You've Come a Long Way, Baby
An excerpt from STARGAZING IS NECROPHILIA.
Most people are unaware how flammable they really are. Either that or they spend their time preventing fires, which has never been my nature. Not to say I’m not desperately afraid at times, because I am, inescapably. I feel fear wholly, viscerally, and with my entire body. I suffer it like a chronic pain; slung around my neck, like a cape or a noose. Like I’ve seen my doom, and therefore have reason to believe it imminent.
Fire is an obvious metaphor, and if there were something fresher I would use it. Unfortunately the concept is ancient, and so, I presume, are my personal conceptions. The Greeks have six words for love, but not one of them sufficiently covers incandescence. Playful love, friendship; these are too soft, too common. I only know how to love until I burn, and that is the heart of me. A civilization waiting to crumble, in worship to some deity I’ll never understand.
I fear all forms of aging but one: my hands. I owe that to my mother, whose hands I remember clearly. I envied her narrow fingers and the shapes her knuckles took to cushion bone. For so long I despised the way mine looked compared to hers, inelegant and fleshy, unrefined for lack of something; possibly use. Hers were communicative, even if the message was rarely kind. Now, I look at my hands and they are hers.
At this point in my life I have burned four times, and only once did either of us call it love. Each time is brighter, more excruciating, shorter. I have loved without burning, too. Playful love, friendship. It wore me down to dust, scattering foreign pieces, mixing new materials into the clay of what I am. There’s no telling what’s extricable now, or whether I am what I would always have become. Part of me feels older than my body, as if I’ve lived in different forms each time. Sometimes I imagine I can feel them, restless, observing whether this time, things aren’t as they should be. No, it isn’t supposed to happen like this, or no, she’s supposed to be older when she learns that.
Sometimes, though, I recognize things that are precisely, redundantly right.
Meeting Niam was like that. Something in me recognized him on sight despite his face being new, being different. These are not shapes we have taken before; but still, something in me perceived something in him, registering some new-old synchronicity returning. I regularly get the feeling he and I have met in many different forms, though that may be the result of my personal alienation from my body. It feels diminutive to me; cosmic punishment for some gross misuse of power, like I destroyed too many things before.
Niam is a musician, which could account for the allure. He appeals to me in many layers: physical attraction, talent, the generally unquestioned belief we have loved each other previously, his hair. He knows things he shouldn’t know, namelessly intuiting them, which is one of his cruelest gifts. Niam is an accomplished liar, a beautiful manipulator. He can be a perfect mirror if that’s what he thinks you want, or he can be a brick wall; you won’t ever have to tell him which. I’ve seen him unpuzzle a person’s entire psyche in thirty seconds, but the delight in observing him is the knowledge it isn’t a game. For him this is an art, like his guitar. A livelihood, like songwriting. It’s his job to speak to your humanity, and as a master of his craft, he can commit you to the page with sophisticated brevity; can define you in two verses, a chorus, and a bridge.
Niam and I have similar ethos. We can conjure enormous hatred, inflict suffocating love. We are only capable of feeling nothing or feeling everything, and the pieces in between do not excite us. Irritation, boredom, these are tiresome to feel. We want rage, lust, despondency. Our sweetness is the weapon of our violence. If we let you inside our heads you will love us, but there is terror for us in that. We do not want to be understood, and in the unlikely event that we are, we will struggle to erase ourselves. We are not for you to own; not for anyone to know, except each other.
Sometimes I put my hands on Niam’s throat and let them stay there, contemplating the versions we’ve been before. Was I the man once? I make a disaster of a woman, feminine in every way but my mind, which I’ve shoved inside a toxic maleness. Similarly, was he once intangible, like a flood or a storm? He flies into a temper and disappears for days, and sometimes I miss him. Sometimes I don’t. Perhaps there were lifetimes when we missed each other completely, and as restitution for those, I sink my nails in, holding on. I would scar him if I could. With Niam, physicality is paramount. We may not take these forms again. I will have to leave my mark on him.
Niam frustrates me, enrages me, disturbs me. He simplifies himself, debasingly, when I would prefer to mythologize him. He has doubts, insecurities; weaknesses I detest. His is a psyche requiring frequent restoration and I loathe the cost of maintenance, though I recognize it every time. We’re the same, Niam and me, and have always been the same. Some days, I’m convinced my purpose is to seek him. Others, I think I’d prefer to leave him to my next life, for some other version of myself.
