Tomorrow we embark on a 14-hour flight to New Zealand. It will be the 8th time I’ve done it, so I have my routines and tricks to get through the ordeal. But the truth is: I sort of love it. The flight, I mean. Its phases and rhythms. At first everyone is excited and fresh and wakeful. Settling their bits and bobs around them, their gadgets and toys and snacks. It seems impossible that your behemoth of a plane, groaning with humanity and luggage and iPads and drink carts, could ever get off the ground. The takeoff acceleration phase feels waaaaaay longer than it should be—there’s far too much shuddering—but then, you’re aloft! Every time, it’s a fucking miracle. You climb and climb and climb and then the flight settles and unrolls its phases: entertainment, dinner, more wine, pajama time, teeth brushing, eye masks, lights dimmed, sleeping pills, snuggly blankets, strangers snuffling and shifting in their seats. Hours go by in the hush and dark. If you get up to pee you will pass through a silent ward of rows upon rows of human beings huddled under their stiff gray blankets, snoring and sighing and trusting a huge machine to carry them over the cold Pacific. There will be one or two other people awake, and you’ll catch their eyes and nod slightly, silently, in recognition. Where are we? This is madness, right? You will have to work your way around a child’s slippered foot sticking out into the aisle. You won’t want to wake her. Hours and hours will go by when you drift in and out of a wakeful doze, the sleeping pill pulling you under and then releasing you into the dusky cabin, over and over again. Finally you’ll give up and decide it’s morning, check your watch, do a quick calculation, and realize that you still have six hours to go. For some reason, it’s always six. So you’ll sit quietly in your seat, reluctant to turn on the seat-back TV and disturb your neighbors with its bright light, and simply stare out the window into the void around you, above you, and below you. Hope that you make it through and that, impossibly, a tiny scrap of land in the middle of the planet’s vastest ocean will pull you safely back to earth. It’s still a long way away. You trust it’s there waiting for you, because you’ve done this before. But you never know.
The first time we saw Larry he was rolling around in the dirt. Scott and I were on one of the long morning walks we had resolved to start taking when we moved into our current neighborhood. Before moving here we had been living in a tiny condo in a concrete building near the (then-future) site of the Olympic Village. At the time we bought the place, the area was essentially an industrial zone: ours was the only residential building on a blighted landfill along False Creek covered with car repair shops, restaurant supply emporia, and decorative wrought iron dispensaries. After nearly four years in a 600-square-foot sixth-floor apartment with nowhere to walk to but the Starbucks in the lobby of our building, Scott and I were just about ready to kill each other. And we were eager to have a neighborhood we could stroll around in. We would have been happy enough to enjoy wandering the shady residential-ish streets with their dusty pocket gardens and disused tire swings, but we soon discovered that our new neighborhood near Commercial Drive came with a bonus we hadn’t counted on: cats. People—insane people—actually let their cats outside in this part of town, and for every heart-rending “HELP US FIND SNOWBALL” poster plastered to a lamp post, we would see one or two still-alive cats strutting on the street or splayed on the sidewalk for a death-defying nap. We quickly developed favorites, discovered who liked belly rubs from a couple of strangers and who did not, and learned to give wide berth to those who were on a songbird-murdering spree in their front yards. But no one compared to Larry: the Champion, the King, the Platonic Form of neighborhood cats. He had it all: laziness, softness, benign friendliness combined with gentle contempt, and an utter lack of dignity. That first day we met him, we thought he was perhaps a squirrel. It was a bright sunny day in mid-summer, and as we rounded the corner onto Charles Street we saw some kind of animal burrowing in the traffic circle in the middle of the road. The circle had just been constructed, and nothing had been planted yet in the giant mound of soil in the middle of the concrete barrier. Larry was rolling blissfully on his back in the hot dirt, clearly enjoying the hell out of his life. Of course we didn’t know his name yet at that point. After we approached him and offered a belly rub (which he, no idiot, gratefully accepted as the perfect add-on service to his dirt spa treatment), Scott reached out for the name tag dangling from his collar. This is always a tricky