Bathing in the Styx

Lying on the grass, my hands folded over my chest, I look upwards, the whole of my vision turning green, gold, and baby blue as I look through the irregular sheaf of leaves, branches, and sparkling air overhead. I hold my body still while my eyes dart around, from twisted branch to falling leaf, following the long-lived dance held between the trees and the wind. Every few seconds, a quick-moving bird or insect joins into the choreography, their shadows skittering over the grass.

I try to watch purposefully, with the meticulous, deeply considered attention of an astronomer charting clouds of stars. I try to think of nothing but the wind, the trees, the grass. I reduce them, as though simmering away the water in their bodies, to a slurry of light, matter, and sensation. The wind is a blue-toned and fragrant memory of the seashore and the grass is a kiss on my ankles and wrists. The world is here, in this field. It is contained in the eggshell of the sky, pricked by needles of metallic yellow and olive-green light. I try to keep my mind on a leash, yanking it back when it threatens to dash out of the fenced-in perimeter and onto the road below. This is a task that requires every ounce of my concentration.

Across the field, a young woman, her face obscured by a thick scarf, is bent over her phone. Our gazes never meet. I don’t notice when she leaves but when I next look around, she is already gone. Now, in her place, an older woman is leading a toddler across the patchy grass. She pauses every so often to let him test the sensation of walking on his own; he sinks to his knees, at a loss. His eyes, blinking against the light, move in my direction, but I am too far away for him to truly see: a silhouette bathed in the green blur of the trees. His hands grab at the tufts of grass. When he leans down to inspect the clump in his hand, I notice the roughly circular bald spot on his crown, as obvious as a speckled, pink-and-white carnation pinned to a dark lapel.

Something about very young children has always made me uneasy; with their jerky movements, farsightedness, half-formed limbs, and toothless smiles, they seem especially close to death. Never mind that, in terms of proximity and according to the moral order of things, we should never be farther away from death than we are as children. But even as a young girl myself, I felt that the veil between my life and death was strikingly thin, almost insubstantial. A barrier more like a cobweb than a curtain. I never possessed the sure-footed belief in my own immortality that seemed to characterize the childhoods of others. I was always conscious of fragility, particularly my own. Everything around me and about me seemed weak, insufficient, prone to breakage and failure.

In the photos where I most strongly recognize myself—my real presence, spared from artifice and revealed authentically, in the tepid waters of a drugstore darkroom, before being printed on laminated plastic and handed to my mother in a paper envelope—I am unsmiling, and my eyes are faraway, beholding a fuzzy, nearly invisible figure in the distance. A tiny psychopomp in a black felt hat, cradling a doll with a red satin ribbon woven through the synthetic strands of its hair.

In the moments after the woman-and-baby duo exit the park, a gray-haired gardener, shears in hand, a rubber apron over her midsection, walks assiduously through the field. She vanishes under the cover of the distant trees. I wonder what the world may be trying to tell me with this parade of women entering and exiting the field, while I lay under the cool shade of the largest maple. Will I ever grow old enough to appreciate the passage of days, to enjoy them, to indulge in their small, varied pleasures like the gem-like stars, the star-shaped leaves, the trees like angels, the wind like God? Will I ever lose the perverse urge to siphon away the value of my own time via the vice, the maw, of melancholia, its grip tightening around me like a cuff strapped around my torso, numbing me before the blood draw that reduces me to nothing but matter and sensation, nothing but cells oriented toward despondency, nothing but the shells of thoughts configured for fragility, toward failure?

I don’t want to be “productive”. I don’t want to be “pessimistic”. I don’t want the self-help manual, the uplifting conversation, the sun-bleached afternoon, the tender poem, the TV show produced by a crowd of web-savvy millennials, the gimmick, the joke, the cry in the dark. I want to never cause harm. I want to take back all the pain. I want to forgive. I want to choose right. I sit up, leaves in my hair, suddenly overwhelmed by a feeling I can’t name and will later be unable to describe, to give life beyond where it lives, sick to its stomach, within me. I want to never fear death. I want to meet its eyes across the field.

Bliss Point (Full Story)

Writing this was an experiment (on some level, though, I suppose writing anything is an experiment). I didn’t have an end in mind, or even a beginning or a middle, when I started writing. Instead, what I had was a series of images. A larger-than-life tiger, a blue chalk arrow, a suburban backyard. The threat of death, the complication of sacrifice. I had a vague notion that I wanted to recreate Iphigenia at Aulis. That didn’t end up happening, but it will someday.

