Each July Tin House turns the Cerf Amphitheatre at Reed College into a temple of the written word. At our Summer Writer’s Workshop, editors, faculty, and over two hundred participants come together to recharge and share and risk. Night after night faculty and guest readers dazzle and disturb, and after a week of readings and talks everyone leaves spent yet rejuvenated. Often we are lucky enough to grab new work and pass it along within the magazine’s pages. This summer, Dorothy Allison shook us with her story “Something Not Unlike Love,” a ferocious depiction of how sexual attraction gets its hooks in. Cornelius Eady read two of the remarkable poems printed here, as well as performed a song for Trayvon Martin. And Claire Vaye Watkins gave a talk about how she got over “writing to impress old white men.” It was stirring, powerful, most of us in the room hearing articulated what we strongly felt but hadn’t quite been able to formulate into words. Watkins modified the talk into an essay, “On Pandering,” and we are proud to share this call to arms.
A huge thrill for us is to see workshop participants grow and flourish. Past participant Caroline O’Connor Thomas is a poet to watch, as you will see from her two poems here. The rest of the issue features a few familiar faces, including Helen Phillips, and her surreal tale of parental anxiety, and powerful new stories by old friends Martha McPhee and Andrea Barrett. Barging into the familiar circle is Drew Ciccolo, with his first published story, “The Leash,” about a disobedient father, as well as Portland’s own Patrick deWitt, with his offbeat story of an undaunted man laying siege to a shady RV dealer. And we’re always happy to give you the unexpected in our Lost & Found section, which champions underappreciated books, this time discussing work that ranges from Jonathan Swift’s Directions to Servants to Jonathan Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam.
Wherever you are this winter, we hope that you will hold the light we tried to capture from last July. And if you are in the neighborhood next summer, drop by and join us.
Current Issue #66
Fiction:Dorothy Allison, Patrick deWitt, Helen Phillips, Martha McPhee, Drew Ciccolo, James Scudamore, Andrea Barrett
Her name was Kathy. Arab Israeli mixture, runaway. Fedayeen, she called herself and laughed every time she said it, as if it were an intimate joke. But when I laughed, she didn’t like it. She was serious. She was serious when she climbed into my bed. She was serious when she showed me what I was for. “You for me,” she said. “I, you, me.” And I was hers. No question.
Love her? I do not think I loved her. I think I was taken up by her. I think I was lifted up out of myself by her. When I met her I was a girl, she was a woman, no matter she was two years younger than me in time. But from the first, any time she shot me a look or even moved her hand, right hand, left hand, lift her foot, I would shift right over. What you want, honey? And I would give anything, anything.
“What you want, honey?” Anything. I gave myself to her, lost myself in her, her crazy daddy, her dangerous boyfriends, the crying jags that were like those of no one I have ever heard. The woman did not cry as if in grief, only anger. No. Rage. Her fists would pump and pound, and she would curse and kick and finally howl.
“God Damn!” “God Damn!” “God Damn!” Her accent wavering.
No one in my life ever let go like that, turned the air to steam and the heat of it to outrage.
No one tore their skin the way Kathy would. Long glittering nails on her like red-black sharks’ teeth, and she would drag them up the insides of her arms, where the skin was tender, or reach all the way around back behind her shoulders, where it was harder to tear, but possible if you were as crazy mad as she was. The skin peeled off in parallel lines. In the naked Florida heat those scars, white lines along her arms up and down and curled around her shoulders like the marks of torn-off angel wings.
Of course, she was angry. Of course, we became lovers. Hell, we became the halves of one sundered person—angry female hurting herself more than anyone else.
And then she died—as suddenly, as unexpectedly as any woman has ever died, by her own hand, more than a thousand miles from me and any protection I could have offered—too far for me to intervene, rescue, or slap her face for thinking she could just do that—“What you think you are doing, bitch?” and snatched death out of her hands. “Bitch, you can’t die on me.”
After, I gave up the part of me that I had given over to her. Afterward, when women would reach for me or even think they had me, knew something about me, there was always a wingless stubborn part of me at a distance, a part holding back just in case.
They die when you cannot stand to lose them, so you best not let yourself need them too much.
That other one was Anna. And oh what we made together was bad poetry and great mixed drinks; sour lime rickeys, or frozen fruit daiquiris, not cloying, barely sweet and thick with crushed ice, tasting mostly of whatever liquor we had stolen from her sister’s kitchen. We preferred sour over sweet any time, and salt when we shifted to margaritas. Lots of salt. Sometimes in the Florida heat, screwing around and drinking, we would lick each other’s forearms between drinks. Her sister would make gagging sounds when she saw us, so we would tongue kiss real deep just to make her more upset, then go back to drinking and laughing and messing around once she was gone.
We smoked flower-print cigarettes, “Eves,” almost not tobacco at all.
Then we would lie between two giant speakers her brother had set up, the stereo turned up to ear-shattering intensity, us on the floor, speakers on either side of our heads, ear to ear, pounding drumbeats roaring along with our heartbeats. I would lean over and watch as Anna’s eyeballs shimmered in her skull, vibrating to the thudding rock and roll downbeats. We would beat our heels on the carpet to the guitar and drum solos, smoking those pathetic cigarettes and laughing into the humid atmosphere of her bedroom.
“Fuck it, fuck it, play it loud.”
The ice would start melting in our drinks and we would have to drink fast to offset the heat.
No. We were not lovers. I never even put my hands in her pants or put my naked skin next to hers, but oh God, she was the other half of me. The only time I touched her naked was the night she puked on herself and I helped her pull off her sodden jeans and hosed her down in the shadows of the oleander bushes outside her sister’s patio.
And her drunk, so drunk, looked up at me, naked and wet, and said, “Fuck me.”
“Oh you don’t want me to fuck you.”
“Naaa . . .”
I knew that was not what she wanted. I curled up, hugged her into my hip, and started talking about that last poem she’d read to me. What she wanted was for me to sponge her neck and listen to her poetry, to read her my own, and let her tell me what was wrong with it. To say, “Your poetry is so much better than my poetry.” And she would nod. Best friends, we needed each other, us oldest girls, us stubborn determined-to-be-astonishing women. I did not want her in that other way anyway. It’s a terrible thing to say. She was just too damn female for me, too much like my sisters. I was far enough past desperate to have begun to understand what it was I did want—the kind of woman it might be worth being fully naked for—and that was nobody’s poetry I was going to be reading. That was muscle and scared and sweat. And Anna was not that woman. She was more the girlfriend I could tell about that woman—which eventually I did, lying across her futon couch in Memphis, where she moved once she married Peter. He was the one got her to stop smoking, but he never read her poetry. He was the one she said she loved for sure, at least she thought so. But he never read her poetry, and he was always saying to her, “Yeah, honey.”
“Yeah, honey” can kill you when you want so much more. He never took her to a concert either—and couldn’t understand why she was willing to drive all the way across Georgia to go to one with me.
“For god’s sake, you could play the album.”
Anna just laughed. “Well, all right, the things he’s good for, he’s pretty good for, makes up for the things he’s not.” I knew what she meant. And I believed her. After all, Peter could recite whole passages of Dhalgren out loud from memory. If he had been a woman, I might have dated him.
It took me a while to understand that I did indeed love Anna, even if I never did have sex with her. It became obvious when I discovered that if she called me, I would take the call, even if I had to pay for it, and hadn’t a dime to spare. And damn, the woman called a lot.
“Fuck.” I said, “You can’t have no baby!”
“Fuck no, I can’t have no baby. Don’t worry, I got a way out of it.”
She worked EMS—she loved that—she worked with some of the biggest redneck sonsabitches anyone ever put behind the wheel of a rolling death cart. She hated being a nurse, but loved being a paramedic, except for the people she had to work with—each of whom she swore was a criminal, a certifiable monster just waiting to be discovered, but also each and every one of them smart enough to never be caught.
“They play with the bodies,” she told me one night on a two-hour phone call. “They prop them up and shoot Polaroids of them in obscene positions.”
“There’s no one to tell. No one that will do any damn thing.”
“There’s got to be someone.”
“You have no idea what a fucking backwater Memphis really is.” She was practically spitting in the phone. “This is the ass end of hell I’m living in. This is where the dinosaurs still rule.”
“You tell Peter this stuff?” I asked her.
“Hell no. He’d try to do something and get himself fucked up or killed.”
“You got to tell someone.” I couldn’t think what else to say.
“Maybe, maybe so.” I could tell she was just putting me off. She thumped twice on the side of the phone, and said, “That’s my call—got to go.”
One night she did not call. There were three hang-up calls, but I didn’t think of Anna. I thought it was some other woman. On the last call, I shouted into the phone, “Stop fucking with me, bitch!” And maybe it was some silly woman, but maybe it was Anna.