Eternal resignation! If I could prove it, maybe I’d make a different choice, but I can prove very little and it terrifies me. The things I’ll never know account for half the shadows under my eyes. The other half are Niam, who only sleeps when he’s emptied; who uses me to fill himself. I put my hands to his chest and feel the markers of our humanity pressing together, and I recognize the shapes of my knuckles and feel displaced, comforted, secure. These are my mother’s hands. Nothing I feel is new, and neither is anything I carry.
I have never met Adam before. I think it every time I see his face: You’re new. This is the same first for me that it is for you; how strange. I am ancient, but you have just arrived; some young demon or divinity just discovering this world, unaware of its banality.
The rest of us hit our late twenties and grew tired; we shrank a collective inch. Not Adam. Is it some lack of suffering? No, probably not, he has his own tragedies. If I belittle them, it’s only because they don’t stop him. How clumsily ineffective his trauma must be, to not even slow him down.
Imagine believing you are enough; the enormity of him confounds me. He has a certainty that takes up most of the space in the room, and in his presence, I find it difficult to breathe. He doesn’t speak; he rants. He presses me constantly, making demands with each of his thoughts: climate change, refugees, how can I possibly enjoy black licorice, it’s all an affront to something. I never sit comfortably, jabbed by the pins of his intellect. He keeps me in such exquisite pain.
Adam I loved immediately, though love would be too ridiculous a word. I have never wanted a life with him; I think it would exhaust me. With him, it was never that I wanted to sink my teeth into his shoulder or bite my fingers through his hair. Instead, I saw him and thought: I want to talk politics with him in bed. I want him to tell me about the situation in Israel. I want to argue with him, to scream. I want to fight with him at the top of my lungs; I want to know the taste of his bitterness. I want days and days of silence and I want the absence to strike me numb, render me breathless, leave me empty. I want to lie on the floor and long for his voice and then, in the moment I am hollowest, I want to take his call: Come over, I need you. I can’t make sense of the world without you here.
When I met him, I wanted to dig my grave in his mind and become a piece of his thoughts; to be an imprint on his beliefs, eternally. I wanted him to never recover from having met me even if we never touched; though we do, infrequently. Unlike Niam, the scars I leave on Adam are hidden from sight. Little tracking devices in his brain, so that when he hears a song or buys flowers for whoever eventually comes after me, I will follow where his thoughts go: She loved this song, it reminds her of her childhood. She loves this flower, it smells to her like rain. We argued over it and now I miss her, I wish her well, I taste her sometimes in my sleep. I thought it was beautifully irrational the way she loved the knuckles of her mother’s hands.
Adam doesn’t concern himself with feelings. Mine or his own, they are equally irrelevant. He has none of mine or Niam’s turbulence and I envy him, I worship him, I despise him. He’s an academic, brutally so. I’ve never seen him in class, but I imagine him to be thoroughly repugnant. I am positive Adam has enemies whose names he wouldn’t think to know and it beguiles me, bewilders me. I delight in his improbable vengeance, and likewise, I can never bring myself to really hate him. I know better than anyone what a waste of time it would be, because even a hatred like mine, which is formidable, could never be potent enough to reach him.
I’m getting older and it plagues me. I have only just come to love this form (or even like it) and it betrays me newly, every day. A grey hair, a laugh line, a wrinkle. Soon I will be unrecognizable, even to myself.
On occasion, I think the same of Niam. Once we were stoned together, touching each other in the dark, and his body repeatedly warped beneath my touch, becoming flashes of futures and pasts. I would hold my hands around his face to try to keep him, but it wouldn’t matter; intoxication did its work the way eventually, time would. I saw him young, too young for the things I was doing to him, and then older, an old man I’d never seen. Maybe it was my brain spoiling things, rotting the decadence of him for the turmoil of chemicals I’d taken, but at the same time, I knew there was no escaping it. Someday Niam will be old, and I, his same age, will always be older. The price of my constant fear is that I am aging so completely within myself there can be no doubt it will spoil the rind.
Strangely, I’m eager for Adam to age. I long for it, quietly. I crave it, desperately. All this youth, it doesn’t suit him. He has too much energy. It seeps from his ears, his adamant hands. His listless thoughts pour unfettered from his tireless mouth, his demonically-typing fingers.
