I’d been holed up with a new project, and it seemed time to get out and breathe some fresh air and talk to people, an outcome that the solitary nature of my work sometimes led me to desire more than dread. I’d received an email about an opening reception at an art gallery, the owners of which were two of the friendliest people I’d ever met, and I was an acquaintance of a friend of a friend of the artist and had been to two openings for this same artist at this same gallery before and had seen this acquaintance at both of them. I planned on speaking with him at the opening about my project, and I liked the idea that I wouldn’t see him again for two or three years and could therefore minimize the effect of any adverse reactions to whatever I said.
I arrived about an hour after the opening began, hoping to reduce distractions by giving my acquaintance enough time to view the show. The artist was a specialist in geometric shapes, mainly triangles, trapezoids, and parallelograms, painted in a variety of bright colors and floating against an abstract background that suggested a brooding, subdued turbulence, an occasional gnarly, dissonant tree root bursting through the surface as if hurled by destiny. I scoped out the crowd, an impressive turnout, the usual buzz and nodding and handshaking and knowing laughter. I didn’t feel at ease, one side of the room already rising and spilling me toward the door, the floor on the verge of grabbing me by the leg and yanking me outside, you don’t belong here, leave and nobody will get hurt. The art did nothing at all for me, except for the tree roots, which appeared to have come from another dimension and aroused an almost painful urge to lift the frame or remove it from the wall and check the back to see if some design or pattern could be found there that would alter the context of the front side, and if the front side, seen in this new and broader context, would again reverse you to the back of the canvas, and so on, a type of narrative rotation that would intentionally undermine the geometry on its face. One of the gallery owners approached me, which she never failed to do, and she actually seemed glad that I’d come, though I’d never bought anything from the gallery and knew her gladness must have been limited to such an extent that it barely existed, and who could blame her, yet her face showed nothing but good will. Where does her good will come from? I wondered. I couldn’t imagine how she could think I was worthy of her welcome, worthy of her welcome, worthy of her welcome. As I was saying how good it was to see her, a well-dressed woman walked up from behind me and she greeted her as warmly as she had me and, not wanting to exhaust her kindness, I moved on, deeper into the front end of the L-shaped gallery, and continued to the elbow of the L, where you could inform a staff member if you wanted to buy a painting. Glasses of wine were also available in the elbow, but I turned away from the wine, fearing that even a small amount would trigger avalanches of verbosity.
Sure enough my acquaintance, whom I believed was still a friend of a friend of the artist, did happen to be in attendance and was standing just on the other side of the elbow, though I couldn’t be sure if this chain of personal connections remained unbroken because the artist and the friend of the artist were both rumored to be insane, at least intermittently, and prone to tirades against real and imagined enemies. Whatever the case, my acquaintance was laughing at or with a slender man who leaned in and blabbed a few words that had an edge, that caused my acquaintance to flinch and grimace as the man departed. I saw it as an opportunity to stroll up and greet him, possibly taking advantage of his relief at seeing someone other than the apparent wisecracker, but as soon as he saw me his eyes narrowed and without glancing back he took off for the end of the L, as if fleeing to a back door or a line of shrubs outside to hide behind. I resented his aversion to me. All I’d ever done when I’d spoken with him was share an assortment of views on subjects I could no longer recall. So after hesitating briefly I decided to rise above his snub and dare him to repeat it. Did he see himself as superior to me in some way, and if so on what basis? And who else was I going to talk to? Someone else might appear, but I wasn’t aware at the time of another potential listener. I caught up with him along the far wall, his head turned at an angle as he stared at a painting.
Hello, I said, and he replied with the same word but did not take his eyes off the canvas. How’s your work been going? I asked, struggling for rapport. I’ve been stuck lately, he said and at the word stuck he looked at me as if I embodied the word, or that’s how I took it and with good reason as far as I could tell by his rigid posture and sniffy look. I made a mental note to remember the word sniffy. I enjoyed the sound of it and could use it in my project, perhaps over and over and in this way raise the subconscious nostrils of the reader, a sense engager, engager, engager.
