And who was I? In the beginning, a eunuch among eunuchs—an academic. Distinguished Professor of Something-or-other (quite often I honestly couldn’t recall) with a complexion like Dresden after the war and a genius for meaningless language: The serial modes of organized mass aggregates capture the pure experience of modulated discourse and flow it through tropes of self-imposed identity structures, the result being the unhinging of secure disciplinary backing and a releasing of the unbounded potential of linguistic form as disruptive and excessive pleasure. That, from my highly regarded Epistles of Accidental Exile: Selected Essays. To my colleagues I, Herbert P. Bell, was the Kaaba of pure linguistic sensation. But, as is often the case, my prowess in the magic kingdom of Academe did not extend past the ivy-covered walls of the quad. My problem? I was projecting a composite speaker vacillating between traditional images and deformations of accepted gender-based reflexes. In other words, while I flirted and paid lip service within the established guidelines, I didn’t find the Girls of Academia appealing. Appalling was more like it. How many tales of rank Connecticut can one man listen to, I ask you? But by the same token, how many nights did I waste chatting up blowsy women glistening like Italian salads in the garish lights of cheap saloons in blue collar neighborhoods? Outside those ivy-covered walls I was nothing—a big pink man in worn corduroy, flaky about the scalp, obtuse in speech and manner. I had pretty much accepted that I was doomed to merely dream of laying paws on a pair of common gee-gaws. And then outside those walls I found her, on a rainy night perfect as if sent out from the mythic source of all rainy nights.
It all started when, drunk at home, I knocked over a lamp. No damage to the lamp, but the bulb had shattered and I was out of extras. Luckily, the K-Mart was only a short sprint away—how easy life could be once quality and beauty were sacrificed to convenience! As I made my way across the garish agora, my hair lank and plastered to my forehead, she stamped past me in tight pants and jacket, stuffing a hot dog into her mouth, her eyes fixed on the distance, contemptuous, defiant. How many women with that same inscrutable look (but minus the hot dog) had I stared at on subways and never dared to approach? But this time something, maybe a sodden resignation to Fate, made me brave. This time, I would say something! But something that would confound her, confuse her (and hopefully reveal her low mind to her—female vulgarians need a lesson like that). Dubious manhood be damned! And so, with breath suspended like a feather on the air of failure, I uttered:
“Excuse me, but you seem to be hatching an alien doppelgänger. Oh, I’m sorry—that’s your head!”
To my utter shock she stopped, turned, fixed me with her dark, suspiring eyes and…laughed! Had she actually understood? If not, she was at least playing it right, her head cocked sweetly to the side, the planes of her face reflecting the fluorescence in a way that conveyed a feeling of Alexandrine jalousies at evening. Or the daytime moon at high noon. Or maybe the frustrations of small town auto repair. Or maybe a haunted landscape of naked suburbanites smearing human waste on holy statues. My refined mind, as you can see, was reeling. And in that reeling my initiation into the Mysteries began.
What happened that night? A whirlwind of things. I remember teeth, a flushed feeling, and cheeks suffused with moonlight. The next day, still reeling, I cancelled class and ventured to collect her at the address she’d given me, which turned out to be an abandoned, half-collapsed American Can warehouse in the used car district—not what I’d expected (five-floor walk-up off a wide, dull boulevard, packed with squalling kids and sprawling grandparents). In the fashion of people of her station, I yelled up for her—no doorbell. She breezed to the door smiling and flinging a long scarf across her shoulders—also not what I’d expected: the trademark look of the Bryn Mawr mafia? No, not her! Glowing, she smelled of tuberose, and I pulled out all the stops: took her to sample freshly-made patés in the back room café of an otherwise disregarded bakery; for mussels and butter, gratis, at the Spanish-style bar of a swanky old place sequestered high above downtown where my favorite wizened waiter brought me my usual (which impressed her more than anything that day, I think); and finally, at her request, to slobber down tacos at her favorite ramshackle joint in back of the factories. I learned that she was actually educated, and had in fact finished college, although her choice of college communicated class status alas. But to her credit her style of dress reflected an innate, intelligent embrace of fashion’s temporary zeitgeist: a tight white t-shirt with black satin pants, Beatle boots (or what looked like), and of course that anomalous scarf. Her eyebrows were unplucked. She wasn’t wearing rouge. She didn’t need to; her complexion was clear, smooth. In fact, I became a bit obsessed with the planes of her face, and how her beauty imparted a deeper elegance to the elegant places we visited that day.
