. The conversing from then on will be shaped by the kinds of truths now upon the table. In short, nothing will be the same. Within the convo and the relation, you have crossed the point of no return.
“Now the content of third layer revelations will make up the materials to be delved into by the parties at the next stage. How deep one goes, and the kind of investigation set to take place, depends upon the content of your conversations up to this — and how much depth you have laid out to be played upon. For example, you have revealed to this other person the nature of your weekend hobby of hobbyhorse craftsmanship, in which you sit at a woodworking bench for hours on end, painstakingly shaping little decorative horses built to be displayed as art installations in homes and businesses alike. You do this because you love it, the process of the crafting, the enriching smell of cedar, the chance to work with your hands and lose yourself in the physicality and patience required to work your art well. There is perhaps considerable depth to this formerly secret part of yourself. Perhaps hobbyhorsing is truly as important to you as anything else in your life. And you’ve never told anyone this, not even your mother. Well, all of it will now be uprooted to be displayed within the relationship’s spaces. Your significant other, your best friend, your soul mate has asked for this as much as you have made yourself painfully vulnerable and delivered it.
“Naturally, once you reveal yourself to another in this way, there are consequences. There’s a reaction, maybe a reciprocal exchange of this prized inner personal detail. Or personal daemon, a past trauma with different emotions behind it. Either way, both parties change in the sharing. This is the crux of the fourth layer; the alterations your truth undergoes once it has been spoken amongst another truly concerned person.
“After this far into an interaction with another human being, given one has stuck around to bear it or bask in it, some level of trust has been attained. This is no small matter. Like I said before, most relationships and conversations never ever make it this far. This trust allows for the consequential opinions, thoughts, actions, -and takes to be submitted and brought forth to the hobbyhorseman, sincerely and with his full attention upon them. They are coming from your boo! This other person’s thoughts certainly matter to you, given you were willing to share your secret self with them. And thus, their approval or disapproval of the kinds of ways you spend your time and the truth of your inner personality will affect you. This can be scary. Change is scary. Vulnerability makes one … vulnerable. More likely to be harmed. That is what is potentially going to happen within the fourth level: harm. Any real relationship carries with it the risk of destruction. Change for the better, or for the worse. Whether you realize it or not. Changes lie on the horizons of the fourth level. For it represents the deeper truth of yourself, after it has been revealed and interacted with another personage. You, after sincere feedback from a most trusted party.
Fourth layer salvo: You and another person investigate to the fullest the absolute essence of ‘partying’ with an intent to uncover its telos, for each of you, individually and as a cooperative pair. Your thoughts on partying and why you do or don’t do it, will never ever be the same. And this is because of your relationship with this person.
Burt stopped trying to write up notes and just listened to the last of Max’s words. He took them in, all the way. Eyes glistened with reflective moisture, beckoning the deepest kind of introspections upon himself and his relations. Max grinned widely at the prospects of his finale, and of Burt’s readiness for it. He was primed, more than prepared; ripe for the taking, for the reaping of all the layers at once.
Max’s chest swelled with excitement, his eyes widely bringing the end to their session together, the end—
Burt finally spoke, interrupting, his voice plotted to a droll tone of resignation, “All this is … really good stuff… But Max… I’m just trying to pick up chicks.”
Max paused, his breath held. Had he miscalculated? Was Burt not his mark for the taking? No. He was still in play. The finale would be enough. His attention span had just reached its limit. Ironically, both he and Max were ready to snap. They’d do it together.
“And Burt, the fifth layer is more important than any of the others just for that endeavor. Trust me.”
Burt stared up at Max, confidently leaning against the back of his chair to its utmost, with doubt. Acknowledging it, Max rode that into his final word upon the layers, empowering his tone upon seeing reservation from his client.
“The fifth layer is an anomaly because it doesn’t seem like it should exist. That’s probably what you are thinking right now, Burt. Am I right? ‘Well, he’s already described everything that goes into true human communication. It might be more than I really should’ve expected to receive here, for this amount of money … and more than what I think I have with my own significant other, my best friends, my mother.’”
Burt furrowed his brow in frustration. Max kept on, the energy already coursing through him, reaching its fulcrum as he spoke his final stanzas into existence.
