[Note: This is a short story I first wrote when I was 22, and my first real attempt at prose. It was originally published to Cosmoetica and long forgotten. Over the last few years, however, I’ve received a surprising number of e-mails and comments about it, and think it’s best to re-post it here. Enjoy.]
The Sum Of Others
The bowl is rimmed with thickening smoke. The Maasai walk around it, dreaming in present tense. It’s what separates them from another world’s conception of things — feeble, static, and utterly dull, their stretched earlobes a kind of great corrective to the universe’s sameness. They are remarkably old, and yet they depend on the same tokens — mohawks, body piercing — so recent to other civilizations around them. Or rather, they are the tokens only now re-discovered, lost to the rules of Greek columns and symmetry, but emerging where all beginnings emerge. They have no symmetry here. One man undergoes this modification; another man does not. It is random and it is their way of paying respect to randomness, the real force of change, the only thing — an illness, a great epiphany that seems to come from nowhere — that stops most people from skimming the surface of things and living in an empty reverie. As the earlobe’s stretched, so is, they think, man’s instinct for pattern. But, none appears, at least not at first. They look at each other and see they have nothing in common save for this mutilation. One is old, his mouth a shrinking indentation against the tracery of his face, his eyes, at this point, quite arbitrary, and his fingers, stirring a lukewarm cup for the newest warrior among them, like inert strings that, after a great flowering of will and psychological exertion, finally move to the bidding of some external thing. The warrior, who’d drink the motoriki and drop in convulsions, is, for now, a healthy man, watching the yohimbe’s slender trunk rising to the sky. As soon as it can’t support itself any higher, an explosion of leaves forever caps its ascent. Months after he strips the bark into the bowl, drinks it, and loses his mind to demons, the warrior fears nothing, not even the encroaching whites. And then, almost imperceptibly, he returns to normal. A native intelligence runs through every wild thing in the village.
They could tell the jump rope was heavy by the way it struck the terrace, foregoing the sharp woosh for an imprecise and duller sound. It was green and slick and mangled on the bottom from years of shaping shoulders, legs, and health, and although Plaka was very crowded, I felt, gripping the handles, calculating every tough, dramatic jump, like its solitary event — a good, dependable feeling, since, as an American in Greece, one never had to try too hard or talk too much. It was alright by me, since I can’t stand the thought of putting myself through inane conversation, complete with the cool sips of drink and ungiving glances, before finding the one person who actually gets things. And yet, this was enough to make friends. It was, I suppose, part of some undisclosed conversion that polished things down to universals. And it was, I knew, something that was simply in the Greek instinct, but not in my own.
The day I realized this happened to be my birthday, and although I kept it a secret, the people around me couldn’t help but notice my glow. I was now twenty-two and didn’t mind the attention. It was, at any rate, a pleasant change from America, where everyone is an individual down to the socks, and unless you’re really something, no one cares to look at you. But here, girls smiled with lots of teeth. Cops asked serious but uninvasive questions, their eyebrows so deeply crinkled that no answer, no matter how deep or pithy, ever unfurled them. And the butchers across the street from my apartment always served the best cuts. They were two brothers with matching aprons, high cheeks intruding on the eyes, and mouths so abnormally small that when they spoke, their voices seemed like they were pushed out. They drank a lot and whatever they couldn’t process in the gut was, evidently, secreted by the scalp, an emulsified sheen that, far more than the stains and crumbs on their clothes, gave off a sense of work. It was work that got you respect in Greece and it was work that ultimately left you poor, an irony the brothers knew, and, if their trajectory was as real as it seemed, would likely know even better in time.
It was hot in there, and if they’d ever go apronless, they’d forget how to untie the thing. Given their size, it required great and complicated knots, one brother pulling it off the other’s enormous head with some trouble and perhaps a fight. I wondered at this. It’s not as if distance separated and estranged them, like many brothers who, years apart, can’t find one thing in common. In fact, they worked to the same biological rhythm, held a cleaver with a common hand, and knew each other’s movements so well that as one chopped a certain kind of meat according to the animal’s formula of muscle, bone, and sinew, the other observed the mechanical shadow against the tabletop, read the pattern, calculated some number in the brain, and already had the wrapping paper cut to the exact dimension and labeled. They shared one being, knew each other’s gaps — they were identical omissions of character — and thus riffed off of them, for better or worse. And yet, in some mutually forgotten past, they opened a rift that would still decant to violence decades later. It was eerily familiar, as if I had known these patterns of love and resentment my entire life. And it’s not that I experienced any of this personally — far from it. It’s simply that people, in general, don’t treat each other fairly. One only had to look at these two fat Greeks, for whom it was already too late to change.
And if anyone doubts it’s ever too late for anything, simply consider their disagreements. They fought over everything, from the “true” color of the floor after the fatter one changed the shop’s light bulbs, nearly falling off the ladder when the other suddenly lost balance, to the pointless and maliciously technical criticism they’d deliver against each other’s cutting style. In these scuffles, one was, by the requirements of the profession, likely opening the oven and the other holding a knife, thus causing some alarm to everyone in the shop. It wouldn’t stop, either, until I’d come in for some ham. I was a vegetarian, but my roommates weren’t, and I’m pragmatic and don’t mind errands too much. “Ah, David,” they’d sigh in thick consonantal English as they’d smooth their curls behind the ears and bind the ham in a block so white and glowing it looked quite edgeless on the table. Greece, in general, was very kind to me, and to others like me. It was simple. It was childish, even, for in this other world, I imagine my face seemed more good-looking than original, my nose more petite than merely cramped. And yet, for all the talk and lovely stares and solicitations, nothing in this transplanted mirror seemed very real.