I’ve started a new project, I said, that I thought you might be interested in hearing about. He pursed his lips, his attention directed at the geometric subtleties of the work before him. If you’re stuck you may find something useful in my method. I write down everything at every reachable depth that passes through my mind, continuously, or as close to that as I can get. I have a spare ballpoint pen on my desk and a second spiral notebook in case I need extra materials and I let it fly, scenes and images, words from past dialogues and the imagined thoughts of others, their lies and aversions and judgments, and I want it all in handwriting, no word-processing software used at the outset. I want to engage my entire body and thus strive toward awareness of whatever flows through body and mind to form consciousness. And as the narrative progresses I attempt to work from what was written in previous pages, to dredge interpretations and meanings from that text, to develop a deeper narrative and then to proceed further with an interpretation of the interpretation, spiraling downward and outward at the same time. This method does not exclude the possibility of introducing new events and scenes, but they must grow out of all that has unfolded before them. But the underlying issue I hope to address in this project is the question of whether, on the whole, the source of difficulties in human contact–
At that point my acquaintance, whose name I could not quite remember, raised his hand directly in front of my face, a gesture unambiguously equivalent to a stop sign. Once again he fled, again not looking back, leaving me stunned that he, a fellow writer, could lack any curiosity about my project, and at such a crucial point in my elaboration, as if I’d been describing something utterly trivial or revolting. I stood frozen in my mental tracks.
Then I heard a voice and looked toward the sound of my name, the word calling me back. It was Alexandra, a young woman half my age or younger, shy but inclined to express her opinions. She’d blush as these opinions spilled from her, her eyes imbued with an admirable sincerity, and the redness of her face caused her freckles to disappear. Her head usually tilted forward as she spoke and back as she listened, her mouth hanging open to varying degrees depending on the extent of her credulity. I saw her occasionally at museums or movies and I’d made an appearance at her book club. Before meeting with the group I’d felt a horror of hearing their opinions and had imagined them riding through my mind on horses and lashing it with swords. Still, I’d been grateful to be invited and immediately found them all pleasant and receptive and I retained some regret that I’d disagreed with nearly everything they said about my stories. I’d admitted to them that most of it had nothing to do with what I was thinking when I wrote them, adding that this experience was not at all uncommon for me and that I often wondered as I listened to people’s opinions on any number of subjects whether I belonged to the same race as they did. What could I have expected them to say to that? Did I want to dissuade them from speaking?
I read your story in The Milky Way recently, she said, already blushing and tilting her head, her ponytail swaying a bit, and I wanted to talk to you about it. I read it twice actually, once in the waiting room at my dentist’s office and a second time while I sat in the chair before he came in. He runs late, and I like to read something on my tablet until he gets to me. This one appealed to me more than some of your others. I still don’t get the one we talked about in the book club about the guy who killed his eighty-five-year-old father while sleepwalking. I don’t know if we’re meant to imagine a history that would have provoked the murder or if we’re supposed to think we can be completely different people in our dreams, an idea that appeals to me, but the story doesn’t offer support for either of these interpretations so nothing holds it together for me, even though I’ve thought about it quite a bit and find the tumbling words in the story similar to the way my mind works, but don’t tell anybody.
Her face was extremely red at the end of her statement and I felt relieved to be listening to her, in no imminent danger of making a nuisance of myself.
So with this new story I had an idea that you might say was not what you were thinking when you wrote it and is irrelevant because of that, but I thought you could have the story as it stands and then write a parallel version with the same character and situations but this time the guy is taking Paxil. It would be obvious, I think, that you’re comparing how he experiences things in a different emotional state.
She leaned back then, head moving to her listening position, the redness draining from her face, receding from the center back toward her ears, which were still red and looked warm to the touch.
That’s interesting. I hadn’t thought of using parallel narratives, but in my mind the narrator is already taking Paxil so if I wrote a second version, as you suggested, it would be the Paxil-free narrative. No names are mentioned in the story, and that’s because a side effect of the drug is that he can’t remember people’s names.
Her mouth slowly opened as she assessed my reply and its possibly ironic content.
I like the story as it is, she went on. It’s one of my favorites of yours, along with the one about the baby who speaks German although his parents are both American and speak English. I get it that the child caregiver speaks German to the baby, but the question of what causes him to prefer the sound of German makes the story more interesting. Does it portend a deep-seated and maybe innate rebellion against his parents that will endure and develop throughout his life, or what? The questions raised by the German-baby story drew me further into it rather than throwing me into a funk, but I don’t think I could tell you why. I better get back to my husband, Homer. He’ll get jealous if I talk to you too long. I don’t mean that’s what this is about, but it’s how he’ll look at it. Are you enjoying the show?