moment—I have said many times that I don’t think he should do this, as it startles the cat and invites nipping. The cat doesn’t understand that you’re trying to learn his name, I would remonstrate; he just thinks you’re going for his carotid artery. But Scott never listens, and thus we learned that day that the name of our new feline bestie was Larry—or as Scott immediately dubbed him, “Dirty Larry.” From that day forward we would watch out for him on every walk, ridiculously gratified when we saw him and got a minute or two of his attention, crestfallen when he didn’t appear. A morning with a Larry encounter was sure to portend a good day. We soon learned that he had a companion cat named Banana, also a sweetie who loved belly rubs, although somehow not as compelling a personality as her louche, rakish brother. Typical. We also learned that we were not the only regular victims of Larry’s lackadaisical magnetism: one day when we were walking past what we assumed was his house, I noticed that on the bollard at the end of the block someone had scrawled “Larry and Banana ==>” in black magic marker. This should not have surprised us, but I have to confess that it made me feel a little jealous. I started working harder on my belly rubs, really going for the under-chin scritch, trying to jostle my way to the top of the cutthroat tournament bracket of random strollers who stopped to pet him. There is, apparently, nothing that I cannot turn into a competition.
A year ago, when Scott and I left Vancouver to spend our sabbatical in Philly and Asheville, I was worried about Larry. He was starting to get on in age, and in the past couple of years I noticed that he was growing skinnier and was obviously slowing down. He spent more and more of his time on the narrow strip of grass directly in front of his house, and didn’t move very much when we stopped to pet him. He accepted the attention gratefully, but was distracted: his eyes remained fixed on the mountains on the horizon as he allowed us to stroke his fur, one paw in this world and one in the next. So on our last walk around the neighborhood before leaving last August I worried that this visit with Larry might be our last. It crushed me to think that we would return a year later and he simply wouldn’t be there any more. We might see Banana, I fretted (who seems much younger and more robust than her companion), but Larry will just be … gone, and we’ll never know what happened to him. We don’t know who his people are or even which exact house he lives in, and there will be no one to ask. We don’t know who wrote “Larry and Banana ==>” on that bollard, or how to contact them. One day we simply won’t see him any more, and eventually the magic marker will start to streak and fade and then disappear. Unfortunately that last walk was a rare Larry-less one, and I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye. Probably this was for the best, as his people might not have appreciated the sight of a strange lady in workout clothes hanging over their prostrate snoozing cat, weeping like an anguished Victorian mother over the sickbed of her consumptive child. We went off on our year-long adventure, and I even made another good neighborhood cat friend, a slim orange number with light silver eyes, who spent hours in the backyard of our rented house and clearly thought he owned the place. Unfortunately he didn’t wear a collar, so we never learned his real name. Our friends Trish and Thomas’s daughters also became obsessed with him, and eventually Juliette, age 6, grew tired of his moniker-less state and dubbed him “Esthurd.” “Esther?” we repeated, puzzled. “No, Es-TURD. Like the name Esther, but with TURD at the end.” So Esthurd it was. A grand cat, an officer and a gentleman, whom it was also difficult to leave. So many departures, so many wordless goodbyes. And so much uncertainty about what awaits one’s return. So it was with much trepidation that Scott and I embarked on our first neighborhood walk since coming back to Vancouver the other day. Neither one of us said anything in advance, but we both knew what the other was thinking about: Larry. As we rounded his usual corner, I caught my breath, bracing myself for the sight of the empty stretch of grass in front of his house. There was a lot of glare coming off the asphalt from the hot, bright sun, so it was hard to make it out clearly from a distance, but it looked like there was some kind of shadow, perhaps a shape in the grass? We quickened our steps, and then suddenly—there he was, stretched out in his usual spot, napping in the heat. We made our way to him as quickly as dignity would allow, and then our hands were in his belly fur and he was purring and rubbing his cheeks against our fingers and vaguely wondering who we were again? And then Banana came too.