She continually surprised me, as we got to know each other over time. But at the same time, her pretentiousness started to grate: sweeping into a room, shaking Florida water onto her hand, she’d declaim some discovery concerning “text modules” (whatever that was); daubing her face and neck with white cream from a flat blue jar she’d mutter something about…something. Her favorite gesture seemed to be waving a cigarette around her head, gleeful eyes raised, and making some grand statement about…oh, who knew (her quotes were always erroneous, but I never corrected her; after all, I wanted to sleep with her). Even the placement of objects on her dresser was designed to further the image of artistic integrity and inquiry that she was attempting to project: an Art Deco gold compact resting atop a first edition of Reisling’s Faith and Fear (had she actually read it? I certainly hadn’t); Egyptian “depilatories” (I suspected they were just drugstore cold creams) in green glass jars; and this, scribbled in lipstick on her mirror:
What I want. What I want now. What I want to devour. I’m just a little black stone, tiny little cold stone. You don’t notice me, at least not right away. You may think I don’t feel, because I don’t say. Because I just wait. But don’t be fooled. I’m watching and waiting. For you. For the right moment to destroy you. And create you anew.
Her laughable lines were as empty as the moments she felt they occupied and defined. She was a self-defined “master of moments.” She had done a study: every day, every hour, every second, had its own angel. For instance, for the first twelve hours of Sunday it was Michael, Anael, Raphael, Gabriel, Cassiel, Sachiel, Samael, Michael, Anael, Raphael, Gabriel, Cassiel. And so on, in a slightly different order, for the subsequent twelve hours. And each angel embodied some emotional idea. Once, when we were in bed and watching “Columbo” she suddenly announced, “Oh—we’ve switched to Raphael. Can you feel it?” There were also angels of the four seasons, angels of the altitudes, angels who ruled the twenty-eight mansions of the moon, the watchers, the sixty-four angelic wardens of the seven celestial halls, and seventy amulet angels invoked at time of childbirth. She used the information to ponder her place and role in the harmony of the spheres, which seemingly shifted from moment to moment. And oh, those moments: the changes, the transformations, the little invisible victories and defeats in the arrivals and departures of thoughts…maddening intricacies! Even the slight shift of light when walking through automatic doors into a department store revealed something of Eternity to her.
I soon accepted that she occupied a realm where profound gifts and fatal flaws held sway, a place where herculean strength is demanded and only the strong survive. To merely appease the weakness one hated in oneself was not enough because it would just grow into something else, something worse. It became clear to me that she believed it was necessary to feed one’s weaknesses to someone else and then devour the person because that way you were also taking into yourself what was good as well—in essence, turning every good and bad thing into one’s own sustenance, thus transcending dualities.
By late September we were sleeping together. Sex with her was not what I’d guessed it would be—a roil in realms of invictive (and thus instructive) pleasure. It was less a descent into her delicious flesh than me feeling like I was staring down the length of a long industrial corridor at a pathetically decorated Christmas tree. But soon after that our denouement began, at her hands, and as expected. It didn’t mean much to me. She was inconsequential. It was the experience I was interested in. I was outside pain because this was my experiment, my project.
She “achieved” my destruction in four stages. First stage: every argument was made to seem like it emanated from me, from my failure to perform according to her tastes and needs. Mundane stuff: she didn’t like my loafers, and the way my feet turned out and scuffed the wooden floors of sales basements in old department stores; she hated the cashew chicken I cooked in the wok; she made fun of the PBS shows I watched. It was cute at first, but then I noticed that I was actually beginning to doubt myself. And then the doubts piled up, so that just getting dressed to meet her became a theatre of pain. I couldn’t tell how I felt after awhile—did I even want to be with her? I feared the “with her” as much as the “without her.” As a reaction to that, I began to derive comfort from my own kitchen utensils, those serene sentries of a solitary weekend. I was surrounded by the frumpy things that defined me, and they demarcated a blessed hour without emotion. I suppose I could’ve used the pain as a way of revelation, my response instructing me in my own mediocrity and its remedy, but then the subsequent moment would bring another revelation: the beauty of the utensils could not replace the fact that she’d been sleeping with some admirer “out of necessity.” Oh yeah, believe it: she was sleeping around, and I accepted it! (The precedent for my attraction to women given to creating disturbing situations was set long ago, when I witnessed my young female cousin’s frenzied sex with a slow-witted farmhand atop corn husks.) And that led to the second stage of her campaign: describing her triumphs to me.
