His earliest memory was a tower of colored blocks toppling over him, his arms arced above his head, crossed at the wrists.
He avoided the sight of his genitals, which struck him as impossibly hideous. He once espied his father’s, a dark cluster between tree-trunk thighs, and they repelled him differently. He found himself aroused at violent cartoons, from a flickering, withheld release: the monomaniacal cat eating the clever mouse alive.
At ten, with a scholar’s eye, he studied his gold-trimmed baby book, grazing washed-out photos and ballpoint anecdotes, disturbed that there existed a past so near yet out of reach. He read as though these pages contained a finished life. Halfway in, his mother’s handwriting ceased to fill the labeled blanks the scrapbook supplied, leaving him to author his own memories.
He listened to his father’s made-up stories, noting how eyebrows flexed in the telling. He watched his mother wrest his bike from a boy who had stolen it; the trees and lawns pulsed summer-green around them. Sundays both parents rose late and read newspapers in the dining room, their silence purely affectionate. While he intuited that they would never separate, he extracted a thrill from their infrequent discord, and listened to their late-night cadences for that rare and telling clash of tones. Otherwise they exuded an eerie bliss that no one, not even he in youth, mistook for ordinary.
His sister, lagging seven years behind, he viewed as an experiment not without its risk. He did not like to see her breastfed but somehow often witnessed it. On vacation at a mountain lake house, waking at first light, he watched a spider cross his bedroom ceiling, and amid the leafy shadows it resembled a hamburger with legs. In the car with his family that morning, he could not convey his horror at the thing’s precision, but his sibling whimpered in her toddler seat, threatening a wail.
He played with two wild sisters from across the street, one his age and one a grade older, their spring afternoons of clubhouse code becoming autumn nights spent on games of pursuit, wherein his affections were muddled by the sisters’ mirrorhood, brushes of skin, the chase itself, the unfair attractant of long hair tossed in porchlight. When he began to discern between them and favor the younger, his play became mechanical, inert, and when they dared him to kiss whichever girl he preferred, he shut his eyes and cursed his burning, chewed-on lips.
He found it tricky, when learning to notice the smell of girls, the soft near-glow where neck and shoulder met, to dissociate lust from his mother and sister. When his eyes first lingered on breasts with formless desire, in a sweltering, bouncing school bus, he flashed upon his infant sibling, held to their mother’s freckled chest. But the daydreaming girl beside him was dark, African, unlike his archetypal women except in femininity.
Puberty was six years of asynchronous growth, after which he was aggressively sought by girls who seized upon his sudden handsomeness, the way he struggled to pilot his over-limbed frame. His braces had come off; he traded glasses for contact lenses. He became attentive to and suspicious of his reflection, unconvinced this new face was his, and spent a year rebuffing girls whose degree of experience frightened him—whose forwardness bespoke a kind of damage. Even so his refusals carried a stain of the vindictive. He was punishing them for their long-standing pity, for how their faces had, just months before, crumpled in worry at his approach.
He did, however, submit to a suitress, a transfer student, exotically new. In her bare pink bedroom she sucked him off as he struggled to believe it. Afterward she stole into a bathroom to spit and brush her teeth. At that cue her mother soundlessly entered, scanning him in his underwear. She smiled and with no glint of reproach to her voice asked if he would like to stay for dinner. Years later he would overhear two businessmen at a bar slur women who refused to swallow semen, and he would register silent offense, thinking back to this family, their harmonized kindness.
He fell into a pleasingly fragile courtship with a fawning girl two years his junior, one who provided him with a physical coeducation and the means to a cheap drama, who satisfied evolving curiosities while reciprocating his discomfort with them. In the end, though, it was she who pressed for successive frontiers, he who dreaded their tangling in fogged-up cars, he who froze at signs of her pain, she who reached for a headboard that wasn’t there.
At seventeen, after three days of mumbling about the knifed sensation in his gut, he was admitted to the hospital for an emergency appendectomy. He was prepped in the pediatric wing, with its humiliating teddy-bear-patterned curtains, and when a male nurse rolled down the band of his underwear, his father’s eyes darted away. The nurse made a note of his circumcision.