Surely there is a medical term for the unholy rage one feels upon returning to a house that’s been sublet for any length of time. For it’s clearly a psychological complex, an anger wholly irrational and out of proportion to the perceived offense. As I ransack my kitchen looking for the measuring spoons and nearly have a stroke when I discover that the cookie sheets been moved one cupboard over (“How dare they?! What kind of animals live this way?”), I remind myself that my tenants are perfectly delightful people whom I lovingly hand-selected after a rigorous interview process designed to identify the most boring people available. Casual chat about seemingly random topics like shampoo brands (“How much do they care about their hair? Are they likely to take hour-long showers?”) and oil-and-gas pipelines (“How liberal are they? Are they too liberal? Will they let their friends detox on our sofa?”) can tell you a lot about potential tenants, and helps identify exactly those people I would never want to hang out with in my actual life. All my lefty political convictions are revealed for the shallow sham that they are when I’m forced to choose someone to live with my Rancilio espresso machine and vintage LP collection while I’m away.
Scott thinks I am insane. He does not at all understand my outrage at finding that our renters have been using our tiny, elegant stainless-steel condiment cups as votive candle holders, insisting that it’s a reasonable mistake. (Maybe if you live in a CONVENT, I mutter.) But then we are not a particularly good fit when it comes to the question of managing stuff. While we have very similar tastes and love choosing the crap that goes into our house to begin with – Scott is one of the few non-French straight men I know who can get really worked up over table linen – we part ways when it comes to the care and organization of household paraphernalia once it’s actually in the household. I like to sublimate my simmering OCD tendencies into hyper-rigid organization schemes. While I often joke that it’s not hoarding to keep 27 years worth of journals, desk calendars, and beside-the-phone memo pads as long as they’re chronologically organized in neatly labeled boxes, I am not joking. My first year in college I would regularly bust my roommate for using my expensive facial moisturizer, astonishing her with every accusation. How did I know? Because it had been moved one inch to the left of its usual spot on my dresser, that’s how I knew. Scott, on the other hand, subscribes to the “flinging” method of organization. I have seen him do it: when it comes time to return, say, the Windex to its home under the kitchen sink, he will open the door and sort of toss the bottle in the general direction of its proper place. (He will then leave the door open. For the life of me I do not understand how someone can open a cabinet door or drawer, do one’s business therein, and then stroll away without closing it, but if I had to guess how often he does so I would say it’s 99.99987% of recorded instances. He might reply that it saves time since then you don’t have to open it again later, but this is the rationale of a madman. We might as well all walk around with our pants permanently down to save time in the bathroom.) Of course I’m just as bemused when things that don’t bother me piss him off; this is a man who regularly yells at his FitBit, “I just moved 2 minutes ago you motherfucker!”
So imagine how bad things must be in our house for Scott to be in a similar state of apoplexy with our renters as I. A few days ago we returned home after a year away to find a house where every single light bulb had burnt out and not been replaced. I shudder to think of our tenants huddling in the slowly gathering gloom, confused as to where the light has gone, drawing together under the weak sunshine filtering in through the (now filthy) skylight. Perhaps they didn’t understand where the light normally comes from, or even the concept of electricity? I am leaning toward the latter explanation, since our power bill tripled while we were away. Every month since we left I would get a threatening email from BC Hydro, warning me that we were only halfway through the billing cycle and yet on track to leave in the dust the “preferred lower rate” we had previously enjoyed. And while we’re at it, the emails seemed to imply, we would like to let you know that while you used to be Good People, you are obviously now very, very Bad People indeed. (Is there any other industry that relentlessly shames you for using too much of their product?) I forwarded these emails to Ollie – the only official tenant left after his new girlfriend, who had co-signed the lease, took off after two months of connubial bliss that apparently included a lot of candlelight dinners – with increasingly desperate cover notes. Are you perhaps running an air conditioner? I asked. Using fans all day? Leaving the lights on all the time? (This last theory of course rendered invalid by the absence of working bulbs after a couple months into their stay.) These questions are all polite code for, “Are you running a meth lab in our 1200-square-foot condo?” If he was, then he obviously used our pots and pans in his operation, for most of them were ruined: burnt black inside and with chunks of what look like … carbon clinging in the corners and to the sides. Probably, though, he used them for the usual food preparation but had no earthly idea how to clean them: one of them had a hardened piece of what clearly is diced onion – still translucent and recognizable – bonded to the inside, like the single tile of an ancient Roman mosaic. On the other hand, the stove and oven no longer work.