“So-and-so’s got a rich family. They support him and he throws the extra dough my way. But it don’t come easy, honey—I gotta get down on my fuckin’ knees!”
“You’d be shocked to see what he brings to the party. You’d never let any girl see your tiny little penis again! Shiiit, I should be paying him!”
“I told him like I told you: I sleep with people out of necessity because I need money. Living is expensive for the disenfranchised—something you’ll never know anything about. You have a position. And you look down on me from the great distance that your position grants you, and you figure I’m going to clubs all the time, or parties, but sometimes I just hang out by the Tastee-Freez. You can always find a bunch of guys showin’ their money around. That’s where I met…Tsk! Check it out, I almost just told you one of my secrets! Just forget I mentioned the Tastee-Freez, okay? Don’t come and rescue me, okay?”
Soon we were at stage three: revealing the base knowledge from which all thoughts about her had to come, and the only valid perspective from which she could be judged: she’d been violated by her childhood. Stories of blows delivered to her head behind the shed by some fake cowboy boyfriend of her mother’s, and then having to watch while the fake cowboy fucked her mother in the tub, then having to pee in his hand while the mother watched, blah blah blah…And then I was made to wait, sometimes days, for those moments when she could leave it all behind and just be, for me. Usually it would come after a bitter fight, the ensuing sex, and then the long palaver about growing up in the backroom of the hillbilly bar, making a bed in the beer boxes, and then breaking away and maintaining the exhilarating free-fall of life in orbit through sleeping with people “out of necessity.” All the while she’d speak in a deep pretentious tone, as if she were speaking against a red velvet backdrop:
“I never knew my real father. My mother was an Andalusian gypsy by way of Mexico. She met my father while working as a ‘hostess’ in an underworld club. She had no experience with real dating, real love, and so she couldn’t see that he was really the one. Then she dumped him and took up with a string of men who abused her and then abused me and she was complicit in it. My memories of her are framed by the smell of cheap perfume and cooking grease filtering into the backroom of the hillbilly bar where she worked night and day as a waitress. She occupied a world of innuendo and suggestion, vicious machinations and outright lies where the enemy was always just beyond her vengeance, hiding and seeking, utilizing seemingly endless snares. No one could be trusted—especially one’s family. I can’t blame her, really, despite what she did to me. I mean, she just didn’t realize…”
She stored those memories up to buttress her sadness with a vision of revenge, her crepuscular voice whispering memories of humiliations and ill-gained satisfactions, the wash of background into foreground, the shrinking depth of field…Was any of it true? Who knew. By then she’d be lying back on the bed, a glint of streetlight from the little window shrinking down to a refracted apple in her right eye. We’d both be exhausted. And so we’d sleep, wasting the next day and sometimes part of the next week, on that mossy mattress. Then came the languor with which we’d awaken, bathe, order more liquor. Then a brilliant sunset would come, brighter than the light of noon—a sign that The Angel of Illumination had finally arrived. And so we’d rouse ourselves and throw open the door to the roof; the sudden flight of white pigeons, also dazed by that hour least easy to deal with, dazzled us.