Yes, Greece made me better and, by any objective measure, more attractive. Gone was the dumpy look while the cologne gave me a new dimension. It was, I recall, a pleasant, happy change, and although it was temporary, I could bask in something insubstantial, a flash celebrity and empty jolt that, because I already knew great things and didn’t confuse them with the temporal, was harmless fun. I put away my jump rope and waved to the girls. This little fantasy was over every night at eight o’clock. They went back to their rooms and as I watched their asses brush against the curtains, I was reminded of the first time girls started noticing me. I was fifteen and had this same glow and was in shock at being cute — a mysterious designation, since no one, not even the girls, could figure out what went into it and why I was chosen to get all this attention. I grew taller, I suppose, yet there was something deeper than this. In the girls one saw the sudden breasts and with it the crowding out of guilt. And thus, I thought, maybe the change was with them, and not with me, but saw that, perhaps, wasn’t it, either. At fifteen, one shifts imperceptibly, transfigured by the eyes of others. In a way, you start to believe it, becoming those demands, and only when you grow up is there a compromise. It is, I think, this moment that defines things, and you see how big the world really is, a mystique I felt return at twenty-two, precisely when I started having doubts about my own life, doubts that would re-emerge months later as I teetered, like Schrödinger’s cat, in a state neither illness nor recovery. Yes, Greece gave me chic and élan, but they did it, I couldn’t help but think, by polishing what was special down to universals.
“Take my chin, for example,” I told my girlfriend, Isabella, a few days later in Bordeaux. “I read Homo sapiens is the only human species that has one. I mean, it’s such a minor detail, and I bet if you’d see a Neanderthal in the flesh, you wouldn’t really notice a difference, at least not at first.” She poured me another glass of wine, and, waving it away, the red pushed up to my temples and emptied over my ears, indicating I was drunk, and my smile, it seemed, was my natural mouth, or my mouth a genuine smile: I couldn’t, at that point, see the difference and really didn’t care. No one worth his salt bothers with tautologies, for the best repetition is in life itself. I woke up to the same grin, sliced morons by the same intellect, and went to bed to the same thoughts, gently swinging me as on a hammock, down to a sleep I always knew I’d wake from. Not many have this kind of security and Isabella, I thought, was a big part of it. I fell back, set a knuckle on my eye and, turning my fist, gently screwed the words out. “Come to think of it, I don’t even know its function. A chin… what can we do that Neanderthals couldn’t? Is that out great leap, our contribution? Maybe, but in ways most people don’t get. A chin is a minor thing, but it’s ours,” I said, knowing it couldn’t be left at that.
Imagine, I said, the very last time a woman saw a Neanderthal and what she must have felt against his grip, a torso neither an Apollonian cleaving of the waist down to a “V,” nor common flab, but a thick and angular thing that trapped every permutated image of Man in its refractive prism. It was as if every war, idea, and behavior had its mirror here, not yet perfected, not yet recognizable, but anticipating us in primitive guise. But this, even to me, seemed a bit romantic. And I knew better. I knew they had no language, no complex symbology that forced them to come to terms with the world — and not the world as a thing of fire, food, living and dying, but as a pattern sitting in the mind. Sex, then, must have been a series of grunts and loosely estimated feelings. And if the woman tried to communicate something deeper? In what way could he understand it? Perhaps “understand” is too strong a word, but he still must have felt something, even if he had no words to guide the angles of the mind to something we might recognize as there, but to a lesser man, is no more special than sleep. Yet she runs her hands across his face, over the bulging eyebrows and down to a chin that, with a gasp, she realizes isn’t there. It’s a curious omission, and not, it seems, very significant, but still confirms what she already knows and what he cannot: that he is somehow different. They are cogs in one overwhelming pattern, but only she notices this, as he fills her with impermanence. As Isabella bent to down the rest of my glass, I saw her neck, and — a strange feeling set in, interrupting me. I looked at the glass, the room, and Isabella; I imagined it all going away, not necessarily from me, but as some parallel trajectory. It was a real fear, now, I think, vaguely connected to my coming illness, but something I can’t quite describe, not having the terms or concepts then to fatten it to being. And yet, the impression stuck long enough to interrupt me. Isabella asked what was wrong, touching my shoulder in — and it’s the only way I can describe it — the same way one might brush against a total stranger. And as soon as the scene grew unfamiliar, the room shrinking only to contain us, the feeling went away, the flipping candle blurred into my world again, and I was back in conversation, talking, but not talking, the words coming from another mouth. It ceased. I decided to not worry Isabella and said nothing. The fear passed quickly enough for me to get to my point, then forget about the entire episode.
“It reminds me of Greece, a lot,” I told Isabella after a few minutes of uncomfortable silence, relaxing again, my back against the sofa. “They don’t interpret things the way you or I do.” I had to wait again. Isabella kissed me and told me to continue. I think, at that point, it finally passed.
“This chin would be an… imperfection,” I said, starting up slowly, but moving with renewed pace, “like my own chin, my nose, and not some unique thing deeply connected to the rest of the world. It’s why I don’t really like to see you wearing make-up. And your face,” I said with renewed clarity, my mind suddenly big, “your face is like that prism. It’s the sum of thousands of other faces compounded over thousands of years. I don’t know what these other people looked like, but I get the feeling that, if I were to see them, it would be the same eerie thing the woman felt, lying in a Neanderthal’s arms, knowing there was something there that… well, that wasn’t. No one in Greece could see this remote beauty, mostly because it’s on the fringes of some other bigger picture. I don’t mean Athens isn’t pretty. It’s just that I don’t even think it matters what the city looks like now. It is white and steep and very beautiful, and it’s all these good things because one day it was told to be, for what on God’s low earth can resist the mind in raising constellations from the detritus? And it’s not just Athens, it’s also…”
“Paris,” Isabella offered, and, I think, correctly. “Yeah, I see that. I was stuck in Paris a few weeks ago, and it wasn’t at all romantic. By midnight — midnight! — most of the cafes were closed, I had a train to catch in the morning. I had no where to go for the entire night. A few bars were open but that was it. I’m lucky I was a girl, and not you,” she said, slyly eyeing her own glass now, her brain tipped by inversion and originality, and not only by wine. “It’s counter-intuitive to say that, right — a girl, alone in a big city late at night, is somehow lucky,” she continued, almost challenging her own contention, yet gently enough to show she wasn’t backing away from the pattern set. It was this alarming single-mindedness that attracted me to her, and the more she drank, the more combative she became, even if the struggle, as it was now, was with herself. And yet, it wasn’t only with herself, even if Isabella was locked in monologue, staring at the mirror, watching her gestures and her mouth to ensure every movement was suited perfectly for whatever argument she was making. It was, above all, a performance, and like all performances, it was based on a kernel of truth: she was not only curious about the world, but the way she appeared in it, too. Given her intelligence, it meant she was calculating, even rough, and had the kind of independence I craved in women.