Other mysteries abound. The upstairs toilet now rocks back and forth on its stump, and so does our coffee table: one of its industrial tempered-steel legs seems to have been bent. The sheer strength required to effect these changes (and: how? and: why?) gives me pause. (Perhaps I should rethink the various revenge strategies I’ve been mulling in the sleepless wee hours.) Even more odd, to my mind, is the fact that there are thirteen new umbrellas in the stand in the front hall. Thirteen. Granted, it rains here 364 days a year for 23.5 hours a day, but still. They range from a decorative child’s version — a miniature number in clear plastic with a bright pink handle – to oversized doorman’s models that could shelter a small rugby team. While I don’t find it at all mysterious that visitors might deposit their umbrellas in the stand after coming inside, I cannot for the life of me figure out why so many of them abandoned them when they left. Perhaps they got overheated from a vigorous session of meth cooking or coffee table calisthenics and welcomed the cooling rain. One other significant item has been left behind: a very elaborate, quite lovely, ceramic bong with a ceramic frog clinging to its side, as if trying to crawl its way up to the mouthpiece for a hit.
Even though Scott and I are sharing a companionable state of boiling outrage over the state of our apartment, we are incensed over completely different things. He has focused on the fact that someone has thoroughly encrusted the downstairs bathroom and his study with heart-shaped plastic stick-on hooks decorated with a pink argyle design. I mean, they are everywhere: on the back of the doors, on the doorframes, on the side of his bookcase. How many things can one person possibly need to hang on hooks? Is there some new organizational scheme we haven’t heard of yet, like that closet system with all the boxes, that involves suspending all your possessions in mid-air? He is also disgusted by the twist-up air fresheners (“so … American!”) and the slow-dissolve toilet tank tablet that renders the flushing water blue.
How do we piece together these shards of evidence to form a picture of our tenants? Clearly they are drug addicts and hardened grifters obsessed with offensive smells. Who knows what has happened in our house for the past year? What tales could these walls tell? One thing is obvious: whatever happened here happened without us. We abandoned our lovely little gem of an apartment to the depredations of two twenty-something maniacs, and we (and our condiment cups) deserve everything we get.
The partner and I went to buy a mattress. We both like a firm bed, so went into the store armed with cocky certainty about the kind of item we were looking for. It took a while to convince the salesman we were serious when we said hard. He showed us to one disgusting cloud of mush after another, and each time we flounced on the bed and immediately flounced right off again (some of these new pillow-topped numbers effectively function as trampolines), our lips curled in barely concealed disdain. Finally, an understanding seemed to pass between us. He began to take us to the real mattresses: the ones designed for Buddhist monks and ex-Navy SEALs who feel that life is not punishing them enough. Each mattress he showed us was firmer than the last, and yet we continued to cry “More! More!” after rolling painfully off each display model. Eventually we reached what he said was the firmest mattress he has ever sold. We looked at each other with satisfaction, and clambered on top. We lay there for a few moments, our ligaments gently twanging, and then said, “Yes, good. This is close. But it’s not quite…” The salesman looked deeply into our eyes as if assessing us. “Are you sure this is not firm enough? It’s the firmest one we’ve ever sold.” “Well, it’s close…” “All right then. There is one more model beyond this that I can show you, if you’re sure.” “Yes! Yes! Let’s try it out.” He led us reluctantly to the back of the store, where there was an alcove separated from the rest of the showroom by a drawn curtain. He pulled back the curtain