THERE ARE TIMES when I think my life must have begun with a No.
I take this thought, which is also a feeling, with me everywhere I go. It is nestled somewhere deep in the grooves of my past. There are people who notice I carry around this ancient negation. They become curious the way I have seen certain adults become curious about wild animals that are about to go extinct. How terrible to know that a creature that has been there all along, suddenly, on the verge of its disappearance, becomes visible. I allow these people to approach me, but I don’t always answer their questions. I pick and choose. Over the years I have become more deliberate in my ways. If I tell an overly constructed person about my negation, they become uncomfortable. I interpret their discomfort to mean that their own void has suddenly become palpable to them; their gaze turns glassy, they detach. They look disturbing to me then, their eyes vacuous as if they have been unplugged from the world.
When I get restless, I go out into the woods, or I walk down the path along the swiftly moving river. I imagine the river’s water has sprung from the navel of time and, therefore, like time, to be continuous in its flow. I picture the river carrying its load into the future, into the future’s future, into the unexpected beyond to which I will never arrive because my life will have been extinguished. I don’t account for droughts and erosions, or for large-scale geological changes that will affect the river. It comforts me to think of it as ongoing.
Halfway down the river path there is a store with organic goods called The Purple Porch, where my husband and I spend a great deal of our time. There is nothing purple about the store and there is no porch, but the produce is excellent. Everything on offer feels pure, plucked from the source. The clients have a clean aura about them. They appear to have reached a state of total clarity, final and static, that is forbidden to me. I watch them drift through the well-lighted aisles of the store. They seem to possess the ability to levitate. It doesn’t matter how high the shelves are stacked, everything is within reach. Sometimes, I feel the urge to stand on one of the wooden lunch tables and announce to the clientele that eliminating mixed emotions from the repertoire of their lives — like exhilaration followed by the anticipation of defeat, or joy mired by the sudden remembrance of mortality — not only flattens their experiential dynamics, but may also cause others, like myself, to perceive them as unreal. I go to the store despite my better judgment. Despite the fact that going causes me to slide down a mental rabbit hole at the end of which I arrive at the bleak and horrifying conclusion that these people are passing the burden of managing the dark radiance of their personal void onto future generations, their children and their children’s children, who are bound to drink from the waters of their orphaned grief. This, I believe is how our identities become confused with one another. And because I see the self as a mosaic of mirrors, I believe we are all reflecting back to the world not only own our joys and turbulences, but also those of the people who have shepherded and interfered with our growth.
A young woman who pins her curly black hair to her scalp with beaded, silver butterflies, or plastic hibiscus flowers that catch the pink of her cheeks, works at the counter. She is incongruous with the rest of the crowd who wear simple cotton clothes and who have natural silver hair they rarely brush. When my husband and I go to the store together this young, bejeweled woman raises her voice. She doesn’t do this when I go to the store alone. The amplification of her voice is something she reserves exclusively for my husband, who, I have to say, handles her treatment rather exquisitely. She doesn’t seem to understand that volume will not complete his command of the English language. She doesn’t seem to understand that he is not hard of hearing. She once screamed that his credit card doesn’t work. A cluster of round faces turned to look at us — for a second they looked to me like a row of white pills — and then averted their gaze and resumed their meal. This simple gesture of bringing the cutlery to their mouths reestablished their humanness. The young woman irritates us in more ways than one. For example, she asks us whether or not we are members of the co-op regardless of the frequency of our visits. If we pay for our coffees and sit down to drink them and then get up a few minutes later to buy a baked good, she will ask us again.
It is Saturday and we are at the co-op. When we sit down with our food my husband tells me he is going to wear a sign around his neck the next time he comes into the store. He has had it with her. He is at his wit’s end.
“What will your sign say?” I ask.
“It will say: No, I am not.”
I tell him I am that sign, that I believe I emit a vibration that resembles the sound of that No. He looks at me intrigued, then carries on with his meal. The gesture of resuming one’s meal must be a coping mechanism people employ in awkward situations. I once read somewhere that food triggers the same pleasure centers in the brain as sex, that eating has the capacity to restore a sense of well-being for the person who is trying their best, but failing to manage a delicate situation. In the same article I learned that bragging about one’s accomplishments awakens the same pleasure centers, joining food and sex to form a triangular elixir. I have not provided my husband with the emotional context out of which my comment has sprung as naturally as water from a fountain, so I don’t blame him for being confused. Unsure of what to say, he offers me a piece of corn bread. He offers me some of his coconut soup. He is trying to be helpful, but my void, I want to tell him, feeds on abstractions and is less satisfied by material objects like corn bread and soup.
