SHRINKING THE MONSTER
(2013 Essay Contest Winner)
Faith: I tried to stop him, but I...I couldn't. And I ran.
Buffy: First rule of slaying: don't die.
he was transferred here from ward 151 on 7/27/96 he was put into the "Honey Bear" group he seemed very apprehensive of the new environment for the first week he became upset easily would cry when anyone touched him or tried to move him he now will allow people to touch him and move him without crying he follows movement about him with his eyes he has definite likes and dislikes in food he will let food drop out of his mouth if he doesn't like it he is fed all of his meals. he drinks form a cup without the spout. he has no self help skills since his accident and surgeries prior to admission to the hospital he needs complete care he cannot sit or hold his head up or roll over he cannot crawl he has no known allergies before his accident he spoke and understood english it is difficult to know how much he comprehends at this time he appears to respond to his name he seems to recognize people by watching those he is familiar with and crying or showing fear when someone he doesn't know approaches him he will respond to a firm simple command such as "Paul, stop that" he appears to enjoy music and seems to like some songs better than others such as songs by "John Denver" he is beginning to turn his head from side to side
break [it him] down now
He was transferred here from ward 151 on 7/27/96.
Typo number one. No, not 1996 at all. It was 1976, the bicentennial. Year of spiders and horsetails that dissolved in ash over our heads, of Star Wars stickers plaqued sloppily to the bunk bed, year of crab casserole that browned the dish and slivered between the teeth. I think I know this much, though proof of my existence did and does remain blurry.
Blurriness by design, for I black market in ghosts, my vision glassed in gauze, the liminal stuffed up my nostrils, disorienting as a kidnapper's chemical rag.
I don't know when I typed out my brother Paul's transfer to the state hospital. For sure, some time after he died, just before the hospital threw out these fungal, markered boxes of immobile notations.
All that's left of him, save a photo scratched with acid, save a bust made by my grandma that overdetermined his curls and strained his red-clay neck on the blocky base.
Why so many mistakes? Spelling, punctuation? I could type a hundred words a minute. I was going for speed then, deep in the administrative wing of Lanterman State Hospital, where the calendar on the desk blotter had red crosses cut through the days.
For months, my visitor's nametag stayed stuck to the refrigerator.
What you need to know:
I was six. My brother Paul was four. The parents at Disneyland. Paul and I were wearing slippered pajamas. Me having slid across the tile in the foyer, goading him to follow me faster. Paul running and sliding out of control and his head smack against the pole in the entryway to the house and then a second smack against the floor tiles.
The giant yellow vase in an egg-white alcove with fake resplendent lilies shaking.
Paul dazed but now standing. Are you okay? Yes, I'm okay.
We went into my parents' bedroom. The two night tables with lion's head, beige knocker handles. The drab lamps with the Crayola flesh-colored shade.
We sat on our parents' bed.
I feel sleepy, Paul said.
Don't sleep, I said.
Now he has fallen onto me, slumped sideways, across my lap. His skin against the nubbles of lint on my pajamas.
Wake up, Paul. Wake up.
He doesn't wake up.
I shriek. The babysitter comes in. She was Salvadoran, spoke little English. Her name?
She shrieks too. She is undocumented and hides in her room and weeks later, after she resigns from grief and guilt, I inherit her black and white television, and some days after the accident she makes me sugar-sprinkled tortillas. My teary eyes stung with hands of melted butter.
I have to push Paul off of me and onto the floor so that I can call the paramedics.
How it continues, in my fiction:
Ira and Naomi Goldstein return from dinner. Two squad cars parked askew in the green-lit driveway, Andy's body strapped to a stretcher in the ambulance, Darla's eye-pencil smeared. By the time the paramedics have stitched tubes to Andy's larynx and spliced wires to heart and cerebellum, Jeremy has balled himself up like a pill bug inside the twins' bedroom closet. Their dreamless had well begun.
After the accident [we simply call it the accident], he stayed in the Children's Hospital, Los Angeles, for six months or so. Then he was transferred to Lanterman State Hospital, where, many years ago, I type with fat blocky fingers.
let a = sleep let a = crabmeat casserole let a = pill bug
let a = bunkbed
He was put into the "Honey Bear" group.
Can you imagine the workers at the state hospital dividing the terminally vegetative into groups? By location, by severity, by amplitude of flicker in cornea?
- Honey bear: completely non-functional.
- Ladybug: can tingle fingers and cry before wetting self.
- Bumblebee: able to hold spoon but gruel slides.
- King cobra: because I want to see it so.
The workers at the hospital devised these classifications to give the illusion to childhood not lost; let's say, given to cold storage. "I'm 12," says the girl vampire in Let the Right One In. "I've just been 12 for a very long time."
Paul's handlers are full of compassion. At times, they may be rough with him, imagining him unable to feel, and they are most certainly right, but mostly they maintain the fiction that he must be handled with care.
I don't know this, however, until the funeral. fourteen years after the accident. Fourteen comatose years. I am twenty. 1990. Year of flea plague, year of blueberry doughnuts. A year of twigged passion with a woman surnamed Whip whom I never saw again after she went gathering logs for the sauna.
At the funeral, I did not look at the pine coffin. The cemetery near the airport, and I counted the seconds between the reverse thrust of jet engines.
I wore tortoise-shell sunglasses. Mostly I spent the time refusing to cry, resenting how deeply, how like a Greek chorus, how wildly the nurses wailed. Wailing for a boy who never spoke to them, who never said thank you. How I resented them, hated their overbleached dresses, their Lee Press-on Nails.
They knew him far better than I ever did.
The Rabbi said Kaddish.
Now [writes Ginsberg] I've got to cut through to talk to you as I didn't
when you had a mouth
In my novel about my brother, which I had titled Sleep of the Dreamless, I named the mother Naomi, same as Ginsberg's mother.
I was secretly overjoyed that Paul had died. At the wake I helped ladle soup. I hated myself. I let the nurses kiss my cheek.