On the weekend, Peter called. Anna, he told me, was in the hospital, locked ward. She wasn’t talking anymore—after spending three straight days screaming and cursing. He still didn’t know what had happened—something after work. She had gone to a club after a series of really ugly runs—all pickups of dead people, not one rescue, not one live person carried to the hospital. Anna had gone from the hospital to a bar only a few blocks away, drank tequila straight up until a couple of guys offered to give her a lift home. But somewhere on the drive, some one of them said something, did something, ’cause she went crazy. She started hitting the guy sitting beside her, punching him in the face and screaming curses and threats. When he grabbed her hands she rammed her knee up into his chin and made him bite off part of his tongue. Then she kicked and punched until the side door flew open and with one shrill “Goddamn” threw herself out of the fast-moving car.
“I didn’t know what was going on,” Peter said. “I still don’t know. I don’t understand.”
“I do,” I told him. “She just needs you.” I said I would try to get down there as soon as I could. I said she had been having some trouble with the men she worked with.
“What kind of trouble?” Peter asked me and I remembered what Anna had said. He’ll get himself fucked up. He’ll get himself killed.
“I’m not sure,” I said. “I’m really not sure.”
I thought of Anna cartwheeling through the air, hitting pavement hard and screaming through broken teeth. For a moment I found myself wondering if in that moment hitting the pavement it had been my name in her mouth when her teeth shattered.
That was when I gave up believing you could save your friends. Still, I thought, you have to try. You have to take the calls—no matter how much you do not want to take the call.
They let her out eventually. Peter packed them up and they moved to Nashville.
The bad one’s name was Leslie. She was an orphan, an orphan with property who never touched her own money and understood things I had no way to conceptualize. I did not know that the rich are that different—they are practically unimaginable. Leslie lived on the kindness of girlfriends and she made me one of those. I had thought I had nothing for anyone to take, nothing to spare, until she showed me how much I could provide for her. Not having much made no difference. She did not ask for much, only what I had. In the end, I have to say, she did not rob me, she just showed me how much I wanted to give over.
The extraordinary thing about her was her face. She had cultivated an almost ritual emptiness—blank, passive, always watching. That mind was alive. She knew so much, had been so many places and done so many extraordinary things. She had gone to school in Europe, in Switzerland, and been the last woman fucked by a famous dying poet. She’d hint at who it was but never actually say for sure. She had written a song that was stolen by a woman who used a version of Leslie’s words to win awards. “Things I have done,” she would begin, and then laugh gently. How extraordinary, I thought, to have that kind of rueful perspective on your own life. If you just have enough cushion, so much is possible.
Leslie swore that sex had lost all interest for her, just wasn’t that big a deal anymore, though if I really wanted to do it, she would manage to get herself interested. She seemed always to have other things in mind. She used expressions I had never heard, knew things I had not yet imagined. She spoke of books she had read that I had not, and I prided myself on reading more than anyone near me. She could talk philosophy, or music, or inheritance law, and make you think you understood those subjects in completely new ways. It was a marvel just sitting with her at dinner, getting her to talk, putting my hand in hers and watching as she laced her fingers between mine.
Her face could go so still, her eyes become so distant. Then she would take my right hand and slide it down in her pants. Curl my fingers so that my fingernails would get caught in her dense curlies. Ahhhh . . . She would sigh, and make me think I had accomplished something. Now everyone knows no one has ever had an orgasm from fingernails clenched in your curlies. There is some kind of repetitive motion required. But maybe all those philosophy books she had read had led her to something unique. Eventually I learned that what she really liked was putting her fingernails in my curlies, pushing down hard, starting that steady repetitive motion, her other hand a clenched fist holding me by my hair pulling my head back. Goddamn, I was in awe. I did not know you could make your arms go in two different directions so firm, so fast. And shuddering. My face would screw up. I would turn ugly, there is no way not to turn ugly when you are pushing that close to orgasm, there is no way not to turn ugly when you are writhing under a woman’s fingernails moving that fast, orgasming and screaming as she pushes you and takes you and makes you what she most wants. It took me a while to realize that what she wanted was to make me be ugly. That special kind of ugly.
She herself appeared to be capable of orgasms without expression, without movement. Even in the most violent romantic moments, she could become dispassionate and far away. It was as if she had studied her own features and concluded that it was at rest that she was best presented. She seemed to have taught her muscles that artless discipline that the great beauties know—a preternatural stillness. I was in awe. When she was pulling my hair with a clenched fist, that face above me was so bland, so impartial, that I would begin to struggle to get free, fighting not to weep, not to be ugly while she watched me. But it was impossible. I did not have her talent. When I came I would scream, twist, fight, and struggle or, worse still, weep. I kept trying to understand, to appreciate what she wanted from me, even to give her what she wanted. Eventually I figured we had misunderstood each other from the first.
She went back home and married a distant cousin who had enough money to keep her engaged for the rest of her life. The night she called me to say goodbye, I got completely drunk and made love in the basement room of a bar down on Tenth Street to a woman I had never met before. I was ruthless, determined, and powerful. I loved the way that woman growled and screwed up her face when she came and how she screamed. Oh how she screamed.
“Bitch, bitch, bitch, do it right, do it right!”
She did not care what she looked like, but I thought her as beautiful as a lion with a gazelle in her teeth.
Oh but then there was Judine. She told me there was only one sin that you could commit in bed, and that was the sin of making love to someone you genuinely did not want.
“No pity fucks,” she told me. “That’s a crime I do not commit. I take you to bed, you better believe I want you there. No one in that moment but you, girl. And you better make damn sure you want to be there as much as I want you there. And if you do anything else, girl, you better make damn sure I don’t know.”
It had a purity, that kind of desire. Desire in the moment, for that moment, and nothing promised for after. I could understand—passion for its own sake, not for property or safety or reassurance or hope. No confusion. No bullshit. Just head-tossing, screaming, legspreading, do-me-now-and-do-me-right. She’s speaking my language, I told myself, taking notice of the tight bootcut jeans, the little string tie fastening shut the buttoned-up collar of the white cotton shirt. Fuck me, a butch, someone who knows who she is.
I believed Judine. I took up her ethics and the goddess she worshipped with only a quick wink for my own old-fashioned Baptist god. (He did not like me anyway.) No pity. No compassion. Judine was like an Old Testament heathen prophet, but damn, astonishing in bed! Every time, without exception, the best damn sex of my life. Bitch knew what she was doing. How could anyone do that? What talent was that? What river had she been dipped in? Mad, crazy, immediate. Fuck, fuck. And I thought I had known what I was doing?
It was familiar, it was what I told myself I had been doing all along. I was wrong, of course, falsehoods are always expensive, too expensive. Never take her to bed when you genuinely do not want her. Was that what I did? One moment’s error, and then the comeback.
Because when she wanted me no more, she wanted me no more.
And how could I have prepared for that? I had prepared to see her every now and again for the rest of my life. I had prepared myself to match her—carefully calculated self-sufficiency and stubborn ice-queen independence. But the best sex of my life and never to get any of that again? What had I done? What sin had I committed?
“Not you,” she said. “It’s not you.”
But I did not believe her. It’s always you, it’s always something you did. I was sure of that until eight years later when I heard where Judine had wound up. The lesbian feminist ice queen was down in Bakersfield, married with two children, and a seemingly endless devotion to commissioning Catholic masses for the women she had once loved so well.
I have had eleven Catholic masses said for my soul. I take some comfort in that.
Alix was like none of them—a trick with talent, I called her, ten years younger than me and absolutely sure of who she was, what she wanted.
“You’re a child,” I told her when she put her hand on my hip, but she didn’t let go.
Not gonna back down. Five years sober.
Five years sober.
She got me drunk the first night I spent with her. Tied me to the bed and kept pouring Jack Daniels down my throat, laughing and biting and opening me up till I was screaming her name. Drunk, I was drunk, she was sober, it was all legal.
Then she leaned in close and took deep breaths of my shuddering gasps. And as I came, whispered, “How many times can you do that, darling?”
Six, seven, eight, I fainted on nine. Come to with her arms around me, her tongue licking sweat off my cheek, going, “Baby girl, baby girl . . .” Damn.
Twenty-seven years later, she can make me grin just by whispering it again, “Baby girl, baby girl.” Or look at me across the room, smile, and mouth the words “baby girl,” and there is in my mouth the sudden taste of Jack Daniels and sweat.
Not unlike love, sex. Not unlike an education. Not unlike expiation.
I know you can fall in love with an idea, that you are the best poet in the room, no matter what you told her; you can fall in love with a dream, a fantasy, a goddess who expects of you an absolutely honest commitment of joy in the human body; you can fall in love with an extraordinary human creature looking back at you, a mind housed in a body, a soul shining out of the haunted eyes.
Lust ain’t love, but oh, it is a fine damn gateway. It is a damn fine gateway.
