by Andrea Scrima
like an egg cracked atop a skull
I know the tidal pull of the blood; that a mere glance can send plumes of fire curling through the nerves. After J. arrived: the sudden, mind-controlling molecular saturation of pheromones in the air, a maddening inability to concentrate, to think of anything at all. Intoxication, situational insanity, delusion. An attraction so fierce it made me angry; the almost violent force required to resist it. Focus on what you don’t like—it’s all there, right in the very first moment. Just take a look back and you can see it clear as day: the sober assessment, the critical points weighing down the wrong side of the scale, and then the sticky-sweet goo of self-deception oozing all over it like an egg cracked atop a skull, the giddy, hypnotic, honeyed brilliance of it—ah, love! How blind does it have to be to erase that immediate recognition of disaster? Men have their siren song to lead them astray, but what about us?
But the betrayal isn’t about that, it’s about the cowardice of pretense, the sideways-glancing mediocrity of the lie. It’s about what you thought your life was, where you were in a given year, a given summer, never suspecting that her momentary absences were furtive opportunities for making phone calls, arranging trysts. Innocuous code words in her appointment calendar, alibis so close to actual circumstances that the crucial deviance was rendered invisible—it was an art form for all you know, the essential element she needed to survive. But how many knew, and how many situations did she allow you to blunder through unknowingly? That is the deception: subsequent years spent sifting through the evidence, holding each imperfect memory up to a magnifying glass to search for the shadow in the mirror, the shoe poking out from beneath the bed.
squiggles and trembling, dreamlike shapes
And V.? What was it like for V.? You grow impatient with me, want me to leave behind the past, but it’s not the past I’m troubled by, no, it’s some kind of potent distillate which permeated me and charted labyrinthine maps in my neural pathways and lined the slippery, bubble-like walls of my cells with its sticky gook. The past can never be left behind, it’s not even passed, its substance has seeped into mine and commingled with it and here I am, thinking I’m making a fresh start and finally letting go and all the while my own invisible homunculus is trapped a million times over, stuck in the oozing muck of everything that has happened to it, in the condensed slime of experience.
Why this capacity for pain? Take a look at V., he’s built to survive; he forgets, deletes entire episodes, leaves people behind like vagabonds on the side of the road hoping to hitch a ride in his streamlined, gleaming life. It’s equipped with all the latest safety features, but even still: hitchhikers present unknown dangers. They can steal from you, abduct you, they can seduce you and then, touching up their lipstick in the rear-view mirror, ask to be let out on the next corner. They can bring peril and disease into your life; they can blackmail you. This was how V. saw me: not as a promise that might have been, a shooting star in the black of night sent to announce its augured miracle, but as a potential threat to his otherwise perfect life, its possible downfall. But disappointment is not a part of V.’s universe; failure, insecurity, fear, doubt: all words that do not apply. Alarmed, and then industrious as ever, his mind paved over whatever connecting lines our encounter might have momentarily redrawn. No room for renewal—not now. He has done everything right, he strides resolutely forwards, has built a life so enviable that even he is almost convinced he’s happy. But then he cracks open the veneer just enough to offer a peek inside, and he will do this again and again: give in to the temptation, recite his troubles like an air-tight case against himself, ask to be shown the way out of the rigid diagram of his life, and what is there to do but believe him, fall through that crack.
And what about you? The cups of Turkish coffee I turned over in their saucers in your mother’s apartment: you search the lines etched into their hardened grinds, examine the squiggles and trembling, dreamlike shapes for signs that presage fortune, presage a life together: something more than the disaster and betrayal and loss of love you’ve known until now. A life between cities, between boxes in storage: is it a type of freedom, or has it become its own settled way? What are our chances for anything more than this: a trip to Berlin, to London, maybe Paris—we’ll see. Like me, I fear you are trapped in your own personal quagmire. The blind leap of faith required to let go of the past, the childlike belief to proclaim: these are my limitations, my scars, I will conquer them now as I’ve always known I could, I will take a chance that my future self has already made this decision somewhere in the space-time continuum, already knows what will come to be—can either of us jump that far? We run and holler in joy. We whoop up a racket, resolute as warriors with cardboard and tinfoil swords in hand; we plant ourselves firmly on the peaks of our own little hills. And each of us hindered by responsibility and the far sturdier binds of habit, by a dizzying oscillation between a belief in the beauty and inevitability of happiness and a fear of failure and self-delusion.
the soft sound of rain
Different kinds of love: mismatched, reciprocal, asymmetric, seasoned, unrequited, deluded, eternal. Love of a particular person’s minor flaws. Love of blondes or brunettes. Puppy love, blind love, true love, parental love. Infatuation. Starry-eyed, sober, tear-blinded, short-lived. Mistaken love. Pre-ordained love. Love of humanity. The love one feels for a pet. Love of life, of good wine and fine clothing. Love of God. Love of travel. The love one can have for a particular image of oneself. A love for risk-taking, for collecting, for change, for challenge. Love of money. Love of one’s country. Love of the French language, of a particular season, of spinach and feta cheese, of the ocean. A love of one’s destiny. Love of suffering, of sacrifice. The love in forgiveness. Love of war and violence. Love of power. Love of plaid tartan, of tweed, of silk. Love of spiders. Love of ancestral heritage. Love of the unknown, of temptation, of subterfuge. A love for a particular color. Love of words, love of rain, love of the soft sound of rain trickling through autumn leaves onto a cobblestoned street.