to reveal what looked like just another display model: an ordinary-enough looking mattress and box spring on a metal frame. “Here it is,” he breathed. We jumped eagerly on to the bed and stretched ourselves out side by side, in that stiffly sexless way that couples arrange themselves when trying out mattresses in a public store. Every bone in my body began immediately to cry out in confused pain. Somehow this mattress felt harder than the floor, or even the rocky ground under a camping tent. It managed to have positive hardness: it seemed not only to resist the weight of one’s body with perfect obduracy, but also gave the illusion of further pushing you down into itself with insistent, relentless pressure. Lying on this mattress, we felt we were being crushed into the earth by the gentle paw of a friendly giant. We both sprang up in horror after less than 5 seconds, whimpering that we would take the one we had tried just before. I couldn’t meet the eye of the salesman, but I could definitely hear the note of smugness in his voice as he sighed, “Yes, well…. No one has ever taken that mattress.” He paused. “We call it THE ROCK.” I couldn’t meet his eye again the entire time we paid for, and arranged for delivery of, the second-hardest mattress in the store. The mattress of failures, of wimps, of pathetic aging losers whose frames are too weak for THE ROCK. Every night when I clamber up onto our really, extraordinarily firm mattress and settle my creaking bones onto its unforgiving surface, I think about THE ROCK in its isolated alcove, and wonder if anyone has since bought it. So many questions remain. Why the curtain? Is the owner afraid that an unsupervised shopper might accidentally wander back there and try it out, leaving the store open to liability for any subsequent injuries? Why did it take the salesman so long to show it to us, even after we insisted that we wanted the firmest mattress in the store? Is there a formal protocol all the store’s staff must follow, testing the strength and resolve of shoppers on successively firmer mattresses before judging them worthy of this trial by fire—a trial that they all know, in advance, that we would surely fail as all others have failed before us?
WARNING: TOTAL SPOILERS
Only a cranky, elitist misanthrope could fail to love this perfectly pitched middlebrow confection. All your friends loved it, right? Amy Adams is reliably adorable as a brilliant yet weirdly underaged linguist whose work is admired at the highest reaches of government. (The way we know she’s brilliant is that she doesn’t wear any makeup.) Jeremy Renner is reliably adorable as a besotted physicist — also presumably brilliant? — who spends the whole film mooning at Amy, yet satisfyingly stays out of her way while she does her work. Forrest Whittaker, in an attempt to be something other than adorable, puts on an indecipherable accent (Boston? New Orleans? Junior year abroad on Alpha Centauri?) in his workmanlike portrayal of some guy in the government. The movie gets to the action right away: the guy in the government, along with some other guys in the government, swoops in on the world’s loudest helicopter in the middle of the night to scoop up Amy from her ridiculously architectural-magazine-spready house next to some woods and maybe a lake somewhere (why does she have such good taste in houses but such terrible clothes and hair?) and take her to meet some aliens who have just landed in Montana. Her job is to decipher their language so that humanity can ask them why they’re here. She is one of twelve linguists leading similar efforts worldwide: the aliens have plopped themselves down in their (also impossibly elegant) flying obelisks at various sites across the globe, and apparently have settled in to wait while humanity runs around freaking the fuck out all over the place and then eventually decides to get its act together. Amy gets us there by figuring out the aliens’ language and communicating what she has learned about their intentions to the Chinese just in time to stop them (the Chinese) from blowing them (the aliens) out of the sky with some nukes.