Afterward, all these years afterward, what you got?
You got the story, and how you tell it.
What do you know?
Never lie. Unless you must.
Poetry:Sharon Olds, Caroline Knox, Adam Fitzgerald, Cornelius Eady, Caroline O'Connor Thomas, Timmy Straw
AT FIRST IT LOOKED LIKE
ODE TO THE PRESENT MOMENT, IN THE LIVING ROOM, WITH BIANCA
LOOKING SOUTH AT LOWER MANHATTAN, WHERE THE TOWERS HAD BEEN
MEANWHILE SOME UNSOLICITED ADVICE
THE SECOND MOVEMENT FOOLED ME
Features:Claire Vaye Watkins, Evie Wyld and Joe Sumner, Rachel Jamison Webster, CJ Hauser, John Fischer
I lost a good deal of my face this week—a large chunk on my right cheek.
The surgery followed a procedure called Mohs, in which the surgeon removes a tumor millimeter by millimeter, testing the skin sample after each cut to see where the errant cells end. The surgeon fluttered his fingers over my cheeks as he injected the anesthetic, and when he made the cuts I felt only uncomfortable tugging and an occasional pierce. What I remember most about the process was the smell of my flesh burning as he cauterized the widening wound, one, two, three, four times, over the course of the day. Burning flesh has a cloying, thickly sweet odor, and it made me think of all the people in wartime, or in concentration camps, who would have had to breathe that smell. I wondered if those who survived ever really cleared the smell from their nostrils, their consciousness, their own living skin.
The surgeon’s office happened to be next to the Holocaust Museum, which may have prompted these musings, and the book I had brought with me to read between cuttings was one I had been wanting to read for a long time: Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald. The main character, Austerlitz, is unable to fully enter a life that feels arbitrary after the colossal losses of the Holocaust, as well as the personal loss of his family and early memories after he was saved by the Kindertransport. “What are you reading?” the surgeon had asked me at the beginning of the day. When I told him about the book and mentioned that I was a professor, he said, almost relieved, “I thought so! Because normal people don’t read books like that!”
And I was feeling increasingly abnormal. The waiting room was filled with patients reading newspapers, iPads, and ad inserts—all of them elderly, except for me, all of us with unfortunate bandages on our faces, heads, and necks, though none so front and center as mine. Then a man in a wheelchair was wheeled in by two caregivers. He had luminous pale skin, a hairless head, and the air of restrained shock about him that is specific to the terminally ill, the kind of transparency that belongs to those who have been to the very edge and looked over. He also had the heightened presence of the ill, the urgent kindness that can arise when someone really sees the little island of time we live on, and senses that we are in a fleeting network of meaning every minute.
I could hardly look at him. He seemed to be glowing with all I do not know yet, a radiance I had seen before when my partner at the time, Richard, was dying. I spent almost two years caring for him through the incremental paralysis of ALS, before he suffered that disease’s inevitable death of suffocation—a trauma that robbed me of life as I knew it, and that I as his beloved and caregiver underwent with him, as much as someone can. Those years trained me in the trajectory of death, not life, and strained my store of optimism. So as I returned to the surgeon’s table again and again throughout the day, I did not feel relief that the diseased cells were being removed. I did not take it lightly, trusting in the overall health of my body. Instead, I thought, Cancer. I thought, There is a crack in the world that I opened when Richard first got sick, gaped when he died, and now I may fall right through it.
“I feel more and more as if time did not exist at all, only various spaces interlocking according to the rules of a higher form of stereometry, between which the living and dead can move back and forth as they like,” muses Austerlitz, “and the longer I think about it the more it seems to me that we who are still alive are unreal in the eyes of the dead, that only occasionally, in certain lights and atmospheric conditions, do we appear in their field of vision.”
There I was between procedures, reading an echo of my feelings. The sterile waiting room with its false paintings seemed unreal to me; our technology-driven culture, which will cut benign tumors out of people in their nineties, which will perform skin surgery on someone who is dying, seemed unreal to me. It was almost as if the grave knowing my life had facilitated—an intimate awareness of mortality—had been steadily erasing me from a collective reality—of big-screen TVs, Facebook, magazines. “The dead are outside time, the dying and all the sick at home or in hospitals,” Austerlitz reminds us, “and they are not the only ones, for a certain degree of personal misfortune is enough to cut us off from the past and the future.”
To cover up all the removed tissue from my face, the surgeon made a long, elliptical cut, and then pulled skin from my cheek over it, leaving me with a raw suture running from the inside corner of my right eye, down the side of my nose, into the line beside my mouth—two layers of twenty stitches. I was awake while he sewed me up, and though he had been communicative with me throughout the day, he seemed to enter a zone in which his hands were free to sew while his mind swam the shallows of small talk. It was as if he’d forgotten I was there, forgotten I was conscious and alive. While I lay under a giant, sterile sticker knowing he was altering my face forever, he flirted with the nurse and updated her on the new big-screen TV he was installing at home.
Afterward, they left, and I remained on the table, breathing in the smell of burnt blood, my right eye swelling shut. I could hear the nurses at the station talking about the new Sony television that uses facial recognition software. “Yes!” one was insisting. “Something in it reads your face and selects channels based on that.”
“I don’t want my TV looking back at me!” another nurse said.
Even if it did look back at you, what could it see? I wondered.
I once had the kind of unconscious, ethereal beauty that made men notice me and women dislike me and that played deeply into my habitually apologetic behavior, as if I had to doubly earn my place and act generously to make up for attracting attention and judgments that I did not even want. At one point in my life, it was not uncommon for me to be stopped on the street several times a day and called “hot” or asked out or told that I should be a model—all of which felt invasive, distracting, sometimes downright terrifying to a shy person. I read and wrote, but my life and work were continually being siderailed by external attention. I felt like a kind of prey, or one of those slow “right” whales that when multiple males swim in to mate, rolls over and plays dead, in a passive strategy of waiting, while never really choosing.
At the beginning of graduate school, I sat down with my advisor, excited because he had just read my poems and critical writing and was going to tell me where he thought our studies should begin. I blushed when he said, “You have great skill,” and blushed even brighter when I realized he had said, “You have great skin.”
In my thirties, I gave a reading from a poem I had written about a futuristic dream: “We can show you a map of every illness you are likely to get or to die from in your life,” the doctor says in the poem, before shuttling me down a kind of luge track in which I see my own life flying before me while I lie patient and powerless. “Did you really write that?” a woman asked when I left the stage.
“Yes,” I answered.
“Oh,” she laughed, “my boyfriend and I just couldn’t believe it. It is so profound, and you don’t look like you could write something so profound.”
“I’m so glad you liked the poem!” I answered cheerily, because my mode was always to try to shift cattiness into sincerity, and to apologize for any discordance between my inner life and my outer appearance. I knew it was true. I just didn’t have a face that announced intelligence. And this led to a particular form of insecurity in which I never really believed that encouragement was about the work and not about me in some superficial way.
But I had been losing that beauty for years—in the waves and eddies of natural aging. I no longer felt people turn to stare at me as I passed. Now I could enter a room and rather than react to all that attention, I could just look around and see what I thought. After all, those who are always responding to being seen are unable to freely find the space to see. Sebald provides an interesting metaphor for this dilemma toward the beginning of Austerlitz. “Well into the nineteenth century,” he explains, “a few drops of liquid distilled from belladonna . . . used to be applied to the pupils of operatic divas before they went onstage, and those of young women about to be introduced to a suitor, with the result that their eyes shone with a rapt and almost supernatural radiance, but they themselves could see almost nothing.” I knew that role. But I was beginning to think that age, that being less desired as a woman and more respected as a human, could win me the privacy to enter my own point of view. I was beginning to hope that my writing, which was always trying to trace the inner life, could drive time for once, rather than the external life that had been having its way with me.
Sometimes I even wonder if I am remembering it wrong: Was the attention really that invasive? But the other day, a beautiful young woman joined my yoga class, and I watched as she deflected outsized scrutiny. She wasn’t arrogantly imagining that everyone was looking at her. Everyone was. After class, someone commented on her eye makeup, another on her bracelets, the teacher noted that she had taken off her long-sleeved shirt. The rest of us, of course, had also taken off long-sleeved shirts and wiped smudges of mascara from our eyelids, but all of that went unnoticed, unexamined. She did not have that luxury. We were fellow women, most of us older, just making conversation, but every exchange circled back to her appearance.
And this reminded me that all humans are drawn to beauty and proportion. Studies show that people prefer mates with symmetrical faces, and that even very young babies are drawn to faces marked by balance, smoothness, and uniformity. We make assessments of others’ faces in a matter of milliseconds and are repelled by abnormalities such as wounds, blotches, and asymmetry. There’s a good reason why cartoon villains are always depicted as scarred; it signals inner damage and frightens us in our most basic human brain.