Too many triangles for me, but I like the roots.
Me too. Where do they come from?
She left me, her hands twitching at her sides, a jittery sign language that I understood perfectly, understood perfectly, perfectly, just as I understood her impulsive urge to express her thoughts, plunging ahead despite the tension sometimes aroused in the speaker and the listener. It was conceivable that like me she struggled with the problem of whether you were intruding or indulging yourself in an unwelcome way and whether you were doing it intentionally or unintentionally or quite a bit of both. I’d never met Homer, whose wrath she may have risked in speaking to me, but I watched her go to the man I guessed must be him and was happy to see him absorbed in his own conversation.
It then occurred to me that I had no reason to stay a moment longer at the gallery. I was suddenly disgusted by the sight of people’s mouths moving and by the sizes and shapes of their teeth, and I imagined their empty stomachs roaring and them on their way to dinner after the show. I suddenly noticed the number of people avidly scanning their phones and poking whatever they poked on them. How could I have been so self-absorbed not to see it before? I imagined them walking into space with their phones, stepping forward onto down escalators, unaware of the drop as they tumbled forward, or striding obliviously off cliffs, eyes on nothing but their phones as they plummeted. Everything I saw in them filled my mind with noise and static, but what was the cause of my disgust? What did I care what they did with their phones? Did I fear that the mouth movers would angrily pounce on my body and eat me? What an absurd idea.
I got myself going and walked around the corner, not looking over my shoulder for a possible farewell glance from my closed-minded acquaintance, eyes directly on the front door, which a couple happened to be leaving through. They held it for me and I was out, drawing in a breath more free than any I’d taken inside, soothed by the air on my skin.
It was nice to see you, Alexandra said from behind, and the tone in her voice brought on a smile.
I looked back and saw her walking through the door, one of her hands tightening into a nervous grip.
I don’t know why I said that about the alternate storyline with the Paxil. I didn’t mean it. Maybe I wanted to provoke you, I don’t know why, just forget about it. I did think about the idea, seeing the story through a changed lens, and I guess I wanted your reaction.
I wouldn’t change the story, but it’s worth thinking about it in that light. I’ll do that. And I admit I hadn’t thought the narrator was taking Paxil.
I didn’t think you meant it, don’t worry.
She went back into the gallery, her final comment lingering as I pondered its implications. I’d preferred to see my comment about the narrator using Paxil as ironic, but why dress it up with a fancy label when I was simply lying to her and she knew it? How did she see me, I wondered, and how much had I unwittingly embarrassed myself when we’d spoken? So-called experts claimed that language should be used to connect people so why did I use it to distance others and thereby drive myself deeper into an isolated void? They claimed consistently that human contact made you happier, a subject that I questioned and explored in my handwritten pages. I felt strongly ambivalent on these subjects, but I couldn’t deny the simple pleasure at hearing Alexandra say, Nice to see you.
It disturbed me that she might see me as a liar, and though I saw no sign that she held it against me I held it against myself and knew she had a right to expect more from me. I’d been all set to get in my car and begin talking back to the unruly chatter inside my head and when I arrived at my desk to spill out as much of it as I could reach and try to make sense of it, the two warring sides of myself, the misnamed voice of reason and the wild animal that I rode around on without a saddle arguing with each other and trying and probably failing to come to an enduring resolution or peace. My throat clenched as I stepped toward the gallery and opened the door to look for her, into the arena with her potentially pugilistic husband. But why escalate the drama when I didn’t know what would happen? Two adults could have a conversation without anyone having to call emergency services.
Alexandra wasn’t far away, but she was standing next to the same man as before, presumably Homer, who appeared strikingly nondescript. If I closed my eyes virtually no image of him would have remained. I had second thoughts, but then she noticed I’d come back in, and she must have sensed that I wanted to speak to her because she was leaving Homer’s side. Words mounted, rising to meet her, and now here she was, eager to listen.