He frequently drags me from Niam’s bed. My phone buzzes from my discarded dress on the floor and at two or three in the morning and it’s Adam, can only be Adam; he alone can reach me through the obfuscation of my thoughts. I answer Hello and he says Come over and I say I can’t, don’t be ridiculous, I’m sleeping, and he says If you wait until tomorrow it might be gone forever and I can’t think what I’ll do if it’s gone. So I listen, of course—because I’m the softer of the two of us, which is a waste of my time to resent—and I go to him, yawning, bleary, aware that I have deadlines in the morning and have left behind a tranquil mind at rest. I have abandoned peace for him, for Adam, and does he know? Can he have any idea? Of course not, no, it wouldn’t even occur to him. My value is not in what I do when I’m without him; it’s the vault that is my brain. Flattering, isn’t it? No, it isn’t, it’s a chore, it exhausts me, it inflames me. Without me, Adam would have no creativity, no purpose, no point. His thoughts meander, they trickle; they are leaks from an unstable frame.
I am the house on which he can build his genius. I give him a reason to make sense of things. Without me, he is just throwing himself recklessly to a crowd of empty seats, to abject silence. To the apathetic gaping of a cavernous void.
He says What do you think of this? and I wish I could say Nothing, but that’s the only answer I don’t have. I have thoughts on everything; some people are blessed with questions, some with answers, and I am cursed with both. Prodigy, they say. That’s the word for me, though I note there is no suitable word for fruit that ripens too early. It simply gets consumed faster, that’s all. Adam, I say, please, it’s the middle of the night, but time is a trivial detail when you are a young god, like he is. Adam, I’m in a meeting, this phone call will have to be quick, only three hours later I’m curled up in the stacks with my hand around the receiver and you miss every third word, but you ask me to repeat it. It’s that valuable to you. What are we talking about? Nothing, almost never anything. Am I the teacher, Adam, or are you?
Niam teaches me constantly. For some people it’s simply their nature, and this is not the first form Niam has taken with something to teach. He puts my fingers on his guitar and strums for me, corrects me, does me the favor of not doing so gently. I hate, more than anything, to be underestimated. Better to expect too much of me than too little. Punish me, break my fingers, crush my sense of inadequacy beneath your feet, only don’t encourage me. It’s the only time I want to die.
I fear aging more than I fear death. Death seems impermanent, a state of transition. To what? I don’t know. I’ve known before, I imagine, and I hate forgetting. That’s what aging is, a state of constant forgetting. Who I am, what my dreams were, the way my face looked. Was I more brilliant before, have I dimmed? It’s a menace not knowing, or rather, not remembering. I resent that I can’t occupy several spaces of myself at once. I resent that in some dimension somewhere else, I am all my forms in unison—though not, perhaps, in cohesion. I don’t imagine I could ever be a chord rung true; there must be discord among my versions. I am an imperfect species, which, someday, Niam will know, and which Adam will consider for a moment until he inevitably forgets, caught up with some new, more novel thought.
Oh, two men, it’s wrong; I understand. I know it’s wrong, clearly, or I would tell them. I have an obscure, distant sense of guilt, which is mostly inaccessible in the moment. I know there will be fallout. I also know that I am the axis on which they are waiting to turn. Niam needs pain; he’s an artist. They insist art can be created from any emotional state but they’re lying, or, best case, they’re wrong. They are mistaken that the art remains the same—it is less beautiful, inherently, because the artist has moved on to another canvas: himself. The artist wishes to be happy, and so be it. Prodigies grow older. Greatness ages poorly when creation becomes about the artist herself. I suppose I could stop living, or trying so hard to live, and then the art would return. But the idea of doing so bores me so intently I sometimes imagine holes in my chest where my lungs should be.
Someday Niam will learn I shared parts of myself with someone else and, because he is who he is, he will believe it was the important parts. Dear god, not my precious cunt! That’s only for him, for his touch, for his pleasure. Niam is my little idiot, and I love him dearly. How simplistic for him to think the only place I could meaningfully be penetrated is somewhere anyone can find.
No, if I’ve betrayed him, it’s been by letting Adam into my thoughts, which are more valuable than anything. On me, my value is as follows: my thoughts, my experiences, my hands. Adam would not agree with the latter two, I’m sure. To Adam, I am Learned; I am Intelligent. True intelligence is rare, he says. He thinks of it as a talent, or something that comes naturally. This book, he once said excitedly—showing me the debut novel I wrote at the age of fifteen, found tucked between others on my office shelf—it’s Brilliant. (You can hear the implied use of the proper noun. Brilliance, Intelligence, these are Adam’s gods. He worships them dutifully.) To Adam, it’s inconceivable that my value might be for the things I’ve only seen because I have this body, because I was born to this life, because I have my mother’s hands. To Adam my brain is genderless, without a nation or a color, but he is wrong.