“What is the beauty of bodies?” asked Plotinus around 259 CE, in one of the oldest known essays on beauty. “It is something which at first view presents itself to sense, and which the soul familiarly apprehends and eagerly embraces, as if it were allied to itself. But when it meets with the deformed, it hastily starts from the view and retires abhorrent from its discordant nature.”
The nurse who assisted my surgeon was herself beautiful, with that overly conciliatory manner that a kind person may develop to balance such bounty. Before they assumed her intelligence, most people would have noticed her blond hair, her perfectly placed hazel eyes and straight teeth, and the giant diamond ring that is often the accessory to good looks. But between procedures, she had referred to herself as a math and science geek and we had talked about the books we were reading. “I am going to be with you when you see the scar,” she told me after the doctor had stitched me up. “I am going to get you some Kleenex and hold your hand.”
She held my hand tightly, and when she lifted the mirror to my face, what came out of my mouth was the scream that simmers in the mind whenever we are laid out on a table unable to move while experts do needling things to our bodies. “Oh my God!” I yelled, shocked, as involuntary tears ran into the blood of the wound. I had expected a few stitches, but here I was, a monster, a Halloween poster, with bloody sutures from the corner of my eye to my lower lip. The nurse stood holding the mirror in one hand and my hand in the other, and she had the compassion to cry with me, tears running down her own unmarked face. “I am so sorry,” she said, and I knew that she meant it. She could understand how this scar would change my face, as well as the way I faced my life. And I thought, This is healing. Compassion. To be with someone in her pain.
“Was I the perceived?” poet John Ashbery asks in his seminal book Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, “or is it postponed again?” It is what we want, I think, perhaps on the deepest level: to be seen as we really are. But our culture instructs us to manage and augment others’ perceptions of us. Airbrushed profile photos on Facebook may hardly resemble the person they’re meant to depict, and onslaughts of selfies and group snapshots can seem desperate to prove happiness and social fruitfulness. As a teacher of poetry, I have an opportunity to gauge development of the inner life, and I’ve observed that as we spend more and more time cultivating our images, we are in increasing danger of neglecting the inner I that longs to be perceived.
When I was a baby, my mom’s artist friend came over to draw a portrait of me. I had spent the morning crying, so in the drawing she put a spot of white chalk on my cheek and said, “Rachel will go through life with a little tear, right here, on her cheek.” The cancer that the surgeon removed came from this exact place, from the abnormal cells in a white burn scar that I got when I was twenty, cooking bacon for my college boyfriend even though I was a vegetarian. I had always thought of this scar as my tear, a smudge of pain, a nod to the sad girl I was inwardly while I outwardly put a happy face on things. I had everything, my exterior seemed to say, what did I have to feel sad about? But I had left a marriage in my twenties to weather a terrible divorce, ending up with a man twenty-three years my senior, having a child with him and then spending two years nursing him through the terminal illness als, which ended his life when our daughter was three. My life was more difficult than I ever made it look.
Still, I wanted people to pity me as little as I wanted them to desire me, and so I protected my essential introversion by assuming the manner of a cheery extrovert. I learned to keep going, to reach out to others with a smile and the hope that this act alone would relieve me of the burden of self for a moment, would buoy me outwardly even as my inner world was crumbling. And, to some extent, it did. I taught all through divorce, caretaking for Richard, and grief, and I believe that standing before classrooms of eager students, meeting them as someone whole, responsive, and often smiling, did help me to survive years of sleeplessness and sadness.
Still, my mom’s friend had been right. I was going to go through life with a tear on my cheek, a splash of white that grew and grew and now had been gouged out and covered with a suture like a line of tears. Betty, the artist, died at forty, the age I am now. She had a lingering flu that turned out to be a brain tumor. She went into surgery to have it removed, telling her son to go to his basketball game and she would see him when she came out. But when the surgeon went in, the tumor was bigger than anyone had imagined. It ruptured under the knife and she never returned.
It was terrible for everyone, and devastating for her husband and three young sons. I was stunned by their strength on the day of her funeral, as maybe people were stunned years later by my daughter’s and mine as I gave a eulogy for her dad with her standing there stolidly, holding my hand. And I remember that it was Betty’s husband who said that Betty would have hated aging. That now she would always be beautiful. I understand this comment now. It wasn’t that he really found comfort in the idea, that he would ever be whole after losing her, or that he would have traded her youth and beauty for her life. But saying this granted him some space. Shocked grievers were rushing him, not knowing what to say, and this was a way to put a momentarily acceptable face on an unacceptable loss—a way to grieve behind a mask.
“Your tumor had gone misdiagnosed for years,” my surgeon said. “And it was bigger than anyone would have imagined.” And now it is gone, I remind myself, that is the important thing, while wondering in a near panic, “How will I learn to wear evidence of pain so publicly, on my face?”
4. The House of the Mother
After I cried for myself and the nurse cried with me, she bandaged my wound, and then I cried again, thinking of facing my daughter. I don’t want her to be afraid, I thought. It was as if this pain had entered the site of our earlier pain, and was echoing. And if that was true for me, how much more so would it be for her, for whom illness and loss had so tragically marked her first years?
According to some studies, babies can recognize their mother by the second day of life, not only by smell and sound but also by sight. Their brains light up in entirely different ways when they see their mother’s face, versus when they look at anything else. We seem to understand, from our first weeks of life, that faces are not objects, but windows to being. And our mother’s face is, to some extent, our first external self. We learn the human vocabulary of emotion by mirroring her, by expressing our inner life and, hopefully, finding an echo in the outer world. The mother’s ability to reflect and to respond to her baby’s face makes up one of the child’s first experiences of safety, comfort, and correspondence.
I very consciously tried to steady my demeanor with my daughter during her father’s long illness. She often saw me cry. I did not hide that from her because my weeping had a strange strength to it as it acknowledged what was really happening. But I tried to hide my fear from her, the cracking I felt inwardly. I remember showing it to her only once, a few months after her father was diagnosed and his steady decline had begun. In a matter of weeks, he had lost the ability to walk, to lift his arms, and to feed himself, and we were living with his outbursts of fear and denial. I had read her stories and was rubbing her forehead as she drifted toward sleep, and she turned to look deep into my eyes. And for a moment I allowed her to see me clearly. I looked at her as if we were allies in a terrible battle, and I let her see my fear. She sighed the weariest sigh I have ever heard a two-year-old sigh and pushed me away, turning her back to me. She would see my pain, she would see me slip and falter invariably, and she would see her father’s inevitable vulnerability, I realized. But in that moment I vowed that she would not see mine.
So for years, I had been her strong and smiling parent, and now I had to face her—as fallible, mortal, with my right eye swollen shut and a Phantom of the Opera-style bandage covering the right side of my face. And she was afraid at first. I saw the hesitance in her body, but then I watched as she surmounted her fear and walked over to give me a hug. “It’s scary isn’t it?” I acknowledged, and she nodded. “But all the bad skin is out of there. And I am going to heal really, really quickly.”
She played and laughed and, as usual, bargained to stay up later that night, but after she’d been in bed awhile, I heard her crying to herself. She called for me, and I was happy that she was not too afraid of me to ask me to pat her to sleep. When I lay down beside her, she pointed to a hairline crack in the plaster of her wall, one that has probably been there for ages, at least as long as we’ve lived in our 120-year-old house. “I just can’t stand that crack,” she said. Of course, I thought, feeling the crack in my face throb under its layers of stitches.
“It scares me,” she went on, “I don’t know why, but when I see that crack I think that my bed is going to keep falling down and then I won’t be here anymore.”
The relationships and certainties that tie us to life are patterned in us when we are very young. There was a crack in her mother, her central space of safety. “That is not going to happen,” I said, rubbing her back. “You are okay, I am okay,” I hushed her, until she fell asleep.
Austerlitz, too, has an obsession with spaces as a way of controlling his sense of being so incidental, so ghostly in his own life. His life’s work is a dissertation on architecture, and his fascination with spaces reveals an emotional displacement, an inability to connect with others because he feels as aware of the dead as of the living. He is particularly haunted by an old section of Liverpool Street station in London. “I could not stop wondering whether it was a ruin or a building in the process of construction that I had entered,” he notes. “Both ideas were right in a way at the time, since the new station was literally rising from the ruins of the old Liverpool Street.”
It is here that he sees himself as a small child, in the actual space where he first met his adoptive parents and apprehended the loss of his old life. “When I saw the boy sitting on the bench I became aware,” he says, “of the destructive effect on me of my desolation through all these past years, and a terrible weariness overcame me at the idea that I had never really been alive, or was only now being born, almost on the eve of my death.”
The house, the room, the train station become containers for our being. We project our feelings onto their markings—“the black and white diamond pattern of the stone slabs,” “the crack in the wall”—and these shapes hold us—just like our mother’s bodies do first and, later, our own.
