CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
|You Should Have the Body
Two things: You can’t see it coming when you don’t know whether you’re coming or going. You have to see some things many times before you see it, and sometimes not even then. I learned this, these truisms, the hard way, my day-to-day formerly spent sitting, glassy-eyed within a transparent projection-screen surround—“data-mining,” a misnomer, of course, because what I’d been extracting wasn’t data but the patterns emerging from what I’d rather foolishly called “information stockpiles,” my specialty being “interestingness metrics.”
Attentive, yes, in self-circumscribed ways, admittedly, but I wasn’t especially “observant,” and by “especially” I mean, not at all, not really, and by that I mean, celebration of holidays do not a devotee make, but tell that to the group of men who’d somehow managed to figure out the capital D direction, without any instrumentation, each of whom saw me as one of them but how could I be, unless the determining factors were being in the same place at the same time for the same reason, which is to say, here and now and for no good reason.
Someone must have used their inner global positioning system, and yes, I do like to reverse-abbreviate, admittedly an annoying tic, especially among my former colleagues who privileged concision and velocity above all else. Friendship wasn’t a consideration but I’d usually spend more than a third of my waking hours with them, “waking hours” another misnomer since I was more a functional somnambulist if anything. In any case, I couldn’t help thinking about them, wondering what they were doing. Did I ever come to mind? Did they even care about what had happened, what was happening, to me? Was Bill at his desk eating yet another microwaved oleaginous entrée, looking at a fuzzy photo of us taken at the annual gala, missing our juvenile repartee? Was Ted, our supervisor, who’d not-so-secretly loathed me, prowling the horizontals and verticals of the office’s climate-controlled maze, a fresh shine to his bald pate, a visibly happy bounce to his usually lumbering step? Were the remaining persons “of color”—Bev and Mike and Malik and Young—wondering if they were next?
I’d just started seeing someone, not a work colleague—the shit and sleep negation, etc., of course—and it had been going well, albeit after what could only be called a bizarre start. After a series of fortunate swipes, pulses and impulses engaging an electrostatic network of tiny wires, images disappearing, her photo appearing, right-swiped by me, our mutual appreciation was confirmed, which led to a short correspondence, quickly after which we met for drinks, her glasses of white wine clinking my mugs of craft beer. Though conversation flowed easily between us, I’d sensed some nervousness on her part, emanating from her, like a kind of affective nimbus, an emotional mist, you could say. After a few dates, however, it became clear Supreet wanted her body parts to touch my body parts as much as I wanted my body parts to touch her body parts and so our talk quickly moved to body talk, these public displays of infatuation growing increasingly intense, of the get-a-room varietal. We’d met many times, over the course of weeks, each time in public, she gently rejecting my offers to cook her a meal at my place; and her place wasn’t an option, because of the husband with whom she had an open relationship, that is, they’d had an ongoing shared relationship with a woman who’d since moved out of the picture, and by that I mean she’d moved to some other state, far enough to make any kind of substantive intimacy with them near impossible, the whole thing going from concrete to vaporous, you could say. Supreet and her husband had been very happy with this enframed triangulation and they were still “mourning” its end, and so they had both been “out there,” as Supreet put it, looking for another woman with whom they could partner.
It had been Supreet’s first time venturing out of their relationship; that is, it, her time with me, had been her first time out seeing a man outside of the context of her primary relationship. Antecedent to me, she dated a few women but had never gone as “far” with them as she had with me, Supreet never quite defining the exact distantial differential. I’ve never cared about looks, that is, the manikins many men spill their seed over never held the slightest interest for me. A rangy mind, singular style, engagingly eccentric tastes, etc., were what made me swoon, and Supreet had all these things, which is not to say she didn’t have a look, she did, her fusion of runway chic and off-the-mall-rack offsetting her gangly awkwardness. I’d attributed her nervousness—the subtle oscillation between closeness and remoteness—at that point to her dating inexperience, relatively speaking, and so I followed her lead.