A whole month passed that way once. Then it seemed to me that all of existence became stilted toward those long moments, the times in between being recovery from the last, and preparation for the next. That’s when I learned I could ready her: by nourishing and cultivating her soul, already rich with sickness, toward divulging its secrets to me, for my own purposes. I would stir up both battle and resolution, at the expense of my own self-confidence, just to break her. I matched the stages of her destruction with stages of re-creation. I got a purchase on her shallowness by bringing up something sure to infuriate her: “Um, about that new poem you showed me, the one that goes, ‘Everything I ever held dear is gone…I am nothing, and so I am innocence, destroyed and created anew…I will never go back to the old ways again…I thank you,’ “blah, blah, blah…I’m sorry, but do you really think you have the proper background to be attempting to work that field of inquiry? I mean, it’s easy to see from the books you read that there are gaps in your education…”
That instigated the initial battle. Her answer: “Oh yeah? Well, maybe I should lick toilet floors for a year so I can work my way up—in your estimation—to a proper field of inquiry, whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean. I don’t think you even know what it means. Gaps in my education… fuck you! You know, I don’t need you; there are other talents around! You don’t have enough money anyway!”
Her voice like sandpaper scraping my brainpans. But I knew now that in a day or two I’d feel the predictable effects of her displeasure: she’d hang up on me when I called, letters would go unanswered, messages sent through mutual friends would be ignored, etc. Then, the mutual friends through whom I’d sent messages were no longer my friends: she’d close ranks to exclude me, freeze me out. But I just laughed as I saw this happening.
(However, as time wore on, the efficacy of the imagined effects of her anger was as destructive as ever: had she managed to fuck her way into my school and was she at that moment meeting with my dean over martinis? Did she connect with a colleague via sex and was she at that moment poisoning his mind? They were weak people, those rum-dums of academe, and a person like her could easily worm her way…ooh, that fiend! I could just see her, eating dinner with the dean, or the chair, or whoever, cocking her head back on her shoulder and laughing in that Valentine’s Day way, so free, then opening her eyes wide, real innocent-like, crooning her concern about my instability over her plate of seafood like a eunuch crooning over another eunuch’s jewelry: “nooo, I’m sooo worried about him, I’ve knooown him a long time and I think he’s coming ungloooed…”
That maddening panorama of possibilities. I’d wake up in the morning and remain shivering in bed all day, my panic assuming a progression of different forms with the day’s progression of moments. Every five seconds I seemed to receive from the ether another image, and I became exhausted by the streaming, like a film continuously looping. It was as if my punishment was to experience viscerally the knowlege that I would never be able to completely rid my system of her. Then, finally, I realized: this was stage four!)
I had allowed myself to drown. Which was interesting, but I had to move on. And so I surfaced, and drove everything toward my own satisfaction: when we had the inevitable “summit meeting” at some hole-in-the-wall Indian restaurant, I blindsided her with a brilliantly written letter ending our relationship. Suddenly her eyes got wet and her breath smelled like a church and she appeared as her true self, tawdry as the bad wood-paneling behind her. She never really wanted separation; she needed the classic, cliché dynamic of predator and prey to be maintained because she maintained her connections through tension, and the tension through pain. But now I was finally about to mine that rich, sick vein for my own purposes, my final triumph over her, in the world she had no control over—the world of intellect. So with her still sobbing we cabbed it back home and there, after sex, the sign of my triumph appeared: her pretentious drone:
“…back when I wanted to become a nun because I was in love with Jesus…”
Oh, brother. But she didn’t know I’d turned a tape recorder on! She didn’t know I was taking notes, building a narrative, constructing a character around her adventures! My stealing of her story and making it my own would be my final triumph. Was that wrong of me? Maybe, but let’s be honest: she didn’t know her own worth, didn’t know how to use the opportunities existence consistently presented to fuel her so-called “art.” Again, like I said, she was no poet. She was just stuck in the past, misled by echoes. For her, her life was like a favorite book she’d read over and over but could never remember, and which would become my project to capture. Language—written language, where my genius resided—was the only medium adequately unstable enough to capture her. Music’s not like that—too much like math—and painting’s too static. Language, and language alone, was for her, and so I’d use her own improperly wielded medium against her. She deserved it, for demeaning language. For demeaning me.
