This essay was written entirely under the influence of two photos, one happy/one sad.
Everything about the life of a sixteen-year-old kid should be the opposite of death.
Coming into his own, at an age when the whole wide world seems like a stage in front of an adoring crowd just waiting for you to storm it; any young guy with the raging hormones, the gang of buddies, and the kind of crisp, new passion for stuff like basketball and Italian food and Harry Potter that it takes to be wildly carefree in this hard life ought to be at least a good thousand miles from his own demise at all times, really.
And I don’t just mean he ought to be well removed from thinking about death, either. The truth is, if things were fair and just, if there were any righteous poetry to our daily lives at all, any teenage kid ought to actually be very, very far from the damn deed of dying itself.
But no. No.
In this world, the one we’ve created out of iron and fire and fuel and ammo, in this world where car crashes and strange dope and balcony falls and sad suicide and a bunch of other things all line up patiently outside of every high school from Mumbai to Milwaukee, death is standing there smoking a cigarette, a hooligan more alive and ready than any of us could ever dream to pluck a kid right from the middle of his own laugh, his own smile.
Mohammed Shaar was that kid.
Hanging out with three of his friends on the last Friday of the year, a sunny afternoon in downtown Beirut, Lebanaon, Shaar and his boys were celebrating the end of a school semester. I wasn’t there, and neither were you, so we don’t really know what these guys were doing or what they were talking about.
It can’t be too difficult, right?
USA Today says that Shaar and his buddies had just hit up a Starbucks that day, so I’m guessing they either had some serious sugar running through their veins, or maybe even some of that Starbucks jet fuel caffeine. Or both. And with that in mind, I like to imagine that these fellas were smack-talking up a storm, stepping on the end of each others sentences with loud over-hyped declarations of their own pouring out of their mouths.
Never even knowing half of what the heck you’re ever saying is such a beautiful part of being 16. Jacked-up, excitable teenage boys have license to say just about anything they want, really. It just comes with the turf, a merit badge for hot-blooded inexplicable happiness. It’s one of the greatest moments in any person’s life, really, that time when they just talk and talk and talk, blabbering on and on about all kinds of things, awkwardlyly moved and turned on by the very sound of your own deepening voice.
Now let’s face facts, though. For us to just sit here and admire a group of teenagers, for us to just bear witness to the joie de vivre rising up off of them like dryer vent steam, for us to be able to honestly dig that for the pure and simple awesomeness that it is, well, that would just be odd as hell, and way out of character for us in this age of lightning quickness, wouldn’t it?
We want something to happen.
Hell, we need something to happen. Or at least it seems that way anymore. And so our story here is no different.
This tale is making the rounds now, ”gone viral” as they say, and so it has to have a twist. And yeah, it does; it has a terrible, terrible twist, indeed.
The “saddest thing in the world” is a thing that makes its way from country to country, city to city, or village hut to village hut, whatever. It is constantly on the move, on the long march, the saddest thing in the world is, and no sooner does it show up in some little cranny of the planet, unfold itself all over the heart of one single person, or maybe a whole slew of them, than it picks up it’s little travel bag and steps over the fresh river of tears running down the sidewalk and heads out. Down to the station, bound for the next location, for some new broken hearts.
In the final moments of his very young life, Mohammed Shaar looks a tiny bit pensive or serious, judging by what I’ve seen, but chances are he was just mocking it for the cellphone his friend had spun around and was aiming at him and his friends. It’s such an innocuos move, the selfie. And this one was probably the billionth selfie of the day being taken on planet Earth.
Teenagers try their damnedest too. They want to look cool so bad they can taste it. They want to nail the photo more than anything.
One of Shaar’s buddies closes his eyes when the picture finally gets taken.
He doesn’t nail it.
The guy with the camera phone, he’s too close to the lens, a victim of the whole selfie curse. Eventually, in another 10,000 years, our arms will all be longer, a direct result of holding our cell phones out as far as we can over and over again until the Darwin stuff kicks in and we gain a couple more inches to stretch with. But not that day.
