I.
For years I could barely write a page. I thought I was becoming a virtuoso of smallness while the grief, which is wordless, occupied an ever-greater volume.

My friend lived in the estates on the bad side of town. Let’s go to the forest, she said when I went over to play. There were three trees in the yard, but if you know where to stand, you can get lost in a forest of three trees. She could do it. She had to. Her mother died when we were nine.

When I was an “emerging” artist I wanted only to finish emerging. But not knowing what I would become, not knowing the circumference of my life—I never expected to solve those mysteries, and once they were solved, I missed them. I didn’t know I’d miss them.

At the twenty-fifth reunion, a presentiment of the grave, now that all the girls from your high school class have borne the last of their children.

My freshly spayed cat’s fetal kittens were incinerated along with her organs, but she doesn’t know it. Her mammary glands have swollen with milk. She licks her red nipples, getting ready to nurse.

True happiness is relinquishing one’s sense of entitlement to it.

Pigeons roost in the cathedral and shit down onto the cortege, and so the burial begins.


II.
On an autumn afternoon we sat in the back seat of a small car. There were too many people in the back seat. Our legs touched. Hello, he said. My left side burned. I can feel the pressure of his body, all our clothes between us. I’ve been trying to write about this for thirty years.

I want to dig up everyone who was in that car and drag them all home, holding on to their melting faces, screaming into them, Was any of this real? Did any of it happen?
We wrote notes to each other and left them on each other’s drawing boards in the art studio. Fifteen years ago I threw them away. They were getting in the way of what I wanted to remember, which was the distance between us. I didn’t realize at the time that I controlled it totally, that I’d invented it to maintain my ecstatic debasement.

A passenger jet dives into the ocean and bobs up to float on its side. Through the little windows I can see the calm passengers chatting and drinking from their little cups, parents holding their children. As I watch the plane sink I wonder at their courage and calm. After I wake up I realize they might not yet know they’ve crashed.

The passengers—classmates, ex-friends, ex-lovers—should all be dead to me, but I watch their lives continue as I lurk on their Facebook pages, studying photos of them sitting in restaurants, toasting the very best of times, going bald and doughy, holding their wineglasses up toward the lens. In their world they are still alive.

In the beginning I eagerly offered myself up for punishment. Then I got older and pretended I’d been in control all along, directing those who had hurt me, telling them what to do.

There isn’t enough money in the world for me to do that, I think, but then I remember what I’ve already done for free.

So many desires can now be satisfied quickly that it seems all desires should be satisfied quickly. Capitalism wants you to consume more and faster. But the speed at which thought develops, or at which trust develops, has not changed, I reassure myself. But what if it has?

One of the great pleasures of my life was having a verbally agile lover closely observe my scalp and describe it to me.

My friend used to masturbate slowly, really devote himself to it. I like to get to know myself, to pay attention, he said, smiling, block off a couple of hours for the seduction. We met when we were twenty, and he was thirty-four when he killed himself, but maybe he’d already blocked off a couple of decades for the seduction, passed the point of no return before we even met.

If you aren’t afraid to imagine it, I can feel you imagining it, a heat transmittable from the safety of your marriage to the safety of mine.

I used to think my mind occupied space in my body and that it could just as well occupy space in some other body, a man’s body, and be the same mind, more or less. After I became a mother I learned that I am a woman, and after that, I learned what people think of women. It happened very fast.

I won’t give in, but I’m attracted to the idea of giving in. I like to imagine how I’d feel, aroused and alone, after the act, writing about it in my little room. That’s my favorite part.
When I finally got the compliment I’d been craving, I immediately started trying to dismantle its legitimacy. He was high; he was distracted by my dress; he could sense my vampiric lust for compliments and offered one out of pity.

Our fucking is intimate, but I still don’t know what he’s thinking about. I send him a copy of the book I’m reading. He writes to say he’s reading it. Now I know what he’s thinking about.


III.
When the dissonance between how we see each other and how we see ourselves is small enough for us both to tolerate, friendship is possible.

When a new friend pays me too many compliments, I think she’s trying to compensate for not liking me much.

I read another friend’s new novel. Its only flaw is that a hundred other novelists could have written it.

When you meet strangers who know your face from a photograph, life becomes a dream in which you alone are real.

I am frequently shocked by the things people tell me. I’m not shocked by the stories; I’m shocked that I’ve been selected as a person to whom they are told.

After we fall out we might never speak again, but I’ll grow old with your detested memory.

You give up your job to move somewhere for your spouse’s job, which pays better than yours ever will, so the marriage wins. It happens five times in a row, in five consecutive years. You’d never have agreed to this, but the marriage keeps winning! The trick is to train yourself to value the marriage above yourself, to feel as if you win when the marriage wins. After the fifth move, I barely even tried to make friends, barely arranged the house, barely cared what it looked like, what I looked like. Marriage is a machine that deforms whatever self you once were into an accommodating engine.

But then there is the opposite agony of the pristine, unmarked self.

My husband and I are still married because he’s willing to hold a pillow in front of his chest and lock his elbows. You’re making a disturbing amount of eye contact, he said the first time, and we both laughed, and I kept punching.

I visit an acquaintance at his house. His tiny son rides in a motorized chair. I wonder how long it takes before you don’t feel moved to explain what’s wrong with your kid every time someone new comes over.

The plane descends through a thunderstorm. I rock and shush the baby, and he calms down and blinks slowly, like a cat. If not for him, I’d have been gobbling tranquilizers. It makes you powerful, a new father said to me years ago, trying to explain what had happened to him.

The little boy points to a globe and says buh because he thinks it’s a ball.


IV.
In 1988, my life became forever tainted by the knowledge that I would write about it, which left me about fourteen years of pure experience.