“There is a place in your mind that does not understand that you will heal,” my friend says on the phone. “You are in a trauma mode, remembering what you’ve been through before, but you do not know what it is to heal yet, to come back from something.”
But I will never come back from this, I want to say. I will wear this scar always, just like I live with what I know now, about life, about death. And yet, she is right. Because I had a vigilant doctor and a skilled surgeon, this cancer hopefully will not kill me. It will just alter, slightly, the way that I live. I may have faced the mortality of my beloved, but I have not yet faced my own mortality. And, I realize, I also have not yet faced my own life, my ability to return from the edge and still be here.
When I first saw the scar I thought, I can’t let anyone see me, especially not John. Finally, after four years, I am in a relationship again. I texted him between the procedures, trying to keep it brief and on the bright side, but afterward, I told him not to come. I said this halfheartedly though, because as much as I feared him seeing me, I also needed him to suture me back to reality somehow. Like my daughter, I felt in danger of falling down and down, away from the living again, back into that liminal crack between life and death—the space of terminal illness.
“You will still be beautiful to me,” John said and got into the car to drive the six hours to my house. “And think of it this way. It will be scary at first, but it will be good for Adele to see you heal.”
That night, after John arrived, we watched a movie, and all I could think about was the fact that no one on the screen had a scar. Beautiful people were playing inwardly scarred characters, but though life had hurt them, they did not have to show their wounds. Their skin, their faces, remained unmarked.
I could not take a shower, and I stank of dirty hair and dried blood. I had to rest propped up on pillows, and it hurt to talk and laugh, but John ignored those warnings and had me cracking up at the kind of gallows humor that arises in such moments. He slept beside me and my stale pillows. He woke when I did and murmured that he loved me, and, finally, two days in, I was able to fall into a deep sleep. I dreamed that I took the bandage off, and, somehow, the scar was not that bad at all. It had healed into a raised line, a fold that only someone who knew what to look for could see. I drifted in and out of sleep and the dream made me happy, as happy as the warmth of John nestled beside me. I let him hold me and the dream hold me, a comfort—and maybe a vision of healing, of a time when pain will not be the first thing people see because they see me.
In Joy Harjo’s poem “A Postcolonial Tale,” she writes:
Every day is a reenactment of the creation story. We emerge from dense unspeakable material, through the shimmering power of dreaming stuff.
. . .
Once we abandoned ourselves for television, the box that separates the dreamer from the dreaming. It was as if we were stolen, put into a bag carried on the back of a white man who pretends to own the earth and the sky . . . We fought until there was a hole in the bag.
I need to fight until there is a hole in the bag. I need to see outside of our contained and colonizing notions of beauty. And, more importantly, I need to believe that I can dream again, wake again into the dream of my life. At some point, the collective dreams of youth, of beauty, even of health, abandon each one of us. And then it is up to us to envision the next dream, one that is subtler, more complex, more individual.
“Your scar is the mark of having lived,” my friend said. “It is the mark of having survived.” The cancerous cells—symbol of my sadness and, possibly, result of my sadness, because of the years of sleeplessness and neglect that caregiving wrought on my body—are gone. What is left looks like a long claw mark of pink, regenerating skin, some suggestion of ferocity, of the strength it takes to keep facing life’s challenges. It is nothing compared to the marks that so many have to carry. It is not the permanent facial paralysis endured by one of my colleagues. It is not the accruing paralysis that led to Richard’s death. It is certainly not the loss of a whole family, a whole people, grieved by Austerlitz. It is a raw asymmetry and a surface wound that my surgeon hopes will merge into the natural shape of my face, the way life’s losses—even the most terrible—merge into the overall shape of a life. They are visible to those who know us best, and they are what make us most human, fissures through which the inner, more deeply dreaming self may shine.
On a frigid Saturday in early January, I came home to find a beige envelope in my mailbox. It bore a postmark from Washington, DC, but no return address. My hands were cold and I fumbled to tear open the flap. Inside was a two-inch piece of metal, about the size of a drywall screw, crooked in the middle and threaded on one end.
At the time I was living in Brooklyn, conducting a life largely without surprises. I had a steady consulting job writing presentations about the “brand benefits” of products one might see advertised on TV. This afforded me a semiobstructed view of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, membership to a gym called Maxim, and enough discretionary income to buy jeans that required a year without washing to correctly break in. By my own estimation I was approaching marrying age and felt confident that I was a relationship or two away from meeting that special someone. In other words, I’d come to equate an untroubled stretch of my late twenties with a kind of permanent yuppie kismet.
But the arrival of mystery mail was an anomaly. I didn’t know anyone who lived in DC nor why such a person might send me a small metal screw. Unsure of what to do, I left the envelope on my desk, where it soon disappeared beneath a stack of unread New Yorkers.
A month later, I opened my mailbox to find a large USPS pack stuffed inside. My name and address were hand drawn in cursive, each letter shaded as though overlapping the next. In the corner was a cluster of stamps arranged in a sort of mosaic: several Star Wars commemoratives, a Simpsons character, and a scattering of USA Forevers to cinch the arrangement. The zip code of origin resolved to Reno, Nevada. Inside was another padded pack. Inside that was an envelope containing a greeting card with a slightly smaller greeting card inside—the postal equivalent of Russian nesting dolls. Out of the final envelope fell a solid object: a die-cast toy pipe wrench.
I’d been on my way out for a haircut and so my barber was the first person to hear about the deliveries. I am useless at making the type of light conversation in which minor life details are bartered, and I was relieved to discuss a topic other than my plans for the weekend, which mostly involved eating meals with my similarly professional friends and rearranging the throw pillows on my couch.
“Weird,” my barber said.
“Weird,” I agreed.
“Why would anyone mail you a toy monkey wrench?” he asked.
I had no idea, but I presumed a connection to the screw I’d received a few weeks earlier. I explained this to him as well—the threading, the shallow bend, the abstract quality, as if it were not a screw as much as an impressionistic rendering of a screw. And as I described the items aloud for the first time, I found them snagging on a feeling of familiarity, of having been seen before. Not just their individual shapes but the sense that they related in a hazy correlation from childhood memory. Suddenly they snapped into focus.
“Wait,” I said. “It’s not a screw. It’s a pipe. A lead pipe. And a wrench? Did you ever play that game Clue when you were a kid? These are the murder weapons. Someone’s sending them to me.”
“Whoa,” he said. “That’s messed up.”
Clue is a board game originally produced in England in 1949 under the name Cluedo. The game takes place in a parody of a Victorian mansion where the owner, Mr. Boddy, has been murdered. Players move around the board, collecting partial information about the location, weapon, and perpetrator of the crime. Each accumulated clue allows players to posit by process of elimination—I suggest it was Miss Scarlett, in the conservatory, with the knife—how Mr. Boddy has been killed.
The classic version of the game has 324 possible outcomes, made from nine rooms, six characters, and six murder weapons: a knife, a rope, a revolver, a candlestick, a wrench, and a lead pipe—each cast in pewter, except for the rope, which is usually plastic. The first player to make a complete and accurate accusation wins. In this way the game is not so much a mystery as it is a puzzle. To agree to play is to already know what has happened. The payoff is merely that of the particulars.
I hadn’t seen an edition of Clue, much less its disembodied pieces, since I was maybe twelve. And yet here they were in my mailbox. I wasn’t sure whether to find this funny or sinister, and so I experimentally mentioned it to a few close friends as a casual Hey, you’ll never believe this but species of oddity. I avoided using the words murder and weapon to the extent that such censorship was possible. What I got in return was an elaboration on my barber’s reaction: a moment of incredulity followed by a better-you-than-me laugh. It was definitely peculiar and possibly distressing, and no one knew what to make of it.
My friend Katharine, a former journalist and lifelong pragmatist, felt I should go to the police. The pieces implied a variety of violent acts. More worrisome was the fact that they indicated a progression. I would be receiving four more packages, like a timetable counting down to—what? A hooded figure springing from the shadows of my evening commute, wrestling me into a windowless van? A PVC pipe filled with match heads and broken glass wired to the inside of my mailbox? Whatever scenarios I could imagine were to the far end of absurd, and yet something was waiting at the conclusion.
“Basically you’re being stalked,” Katharine said. She encouraged me to file a complaint for harassment, to establish a paper trail on the unlikely chance that I was actually attacked. Then she fixed me with a serious expression and asked if I had any reason to think an attack was a real possibility.
“I couldn’t tell you,” I said.
“Not even a guess?”
I shook my head.
“Things like this don’t come out of nowhere,” she said.
