When I was thirteen, my older sisters’ boyfriends found my journal. Reading it must have been an afternoon’s entertainment and, when they encountered me the next day, they thought it might be fun to slip in questions they knew I’d asked myself.
The linebacker smiled and said, “Why are you so serious? Why can’t you just be?”
“David,” the guitar player said, “do you think you will you ever find someone like you, someone who you can let into your secret places?”
They barely suppressed laughter. My sisters looked pained—appalled and embarrassed and sorry—but smirks lay beneath their expressions too. Or that’s what I saw. If I talked to them about what happened, they might have apologized, then or later. But I didn’t. I haven’t.
Instead I went to my room.
The surreal comic Stephen Wright used to tell a joke:
“I have a map of the United States… actual size. It says, ‘Scale: 1 mile = 1 mile…’ I spent last summer folding it.”
This map is my life—inviolably itself and yet I’m always trying to make the first fold, to find an angle of approach that will discover the creases of its hidden sense and render it manageable.
A chair has one essential characteristic—you must be able to sit on it—and every other attribute varies. It might have no legs or three legs, or two legs or one. You may be able to rest your back or fall asleep in it. You might die in a chair, and it might be built for that. A table, shelf, or rock could be a temporary chair, though it isn’t truly. Anything can appear to be a chair.
How would you tell a computer what a chair is? Descriptors like size and shape and color and function might eventually help a machine determine it’s looking at a chair, but programming like that takes the long way. You’d like to convey the chair-ness humans take for granted.
What if humans looked at all the different types of chairs and didn’t understand the pattern? What if we couldn’t perceive chair-ness or any other neo-platonic ideal that helps us know each thing is a type of thing? What if all the synapses we bridge every day remained voids?
Living in Chicago, I like to watch pedestrians check themselves out in storefront windows. They turn their heads slightly to the side and adjust what needs adjusting—hair, belt, ties, skirts, collars, expressions—and still they keep in step, hoping not to be seen. These strange glimpses reveal privacy in open air, and, if pedestrians see me looking, they avert their eyes. Sometimes they blush.
I dip into the reality within them and appreciate knowing they aren’t unlike me after all.
Even when dreams don’t repeat themselves, they return over and over to familiar motifs and scenarios that would mark them, if they were movies, as the work of a particular auteur.
In my dreams, I’m always wandering off. I tell someone I will be back with a towel or a piece of paper or a sandwich or an answer, and I just don’t come back. The mistake becomes clear later. The rest of the dream lurches forward between episodes of wincing.
Sometimes I try to deliver whatever is missing, but the recipient is no longer interested, or gone, or replaced by another person who can’t understand the urgency of my mission.
They often get what they were missing whether they want it or not, and only then the dream moves on.
You can protect a new flame by cupping your hands so tightly you hide its light, deprive it of oxygen, and burn your hands.
According to Jean Anouihl, tragedy becomes melodrama when it loses inevitability. With one effort, an EMS tackle-box might save Romeo, a house call from Macbeth’s therapist might help chance crown him, and a quick conversation beginning with “About Iago…” might spare Othello.
But tragedy is seldom so simple. In melodrama, nothing is at stake. Nothing is irreversible, and fate won’t spoil desire. The distinction rests on belief. Some moments are so unavoidable belief won’t spare you, but the rest of the time we search for exits. This time the car will start, the computer will reboot, and the air conditioner will rush to life.
Brains look for patterns, seeking signals amid noisy chance and chaotic circumstance. It isn’t exactly belief. If the brain looks hard enough and connects stars perfectly, constellations emerge, the complete picture at last. Or so the organ assumes.
No one I believe tells me I’m right.
In my desperate courting days, I met the great-great-granddaughter of Henry Clay, and, during one evening of square-dancing at a Kentucky Roadhouse, I decided to marry her. Over the next few days she answered every phone call, but each time her voice carried more obvious alarm.
Soon she had to tell me, “I’m not ready for this.” She asked me not to call again.
Some weeks later, I saw her at a bar dancing to a band called “Nervous Melvin and the Mistakes.” We half-waved, and, after an hour of visions and revisions, I walked over to ask how she’d been. The music was so loud she couldn’t hear me, but she did hear me—or I heard her. She wore the anxious smile of flight.
Dan Markley lived in the house across the street and field on Estate Drive. He played the drums and drew constantly. He was too slow and gentle for football but organized every neighborhood game. He loved the Beatles so much he dressed as each of their Abbey Road personas—in chukka boots, jeans and workshirt, in a classic black suit, in flamboyant white or evangelistic, zoot-suit super-stylishness. He lived with his grandmother because his mother was too young and his father left him behind for a life far away.
He loved my sisters and at every opportunity visited our house, a puppy nuzzling their knees despite himself. Dan would be anything for them—chauffeur, courier, substitute babysitter, collaborator—even though my sisters gave him no hope. The more they asked, the more he did.