The dude doesn’t nail it.
In the short time before Muhammed Shaars existence is ripped apart by a nearby car bomb rooted in lame old politics and religion, the kid to his right in the final photo, he has the right face, he has the look down, but these things are so damn ephemeral, really. Even though it’s way beyond anything anyone in any picture can really control, when the shot was taken something must’ve went haywire up inside the camera’s guts and, for reasons we will likely never know, the friend to Shaar’s right comes out all over-exposed and ghosty.
Which means, you know, he doesn’t nail the selfie, either. Better luck next time.
Finally, Muhammed. Young, lean, and handsome as far as I can tell from the only picture of him I have ever seen of him where he isn’t lying in the damn street, probably already dead. In this last selfie of a teenager’s tale, as death was probably turning a corner just a few hundred feet or so from where a couple kids with Starbucks in their systems were just enjoying being together, just normal kids who could have been kids anywhere in the world at that exact second in time, kids just sharing a perfectly perfect afternoon with each other, Muhammed from Beirut stares directly into the small peephole of his one friend’s camera phone with what almost seems to be a dare in his dark eyes.
Look at me, he seems to be saying. Look at me, okay? It’s pure teenager, really; defiant and a little posey; kind of cool and a little pretentious. He dies, then right after that, Muhammed Shaar does.
That is the twist.
I don’t know exactly what happens and, quite frankly, I don’t need to know, because this story, like a lot of heavy wordless tales that come at us just as the last one rounds the bend, is told in two photos. That’s the way it will be told for the rest of time, too, for as long as anyone stumbles upon it, even long after the very memory/the very idea of this Lebanese kid has faded to some thin radio song playing in an open window two buildings down from the homes of the very same boys who were with him in that picture taken on that bright sunny day long ago. Dudes forced to get on with living in the wake of so much ridiculous sadness.
Then there is just the ending. A final snapshot or two of this one young guy in his red hoodie, taken by some journalist who happened to be nearby after the car bomb exploded, it shows him parallel to the street and down in it, which is never a good sign.
Like so much modern news these days, all mashed-up, raw brutality, we see his blood, of course: his teenage blood mixed with Starbucks running out into some distant road. We see the faces of the people who have rushed to his aid and for a second there we seriously want them to save him, to pull him back from all of this.
He doesn’t deserve this, we mumble into the laptop glow. It doesn’t matter, though. We know it in our hearts: the ending. We need to understand that we will never ever understand.
All of us Earth walkers, we need to know we are helpless to wrap our heads around any of this, of it.
We are moms, dads, lovers, friends, sinners, cheaters, preachers, drinkers, prayers, soldiers, Presidents, hard asses, musicians, toddlers, babies, big eaters, copy cats, trolls, Duck Commanders, commies, ticket takers, movie stars, teachers, Santa Clauses, Cheesecake Factory janitors, cancer patients, train conductors, dog lovers, sausage makers, roller bladers, skinny dippers, red light nose pickers, perfume testers, personal assistants, tribal historians, bilingual psychopaths, pizza delivery porno characters, guardian angels, prisoners, Bible thumpers, school bus seat pen pokers, super hero action figure collectors, bomb makers, homeless soup kitcheners, fish net stocking wearers, book readers, needle abusers, green light texters, umbrella vendors, tax evaders, carnies, lady killers, corporate lawyers, birthday party balloon twisters, hopeless romantics, drunk drivers, hole-in-oners, gay, straight, black, white, burnt-to-a-crisp skin survivors, we are outer space dwellers with hearts of ice and fire and gold and we will never ever ever understand how the saddest selfie in the world ever came to be, or how we managed to cry a little about it and then just move on, accepting violence and hate and another stranger’s fate as something that the west wind just blew up on the front porch of our day.
Nothing more, nothing less.
Each of us, standing in our early morning kitchens, all alone, a cereal bowl in one, a coffee cup in the other, accepting certain things as if they never ever even happened at all.
You can also find Serge on his personal blog, Thunder Pie.
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