She returned to her original idea: “I was lucky. I stayed in well-lit areas. I walked with couples. And whenever I’d find a bar still open, those few minutes of danger, of shuffling from street to street, were over, and suddenly, I was at an advantage. It’s one hell of an exchange. Girls don’t like to think so, but it’s true. I found a seat and as soon as I grew two inches from plopping my ass down on a chair, I had two or three guys and a couple of girls talking to me. They saw I was a foreigner. I don’t look French and probably had this look on my face,” she said, chilling her features to confusion, “and, you know, they pitied me. And I guess I was interesting, I was a person, but more than anything, I was a girl. Think of what that means. I could have had dinner, conversation, and a warm place to spend the night, and all I had to do was show up to a place with people, sit down, and wink at any man who knew his own price. You’re interesting too, David, but if you were stuck in Paris, you’d pretty much be homeless. No amount of charm or depth could fix you, ‘cuz you’re a guy, and guys get no capital in this world. And if you don’t think so, get lost in Paris for a night and see if a single person gives a damn enough to even look at you…”
Isabella was right. It was another one of her spectacular inversions. I wasn’t sure what she meant by “any man who knew his own price,” but I could tell that, in her head, it made perfect sense. And perhaps she meant exactly what I myself was thinking: that, in some other world, men have lost the power, and women have pretty much everything. And, to many guys, the frightening thing is that, if the woman has a brain and, above all, a willingness to use it, in thatwoman’s mind, that world is already here. If she merely pretends this is so, it’s enough — the world simply aligns to the internal parameters of her will, and the more she wills, the more the other world shrinks, and the luckier she gets in almost everything imaginable.
Isabella, I suspected, always knew this, and it fit with everything I knew of Athens and of Paris. I don’t just mean that girls had all of these advantages, but deeper things, like the way people spent their time. And although you can’t find two cities any more different in flash, I’d argue they have the same heart. I remember my buddies in Greece, especially the girls, going out every night for a few drinks and, maybe, a few lovers. I wasn’t annoyed. As they got ready to go out, I’d see the anticipation pooling in their eyes and, coming back to the apartment at two or three in the morning, hanging on to one another for support, singing in unison and falling asleep no differently, this anticipation would collect once more in the morning as they’d slap themselves free of the hangover, and although they’d spend the whole day in boredom, they were, by evening, framed by the same gleam from the night before. Again, I didn’t begrudge them this. People are entitled to their own happiness, no matter how stupidly construed. And many, I guess, need people, like the guys in those Parisian bars, waiting for lonely foreigners, where every moment till the next fix is drudgery.
Paris, in legend, is a city quite unlike any place else and is, in reality, nothing like its legend. Paris, allegedly, has none of the respect, the misplaced awe of an Athens to tradition. In fact, they say Paris suffocates it when it’s not enough to simply beat it back into the past. And yet, as Isabella spoke, I imagined all of this might as well be taking place in Athens: a big group of friends so happy, so full on now, they think nothing of time, and support each other in a kind of unity, constructing these elaborate memories to hide the scene’s temporality. I know, in some moments, it’s as if those things could never end, and for the ordinary person, this lie is enough to stake the dream of immortality upon. I wonder, though, if that Neanderthal thought the same, or thought anything, really, as his “chin” was grabbed, or whether he, like I did then, seeing my friends lean against the world in drunkenness, had some inkling of what lay beyond. Perhaps, as they touched, and fell asleep together, it was for the last time. At this point, I don’t even know if I mean me and Isabella, that proto-human, or my friends; it doesn’t seem like it matters. And we could be any one of them. And what of it all, then, and of my friends, or of those Parisian kids, strolling through a fable — so sure, and so ready? They were, at any rate, quite drunk.
I hadn’t planned on visiting Isabella who was already a couple of weeks in Bordeaux by the time I left for Athens. In fact, she wanted to visit me, to get away from the familiarity of things and spend some time in a cheap hostel. But, early on in my trip, it was obvious she couldn’t come: the flights were too expensive, and since both of us were on scholarship, we had very little money of our own. Coming back to Athens on a bus from the Mycenaean ruins, I suddenly got the idea if visiting her would be cheaper, if I’d be able to catch the next plane to Paris, how much it would cost, the trains I’d have to take… Thinking aloud, a roommate interrupted me:
“The next plane to Paris for two or three hundred,” Greg said, smiling patiently and coming down from his blank stare to assess my globe-trotting inexperience. It was one of the few ways Greg could legitimately define himself, and I guess every opportunity mattered. I must have visibly regretted saying anything, for Greg got up and sucked the air in contemplation. “It’s impossible,” he reasoned, looking away but juggling the idea of today, tomorrow, and the plane, trying to fit it all together in a logical schema and, failing that, rearranging it in negatives. “It’s impossible, since Athens is practically in the middle of nowhere. A trip to Paris, maybe six or seven hundred, at least,” he said, pretending to turn away, but keeping an eye on me to see how far he went, how deeply and to what satisfaction he cut into these silly romantic plans. Yes, ever since Greg saw that picture of Isabella, his mouth, literally and metaphorically, was a bit more ready. No, Greg wasn’t so bold, but lived in fantasy, tumbling back into the world every time he felt his own soft body or popped another pimple on his face. And Greg, I recall, looked at that photo in regret, even desperation. I resented this, mostly because of his ridiculous assumption that, somehow, I made him “miss his chance.” Greg did not quite say this, but I could feel it in the way he congratulated me, and as questions about Isabella erupted on the bus, he would tune the noise out, get a pen and paper, and look out the window. I’d catch him staring at the landscape, at the trees and the sea and the mountains and ruins, writing poetry never to be read, and imagining, once again, and so predictably at these little intervals of doubt, that he had so much.
Greg even offered some advice, asking me to be careful, to remember that things aren’t always what they seem, solemnly shaking his head, and — what, based on a photo? It was envious and pathetic, and even if he were right in some poetic and non-factual way, he would be right from blind chance, not visceral intelligence. I guess, in such people, you could sense the same unsounded desperation in every part of them. It’s something groping and unexpressed, yet resolutely there. And I saw it as he warned me, maintaining his cool and taking care to not sound dramatic, but pausing on this or that word too gently for me to comment on, but audibly enough to shift the conversation in his favor. I got the feeling that not only was Greg encouraging me to be careful with Isabella, but also with him, as if I was guilty of something and needed to awake.
