Picture this: You're in the back seat of your car, on a three hour journey to your first term in university. John Green's Paper Towns is open in your lap, but you're too nervous to concentrate on the text so you resort to staring out the window instead.
In the book, the characters were playing a game where they looked into adjacent cars and tried to build stories around the people they saw. One of the characters said something about people being mirrors rather than windows, but your anxiety about going to a new place and meeting new people keeps you from fully grasping what he meant. For lack of anything else to do in your desperate attempt to shake off any lingering fear you refuse to acknowledge, you do the same.
A woman with blond hair cut short, and wrinkles beginning to form around her eyes stares fixedly on the road. Perhaps she's going to check on her son in college? Most universities would have started by now. Not very interesting, but oh well. An old man with a scraggly beard haphazardly overtakes you. You see his passenger seat is littered with white paper, stained with black ink and diagrams and you decide he is married to his work. He teaches, and is so passionate about his field that he knows no other reality.
His rash driving distracts you, and you find yourself no longer staring at the outside, but at your own reflection in the glass. You are met with excited eyes that betray a hint of fright and look away. You shake your head. This game is boring. Maybe Angry Birds will be more fun.
Before you know it, its two months later, and you're in the back seat of the same car on a three hour journey back. You aren't quite sure if you're leaving home or going towards it, your only certainty lies in the fact that it is not the place that makes you melancholic about departing, but the people. And so this time when you face the glass beside you, you do it in celebration of relief and in avoidance of the twinge that reminds you of what you are going to miss.
You look past the reflection in the window as you gaze outside: the girl in the car adjacent has straight black hair with a pink stripe running through it. Your first thought: she's returning home from university. But this time, you have a second: she's going home to her father to celebrate Christmas. She bought him a vinyl record of his favourite progressive rock band, who she's currently listening to on her earbuds. She loves dark chocolate and hates the taste of barbecue sauce (ridiculous as that notion seems to you). You suppress a smile and switch cars. A little girl in pigtails fails to tackle her older brother over a PSP while their father yells at them from the front. You swear you can read his lips shout "Don't make me turn this car around!" and before you realise it the cogs are turning and their story is taking on a life of its own. They're going to visit their grandparents in Manchester to whom the little girl will proudly present a handmade mess of glue and glitter and enthusiastically (optimistically) proclaim it to be a 'Chwismas card!' while her brother will excited run out into their garden and marvel at how butterflies exclusively visit the red flowers and bees the blue. All the while as you watch the story unfurl in your mind, your reflection in the glass stares back glazed, forgotten.
Paper Towns, (now dog-eared and carefully tucked away near the top of your suit case), argues that we are all flawed; cracked vessels, through which light flows in and leaks out. You are not narcissistic enough to deny the extent to which you are flawed, you have strange and charming cracks running up, down, top through bottom no matter how desperately you try to conceal them. But you have realised the futility of this endeavour. Light is bursting out of the cracks anyway, and the harder you try to cover them, the less light you allow back in. So you change your tactic. You let the light in, and you gravitate towards rooms with strobe lights, and different colours of lasers that pierce and affect and enable change. As you learn to keep your eyes from facing inward, you seek out the most diverse landscapes to present to them. And as you cease to see yourself as the only cracked individual, you begin to see the shadows and dimensions in all the paper people who are becoming more than you once assumed.
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