December 8, 2022 / Lucia Llano

What do you do when the Engine gnaws through you, spits you out, and after all that, you find that somehow, you still carry some love for it?

I don’t know when it happened, when our cosmos wrinkled up and emerged twisted strangely, when life became synthetically defined in our hands, reconceptualized from an ephemeral experience of force to a formaleic machine. It was called the Engine. We were born into it blindly, as an input, and with that, society flourished. We gave it a means to an output.

When I came into this world, I was born straight into its rusted hands. My parents had seen the worst. They had fled from Cuba just some years prior and had finally moved to the United States. This place was an unintelligible god of freedom for my family and a symbol of liberation from the starving world they had left behind. The Engine was cold, hostile, different. All hard edges. It lacked the warmth of the island touch they knew so well. But here, the Engine was good. It was safety. It would take care of us. It would mass-produce opportunities for us. And we could have as many pastelitos as we wanted. And the kids could finally have some toys for Christmas. And we wouldn’t have to go to forced labor camps in the summer.

I was the first person in my family to be born here. My birth certificate anchored my family’s roots deep into the promised land. As the only one unscathed from the corrupt heat of the island, I held the word, “American'' like an emblem between my teeth.  Everywhere I went, I carried with me, in my two little hands, an avalanche of opportunity. The weight of this privilege was crushing and glorious upon my shoulders. My parents had gifted me the clay of freedom. The least I could do was mold something out of it. All this and more, the Engine tenderly promised. And so, devotion to it was bred into me.

At seven, I had already stumbled upon the love of my life. I fell in love with stories. The secret gardens & monsters & saviors. All the words in the margins of my diaries. Stacks and stacks of them in my closet. I wanted to be a writer, which to me, directly translated to: I want to grow to be happy. The Engine and I began growing closer and closer.  Placed in its loving chokehold, I would show it all my words, and it, being drawn to the taste of ambition, would listen to every one of them. I trusted it to hold my heart. So at 10, I handed over the words of enchantment and returned with a swarm of nuts and bolts in my palms. I had already chosen what my service to the Engine would be.

I was going to be a bestselling author. That was my new, polished plan. I could feed the Engine all the words it wanted, and I might even have some left over just for me. The idea of success hung bright and heavy above my head. My words and I were going to grow bigger. We were going to grow up. And we were going to make it. We’d trade in my baby-blue walls and that writing desk my dad painted pink for me on Christmas. We’d trade it all in for panoramic glass windows of a 21st floor office through which we could watch over Manhattan, and a brand new bureau with a bronze nameplate with none other but my name on it. I blinked, and my love had grown up with me. The Engine and I had grown so close that we became one. It was inside me, like a promise, like an iron wedge softly splintering my bones. I deserted my secret garden and instead sold homemade paperbacks by the dime on the elementary school playground.

Upon entering college, I had the privilege to dedicate myself to studying the words I loved so deeply. My American dream was afoot. I savored the fortune of having come to the land of liberty, where an artist could perhaps have a fighting chance to break the starving trope. However, I quickly came to realize that the Engine was done being friendly to me. It had conducted a careful analysis, found my words a depreciating asset, and left both me and my dream behind. I found myself, then, alone for the first time, with nothing but my rusted words, an incompatible, decaying dream, and the festering pressure of American success. In the midst of this atrophy, building a life that catered to my happiness seemed to be a naive instinct. The Engine had flipped the switch, and now I needed to adapt. I wasn’t going to be a bestseller. Or win the Pulitzer Prize. Not anymore. Now, I had to compromise.

Regarding the Engine, I had two choices. Subservience or struggle. I could become an elementary school teacher. Though distant from my dream, I could have my summers off. My words and I could have our occasional honeymoons. I could become a journalist too, if my words would put on a detached, succinct, political mask, if only to be able to spend a little bit of time with me.

Instead, I chose to struggle, and the Engine and I came to blows. I bombarded everything I could with my byline, threw my words into the rings of cutthroat contention, and wrung my mind like a wet rag to get every last sentence out. I blurred the lines between self and work and became addicted to the adrenaline high of limitless productivity, knowing that the second I stopped might very well be the second right before success. Despite the hardships, I loved spending this time with the words. The exhaustion and futility, however, only came later, when I found myself handing over to the Engine my entire heart and, still, returning empty-handed. When I knew I could get triple the rewards by embracing apathy in another path. I knew that you couldn’t live without making a living, but you also couldn’t truly live making a living in something you didn’t live for. Not when we live in a world where we identify ourselves with our purpose for the Engine. So, how would you live with yourself then? If the shoes you wear on your walk of life don’t even fit you right? Then, who do you become?

I didn’t understand why the Engine encouraged formulaic indifference over natural fire. Our machine was being fueled by forced willpower and necessity, but the gears would often get burnt out from use. In this place, bloated with opportunities, there was always more to do. The Engine was never satiated. But if everyone’s work was led first and foremost by their heart, society would flourish, perhaps not like a well-oiled machine, but the motor would always be running. Fueled by passion, the Engine would turn organically. Rather than grind, it would bloom.

We were so quick to accept the apathetic Engine as the universal, autocratic truth that we lost our natural humanity. Our passions morphed into careers, hobbies into side-hustles, even our kindness and empathy whittled down to enticing little “soft skills” on resumes. But the Engine had become an autonomous organism in itself, so ingrained in our definition of life that we couldn’t even begin to consider how to alter or defy it. And after all, defying it would mean losing the game we were born to play. So we settled for trying to win instead, swarming through the colony for a promise of honey. But the Engine gave us tangible evidence of systemic purpose in this world, even though that purpose isn’t what we wish it were to be, but rather what the Engine needs.

I was born when the suffocating warmth of the island fell in love with the cold relief of the Engine. I owe it my life. But it’s ostracized me. Pushed me in a corner. Even after I made up my mind, after I gave it my heart and all the words I had as a gift. Even after I trusted it. After I built up a dream for the future with it beside me. After all these years, it turned around and left me behind, alone in the daydream. ■

By: Lucia Llano

Layout: Chloe Alow

Photographer: Dylan Haefner

Stylists: Audrey Dahlkemper

HMUA: Reagan Richard

Models: Seth Endsley & Angel Quinn

View the full spread as it appeared in Issue No. 19 here.
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