Two works that have always fascinated me:
Fig. 1. Claude Monet, Camille on her Deathbed, 1879
Fig. 2. Robert Mapplethorpe, Self-Portrait with Deaths-Head, 1988
The place [writes Kristeva] where I am not and which permits me to be, the corpse, the most sickening of wastes, is a border that has encroached upon everything. The corpse...is the utmost of abjection. It is death infecting life....what disturbs identity, system, order....The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite.
What if there's no corpse? How does one mourn without the corpse? When the corpse still breathes, both corpse and not-corpse? How one grieves, or doesn't, when the body remains in that bed for fourteen years. The mutating helix of what that does to you, to a family. How people move forward, or sideways.
His body grew through puberty like a creeper vine extending through the barred hospital bed and he grew acne and most likely had wet dreams. Even for a comatose person, some things remain taboo. A honey bear doesn't ejaculate.
let a = the hand-hewn ladder at an Anasazi site in New Mexico, with my sister B-, en route to a cave where I would watch a solar eclipse via reflection in tin foil, when I fatally decided to shove my tortoise shell glasses into my jeans let a= the snapped frames let a = the moon sucked into its own corona
He seemed very apprehensive of the new environment for the first week.
I don't blame Paul, do you? He had been moved.
A mercurial restlessness settles in. Displacing the nomadic, as my father did, onto Reagonomics, into a time signature of upward mobility. He played the market, the capsuled logic of pharmaceuticals, algorithms of DSM diagnosis, schemes to beat the odds. He kept busy and ordered.
We didn't speak about Paul. We hopped from house to house, school to school, friend to friend. As if our secret, for that is what it had become, would waft out, as garlic, from our pores.
If only I could articulate what it's like to live with someone dead but not dead. Someone whose name cannot be spoken, whose name I will not speak. His body on the edge of a cataracted periphery I could neither articulate nor admit.
There's only one book written on the absent, dead body - interviews with the widows of Vietnam fighter pilots whose bodies were never found. Nothing on the absent present body.
Five years after the accident, my mom finished her Master's Thesis. She titled it "Family Reactions to the Death of a Child." My husband and I, she wrote, will always be aware of potential problems that R- may experience in the future.
If one keeps in shark's motion, insomniac, one never has to look. One can only, in mirage, admit [in dream, in desire, as evidence] and summarily reject his sloppy indeterminate body.
This nomadic impulse has destroyed my marriage. Has allowed what has always been destroyed in me to become visible.
Paul: invisible and omnipresent. The context for the novel I'm not finishing. In the context of losing the love of my life, losing a marriage, a home, cats, a set of friends, an entire continent. In the context of learning how to live my life again. In the context of hating Freud for arguing how a traumatic event can overdetermine one's adulthood, only to realize, thirty-five years later, how probable it actually is.
I have organized myself around the idea of my unbroken self, of myself held together by myself. And now I have lost L-, lost the slats of small boats crossing the Amstel, lost the fog of Golden Gate Park slipping up the sleeves of our windbreakers, the dripping truffle of Florentine gelaterias and the acidic eye of hydrangeas, the shaved auburn hair at the nape of L's neck and the emery-filed callus on her big toe and the long line of staple scars on her strong back, lost everything I treasured: the vertiginous, silvery drop we shared between sex and sleep and the reckless drapery of leg over leg.
I have no idea who I am.
It is 2010. A year of picked scabs and dessicated succulents. Each night I fall hard face down and twisted into short sleep wearing a silver dress shirt and ripped underwear.
I am so tired. I try to write.
I just spilled Vietnamese curry on myself, a sedimental rivulet of sawdust beige.
let a = spilled cut of chamomile tea beside the bed let a = eye-pillow filled with lavender and rice
He became upset easily, would cry when anyone touched him or tried to move him.
No, that was me. Until I was 11 or so. Maybe even older, when I developed a skin that shed, that I picked at.
When I was ten, I cried easily. Every time someone said "no" to me, I burst into tears.
My husband and I, wrote my mother, kept our guilt and anger under wraps by keeping as busy as possible and working as hard as we could to be there for our younger son [Paul] now when we weren't there before.
They felt guilty for not being there; I felt guilty for being there. Dad's anger at the loss of his son developed into rages only he understood. Now he doesn't remember that he had them.
I can't remember the last time I yelled at someone. Even at L-, even after she confessed her infidelity. I am incapable of directing my anger at someone [else]. Anger is a gigantic ball of rubber bands. Anger is a hot brain with Yellowstonian heat vents.
When I travelled in India, I learned of sadhus who would touch their disciples, take away their pain. They had strength and compassion to filter pain, move it, defuse it. I didn't have that kind of strength. The anger percolated in my stomach, less knot than cramp, bubbling and orange as a caldera.
For years, I never told L- how much her behaviors, her judgments and persnickets, had worn me down, emptied me out. I felt like a shell in her presence, yet also like a dog, on call. I was unable to be me, because me didn't seem good enough any more.
Perhaps her impatiences stemmed from the extent to which I had shelled myself.
It was February of 2010, in Tokyo, a few degrees above freezing, walking to the Meiji-Jingu Shrine.
Earlier, in the shower, with water drops falling down from the ceiling, I tried to hold her, to kiss her, and she called it an assault.
We got off at Harajuku. As we walked to the shrine, I asked her to stop for a photo. She criticized how I tried to frame her. The background, the lighting. I started to sob. I leaned against the bridge, away from the tourists. The maple trees, the brook.
There are parts of your body that, for years, you don't notice, don't think about. I was always proud of my stomach. I spent five months in India without getting stomach-sick. I remembered the last time I puked from food poisoning—I was sixteen, checking out universities, reading Piers Anthony novels. The culprit? Peking Duck from a restaurant in Ghiradelli Square.
L- and I watched the robes of the priest drag and trail on the stone. We threw coins onto slatted metal. We stuck lit incense in boxes of white sand. We gathered our fortunes and, unsatisfied, sent them back, tied the paper to a long wire. We watched a wedding procession pass through the shrine and we looked at the ground, sunk our hands in our coats. For the first time I recognized how my stomach hurt.