My latest project is to unburden myself, I told her, speaking far too fast, to heave onto the page the unending internal racket and to rewrite it again and again, each succeeding page and chapter originating from the buried content of the previous sections or chapters, until I reach a conclusion about whether I am the instigating source of the racket and its effects on my outlook or if it arises from the inherent conflict involved in human contact. Does it come from a partly submerged and untamed animal inside me, from networks of confused neurons, or is the noise an inevitable product of a collision between me and others with all parties sharing responsibility for the impact of the crash? I tend to think the source of the noise is me. What you said about Paxil suggests that. If a pill can change the outlook then that implies the problem’s source is within the mind. I wanted to resist the idea of putting Paxil in the story, out of fear that I alone am the cause of my anger and resentment and constant mental yakking, but on the other hand I haven’t been able to dismiss it.
So are you unburdening yourself or increasing your burden? she asked, her head tilting forward, the aptness of her question jolting me. All the words piling up, all the uncertainty in the process, and can you hope to explain the true nature of what you call the racket or to make what it may or may not want to tell you understandable enough to put it to rest? How much can you expect yourself to know or understand and how can you think there could be only one source, you, for what goes through your mind? And in the end, no matter what you do or think, maybe it’s just there and you could decide not to listen to it so much. It wouldn’t go away, but it might help.
Just when I thought we might be getting somewhere, Alexandra assuming the role I’d hoped my acquaintance might fill, Homer walked up, his face taking in mine.
I haven’t had the pleasure, he said and extended his hand, which I shook, though something in his choice of words made my flesh crawl.
Alexandra told him my name and explained how she knew me, her explanation doing nothing to reduce the intensity of his curiosity. He glanced at Alexandra to judge her degree of interest in me, vigilant for clues of a deeper attachment, but she revealed no concern he’d unmasked a secret and no hint that she wished we hadn’t spoken or that I should depart in order to defuse an impending uproar. Homer edged between us, obstructing our visual path, threatened by what he saw as my nearness to her.
His phone went off then, and he apologized to us as he snatched it off his belt. He turned his back to me but kept an eye on Alexandra, putting his hand on her arm.
He’s a doctor, she said.
I see he appreciates you, I said.
Her mouth tightened, stifling a pained smile. Homer gripped her arm tighter and I imagined his hand affecting the flow of her blood, her blood. Anyone could see she didn’t want his hand on her arm, but I cautioned myself that I couldn’t know what forces were at work between them, what words he might say about me on their way home or in their bedroom. I knew I shouldn’t assume the worst of him or make excessive inferences about her stifled smile. But were they excessive? So what did I have in mind, to disengage his hand and take her away from him? Was I the one to be feared, the one most in danger of being driven by haywire emotions?
Alexandra’s blush had reappeared, and as he spoke in a low tone to his phone she removed his clutching hand. I wanted a private word with her, but how could I do that without riling up Homer and therefore making the situation more difficult for Alexandra? Besides, Homer had returned his phone to its holster, and he was telling Alexandra they had to leave, a patient needed him. It was good to meet me, he said, his eyes now looking in the general direction of my face but not exactly at my face, preferring, as I saw it, not to fully acknowledge me. I said it was good to meet him, mirroring his words, I suppose, out of some sense of safe boundaries, though my resignation troubled me.
Alexandra’s blush had not left her, perhaps because he had her arm again, though not as firmly this time. But she didn’t seem afraid, which led me to reject the idea of following their car and pulling up alongside them if I witnessed a violent argument, Homer swerving from his lane, arms flailing. And as I imagined my pursuit I asked myself what got into me thinking like this. Why did I conjure up disparaging scenarios and attribute what originated in me to the motives and behavior of others?
I watched Alexandra and Homer exit the gallery, his hand moving to her back, nothing wrong in that, no gripping, no taking possession, only a touch. She turned at the door and gave me a suggestion of a wave, her freckles imperceptible beneath her face’s redness. Was I failing her? Why did I confront myself with this question? She wasn’t a prisoner and she could make her own decisions, and he had a patient to see.
I had a lot to recount, to weave thematically into my broader narrative, unrecognized elements and echoes to dredge up on my encounters at the gallery. I considered emailing my contact person at the book club to ask for Alexandra’s email. I could let some time pass and then write to her for an update, see if everything was going well for her. I saw it as fortunate that my memory couldn’t call up a clear image of Homer’s face. I told myself I wouldn’t be watching for him wherever I went, at some depth expecting to observe something that would cause me to develop further suspicions about his worthiness as Alexandra’s husband. But if I did happen to come across him at the grocery store, say, I might recognize him or, more likely, he might recognize me. We might stop and exchange a look of recognition. But what would the recognition consist of in each of us? For his part, would it have been limited to a passing awareness of a familiar face? I cautioned myself not to presume to know the obscure density and culture of Homer’s mind, but I suspected it would consist of more.