In the end, I think all I wanted was to capture the sensation of listening to a bedtime story as it is being made up in real-time. I have compiled all part of “Bliss Point” together below and lightly edited it where needed.

(more…)

“SOMETHING TRUE”

I am sitting at the desk, patiently enduring the chill coming from the single-pane window, blinking away the fog of tiredness that saps my strength like a deer tick squatting on my brain, like a sea sponge, expunged from its natural environment and sold by Amazon as a dyed pink loofah, soaking up water from the shower drain. One foot is tucked underneath me—ankle strangled by thigh, bereft of blood—and is rapidly losing sensation. I am sitting in silence with the sole goal of writing something true, but I think it may, unfortunately, not be as easy as I initially hoped.

I must admit that I think of the “something true” as something that lives perennially inside me, well-nourished and lucid as genius, luminous as moonstone, appraising conditions outside my body for the right opportunity to emerge, resplendent in the last dregs of milky afternoon light. But “something true” is not a “something” that I am knowingly carrying. I do not feel it inside me as I do the digestion of a meal, or a thorn in my shoe, or a wound in my memory. If I carry anything true, it resides in me as noise indistinguishable from the plaintive chorus of cells, tissues, thoughts, organs, feelings, joys, tragedies. I cannot pluck its face from the crowd. I probe my stomach, my limbs, my heart, every part of me more meat than spirit, looking for the “something true” in the blue night, but no reply is forthcoming.

I know “something true” was here, once—I knew it as a child, as many children do, playing by myself in a corner of the sandlot, living out a tiny life rich with alien roots sprouting from dark earth. I knew I could create, even if what I made was never good enough. But the certainty of that seems to have faded as I have grown and and become accustomed to trading authenticity for commercial viability and passion for (limited-to-nonexistent) career advancement. When I write now in pursuit of “something true,” I find myself lost, more often that not, in a labyrinth wallpapered in endlessly scrolling feeds. Blinking open wetly from the ceiling, the gaze of my father, and his father, and his father’s father, falls on me like a cascade of cinder blocks. I become possessed by the fear that I should be doing something else, anything else. I forget to feed the white rabbit. Its red eyes flutter closed. Could I have already killed the possibility of my “something true” through neglect? But in its absence I finally understand how tenderly the act of creation once held me, how my day was structured around it like paradise around the apple, like flesh around the parasite, like sound around meaning, and how my life continues to take the shape of an asymptote reaching for it, for something that is missing.

The Fisher Princess V

The Fisher Princess I / The Fisher Princess II / The Fisher Princess III / The Fisher Princess IV

He licks his upper teeth, tongue bulging from under the pink skin above his mouth. He shuffles a stack of papers over the tabletop, dull gaze tracking the motion of his hands as blandly as a crossing guard monitoring traffic. He smacks the edges of the paper against the dark green linoleum. Only then—the task completed, its tedium radiating through the room and holding them in bored, expectant thrall—does he look up at Cal and Max, sitting silently on the other side of the table.

Max can’t stop shivering. The room is small, box-like, windowless, and tiled along both floor and ceiling. Only a wilting fern tucked in a corner, its leaves edged in the yellow of old parchment, serves as decoration. She has the distinct impression that the space is kept purposefully cold. All warmth—bodily warmth, emotional warm—that enters is immediately quelled by the chill in the air, the silent devastation of the fern, the cultivated disinterest of the officer.

“I’ve had a chance to look at your testimony,” the officer now says. He is expressionless in a way that is obviously practiced. Nothing in his face betrays his thoughts—not their content, nor their existence. Nothing emerges from the waters of his tone—not even the shadow of a living thing with a beating heart beneath its surface. A man like him serves as an obstacle.

Max shifts in her seat. She’s almost offended at his lack of reaction, no matter how studiously affected. Overwhelmed by a silence that stretches uneasily into its tenth, blistering second, she breaks. “And?”