He never stopped smiling. Every greeting felt as though he meant to make a good first impression. I don’t know if he liked any of what was demanded of him because he never spoke the hopes he harbored.
With all this horseshit, he seemed to think, there must be a pony around here someplace.
Recently, I received a text from my son at 3:34 am, “Damn your insomniac genes.” His curse is mine, my brother’s, my mother’s, my grandmother’s—when he wakes in the middle of the night, his brain heats instantly to blazing. It takes some hours to dissipate, and, even then, its heat fevers the half-sleep and half-light of dawn.
Truthfully, I’m imagining him with my own insomnia, which feels like I forgot the oven was on before leaving the house to fly into strange country.
The past flickers for hours and every flame swings on a hinge of what I did and might have. It makes no sense to revisit any of it, but night drags me there. The house is quiet and still, but my brain stumbles on in regret.
I thought of texting my son back but hoped he was asleep.
June Tabor is an English folksinger whose melancholy voice I once found soothing, and two of my favorite tunes—“All this Useless Beauty” and “I Want to Vanish”—were written for her by Elvis Costello, another of my favorites.
Midway through the song, Tabor sings:
If you should stumble upon my last remark
I’m crying in the wilderness
I’m trying my best to make it dark
How can I tell you I’m rarer than most
I’m certain as a lost dog
Pondering a sign post
Sometimes you think you hear what others can’t. Deep memories stir—she’s telling you she’s fallen out of love and into like, that this time her forgetting means something, that you won’t convince her again you’re worth saving. Tabor’s song raised the faces of failed connections from inky water, and I imagined them stumbling upon my painfully sincere love poems or too-long letters. I would still be inside them, still trying across all that time, as freshly pathetic, as laughable, the lost dog stuck before the signpost, awaiting direction.
The best e-mails arrive from another life. A few weeks ago I received one from a college girlfriend who wanted to know what had become of me. In the last paragraph, she wrote that she felt bad about our ending and said, “I was nasty and immature, and I am sorry about that, especially since I really did admire you in so many ways, for your talents and your charms. I do hope life has been good to you.”
I couldn’t think of anything she needed to apologize for. I wanted to write back immediately and say, “I’m sure I deserved it, whatever it was,” but first I had to enjoy the sweet revision, the knitting up of an unraveled connection.
Bernard Marx, one of the main characters of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, is shorter than all the other members of his genetically engineered and carefully conditioned caste, and another character blames alcohol in his blood surrogate. “He’s so stunted,” she says.
And he is, but the trouble isn’t his stature—it’s the self-consciousness his difference creates. His height makes him visible to himself, and he never takes his eye from the mirror. Every effort to stand out appears an attempt to celebrate his distinctiveness, but really he might embrace the anaesthetized life of every other member of the brave new world if he could just give up looking at himself, if he could only pass that mirror by.
The surface of a river says little about deep currents churning silt and algae between the scattered rocks of the riverbed. Fish dart among the rocks, invisible, desiring and not desiring the glittering surface, the lure and danger it presents.
Once I tried to un-break-up with a girlfriend. When we split, we’d been together for a long time, I’d stopped being new to her, and I was sure she’d abandon me soon. I wanted us to end on my terms, but her tears surprised me. Then I knew I’d been wrong.
It was Christmas and she’d just given me a sweater I’d already unwrapped. Its weight on my lap grew heavier and heavier. The spot where it rested grew hotter and hotter.
She kept asking why, and I hadn’t prepared a response. Or rather I was unprepared to tell the truth. What I did say has vanished, words snaking into air like twists of steam.
When a month later I said I’d been wrong and missed her more than could be expressed, she said I’d hurt her and she’d found consolation in someone she’d met. She thanked me. He was someone she might otherwise have overlooked.
And she told me I hadn’t been honest.
By the time I met my wife, I’d learned to play someone I’d rather be.
Prosopagnosia stems from brain damage and makes recognizing familiar faces impossible. Sufferers float in a world of first meetings. Though they may draw on their history of relationships and know they have a spouse, a child, family, and friends, they can’t match this face to that history or understand who is standing before them now, even when they stare at photographs of themselves.
Except that some part of them can understand. Computers trace the movement of eyes as people scan faces, and the data reports two responses, one for strangers and one for those they know. Even in people with prosopagnosia, the eyes know. They behave as they always did before loved ones and friends.
They just can’t know what they know. The eyes search and the brain—its sense broken—ambles on.
“Life is indeed dangerous… It is indeed unmanageable,” E. M. Forster says in Howards End, “but the essence of it is not a battle. It is unmanageable because it is a romance, and its essence is romantic beauty.”
I’m up before everybody else going over today’s list of tasks, responsibilities, and prods to memory. I think, “What if, taken together, these lists are me?”
All the inventions and connections unreel like cash register tape. I want to believe anything spilled is salvageable. I want to gather myself at last.