At a remote college in a forested valley, he and his roommate liked to fall asleep to the drone of a Norwegian band. Absorbing the stereo’s furred vibration as the day’s adrenaline drained from his chest, he waited for what he was to recede. This shared oblivion arose too on evenings passed in the dorm of his next infatuation. He severed ties with his pining girlfriend by phone and concealed a slight amusement as she forbade him to hang up. The dissolution, in his narrative, only confirmed a widening gulf. She had engaged his guilt and found it shriveled, malformed.
He and this next woman fucked ideally. They held a common set of morals and aesthetics. But he could not accept that their bond was contingent on factors he did not control. He had done little to earn it, less to acknowledge it. Afraid of the refuge this codependency afforded, he pursued other casual unions, testing his love for hidden faults. He was alarmed that none surfaced, no matter his transgression, and appealed to a cold mirth when confronted for his impassivity, having arrived at this belief: sex was absurd and it could not break him. Indeed he was never proven wrong, somewhat to his dismay.
In his worship of females, and in his drive to perform on them, he perceived a reduction of the gender to mere puzzle that itself served as appalling fuel. He sensed himself nude and abuzz in a black-tiled shower with a woman who would not go beyond heavy petting (for reasons he did not care to explore), and before he could quell reptilian instinct, she had pushed him out, away, with a shock of laughter. They continued to kiss and stroke water from skin, overlooking this penetration with an easy, drunken grace.
A melancholy poisoned his freedom. He sought humility in drink, drug, poverty, and lust. He would fantasize about every woman he passed, see himself in congress with the stooped and pregnant and brazenly young, and sometimes he would try to unsee it. When a woman appraised him in return and smiled he recalled that he was visible. He wanted to see the city he had settled in, the castled detail of a cornice or the clean bright hop of a sparrow, yet there were women, forever busying around the fringes.
He wed his college love after a decade of boredom with other mates. It was a collaboration borne of steep reliance, dreadful honesties. They praised bleak comedy, were amateur cooks, turned cruelly on each other. Their couplings proved brief but severe, blurring into heatless warmth. On a night when she was ill in bed, he masturbated to a video of a woman stroking a disembodied cock as she spoke innocently by phone with a friend, and it was this inaudible, likely nonexistent friend—not the winking starlet—who stood in for his slumbering wife.
They worked in jobs adjacent to their true ambitions, lacking the skill only passion provokes. Sundays they rose late and tapped at laptops in the dining room, their silence purely affectionate. Following considerable difficulty and expense they were able to adopt two girls. It was his wife’s idea, as she had been adopted herself; the choice struck him as noble and, in any case, he loathed his genes, saw no need to recombine them. Their daughters lengthened in urban, polygonal shadow, pushing elevator buttons before they could walk.
In his thirties, on a nearly empty train, he encountered the girl (now woman) who had taken him to her pink bedroom. She smiled like he was a clueless boy, and he felt certain he still was. They spoke amiably if vaguely about the past two decades, met that weekend for drinks and even tried to copulate, but he could not maintain his desire. From a bedside drawer she produced what she believed to be a pill for erectile dysfunction, left there by her ex-husband; it turned out to be a painkiller. The night ended in mild bemusement, his prize recollection both spoiled and enhanced.
His wife committed suicide, which she had often joked about. Eight days after her thirty-eighth birthday, on Halloween, she sat in a dry bathtub and drank Prosecco with her Xanax. When he discovered her he noticed the bathroom window was open: this was the detail, the necessary breeze. She had loved him, surely, but had she loved what she’d sculpted, or falsely seen? Was he not what he’d been to her, now she was not here to name it? He nursed a suicidal impulse himself—razor on throat in the pitiless dawn—but as he confessed to a therapist, it was less about killing oneself, more about wanting to be dead. He ceased therapy after two sessions.
For years, all that he saw was haloed with misery. The industrial way his daughters ate pasta dinners, working to keep themselves alive. Slats of sun on sidewalk midday, when lone women smoked, walked briskly, frowned at cell phones; they were dressed in dark blues, in charcoal and black. He considered whether he dropped and broke plates more often than was average, a possibility his late wife had proposed. His sorrow was an abstract quality, hoping to perch on some earthly bough, and it was here that he and his wife diverged, for she had been flooded with terror, and his remained atmospheric, diffuse.
