Category: Life

Do no harm

Healing from the past is something more prosaic than it seems. The past is a foreign country and wounds inflicted there don’t fall under any health insurance scheme. I show my bleeding hand to a physician but she can only prescribe topicals that disappear into my skin without providing relief. The pain is dizzying. I try to read her face as she ushers me out of the room, but her expression is flat, illegible, either because she knows better than to deviate from cool professional neutrality, or because I am too out of it to detect the twinges in her eyes that might reveal a reserve of emotion.

Outside, obscenely colorful ornamental hedges line the concrete steps. I briefly panic. I let myself feel the sensation for a moment—horses frothing at the mouth, muscles straining to break into gallop —before crumpling it up in my hand like a gum wrapper and stuffing it into my pocket, to rediscover later. A sparrow vaults into the air and I follow its flight path with my gaze. Jealousy drains me like a syringe.

I know by now that holding a grudge is petty, puerile, and poisonous to everything green and golden in my life. But underneath the bandage, I keep the wound open.

Distill me

(A successor of sorts to Hypercritical)

A tiger-eye marble rolls slowly down the side of a cream-colored bowl. Orange flecked with gold on white. Anemic phoenix crawling across the snow. The marble comes to a stop at the center of the wide base, where it trembles, tears, and transforms into a teardrop. I flip the bowl over like a top hat in a magic trick and press a finger to my lips. Under the circle of the bowl, the teardrop morphs into something else.

This is what I’m thinking about as I walk the streets of Tokyo, sweat dripping down my back like streaks of paint. My shirt sticks to my skin as securely as if I grew it myself, like a pelt. I can’t bear to look at the sky. White veined with gold on blue. Scars leaking onto the meat of my midsection. Somewhere close by, a better version of me roams. I can feel her presence like a memory of a drive I’ve tried to forget.

The teardrop is a polyester dress. It’s a red ring in the water tank. It’s bad teeth. It’s a pearl glimmering wetly. It’s peach juice dripping down a hairy chin. It’s a carry-on with one busted wheel, dragged around a mirrored floor. It’s the devotion I felt and no longer feel. It’s the devotion that lingers like the flavor of blood. Jasmine in the hot dusk air, and time moves forward like a creature in the water.

Transmogrify

“Anxiety” is an ugly word. I think I’d prefer it without the final y. Anxiet sounds like the name of a shield-bearing, green-robed muse from antiquity, someone forceful, proud, and prone to fits of theatricality, but also fair-minded, charismatic, and thus much-loved by many. Rising while it’s still dark, she patrols the cobblestone streets with a pair of swords crossed across her back. In the battle of 3300 B.C., Anxiet leads a legion of one-hundred into a mountain pass, where she dies a hero’s death. Her enemies recover her body and garland it in white lilies before burial.

Drop the x, and the name takes on a sugary, modern twist. Aniet is a cool girl, and she and I do shots, which is something I have to imagine because I’ve never done it myself. Aniet disappears into a crowd that beats like a heart and returns with two silver elixirs, one in each of her gaudily beringed hands. She tips the whole drink down her throat; after a pause, I follow suit. What I appreciate about a light buzz is the permission it grants to be vulnerable which, with Aniet, naturally kind, a master of giving and taking, feels luxurious, intuitive, and right.

With the disappearance of the n, Aniet becomes Aiet, something airy, primordial, elemental. A molecule that was there at the start of the first day of the first year. On the shores of the ocean, no one but she sat to watch the hazy sun rise through misted, strawberry-colored skies. No one bathed with her in the pale waters. No one felt the stinging echo of the future calling back through time nor understood its warning. No one recognized the fatal grace of a world about to begin.