a sudden drop in air pressure
I begin with mistaken love, then hesitate. Is love ever mistaken? You love a person, and then circumstances change or your perception of circumstances changes, or the person changes or seems to change or, more likely, your perception of that person changes and then suddenly you find yourself either unwilling or unable to love any longer. But does that mean you were mistaken? And if you discovered that you were mistaken, would you, if you could choose, go back in time to unlove that person? Or would you seek to alter the circumstances responsible for the inauspicious change, rearrange them in such a way that the outcome would be different, that is, conducive to the continuance of love as opposed to unconducive? If, that is, a change in circumstances has been responsible for your unwillingness or inability to love any longer. Perhaps it was merely your perception of circumstances that changed, or your perception of the person. Or perhaps it was that person’s perception of circumstances that changed, or perception of you. In any case, like a drop in air pressure, or the silence in a room after something has been said that can no longer be unsaid, it immediately becomes clear that something has changed, something love-snuffing, love-obliterating, and that it is no longer possible to go back to the time before the change, and there is no way to prevent it from occurring, because in some way you understand that everything has been leading up to this, every marker along the way has reliably announced its eventual arrival. But this is still not to say that the love you felt was mistaken. The attributes you loved may or may not have existed, you may or may not have loved a phantom partially of your own making, but love is seldom a mistaken emotion and in any case preferable to indifference.
this aphrodisiac bliss
Researching a quote from Nietzsche’s posthumous writings, only some of which have been translated into English, I call my friend Rainer, expert in all things Nietzsche. He points me to a “non-book” that I actually have at home, The Will to Power, edited by Walter Kaufmann. I retrieve it from a shelf high up in one of my bookcases and wipe off the dust. In it I find several passages marked in red by the person I was thirty years ago:
“On the genesis of art.— That making perfect, seeing as perfect, which characterizes the cerebral system bursting with sexual energy (evening with the beloved, the smallest chance occurrences transfigured, life a succession of sublime things, ‘the misfortune of the unfortunate lover worth more than anything else’): on the other hand, everything perfect and beautiful works as an unconscious reminder of that enamored condition and its way of seeing—every perfection, all the beauty of things, revives through contiguity this aphrodisiac bliss. (Physiologically: the creative instinct of the artist and the distribution of semen in his blood—)
The demand for art and beauty is an indirect demand for the ecstasies of sexuality communicated to the brain. The world become perfect, through ‘love’—”
the tick-tock of the continuum, its slow slippage
The beating of your heart inside your chest; the gradual progression of a shadow across a wall. And each moment unique: not an infinity of heartbeats and shadows, but a calculable quantity. The repetition of a thing lulls us to sleep, gives rise to the illusion that it will endure without end, that each instance is identical to the next, like units of measurement. But what about this particular heartbeat, now: not a pedantic exercise, but an understanding of location in time and space, a sudden awareness of one’s coordinates. And already I have lost the thread of what I wanted to say, already I have been led astray by a metaphor, by language itself, distracted by a cat playing with a bit of string, by the creaky-hinge sounds of a bird outside my window. The cat sits on the windowsill, quiet and alert. I watch him make jerky little movements with his head and will myself into his point of view; I speculate on his perception of time, but then again, I haven’t even come close to understanding my own.
What matter that time becomes relative once it leaves the framework of human experience—it has no bearing on my life, or on yours. Just as it seems to slow down to a standstill, just as the coexistence of past and future gels and the moment takes on an auratic glow, minutes and hours have slipped by unnoticed. Ekstasis, the state of being or standing outside oneself, is also a stepping out of time—in other words, ecstasy, the highest state of intense joy, arises out of a suspension of the temporal, a momentary liberation from the tick-tock of the continuum, its slow slippage.
the simplest, most self-evident things
The earliest memories of the self, and how the mind retains them: a fleeting moment, a vivid, invisible color in the mind, nothing more than the stark perception of oneself in the world, the immensity of time, the distant certainty of death. The child who looks around in wonder and thinks to itself that the grandmother and grandfather were also, at one time, children: but does the child really believe this? It is a kind of theoretical knowledge that it accepts; after all, the child is reasonable enough to understand that, for instance, things fall from up to down, and hence the concept of gravity is plausible, useful for explaining numerous phenomena. But when the child compares its own perceived superiority to the limited worlds of the adults it sees around it, the constraint of their understanding concerning the simplest, most self-evident things, does it really believe it will ever be anything but a child? It is like looking at an old photograph and focusing one’s attention on some fleeting detail—the crisp shadow of a branch on a wall, a reflection in a water glass—and thinking this really happened this way, this was exactly so in this moment, but there is no way to understand this or to comprehend a past consisting of infinite such moments that happened in such a way and no other. Better to remain in the present, in the certain understanding of what one is: a child, forever or almost, while everything else remains pure speculation.