And that is basically the plot. Cool, right? The aliens seem really chill, their written language is beautiful — they wave their tentacles and squirt out ink that forms gorgeous calligraphic circles that hover in the air — there’s some satisfying if incoherent mumbo-jumbo about time being continuous, you get to feel smart by being forced to dimly remember the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and the moony physicist ends up with the brilliant makeupless linguist in the end/beginning. Oh, but wait — this is a story about white people with tasteful houses, so that means we also have to have a sentimental plot about having babies. And it’s not just an add-on, either: the entire movie (as well as the novella on which it is based, Ted Chiang’s award-winning “Story of Your Life”) is ultimately structured around the thrilling journey that two people take in the course of deciding to engage in heterosexual reproduction. It turns out that since all time is continuous, and Amy gets to understand that truth because something something Sapir-Whorf, and she therefore gets to see the future, she comes to realize the deep determinism of reality. So even though she knows how all of history (or maybe just her own history? unclear) will play out, and she therefore knows that the daughter she will have with the moony physicist will die at a young age of a terrible disease, she goes ahead and does it all anyway. Because — get it? — it’s already happened. So of all the quazillions of personal stories that we could imagine as a complementary subplot to the fascinating stuff about the aliens and linguistic relativity and the nature of time and determinism, this is what we get. Serenely composed shots of a mom and her dying daughter adrift in a weird soft-focus world where there’s lots of symbolically bleak landscapes and yet apparently no other people whatsoever.
And this is where I start to feel like a terrible person. Yes, it’s sad, dammit! I’m not a monster. I like babies! The moments at the end where we see Amy deciding (but not really, because she kind of doesn’t have a choice) to have her doomed daughter are truly poignant. Suddenly the film’s aesthetic of tasteful emptiness (even the alien ships seem to have absolutely nothing in them) all makes sense: this is a woman whose understanding of the nature of time has rendered her profoundly alone. Okay, it’s kind of shitty that she doesn’t tell Moony Physicist that she knows their daughter will die before going ahead and getting knocked up — perhaps because she (rightfully!) fears that he might not be on board with that plan—but he justifiably dumps her when he finds out that she had known, and that just underscores her isolation. It’s also deeply satisyfing to see a woman get to be the Great Brilliant Understander of All Reality Who Is Thus Utterly Alone, while some adoring dude who is basically an adjunct to her brilliance gets into a snit about their domestic arrangements. But that’s kind of the point: is this the only personal drama we can imagine a brilliant female linguist being the star of? Picture the same story with a male linguist at its core: it’s kind of hard to imagine that the most sublime, terrifying, humbling, mind-blowing experience available to us a species — the sudden knowledge that we are not alone in the universe, and also p.s. all time is continuous — would, if imparted to a man, yield only a deep conviction that he should go ahead and have a baby. Is this the only question facing a woman? Is this the only decision we can ever imagine her having to make? And why is the answer always Yes?
There are lots of other things to take issue with in the film. Once again, white Americans save the planet when the aliens arrive. Everyone else across the globe is reactive, paranoid, and irrational (granted, most of the Americans are too, but still). When Amy finally breaks through to the Chinese general dude who seems to be in charge over there, she convinces him to stand down through another hokey sentimental plot device having to do with heterosexual domesticity. For some reason climate change doesn’t exist in the film and we are blithely assured that humanity will still be here in 3,000 years. My understanding is that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is way more complicated than it’s depicted here. The climax of the film involves Amy (perhaps unwittingly) channelling Nietzsche, which is never a good idea. Etc. Probably, though, I’m being unfair. There is also lots to like here, and lots to think about, and lots of pretty stuff to look at; there are definitely worse ways to spend two hours of your life. This was a solidly enjoyable film — I just wish it had been better than it was, that it had had the guts and imagination to push a little further beyond the predictable narrative arc that seems to be, still, the defining experience of all women, no matter how defiantly makeupless they may be.
Do you repine?
Thoughts of pastry,
But not for you,
Unequal to your greatest feature:
A farinaceous chapeau.
Do not expect reciprocity. Open your home in an attitude of non-expectation. Try not to hope.
This state is impossible for human beings. Recognize this impossibility and forgive yourself for your desire.
Yet continue to strive. Turn yourself inside out as much as you can. Strain toward the perfection of absolute giving as a horizon, an asymptote.
Things you could give away that you might not have thought of: your couch. The suit you were married in. Extra pens you have lying around. Your undivided attention. A kidney.
But be wary of potlatch and all forms of competition. If a friend doesn’t want your kidney then don’t embarrass him by pressing.
