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?”

I hold my tongue. She always begins by criticizing my obvious coping mechanisms, like my instinct to camouflage difficult emotions in purple prose, to frame everything within the gilded rectangle of protracted, confusing allegory. It stings that, in addition to drawing attention to the mechanism itself, she must criticize the execution of the concept. Stilted. She thinks it helps to point out the smear in the oil painting, the missed note in the song, the labored rhyme in the poem.

“Why do we only talk in the confines of a metaphorical framing device?” she asks testily, still pulling me downward. I bear it with as much grace as I can muster. The pressure of the water pressing onto my body, while painful, is perversely soothing—a physical reminder that I can be squeezed, and squished, and bent, and torn, and ruptured, and therefore am alive.

“I talk to you all the time,” I mutter, eyes closed tightly.

“But you only listen to me here. Only here. Only at the bottom of a swimming pool. Or in the depths of the jungle. Or in the backseat of a junkyard Honda Civic. Or the farthest reaches of space.”

We’ve sunk to the tiled bottom. She relinquishes her hold on me, but stays nearby, drifting close enough that I can feel her exhalation. The blue tile is cool to the touch, like the dark side of a distant planet. I take a peek at her. Her lips are pursed. Her hair hovers around her long, pallid face in weightless tendrils, like mist rising from mountains on a frigid morning.

“Quit it with the metaphors and focus. Do you see the pattern? It’s all distant, remote places. It’s all places where people go to die.”

“They’re not metaphors. I used ‘like‘. Hair like mist rising for the mountains. It’s a simile.”

She frowns pointedly. We stare at each other with equally unhappy expressions. Then she puts her hands on my shoulders and leans in. When criticism fails to land, comfort is her next tactic. Bad cop, good cop. A strategic woman, to the very end. Her forehead knocks against mine gently. For a moment, I consider caving in. I contemplate an honest discussion, a heartfelt revelation, an even-handed disclosure of vulnerabilities. But hers is the kind of love that has a bite to it, an agenda, a hidden motive, and I am determined to resist.

“Stop it,” she says, wounded, as I nudge her away. Her presence, while harmless in small doses, tends to quickly become unbearable. I push off the bottom and swim up, towards the wet, blurry spot of light on the surface, ignoring her repeated calls of my name.

I heave myself out of the pool, spitting up green-tinged, chlorinated water. Sitting on the unfinished concrete around the pool, I let my feet dangle in the deep end. She surfaces, still frowning, but makes no move toward me. Instead, she floats on her back and sighs.

“Why are you trying so hard?” she asks, more to herself than to me. “Why are you so hypervigilant? What do you think might happen? Why do you think might not happen? Why don’t you talk to me like you used to? I know you have more in you than what you want to give. Will your soul speak more than what will fit through your mouth?”

The sun is beating down painfully on my naked back. I begin the process of pulling my clothes back on.

“I mean, let’s look at this honestly,” she continues, not caring, at this point, that I won’t participate in the conversation. “These ruins are your dreams, your expectations for your life. I guess the monoliths are specific dreams, specific expectations. You get older, you don’t get what you want, the dream breaks down. You lash out. This world gets more fragile each time you visit. Each time is a disappointment, but you can’t stop yourself from revisiting your failure.”

My clothes cling uncomfortably to my wet skin. A boom in the distance as a monolith splinters and falls hard onto the ground.

She swims up the edge. “Then there’s this pool. And me, trapped here like the goddamn Lady of the Lake.” She piles her arms onto the concrete, watching my reaction with calculated interest. “This pool must be the mind. But not a mind at rest. Not a healthy mind. Something more twisted, more sad.”

“Apathetic,” I say, swallowing. “Nihilistic. Maybe depressed. Despairing.” I’ve never liked to swim. My childhood memories of municipal pools have an element of survival horror to them. Skinned knees from slipping and falling on textured concrete, sunburn blistering the skin of my face, a rubbery bathing suit digging into the inside of my purpling thighs, the same story, every summer, of a neighborhood kid drowning in five inches of water, while the babysitter waited in line to buy Gatorade at the concession stand.

She nods, eyes bright with pleasure at my participation. “As for me,” she pauses, “I could be your mother. Maybe your daughter.”

Across the water, a curly-haired girl in a red wool jacket and a woman with bruised eyes behind Chanel sunglasses appear, holding hands. They open their mouths to scream but, before they can make a sound, I lift my hand in warning. They immediately wink out of existence.

Turning to her, I shake my head. “You’re me. For sure.”

She rolls her eyes and tries a smile. It sits on her face oddly, like an ill-fitting garment. “Don’t you think that’s a little self-indulgent?”

“It’s my blog,” I snap. “I can do what I want.”

She lets out a peal of laughter. “That much is obvious.” We’ve come full circle now. From criticism, to love, to taunts. I brush the sand off my overalls and adjust my hat so that its brim conceals my eyes.

“Hey,” she says, quietly now, but not without a note of rising panic, “why do you keep me here? What could I say to you that you don’t already know? What can I do to help you?” A pause. “Can I help you?”

I shrug. I truly don’t know.

“Will you return?” The panic is undisguised now.

“Sure,” I say, as noncommittally as possible, as I start back down the path.

“That’s such a cliché,” she calls out after me. “Starting back down the path. What path is that? Where does it lead?”

I don’t reply, because I, the blog author, can’t and don’t want to think of an answer. I only want to wander, untethered, unmoored, unsatisfied, unhappy, through the unchanging, eternal desert of this life, where I am nothing but a drop of water splashing onto tile, nothing but an imperceptible shift in the clouds, nothing but an overwrought sentence in an overwrought post, nothing but a tiny fragment of pink stone preserved in a glass vial, nothing but the fetid curlicue of a rotting mass of brain, nothing but a single grain of golden sand, trapped far below the surface of a dune, embroiled in the inescapable destiny of a huge shifting pile of matter, its course set only by the wind, and the rain, and time.


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