She was right. My suspicion was that a woman had sent them, and that the woman was upset with me. This was the most plausible explanation. I’d always been quick to qualify my dating history as checkered, and if there was a source of discord in my life commensurate with tiny murder weapons, that would be it. I had, for example, told my first girlfriend that we couldn’t be together anymore because I no longer found her attractive, and I’d arrived at a version of this exchange in every subsequent relationship. In college I convinced myself I was meant to marry the girl I met my final semester. We moved to New York City, where I quickly became a source of disappointment. I stayed out late without calling, picked unnecessary fights, and eventually persuaded her to leave me. By the time I was twenty-seven, most of my friends had found fulfillment in cohabitation and joint checking accounts, whereas I could cite only missteps and false starts. I dated with the persistence of a chain-smoker, cycling through people at the pace of about one every four months. I became obsessed with the idea of a relationship—an effortless, Disney-cartoon-but-for-dudes specimen of a relationship that would provide shelter from my shortcomings in the form of perfect honesty and sex that was never bad. So I remained one foot out the door at all times, vigilant for what I believed were signs of incompatibility but were more likely the basic tasks of accepting another human’s flaws.
The following day I placed the envelopes in a Ziploc bag for transportation to the police station. The precinct abutted a block of housing projects on the border of my neighborhood and appeared far more serious than I had anticipated. I’d never seen the inside of a police station and here was linoleum floor, peeling particleboard trim, and a low expanse of ceiling. Behind a bulletproof window sat several uniformed men.
“Excuse me,” I said, tapping on the divider. “I’m here to report a case of harassment by mail.”
A heavy-set officer in a rolling chair wheeled himself over and asked me to describe my issue.
“I’m receiving potentially threatening objects.” I dutifully retrieved the two envelopes and slid them through a slot in the window.
“No way I’m touching those,” the officer said. “Could be anthrax.”
Instead he instructed me to present the contents myself. And as I dug through the series of nested compartments to produce a two-inch metal wrench, I became sharply aware of how I must look to this man who had by now registered my scarf, my clean overcoat, my leather winter gloves and made his appraisal.
I placed the wrench in the slot and attempted an explanation that was credible without seeming alarmist. The wrench constituted an implied threat as opposed to a direct one. It was a murder weapon from a children’s board game. Was he familiar with the board game Clue? Colonel Mustard in the library with the—
“You think we play kids’ board games here?” the officer asked. “You’ve got to be kidding.”
I flushed and stammered. I knew how my complaint must sound, but I just wanted to take precautions. Maybe there was a form I could fill out?
The officer asked for my address and then informed me that I was at the wrong precinct.
“Bring them up to Greenpoint if you want,” he said.
Upon exiting the station, I stood for a minute on the sidewalk, attempting to corral my shaken dignity. An elaborate prank had just been played at my expense, if not explicitly, then at least—as the expression goes—one involving enough rope for me to hang myself. So I didn’t take the pieces up to Greenpoint. I took them home and pushed them all the way to the back of my bedroom bookshelf.
There is no one singular definition for the act of stalking because unlike, say, murder, there is no singular qualifying act ascribed to the term. Rather it is a “victim-defined crime.” Psychiatric journals characterize stalking as “repeated and persistent unwanted communication and/or approaches that produce fear in the victim.” The line that demarcates inconvenient behavior from criminal behavior is a subjective one. If it disrupts your life, it’s considered stalking.
Perhaps for this reason, the individual motivations of stalkers, especially those who fall outside the “modal” stereotype of the forty-year-old male with emotional disturbances, are not particularly well-documented. Women, young people, and perpetrators without the excuse of mental illness or addiction are relative psychological mysteries. Are their actions situational or a distinct pathology? What triggers them? Why do they stop when they stop? From the standpoint of hard research, the data is rudimentary. Initial taxonomies have been outlined, but nuance tends not to go much deeper than “the intimacy-obsessed” or “the spurned lover.”
One must suppose that if stalking is subjective in the mind of the victim, then it is also subjective in the mind of the perpetrator. Leaving aside the sadists, the abusers, and the clinically afflicted, stalking seems less like a criminal act and more like a complex expression of pain. Perhaps it’s taboo to regard the stalker as a victim in his or her own right, but it may also be accurate. Stalking, on some level, is an attempt to revise history, to heal an injury real or imagined. It’s like a wound that binds perpetrator to victim. No one sits down and thinks: Today I will stalk my ex. Rather they think: if only, I wish, but maybe, how could they, and why shouldn’t I, because it hurts, because I’m lonely, because I don’t know what else to do.
If it disrupts your life, it’s stalking. But the better question would be: Exactly whose life has been disrupted?
Prior to the third envelope’s arrival, I went from keeping the pieces a secret to flogging them as a joke. I told anyone I could: my boss, my boss’s boss, fashionably coiffed men and women I hoped to impress at parties. It was almost impossible to find a topic of conversation that couldn’t transition into the story. I’d pantomime my barber’s surprise, stretching out his Keanu Reeves–style “whoa” like verbal taffy, or lay into my best fuck-outta-here accent when recalling the desk sergeant’s derision. I’d widen my eyes, bask in the cheap laugh, and explain that, yeah, I was expecting another dispatch from Weirdsville any day now.
The envelope, postmarked Virginia, bore psychedelic splashes of watercolor and a sticker of a cartoon panda lounging on a cloud. Inside was a candlestick about the diameter of a quarter. I held it between my thumb and forefinger, examining the seam that ran its length, imagining a life-size version swung overhand into the back of my skull. But despite a temptation to romanticize my own mortality, I’d concluded that I would likely not be killed. There were no other warning signs to speak of, and although the pieces were unsettling, the whole endeavor had a quality that was too feminine, too arts-and-craftsy to be a source of legitimate menace—an assessment with which people agreed.
What my boss and her boss and the fashionable people at parties did not agree with, however, was that the culprit couldn’t be identified through a bit of amateur sleuthing. How many people did I know who would do such a thing? A jilted ex, a secret admirer? They were annoyed by my unwillingness to hazard a guess.
“Whoever this person is, she probably just wants your attention,” Katharine the former journalist said. “Like she’s trying to deliver a message.”
“Judging from the tone, I’d rather not hear it.”
As I said this, I realized it was true. The Clue pieces contained no other clues aside from their existence, their signaling a need to search for something. But that something was less a culprit and more a cause. Identifying the guilty party meant first identifying what I’d done to provoke her. And whatever that was, it could only be bad.
There was, for starters, a college roommate’s cousin—I’d written her letters for two months after we met at a wedding, and then spent a week in San Francisco determining that our chemistry had been a figment of my wishful thinking. When I boarded my flight home, it was with the intention of never seeing her again. There was also a former coworker with whom I’d had a messy affair—she mailed me postcards from a trip across Europe, but upon her suggestion that she leave her boyfriend so we could date, I stopped writing back. There were others: a fashion designer whom I’d dumped loudly and publicly at a neighborhood bar, a photographer for whom I’d once cooked dinner and then discouraged from visiting my apartment again, and so on. Hypothetically, it was possible to construct a register of suspects from the overlap between women to whom I’d given my address and women who might remain angry with me—which, once I began counting, made for a much longer tally than I expected. Actually, that wasn’t quite right. The list was just as long as I feared.
I began drafting a series of excruciatingly neutral e-mails, explaining that, hey, I know we hadn’t spoken in a while, but I’d recently received a funny letter, and did I have so-and-so to thank? Was everything good? I hoped so and wished well and included whatever optimistic punctuation I thought might ease the inconvenience of my hello.
The roommate’s cousin wrote back to say no, she had done no such thing. But she was surprised to hear from me after what happened. The former coworker asked what possible reason she could have for sending me anything, and requested that I not contact her again. An Internet date I’d slept with but refused to introduce to my friends responded only with a photograph of a trash can.
To the extent that I could cite a likely culprit, it looked to be someone I already knew well: myself.
A year before receiving the Clue pieces, I met a woman whom I’ll call Anna. I had been contracted by a former employer to assist its new research director on her first project. We scheduled a meeting in a coffee shop near Gramercy Park and when I waved Anna over to my table, I realized we were staring at each other in the slightly stupefied way of people who have stumbled upon a mutual attraction. Anna was a former dancer with radiant blue eyes and a nervous laugh. She wasn’t sure what she was doing in marketing; she’d gotten a new-media degree from an art school in the Netherlands. She was also unqualified for her job. Her boss, an old-school Madison Avenue screamer, kept Anna at the office until after dinnertime, called her at home, and wanted to know why she wasn’t “stepping up.” What passed between us over coffee was essentially a plea for help. For several weeks, I coached her: editing presentations, sourcing statistics, talking her down from the prospect of quitting. If I dig far enough back into my e-mail, I find a record of our exchange that is fawningly sympathetic, patient to a fault.
This was part of what I would later come to think of as the pattern, the central organizing principle around which all my relationships revolved. In its first phase, the pattern assured me that I’d found the last person I was ever going to date. It didn’t matter who she was, so long as I could invent those aspects of her personality that would save me from a future of middle-aged loneliness.