The skin releases what the stomach can no longer hold. Skin as the site of the self-destructive impulse. About my father:
No longer am I disgusted by
his nails scraping out earwax,
snow flurries in his hair,
his secret habit of peeling back
cuticles until they bleed.
If we must go on
we must enlist our skin
to distract us.
She looks at him [writes Duras]. It's inevitable. He's alone and attractive and worn out with being alone. As alone and attractive as anyone on the point of death. He is weeping.
I cry when anyone touches me. When anyone tries to move me.
The deferral of death shifts everything out of phase. My father, who walks into walls, who doesn't remember his rages, who picks at his skin. Who says the computer seized up, as if having a stroke, leaving the computer mute, unable to respond or receive input.
Orgasm is the positive limit at which the body takes over, at which you, in your skull, become illiterate and obliterated.
let a = O where O = le petit mort
I grew up in Los Angeles, in the valley. I would catch a bus transfer at the Galleria, sometimes I would sneak inside, like in Fast Times at Ridgmont High, to play video games. We had the first cable networks in the country: ON, the Z channel.
After the accident, I inhered a television from the maid's room. I was young to have my own television. Sunday mornings, Gumby and Pokey, later Popeye. Afternoons, with Elvira introducing classic horror movies.
For months after the accident, sleeping on the bottom bunk. Pulling the sky-blue sheets up to my eyes: The Sword and the Sorcerer. The bedcover, yellow: Barnum and Bailey's Circus. Pulling the pillow down over my forehead.
And finally I sleep. And finally I dream.
In the dream I lie in my parents bed, in the house on Stonewood Terrace, the house I unsuccessfully tried to revisit last year. The new owners never returned my calls. The same room as the accident. My mom is to my left, wearing a pearl-colored nightgown. My father, wearing standard issue white jockey briefs.
We were sitting up on these bolster pillows. I remember them being rust-orange, with a little pocket on the handles, perhaps for tissues.
In front of the bed was a long dresser, matching the nighttables, nine drawers. Lying flat on top of it was a gilded mirror, on which Mom's perfumes sat, and though this could have been later, a jewelry box I had bought. And the television.
From the moment I recognize myself inside the dream, I know that unless I pull myself out of the dream, unless my unconscious can push towards the extremity of will that allows me to defy the unconscious, something terrible will happen.
R-, wake up, wake up.
We are watching television. I don't know what we're watching. Then the channel changes, flicker static, and there's Bela Lugosi, in his brilliant black tuxedo, white dress shirt, white bowtie, the medal: red, six-pointed star, red as his lips.
Bela Lugosi steps through the television, into my parents' room. I scream. My parents do nothing. Bela Lugosi pulls me by the ankles. We must be sitting on top of the covers, not under them. Me screaming, terrified.
He pulls me back into the television.
My parents do nothing.
Now the floor is white. Dracula is gone, for now. I am lying on the ground, in my pajamas. Sometimes there's another opportunity to wake myself up, usually not. The physical sensation of trying to pull myself out of dream. This ripping, a honey-like substance sticking my head to the pillow.
The vampire grabs me. He does not bite me. He tickles me. It is excruciatingly painful. I scream until I wake.
["After you deliver the message (Dracula says to Renfield), you will remember nothing."]
He now will allow people to touch him and move him without crying.
Paul allows this, I suspect, because he has resigned himself to the nurses. He has become their topography of meat.
In 1976, the same year as the accident, California became the first state in the union to pasts the Living Will Law:
Living will laws allow individuals to specify their wishes in advance of a terminal illness concerning the administrative of life-saving treatment. In contrast, the court cases generally deal with terminally ill or permanently comatose patients who have not executed living wills and where there is doubt concerning a patient's wishes or doctors require a court order to disconnect equipment. However, certain court cases have interpreted legislation and on occasion have sanctioned the validity of living wills in the absence of legislation.
The person who wrote this book—The Right To Die: Policy Innovation and its Consequences—is uncannily named Henry Robert Glick.
Immediately after Paul's accident, when he was in critical condition, there was some talk of pulling the plug on him. A few days later, a pro-euthanasia rights group approached my parents. Turn Paul into a test case. My parents refused, simply because it was too soon to lose hope. The doctors had given my parents no details other than he was "very sick."
In fiction, I imagine myself killing him in Children's Hospital. Smothered by pillow, tubes removed, white fire. Death by exsanguination, death by tickling.
let a = the vampire beetle that emerges each night from its hand-hewn tiny vampire coffin let a = wawa conkite
He follows movement about him with his eyes.
Species of the sideways gaze:
Invisibility. After the accident, Mom wrote: our older son...was basically cared for by others...we could not allow R- to share his own fears and guilt surrounding the issue...he continued to do well in his school work and personal life, having many friends and appearing to enjoy himself.
After Paul's accident, my parents' subsequent grief, and through B's birth a year later, I was entirely on my own. I made myself invisible. I took care of others without taking care of myself. Now I can't stand the thought of inconveniencing other people [though I must do it all the time]. I will only take an aisle seat on airplanes so that I don't have to ask anyone else to get up so I can go to the lavatory. I have learned to subtract myself from myself. I ask the people I love to keep sight of me, even as the horizon blanks me out. I ask you to see me and I make it impossible to be seen.
L- kept claiming that I didn't see her. I claimed, arrogantly, that I saw her better than she saw herself.
Distraction. R-, my mother wrote, as I reentered his life, appeared to be doing well. Every so often he would talk of Paul and cry. He became even more the perfectionist than he had before.
Perfectionism is a black box. You try to be perfect, you fail, you become enraged with yourself, you start over. It is never-ending, never-succeeding, never-satisfying. It takes all your time.
When my mom was pregnant with B-, I helped my mom learn how to count cards. I would sit with her, on her bed, this same bed [different house], with some small machine, working through numbers. We fathomed the location of every card in the deck. That year, my pinnacle moment: top-in-class with timed multiplication tests.