A few months ago, she finally agreed to have dinner at my place, my place being a place only in its most rudimentary sense: floor and walls and ceiling and not much else, what a child would have drawn with crayons. Take away the doors and windows, most of the fixtures, all of the furniture, and you’d have there a working picture of where I was now.
I prepared a meal for us that night, Supreet calling the meal sumptuous, the wine and candles softening everything around us, the dark red itself a sensuous treat, its nose having hints of coffee and blue- and blackberry, a perfect match for the parmesan-mushroom risotto entrée, which had been prefaced by an arugula, cherry tomato, and Granny Smith salad, the meal and drink’s mouthfeel a perfect accompaniment to our conversation, which shifted, as it invariably did, from words to kissing and stroking, followed by a knitting together of limbs, a slow removal of clothing, a frictive probing of body parts, the various strata of names, of ideas, shifting between us, within us. At one point, she sat on me and I reached for her top, whereupon she said, “No,” and so I stopped, whereupon she sighed, saying, “I’m asymmetrical,” whereupon I laughed, saying, “We all are,” recalling when I’d taken a digital photo retouching class, where we were once told to cut one side of a photo of our face, copy the remaining side, reverse-flip it, and then paste it against the half already there, the resultant composite being a completely unrecognizable being, a terrible-looking extraterrestrial, humanoid, yes, but dreadful in its precise balance, like a poem where everything predictably rhymed.
Still hard to believe I missed my life on the outside. I would awake, grumpily, every morning at six, after having hit snooze on my machine multiple times. More accurate to say I rose from bed since I wasn’t actually awake until after downing my first cup of coffee. My hour-long commute invariably found me napping on the train if I happened to get a seat, or scrolling and tapping away on my machine if I didn’t. By eight forty-five, I was sitting at my desk, eating a muffin I’d just bought from a vendor outside the firm’s office building. By nine, I was logged in, assessing streams and streams of data, filtering, primarily, for novelty. Using various searching systems, I made them do what we needed them to do, all the while aware that I was also teaching them to do what we needed them to do, which would eventually make me “beside the point”—planned obsolescence sans information asymmetry. In any case, I loved those moments where intuition and serendipitous discovery determined what was “interesting.”
My day-to-day was different now; that is, it was the same as everybody else’s, everybody else being the two men who spent most of the day in this room with me, who shared the same exposed toilet bowl and sink, etc., each of us mirror images of the trios in the other rooms, each trio seeing every other trio once a day not quite alfresco in what they called the yard, which, instead of bringing some kind of comfort, served to further disorient me, the sunshine breaking up my day in odd ways. Perhaps I would get used to it, this ability or tendency of mine of easily getting used to anything arguably communicating less my resilience and flexibility than dull resignation. Going out of my mind didn’t seem like a better option.
They had taken away our machines, along with everything else: shirts, pants, belts, socks, boxers, briefs, shoes, sneakers, boots, jackets, sweaters, coats, keys, money, wallets, rings, necklaces, bracelets, earrings, nose rings, books, magazines, bags, backpacks, briefcases, cigarettes, lighters, gum, breath mints. They even took our hair, leaving each one of us beardless and bald, the beards apparently a priority in terms of removal. What had they done with all that hair?
The sight of all those naked men has stayed with me, the unseemliness of the spectacle, yes, but also its utter tragicomedy, all those plump paunches and flabby asses, each man’s flaccid dong dangling from him like a shriveled vegetable.
I am not what you would call a handsome man. I have a slit for lips and a little knoll of a chin, my eyes bulging from my amoeboid mass of a face. My hair—call it a mane, scraggly though it was—had engagingly framed my face, and my beard, which I’d also allowed to grow long, made my pudgy build seem almost lumberjack brawny. Completely shorn, now, I looked like a walking beanbag: saggy, sullen, and easy to push around.
