Tuesday, June 02, 2009

And Then There Was One: A Semi-Erotic Anti-Hagiography

Figure 1. Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur


[yet another story written expressly for In The Middle]

for Anna Klosowska, and also for my brother whose heart, if I were able, I would help him to unbind

Is it possible that we know nothing about young girls, who are nevertheless living? Is it possible that we say ‘women,’ ‘children,’ ‘boys,’ not suspecting . . . that these words have long since had no plural, but only countless singulars?
—Ranier Maria Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge

They were two. Everywhere they went, they subtracted things from people who couldn’t put two and two together. For example, at dinner parties, when no one is looking, they will take all of the raspberries out of the fruit salad and eat them one by one while standing side by side in the dining room when everyone else is still outside drinking beers and telling the children to stop hitting each other. Since most people can’t put two and two together, nor can they ever relax and enjoy themselves with all the children running around, they can never understand where the raspberries went or maybe don’t even remember them being in the bowl to begin with. Other times, these two will take someone’s boyfriend, or girlfriend, and no one ever knows what happened.

They were twin sisters and had perfected the art of multiple sleights of hands and lips—while one would entertain the unsuspecting victim with stories of raspberry embezzlement, the other would slip out a back window with the boyfriend, or girlfriend, and not being able to put two and two, or one twin and the other, together, the woman, or man, or sometimes a duchess, would look all over the house, or castle, and never figure it out. Wasn’t she interesting? the duchess would say to herself, shutting the castle door behind her, the one who steals raspberries? And then: has anyone seen my boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife, mistress, fiancée, daughter, maid, horse, dog, the brass andirons inherited from Uncle Harold? And what about the silver?

* * * * *

Then there is the heroine of our story, distant cousin to the twins, who were two, and we really regret to tell you that she really could not put two and two together at all. As our story opens, she is sitting by the side of the road waiting for someone to come by and help her put two and two together, but being the type that can’t put two and two together, she has completely neglected to notice that she is sitting by the side of the road—Highway 64, to be exact—that has been shut down for almost six months for bridge construction. So here is our heroine, who in a former life had been the Roman emperor Titus’s daughter Lavinia who, believe us, could really put two and two together (Tamora + Chiron and Demetrius = trouble in the woods), but she had neither the tongue nor the hands to make it clear or palpable, whereas our heroine, she had tongue and hands but could not make sums or compilations or glosses with them, of herself or of any combination thereof.

Although it goes without saying how beautiful she was, there were days when she couldn’t tell her ass from a teakettle, even when she was falling over one (a teakettle). Likewise, trips to the grocery store were fraught with peril because, not being able to put two and two together, she did not understand the differences in weights and measures and could not see why, for example, a .85 oz. tube of toothpaste wasn’t the same as or at least comparable to a 6 oz. tube, and always opting for what was cheapest (because, at the very least, she did understand that there was never enough money), she never could figure out why there was never enough toothpaste in the tube when she needed it each night after dinner. Extrapolate this anecdote to containers of milk and ice cream, and even to gallons of gasoline, and you can understand why she was stranded on the side of the road. But because we do not feel we should burden our readers with the dilemma of moving our heroine along, we will leave her here for a little while and return to this spot when the sumac along the highway has turned a blazing red and, miracle of miracles, our heroine is on her way, rolling with the tumbleweeds into the city where all of this takes place because, in addition to not being able to put two and two together, she also does not have the wherewithal to withstand the force of rolling tumbleweeds.

* * * * *

Our heroine has a sad brother who can only ever see, and feel, half of everything. He had a weakness for logic and thought everything should move along the lines of so-called common sense and that was a set-up for personal disaster if ever there was one. Time and again he would insist on rationality, and lo and behold, other people would never oblige him, being married, as they tragically were, to their fickle emotions. As a result, nothing made sense to him, not even the weather, and in order to cope he started to squint so that he could only ever see half of everything—that way, he could pretend that, if the other half were visible, everything would make sense and he was just choosing to forgo a foregone conclusion in order to save his sight from its dazzling radiance. He also looked down at the ground a lot while he was walking, as that saved him the occasional trouble of squinting too much.

