Among the Hollows
by Jason Huff
“If only I could be so grossly incandescent.” – Solaire of Astora, Dark Souls
I played a video game on my original Nintendo, upstairs in our game room, when I heard the back door leading to the garage slam with a ferocity that made me jump. I clicked off the TV as I heard him climb the stairs. I knew I was in trouble for something but didn’t know what. I turned as I stood, watching the warm incandescent light flip on from the landing overhead and wash into the entryway. Pictures of me and Tigger, Mickey Mouse, and Winnie the Pooh from a trip to Disneyland when I was four lined the white left wall. An ugly gold and tan couch with floral print lined the right wall. The room stood empty—except for the TV and couch and pictures—like a new, uninhabited world. The closet next to the couch held every VHS, almost all movies recorded off broadcasts. Dust and white handwritten labels on black plastic, the smell of electricity oxidizing a circuit. Every thump of a footfall from the stairs just outside the entry carried to me. Thump. Thump. Thump.
I was twelve.
A couple years ago, I learned there’s a good chance I’m autistic. I tend to repeat ideas or phrases, I become focused on certain subjects, I notice details about objects but not people. I will never be diagnosed because of the cost, the difficulty of diagnosing adults, and the scarcity of those who will diagnose adults.
Signs of Autism Spectrum Disorder: repetitious and obsessive thinking and actions; struggles with socialization; inability to look others in the eyes.
Hollow as in empty and without substance. As in an outer shell without an interiority.
I create my pixelated avatar through words and images. “You’re no hollow, eh?” Oscar of Astora points out more than asks from his deathbed of smashed stone bricks that, until recently, were an interior wall. Everyone I meet greets me in a similar manner. A few minutes later, at a broken and nature-reclaimed shrine, a man near a fire pit wearing armor and a crestfallen expression tells me, “You’re practically hollow. Going hollow could solve quite a bit!” He tells me to head for the church up above. He tells me, “There’s no salvation here.” Those hollow people run at me, slashing wildly with daggers, swords. I die and come back, over, and over. My hands choke the cheap plastic controller in frustration. I learn the traps, the ambushes. I remember by geography. If I keep my purpose, I will not go hollow. My interiority is my purpose. To go hollow is to quit.
What do people see in each other’s eyes? In 2010, I began film school in Aurora, Colorado. We were told people are drawn to the eyes. The first thing people will look at in the frame is the eyes. That’s why cartoon characters with big eyes indicate likability. I went along with this for some reason, thinking maybe I just didn’t know what I was doing. I tried and I tried, but I always looked at the nose or the mouth or the cheek first. “Your composition is a little off,” an instructor said in Introduction to Filmmaking. Or, “You crossed the line,” meaning the eye directions of the characters changed. I once took a quiz about social understanding online where I watched a video and had to determine who was friends and who wasn’t. The trick, I learned after failing, was to look at the eyes. Those who were looking each other in the eyes were friends. I took the quiz again, armed with this new knowledge. I failed again. I could not see what others could.
I trained myself to look others in the eyes, the best I could, anyway. Even after I trained myself, I could not look my father in the eyes.
Our eyes are hollow to let in light, to project on our optical nerve a vision of the outside world. Perhaps the soul is too much to look at and that’s why I have trouble looking people in the eyes. At film school, I learned the soul is that reflection in the pupil, the eye light, and that gives the actor or actress the quality of looking soulful.
“You seem so confident,” I heard from the late-night waitress at IHOP after I had been looking people in the eyes more. I never felt the confidence people saw. I felt tired. I struggled to follow conversations because I was constantly reminding myself to look people in the eyes. I had to teach myself to feel out when to look someone in the eyes versus when to look away. My mind developed a rhythm.
Look; look away; look.
Look while they ask a question; look away to think; look to answer.
What did I just say? It doesn’t matter; keep looking.
Hollowing as in removing, giving up, and losing purpose.