It was, I’d learn, expected, for Greg wasn’t normal. I got the distinct impression that he was not juggling ideas in his head to weigh or consider them intelligently, but to use them as ammunition, to harp on the silly and unessential since, failing at depth, eloquence, and simple human decency, he needed some other way to feel good. When listening, he affected great attention; when he spoke, he aspired to an image of reserve. It was, I realized, a strategy, for when he’d go off on people or condescend, it was as if he were “out of character” and, by extension, justified. Yet there was no trick or effort to any of this. It was natural, but as soon as a conversation demanded nuance, his mind — and I can think of no other way of describing it — shut off. His eyeballs rose to the ceiling as if the lights were suddenly flipped on. His mouth cracked open, his fingers lifted one by one and fell back down together, a simple process that repeated itself for the length of any argument, until, as with the bus’s interest in Isabella, Greg simply tuned the noise out.
Athens was stuck in light. I wonder if Greg saw this, and if he did, whether he was perceptive enough to get the irony. Greg would recite Greek poetry to himself every time he’d see some beautiful sight. After all, he was “fluent” in Attic and Homeric and was very proud of this, although I gave these things up years ago. I was simply no longer interested in the ancient world, or the ancient anything — isn’t the new, practically by definition, more exciting? The bus slowed down and we got out, admiring the view of Athens. We talked of love and I asked him about his interests with genuine curiosity, mostly because, at one point, I was Greg. I don’t remember his exact response, and I’m sure, unfortunately, there’s a reason why — he simply grew defensive, not wanting to bother with the idiot who thought to fly to Paris for less than half a grand. And besides this, he was mostly silent. I shook my head and was the first one back on the bus.
That night, I got a round trip to Paris and a train ticket to Bordeaux for less than three hundred dollars, skipped class, got to France, and finally made it to Isabella. We ate local cheese and drank red wine and I asked her to marry me. It was wonderful. By the time I got back, I only had a few days left in Greece and was soon home in New York.
Color is not really something, although — and you see this as you wake and the world blurs to meaning — it never fails to mark things, even down to the first ape whose eyes, in a clever mutation, now see the ripest fruit in blush of red. Color says things that instinct can’t articulate — a diamond’s value, perhaps, or the way a sick child, turning green, might hide illness to avoid the doctor. Color is trusted, but now, it’s the crackling sun or a sudden flash of hair that intrigues, a speck of green in a bowl on my kitchen table, in a room lit by the same curtains I’ve owned for years. They’re not as bright as they once were, but the way light sheaves through the fabric is something from another time. I guess my nostalgia isn’t very real, as I don’t have many concrete memories to fill it. I only have those impressions that grow with you. I wouldn’t keep a very good diary, either, as it would be filled with trivial things — a bit of yellow on the ground where I got Al the Bum to paint a “No Parking” sign, or the smell of the cheap soda factory where he slept. It was a small factory, no bigger than my old apartment. And yet, this home is slowly bloating room by room as the years pass, but the factory isn’t, and I don’t know why. I was younger, but is that really it — a sense of space that warps too gently to ever notice, until, one day, your experience might as well be another’s? I’ve come to learn it’s more like a hospital room to a dying person. It’s tiny and plain, but in a sense, is bigger than anything else in the world. If you stand outside and casually turn your back to some hemisphere, it pretty much disappears. You strike it from your thoughts and nobody stops you. But, the bit of space behind a hospital curtain is big. No matter how you turn your body, you see it. Close your eyes, and the murmur of the white still pushes through the ears. I imagine it’s even worse when you’re dying and try to suck every sight and sound around you. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a hospital room or a field of grass — your brain is saturated, anyway. Or saturates, coloring everything to its whims, which is why a hospital room can be so intensely personal, a patient’s minutiae brimming to the wall — old photos, or a favorite stuffed animal. I guess Al knew the feeling, dragging his belongings to a pallet every night, where he dozed and cleaned the factory by waves of consciousness and sleep. And I guess the opposite works just as well, too, and living in my old neighborhood — so full of the freedom these people never have — was enough to make that world so big.
Isabella fills a glass of water. I count out another dozen pills and put them in the bowl. She leers at them and wants to speak, her mouth on the verge of opening, but is startled by my first gulp, then another, and another, and the pills are gone.
I was going through some family things when I saw an unfamiliar photo. I didn’t know who the photographer was, but it was expertly done. No, “expertly” is too casual a word, reminiscent of a petty craft one picks up as a hobby or profession, then forgets in old age. It was closer to art, although I can’t imagine many people getting much out of it. By the dictates of a “professional shot,” it was sloppy. It was meant to be a profile of me and my brother, Seth, but wasn’t, clumsily catching a bit of tree and chunks of the horizon. One can see some photographer for a celebrity mag shaking his head at it, imagining what stilted symmetry was lost, what brutal close-ups eschewed, and what could have been. And yet, this lack, this tense relationship between what it was and what it wanted to be, made it feel all the more correct, as if we were giving in to the compulsions of the scene. It was obviously in a zoo, since we were seated on a toy truck with a monkey at the wheel across from us. The monkey was facing away from the photographer, its head obscured by the truck as we looked into its eyes. The animal did not pay any attention to us, but stared at the sun in amazement (its first sunset?), while we were amazed not by the sun, but by the monkey. The intruding trees seemed to heighten the disconnect, or perhaps it was the other way around — were we the intruders, and the trees, so big and so certain, were the main thing to be noticed? No, this couldn’t be. Or perhaps it could in an objective sense, but familiarity warps — what person, really, could prefer a tree to his own kind, in beauty, resonance, or plain interest? I ignored the monkey and the trees for a moment, and suddenly grew scared — alone, even. I saw an even deeper disconnect. I knew the photo wasn’t taken by my family — it was polished, even if flawed. They were probably looking on and smiling, ordering the lens around, trying to make things perfect for us, yet that wasn’t enough. They’d never be inside the scene, no matter how deeply they felt part of it, and their feeling, and the feeling I got from knowing of this secret presence, would die with us. And who, then, except by guessing, could know of the passions we all read into the image? It would simply be another photograph, and nobody would give it another thought. How many acts get lost in the shuffle of these nearing centuries, tender, warm, and valued once, but forever unknown when the keepers disappear?