Return all the letters to their appropriate locations and send the word like a dagger whistling through the air. It flies inches past my sleeping face, waking me instantly from restless sleep, before vanishing into the sound of my ragged breathing. I get up, threads of sweat twisted over my back, and pace the cobblestone courtyard, beneath an unforgiving moon. The night is as still as a panther and as long as love. The only person I can talk to won’t be awake for hours. I finger the petals of the cut flowers in a vase on our dining table. No one sees me sit on the couch, staring dumbly at my hands.

The terror

I feel the terror follow me wherever I go. The terror is shaped like my mother, aged twenty-nine. Her long hair is the color of hot, oily espresso, of dark deer hides, of tan desert landscapes. On an alien planet, there are sunsets cast in the same shattered amber as her eyes. I turn around and catch a flash of her unsmiling expression. There’s a trail of freckles across her nose—a feature she had lost by the time she became my mother.

The terror tracks me down the street, into the train station and then onto the rapid express. Suburban Tokyo speeds by in a parade of squat, cement-block apartment buildings and forlorn pine trees. The sky is a patch of cloudy blue that appears only occasionally, crisscrossed in telephone wires. I can smell the artificial scent of her shampoo. Something sweet, frothy, approximately tropical. I count the seconds behind each breath—three in, three out—and try my hardest not to retch.

She follows me into a labyrinth made of tall garden hedges. At the labyrinth’s center, inside a pavilion of wood, the terror takes on a different shape. We cross swords under a red sky. I say everything I need to say. I hold nothing back.

When I react in anger, I feel the terror. It’s a wave that the ocean of my memory will always remember. When I break a boundary, I feel the terror. It’s a pit with no bottom. Soupy darkness that coolly eliminates every sensation. No, it does more than eliminate sensation—it erases my defining traits, like acid. It renders me less of an identifiable person, the way wind and time corrode a body into a corpse. In the presence of the terror, I can feel myself actively decompose.

I read my writing and see the terror everywhere. I see myself trying to reason with it, and, when that inevitably fails, I see myself plead with it. All the strength in me can keep it at bay only a little while. Pinpricks of blood dotting the margins. There’s so much anguish in my diaries I shock even myself.

But I feel the terror most acutely when I have no desire to write at all. It’s not that the terror takes away the desire. It’s that it knows how to get me to reject the desire, so that even writing brings no relief. Clothed in cheap chain-link armor, I feel the terror approach, an ochre sun at its back, with its strongest weapon. My mind trembles in total panic until even the panic subsides, and then I am left with nothing. My soldier’s shield lies in pieces in the pavilion. The terror takes the only way I have to express myself and casually, with no trace of violence, snaps it in half.

Petalismos

Her head aches behind her cheekbones, as though her mind were a ball of fire lassoed by cords of skin. She does her best approximation of a gentle smile as her work colleague explains his frustrations with a client. We both have so much more to offer, she thinks, but you’re a work friend and not a friend friend, so I can’t tell you that. We spend minor eternities here, together, entombed in synthetic ferns, dusty glass, and printer paper. We should be honest about our experiences. But there’s a vast and indispensable firewall in place when we interact. I see its flickering aquamarine flames when I lift my eyes from my laptop screen. A warning. We couldn’t be close, she thinks, and still do this job.

A dove with red eyes occasionally travels between them. Beneath its wings, out-of-office, vulnerability is admissible. “I don’t often tell someone the truth,” he says to her, on a Wednesday during lunch. She is ripping up a paper napkin—slowly, methodically, as though stripping the flesh off a bone—in her lap as she listens to him talk about his life outside of work. Beyond the eight to twelve hours that he spends clicking around the vapid and crushing universe of a PowerPoint, he has dreams, desires, many variants of darkness that bide their time before rapidly multiplying and, occasionally, overcoming his defenses.

They talk “purpose.” They talk “meaning.” Two notions as intrinsic to modern life as breath and heartbeat. They’ve had to exile both from their minds in order to take an office job and not die of cognitive dissonance. To discuss them now fills her with raw, divine emotion.