You can say Fuck Off in Turkish and you wheel a baby buggy through the streets of Oakland, hiding a Sharp's container that took a junkie's dirty needles, and you remember paramilitary soldiers in Burma tapping their machine guns hard to your temples, and you watch beaches in Thailand with water as milky as vodka turn red with the snarl and slaughter of rabid dogs, and you learn calm, soothing speech and you are not perfect. You are not even smart.
Complexity. My father is a psychiatrist, my mother a therapist. I know how to analyze. My brother's body tells me that everything is liminal, in-between, beyond analysis. What I tell you is true and makes you lonely.
I fancied myself illegible. Even my signifiers were mixed. Clothing styles, long earrings, peppermint tights, a rat's nest for hair. I didn't believe anyone could know me, so I would make myself unknowable.
Illegibility also meant that I could not be written on. Such was my lack of trust.
The impossible. In his presence, I cannot look at myself.
For years, I have worked on a novel that would allow me to process his life, his death, what I had become, what I had built around myself. And then I woke up one day, after having built my life, my structure, my marriage, my career around the success of this novel, only to discover that:
- I had relegated anything personal to the remote regions of back story.
- I didn't allow my narrator to have interiority.
No thoughts, feelings. I wanted to look, I really did, but I couldn't. I could only turn away.
let a = the eclipse let a = the corona let a =the halo
He has definite likes and dislikes in food.
The first operation, a few days after the accident, an exigency. Hydrocephalus [331.3, 331.4, 741.0, 742.3], encephalitis . Pressure built from fluid in the cranial cavity, vice grip on the more subtle matter. Mom and Dad in vigil at the hospital.
Some days after the accident, when my best friend D.P. was over, he did something I disagreed with, and I destroyed the metal frame of my awesome carom board in a Godzilla-like swipe of my hand and screamed for him to get out, and he had no idea why.
Each night, I stayed with the P- family, up the hill, where one night, in the front yard, I befriended a dog that turned out to be a coyote.
Perhaps the earthquakes, rolling that winter, shifted my brother's bunk enough to imagine movement.
Operation two: the surgeons shaved through his occipital bones, again to lessen the pressure. Now his wheat colored hair shortened and shaved.
Head like a pear.
I go to school as usual, come home, go to the hospital. Each day I play in the hospital while Mom and Dad attend to doctors. I hear Mom crying. Dad doesn't really comfort Mom. He says things to the doctors like, "So basically what you're saying is."
They give me alone time with Paul. I say wake up, wake up. I lay Indian burns on his calf, I tug his curls, I play piano on his stitches. Wake up. It's okay to wake up.
Love, from my perspective, is deeply entwined with the correct reaction of a loved one to the performance of one's vulnerability.
He will let food drop out of his mouth if he doesn't like it.
Good for him!
Each coma child should have certain revolutions made available.
I would get in food fights with B-. Yogurt, sometimes. L-, who thought food fights uncouth, threw a cork at me and it bounced on the table and onto the next person's table. She was mortified. We laughed. That's how you become part of a family. Food is meant to be thrown. Mashed. Sculptured. Topiaried. You have to respect anything that is destined to change form, that can be both sustenance and waste.
The Do Not Resuscitate order is directly related to not feeding people.
Crab casserole. String beans with parmesan. Condensation on the Pyrex glass. Hamburger Helper helps your hamburger make a great meal.
There looms, within abjection [writes Kristeva], one of those violent, dark revolts of being, directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable. It lies there, quite close, but it cannot be assimilated...repulsion places the one haunted by it literally beside himself.
When I was 20, after the anarchist cooperative I had lived in had been condemned, and I lived in a house filled with fleas, a tabby destined to be eaten by Rottweilers, I had taken my bike to work at the tile distribution warehouse, my boss a minimalist sculptor, my co-workers a bunch of speed freaks. We would play chicken with our forklifts until our backs ached from the collision of the tines. We would go to the roof and drop Italian porcelain and chart the diameter of the explosions on the street. It was my turn to bring doughnuts to my coworkers. I bought a dozen doughnuts [crullers, blueberry, frosties, bear claws] from a store on San Pablo Avenue. I loved the blueberry doughnuts, which held a rhizomatic blue tint like blue cheese.
An hour later, I felt ill. I hid in the stacks of pallets. At first, I attributed this queasiness to the doughnuts. Warm doughy delicious doughnuts.
Only later, when I got home, on my answering machine, did I learn that Paul had died at the moment I had gotten sick.
All those years of denying I had a brother, repudiated by blueberry doughnuts.
let a = the chip in the handle of the Pyrex let a = Mom's handwritten directions for preheating the oven let a = hole of blueberry donut let a = the erase button on the answering machine let a = the replay button on the answering machine
When I came to Utah for graduate school, I came without L-, whose musical career in Amsterdam was flourishing. We would see each other every six weeks or so. We had just bought a flat in Bos en Lommer. My departure, already an anxious and traumatic separation, exacerbated by a long renovation that L- had to manage, in a foreign country, dealing with a construction company managed by a cantankerous Czech man named Tomas.
All this stress, my plummet into the wonders of graduate school, attenuated our emotional connection, amped up the necessary forces needed to manage two intertwined lives on different continents.
The energy it took to maintain separate lives, the organizations, our career paths left little time for emotional connection. Deliberately? Perhaps. I had even told L-, stupidly, that emotional conversations would have to be placed on hold.
I wanted to stop time. Reluctantly I thought it best to box our passions, as if yeast without oxygen, no room to rise.
Why I write so often about Disney, about cryonics.
When one quantifies suffering, one has no way of extrapolating the liminal over time. The bifurcated divisor: faith over 0.
test subjects who are melancholy—Forgas induces the mood with a short film about death and cancer—are better at judging the accuracy of rumors and recalling past events; they're also much less likely to stereotype strangers and make fewer arithmetic mistakes.
I came to graduate school not simply running towards my desires, but running away from my inability to write the novel, running away from L-'s unspoken impatience, my inability to look or settle. For three years, back and forth to Amsterdam, trying to reconnect with L-, trying to manage innumerable logistics, too exhausted for sex, worn out by asthma, unable to speak about the things tearing us apart.