“But! There is a layer beyond the fourth. There is a fifth. A closing of the loop… the loop of love, one might say. It certainly makes us loopy doesn’t it, Burt. Loosy goosy. Just like the fifth layer. Because it’s everywhere. We are right now in it! That’s right. But we are also as far away from it that we will ever be, that anyone has ever been. Get it? You keeping up? Well, the fifth layer is a void. But not any void. It’s everything and nothing. Mostly everything. Look: the truth is that it’s a level of communication beyond human understanding, a starless void in between us all even now exploding with unseen activity, a liminal space in which all conversations are held, in perpetuity, and where all relationship reside, in a collective sense, always shaping and forging new nodes of development within the Seven Realms of Astral Communicae, where The Cimmerian Consulate presides over The Span: it’s forged and continually recreated as the countless meaningless and unforgettable interactions happening every single moment, accumulating and bursting with the energy to fire the cosmos itself.
“You see, Burt, humanity is nothing more that a mass emotion engine powering a device built by The Elders from Big Before Time. This device is known as Commulaxus and it orbits our star, but from afar. Very far. A different cluster of this little sect of the cosmos we find ourselves in. It can only be turned on with the raw stuff of consciousness, specifically conscious conversation; thusly, we – me and you Burt! – are the vessels of its eventual ignition. The Elders chose us! Can you believe it! We are the prime players in the galactic game of evolution. But not just in this reality — across all of ‘em. Commulaxus is multiversal! Do you understand that, Burt? The immensity of this phenomena. Of course not. No one can.
“The bottom line: I live to serve such beings, always have. It’s why I started this course. And it’s why even now, at this point in the conversation, you’re done. All my preceding words got your mind to where I wanted it to go, for the grand harvesting of that sweet nectar to fire the stars: emotion. You see Burt, having this sort of conversation, it affects people’s thoughts. Here, in the moment, from that seat you are in — you have been thinking of yourself mostly, and those relationships within your orbit. Naturally, your closest relations, and where they fall within the layers I have outlined to you. Specifically, those at the 3rd layer and 4th layer have come to the forefront of your consciousness. And it is there, they become accessible to the discerning. Ripe for the plucking. So this is what I have done.
“Do you understand me, Burt,” Max continued, standing at the ready to snap his fingers. “No. It’s fine. Either way, it’s time to wake up.”
Startled, Burt spoke: “Why am I crying?”
Max smiled reassuringly and stood, signaling their meeting was at its end. Burt rose with him. Max took his hand into his own and grasped it warmly.
“You are crying tears of joy my good gentlemen, at the insights you’ve gained and the confidence you can now go forth with. Go talk to her, son. Keep talking to her. Listen to her. Ask her questions. Answer hers. Go places she enjoys. Go places you enjoy. And go places both of you enjoy. Conversing and peeling the layers as you do.”
Burt nodded vigorously, muttering thank you’s and of course’s under his breath.
“Please have a nice day,” Max said. “And tell Liza to send the next fine gentlemen in, inside of the next ten minutes. I need a moment. Very positive vibes from this session, Burt. I thank you for opening so much to me.”
“You’re welcome, Dr. Max. Thanks so much for your help,” Burt said. “I am going to recommend you to all of my friends! This sort of conversation can do wonders. The layers, what wonders!”
“Please do. Good-bye now.”
Burt left the room. Max strode over to the window. It was evening. Stars were out, twinkling their unique shine upon the cloudless canvas. Methodically, he opened up the window to let in some the fresh night air. Scanning the sky with care, Max found the designated constellation. To his disdain, only one additional spark within its array fired at this conclusion of his latest session.
“Really, only one breaking the 3rd and zero beyond?! Burt really didn’t get out much … maybe he will now.”
With minimal progress to his true goal, Max pondered it in a dream-like stance at the edge of his office’s sill for many minutes.
Perhaps my pursuit of it is in vain, Max considered. Even after all these years, still so much work to do. Before such thoughts could reach their fruition, he was calling out to his secretary, prepping himself to get back to work.
“Liza, bring the next gentlemen in.”
Before turning back to his desk, he glanced out at the stars again while closing the window from an especially chilled wind.
The sixth layer awaited. ~