Embedded in the stairway wall, slick with humidity and mold, is a cell with no exit, as if the inhabitant, Rickert of Vinheim, built it around himself. He tells me, “It’s safe here. I can’t bear the thought of going hollow out there.” Surrounding him is a pit of water and death, where only ghosts and the cursed dare to tread. Every new area is a lesson in anxiety. Go slow, watch everything. Don’t die. Why do I do this to myself? The city once meant to honor the gods now laid low. Invisible walkways hidden under the water’s surface offer the only path. One wrong step and I start over, each time a little hollower from the trying. This place ends in the Abyss, the hole trying to swallow this dead city, haunted by those with no purpose and those whose cursed purpose lasts beyond death.
“Look me in the eye,” my father would say, “so I know you’re telling me the truth.” As in, truth resides in the eyes. As in, truth resides in the ability to look another in the eyes. As in, the eyes contain an inherent ability to determine lies.
By the time I was twelve, I had been branded a liar by my parents. “We can’t trust you,” they said. “You lie all the time,” they said. “We know you’re lying because you can’t look us in the eyes,” they said. In the sixth grade, I told the school nurse my stomach hurt, and that I wanted to go home. As we walked to the parking lot, to my stepmom’s gold Chevy Nova with the scratchy cloth seats that felt like carpet, she told me she wasn’t fooled. She didn’t think I had a stomachache—she thought I just wanted to go home and be lazy.
“Hey Dad—” was as much as I could get out in the time it took him to rush across the room to me. I was on the floor, the smack echoing, almost metallic, in the hollow room—my face hit the carpet, burning the welt on my cheek further, the sting bringing tears to my eyes. The carpet was a kind of tan that was almost off-white. Yards and yards of tightly coiled fibers spread out before me. Who makes these? I wondered. Do they have a machine? I’ve never seen someone as tall over me as I did when I looked up from the ground and couldn’t see above his hands. The reflection of the blank TV screen distorted everything, mocking my sense of size. I stood up, but I was still in the hole. “What—” I began.
“What can I get ya?” she asked, drawing out the Southern accent, showing she wasn’t from Boulder.
“Coffee,” I said, attempting to look her in the eyes, but hitting more the nose area. If she noticed I don’t think she cared. I’ve sequestered myself in a corner booth at the front of the empty IHOP, where I could look out and see my car. The front of the restaurant was all glass and the back all brick. I could look into the restaurant from my corner booth and see directly into the kitchen. They had this wood paneling on the bottom of the walls and off-white, almost tan paint on top. Did you know that in 2008 you could get all the Wi-Fi you wanted at an IHOP after just ordering coffee? And this one stayed open all night. I couldn’t afford the thirty-ish dollars to stay in the hostel that night, so I parked my car, sat at a booth around 11 p.m., pulled out my laptop (I don’t remember where I got that giant brick of a laptop. It was an old Dell and I think I picked it up cheap somewhere in Texas) and got online all night and drank coffee. The next day, I was going to sell every movie I owned at the Video Station just down the street. Those nights were a haze of caffeine and eyeballs as I practiced looking every person I could in the eyes. The big man in overalls and a camouflage trucker hat across the restaurant drinking coffee and eating a big breakfast. Look in the eyes, nod head. The drunk but controlled college students eating chicken fingers and drinking water. Eyes. Nod. The cook dressed in white, looking out at the restaurant, making sure the college kids didn’t get too loud. Eyes like I see you. Nod like, “Good evening, sir.”
After I taught myself to make eye contact, I heard, “I don’t think he’s lying,” or, “I don’t think he’d lie about that.” Whether or not I was lying was never the point.
A hollow as in a depression or hole.