Late at night, all alone, a classmate rode back and forth in the street on his skateboard, practicing. When he skated into the parking lot at school, everyone watched. I think I was the only one who ever got to see his sketchbook, scratched into the road between our houses.

One day I realized I could just write the first line of a book over and over again, each time differently, and so write an entire book.

How far along are you? people will ask of your book, as if the page count indicates anything, but progress on a book isn’t linear. It’s oceanic.

Other people’s doubt looks like conflict, which is interesting, but my own doubt feels like a blank where the subject ought to go.

I used to prefer barren landscapes because I was so full of what I needed to leave somewhere.

I once had a student whose husband was a gravedigger. She didn’t write about it.

I once had a student who grew up in her father’s itinerant magic show. She didn’t write about it.

I once had a student who was so ashamed when she told me what her job was—housekeeping—she whispered it to me. She didn’t write about it.

I once had a student whose father was a security guard who spoke five languages and got beaten up regularly. He didn’t write about it.

I’ve lost count of the number of students I’ve had who refused to write in their natural register because they distrusted the ease of it. They thought writing was supposed to be hard.

Having nothing to write isn’t writer’s block. It’s just the dormant phase of the work. I used to write all through this phase, and it looked like productivity. It wasn’t.

The concept of writer’s block depends on the assumption that whatever you’re producing, it’s not enough.

I need to insulate myself from even the idea of productivity in order to get anything of value done. But even the idea of getting it done is evidence of the pollution of the act.

I have nothing to write and no time to write it, which neatly solves both problems.

I still can’t tell the other parents at my son’s baseball games what I write about without sounding as if I’m making it up on the spot.

Writing about someone is one way of making her stay still, unchanging. Sometimes it’s easier to keep believing in the written version. I’m guilty of this.

I cut the disintegrating ribbon ties off my husband’s dead mother’s sewing kit on Christmas morning. My husband put my grandmother’s hand-crocheted afghan in the washing machine after the cat got fleas in it. I lay under it as a child. It came out of the machine in shreds. Another hue of sadness. Do all of them need to be described?

Sometimes when I can’t solve a problem in my work I find myself furiously revising my professional biography, as if the problem is just that I’m the wrong person, the wrong writer, and if I changed into a different person, maybe I could solve the problem.

I put the manuscript in a drawer. To hide it? No, to hide from it. I don’t want it to see me pretending not to know it.

Crossing an ocean is a good metaphor for reading a book, but it’s not a good metaphor for writing one unless the crossing takes place before the age of astronomy, and the captain is ready to fall off the edge of the world.


V.
In college, we noted a serenity among those studying classics—the one department in which all the primary source material had already been made. Only there lived the possibility of total knowledge—a kind of perfection.

If a plain person or a mediocre piece of art has one or two decent features I make sure to praise them as I would a beautiful person or a brilliant piece, I start to think. But I don’t praise the beautiful or brilliant; they don’t need praise. I pay them a compliment and carry on. Praise is for the slowest runner, the last to finish. That’s whose name gets shouted out, as if it could distract her from her lastness.

Our teacher gave us each a sheet of handmade paper, featherlight and unrippable, and told us to make a mark on it that would make it better than it already was. The exercise pleased me and inflamed my already pathological perfectionism. Twenty years later, I still have the sheet, blank as the day it was made.

My friend needed a perfectly smooth surface, which grew less possible as she scraped away layers of scab and new skin, but you could see what she was going for. Her ruined face was the expression of her belief—in perfectibility.

It is suggested that I try to make something imperfect on purpose. To leave something unfinished? No, to choose a form that can’t be perfected.

Years later I see the suggestion for what it was: an appeal that I not kill myself.

Only an idiot wouldn’t be depressed, I think, and it makes me smile.

Depression keeps me from writing and tells me to blame everything else.

After I give a reading, a worried teenager asks, Do you think you’re a good writer?

People ask, What are you depressed about? But there is no about.

I often imagine being twenty, sitting around with all my twenty-year-old friends. I point at one of them. Isn’t it weird that you’re going to die in four years? I point to two more of them. You at thirty, you at thirty-four? It’s so weird! Two more, gone by thirty-nine, forty-one. We can’t take it seriously, but it’s serious. There are already photographs in which half of us are dead.

I was fine until middle age, when I looked down and got spooked. And clung to the mountain.

The tranquilizers in my pillbox turned slowly to dust, but they maintained their power there, inside the box, until one day I ate one. Now they only work if I eat them.

Habits are choices. Addictions are assignments.

My father replaced his heavy wooden captain’s desk with flimsy particleboard that could be hauled to the dump in one trip. My mother sold her grandmother’s china. Now their apartment looks like a motel room. Just before they die, they’ll sweep the floor clean, place two unfinished pine caskets in the middle of the room, get into them, and softly lower the lids down onto themselves—their poverty, at last, perfected.

The phrase to die by suicide is too clinical, but I don’t like the phrase to kill yourself, either. Suicide is self-murder only incidentally; mainly, it’s the murder of your tormentor. That you need to break through your body to get to the tormentor is beside the point.

A few years ago I had a headache after which I was a different person. It changed the way I thought about myself. Forever after, I’d know I had a limit. I don’t remember the pain, exactly, but I remember my certainty. I trust it.

On the way home we’re almost hit by a car, and my husband swerves, but my life doesn’t flash before my eyes. Instead I think, Now I’m going to find out how it feels to be in a wreck.

I should know by now which pains to treat and which to submit to.

I didn’t know the route. I ran out of water. My shoes got soaked and I took them off. Every few steps I stopped and shook and knew I would die. Then I gave up and agreed to be mastered and walked easily down the mountain.



Homepage art by Subhrajyoti07, CC BY-SA 4.0