It is very easy and extremely dangerous to underestimate the hardness of ice. Ice fields consisting of thick broken floes, especially those that bear signs of erosion by the sea on their upper surface, should be avoided. Do not enter ice if a longer but ice-free route is available.
~ The Mariner's Handbook
I copied this down in the morning, a few hours before I was to meet with Curt. Not sure why it seemed so important at the time, except it had the feel of a coded message. Sometimes we find advice before we recognize a problem. Sometimes we want a problem.
It was just coffee. I'd brought my laptop to the café so I could help him out with some typing. I'd expected him to bring me a sheaf of lined paper covered with his handwriting and thought I might need his help deciphering some of it.
When I came home, I felt heavy, the way you feel when a germ first enters your body. I decided to lie down for a few minutes before starting dinner. I had barely the strength to kick off my shoes and pull up the covers. A chill settled over me. I’d paid for my own coffee, but A. had insisted on paying for my typing services--I was sure I'd feel better if I could just take a nap--Why did the money matter? My thoughts fell like loose change, disconnected and indistinct. I was tired and maybe a little queasy. My body ached.
The gray branches of the giant oak tree outside my bedroom window are outlined in white. White street, white sky, white rooftops. A particular kind of snow had fallen this morning—just briefly—the coldest snow of the finest texture. The slight accumulation dulls the edges of my neighborhood and the effect is soft and peaceful. A quiet erasure of details that nonetheless glitters like a clean blade.
I reach for the book on my bedside table, but my hand freezes halfway there; it looks like someone else’s hand. I rub the thumb against the fingers, the way I remember my grandmother doing when she came in from the garden, sifting the dirt from her fingertips. But my hand is empty.
What if reading has become a poison for me? I'm too eager to remove myself lately, to slip between the pages of a book, like slipping into suicide or love. I have begun to address myself the way I would a reader; we are on familiar terms but remain essentially mysterious to one another.
A glimpse of my parallel life: I'm drinking red wine with faceless friends on an old, arched terrace high in the Italian hills; it's late in the evening and there's laughter, smiling, conversation, a slight breeze carries the scent of hay. Constellations above; on the table among the glasses a hand-painted plate contains a wedge of cheese and ripe figs. A sense of ease. Someone, a man, pours more wine into my glass. I don't like the taste of red wine, but there it is.
I've been aware of parallel lives since I was a child. I first learned to sleep alone when I was seven; till then I'd slept with my grandmother. Since I was seven, I've told myself stories in order to be able to sleep. Always stories about love and passion. (Now, of course, I read myself to sleep.) I knew then, as a child, that passion is the most important quality, and passion is aroused when an obstacle is placed between lover and beloved. In this paradigm, pain and misunderstanding lead inexorably to the fulfillment of passionate love. It is essential that fulfillment be fleeting for the cycle of passion and pain to be perpetuated.
But these are my thoughts. Does that mean I'm in love with myself?
A few minutes ago, when I contemplated the prosthetic nature of my arm and my artificial heart, I tried to question what my ache might signify--the onset of flu, overexertion, sorrow?—but the whole human machine is malfunctioning. My interpretive function has gone offline and I experience feelings in their physical dimension only, without access to any emotional component. I feel unwell, unable to start dinner, unable to come up with a good excuse for lying in bed feeling stuck and frozen. Why am I so miserable?
There is an incurable personality disease I was reading about recently called alexithymia, which is defined as the inability to identify and describe one's emotions. As luck would have it, the disease can't be acquired—you have to be born with it—so my current condition must be merely one of repression.
It started immediately after seeing Curt. Our meeting was perfectly comfortable, there was no tension, nothing strained or terrible, except he insisted on paying me. That's when I started feeling sick. The bills had been folded inside his jacket pocket the whole time we were working and chatting.
It's not as if I desire him. I got there early not because I was anxious but because I wanted to buy my own cup of coffee without a fuss. I didn't want to owe him anything. I don't know why I didn't tell anyone where I was going; it's not like I was hiding anything. I didn't wear anything special. I wore a scarf; I never wear a scarf. I used an eyelash curler; I almost never think of my eyelashes. That means nothing.
When he came into the café, he asked me if the coffee was good. The Whole Earth café has a delicious variety of healthy food, but the coffee is terrible. I told him so, and then offered him my cup to sample. Maybe that was odd. He hesitated; that might have been odd, too. Our fingers touched for a fraction of a second too long. Was I slow letting go of the cup? Meaningless. He sat down, folding his long leg under the little table and our legs rested against one another. There was no room for him to move his leg, but I held my leg there longer than necessary before shifting away. Again, meaningless.
Remember, it was a relief not to find him desirable, a relief to have a normal conversation--about work and health, family, politics, exercise--a relief to attend to something outside of ourselves, the wording of a study guide, the typing of the words.
We kept changing tables because the sun was following us wherever we sat. The laptop, our jackets, the papers, our coffees, all of it had to be moved each time. A feeling of changing course and being hemmed in again. We had to sit quite close. I touched his arm when I had a question. His cotton shirt was an unflattering yellow-and-black plaid. I liked the feel of his arm. So what?
But his left ear had shriveled. The whole lobe had slackened, was shrunken and discolored, creased and thinned. Once noticed, it could not go unnoticed. I wondered if he had noticed? Or if any of the various women he slept with noticed.
I wondered, in the most neutral way possible, if anything else had shriveled, and decided No. Because male-pattern baldness is indicative of high testosterone levels and because he never has a shortage of women.
Then I noted that while my breasts may droop, my earlobes are still juicy.
I liked pretending we're friends, pretending we're collaborating on something, and I liked pretending we could mean something to each other if we wanted to. Pretending that there might be other contexts in which I could put my hand on his arm or graze his leg with my mine.
Maybe he was doing the same, and paid for my services. He pays sex workers all the time; maybe this was paying not to have sex. Love is not a businessman. Paying for a fantasy and simultaneously making it clear by paying that it is just that, only fantasy.
Or maybe he was just paying for my typing.
I read about a sex study by Meredith Chivers in which arousal in both sexes is measured by a device called a plethysmograph. Its sensors are connected to the genitalia and detect swelling in males and lubrication in females. Men and women were shown a variety of porn and asked to use a keypad to self-report arousal and the results were stunning. Men claimed to be aroused by almost everything (except copulating bonobos and men on men, if the subject was heterosexual, or men on women, if the subject was gay) and the science confirmed this. The plethysmograph demonstrated that all women, on the other hand, were turned on by everything--gay, straight, and bonobo--but were unable to recognize their own arousal the majority of the time.
But that's not what I really believe. What I really believe is that all those women hooked up to the plethysmographs recognized their own arousal but chose to answer dishonestly. Duh. People lie on polygraph tests all the time when they feel they have something to hide. Why should this be any different?
Plus, no one can persuade me that bonobos are sexy. I have a hunch that nobody finds bonobos sexy except other bonobos, but the juices were already flowing so the plethysmograph erroneously picked up the overflow.
Furthermore, the reason bonobos are not sexy is that they lack passion. Fucking in bonobo society is a soothing behavior, akin to grooming, and takes place indiscriminately and often incestuously. Chivers actually felt it necessary to spice up the soundtrack by overdubbing the silent bonobos with the sound of screeching monkeys.
My secret is so embarrassing. I've steered into just about every iceberg to avoid coming to this conclusion. I crave sex--real sex with a real person. A real—and therefore probably quite frustrating—person. I was married to a frustrating person and it was a disaster. A. was a disaster. I'm left with the question, Is love always a rusty nail where we hang our fantasies? When is it real? I won't feel real unless I know love is.