“I’m a negative utilitarian,” she says, somewhat loftily, somewhat intoxicated by the feeling of talking so freely. “I am focused on minimizing suffering and maximizing joy in the people around me. That’s all the purpose I need.”

For almost a minute, he says nothing. He looks up at the ceiling and then back at her. The dark brown of his eyes glimmers with something that is almost tears, the way the sound of a single guitar string is almost mournful. “Don’t you wish for something bigger than just that?” he says, finally. “What are you doing with your one life?”

It’s a gamble of a cliché, but it connects. Twenty-nine in 2023, and she holds her fifty remaining years of consciousness in her lap and, distractedly, thoughtlessly, is shredding them, one by one. Blood on her fingers. Petals in the soil. Something swells. A boom of noise. Flesh beneath a blister. Water approaching the shore. It surges onto the look on her face, and she finds she can no longer pretend.

Like if you cry every time

What is a post on social media? Five liters of blood, poured out onto a metal baking tray, where it congeals into cubes of quivering jelly before being flipped out onto the cool chrome surface of the operating table. Snapping on seafoam-green gloves, a surgeon prods each glistening cube with the business end of a scalpel, bursting the delicate tension between outer layer and liquid innards. Emotions splash out and blood, contorting on the table, begins to perform a macabre dance. It thins and thickens, forming a plaintive message in lowercase letters. Beads of punctuation drip down in unctuous red streaks.

Growing up online is like being dissected under a microscope, flooded with headlights, trapped behind glass, and then chucked out, in parts, into a roaring crowd. Intense fixation, explosive speculation, deranged invasion, and then total abandonment. A culture that entices by claiming to celebrate honesty, but that relishes in punishing vulnerability, often brutally. A culture that has no idea what it means by authenticity, sincerity, or love. A beast with a million freely-moving hands can justify any behavior.

“Digital hygiene.” I think I now finally understand the term. The Internet makes me feel dirty in the most literal sense. I know I’ve spent too much time online when my mind feels like a scrap of fabric dragged through a pool of mud. I recover it and twist it tightly between my hands to wring out the sludge; blood spurts out instead, in a gory pink fountain. My spirit lags. My desire to do anything vanishes. My attention span shrivels to nothing. My drive to create scrabbles up my body and screams in my face to do SOMETHING, do ANYTHING. Meanwhile, a hand that resembles mine clicks through a bloody trail of posts, and eyes that resemble mine glaze over.

When I’ve exhausted the content on one site, the hand and eyes migrate compulsively over to another; the process repeats itself, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. In a frictionless, vapid, procedurally generated landscape of filtered light, rounded fonts, and focus-grouped clipart, social media appears normal, predictable, safe. A wave of constant sensation. But when I witness how the wave reacts to a jagged edge, I am jolted out of the placid dream. We wanted community. We wanted a cure. Let’s not pretend that the Internet is capable of providing either in any consistent way. The codes through which we speak to one another are completely corrupted. The conflict has taken on the mask of a divine war, one in which mercy is not only impossible to mete out, but met with disgust.

You may be thinking to yourself: “What is she talking about? Is she talking about cancel culture, call-out culture, culture in general, or some other thing?” The answer to that is: No. I am not talking about any of those things. I don’t lay claim to a thesis here. I don’t even lay claim to coherence. This isn’t a thinkpiece. I just want to say that, every time I find myself on social media, I feel more and more that no molecule ever traveled the length of spacetime to live the life of your average stranger online. The Internet is not the worst place in the world. But nowhere else do I feel the contradiction between human compassion and human cruelty more acutely. A pit filled with the bodies of nephilim and their congealing blood, and I sit on the edge of that pit, legs dangling over the red-black hole, watching, and trying not to watch.

Ghosts

This is the last post I will write about Gideon, because I have the feeling that he is fading—not out of life in general, but out of my life, specifically. A tremulous line of salt on the craggy blue rocks, dissolving as the water comes in. The last triumphant note of a hundred-member orchestra, evaporating into the air of a bronze chamber. Tears cling to my face—tears neither of suffering nor joy, but some third thing that unbolts like a chest in an attic.