Two sets of friends, two sets of keys (one with a Wyoming hitch trailer business, one with the Berlin Don't Walk sign), two calendars, two languages.
In the last months of our marriage, I would wake up startled, not knowing which continent I was on.
I didn't know anything else but to repeat those days in the hospital, saying wake up, wake up, prodding. And one time, when she woke up, she left.
So now I shrink the monster, he who optimizes and calendrifies, whose brain resides in my stomach.
let a = time zones
He is fed all of his meals.
Without a tongue or taste or the ability to sense texture, can you like food?
My parents took me to sushi when I maybe seven, the year after my first television set. The slime of sea urchin, the way you can push on it with your tongue and it gives. My parents were, for their time and place, adventurous.
The fifth taste of the tongue being known for eons by the Japanese. Something like MSG.
Lots of food for Paul: none of the taste.
From the accident to the day, nine months later, he was transferred to Lanterman, I visited Paul every day. Every day, I would sing to him, talk to him, poke him, pinch him, hit him. Wake up, Paul, wake up. Wake up.
R- would sing to him, wrote my mother, fantasizing that if anyone would wake him up, it would be him.
And every day, he would remain there, muted by feeding tube, IV drip. Inhale of machine, exhale. Watch the flowers, cut aslant at the stems, live, fail. New flowers, wilt flowers.
Each day, wanting to make things right. Learning, day by day, to hate myself for not being able to trigger his response.
Magical thinking will fuck you up.
And L-? She behaved badly, refused to speak.
I don't blame her. If I blame myself, I can continue to believe that our marriage was in my control. And if everything goes funky, it's cause I'm a bad cook, not because the food is rotten.
let a = the gazpacho at our engagement party, made in a lined 20-gallon trash can.
He drinks form a cup without the spout.
The typo here is irrelevant. What's important is: he doesn't hold the cup. He cannot hold the cup. He never holds the cup.
Through the fifteen years, little teasers. That hint, that lark, that twitch of the hand indicating the desire to hold the cup. Especially during the first months, each phone call afforded strange hope. That he was moving. Tracking. Tick of the light, flutter of eyelid.
Part of it was religion. His minders wore crucifixes. How their belief in a miracle, perhaps what kept them working, day after day, infected us, made us attenuated and febrile and willing to see movements described in microns, in tides.
You know—switching to 2nd person here—that he's not getting better. But you never let go of the idea of miracle. Even after he's dead.
let a = the white cloth square used to wipe the dribble from the spout let a = the gold-ringed book of get well cards on colored construction stock from his kindergarten class. Rust-colored sun on yellow paper,
green line for ground, misshapen, smiley-faced daisy.
He has no self help skills since his accident and surgeries prior t(o) admission to the hospital.
The idea that one can improve their life through reading books with wasp-colored covers. Self-help doesn't mean self-improvement—it simply clues us in to how much his support staff will have to do. Pretty much everything.
When the twinned body fails, the failed twinned body remains as evidence of his failure.
What response could a six-year old have to the loss of his brother. What response could I have to the loss of my parents, who spent all their time thinking about Paul?
My first word was "ice." My first sentence, long before the accident, was "Do it self."
let a = Johnson & Johnson baby shampoo burning the eye let a = this September after we have split and the sour apples plunking plunking down on the roof let a = childish meteor let a = tacking the words "in my heart" onto the end of fortune cookies.
He needs complete care.
Don't we all.
let a = the optic nerve let a = the blind spot let a = the mechanism that allows vision cannot receive light let a = 1.0 < Kinsey < 3.0 let a = pleasure as uncomplicated pleasure
He cannot sit or hold his head up or roll over.
Like a dog.
Those simple things Paul could do before, albeit with a spasmodic grace.
After the accident, my parents gave me a Miniature Schnauzer named Sammye. With an e.
Some years later, at Boy Scouts [I didn't last long, having only enough time to make a glass of colored bath salts for my mother. To this day, I rue my inability to tie knots], Sammye jumped onto the counter, ate a box of Ding Dongs, and the six aluminum wrappers compressed in her small intestine and got stuck like a bright glimmery disco death star in the pucker of her ass.
I loved that dog.
Without physical abilities, what did Paul have? Do memories show up on brain scans? Did Paul lose his memories, or his ability to access them?
Like a cask of wine [spigot]. Like teeth [decayed]. Like a sponge [wrung]. Like mist [diffused]. Like asphalt [plastered over]. Like a river [diverted, dammed, restless]. Like a steamer trunk [compartmentalized, mothballed].
A few months after the funeral, I sat in the back seat of a van, driving through Louisiana, open-windowed through the sop-wet summer, from Berkeley to Boston via the humid lands. Thinking of Serrano's klansmen.
What memory? A shimmery detail, a swerve in the periphery of something beyond.
Sleeping in the back of the van in the parking lot of a Travelodge in El Paso. Learning to drive three-on-a-tree in a gray Econoline van in a Houston rush hour so blackly clotted that made the throat pinken and constrict. Swimming naked except for a post-Mardi-gras necklace of spray-paint-gold beads at a friend's father's flat in New Orleans. Drinking moonshine in a Knoxville bar until we promised each other we would become pool sharks. Kissing my then-girlfriend under the gargoyles of her old parochial school, under a tree which, a month earlier, had been struck by lightning and killed four plaid-skirted teenagers.
Not remembering Paul.
let a = the summer after the winter that Paul died.
Playing with Paul, in hazy bursts: somersaults and swimming pools. The translucent shells of aborted baby snails. Four of them could fit on your finger. We collected them in a secret spot above the pool, above the house. Racing up the small hill, through the iceplant that we rubbed wet on our knees. Sitting splayed in the cool shade of some tree. We'd crush the iceplant and rub our sticky hands together and collect the baby snail shells and when Mom called us in we'd roll ourselves back down the hill.