Thus I pursued Anna with a certain determination. I invited her to a noise-rock gallery show that would appeal to her art-school sensibilities. I took her for dinner at a hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant known for its soup dumplings and invoked the specter of my dad’s failing-heart health to hint at my emotional sensitivity. I bought a bottle of wine and suggested we stay in to watch a documentary about African child soldiers. Eventually Anna invited me back to her apartment, in an ungentrified stretch of south Brooklyn, where she’d hung dream catchers above her narrow bedroom windows. She told me how she one day hoped to open a Pilates studio. I stayed late into the weekend, turning Saturday morning into Sunday night, proposing we take a candlelit bath. We did this for about two months before I lost interest.
Which, of course, was part of the pattern as well. In the rejection phase I discovered that my chosen savior was no savior at all. There was something unpleasant about the way Anna’s forearms connected to her elbows, producing a roll of flesh that I found mildly obscene. Her dream catchers and amethyst meditation stones ceased to be charming, instead revealing spiritual naivety. It wasn’t that anything was really wrong with her forearms or her dream catchers, only that Anna could not possibly live up to the person I’d fabricated. And in lieu of admitting this to myself, I required a more obvious source of disappointment than my own actions.
So I canceled plans; I pleaded headaches and nonspecific feelings of illness. I postponed dinner until next week and the week after. I promised to make it up to Anna, then went a day without returning her calls. It would be incorrect to say that we stopped seeing each other, because such a distinction gives me too much credit for having ended our acquaintance outright. Rather, I slowed our communication to the point of stasis. I figured she’d grasp the situation and then spare us the unpleasantness of an unnecessary conversation. Soon, I assumed, I wouldn’t hear from her at all.
Except then late on a Sunday night, at nearly two in the morning, my phone chimed with a message.
Someone broke into my apartment and tried to hurt me, it read. Please call.
When I got ahold of Anna, she was in a cab on the way to her brother’s house in Queens. She relayed the sequence of events to me in a distant, clinical way: She’d been woken by the sound of movement in her room and opened her eyes to a man kneeling on her mattress. He pushed her down with one hand and attempted to cover her mouth with the other. Anna had struggled and screamed, and after a minute of this the man fled through an open window. When she stood up to call the police, she found that all her lightbulbs had been unscrewed and deposited in the trash.
We spoke frequently following the home invasion to establish that she had a place to stay, the necessary personal effects, and no trouble breaking her lease. This seemed like the charitable thing to do. The police took her statement and showed her mug shots. They were nice, she said, though they saw no real possibility of catching the man. He had probably staked out the building and planned his escape route in advance.
Then Anna asked if I would go with her to the shuttered apartment for an afternoon while she packed a few things.
“Uh . . . Saturday’s bad for me,” I said.
“It’d only be a few hours,” she said.
“Isn’t there anyone else you’re closer with? A friend? Your brother?”
“I need some help right now,” she said.
When I thought of the man standing over Anna’s bed and the way her screams would’ve carried across the hardwood floor, I was filled with an urgent impulse to accompany her. And yet at the same time, I hesitated: I was sure that extending myself would send the wrong message at exactly the wrong time, falsely advertising my availability, or worse, my desire. What had happened was tragic, but I couldn’t see how my presence would be any comfort. I was least qualified of all people to assist with this task. Moreover, I didn’t want to.
As a poor compromise, I volunteered to keep her company by phone. I’d stay on the line from the time she walked through the door until she locked up. Anna was less than enthusiastic about this but agreed. And so Saturday, just after lunch, I spent three hours with my cell phone pressed to my face while Anna packed. She was preoccupied, leaving me to fill the silence. I told her about my job writing PowerPoint presentations, how I disliked it but didn’t know what else to do, how I thought of going back to grad school. I told her that I felt I’d taken a wrong turn somewhere, that I sometimes doubted the shape my life was assuming. How I worried about my father, whose health was in decline, and how I felt I’d fallen on a tremendous foolishness in my late twenties. I wasn’t sure why I confessed these things to her, only that I had been given space to ramble. Finally I told her I was sorry.
“For what?” Anna asked. The clatter on the other end of the line came to an abrupt halt.
It felt like the moment where I was meant to apologize, and I did so liberally. Sorry she was having this experience. Sorry she had to leave the apartment where she’d lived for years, that a stranger had invaded her home and permanently violated her sense of safety. Sorry that the job hadn’t worked out. I tried apologizing for everything except myself, and Anna offered only a murmur by way of acknowledgment. After she hauled her bags down to the street and locked up, she thanked me for my time.
“I know you didn’t want to do this,” she said.
“Hey, it’s not ideal for either of us,” I said.
After that, Anna was gone.
I received a fourth envelope before the Clue pieces stopped appearing. Postmarked DC again, this one contained the dust jacket from a Queen EP called Play the Game. The cover art featured Freddie, Brian, John, and Roger all standing against a wall of fire. Taped inside was a knuckle-length dagger, blunt on its business end.
Then a month went by without sign of either the rope or the revolver, and then another month after that. For some reason the final pieces weren’t coming. This was both surprising and discomfiting. Such an abrupt ending violated the logic of the enterprise—its entire purpose seemed to be the buildup to a grand reveal. People asked after the remainder of the mystery, but I had no updates. I was relieved, I claimed. This satisfied no one. Didn’t I want to find out what happened? Didn’t I want closure?
I checked my mail every day. Often twice a day. I’d linger in the foyer of my building, my mailbox open, ready for that drum-taut kick in the lower portion of my stomach, that moment of anticipation when a sealed package is still full of possibility and not yet the thing that it is. I stared into my little province of bills and junk mail, and I waited. And slowly, waiting became giving up.
I still find myself telling the story of the Clue pieces from time to time. It’s the sort of anecdote that friends who remember the incident will revisit for a laugh over drinks or dinner. If we’re in my apartment (a new one, now with a semiobstructed view of the Williamsburg Bridge, thanks to my continued writing of PowerPoint presentations), I’ll rummage around the bottom of my closet to produce the envelopes. I offer them in sequence. People want to examine the weapons and the configurations of stamps, to look inside, to see if they can find a detail I’ve missed.
The version I share over dinner has been edited for efficiency’s sake. I’ve connected bits, elided here and there. I’ve selected those elements—the interior of the police station, the bitter January cold, the way the game ended so suddenly—that allow it to best hang together. For this reason and others, I neglect to include Anna.
Always when I reach the end, I get the same question. Did I figure out who did it?
No, I say. To this day I’m not one hundred percent sure. And this is technically correct, since I never contacted Anna to ask.
Soon theories are posed. Someone tells about a friend of a friend whose ex set fire to her car or who showed up unannounced on his doorstep from the opposite coast. Everyone wants to participate, and the easiest way to end the story is to give it away.
There are other things I choose not to include, and which I have omitted from this retelling as well. I suppose their exclusion is a cop-out, since I knew them from the beginning, from the arrival of that very first crooked metal clue. In my defense, knowing and comprehending are not always compatible activities, but I realize that’s pretty weak as defenses go.
When I first met Anna, she was using her art degree to run what she called a “ritual consultancy.” It was part conceptual art project, part guided meditation. For a negotiable fee, you could hire her to construct a ritual based on an extensive personal interview about your goals, dreams, and fears. This might involve going to a particular hotel at a particular time, checking into the fitness facilities, and swimming to the bottom of the pool to find a locked box. The box would contain a key. The key would open a door in a house where you would collect five feathers to be arranged in a star-shaped pattern. And so on until an essential truth about yourself was revealed.
Close to the end, when Anna must have known I was backing away, she sent me a grapefruit in the mail. She knew I liked grapefruit and we’d had a conversation about how you can mail almost anything—a brick, a single shoe—so long as you affix sufficient postage. One day I found a Ruby Red grapefruit in my mailbox, wrapped in stamps and covered in a layer of packing tape.
I heard from Anna precisely once after the home invasion and before the pieces appeared. She sent an e-mail asking why I’d acted as though I liked her and then proceeded to treat her like dirt. What was going through my head? She’d replayed the events over and over, but she couldn’t make sense of why I’d behaved in such a cruel way. She wanted to understand how she’d so badly misjudged me. She felt I owed her an explanation. Probably I did, though I never offered her one, or any response.
And the shame, of course. I choose not to include the shame.
Shortly after my thirty-second birthday, I told a friend about Anna and the envelopes she almost certainly sent, the facts in their entirety this time. Though I told her in a clumsy attempt at a confession, my friend happened to be the victim of her own stalking episode. Her increasingly violent ex-boyfriend had broken into her apartment and moved her possessions in ways that only she would notice, ultimately forcing her to relocate to California for several years.