So I removed myself from her and her influence (stopped calling, stopped answering calls—oh, I was such a cad!) and realigned myself with the academic arena. I freshened contacts with those eunuchs and bluestockings who’d deified me in the first place. They were mighty glad to have me back, and eager to know where I’d been for so long and why I’d been there. I explained I’d embarked on a systematic derangement of the senses for the sake of art, and would soon produce a magnum opus that would make my name a household word—beyond the households of the quad! Ah, I was back at home…
And then, finally, as expected, she began pursuing me! And I just couldn’t shake her! The more I ran from her, the quicker she’d appear. I fled from one milieu to another. As soon as I’d ingratiate myself with one group, there she’d be, at their local bar, fresh meat for them to fête. The more I tried to rid myself of her, the quicker she’d assume top cat status. If I found some loser poetry group that met monthly at the library to discuss their odes to halitosis, a week later she’d show up there, a featured reader, adored and simpered over as if they’d known her forever. I knew she’d mimic my moves, but how did she mimic them so quickly? Was she stalking me? Did she have detectives trailing me? She had, in fact, access to “lots of money,” from all her “sleeping with people out of necessity”—hell, she had more assets than me! However she managed it, the starry magnitude of her anger radiated out in all directions, penetrating the fleshiest of bodies to find me. It was a marvel, really, because now that she loved me I didn’t give a rat’s ass about her. I had just what I wanted: true psychic distance from her, in the service of story. Everything was ready for my final conquest.
Her desperation, her beast of burden routine, was a beauty thing to see. Her once-lovely and delicate porcelain back was now as broad and strong as a horse’s, broad enough to bear the baggage of her bad karma. But I wasn’t through with her; the vindication was coming. I decided I needed travel. Didn’t Rimbaud say that travel was the key? (And charity. Okay, so I’d let her down easy: she’d learn of my leaving from my answering machine.) Of course my colleagues were baffled and saddened: I’d just returned to them, and now I was ready to flee them again? How could it be? Was this a coda to my dérèglement des tous les sens? Well, yes, I said; how did you know? Of course this made me the most admired man on campus, as I was the only one bucking responsibilities to run down a dream. My superiors were seeing themselves as the slaves they were; my inferiors were inspired: I was the hero of my own imagination—and theirs. My idiot chair was in tears, I swear.
In a year of travel I did no writing, but had faith that language would surely return. At least I’d been free of her. Or so I thought: there were times when I swore I saw her trailing me, in various disguises: carrying on her head a wet earthenware jar, or a bundle of sticks, or a Selectric typewriter. Once she was a leper in tatters, prostrate at the side of a busy intersection; another time a woman with bratty children boarding a train. I had vivid thoughts that she had somehow entered whatever country I happened to be in for cultural purposes and was at the moment the toast of some artistic circle, and her project was to trail me and write about my movements—a documentary of a sad, failed man bent on escape from a phantom of his own making.
And at the end of that year I realized that I’d never for one day not thought about her. In fact, I was more in love with her than ever, and our love had the possibility of being forever. Oh, I was elated at the prospect of regaining her. We would meet again in the K-Mart Café. I sent her a letter, suggesting same…
Returning to the campus I was greeted by my chair with a slap on the back and a sarcastic congratulations: it was certainly brilliant, it would make my name, but not in the way I wanted my name to be made, har-har! . What was he talking about? He steered me into his office, told me to sit, offered me a drink—“You’ll need it”—then proferred a magazine that I’d been regularly publishing in for years. He opened it and pointed to a story bearing my name:
“And all along I had thought she was my project.
“And who was I? In the beginning, a eunuch among eunuchs—an academic.”
It was quite brave, he crowed, especially the descriptions of my colleagues. But I hadn’t written it, I assured him. He laughed again, and I read on, in a state of disbelief. Yes, there was my inimitable voice, syntax, and rhythm, communicating the most intimate details of my time with her. Absolutely amazing— the stamina and discipline required of this doppelgänger author: my history, the events of the recent past…this very scene that both you and I are reading!
And now, as I come to this ending, as I read these final lines that you, reader, are also reading, my mind is reeling. How could this be? The only person who had access to this story was…her!
Sharon Mesmer’s latest collecton In Ordinary Time is just out from Hanging Loose Press. A native of Chicago and a resident of Brooklyn, she is the author of a previous fiction collection The Empty Quarter (Hanging Loose) a book of poetry Half Angel, Half Lunch (Hard Press) and Lonely Tylenol an art-poetry collaboration with David Humphery (Flying Horse Editions/University of Central Florida).