L- grew up in Texas, grew up outdoors, would tease me because I, city boy, couldn't remember the names of flowers and trees. When we lived in San Francisco, she'd grill me on what rooted in the neighbor's garden, where the opossums invaded at night through the kitty door to steal chocolate and beef jerky, and I threw rolls of toilet paper at them to get them out. Where we buried Minka the cat, where I, in a fit of ridiculosity, seduced L- with the animated television series "The Tick," a cartoon about a superhero who possessed no redeeming qualities.
Hydrangea, bougainvillea, stargazer lily. At the time I am working in a hospital. Mnemonically, I cross-reference flowers to the names of diseases.
let anthurium = anthrax
The willful loss of memory = mastery to protect oneself. The monster who cannot look, who cannot be seen, who shuns the light [cape over face], who dissolves in acidic patches, steam billowing through the metal grates. The coffin's hatcheted clean through, the light streams through the splinters. Unholy dirt, transported from Smyrna via plague ship, warms skin without temperature. The leather-cracked boots have had their owner abandon them to dust.
Without the ability to hurl anger, I cannot recognize that others might be monstrous. I can at best be my own monster, the prodigy monstering himself in order to save others from their monstrosities, folding their abjection unto themselves, letting themselves into the light.
He cannot crawl.
1608 SHAKESPEARE King Lear I. i. 219 Sure her offence must be of such vnnaturall degree, That monsters it.
My grandma, whom I loved, never forgave my Mom for Paul's accident. She blamed my mother for Paul's developmental intransigence. Something filthy about the womb. Mom had pneumonia during Paul's pregnancy, which purportedly caused him to be slow, which caused him to be uncoordinated, which caused him to have his bris in the hospital [Mom tells this to B- on the day of the bris of B's first child].
Paul was a slow learner. Gravitationally challenged.
Hernia [550, 553] at six weeks, appendectomy [540, 543], projectile vomiting [537.0], clubfoot [736.71, 754.5, 754.7]. He wore Denis Browne splints that made him look like he was glued to a skateboard. His neck tilted at the angle of a broken arrow.
Vomit: at six weeks, he was abjecting himself, a premonition of his monstrosity.
We had Green Machines, cooler and rarer than Big Wheels, with plastic shifters, almost useless, given that there were large gaps between the concrete blocks in our backyard. I was bigger and faster. I would give him a serious handicap.
Mom says that I wasn't aggressive towards him, not jealous of the extra time that Mom and Dad took with him to speed up his learnings.
She says this three or four times, after I ask her if perhaps I took out any anger on Paul.
Not counting the ways that boys will be boys, she says.
I see myself crossing the hall first, skirting the wooden beam he hit, egging him on. Never do I see myself slugging him, pushing him, as brothers do.
Sometimes I imagine that I took him by the hair and ran his head into that pole [forgetting that it was the back of his head that was injured], that my parents have always known about my culpability, that I have repressed my monstrosity.
In my fiction, the day after the accident, I go to my Grandma's house and, repeatedly, I run my head into the totem pole in the backyard. Receiving the bloody kiss of the beak of some recalcitrant Miwok god.
Some of the doctors imply a previous accident, a first crack of the brain that primed the skull for a second, more severe injury. A few weeks before the accident, I kicked him in the face. Broke his tooth. The white rubber tips of my Keds with the blood, his saliva.
What kind of steam vent does writing allow? Does it count as looking or as looking away? In my fiction, [my] fictional friend replacing [my] fictional brother still dies. He's too febrile to crawl.
When I was six, I needed the television in order to get to sleep. I would use this little squeezy thing [this was before The Clapper™] to turn it off remotely.
Sleep being that thing that Paul did all day, all night, all day.
Instead of my parents putting me to bed, calming me, comforting me, I had Bela Lugosi.
Everything was about things that didn't or couldn't die.
Wile E. Coyote, created in 1948, prototype created by Mark Twain, who described the Coyote as "a long, slim, sick and sorry-looking skeleton" that is "a living, breathing allegory of Want. He is always hungry."
In the backwash of his backfiring contraptions, the Coyote explodes, shrinks, is crushed, pickled, steamrolled. Look at the outline of his shape pummeling through the ground, the shadow of a cutout on black paper. Look how the bullet boomerangs back through him, then curves around, comes back, goes through him once again. How, properly catapulted, the liquid light of the sun swallows him soundless, whole, engulfed.
The Coyote keeps coming back. Next frame, next day, next episode.
Cartoons and fairy tales are, even in parody [Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner were a mockery of Tom and Jerry], designed to allow magical thinkers an avenue into death, into reincarnation, into bad subjects. It's amazing, how the Coyote keeps coming [immaculately] back. This mesmerizing promise of return. Still, you root for the Coyote's true, final demise. Dismemberment. Melting, as plastic. Shoot him, pull apart his limbs, bury them in the veins of different mountains, rip up the map that gives the veins of ore and the miniature railroads that transport the limbs underground, where all is black but for two shifty bilious eyes.
You get used to these in-between deaths, not because you are morbid, but because you have developed a deep, selfish, self-destructive compassion.
If you don't die, you can't come back, because you're not [yet][yet][yet] gone.
How else are you going to save yourself but by getting used to not dying?
The corpse, seen without God and outside of science, is the utmost of abjection. It is death infecting life. Abject.
And if there is no corpse? A black spot, shoe polish on a faded rag, where the abject should be. In your fiction, you turn your brother into a twin, to further parody the breach between subject and object that the corpse deforms.
let a = the empty pine coffin
He has no known allergies.
If one could be snide about it, Paul was allergic to verticality.
"1908 Lancet 4 Jan. The basis of this reaction is the ‘allergeia'; that is to say, the changed capability of the organism with reference to reaction."
Allergy is a modern word, a 20th century word. An unusual sensitivity to a normally harmless substance that provokes a strong reaction from the body.
I didn't think I was allergic to anything except for cats. As a teenager, I often slept at my friend's house, with his cat, Psycho Kitty [PK], whom we threw from pillow to pillow and set in the microwave [set to "steamed vegetable"] while we drank from gallon jugs of Crazy Ed's Whiskey. The label had a picture of a toppling man with a short pickax falling down a mine shaft.