Although my parents tried to make sure the scene was reserved for us, there it was: the great trees, the oddly relevant presence of a monkey, some clouds, and only after all of this, two brothers who, to a discerning eye, had a distance between them. It wasn’t flagrant, but looking at the photo, one wondered how it might deepen over the years. Indeed, it’s the subatomic violence — corrosive and slow — that’s most dangerous, and the parents, noting something imperceptible, decided to step back and wait. It was not, I realized, a bid for the brothers’ immortality that drove them from the photo, but a nervous patience — they simply watched, intoxicated by their own powerlessness to slow the gulf. Perhaps the secret was in the brothers’ apprehended object. They stared at it together, and someone might even think it evidence of being together, in one consciousness, like those fat Greeks. Yet no thought was really shared. They were curious, but independently curious. They had their own thoughts and they would not converge. They’d simply remain parallel, neither meeting, nor — and this is important — ever being more than the sum of the other, a tenuous equality that left me, as voyeur, with only a fleeting impression of sameness. The monkey knew of this, too, whose stare into the horizon could only feel, but never hold, the sun, a brief and superficial heat of a dwindling autumn, somewhere far away.
I shook my head and smiled. Art, in a sense, is a lie — just look how much, I told myself, I’ve imbued into a single photo, riffing off the technical slop of an unknown photographer who was likely dead by now. I got dizzy off of a meaning more than he had ever intended, although art, to be fair, is usually like that. If you’re a careful reader, you eventually come upon a great line, put your finger on it, and shiver. But, once you read it over again, you realize you’ve misread: the author wrote something entirely different, and you wonder how great it would have been if he’d written the line the way you originally saw it. And yet, there’s something inside you that forces this particular misreading, something you’ve been ready for — in short, something you can forge from pure experience, and only experience. I’m not saying this applied to me right then. In fact, I wanted, deep down, to really get something out of this photograph, but couldn’t. It was just too sloppy and much too crude. I could, I said to myself with some amusement, imagine Greg going crazy over it, “uncovering its depths” the same way he tried to do with my picture of Isabella. It was funny and I quickly eased it from my thoughts.
A nurse came over to my bed.
“Isabella is here to see you. Are you feeling alright?”
“I don’t know. Please let her in.”
I put away the box of photographs. Isabella, I thought, must have traveled pretty far to come all the way to Coney Island Hospital.
A few weeks after I got out of the hospital, I was more tired than usual. I say tired, but I really mean a strange malaise. Strange because it wasn’t so much fatigue as an imperceptible ill, of not wanting to move or think too much — a basic symptom of yohimbe poisoning. I had been taking vitamins laced with this herb and, months later, developed chest pain and panic attacks that sent me to the emergency room the night Isabella visited me. Although I was now feeling better, I couldn’t sleep very well at night and took to napping throughout the day. As I’d wake each afternoon, I’d wonder how so many people could just shut themselves off for two or three hours at a time when they didn’t need to, willingly entering an oblivion that always seemed to begin in numbing, then release. Sleep didn’t feel real to me, although, I guess, it’s natural. It’s not like a drug that cleans reality from the mind, although that’s no big comfort, either. It simply feels the same, and if I can’t convince my brain otherwise, why does it matter if, on the outside, there’s a clear and logical difference? No argument can matter when I wake each night, not knowing where I am and struggling to apprehend the column of black. I can think of no other way to describe my basement in the middle of this cyclical onslaught of anxiety — a column of black with only the faintest light at its roof, coming from the television my grandmother watches upstairs till morning.
As I went up to the kitchen, the room suddenly looked a bit off. At first, it was barely perceptible. My ears were ringing slightly and my hands flushed. As it deepened, I had the distinct impression that someone had moved the furniture, although everything was in its proper place. A numbness chewed my legs, then my hands, as the familiar malaise took over. My curtains — the same curtains I kept from apartment to apartment, and for a reason — were pulled quite apart. I grew angry, partly because I told my grandmothers many times that, if parted, no light can filter through to turn the room an almost filmic red, and partly because it was a completely random emotion, and I simply couldn’t control myself. A pain got up to my neck and stopped, but perhaps most terrifying of all, it was as if I had a greater sense of hearing, and picked up what I can only call dangerous sounds all around me — a beep, or a cluster of voices that seemed to home right into an ear. As I kid, I would, if a car were coming too close and too quickly, “smell blood,” a sharp, metallic, and silver as if I were just hit in the face. It was no different now, as sounds zipped in and out of my ears for less than a second, slowly disappearing as I calmed down. I didn’t know how long I was standing there, looking at the curtains and at the room, but the next thing I remember is being back in my basement, crying on my bed. It was already night. I tried to talk, but everything was a slur, then normal, then a slur again. I knew there was nothing wrong, and yet, this was only a tiny bit of comfort. It merely kept me from collapsing. And I was far more scared of myself, as pure sentience and what it might do, than of my body.
I knew Isabella was out with her friends in Queens. It was a long way to Coney Island, and, with work and all, it was one of the few times she got to see anyone but me, and… But, I had to call. It was simply too much to be alone then.
“Hello?” she said. I couldn’t really hear her voice.
“Can you get outside for a few minutes?” I asked, and she immediately knew something was wrong. It wasn’t the first time I asked her to drop her plans because of my anxiety spells, yet, to my credit, I was never this scared — not even on my way to the emergency room.
“Is anything wrong?”
“I want you to come over right now,” I said, straining to be calm, to not repeat myself, since, in my panic, I didn’t want to exacerbate the chest pain. And how could talking make chest pain, which was, according to the tests, unrelated to anything horribly physical, any worse? It can’t, but why does it matter? I knew I wasn’t going to die. But, again — so what? “I want you to come over. I feel sick again. And I don’t know if I’m going to be able to sleep.”
Isabella was silent at first, not really thinking of what to say, but stuck somewhere in the blankness that comes with some frustrating and unexpected interference. It was, I remember, eerily similar to the way Jews in my neighborhood dismissed their crying children, distracted and wishing, I could tell, that they were somewhere else, that God had asked them to take on too many things. And if you couldn’t get the best of the world’s patience in a Jew, why is it fair to expect the same from anyone else? It was absurd.