“People with these delusions will stop at nothing,” my friend said, frowning at what I assume she saw as a hole in my personality where my objectivity should be.
“That’s not what I mean. We were both the problem,” I said. But my friend was decided.
An odd feature of the board game Clue is the possibility that your character can be guilty without your knowledge: at the beginning of play, cards representing the culprit, the murder weapon, and the location are placed facedown in an “evidence envelope” such that they remain concealed from all players. The rule book reminds you that no one is above suspicion, even your own game piece. In any given game, you have about a sixteen percent chance of needing to incriminate yourself to win. But moving from room to room, testing possibilities, it’s tempting to overlook your own culpability in the haste to see the board from your vantage. You’re the one solving the crime, not committing it.
I suppose I will never prove whether Anna sent the murder weapons in the mail. Not because I couldn’t if I wanted to, but because I now believe that the point of the experience was one of self-reflection, an exercise in addressing myself to the person I am and not the person I thought I’d be. I spent a long time gathering the substantiation to deem myself a quote-unquote stand-up guy, selecting those indicators of my stoicism, my warmth, the equitable reasoning of my judgment—qualities contradicted by my very insistence on their accuracy. Because the truth of these assertions lies not in their statement but in their potential for elimination; as is the nature of all puzzle pieces. And in this regard I’ve come to view the incident as a kind of gift, one that would only be muddied by certitude. I date far less frequently now, with a hesitance to overpromise, and with a generous representation of my less-flattering side. I’ve become scared of my capacity for self-confirmation and I want to make sure that whomever I end up with understands this, and is prepared to do me the long favor of calling it out.
But maybe even that is a form of editing; a congratulatory stance that suggests the act of honesty is a one-time revelation. It’s hard to tell. Maybe the only way we ever know who we are is to indict ourselves, and to continue indicting ourselves for as long as we can. Maybe that was the meaning of the ritual, the feathers in a star-shaped pattern, the lesson, whether intentional or not. I hope so, anyway. I’d feel better thinking that, in the end, I’ve made the right accusation.
Lost & Found:Carrie Brown, James Guida, Pamela Erens, Scott F. Parker, Carol Keeley
George Eliot has long been my favorite writer, yet I’m far from a completist in reading her work. I return to the same beloved titles over and over again: Middlemarch, Daniel Deronda, The Mill on the Floss, Silas Marner. I have never tackled Romola, a novel about fifteenth-century Florence, or Felix Holt, the Radical, which deals with Victorian electoral politics. Recently, I decided to make inroads against my neglect. I read the pastoral and melancholy Adam Bede, Eliot’s first novel, and bought a copy of Scenes of Clerical Life, the collection of three novellas that launched her as a fiction writer. I also turned to a shorter work from early in her career, The Lifted Veil, intrigued by the fact that it is a story of the supernatural. Eliot and the supernatural? A strange combination. What I love about Eliot is precisely her thoroughgoing humanism and reasonableness, the rooting of her sensibility deep in the soil of the real. Her dramas evolve out of the tragic imperfections of human nature, not the machinations of external forces. It seemed to me that The Lifted Veil’s supernatural elements might undermine Eliot’s moral authority, while her sober-minded prose might render any otherworldly theme ponderous.
Happily, I was wrong. The immensely absorbing The Lifted Veil combines Eliot’s psychological genius with a swift-moving plot, the chill of dark forces, and a lurid climax, all within a mere forty-three pages in my Oxford World’s Classics edition. Readers came close to being denied these pleasures, however. Eliot’s publisher, John Blackwood, was highly ambivalent about Eliot’s story. He suggested in a letter that she must have been in a disturbed state of mind when she wrote it, and tried to get her to remove the final scene (about which, more later). He backed off in the face of her resistance, but insisted on publishing the story anonymously. “George Eliot” had become a hugely successful byline after the publication of Adam Bede earlier that year, 1859, and Blackwell was afraid The Lifted Veil would lower its stock.
The novella is narrated by a man named Latimer, who tells us that he has a month left to live. He knows this fact, as well as precisely when and how he will die, because he is visited with previsions of personally significant events. He can also see into other people’s minds, an ability that came to him after a serious illness in his youth. His clairvoyance has destroyed him. He knows the worst of every human being, aware as he is that behind “the rational talk, the graceful attentions, the wittily-turned phrases, and the kindly deeds” of those around him is a “struggling chaos of puerilities, meanness, vague capricious memories, and indolent make-shift thoughts, from which human words and deeds emerge like leaflets covering a fermenting heap.” Above all, Latimer is revolted to discover his older brother’s shallowness and egotism. But one person’s mind remains oddly closed to him: that of Bertha, his brother’s fiancée. As a result, Bertha is the only one who Latimer can imagine may truly care for him—the only one, in short, about whom he can retain illusions. Naturally, he falls desperately in love with her.
This is the point upon which Eliot brings her great insight to bear. It is only through unknowing, she suggests, that human beings can desire, because so long as we are blinded, we can imagine perfection in the beloved, as well as delight in the untried and undiscovered. Without desire, there is no happiness. Latimer describes Bertha as his “oasis of mystery in the dreary desert of knowledge.” When, later, he is deprived of the ability to long for her, he becomes weary with life itself.
As a whole, Eliot’s oeuvre implies that it is through access to the subjectivity of others that empathy can blossom. In Middlemarch, Dorothea suddenly glimpses the fear and fragility of her oppressive husband, Casaubon, and her deep resentment of him melts. Rosamund, a normally frivolous and selfish woman, achieves elevation when, toward the end of the novel, she is awakened to Dorothea’s heartbreak and forms common cause with her.
But in another, famous, Middlemarch passage, Eliot writes that “if we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.” The Lifted Veil likewise indicates that Eliot suspected insight is not always saving. The lifting of the veil between others and us can result in disgust and terror. When, after marrying Bertha, Latimer finally gains access to her consciousness, he is appalled.
Latimer is the saddest character I know of in Eliot’s fiction, sadder even than Hetty Sorrel, the seduced and abandoned coquette of Adam Bede; sadder than Bulstrode, the Middlemarch banker afraid to face up to a long-ago misdeed and eventually ruined by his cowardice. Hetty and Bulstrode and their many tragic companions in Eliot’s works, unlike Latimer, have intimates who are loyal to them and some remaining ignorance about their fate. Latimer’s story is more frightening to me than any narrative pocked with werewolves or zombies could ever be. Zombies are out there, bumbling around in the big universe; clairvoyance is in here, where there is no escape.
The novella ends with a bizarre and spectacular scene involving a blood transfusion, part of a plot twist too complex to detail here without undermining the book’s suspense. This is the scene that so offended Blackwood, and while it is gory and melodramatic to be sure, it is less so now than it must have been to readers in 1859, when the very notion of a blood transfusion still carried connotations of black magic. (Human transfusions did not become routine and safe until the twentieth century, when blood types were discovered and classified.) The story would be far less memorable and satisfying without this ending. Through it, bad characters get their comeuppance and worthier ones are vindicated.
The scene of a just-expired woman and a doctor who slices his own arm to revive her sits indelible in the visual memory. But morally and psychologically, what remains of The Lifted Veil is Eliot’s understanding of the human need for privacy, our need not to know all. This is particularly salient, of course, in our era of voracious spying and information glut. In Latimer’s words,
So absolute is our soul’s need of something hidden and uncertain for the maintenance of that doubt and hope and effort which are the breath of its life, that if the whole future were laid bare to us beyond to-day, the interest of all mankind would be bent on the hours that lie between; we should pant after the uncertainties of our one morning and our one afternoon; we should rush fiercely to the Exchange for our last possibility of speculation, of success, of disappointment . . . Art and philosophy, literature and science, would fasten like bees on that one proposition which had the honey of probability in it, and be the more eager because their enjoyment would end with sunset.
About the Cover:Inga Poslitur
As this issue hits newsstands, a number of spawning salmon travel upstream. In “Waking Early Sunday Morning,” Robert Lowell describes them rushing over one another, “nosing up to the impossible / stone and bone-crushing waterfall.” The rivers are a flush of clamoring red. In our cover art, artist Inga Poslitur parallels this difficult journey with her experiences as an artist and as a woman—the idea of “going against preconceived ideas in society, regarding [her] role and responsibilities.”
Salmon Swim was created as part of Poslitur’s MFA thesis, which discusses societal pressures placed on women. The women in her collection are tattooed as well—the ink used as a storytelling device—markers of important life events.
Poslitur says that her distinct style has evolved naturally over time. Growing up in Russia, her influences were varied, from Dutch masters such as Vermeer and Rembrandt to the early twentieth-century Mir iskusstva (World of Art) movement. Her organic lines are rooted in the art nouveau aesthetic. Her portraiture has a strong art deco feel, as it draws from the work of Tamara de Lempicka and others.
You can see more of her art at www.ingaposlitur.com.