Solaire of Astora stands on a stone balcony overlooking mountains on the way to the church, sun shining down on his green and white tunic, iron helmet reflecting sunlight. He tells me he follows Gwyn, Lord of Sunlight, god of Anor Londo. He says, “You don’t look hollow, far from it!” The characters in Dark Souls come to dark ends, even when succeeding. The best choice is often picking the least depressing fate. He tells me he comes to seek his own sun. He says, “The sun is a wondrous body. Like a magnificent father!” I think of how often what we love, what we cherish, burns us when we get too close. How we burn them.
At fourteen, I lived with my mother in Arizona, a state with the sun on its flag for good reason. I spent most of my time in my room, lost in books or my computer or video games. I made no friends. The heat meant I had a reason for not wanting to go anywhere. I see now that intense focus to the detriment of social relationships is a sign of autism.
From the floor, I heard the smack echoing through the game room, bouncing off the walls and coming back to me, without substance, a metallic ring. I sank down deep in a hole I didn’t know how to emerge from. I could stand, but I was still in that hole. I did stand, I tried to understand, but his hand put me back down. The house shook with me falling. I inched away but had nowhere to go. He said, “This is what happens when you hit a girl,” which only confused me more because I hadn’t hit anyone.
When I was twelve, I was the violent one because I towered over everyone, because I outweighed everyone, intimidating everyone with my presence as I trampled down the hallways at school. Thump, thump, thump. Growing up, my parents warned me not to pat kids on the back because I didn’t know my strength. I could sense the fear from my parents. I wasn’t normal. At a ranch when I was eight, I swung a garden hose around, enjoying the sound of the wind whipping my ears when it slipped out of my hands and hit a nearby friend on a swing. I was told I did this on purpose. I was told I was too angry. I was told I needed to get ahold of my anger because I couldn’t look my father in the eyes when I was angry. Because I clenched my fist to feel my nails dig into my palm. Because I couldn’t explain this in words.
I see the autism in this paragraph.
At first, I practiced looking myself in the eye with mirrors because I read looking people in the eyes is how one establishes connection. On days when I had the money, I took a single room at the Boulder International Hostel and used those mirrors. The room had a single window looking through foliage out onto 12th Street and the frat houses that dotted The Hill. A single fluorescent light buzzed overhead and illuminated the walls painted bright white and carelessly, only one coat of paint with gray streaks showing through at some places. A streak of paint crossed the right side of the mirror in my room. Have you ever noticed when a substance adheres directly onto a mirror, you can still see the reflection of the substance as if it’s floating? Sometimes I felt like my eyes were like that, floating on top but not actually on the surface. I didn’t take anything in, just reflected.
On days when I didn’t have the money, I would use any mirror I could find: public restroom mirrors, decorative mirrors, the reflection in a pane of glass. Anything that might teach me. I became obsessed.
When I stayed at the hostel, rooms wouldn’t be ready until 5 p.m. Sometimes I would drive to a coffee shop or somewhere I could spend the whole day on the Internet without spending a bunch of money and look at my reflection, searching for what other people had but I was missing. Other times I would walk down The Hill to the shops nearby where I couldn’t afford anything, looking people in the eyes as I passed. I remember buildings, a stone brick porch with wood trim and a wooden post fence; a dirty white wooden and red house I felt could fall apart at any minute, with white columns on the porch holding up the upper level. I remember the sun shining through the trees, some deciduous and dead, some coniferous and green. But with faces, I only saw a kind of static. I’ve searched my memory for hours hoping I could bring just one face out, one face that I would remember after all the time I spent looking. But I have nothing. I remember no faces, only my looking. As if their faces were replaced by my effort to look them in the eyes.
As though the eyes make the face invisible.
What do people see in each other’s eyes? I want to say I made up the stomachaches. I want to believe what others tell me about myself. Autistic people can experience pain from forced socialization, forced contact. I don’t know what’s true. The first thing people will look at in the frame is the eyes.