It’s an odd cleansing you get after comically hopping around under a shower that schizophrenically shifts from scalding to freezing in microseconds, bringing sudden clarity about people and other ideas.
We’d tried again another night, virtually repeating ourselves move for move. “You don’t understand,” Supreet said, and I didn’t, whereupon she began to sob, after the subsiding of which she lowered the straps of her bra from her shoulder, unclasped it from behind, and let it fall on the bed, and what I saw frightened and excited me with an intensity I can only describe as overwhelming.
We are all collections of stories, like those so-called time capsules buried deep into the ground, or launched into outer space. Archival images nanoetched into silicon wafers? Did those things really exist, or were they stories themselves? My mind’s the only search engine I have now and sometimes it comes up short. There had been a man here. A troubled man. We were all troubled, it was just a matter of degree, so you might call him one of the troubled troubled. When I arrived he was not all there, or, more accurately, he was already gone. I’d watch him pacing and pacing in the yard, muttering to himself. Everyone steered clear of him and I followed what everyone else was doing but there was something about him, a kind of tentacular force, that dragged me toward him, and I couldn’t resist, finally finding myself standing up and walking toward him, his muttering—da-da-da-da-da-da-da—slowly becoming discernable, as words, as sentences, that is, as a single sentence: “All I want is out of here,” which he said over and over again, a kind of mantra, a kind of prayer. They found him one morning on the floor of his room, blood dripping from the wall where he had bashed his head in, his troubles finally over.
I know nothing about art, the gallery of images in my mind limited to whatever I’d picked up from pixelized fantasias: video games, animated movies, and the like. Supreet, an artist, whose work foregrounded paint’s versatility not only as a substance but as a language, had taught me so much about art, and while what I know is still so limited, it was as if she’d lifted an invisible eyelid, increasing my perception and comprehension of almost everything, “almost” being the key word here.
On occasion, we get news about the outside’s goings-on, something pieced together from something someone else had heard someone else say, that someone usually a guard who’d been overheard saying something to another guard. It was getting bad, that is, getting worse out there. That’s all we knew. We would have to wait for a new inmate, somebody who had recently been detained, for further details. Detained—were they still calling this that? As if this were some kind of layover. A minor inconvenience. A caesura. Goodbye, habeus corpus. Goodbye, body, period. Hello, hell on earth.
I hadn’t been paying attention. Lesson learned. And, as with many lasting lessons, it was learned the hard way. I hadn’t been alarmed at the report about the two men, brothers, who’d been forcibly deboarded from a flight because another passenger claimed she’d overheard him say the word for “martyr” when what she’d overheard was the word for “God willing.” The brothers had been in the middle of a trip to visit their father, who was dying in a hospital on the West Coast, I can’t remember the state. One of the brothers was in the National Guard. Thanks for your service. You have to laugh. I hadn’t even heard about the incident until a number of similar incidents came to light. I hadn’t been alarmed when such incidents happened with greater frequency. Animosity was growing all around the country but the violence seemed to still be so far away. I’d heard about the hijab-wearing women who’d had insults hurled at them, who’d had their hijabs torn off by a bunch of assholes. I couldn’t piece it together, see the patterns emerging from the data, and I’m still not quite sure why, but it probably had something to do with what I wanted to see, that what I wanted to see was a world that wasn’t actually there. Then the camps happened and then the suicide bombers happened and then the drone strikes happened and then everything exploded, no pun intended, but what did I intend? “It never happens here”—I used to think it, I used to say it, too. It never happens here until it happens here.