Someday he will register from the perspective of his personal morality that I wronged him in some way, i.e. by loving Niam, and then he will leave me. He will go on to great things. Perhaps he will credit me with them; I imagine he will vilify me when he does, and I don’t blame him. It’s a story familiar enough that others will be gratified to hear it; it proves their fallacies right. I’ll be the heartless woman who aimed a young genius like an arrow, who strung him like a bow. I will be selfish, like all muses are. What a tragedy it is, inspiring others; a pretty little vacancy. The Grand Canyon, for all its depth, is a lot of empty space.
So what should I do, give one up? Choose? The idea that only one could satisfy the many different pieces of me is so absurd it should be criminal. It robs me of my complexity. If we are each the arbiters of our own experience, aren’t we our own gods? I should have a man for every mood; shared if necessary, depending on the market. My laziness is as richly felt as my productivity, and she, too, requires something. If it will have to be human connection to fill the gaps, complementary colors in human forms, then we hazard living forever in monochromatic noise.
Future Adam is right. I’m selfish. I don’t commit my sins blindly, which isn’t an excuse so much as a fact. What a vulgar fabric I am, the disloyal woman. I am made up of such ugly threads. I love so thoroughly, so powerfully, but my love is inherently flawed. It’s made up of the things I didn’t receive, the things that were robbed from me, the things I blindly gave away. My love is drawn from a poisoned well, but I am generous with it. I poison so many people with it so freely, and still, I hold it in such high regard. It terrifies me to think I will ever run out.
I choose sparingly, then. I carefully select for whom I burn. Niam, an artist. Adam, a genius. I would love them the rest of their lives if they asked for it. I am shameless with my affection, murderous with it. I would smother them with my love; choke them in their sleep with it. They will never know devotion like mine, even split cleanly in fractions. I can’t presume halves; tomorrow I may meet someone else who will appeal to some other part of me. Maybe tomorrow I will meet someone new, who slips a key in some previously locked door. Maybe she will whisper to me things I have no reason to believe I don’t know until she says them. Maybe she’ll say pretty girl, I see your pain, how lovely it glitters. I have always been afraid of being seen.
The not-so-secret secret is that I want to burn. I crave my own destruction. I’m tired of this form, which isn’t a wish for death, but a constant desire to start over. Burn me to the ground, rebuild me, do it right this time. Remove my childhood fantasies, those dreams that won’t come true. Excise my adoration for those who will inevitably wrong me. Give me appreciation for things I will fail to understand until they disappear. I am made up of so many imperfect parts, and by the time I notice cracks in the foundation, it’s far too late to fix them. I have to put myself in Niam’s arms, in Adam’s hands, to try to secure the fractures.
Mine is an ancient aching. Generational; passed down, like my mother’s hands. Taxonomic; belonging to others of my species. I am not the first of my kind, nor the last. This is why we aren’t gods, because we are facsimiles of others. We’re copies of things we’ve seen, recreations of what others have been. Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself; others have done so before. This is the vastness of my experience, because it belongs to everyone, and the inconsequence, because it is only mine. The flaw in having the means to tell someone else’s story is that however long I work—and however much I take from myself to do it—I will only be capable of telling some version of my own.
Will it be Niam or Adam? How inconsequential, how paltry, how small. The truth is it will be neither, because I am not really a liar, however much I try. Falsity is a kindness I selfishly fail to possess. They haven’t thought to ask the question is it only me for whom you burn, and therefore I haven’t answered. The answer would be: No, it isn’t, Niam/Adam, I burn for me, for you, for him. I burn for almost everyone on some level or another, even if my count is only four.
The fight that follows will be painfully mundane, full of insignificance. It matters to me, their pain, but the details are tiresome. They will leave me, or I will have never belonged to them. Unlikely they will manage to see the difference; it consists of where I’m standing in the metaphor, which is itself an empty room.
I expect to be another person shortly. I have burned four times; pieces of me have already been charred away. By the end of this version, I will have experienced enough to diminish to nothing, and there is no telling whether I will be reborn. The mystery is compelling, even when it keeps me up at night. A series of paradoxes: I am terrified and fearless. I am uniquely myself, though I have my mother’s hands. I love two men who will one day believe I was capable of loving nothing. Burning is living, living is dying; being alive, securing the holes in myself, is slowly killing me.
We have nothing; ipso facto, what we have is everything.
So they’re right, then. We really can have it all.
STARGAZING IS NECROPHILIA is currently in progress. For more details, see my about section.