I get up and walk to the restroom. It turns out this is where the purple has been hiding all along. I stand there, staring at the walls as if it were a horizon to behold. Someone, presumably one of the cooks, has affixed cooking pots of various sizes to the walls. The pots aren’t arranged in any particular order. I look at them from every possible angle, directly and then through the mirror above the sink. For a second, I get distracted and look at my face. I don’t recognize it. I feel a palpable estrangement, which makes me think that somewhere along the line of my life I must have registered a distortion that obscures my perception, an atmospheric disturbance that persists. I look at the pots again. In the mirror’s reflective surface the pots’ round, aluminum bases shine with redoubled force. The discs blur into a single moon, the walls retreat. I am left standing in a mauve desert, washing my hands at a sink in the silver glow of a fake moon. When I look at myself in the mirror again recognition doesn’t appear, but a memory does: a photograph of Pluto’s magnificent dark disk backlit by its sun. I looked at the photograph in the morning, the distant planet with its friendly heart immense and beautiful.
I want to tell my husband: there is so much I don’t understand. But something gets in my way. Instead, I tell him about the pots and pans in the bathroom; I point out an oven, used as street-side decor, into which someone has stuffed tomato plants and removed the burners and grates to allow the stems through; I draw his attention to green beans that have been threaded together and attached to clothes hangers and left to twirl in the parking lot.
“Do you think the world is in good enough health,” I ask, “that we can afford to create art out of food?”
I am always asking him impossible questions, to which he responds with the same aloof, intrigued look I have seen on his face when he confronts crossword puzzles during long flights across the Atlantic Ocean that, because of their length, send me into the upper echelons of paranoia and him into a focused meditation on words.
We leave the co-op and head south on our bikes to the farmer’s market. Everything we own in this town used to belong to someone else. We purchased our bikes for a dollar each at an auction a few doors down from our house. Our neighbor died suddenly and left behind half a century worth of objects. It was my first time at an auction. I had no idea what I was doing, or why I was doing it, but once I had started I couldn’t stop. I found everything at the auction to be of the highest entertainment value. I watched a bald man wearing a muddied wifebeater purchase an old, dented blue-and-white telephone company sign for $450. After that, he acquired a green dentist’s lamp that had been rusting for decades, old dentures, a child’s football shoes from the ’50s, a remote controlled truck. I had my heart set on a pair of binoculars. By the time they were being auctioned, it was evening. I was still standing. I had been there since eight in the morning. I had skipped lunch. Food seemed to pale in comparison to this magnificent event that had manifested on our otherwise dull block. A man with wisps of white hair and missing teeth and whose fingers were stained yellow with nicotine wanted the binoculars I was set on winning. “No way,” I told him (I grow bold when I’m weary the way some people do when they’re drunk), “I’ve been waiting around for those all day.” He brought his bloated yellow hand to his chest and pounded it to release his voice, which he swiftly employed to order the auctioneer to slow down in case I wouldn’t be able to “keep up with the speed of things around here.”
Because I know the ways of language, I felt optimistic about my chances of achieving my goal. Soon his stabs at me would attract an audience for which he would have to perform. I played along. I fanned my face. I massaged my back. I made myself appear fragile, breakable. He told the others to look. He told them he believed I belonged at an art auction where things are executed with a great deal of pomp and gravity. My prediction was coming true. People were bemused. They gathered around him, nodded along. What else were they going to do? He had built a story out of nothing and, like desire, once it was there, it was a reality that had to be accounted for.
Later on at home I stood behind the window and stared out through the binoculars. I had won them. I felt victorious. I bragged to my husband. Endorphins coursed through my body, confirming the theory of the triangle of elixir. I searched my surroundings. I was thrilled to inspect the world one section at a time, to see it up close. This sudden shift in perspective led me to again think of Pluto, of how access to the planet had revolutionized our understanding of the universe. In my mind’s eye, I drew a line from Pluto to the deep, undiscovered wells of the self where our memories are stored. It occurred to me that if a memory were to surface after having been repressed, it could radically shift our perception of the self — the way Pluto had shifted our perception of the cosmos. And because some memories awaken earthquakes in the architecture of our being, it occurred to me that a Richter scale could be used to help us more effectively communicate with our loved ones about the extent of the damage and the scope of the shift our personal landscape endures during each memory-episode. I wondered if this could help others understand each “new” us more clearly. I moved the binoculars around. Straight ahead, I saw a red cardinal inspect a branch on our sycamore. I looked up: a giant cluster of clouds rushed by, ushered by the rising wind. Then, lower down on Earth, a man with a plump red face leaned against our gate, loosened his tie, smoked a cigar.