In film school, I noticed I had a problem. No matter how I trained myself to look others in the eyes, there was something I missed. I didn’t want to admit this to myself. The instructor would tell the class to frame a close-up using the rule of thirds, but somehow my frame always put the eyes just a bit higher, as if I was looking at the nose. “Your composition is a little off,” I was told in Introduction to Filmmaking. Or, “You crossed the line,” meaning the eye directions of the characters changed. I couldn’t stop, though. I had claimed filmmaking as my purpose. How could I give up now?
To hollow as in to scoop out, as in to create a hole inside, as in to make insignificant.
“He had dead eyes.” That’s what they say about serial killers, or at least it’s what I’ve heard. I was fifteen when I read Helter Skelter; since then, serial killers have always been a fascination. There was something about pictures of Charles Manson that made me question the “dead eyes” because his eyes looked no different to me than anyone else’s. The only change was the context.
I remember seeing his reflection in the 27” Sony Trinitron, a shadow without detail haloed by the sunlight from the windows. The carpet underneath, a thousand tiny fibers rubbed against my back, burning, irritating. I remember the burn on my cheek without heat. I remember his voice, hollow of the tone that said, “my son,” telling me, “look me in the eyes.”
Below the Depths, deep in the earth where there is still fire, I find him there. He attacks me, says, “Finally I have found it!” Says, “My very own sun,” says, “I am the sun!” I don’t want to fight him, but there is little choice at this point. We fight on these steps down into the earth, leading me to the land of fire. And then it ends, and he says, “My sun… it’s setting,” and he disappears. I move on; I must keep going.
I punched a classmate when I was thirteen. We had been going hard at each other with words. I don’t know why. I think because he had a flamboyance that matched my sexual confusion. By this time, I’d already had my first sexual experience with a boy, and I liked it and I didn’t know what that meant. The worst you could be in seventh grade as a boy was gay, so seeing his effeminacy reminded me of mine. He had confidence and I hated him for that. We cut each other to the bone with words. The day I punched him, we were going at each other with words and I’m sure I called him a faggot. I had chapped lips because I hated chapstick and that day, I had a cold sore. When I called him that ugly word, he pointed to the cold sore and said I got herpes from sucking too much dick. I shut down. I had no comeback or response. Just static. He kept going. He had physical evidence and I had nothing. We lined up after lunch and he kept going. Tears welled in my eyes. I wanted to disappear. I told him to stop and he wouldn’t.
I remember so clearly the next few moments.
We were standing up against the blue painted ceramic tiled wall. I was bouncing as I usually did, despite the tears stinging my eyes. I told him to stop and he asked me if I was going to cry. I had given him the ultimate victory as a seventh-grade boy: I proved how emotional I was, how I was unable to handle myself. I stepped out of line and turned on my right foot, stepped forward, and threw a right uppercut into his stomach. He was smaller than me. He crumpled to the laminate floor and I was above him. I was my father and I hated myself. I was the hollow.
“Don’t you dare go hollow,” he says. At the end is a world of ash surrounding Gwyn, Lord of Sunlight who burned all that surrounded him. He has become hollow, eyes sunken, attacking first without thought. As with all Dark Souls games, the final battle is not the most difficult fight in the game. In fact, it’s almost sad, elegiac. I can choose to relight the flame and burn myself alive or leave and break the cycle.
People told me who I was my whole life, and I let them because I didn’t have the words to define myself. Now I have the words. I forced myself to look people in the eyes because that’s what they wanted. I let myself become violent. I let myself lie. I let myself become helpless, trapped in a hole left on carpet. I thought I let my father hollow me out. But I’m not hollow yet. Because dying, failing, isn’t hollowing. Giving up is hollowing.
Jason Huff (they/he) works as an IT Specialist in Denton, TX. They are an MA student in creative writing during the day, but at night they write and read and generally annoys their partner and kids with constant word-based shenanigans. They won the 2019 Sweet Literary Flash Nonfiction Contest. (Headshot credit goes to Adrianne Mathiowetz.)