“David,” she said slowly, and not without understanding, “you know the tests came back normal. You know I will see you tomorrow,” she continued, the tomorrow blurred by a gulp of drink, “and that I’m out with my friends.” She paused. “And that it’s hard for me to get to you. I can take a cab, but I don’t even see any cabs around here. It’s what, midnight, and I’m tired. I know you will be fine — you were doing best when you ignored all of this, remember?” she asked logically and cooingly, that weird combination she had made utterly her own, that single-mindedness, that latching coming over her. It was, I think, her way of defusing things, and I can’t deny that it calmed me. It was a precise and calculated sureness I had come to expect from her, and yet, as she spoke, I couldn’t help but think back to Bordeaux, where for just a second, I felt disassociated. And I felt, even in Isabella’s arms, that I was simply being tapped on the shoulder like the merest acquaintance. Or perhaps it was just the opposite: that, in my own world, something was intruding from the outside? All of this disappeared after a moment, and just like in Bordeaux, I was back in conversation. Isabella wasn’t done speaking, though, and broke in with sudden stiffness: “…and I don’t even see my friends any more.” Fireworks shot above the bar, and the lights, crackling for a while, fell to the earth as shadow.
Although Isabella was right, she asked, in vague hope, whether I’d still like her to come over, the reasonableness of her voice again like a tonic. I swayed a bit, but after exchanging a few more words, agreed — if that’s the phrase — that she should come. And, suddenly feeling relaxed, I began to press: “Can you do me a favor?” I wondered if this was the right thing to ask, but as I looked at the walls that seemed to press from all directions, at the numbness rising in waves, I decided that it was: “I know you’re tired. I know. But when you get here, can we talk for a while? I need to get all of this out. Just stay up with me a little longer.”
“And keeping me up is going to make you better?”
“Probably,” I said, deflated. I couldn’t tell if she was being playful. There is a very thin line between humor and gravity, especially in irritation. I didn’t know why — there was nothing to be angry about — but I got the feeling Isabella was too close to these limits. Or perhaps she was merely nervous. It made sense. I did, after all, ask her to travel a dozen shady miles through the city far past midnight, and even if it was in a cab, anything could go wrong. And even if this idea was irrational, who was I to judge another’s fears, enigmatic and mysterious as they are, in the same way Isabella never tried to judge or dismiss my own? She was, after all, making a difficult choice tonight, and really was, from what I could hear over the phone, enjoying this particular bar.
“Alright, we’ll do that. I’ll see you very soon.” She paused, then with renewed force: “I should be asleep by now. I have work tomorrow morning.” And yet, she was soon on her way to my house. At that point, remembering the tenor of her voice, and feeling better and better as the minutes passed, I almost felt that I had manipulated her. I wondered if my call was really necessary.
The fireworks were probably dying down in Queens, and from what I could tell in my window, just starting up in Coney Island. The boardwalk was probably full of people who, even now, had no real place to go, and my brother, Seth, was only now getting back from the beach. He went into his room as soon as he came in. It made me feel better to have another presence in the apartment, as I wasn’t completely over my fright yet, and my grandmother was already asleep. It wasn’t so much that I wanted everyone to be awake “to take care of me” — what could they do, anyway? It was more simple and more voyeuristic. It simply felt good to see people doing routine things without even thinking about them, which, at that point, seemed like an impossible luxury to me. Seth got changed, put on his apron, and began to cook. It was always at night, as he only slept during the day. And yet, even with all this leisure, he always seemed busy, doing things I never got to see, and always locking his door in the middle of it.
As I reached for my magnesium pills and realized the bottle was empty, the malaise struck, albeit lightly. It seemed to reach, this time, for my toes, as if it swelled in front of me, dragging to my legs. It was more amusing than frightening — I learned to zone out the less alarming feelings — but I knew the worst of it could come at any moment. I already suffered, what, four or five attacks that night, all unexpected, and many more throughout the month. I called Seth to come down, and after some angry clanging of metal, he asked what was wrong. I knew, at that point, the magnesium, calming as it was and even reputed to clean up toxic residue in the brain, was the only thing keeping me afloat. But, I couldn’t imagine putting on shoes and pants, much less walking the three blocks to the supermarket to get another bottle. I explained all of this to Seth, whose rigid face collapsed in doubt. Again, I understood why. As I talked, he was looking around, at first aimlessly, and then as if he was getting uncomfortable or at least looking for a way out of some commitment growing slowly in his head. I wondered what, exactly, he had planned for that night to make him appear so distracted, and as he stood over the stairs, looking down at me and leaning on the railing, I felt — and I don’t know if this was another symptom or simply my imagination — my body and his go backwards, the staircase wobbling, then expanding, until we seemed to be walking away from each other.
“You seem fine,” he said quite suddenly, “so don’t worry about it. You know, just the other day, my girlfriend was telling me about her mother. She had the same exact problem as you but eventually got it under control. You just have to tell yourself that things will be fine, that your life will pretty much continue as it was. And once you really get that, who cares if you suddenly feel a bit dizzy or scared — you know it’s meaningless and passing, right. I mean, I cango get dressed,” he said, waving his hand dismissively, “but if you’re stuck depending on those pills, you’re just not going to get any better.” It was, I think, curiously like Isabella’s manner — curiously, because although the two are very different, in this matter they seemed to align. It’s as if all people share some basic blueprint, and the basics of any situation call for the same response. I wondered what, exactly, they were responding to here. What inner thing or compulsion leaves them to this sage advice — to forget my problems? And yet, they were both right, and Seth, I’m sure, had no idea how I felt that month. At first, I couldn’t understand why, but the more I thought about it, I saw that, maybe, I was trying a bit too hard to be normal. My grandmother must have told him something, but she likely toned it down a bit. And on top of this, I didn’t even notice that I was pretending to be fine, and still can’t remember any particular instances of such. I thought my sickness was pretty self-evident, and yet, so many human behaviors are automatic and unconscious that I could have been playing to this false tune all along. It was, perhaps, all my fault that he declined. And, knowing it was my fault, I couldn’t hold it against him.
And immediately I felt bad for disturbing him. It’s not as if I was dying, so why annoy Isabella, who’s only been too good to me, and my brother, who was already busy with his mysterious affairs? I thought of my girlfriend, who was now about to come to my sickroom, the lights on, as they were every night for the past few weeks, ready to listen. It was calming, and as soon as I felt myself nodding off, the doorbell rang. I asked Seth to get it, who was, for some reason, a little more obliging with me after our conversation, even bringing her bags down to my room. I quickly got rid of the books, unread for the fourth week now, and smiled at Isabella. She smiled, too, but a little sleepily. It was odd, I thought, since she was so lively from what I heard over the phone, just forty minutes before. I asked to lie down and talk as she waved one hand, the other covering a heavy yawn.