(more…)

Bliss Point (5/5)

Sal swallows hard and squeezes her eyes shut. She pictures her sister’s cool hand on her shoulder, steadying her, helping her first to her knees, and then to her feet. She thinks of all the times she has yanked Mina up from a fallen position: Mina’s tiny feet flailing as Sal hoists her from out of the sandpit, or into the family sedan, or onto a high chair, ignoring mewls of protest. All force of authority, in which a preteen Sal had perversely indulged. She puts one hand on her chest, fingers digging into the fabric. Remorse threatens to topple her and she has to bite back, not for the first time, the impossible desire to re-do their childhood, this time with an adult’s understanding of emotional tenderness, of duty of care, of sacrifice.

The void fizzes out, as naturally and as unceremoniously as the sun vanishing under the gray line of the horizon. The girl’s face returns. Her pride, playfulness, and spirit are gone. In their place is the dun-yellow gaze of a cornered animal. Sal steadies herself on the back of the chair.

When next the girl-tiger speaks, her voice comes out in a whisper. “Do you remember game day, when we were kids?”

Sal freezes. Blood rings in a low, wet tone, in the cavern of her head. The two men immediately turn to look at them. The charade is now over, and they begin their approach with even, measured footsteps.

(more…)

Namesake

True to its namesake, this Sunday was bursting at the seams with light. I looked up at the sky and the clarity of its color—clarity as a pure and as vivid as the pinprick of a needle—took my breath away.

Not true to my namesake (Emma, from ermen, meaning “whole”), today my attention is being pulled in a hundred different directions. Work, play, friends, partner. Family. Sad, bad, happy. Regretful.

The way my attention divides is like cells multiplying: each instance of division represents continuation, forward momentum, the progression of linear time, but, also, by those same gilded tokens, decay, inertia, and eventual collapse of being. You cannot be in many places at once without the quality of your presence diminishing. My eyes scatter out, profligate propagation, through the textured skin of tough calls, ruinous moods, and pits of anxiety. Each time my mind moves out to seek another task, another problem, another email, another text, the quality of my focus suffers as a result. It splinters, then fractures. It flushes, then reddens, then bleeds. I lose my train of thought. I become unable to name the right word, to follow the flow of a conversation, to keep myself from wandering off into the thorns of the next thing To-Do. I listen less intently, and respond less intentionally, and behave less thoughtfully. This, I know, puts me directly on the path of becoming a woman I am not and don’t want to be.

But life demands a fractured being. Staying in touch requires ten different apps bearing pastel-colored logos with soft, curved edges, elegantly curated feeds with custom typefaces, and consequences to my psyche that feel like being emotionally pulverized with a hammer. Keeping up with work trends means five subscriptions to magazines and trade papers, all eager to costume the truth in whatever disguise best suits the cause of sensationalism. A healthy body deserves rest, food, and exercise, but I cannot consistently provide all three, or even two. I have now been trained to seek distraction, to fear introspection, to submit to the transformation of hours of my life into ad revenue, to split my presence into forms that are “real” and “digital,” that are “personal” and “public-facing,” that are “work” and “life”.

My mind, flattened until it disintegrates, floats through the digital meadows of Asphodel. The day shifts shape. My mind returns to my body, filling out its contours like water crowding a bay. I come home and drop my bag onto the hardwood floors. I roll my tired shoulders, turn on the light, and fall onto the couch. Momentarily whole, momentarily true, momentarily at peace.

Hypervigilant

In the ruins poking over the horizon—sandy yellow, blurred at the edges, pink marble monuments glazed by the greenish sun—lies everything I have ever wanted. I stand on a distant dune, kitted out in a broad-brimmed hat, khaki overalls, and combat boots. I’m waiting for my opportunity to approach. The air is alive with heat, light, and whorls of dust.

Sand turns to worn cobblestone under my feet. The monoliths are tall and rectangular, providing some shelter from the elements in the form of long, cascading shadows. But they are afraid of my encroaching presence and recede from me as I walk by, no matter how slow and careful my steps. I observe one at its base, noting the irregular pattern of its pink-gray stone. But out of respect for its discomfort, I restrain myself from laying a hand on its cool surface. In response, I feel it release an icy breath of relief onto my retreating back.

I don’t begrudge the monoliths their distrust. They have ample reason to fear my visits. At first there are only a few broken monoliths scattered among them, but, as I press forward, I see they have grown in number. They lie in perfect halves, snapped apart cleanly, like toothpicks. Stepping over them feels profoundly wrong—like committing a crime in paradise. Sweat runs down my spine in thin, snaking lines.