You hear people say it, “I feel awful,” or “That was awful,” and it doesn’t really mean much, but it used to mean something, mean something else, a dread filled with wonder, about something you could hardly stand or bear, the feeling you get rubbernecking roadside wrecks, the feeling you hope to get after traveling miles and miles to see wastelands of forgotten gods and monsters. And that’s what I had felt that night, “awful,” after Supreet removed her bra, revealing a single breast, a pendulous gourd, the right one missing, a scar running across her chest like a pink millipede, presence and absence in tensile relation. “Nobody cares,” she said, relieved, I think, at what she regarded as my lack of shock, my face beaming what could only be described sensu stricto as awe. She wept as I reached toward her, my hands cupping her cheeks, each hand flowing down her neck, past her clavicle, my fingers inching down, my right hand fondling her breast, my left hand palping her scar tissue. I’d never seen anything like it, but it still felt familiar, paradoxically enough—the mark of a survivor, but what did I know of survival? I’d been an office drone, doing what needed to be done, obedient, docile, no questions asked. My childhood, while not especially golden, had been without pain, without any major catastrophe, and my adulthood was unexciting, mediocre, actually. So what was it about Supreet that seemed so familiar to me? In any case, what I had known was that her mind and her body were perfect, missing nothing, she and me a residuum of sensations, a mess of flesh, the room a penumbral zone, where anything seemed possible.
The food was bad. That was to be expected. Usually akin to whatever we’d been forced to eat when we attended public schools in the city. Sometimes worse. Weird to be using sporks again. The guards even stopped some of us from playing that game where you bend your spork’s handle backward, snapping it against the head of your opponent’s spork in order to knock off its tines.
They, the other men, they called our trio the Three Stooges. We even had a Mo—that was me. Our nickname came about because of the game Ibrahim had invented one night to alleviate the boredom, the onset of which seemed frighteningly inevitable. We weren’t allowed any reading material, and like I said before, we’d been stripped of everything else. So we would tell each other stories to “pass the time,” play word games, tell jokes, most of our respective repertoires quickly exhausted. “Power trios,” Ibrahim had said, enough to set off the game. “The Jimi Hendrix Experience,” I said. And then all the obvious names came out: The Band of Gypsys. Cream. James Gang. Rush. Nirvana. King’s X. Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. Beck, Bogart, Appice. Oscar Peterson Trio. Bill Evans Trio. We played it all the time: stating the trio whenever it came to mind. “The primary colors,” Shahid said one day while we were eating, his face lighting up as it dawned on him, something about his delight both saddening and gladdening me.
Lights out, lying in my cot, I would think of him, the man who’d brained himself, his sentence, the rhythm of it, coming to mind, hammering, insistently, keeping me up. Da-da-da-da-da-da-da. Da-da-da-da-da-da-da. Da-da-da-da-da-da-da. Da-da-da-da-da-da-da. I imagined him, sitting against the bare wall, mouthing the words, then chanting them, and then I was there, sitting against the wall, saying the sentence, my head eventually keeping time: “All I want is out of here … All I want is out of here … All I want is out of here … All (whap) want (whap) out (whap) here (whap) … All (whap) want (whap) out (whap) here (whap) … All (WHAP) want (WHAP) out (WHAP) here (WHAP) … All (WHAP) want (WHAP) out (WHAP) here (WHAP) … ALL (WHAP) WANT (WHAP) OUT (WHAP) HERE (WHAP). ALL (WHAP) WANT (WHAP) OUT (WHAP) HERE (WHAP) … ALL (WHAP) WANT (WHAP) OUT (WHAP) HERE (WHAP).” And then everything would go dark.
It was strange to think of where we were as the inside, and the outside as the outside, since we were, each one of us, outsiders. But even inside inside there were more insides, each one of us having some inside within which we could escape, my own inside I was trying to expand as wide as I could, and by that I mean I tried to turn that amorphous place each of us disappeared within when there was nothing else to absorb our attention, which was most of the time, turn it into a kind of labyrinth, but a multilevel labyrinth, where corridors led to rooms and stairs, this construction resembling the imaginal palaces of old but instead of placing things I wanted to remember inside of them I created entirely new things, new memories, if you could call them that. This helped to “pass the time” because it was boredom I feared most, boredom being the gateway to hopelessness, I thought. But what do I mean by “pass the time,” solidifying time, so to say, changing it into something, from event to object, something volumetric, tactile, measurable, and finally comprehensible, a thing I could move beyond.