Time is a forest and Gideon and I briefly walked one of its branching paths together. I recall emerging, blurry-eyed, from a far-off den, and seeing him across a field of purple heather, through the thorns. We were brought together by the similarities in life experience, the proximity in our ages, and the coincidence of our encounter at the crossroads. Though we had little in common, initially, beyond the circumstantial, we both possessed a dark streak that we felt set us apart, and that made us distrustful of anything dew-sweetened in the gardens of our pasts—those potions, clouds, and roses. We suspected already that knowledge—sometimes an antidote, sometimes a poison—would trickle back through the forest, settling in those gardens like an oil spill, revealing the potion to be syrup, the clouds, smoke. The roses, fanged and carnivorous.

In a coffee shop on a main road, we compared notes. We traded vulnerabilities, and didn’t. We learned, and didn’t. On a frozen street in midwinter, we tried to console each other. We tried to make the moment more than it was. I held Gideon’s two gloved hands in both of mine and promised we’d keep in touch, though I understood that we would not. My breath was a plume of pewter-colored smoke. His face contorted with pain, but I was privately embarrassed by the hugeness of his feelings. Another part of me, secreted within the depths of my ego, was crushed, too, because I knew his tears were not shed on my behalf, but because of his fear of the upcoming end to our age of innocence.

Ah, I’m not writing about Gideon anymore, am I? Not the Gideon that I know now, in any case. Not tall, dark-eyed and depressed Gideon with the painstakingly gelled hair and the perfectly tailored suit. It may be that in each stage of my life I meet a Gideon—someone who shares my propensity for cynicism, my terror— and we move each other, like twin red stars locked in an inescapable orbit, but without ever coming close to telling each other the truth.

Now, crawling through the dark moss, I raise my eyes and see Gideon. He is hidden in the dense canopy, one eye of blood-streaked amber visible through a shroud of gold-edged leaves. I blink and he vanishes. My breath is a bruised fist in my chest as I wade through a stream of chilly, translucent blue. The water doesn’t rid me of the thorns, but it lessens their sting. On the other side, I find soft hollows left by footsteps, where spores of something unknown and scintillating have taken root.

The best they could, but badly

Often I wish that I had natural singing talent, because I think the chalky, malodorous melancholia which I am prone to writing would be more palatable in the form of lyrics.

When I hear that my last grandparent has died, news that arrives to me thirdhand, I feel a single note rise out of my body. It bubbles out of the skin of my chest and bursts in the air. The note is limp, subdued, like the mewl of a dying hare, its pink-ringed eyes caught between the gasp of curved fangs. After the puncture of realization, the moment evaporates into a glimmer of amethyst and then dust. Gone with no ceremony of feeling, no heraldry of sentiment. I’ve spent years wondering what this knowledge would feel like and now I have final confirmation of what I’ve long suspected: the death can happen long before the death happens. You mourn the death before you know you are mourning the death. Blood is merely blood.

Shattering the surface of the frozen pool, memories float up in crates that I slash open, one by one. A vintage perfume bottle with a crystalline stopper. Snow-white ringlets, permed to surreal perfection. The greenish coolness of a tiled room in the afternoon, all the shades drawn. The periodic table, a multi-colored rectangle shaped like a fortress, which she knew by heart. Ocean waves, lapis in the sun. Everything but the face. I wade in to rescue these things for my small kingdom, knee-deep and shivering from the cold, as vultures circle the pool.

The Red Pool

I stop in the middle of the crosswalk because I want to write about this scene later. I linger for as long as I can, eyes scanning the sky, the ground, the trees. Time is a tyrannical taskmaster, but not incapable of warmth, not incapable of largesse. Today, it shows its capacity for generosity by slowing the movement of the cars cresting the hills that lead to this road, rewarding my devotion with a handful of extra seconds to absorb the setting.

