The age of defeat

At a party last night, a woman I don’t know well asked me if I was happy, and I refused, cheerfully, to answer. When she pressed the issue, something rose in me—so defiantly that I felt that reaction internally, like a bruising within my body. My veins twisted into coils of black. I fought to keep a pleasant, neutral expression on my face as her voice lost the rhythm of language and morphed instead into throbbing sound. I walked home, the autumn wind slicing through my clothes, and heard her question ringing repeatedly through the darkness, like an approaching ambulance.

Just a question—Are you happy?—but there was a presumption of intimacy to it that repelled me. That night, trying and failing to sleep, my mind rolled out of bed to void its contents into a bucket, where my feelings surged against the walls, unanchored from artifice, whipping up into clear, bubbling foam. My mind climbed a rockface, its red-and-blue palms slick, and then flung itself off a cliff older than time itself. I woke up jackknifed in the sheets, tear tracks like tattoos, a returnee from a voyage that I couldn’t remember except in shreds of souvenirs. One of these was a child’s hand, with the three-word question from the night before scrawled across the pinkish skin of the tiny palm. I sat down to write about the dream, and found that I couldn’t let myself do it.

Are you happy? Are you happy? Are you happy?

Sometimes I go weeks without writing because something else occupies my thoughts. I mean that literally: When I visit the door to my mind, I find a column of dark stone blocking the entry so entirely that no light and no sound can pass through. The column often takes a specific shape—my shape. I fiddle with the pen, head casting a shadow over the table, and when I look up I see my double standing there, arms crossed tightly over her chest. Her expression, as she stares down at me, is an uncomfortable tangle of conflictive emotion. She understands me better than anyone, but the greater intimacy has afforded her too close a look at my ugliness. I hear her voice as though from a distance, saying, in a tone reserved for iterant daughters: Stop that. Stop pretending. Write what you want to write. Write about your despair.

“My despair?” I say, slowly, trying to buy time.

“Yes, your despair,” she replies, sullenly, knowing everything about my every attempt at charade. “I know you’re afraid to scare people. But I won’t let you write about anything else until you do this.”

My despair. She is light enough for me to carry through the city, cradled in my arms like an infant animal. She is tender to the touch, like a pustule. The setting sun glazes the pavement in apricot and red. She settles in. My despair is warm and soft and smells like blood. I slow my steps so as to not startle her. I fall behind the crowds, letting the comfort of distant voices lapse into silence. When my despair turns her face up to me, she looks at me with eyes I recognize.

“I’m trying to write about my happiness,” I say to my double, in a feeble attempt to extricate myself from this effort.

“Keep going,” she insists.

At the boundary between the city and the forest, I pause to feed my despair. I let her tear at my breast. I don’t relish the pain, but indulge in it as welcome punishment. Angels land there soundlessly, at this place of limits, where feeling frays into air. When they try to separate me from my despair, I resist them. I step back forcefully when they reach for me, telling me in even, reasonable tones that my despair will change me into a person no one will tolerate.

“You don’t get it,” I say, rubbing the tip of my sneaker into the ground as though it were a lit cigarette. “I am that person already.”

“No,” they insist. Their faces are masks of cool, distant indignation. Behind me, my despair cries out for attention. “You’re happy, and everyone loves you.”

“Yes,” I say, “That’s true.” I pause. A flicker of realization. So this is what the double was getting at. “But it’s only one truth,” I continue. “The other truth is that I am happy and I am loved, and I still have my despair. These things are all related. Do you understand?”

“No,” they say, frowning deeply. We stare at each other in the uneasy silence of adversaries who could have been kind to one another in different circumstances. An impasse between the messengers of God and I. They sigh and throw up their luminous hands, casting rings of light over the undernourished grass. I watch them retreat to the heavens, where it is possible to live rapturously, with the perfect knowledge of pure and righteous life. They can’t see that here, in this dominion of the wretched, all feelings must coexist with despair, in the same world, and in the same person. Are you happy? Happiness and despair are connected, like the systems of a body. Are you happy? Do you despair? Both questions tie me to life with sacred thread. Both feelings are proof.

“Proof of what?” My despair asks, licking her wounded paw in the shadow of the trees. Her human tongue comes away with traces of human blood.

I am not afraid. I squint up at the sky, where the doors have closed against me. My despair sidles up to me, her claws leaving imprints on the soil shaped like a child’s hand.

“Proof of a heart,” I say.

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