I think I made you up inside my head
Memory. Too much of it rather than too little, layers and layers of it. Peel one back and discover another: this year or that, compressed into a potent concentrate, like Gentian Violet. Try to describe the sensation that rekindles a particular period of time, and you find that it’s outside the boundaries of the tangible, the intelligible. It’s like opening a capsule and something flashes in the mind—not a smell or a sound, but a quicksilver essence that escapes into the air and just as quickly dissipates, too rash to apprehend any individual attributes. You glimpse a fundamental form, recognize it somewhere within yourself, as though the nerves in the body were retracing a geometric diagram for a moment, and then poof! The blackboard is erased, the sensation vanishes, and although you try to retrieve it, you know that its very nature is evanescent, that whatever secret it might be hiding is not to be understood in words.
How does the mind store things, and what is the label it puts on each box—is it a function of chance that the sound of my own breath inside a fur-lined hood becomes the emblem of an entire winter of shifting emotion? The uneasy look X. gave me when I reacted in dismay to a comment he’d made. We were at a writers’ residency; half of us were suffering from a recent loss of love, from the disjointed communication and delphic utterances we stayed up entire nights poring over, trying to glimpse some meaning in them, giving them not the benefit of the doubt but an extravagant advance of belief and credence, never considering for an instant that the respective emails we were trying to decipher, to read between the lines of, had been dashed off in a hurry—one of a list of chores gnawing at the conscience of someone not in love, but too vain, perhaps, to let go. We congregated in the kitchen and read poems out loud to each other off someone’s iPhone. The sinister singsong of the villanelle: I think I made you up inside my head / I should have loved a thunderbird instead. An unusual conference of the lovelorn: each of us had given up on the cause of our respective misery, but a molten core still churned inside. And X., whose English was difficult to understand, who appeared at noon each day to make his wonton, stopped, in a rare moment of curiosity, to listen in. Someone asked him if he’d ever been deeply in love; break it down, we learned, break the phrases down into individual, simple words. The rephrasing of the question; the widening of eyes when he understood. Yes, X. had been deeply in love. He frowned. But never again, he stated with a sudden, lucid burst of fluency. Better not to love someone else. Love someone else and you suffer, he said as his hand made a rapid slicing motion in the air before him. Better to love yourself, he said, and he slapped his chest several times to underscore that he would never again squander away its contents on anyone as undeserving as the woman who had evidently broken his heart.
two parts of a severed whole
Destiny: a word that transmits little waves in all directions, some of them rapid and shrill, and some of them deeper, pulsing at the very edge of perception. A range of associations from bright and tinsel-like, like costume jewelry, to solemn and ancient. I once fell in love with a man who was mildly oblivious to my existence, who smiled to himself, as though he found me amusing. I was alone at the time, and in my solitude I became carried away by a fantasy that eventually escalated in my imagination. It would be easy to dismiss this love as infatuation, but what is it, really, to believe that one was meant to be together with another? What is it that makes the soul burn with longing, that induces one to inhale, to absorb another person into one’s perception to the point that one sounds like that person, resembles that person? I recall him smiling differently at times, too, coming up from behind me on a bicycle, for instance, pedaling amiably, having clearly enjoyed observing the movement of my gluteus maximus, my gluteus medius on the seat; having allowed that to suggest other activities to his imagination. I also recall his eyes on me at unexpected moments, when there was sometimes a pained expression in them. The Androgyne, two parts of a severed whole longing for each other, longing for completion. When I was very young, a sense of my own destiny would arrive at unexpected moments: walking down Seaview Avenue at the age of thirteen or fourteen, after nightfall, in awe at the terrible infinitude of the pitch-black sky above me, the terrible distances between the stars, listening to my shoes hit the pavement one after the next in a regular rhythm, connected to this Earth by the mere force of gravity and understanding myself to be entirely, irrevocably alone, and that I would always be walking in this way, listening to my own footsteps, with the beautiful, terrible nighttime sky above me twinkling with the ghosts of long-dead stars. An early encounter of the self with the self: a kind of knowledge that was impossible to describe, or convey, or articulate in any way; that had to do with me in the most intimate way.
Each time the same awkward gesture, like the tail end of a flourish fueled by a sudden impulse gone askew. A burst of resolve tightens the muscles, focuses the will: a move to begin that falters halfway. We hesitate, the cipher the mind writes wavers, a wobble in the curve. Once again, the momentum trips and we are forced to begin again. The jump rope slapping the pavement of our childhood, the mesmerizing regularity of its beat: we observe, but we already know that we mustn’t linger: swaying with the rhythm, the ropes’ sharp loop too quick to follow, we relinquish control to our limbs, execute a neat leap, and we’re home free.