There isn’t a whole monolith to be seen anywhere by the time I make it to the swimming pool at the center of the ruins. The broken monoliths here are nothing but piles of rubble, the dusty rose of the stone reduced to the color of spilled brain matter. The pool, lobular and ordinary, its sides bounded in unfinished concrete, is clear and glassy in the light. Palm fronds litter its surface. I shed my clothes and submerge myself, hissing in pain as my bare skin, scraped raw by sand and wind, makes contact with the water. At first, I swim cautiously, crossing sign posts in my mind as each stroke gets me closer to the deep end of the pool.

I almost have my hand on the concrete edge, terror and exhilaration catching in my throat, when I feel her launch herself from the bottom. A sleeve of bubbles, a torrent of force, churning underneath my shadow. I feel her anger before the grip of her hand, grabbing my wrist with her thumb and forefinger. Her nails dig in, drawing blood. I manage to heave in half a breath before she drags me down.

“Does it help,” she hisses in my ear, “to write out hundreds of words of stilted preamble? Does it delay the inevitable?”

(more…)

Bliss Point (4/5)

The girl has short hair that sticks to her flushed, sweaty cheeks, bracketing her face like a helmet, or like ribs around a heart. She has a lovely smile, but in Sal’s estimation her beauty is a false coin, just a reflection of her youthfulness rather than real allure. At that, she hears Mina’s plaintive voice in her head: Don’t be mean. Sal twists back to contest the Mina in her mind, insisting that she’s critical, not cruel. Value-neutral. A cool blue temperament: righteous, clear-eyed, candid, uncompromising. She knows the limitations of that argument, and how much it relies on Mina’s generous acceptance of Sal’s own opinion of herself. The truth is that the day Mina outgrows her sister, Sal will shatter into a million pieces.

But even Mina would have to admit that, in this case, the evidence is self-evident. Sal is stating the facts. The girl’s amber-green eyes, while striking, are far too large for her face, forcing her other more finely formed features to crowd together, as awkwardly as poorly spaced digits on a clock face. A defective doll, Sal thinks, letting her powers of observations wax poetic. She’ll ask Mina later if that’s too mean. She decides she’ll apologize if Mina says it was.

The girl is not tied to the chair, but the way she holds her body—her arms and knees pressed to her torso tightly, maybe painfully—still suggests confinement. Not material, but psychological. The two men hover at the edge of the backyard, at the intersection of property lines where the grass changes color from well-tended, manicured green to sickly yellow, conversing in hushed tones under the narrow shade of a maple sapling. They’re standing casually, like chaperones at a school dance, but it doesn’t escape Sal’s attention that one still carries a switchblade in his fist, and is repeatedly flicking it open and closed.

“It’s going to be okay,” Sal whispers to the girl, in her usual attempt at comfort. A big sister even to strangers.

At that, the girl shrugs. It’s a bored, noncommittal gesture, but her eyes glitter with playful intelligence, as though egging Sal on.

(more…)

The shores of memory

We half-walk, half-shuffle through brown sand littered with shell fragments, on a clean but otherwise unremarkable beach bracketed on one side by the churning gray waters of the ocean and on the other by a geometric mass of steel, concrete, and weather-worn plastic that, in the pink-purple clarity of the sunset, looks less like a charming coastal town and more like a recently unearthed, life-size time capsule from the 80’s. Gold and aquamarine Ozymandias. I finger the rust on the fence as I wait to cross the road.

The convenience store, the perfect site for data collection on types of local demand, sells rice crackers, cooler-sized blocks of ice, baggies of pineapple chunks bobbing in their juice, and five kinds of flavored vodka. I wander the aisles in flip-flops and a khaki dress, my salt-encrusted hair escaping from its clam-shell clasp to swim down my back in a wave vaguely redolent of seaweed, potato chips, and canned beer. Outside, trucks roll past, down the seaside road that connects us to Tokyo, and Tokyo to the distant, isolated, snow-covered north.