I try to read the day like a poem—which means I nurture the expectation of finding, at the day’s end, a measure of grace. I expect the pleasure of discovery, the joy of meaning. The sensations are all here—the richness of daylight, the tenderness of the breeze, the impossibility of the sky—but the words to fully describe them haven’t yet completed their pilgrimage from a distant, rock-cut cave-by-the-sea into my waiting arms. Standing in the crosswalk, I try to ease their journey here by turning down the static of my mind. I quiet the persistently critical voice that is trying, not entirely successfully, to be helpful. I close the saddest pages of my diary. I turn my eyes, instead, to the runes that are inlaid in the sky in the manner of gemstones spanning a crown. Following forty-eight hours of gray humidity and drowsy rain, bright, puffy clouds have reemerged across the firmament, in huge and cliff-like incarnations. A mountain range of baby blue, each peak gilded in fantastical light. They are saying something to me that I’ll spend my whole life trying to understand.

Writing is scrying with a red pool contained in a rocky, barnacle-crusted bowl. Writing is digging up gnarled roots and inspecting their calloused rinds, tracing the greenish veins that jut out and transform into the pulpy legs of reedy stems and then metamorphosize again into the many gold-ochre eyes of a field of daisies, encountering, in this way, the passage of life from infancy to flowering, and thinking that, though human life has no such parallel, no such clarity in purpose and form, writing is finding that passage. Writing is feeling your way through the tunnel. Writing is flying through the canyon. Writing is feeling empty, then full, then empty, again. Collecting every huge feeling and experiencing it anew—every shred of painful, tedious feeling—but with hope, this time, not because these things could change, but because they won’t, and the wound they leave behind, while so distressing I will stumble and fall, can always be taken to the red pool in the middle of a crosswalk on a stunningly bright day and be lowered into the cooling waters where, if the wound cannot be repaired, then it will, at least, be consoled, soothed, cherished, pacified, and I’ll emerge, if not strong, then strong enough to rise and stagger forward.

Hypercritical

(A successor of sorts to: Hypervigilant)

On location, huddled behind a huge and craggy boulder with the wind howling at me to get OUT, I hurriedly sweep the few things scattered around me into a bag, with the exception of a dirt-stained spiral notebook and a cheap ballpoint pen, which I clutch to my chest as though they were treasured relics. My hand seeks the pen with the certainty of a bird charting its course toward home. Fingers crimped around it, I think of the events unfolding around me and, brow furrowed, eyes closed, I put them down on paper. Writing it down is an act of profound intimacy between myself and her, but I try to stay distant. I am cool-headed as I try to relate, to explain, to analyze. But it’s hard, in the middle of reliving a memory, to unglue these two minds of mine. I am caught in the sticky, hazy, jewel-toned marrow between the past and the present. Even as an observer, my emotions participate; they balloon out from my body, even as I restrict myself, physically, to a strict perimeter around the boulder.

In the past, unfolding right before me, she staggers through the desert, hands crudely bound. Sand swirls around her feet and fills her field of vision with rays of rough and chalky bronze. The wind picks up, abruptly, cruelly; it yanks her off her feet and sends her tumbling forward. In the present, stealing glances at her fallen form from behind the boulder, I am clear-eyed. I don’t hear her cries. I don’t step out to rescue her. Instead, I crouch back down to record what’s happening in the fairest possible language. In describing the events, I strike the exact right balance between understanding and condemnation.

She gets back up; she tries, bravely, to resist the desires of the indifferent wind. When she collapses again on the dunes, face and hands rubbed raw, her breath coming in shallow, harsh gasps, her skin purpling under the dusty apricot and gold of the sunset, I don’t interfere. I watch from behind the security of the boulder, my fingers digging into its crevices. Everything will continue on. I can’t change what happened here.

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