I didn’t have to wonder what to say. I was thinking about it for the whole night. And it was a story I had told Isabella many times before — I like to repeat warm and familiar things. I thought of what it would be like to have a bigger family. They would probably be downstairs with me right now, and I wouldn’t have to depend on Isabella, or on random friends, to speak to and be consoled. In fact, they could sleep in the same room, an image that brought to mind the Hasidic Jews I grew up around. And Isabella knew of this part, too, often smiling at the irony — I was a Christian child — and always wanted to hear more:
As a kid, I didn’t care about being a superhero or an astronaut. I didn’t even care about cars or dinosaurs. I simply wanted to be a Jew, and not just any Jew, but a Hasid. My Jewish friends at school were nothing — they occasionally went to synagogue, for example, but the fact that they dressed up to the Hasids, and not the other way around, was telling. They were very serious people, and my friends, if they had even a hint of religiosity, saw a distant and unknowable archetype they could never match. I loved this strange and effortless power and I guess some might have even called me envious. But, I’m not sure if the word “envy” even fits, as my feeling was much more spiritual than that — was it, then, a spiritual envy, something closer to aspiration? It certainly sounds more noble. I saw their large families, their big homes, their almost pathological closeness to not only each other, but to the abstractions they lived by, and wondered why everyone else couldn’t be the same. They made it seem so easy, and it was the world, I convinced myself, that couldn’t live up to them. And thus, in my own way, I put the universe in an awkward position, that of satisfying the Jews and their mysterious goals. I didn’t quite know what these goals were — I was eight or nine, after all — but one could see it not so much on their artificially rigid faces, which always seemed to me a bit nervous and liable to collapse at any moment, but in what not they, but others did. Yes, other Jews looked up to them, but those Italians, for all of their complaining, actually feared them. It was especially obvious as they walked down the street, and, noticing a Jew, stared straight at him. And the Hasid, being a naturally shy and even self-absorbed creature, didn’t even think to stare back, avoiding all eyes and, by extension, entire bodies, which seemed to move like nebulous masses towards a great star, only to be repelled by some undiscovered physical law. The Italians thought they could catch them with a gaze that pooled together every bit of racial history, Christian violence, and downright foolishness, only to be rebuffed — culture, history, and all — by a simple twist of the neck to the other direction.
It was terrifying to watch, and no one, I thought, was as powerful as the Jews. And yet, as an adult, I simply couldn’t respect this idea any longer. I knew, deep down, that no mysticism or superstition could possibly satisfy me. Yet here I was, regressing to a child in my illness, wishing, once again, to be that Jew. I thought, I could have a rabbi over my body now, ensuring me to peace. I could even have the whole community — forged as each Jew is by this great monolith — reassuring me, or even trying to make me laugh. I felt a slight panic building up again, long enough for me to blubber all kinds of nonsense. I could, I told Isabella, invisible teardrops fanning through my eyes, have something to aspire to — a false guarantee of something, beyond this weird malaise that might never leave me now. And thus, a curious thing began to happen as I spoke. I was, at first, telling the same story, rehearsed and rehearsed again, with no surprises. But halfway through, it had suddenly taken on a new meaning. As I spoke, I did so with renewed interest, emphasizing this or that point I thought I never got the chance to really examine, or even introduced entirely new ideas I didn’t even know I had. It was, indeed, practically healing, as the griot brightened at a word or sighed deeply at some memory.
But Isabella only yawned and, taking off her shirt, inadvertently covered her ears at this or that phrase I desperately wanted her to hear. I’d come to something else, but a garter would snap; and if I was about to make some special gesture, she’d sneeze or burp, but reassure me that she heard everything by repeating the sentence back verbatim, word against inert word, and missing, I couldn’t help but notice, some indefinable thing that made my story so particular, so utterly my own that night. As she collapsed, the smell of alcohol made my nausea return.
It was expected, as Isabella did say she was going to arrive, and despite her words to the contrary, was likely going to fall asleep right away. And I don’t mean to sound bitter or resentful — far from it. It was not, after all, her responsibility to even be here, much less coddle me with words. I knew I had to deal with things better, but, my God, I simply couldn’t, and if I would have simply told Isabella this, in this very way, not fighting back my tears, perhaps the night would have turned out a bit less memorably: As she fell asleep, I lay in bed, falling to the worst panic I had ever experienced in my entire life, crying to my pillow, waking what seemed like every five minutes, kicking off the covers in a sweat, then alternately pulling them over my face in fear of something in my blackening room, and by five o’clock in the morning, threw the windows open in an insane wish to feel the freezing gusts, lay back down and was mercifully rocked to sleep.
It was time to get off the bus as soon as we woke up. Twenty minutes later, our bus was already a mile behind when we found the gravel. The professor, who was too old to hike with us, said that once we saw gravel, the mountains wouldn’t be too far. Indeed, they were almost too easy to spot — a disappointment, since, once we looked down and across Athens from this spot, it only felt right to have had to work for it. But, perhaps I was being too hard on myself. After all, I was disappointed over and over again by Greece, and this, by contrast, was a relief. I don’t mean to say I was impressed by the sight — far from it. It’s simply reassuring, I’ve learned, to have at least one decent memory to fall back on since, eventually, the whole experience will blur with the rest of your world.
“I don’t think anything can compare to this,” said Greg. I turned to him and smiled. “No, not even love,” he continued, making sure to carefully watch the landscape. It was not much different from the rest of Greece in its uniform topography: short, broad lines cutting through the sky and open slabs of mountain on which we stood, looking on the grey and countless permutations of the same. It was noon and the landscape really needed this. The sun, directly above us, wiped the mountains down with color and, looking off, we saw, for the first time, Greece the way it’s meant to be seen: an old, old place with this bright renewal above its head. I felt a shiver — we were very high up. Greg seemed to notice this, turning to me in surprise. I pulled a sweater on, but remember, quite oddly, feeling too warm, as if stuck in a place that confuses both sense and recollection.