At some point my husband came around and said, “Don’t get into the habit of spying on people!” He said this as if spying were a contagious disease I could suddenly catch and subsequently have to submit to, rearranging all my other habits to give utmost priority to this newly acquired one.
I pointed the binoculars at him. He put his arms up. He said, “Hey, don’t shoot the messenger!” It was unclear to me who had sent him to deliver the warning, to sound out the black trumpets of war.
At the farmer’s market, my husband and I walk through the booths talking about the green beans, which he has, suddenly, half an hour later, taken an interest in. I interrupt our conversation when I spot a necklace at a booth that reminds me of someone I have loved deeply in life, but whose presence I have felt too troubled by to bear. I walk over to look at the necklace more closely. I am ready to purchase it, but then I remember that we have used all our cash. I explain this to the vendor. She shrugs her shoulders, wraps up the necklace, and puts it in my hand. When I feel its weight, I suddenly decide I no longer want to own it. But it’s too late, because she has closed my hand around the necklace, and said, with mystical overtones, “Claudette trusts you to pay her another day.”
I am weary, exhausted from holding my void. But I don’t want to put it down. There are people I care for who want me to extinguish my negation with no consideration for its roots. I am what I am, I tell them; I can’t change where I come from. I say this to them in the hopes that they will understand what they are asking me for: to endure the world as not myself. I tell them that I have inherited certain storms I believe I have to weather. I tell them that we can try all we want, but that there is no avoiding the long, exasperating hike through the wound of history we have been creating since time immemorial.
Thunder and lightning have imprisoned my husband and me in our house for a week. Tornado warnings have sent us into our damp, unfinished basement. We light candles. We pass the time drinking whiskey, laughing, playing cards, comforting our dogs who nervously pace the darkness because they are uncertain of its boundaries. When the sun returns a week later, I ask my husband if he would like to go out onto the river with me. We head out to the Dowagiac. We launch our used kayak. The creek is high from all the rain. It moves quickly.
I have never lived somewhere where life has been so compartmentalized, neighborhoods so segregated. We plunge our oars into the rough waters. We navigate around logs and rocks over which the water rushes. Downstream, the water is slightly calmer. There, we encounter families who glide past us in rubber tubes. The adults are smoking cigarettes, drinking cans of beer. The children follow suit, screaming with excitement. Everyone here is white. We can’t seem to find places that reflect the rich demographics of this town we live in. This failure saddens and confuses us both, because we know we are inhabiting an erasure that perpetuates a great deal of abstract harm that carries with it severe material consequences that lead, in turn, to more abstract harm.
We row toward an island and drag our kayak out of the water to rest. We climb into it, lean back, and stick our faces in the sun. My husband plunges his hands into the shallows. The water is incredibly transparent. The sand at the bottom is full of cliffs and grooves and shines like gold in the shimmering light of the day.
“Touch the sand,” he gently orders. He tells me it’s the softest surface he has ever touched.
I agree. I tell him it’s the softest surface I have ever touched.
He hands me a sealed shell.
He says, “Look, each side is a perfect mirror of the other.”
I inspect the shell. It’s true. It has beautiful green ridges on both sides and each line is equidistant from the other. Then he hands me a soggy log. He tells me to smell it. I smell it. It smells like a potato that has been left to rot in a bowl of water. I like it when he announces each detail that captures his attention with the fanatic precision of an accountant. A dragonfly lands on my oar. I don’t tell him about it. I feel selfish about my silence, but I am worried that breaking it will cause the dragonfly to disappear from view.
Further down the river we come across a campground. It is the largest production I have ever seen. There are canopies, grills, raised decks decorated with living room sofas and coffee tables. The campers are huge. Dogs come barking out of them; they sniff at the meat set out on the grills. A family exits the river. In the process, they lose one of their tubes. A couple camping on the riverbank finds this lone tube drifting downriver to be hilarious. They have been sitting in their Adirondacks for too long. They pop olives into their mouths in between laughs. This pair has brought their lawn decor with them. Behind them, a pale blue flag featuring an exotic bird and the words, “Forget the cracker, Holly wants a cocktail!” flaps in the breeze. They have brought other objects: a water pump, a hammock, a faded statue of a black man in overalls holding a lantern.
I feel a cold draft approach from a faraway place. I feel myself clogging through the deep, dark trenches of history. This is why I like to keep my void close, because otherwise there is the risk of forgetting. I stop paddling. I feel weak, as if the blood has suddenly drained from my limbs. I remember: months earlier I had asked someone I knew if she could recommend a doctor. Her response came flooding back: “I know an amazing doctor, but I have to tell you: He is black.” I asked her why that was something she felt compelled to warn me about. She told me it was because she had been raised in this town and had encountered a number of people who were surprised she had recommended him and who had made it very clear to her that they preferred to go to white doctors. You mean racist people? I wanted to ask, but instead I said, I’m not from around here, and tried to close the conversation.