Recognize that there are limits to the concept of hospitality, which is based on the notion that my home is separate from yours. Hospitality is a modern invention and the bailiwick of the middle class; the mansions of the nobility were open by fiat to the state, to soldiers, to ghosts, to the gentle nosiness of Mr and Mrs Gardiner and the dreamy rapacity of Elizabeth Bennett. Only those who are not forced to billet soldiers or admit vampires can be said to extend hospitality. Consider whether you think hospitality is enough.
Some examples of hospitality include: Everything Winnie-the-Pooh does. A bunch of episodes in The Odyssey. Lots of stuff from the Bible.
Some examples of non-hospitality: Polyphemus (don’t eat your guests, even if they were not invited). The Lotus-Eaters (allow your guests to leave when they want to). Circe (do not transform your guests into beasts). Odysseus and the suitors (however, also a grey area). Come to think of it, The Odyssey is pretty ambivalent about hospitality.
Hospitality should be invisible. If you make a big deal about how generous you are and how open your home, you undermine the whole enterprise. One of the best things Miss Manners ever advised was what to do if your guest accidentally drinks the contents of her finger bowl: immediately pick up your own finger bowl and down it.
Yet do not hide your light under a bushel simply to make others comfortable. Fakery of any kind is counter to the spirit of hospitality.
When friends tell you that they can’t return your hospitality because your cooking is too delicious or the paintings on your walls are too beautiful and they feel ashamed, understand that they’re being ridiculous. Forgive them and love them for being ridiculous.
Invite them over again soon and serve them a terrine of pressed butterfly wings in rosewater aspic. Feed them by hand.
Let them doze off on the couch, then depart your house as quietly as you can. Leave the keys on the front hall table. Take up residence in their tiny apartment and fall in love with their cruel cats and enjoy their tinned vegetables and stare at their framed movie posters until they move you to tears. Make a new furrow in their mattress. Forget your own name.
Today I rise from it, or at least this is the plan.
I turn my head—not slowly or gingerly—to regard
the midden of balms and anodynes
that is my bedside table.
Their fundamental efficacy is in doubt,
but one must do something.
At the very least they compose a curious collage
suitable as a focal object of meditation.
I remember other bedside tables
covered with other bottles and tubes.
And my dread of the hand
coming to clear them away: the fuzzy
half-sucked lozenges stuck to screws of wax paper,
the stiff wads of Kleenex like strewn lotuses,
the Robitussin bottle with its encaustic of sticky drips.
A book of some kind,
a puzzle, a pen,
a stuffed animal with implacable eyes.
What they bore witness to:
the deep pleasure of the bed
and of the soreness of muscles not used much in days,
the langour of long shadowy afternoons spent staring down
ghosts in the corner of the chamber.
There comes a point when one’s head has swelled
nearly to the parameters of the room,
hair glued to the forehead with sweat,
the point when a cool hand, delicious,
wipes the hair away
and all there ever has been or ever will be
is this forehead and this hand.
But sentimentality has no permanent place
The hand remains cool in its detritus-clearing
does not waver over its tasks
or the brisk plumpings and smoothings it has come here to do.
It is time to rise up!
The cruelty of all clarion calls
can be heard deep in the brassy command.
No one cares any longer about the ache or the damp hair
or the bottomless need to sink
into the hollow
of the mattress.
It seems as though all caring has come to an end,
forever, and the hand on the forehead is one’s own.
The stuffed animal is gone
but the ghosts are still here.
It is days before garbage pickup
and the Kleenex lotuses, swept into the kitchen bin,
will still be visible for a time
before they’re pulled under the surface
then wilt then wither in the airless dark.
Check out my essay on Episode 7.3 of Mad Men over at Kritik, the blog of the Unit for Criticism and Intepretive Theory at the University of Illinois. I discuss New Wave cinema, HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Oedipus complex, and lots more!
I have an essay on The Killing up over at Kritik, the TV blog of the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory. It’s about sovereignty, Native land rights, Vancouver, dead bodies, and so much more!