This didn't stop me from having cats. Reddening eyes, asthmatic events.
The allergist told me to give the cat away. Then she insisted on me taking a series of tests. The pinpoint grid on my back, my upper arms. Olive leaf, lemongrass. Calipers measuring the pinkening, the swell.
At which point the doctor insisted that I was allergic to everything. Gluten, blackberry bramble, anthill.
I told L- that I would rather have allergies than not have cats. We had cats. Orson, Goblin. We did all the stupid things that cat owners [who are not parents] do: the shoelace, laser pointer, catnip inside the cotton mouse until it burst and Goblin lay the stuffing reverentially on our doormat.
With the catgrass and tickly feathers came my splotchy face, short breath, shallow cough. My skin again overproducing.
I admit how unsexy was the taste of my tongue, the acrid glimmer of aerosolized albuterol.
When the failure of Sleep of the Dreamless had rendered me mute and directionless [thinking west, thinking run], when grief had stripped me of the minimal speech I had, all that remained was my splotchy skin.
So you can't blame L- if she, too, in the light, closed her eyes.
You can't blame her if, when I came back to the Amsterdam for the last time, when I thought all would be okay, knowing that our academic separations were nearing their end and, after making love on the apple-green couch, the couch unwoven by cat's claws, she cried, and wouldn't tell me why, until later, in the bathtub, holding each other's big toes, me letting a slow drip of cold water touch my above-water knee, this clawfoot bathtub that I insisted upon when we bought this apartment, that she was, after three years of this terrible absence, no longer in love with me.
I blame her only for the manner of her disclosures. I, of course, was responsible for her sufferings, for the fact that she was sick and depressed almost since the day I had left for graduate school.
Before we moved in together, we ate breakfast at Kate's Kitchen in San Francisco. Walking back to her flat, she suddenly got ill and threw up in a phone booth in front of the Walgreen's on Haight and Fillmore, and that's when I knew she was in love with me. Fifteen years later, returning home from Utrecht, I received a call from a man at the T-Mobile store, and I got off the train at Centraal and biked as fast as I could down the Spui, right on Rozengracht, left on Bilderdijkstraat, right on Kinkerstraat, past the Lebanese restaurant we loved, past the gallery where the shadow of her clarinet slashed up the walls of the white-lit basement. L- sat in front of the T-Mobile store, her head in her hands, on the fender-stoop of the ambulance. How pale, how broken. She had thrown up. I knew she was about to leave me.
If the abject can be exemplified by vomit, by the expulsion of something from inside yourself, then allergies are an inverted abjection, where your body creates illness by overresponse, which evokes the need to eject the good-become-bad from yourself. Despite your desire for love, your love ejects desire from your orbit. I will give no one else my body, I wrote. A spilled and fermenting organ, transcendent of nothing, sickly sweet with mistake.
Before his accident he spoke and understood english.
What is the word, of all infinite words, that will trigger Paul's consciousness?
Words from a dead language? Latin, Aramaic, Pali.
Or extra-lingual! Encyclopedia of objects and events that will save him: to bathe the room in a certain light, a certain color.
As in: if I stand over here, will he blink?
Blinking being something that he has not done.
You being the person whose actions have instantiated his inability to blink.
Language being your fluid conductor to miracle.
A miracle you think you can control.
When there is no miracle, you hurt yourself.
Everyone tries to unlock him.
To say I have become expert in English means that I define myself by its inadequacies.
It is difficult to know how much he comprehends at this time.
My inability to face my brother, my lack of strength or self-awareness, has broken my marriage. I let L- off the hook. She has asked me to forgive her and I have forgiven her too soon.
It's warm and bright outside and soon it will storm. Some days, I can't crawl out of the house. Months in which I can barely recognize myself, the critical mass of pain that clots the chest, days when I can't possibly bear the sheer intensity of it all, and then I draw up bargains with this monstrous beauty of everything. It's why Bataille, a librarian, a mask-expert, wrote so excessively about excess, the crash of the languaged world against the excruciating expanse.
Imagine yourself swaddled in bees. You are the beekeeper in your white zippered suit. You are the swarm. You are the apiary.
let a = flush of sting let a = stoppered throat let a = epi-pen
|My sister B- was born 18 months after the accident. Or, you might say, she was conceived somewhere around the time Paul was transferred. She is better than all of us put together. Wisdom and organization and heart and beauty and peace. Only she understands me when I say that I was an only child twice.
I am eight years older than B-. R-, wrote my mother, is often parental and overprotective in his dealings with his sister, now age three. He is sometimes too intense and too adult.
I tried to make B- into a precoce. I took her to her first clinic defense when she was thirteen. I bought her Foucault for Beginners at fourteen. Let her ramble through Good Vibrations at fifteen.
She has just had her first child, O-, whom I already love, who is not afraid of me, as I sit here in Vancouver with her and her husband and a Goldendoodle named Tikka. She understands how complicated it is for me to be here, as an uncle. How L- and I, after fifteen years, have just split up, childless.
How L-, after fifteen years of vehemently not wanting children, has decided that she wants to have a child.
Just not with me.
Why do sisters not show up in my stories? Maybe I needed her outside the fragmented laws of trauma. The perks of being a replacement child. Or maybe because I am protecting her, or her fictional counterparts, from the fact of our family.
He appears to respond to hi name.
I call people with whom I am intimate by their first initial. Perhaps one's given name is unspeakable. In moments of intimacy, I do not want my name spoken.
After puking, while sipping rooibos tea on the apple-green couch, L- said my name. Robert.
let a = the thick salmon-colored rubber band triple-wound around the wiring
to the light bulb over the apple-green couch
He seems to recognize people by twatching those he is familiar with and crying or showing fear when someone he doesn't know approaches him.
In 14 years, from the time he was transferred until just before he died, I saw Paul once.
Mom told me that he had pneumonia - for the last four years of his life, he had no immune system, was monstrous, stippled with sore, lungs frothy with pneumonia. For some reason, though I had quit baseball, I had come from the batting cages. I had skidded down to Pomona in my Toyota. At the cages, I had eaten a grape sno-cone, and in the bathroom I tried to clean my purple tongue with a paper towel.