Later on, in my car, I thought what I had said had not been the right thing to say, because it implied that I may have felt differently if I had been raised in this town and even though I could never know what I would feel had I been someone else, I felt a physiological rejection toward the possibility that brought on a sudden vertigo. I was feeling that same vertigo in the kayak now, that same disorientation.
The first time I went to the doctor’s office, I saw his nurse practitioner — a plump, white woman with tiny blue eyes, a sharp nose, and a very British sounding name. On my way out she said, “Your next appointment will be with the doctor. That’s him right there.” She pointed at a series of portraits on the back wall and told me that he was the one in the center. She was preparing me, the way the person who had recommended the doctor had. I stood there not knowing what to say, thinking, on the one hand, of all the violent potential of language, and on the other of the same violent potential in language’s deliberate absence, until the nurse, closing the door behind me, ushered me out of the office.
A month later, I saw the doctor. His job was to inspect my uterus and my breasts — to make sure I had remained in good health since my last exam in another city a year ago. During the exam he asked me about my cycle. I told him that my cycle was regular, but that often, in the days leading up to it, I can’t sleep and I feel as though I am submerged in water. “Like a fish in a murky aquarium,” I said. I told him that during those days I perceive everything through that haze, that sometimes I get lost driving home from work even though it isn’t a long drive and I do it on autopilot on all the other days of the month. The doctor is a good listener, and since this is such a rare quality to come by, I was not able to regulate myself well. I told him about the No I was born with. When I finished telling him, he said, “Are you sure this is living, walking around with the weight of all that emptiness inside you?” I told him that I believed it was, that I believed I was living a very full emotional life and that the only thing that bothered me was that here, in this town, I felt alone in my habit of subjecting myself and life to a degree of scrutiny others seemed to avoid. At some point during the conversation the doctor asked me, “What are you afraid of?” This question of his paused for a moment the reckless noise of the universe. I reflected. When I had gathered my thoughts, I told him I was afraid of letting go of the wreckage only to wake up later in life wondering what else I had muted, dispossessed myself of, deliberately erased for the sake of others and the machine of efficiency in which our lives are mired. “I understand,” he said. He instructed me to close my eyes and told me to imagine my fear as a wave. He told me that if I look at the wave long enough, it will appear smaller and become more manageable. Then he said: “You are in optimum physical health,” and I left content, thinking only of those words: optimum physical health.
The end of the river is drawing near. We navigate our way beneath a low, concrete bridge and then a wooden one that has fallen out of use and is overgrown with grass, weeds. We steer carefully between logs. We float through narrow passes between stones. The creek is an obstacle course. When we finally drag the kayak out of the water we sit on the rocks, silent, tired — together, but each of us alone, and both suddenly exhausted and uncertain as to how it is we should live in this world.
The next day, I go to the regular grocery store to pick up some fruits and vegetables. An advertisement has been painted onto the building’s side-wall. It reads: LEATHER BANANA. Someone has painted a giant, ripe banana next to the words. Underneath the banana, an arrow points out to the road. There is no indication as to what the arrow or the banana are referring to, but I am learning to take things as they come. Sometimes I have the impression that this place is a riddle I am not meant to resolve, that all I am meant to do here is observe and carry on. But then I remember that observing is never harmless and that it will change the place in ways I cannot foresee or control. I wonder if instead of the emotional distancing required for detached observation, I should work harder at finding my way into this world. For a brief moment, I feel hopeful that the life I am living in this town will become legible to me and that I will learn how to pass through it without doing more harm.
On the way out of the store, I imagine this town as a burrow. The image is as vivid as a dream; it is detailed and hyper-real. The burrow is made of dark stones that have been covered by ivy and moss. I walk around it. The surrounding land is rocky and arid and I can’t reconcile its bleakness with the vivid green covering the burrow. I walk around the burrow clockwise, counterclockwise. I can’t find the entrance. I can’t find a side, or backdoor through which I can be let in. I think about how it might take a long time for that door to reveal itself and then I remember something a friend who had once been a monk, but who left his community because he had fallen in love with another monk, had said to me at a dinner: “In the monastic tradition, it is considered wise to wait 10 years before passing judgment, or making a sweeping life decision.” I wonder if I can walk around this burrow for 10 years. My friend the monk now lives with the man he fell in love with in a house on a hill at the edge of town. During the same conversation, he told me with great affection, “I don’t know what I’ll do if I have to survive another winter in this place closed in with those cats of ours!” It was the dead of winter then and we had not been able to go outside for weeks. The region had been in a state of emergency. Our dogs’ paws would freeze when we tried to let them outside. We sat by the fireplace. We drank whiskey. Our dogs curled up next to us. With every passing day I had felt more resolved to submit to the winter, to surrender to the snow that kept on falling, to the glacial temperatures, the thickening ice. I felt as though the world were pointing all its arrows at the icy grooves of our hearts, as if the winter were relentless in its effort to lock us in and expose us to each other, to ourselves. I wondered if the town would grow as a result.