I return to the shore empty-handed. I pretend to nap, my head in Strawberry’s lap and my eyes facing the froth of the tide, as he makes conversation with our friends and acquaintances. We will spend six hours idle here, traveling from the tent on the beach to the tidy Seven-Eleven fifty meters away only to relieve ourselves, or to replenish our stock of ice and chips. The day moves forward, not dully, but with no feeling behind its ticking seconds, like a bloated episode of television. The crash of the waves is methodical, meditative, and evokes nothing but itself. Perfect to drown out any persistent thought, or to soften the burn of any blistering memory. The temperature of the air is neither warm nor cool, but still not entirely comfortable. I keep awkwardly shifting my position, fracturing any possibility of real rest. My mouth tastes like the artificial vanilla of cheap soft-serve. My thighs are wet, cold, and clammy to the touch, like refrigerated meat in its Styrofoam package, sitting in a shallow bath of blood.

The older I get, the more closely I parody the paranoia of my father, the melancholia of my mother. I say “parody” because it feels intentional and ironic, and sometimes gratifying and clever. But, to be honest, it can also feel uncontrolled, inevitable, and painful. Less like performance and more like fate. Regardless, it is one thing above all else to slowly transform into one’s parents, and that is “annoyingly self-inflicted,” the way continuing a nicotine addiction is both a choice and not a choice. I cannot help but to grow into my mother’s hands and my father’s legs, which sit on me oddly, like parts cobbled together in the style of Frankenstein. I cannot help but manifest their bad habits, absorbed during the porous days of childhood and released now like ancient volcanic vapors. The marks of genetic destiny are obvious even in baby photos in which I lie, swaddled in white linen, already in possession of the family frown. Sometimes I think I own nothing of my own. Even lying on the beach, sand between my toes, Strawberry’s hand on my head, his thumb weeding pebbles from my hair, feels like a borrowed dream, an echo from a past that I didn’t live.

I feel the shadows of my family most acutely at the beach, where I spent so many summers with them in my pampered infancy, and frenetic childhood, and grumpy, scary adolescence, and frightened adulthood. It means I am always dying to visit the ocean and then, once there, totally unable to understand its appeal. Nostalgia exerts a special kind of pressure, strong enough to compel the strangest behavior—I’ve seen it induce people to even bear children, as though shaping and clay-firing a vessel of innocence could restore to life the memory of their own.

But I feel no comfort from nostalgia; its most immediate side-effect, once satiated, is only sadness, felt as the prickly chill of lost time, escaping from the mind as inexorably as air-conditioned inhalation from a cracked-open car window rushing down the highway. (I remember my pimply arms piled parallel to the sticky rubber gap between window and seat, like a spectator to my own life.) This—nostalgia’s brew of sadness—means I am a moody beach-goer. I get up, pad a few steps away from the tent, away from the water, to stare at the concrete blocks that divide the sand from the road. I can see a row of flowers, buried up to their necks in the strip of soil around the Seven-Eleven. The heat is vanishing, from terror to shimmer to nothing. I hold my hand over my eyes like a visor as I scan the clouds for a reason to leave, or a reason to stay.

Bliss Point (3/5)

“The tiger,” Sal yells back at Mina, as they run through the stubbly grass of the neighborhood backyards. “That’s what you shot, right?”

Mina nods mutely. Gone is her desire to deny. The scream rings through her mind like a struck gong.

“I get it,” says Sal as gently as their mother, and Mina reels back on the line, hooked and stung, both encouraged and profoundly dismayed by the show of empathy.

It feels good to be understood, but bad to be understandable. She wants desperately to be like Sal: an enigma, a mystery of cold gaze and muscular arms and strawberry blonde bobbed hair. She wants that steely light in her eyes, a torch that never dims, to fall into her possession.

“You’ve never liked cats,” Sal continues, and Mina smiles grimly at the accuracy of that explanation.

She keeps her eyes forward, gaze bobbing jerkily as she tries to match Sal’s pace. Mina had started out like a race horse, flush with adrenaline, but that chemical is quickly receding, leaving her hot and panicked in its wake. But Sal is immune to tiredness, gliding forward with no sign of exertion, her legs pumping with raw, fluid, impossible strength.

“Sal, I have to stop,” Mina pants, her hands coming down heavily onto her knees as she sinks to the grass of a neighbor’s backyard. Sal doesn’t say anything. A twisted magnolia watches as she immediately slides her arms under her sister’s armpits and hoists her back up to a standing position.

“Come on, Mina,” Sal says evenly, “you know you don’t have a choice.”

(more…)