After giving it more thought I decided not to email Alexandra and resolved to stay out of their business, but as I worked the narrative constantly led me back to Alexandra and Homer. Did my brain crave obsession? If so, I couldn’t reasonably think I’d improve matters by involving them in my pathological patterns.
I continued with my routine, piling up the pages, and if I needed some space or missed the sight of other people, I went for long walks at the mall. I was forty minutes into one of them on a Saturday afternoon, my back hurting after hours hunched over spiral notebooks, when I saw Homer heading into the lower level of a department store, his phone hooked on his belt. I tried to ignore him, kept going, but found myself cursing his strutting gait, his obvious indifference to everything around him, headquarters of the world right inside his skull, how lucky for him to be such a person.
I decided to turn back and have a chat with Homer, realizing that without knowing it I’d been looking for him. I could start off with a phony apology for taking up Alexandra’s time at the gallery and for arousing his concern. I was sorry if I’d been inconsiderate of his feelings, I’d say, and regretted any difficulty I might have caused. It made me sick to think of this loathsome display of insincerity and I couldn’t begin to imagine how he might receive it, but if he didn’t accept my apology and became agitated I’d be under no obligation to be civil to him. If his voice got loud and he poked me with his finger or tried to tell me off, his eyeballs protruding with bulging anger yearning to find a way out, I couldn’t be blamed for taking up for myself, a time-honored principle of human interaction. Homer was considerably younger than I was and I had a sore knee and a hip that could benefit from surgery, but I still had enough juice left to step up if the little shit chose to disrespect me. In view of his line of work he should be healing people, not pushing his wife around or stirring up conflict and animosity. Did he think his profession gave him special rights, exclusions from the rules of behavior that applied to the rest of us?
I saw him at a sale table, as nondescript as ever, thumbing through stacks of trousers. He sensed me nearing and cocked his head.
Is that you, Homer?
He squinted at me with annoyance and then looked behind him. No one was there.
Who the hell is Homer? he asked. For that matter, who the hell are you?
My mistake, I said.
I made my escape as fast as I could. The unidentified shopper had no interest in hearing a superfluous explanation, and his breath was so bad that I wanted to don one of those plastic suits scientists wore when handling toxic materials. I couldn’t think of a more perfect person to make me feel like an idiot for mistaking him for someone else. All my raving about Homer and what would happen if he didn’t accept my ludicrous apology had been nothing but delusional drivel.
And though I fled the scene I couldn’t get away from the humiliating thought that I habitually devoted excessive time and effort to becoming a bigger and better fool. I resumed my walk at a reckless pace, the background mall music a blur, the shapes of others shifting in every direction. I needed to control my breath, control my breath, calm down the lurching, rumbling animal, all too aware that it would be with me wherever I went. I should leave the mall, get home and back to work, before I spotted another phantom Homer, subconsciously egging myself on with some melodramatic fantasy of rescuing Alexandra from a dark hidden room off a tortuous hallway, risking further episodes of mistaken identity, one of which would no doubt be my own. The unclouded truth was staring me down. I couldn’t look at people without injecting my self-generated racket into the picture, and the way I saw others had far more to do with me and my needs than anything to do with them. How could I have failed to halt my inner debate and fully accept this fact? I often didn’t even meet people halfway but invaded them, knocked down walls and painted the ones left standing. Had any of them invited me in? Did I care? Why did I persist in doing this? Was boundless stupidity or insufficient humanity enough to explain it? What less disparaging motive could I unravel? As the man fleetingly known as Homer had asked: Who the hell are you? Did I really want to know? Should I vow to control myself and permanently cease working on my project?
I changed direction, focused on walking out through the door that I’d entered, not far away, only minutes. I could get in my car and lock the doors and wait for my mental fog to subside, all those who happened to be nearby safe from me until I merged with traffic and drove with purpose toward my desk, where, I could already feel it, the relentless onslaught of verbalization would continue.