That night, on our way home from dinner we saw our neighbor standing in his front yard knee-deep in the snow. He was in his pajamas. He had a weathered, distant look in eyes. It was as if emerging from his home after the long retreat the winter had forced on us was for him equivalent to emerging from his mother’s womb. He looked haggard, uncertain, vulnerable, and yet possessed all the curiosity he would need to survive in the world. He was holding a measuring stick, which he kept plunging into the snow at various spots across his front lawn, the sidewalk, the street. He was trying to determine the exact height of the event that had hemmed him in and which would soon enough run down the road like the waters of birth do when we are born.
When I return home, I put the fruits and vegetables away and sit down at my computer to look at images of Pluto. I have been doing this every day for a week now. It is a compulsion. I learn that weather has been detected in Pluto’s atmosphere, a haze that has the scientists and the space physicists startled. They are enamored with the great sandy heart on its glacial surface that is saluting us from the outer layers of the cosmos. I write down certain things the physicists are saying: “crossing to the far side and looking back”; “a light surrounding the dark disk of the planet”; and, my personal favorite, “how different these objects are despite their closeness in space.” I think of the ancient gap that divides humans from other humans despite sharing a life, a town, a room — a gap we are so often afraid of, prefer not to acknowledge, that we refuse to hold.
In the evening, I go out for cocktails with my friends. Along the course of the conversation we arrive at the subject of therapy. They ask me why I go. I tell them I go because I want to be awake to myself. They like this and seem curious about exploring the possibility of their own awareness. I keep going. I tell my friends that I think of therapy as an infinite exploration, as if the self, rather than the cosmos, were the last frontier, and I were navigating its dark and radiant waters. I tell them my theory about the self as a mosaic of mirrors. I tell them I am trying to organize the shards, to get a sense of whose presence is contained in which parts. My friends ask me if I will ever stop what they refer to by the end of the evening as “my investigation.” No, I tell them. I tell them that each time I come across a new shard I didn’t know was there, I have to go back to the beginning in order to integrate my findings and that this requires me to recalibrate what I thought I knew. I explain to them that each thing that enters my conscious knowledge takes its position next to the others causing a shift in the map, in the geography of the self that is as vast, infinite, and elastic as outer space. I tell them there will be no final shard, because each day we acquire new ones that take their place next to the old ones, creating an infinite regress of mirrors, multiple sets of labyrinthine corridors that have no beginning and no end.
The next day my husband and I go to the beach. The end of summer is approaching. We sit on a lawn overlooking the lake. We are here to watch the sunset and this grassy spot above the railroad tracks and the sandy shore offers us the best view. The sky is a bright, flamingo pink and the sun descends through it slowly. It shifts the sky’s color spectrum as it approaches the horizon. The sky turns orange, purple, lilac, and then green. It is every color and no color at once. I think of my negation. I think of how it, too, is everything and nothing at once, of how it is so large and silent that it is capable of holding even more of the everything that will soon turn into nothing with the passing of the clock.
An Amtrak train pulls into the station. The conductor climbs out of his window and down a ladder that is attached to the car. I have the impression that this image is rushing at me from the past, a distant memory resurfacing to claim its position in the day. A man from the station café greets the conductor. He hands him a coffee. They salute one another. Moments later, the train departs.
Directly behind us on the lawn, there is a restored cannon from the Civil War. It has been put there as a memorial. A man lifts his daughter, who is a toddler, and shoves her small body into the mouth of the cannon. She sits there happily, her weaponized face sticking out of the cannon. The sunset is nearly over. The sun sinks into the lake and disappears from view. A bugle call emanates from the station café, signaling the end of the day, the fall of the sun. I feel myself standing at the edge of my void, peering into the abyss. I turn to my husband. I want to, but don’t yet know how to tell him, that I feel myself entering a savage dimension, where I am content to be uncertain, happy for doubt to be the only thing I know. I hear the sound of the trumpets echo in the distance.
“Ah,” my husband says, “another day has set. Tomorrow we will have to carry on.”