You stay in the bathroom stall for 20 minutes, and then you enter his hospital room. You listen to his wheeze. You say, I love you.
What you think is fuck you for living.
You want to puke, but your stomach is too strong to let anything out.
Now I recognize that I have lost every single thing that I had considered important. Perhaps what my wife couldn't tell me, or didn't recognize, is that she would have to be broken to leave, that she would have to leave me for me to see how broken I was, to reach this far down, and only by reaching this far down could I do anything at all. That, as a human, I had reached some glass ceiling.
We fell in love because we had both experienced loss as children. We fell in love because we had become adults before we were supposed to. We fell in love because we were ambitious and magnificently feral. We fell in love because we refused to let our tragedies regulate us, because we cooked Indian food and turmeric dusted our skin, the German glasses that she wore, her scarred back from her car accident. We fell in love because we were hot and smart and covered in tempera and time crashed around us and our bodies did as our bodies wished.
For so long, that was enough, and more.
What reason did I have to fall apart?
It is not that I want to be taken, washed away, obliterated, emptied, blank. It is that I want to be capable of allowing myself to be taken away. To be taken away, as only the disaster transports us. To be transported. To surrender. To be giddy, stupid, illiterate, insensate, deaf with desire.
Goodness, do I sound like Arby's quality Duras.
Duras would call it mourning. She would call orgasm the bodies' surrender to the irretrievability of the lost object a. And she would have her character weep.
He will repond to a firm simple command such as "Paul, stop that".
"Paul, stop that," I say.
Stop living. Stop being comatose. Stop being dead.
Of course he can't stop.
In San Francisco, we buried L-'s cat Minka under the thinner roots of the backyard tree [what kind?]. Before I wrapped Minka in a tinseled scarf I had brought from India, I held her. I felt her warmth dissipate moment by moment, the body colding, colding.
That last warmth in my fog-filled hands.
Both Freud's mourner and melancholic begin with a basic denial of their loss and an unwillingness to recognize it. But soon enough, the mourner, who is reacting in a non-pathological manner, recognizes and responds to the call of reality, to let go of the lost-loved object and liberate libidinal desire. This is the point of divergence with the melancholic who remains sunken in his loss, unable to acknowledge and accept the need to cleave and in a self-destructive loyalty to the lost object, internalizes it into his ego, thus furthermore circumscribing the conflict related to the loss. The lost object continues to exist, but as part of the dejected subject.
If one can't mourn without the dead body, then one has no recourse but to the neurotic, to melancholy. Of course, one might say: now you have a body. Paul's pine box has been filled, shoved into the granite mausoleum drawer. Now you can mourn. And maybe that's true.
If the lost object exists as part of the dejected subject, it must be vomited out.
let a = five sodas with lemon, four telephone calls, dressing of the corpse, plus disinfection of his room and the washing and whitening of the mattress
...the important object is the lost object,
the object always desired and never attained...
Any object the subject desires will never
be anything other than a substitute
for the object a.
let a = a
This word "let." As if one permits the equation. As if one chooses when to make the hypoxic ascent from melancholy to mourning.
He appears to enjooy music and seems to like s ome songs better than others such as songs by "John Denver".
You think that's funny. It is.
I wonder if Paul liked John Denver, or if it was only my mother, who told the nurses that he liked John Denver. The nurses must have imagined they saw motion in Paul, like one of those battery-operated flowers that sways to music, when they played the tape recorder.
Paul had been in Children's Hospital for six months. A stunting of hope. No more operations to perform, the shunts and plates inserted and removed and adjusted, yet stable enough to take euthanasia from our equation. The body wanted to stay a body for a while. Insurance money had covered almost a million dollars and had run out. Dad had missed too much time from work. My parents were frayed, exhausted, barely recognized each other.
One day, I was called in, and there, on Paul's hospital bed, sat John Denver. His guitar in hand, the cheap airport-beaten case in the corner of the room.
If only I could tell you that John Denver's insignia ring displayed a pentagram, but really he was a sweet, sincere man. He talked to Paul as if he was still conscious. He sang songs. Mom, I think, watched Paul. Dad feigned indifference, scribbled something in his small notebook.
To this day, Mom cringes when someone mentions John Denver. To this day, Mom cries when Country Roads comes on the satellite radio.
Six days later, Paul was transferred to Lanterman State Hospital, fifty miles from our house. R- told us, Mom wrote, that the disappointment he felt each time was too great for him and he no longer wished to visit his brother.
By then, the sleep of the dreamless had well begun. I was almost seven. I had been almost seven for a very long time.
He is beginngin to turn his head form side to side.
Paul never really turned his head from side to side. Another aurora borealis.
Last week, I referred to Paul using the possessive pronoun "my". My brother. No longer abjecting him from me.
I will, I'm sure, forget and re-forget that pronoun. It is, I suppose, a start.
In The Writing of the Disaster, Blanchot suggests that, through an inevitable loss of self, one disaster makes another disaster visible.
My divorce isn't a blessing. All I can say is that I'm in the middle of it.
I'm not being Pollyanna about this, but it has made another disaster visible.
Imagine an elevator at a construction site. The metal cage, the open air. Now imagine severing the cable. The hopeful, impossible freefall. The letting, as blood. As if to abandon myself. As if to turn, to turn away, to turn towards. This monstrous spurt of spindrift and persimmon and skin we call home. The messy fact of us.
In "shrinking the monster," I wanted to tell the story of my brother's coma without simplifying or sentimentalizing. How could I talk about Paul when the lack of closure implicit (resident) in the comatose body can be, by turns, liberating and paralyzing? Avenues of inquiry: the lack of psychological research about mourning in situations where the dead body is not present; the obsession I still have with vampires and zombies; the matte-grey heart-dissolution of my divorce; "The Writing of the Disaster" by Maurice Blanchot. Above all, I wanted to explore a terrain not really of truth or of history or of memory, but of language which, in its emotional force, could bear quotation, lyric, and mess.