“I mean, it could be the same feeling,” Greg suddenly interrupted, not having any concrete experience to base this on. “In love, it’s like you’re drawn to something vaguely unique, although you know, deep down, that it’s somehow replaceable. That there are thousands of people that can work with you, and give you the same feeling, but you just don’t want it from anybody else. You’ve worked so hard getting to know one person, investing yourself emotionally… so, it doesn’t matter how ‘right’ someone else is for you, or even if something is better, ‘cuz when you’re satisfied, and especially when you don’t know any better, you’re not looking for anything else. You’re done,” he said, once again looking uncertain.
Greg seemed to choke up — the air, I recall, was moist — but continued: “And I think Greece and all this is stuff is the same for me. It’s been years, David, since I picked up my first book on Greek and Latin, and it’s not as if I haven’t thought about it, or wondered how things would have been if I chose something… No, not practical, but perhaps more relevant. And enduring. But it’s like my whole childhood in there. It’s like a familiar neighborhood, where I know everything,” he said, and for a moment, I felt some sympathy. I knew what he meant. I can’t deny that and wouldn’t even want to, comfortable and loving as I am with those older places in my life. “It’s been years since I fell in love with it. Its vagaries, the depth of the subject… and, even its instability, in a way, always fearing to lose the language, rocky as it is, or somehow not knowing it enough. Not like the natives, at least. It’s what I mean when I say it’s like a woman. It’s always this fear around it…”
I shook my head. “Like a woman,” I repeated, smiling again.
“Yes,” Greg said, a little shaky now, not wanting to press or embellish his words. “Like a woman. I really mean it. It’s like, you can never really know someone, or what a woman thinks. I know, I don’t have the experience. I don’t have much of anything, except an instinct. It fails me, a lot, but I’ve read the poets, I even know a bit of Sappho,” he said, likely reciting a line or two in his head for confirmation. “I really think guys chip away at things until they find the woman they think they want. I know I’ve done it in my own way, and there’s nothing wrong with it. It took time for me to feel that I was getting somewhere with Greek, but I got it, I know the neighborhood. But, how well do I really know it…” It was almost as if he was thinking of some dark incident in his own life, something deeper than these silly languages and mountainsides. And yet, he wasn’t frank enough to admit this, hiding behind a veil of cynicism.
“It’s that kind of thing. You keep prodding and looking to understand, yet there’s always some part that’s hidden or unknown, and maybe one day, somebody else will know it, and not you. Or maybe you’ll figure it out, in some crisis…” he finished, although not quite finishing.
“I don’t think there’s much of a comparison. How is some old, stuffy subject, or even a sight, like this,” I said, waving an arm left to right, “comparable to a person? A person’s depths, if you can really see them, or a girl’s touch, will make you forget all other things for a while. And it’s not some ‘in the moment’ crap that I’m talking about, but the kind of oblivion I’ve felt only with another person,” I said, asking Greg if he had ever felt such things, and knowing, as Greg rubbed an itchy zit until it melted like a berry, that he hadn’t, and probably wouldn’t for a long time to come. Greg took another moment to look at the scene and see how sturdy it all was, at least in his mind — a deep, metallic grace strong enough to be: “No, a person will not be around forever to put you in this mood, and even if she is around forever, so what, I don’t think ‘oblivion,’ as you call it, is the norm. It’s not. But, when I look at this, it’s the only thing I feel, every time. Do you, when looking at Isabella, feel the same thing every time, in every –”
“I’ll tell you this,” I said, rising, “I am, standing even here, although I like it, although I enjoy it, I am still looking back to New York City. Not forward, but even back is still enough right now. Even here.”
“I don’t doubt you, but to me, it seems you have the same instinct, no matter where you look. In love, you’re looking for oblivion. And what about in New York City? Do you not walk around your old neighborhoods, or in big crowds, pretty much escaping from the now and what’s tangible to you? And I can’t think of much else when I’m in New York City. To me, that is an escape, not a bridge to anything else. I see my old neighborhoods, there, and I’m simply caught in them, like a dying fish. I’m not building towards much else. But here, in Greece, I make vast and sweeping links to the rest of the world, to history…”
“And, you think I don’t feel what you see in Greece, when I’m in New York?”
“No, I’m sure you do. It’s just that –” Greg swallowed again, moving into less familiar territory. “Well, you seem to be pretty caught up in one thing. I don’t know, when it comes to people, I just see betrayal and things not turning out as you expect. I saw your picture of Isabella, and she’s beautiful, and from what you tell me, she’s great, but all of this wilts. And if not beauty, then that newness, or what’s felt… I guess, in all things, I see room for unwanted changes, for people getting too accustomed to one another, and no longer being up to the challenge to please and remain mysterious. I don’t get that feeling here, and I’d tell people to be careful in love, but never on this mountain, looking down. Yes,” he said, a bit more fully, “it’s safer here, up on a big mountain with these slaps of falling rock, than anywhere else. Take a ton of dynamite to this place and if it’s gone, it’ll still please and bewilder the mind, even if it’s not around. Yet, with people, when they’re gone, they’re gone. Why else do people cry at funerals?”
I asked, “Why are you so obsessed with the old?”
Greg thought for a second and offered, “Why are you so obsessed with the new? And,” he said, sullen again, unmindful of the entire conversation, “with forgetting,” he jabbed. I didn’t quite know what he meant, but it did affect me somehow. It was odd, but I immediately thought of Isabella, my mind still wrapped in the unfamiliarity of love. We’re more free than all of this, Isabella. These mountains can only answer in gongs of reverberation, but your voice, in a single, original word, has more creative power than anything here.
* * *
A pattern — not from will, but from the chaos of things. The Maasai, like any other earthbound tribe that runs the gamut of every permutation of idea, is like an organism. It took tens of thousands of years of history and billions of years of a kind of early chemical warfare — atoms and molecules competing with one another until the first mechanical cell emerged — for one human action to occur, one word or idea to transcend its own monotonous chemistry. How could their lives be anything but perfect for what their world demands? It took so long for them to reach this careful equilibrium, so many mistakes ironed out; it would take conquest, slavery, and rebellion, eons later, to disturb it, to re-align the Maasai with the newest balance. The old man’s enlarged lobes, a woman’s breasts, the warrior’s final sip, are nothing but conclusions of one world’s parameters. Yes, the Maasai worship randomness, but only in this sense: it allows them to see what is beneath. The old man, too, will die, and whether it is through the same convulsive fit or some other thing, it matters not. It’s simply a detail.