We never saw each other again, though. She must have thought I’d run away, horrified by her body. But maybe she suspected something else had happened. Maybe she was out there looking for me. Maybe these were stories I was telling myself.
We often talked for hours, until we emptied ourselves out. “I hate the city,” Shahid said, one night, and we knew he was only just saying that, each of us at this point making shit up. “You know what I hate most?” Shahid said. “That moment when the train emerges from underground and everybody grabs their machine and checks for the text or e-mail or voicemail that isn’t there.” Shahid was all angles, his boxy forehead, cheeks, and chin jutting out as far as his chiseled nose, his eyes blazing from their scalloped pits. “I hate the vocal fry,” Ibrahim said. “And all those people who say ‘I was like’ instead of ‘I said,’” I said, creaky voiced. “I hate sunny days,” Ibrahim said. “Who needs all that light and brightness?” Ibrahim was lying down, his face even in profile a kind of topographical study, its features subtly shifting with every denial, every lie. “Fresh air, I hate it,” Shahid said. “But the smell of unwashed men under duress? Wouldn’t trade it for anything.” Shahid had been a stockbroker. You have to laugh. “You know what I love most?” I said. “Nature albums.” They both looked at me questioningly. “You know, birds chirping, waterfalls, and whatnot. Drives women wild.” “Women want to get wet,” Ibrahim said. “Which is why I play hard to get.” He let that hang in the air before Shahid and I got it. Keep any number of men in a room long enough and conversation will at some point veer toward the stupidly priapic. “I grew up in a southern border state,” Shahid said. “Taxidermied animal heads displayed on walls everywhere you go. Even church.” Shahid had lived in East Coast cities his entire life. “I only eat what I kill myself,” Ibrahim said, a lifelong vegetarian, until now, of course. “What do you call a vegetarian in prison?” I asked. “Dead,” I said, which made Ibrahim laugh until he cried. “I once caught my father using skin lightener,” Ibrahim said, squeegeeing the tears from his eyes with his palm. “That’s right,” he said. “I’m a son of a bleach.”
By the time they brought the new man in I was feeling like the dog who’d lived next door to my family’s house so many years ago. Border collies are smart, yes, but what their city-dwelling owners often don’t realize is that they’re workaholics who are utterly miserable when they have nothing to do. This dog would sit for hours in the backyard, his eyes jumping toward whatever moved. You could see it thinking, calculating, sorting, and it would often bark at whatever unfamiliar thing entered its field of vision. Its boredom was palpable.
They put the new man in the room where the troubled troubled man had suicided himself. When he finally came out into the yard we asked him the same questions we’d all been asked. Like us, he hadn’t done anything. Like us, he was guilty by some crazed idea of association. Like us, he was bald. Like us, he wore an orange jumpsuit. He was angry, like we had been. He was hopeful, like we had been. As for news, he related the story of a charismatic figure who’d risen up and united many of the country’s militias, united them against common threats, perceived and otherwise. There were thousands of them now, would-be soldiers, camouflaged, assault-rifle-wielding men who spoke of “end times” and “the antichrist” and “the rapture.”
How do you describe months going by without much of anything happening? Well, that’s one way. Another is to describe what followed, the contrast of it erasing the nothingness preceding it.
I like the ocean, swimming in it, and while I wouldn’t say I’m a fish, when I’m in the ocean I’m more than just a body of water swimming in a body of water—I can do more than just stay afloat or whatever. That said, I’m not one of those would-be Olympians, those daring or arguably foolish people who swim out farther than they should, who force lifeguards out of their seeming lethargy, whistles screeching, arms waving them back in. I’d never been caught in one of those riptides people talk about, either, the force of it thrusting them farther out into the blue expanse, past the point where even those annoying swimmers swam.