An emergent technology made his profession, if not obsolete, less profitable. He began to fear doctors, who overvividly saw decay, and bridges, which too elegantly addressed a want. He did not think of his mother and father, retired on a pebbly beach, as much as he assumed to be proper. He explained reproduction to his curious girls and found himself smirking at how the topic rolled in his mouth. His species was alleged to excel at order, but he was no taxonomist. He felt only annoyance as he floated, TV-lit, through his kitchen, pausing to toe a peeling square of linoleum, at the world’s attempt to perceive itself.
Death was untrammeled ecstasy, a rush of essence as he stood in line at the liquor store one rain-streaked afternoon, bottles surging in shiny columns, beads of water acrawl and glittering on the window. The register girl extended a blonde arm for the phone as she continued to gape at his seizure. Were he forced to—and the air did sing with a suggestion of that force—he might have defined himself as the emptiness remaining when one had accounted for the rest of things. Yet this supposed he, or the absence he signified, fit seamlessly into the Not-He, and such a design was illogical on its face.
Another routine misted into being, and the interstice was a minor patch of crispness preceding the frictionless and smooth. He had an airy apartment with a wide clean bed, where he slept soberly, as if paying a debt. The building was sheer glass. Through his floor, he could see those who lived below. Through his ceiling, those encased above. Each unit had a balcony and chair with a commanding view of the porcelain sky, of other towers, cells and occupants. Far below this altitude ran a grid of paved white footpaths.
The city was one of cunning proximities, partitioned but porous, dotted with plazas, fountains and evergreen copses that sheltered lush grass. He recognized no one, as each individual was a passing likeness of the next. It appeared the population was genderless, though that was empirically untrue; he himself was a man, was he not? And he recognized women, or imagined he did, when their eyes stumbled onto his. Was his wife near? Would she scan the crowds for some mark that he bore? Did he possess any element not also possessed by numberless adjacent souls?
A whisper of the old libidinous games touched him. He explored what amounted to everything’s edge, a maze of alleys that grew tighter and more oppressive until he burst upon a panorama of silky sand and clear, still water. Stationed along the curved shore were thousands of blue umbrellas, slanted against weak sun, and beneath one of these there stood a slight figure, spectral in the ocean’s glare. He drew closer, saw the androgynous ovoid face, the slender limbs, evidence of a careful erosion. When he was beside it the figure pointed down at the sand. Small footprints led out of the shade, weaving idly, and slipped into the sea.
Before, it had seemed to him that as experience accumulated, each bit had less space in which to endure, and that this cluttering of moments contradicted a finely wrought reality less perceptible each day. But now history, which he pictured in peaks and valleys, flattened into a senseless plane, devoid of color, that never yielded to any horizon. And all things that could be said to have happened were identical points on this unrippled surface, which might easily be pulled apart and reassembled into the moon.
Strolling the footpaths, he heard much theory. He cocked his head at the preacher type who stood alone incanting the tenets of intelligent design. He encountered neo-sophists gathered on benches to argue collective consciousness. He stalled, shifting his weight like a bird, and listened. Whatever notions he absorbed, he found himself rooted in the same gray uncertainty that had always been his soil. For surely their terrarium did little but coolly affirm an ignorance. This formulation was another effort at understanding, of course, and so he strove to annihilate it.
He took to his balcony to sit, and to think about blankness; to think about wisdom, the very human anticipation of answers, the emphasis on endings when no ending is found in nature; to think about French films, the use of Fin as diffident shrug: You and I, the image demurs beneath the word, we both know that this keeps going, but you may leave the theatre now.
He gazed at another glass tower. He saw (what he took for) a woman. She was rolling back and forth on her bed. She did it violently, possessed and hoping to centrifuge the phantom. A flock of laughter ghosted through him. He meant to find out what she was up to. But he never reached her room. His vector frayed in weightless threads, leaving him finally adrift. Causality was cousin to water; it bubbled into the gentle anarchy of steam.
He got as far as the grand mezzanine in his tower’s lobby, where he was overwhelmed by the clarity of vision, his wonder an incandescent confusion at the tranquil passage of minds below. Beyond glass doors lay a park that was wet with light, manicured toward green digital sharpness. Actually, it was more a garden than a park, an arrangement of plants courting admiration. He could never summon the right word anymore—when he found a reason to speak at all. His thoughts were becoming themselves, free of idiom. Perhaps, he supposed, he was turning into nothing, but couldn’t do it all at once, and language was first to go. The first thing he was meant to shed.