They tried to draw connections that weren’t there. I didn’t know anything. I explained this to them many times. I had nothing for them. I just wanted to go back home, go back to work. It wasn’t much of a life but at least it was my own and I could do what I want. They brought in things I’d worked on, various cullings of data I’d produced during my short period at the firm. I don’t forget much, and I certainly don’t forget anything I’ve worked on. It’s like the numbers and images stain my brain and I can’t erase any of it, so I was able to easily explain the things they shoved at me.
Terrifying stories often begin harmlessly, a single phrase disarming you, strong-arming you, into belief, toward somewhere, elsewhere—harm’s way. To wit: One day, they brought me to a room. The only thing inside the room was what looked like a weightlifter’s bench. The bench was surrounded by buckets. They ordered me to remove my clothes. I removed my clothes. They ordered me to lay my back against said bench, keeping my feet together and my hands at my sides. I laid my back against said bench, keeping my feet together and my hands at my sides, whereupon they collared my neck, fastened a belt around my stomach, which fixed my hands tight, and they fastened another belt around my ankles. The bench was inclined, so my head rested on a plane lower than my chest. They turned off the light and I sat there for a few minutes, the room’s ambient noise slowly sounding itself. Something hummed in the room and I couldn’t determine what it was. I could hear myself breathe. I could feel the presence of at least two other people. Seconds later, I heard the distinct squeak of plastic cling film being torn against a sawtooth cutter, the kind of plastic stretched over bowls and whatnot to create a tight seal. They wrapped said plastic over my entire face and around my head a couple of times. I couldn’t breathe. After what felt like forever, they poked a small hole for my mouth. Gasping, I sucked in the air, feeling my throat burn from the force of it. A moment later, they poured water over my face, into my mouth, and I couldn’t spit it out, and it felt like what I think it feels like to be caught in a riptide, and then everything went dark.
Once I was awake again they did it again. The water filled the hole. And as much as I tried to build up enough pressure in my lungs, I couldn’t expel the water, and so it poured into my sinuses, down my throat, and since my nose was covered I began to draw it up into my respiratory tract. I was drowning. There was nothing I could do but take it. And everything went dark again.
Third time lucky. That’s how my parents would say it. You have to laugh. Hurt me and I forget. Hurt me and I misremember. Hurt me and I overlook. All I remember was the dark.
What does it mean to be kept in the dark? Is “dark” to be understood as a “singular substantivized adjective to specify an abstract idea” or simply as a natural phenomenon or both? Where is the point where things are beside? In what kind of container does one collect his or her thoughts? How to describe a near drowning. One that takes place not while swimming, where you aren’t in any body of water per se, where only your head is involved, where your mind, actually, is plunged into dark, turbulent depths. You have to laugh. Getting mail from your alma mater asking for contributions to some capital campaign or other when you’re drowning in debt. Drowning in debt. You have to laugh. After they unfastened the belts and clasps and whatnot, they lifted me off the bench, stood me up, and I felt my knees give out. I asked what time it was. “Night,” one of them said, but I knew better. Propping me up, they walked me back to my room. Entering my labyrinth, I saw huge walls to each side of me, running seemingly endlessly to my left and right and above me. The walls were covered in paintings, in the manner of what Supreet had called “salon-style,” a floor-to-ceiling installation, which some might say hierarchized viewing, but for me the images aggregated to form a giant work, a giant thing, each image a kind of portal, an eye, the mise-en-scène cohering into a many-eyed monster. Behold, Argus Panoptes! How did the song go? Ibrahim and Shahid were in our room, of course. I felt their eyes on me, heard their words, which I couldn’t make out, the tone consolatory all the same. All I wanted to do was sleep.
Night? No. They’d robbed us of night’s immensity, and left us with perpetual day. And as we all know, day breaks.
John Madera’s fiction and criticism has appeared in many print and online venues, including Conjunctions. He edits Big Other and lives in New York City.