As a child, the brother had made the mistake of believing in someone who, strictly speaking, wasn’t real: Henry, the trusty servant to the Frog Prince in the story by the Brothers Grimm. You see, everyone remembers the Frog Prince and the little girl (the insipid little girl, as the brother always remembered her) who angrily throws the frog against a wall (or reluctantly kisses him in the less violent, and therefore not as exciting version), thereby turning the frog into the handsome prince who marries her and makes her a princess. But what most people forget, but the brother never forgot, is Henry, the faithful servant who comes in a carriage to retrieve the prince and his child bride at the end of the story, and who, while the prince was in his state of amphibious bewitchment, had bound three iron bands around his heart so that it would not burst from grief and sorrow. While driving the prince and his betrothed home to the castle, each of the three bands cracked and broke, one by one, as Henry’s heart swelled with joy. The brother had spent his whole life looking for Henry, and although it may be obvious to say so, the brother was eternally bereft of him and there is no remedy for that in this world. Everywhere he went, there was a constant strain of Bach’s Suite for Solo Cello No. 3 in C Major echoing in the chambers of his shackled heart.

* * * * *

And then there was the anchorite, who was one. The lost sister to our heroine and her sad brother, she lived in a walled-in enclosure on the east side of a mansion owned by a couple who felt they simply had to have everything. At that time, it was simply de rigueur to have an anchorite and all of the fashionable houses had one. It was not uncommon, when waiting in the foyer of one of those estates in the best neighborhoods, to see a sign that said, “please don’t spoil the anchorite.” But of course you had to spoil the anchorite, anyway. You would bring her almonds, maybe some cognac, and an issue or two of Vogue, if you could get away with it. Anchorites were a bit more exciting at the time of our story than they were in the Middle Ages. Instead of just sitting and praying and contemplating the beyond and imagining what it would be like to be married to Christ and to kiss his wounds—technically speaking, an hallucination, which had never been much to look at through the narrow window (hence, medieval anchorites were never the spectator sport they could have been), these more modern anchorites would set interesting little tasks of endurance for themselves. With just a small bit of petrol and a Bic lighter for instance, an anchorite might draw a circle of fire around herself and will herself to sit very still as the flames danced around her, or she might kneel, with bare legs, for hours and hours, on a scattering of Aegean sea salt. Or, she might engage in staring contests with visitors. You could never win a staring contest with an anchorite, even with Aegean sea salt under her bare knees, although many tried.

Now the anchorite of our story, Lisa of Cincinnati, lost sister to our heroine and her sad brother, and therefore also a distant cousin to the twins who were expert at subtraction, was especially fond of playing dead. No one could play dead better than Lisa of Cincinnati, and no matter how many visitors peered through the narrow window of her reclusorium and rattled things around, like their bags of Skittles or coffee tins filled with pennies, nothing could disrupt the look on her face and body of beatific deadness. As you may already know, being the educated type of person who can put two and two together, an anchorite’s cell was designed for lifetime enclosure, and the anchorite was literally walled in to the foundation of a church, rectory, or house, with only a small opening cut into one wall through which food, water, and small books could be passed in, and leavings and waste products could be passed out. Ideally, there was no window to the outside as that would ruin the feeling of having been sealed inside one’s own mausoleum. The anchorite was dead to the world, as it were, but to herself—oh, to herself, and to God, she was more alive than you could possibly imagine.

As we were saying, Lisa of Cincinnati excelled at playing dead and spent endless hours in this game of self-mortification. Lying prostrate upon the stone floor, which was also her bed, Lisa of Cincinnati had trained herself to be so still that you could not even tell if she was breathing, and those visitors who brought small battery-powered fans and pointed them toward her through the opening cut out in the wall, hoping to make her shiver, never succeeded in accomplishing anything except rustling the pages of the Vogue magazines that lay here and there on the floor in between the tins of almonds and empty bottles of cognac. And as Lisa’s body lay on the floor, dead to the world and to curious tourists, her soul, which was also her body, made such passionate and violent love to God (who, in her mind, bore an uncanny resemblance to Uma Thurman) that the walls of her enclosure were shattered into a thousand flying shards of concrete that flew across Cincinnati and pierced unsuspecting citizens in their hearts, out of the wounds of which their lost child selves tumbled out and ran down the streets, shrieking with wild elation at their sudden freedom from the cages of the adults they had sadly become. And this is why, even today, and even though this was only the anchorite’s hallucination, the parks of Cincinnati are filled with wild children speckled with bits and pieces of concrete who live in the treetops and whose laughter can be heard rippling through the grass and the small green petals of the violets on late summer nights.

* * * * *

The authors are beginning to wonder where this story is going. We honestly don’t know, but what we can tell you is that this story concerns a certain moment late one humid August night when all of the characters in our story came together in the same place. By “came together,” we mean they all ended up in the same city on the same night—even more so, they practically brushed up against each other at the intersection of a particular longitude and latitude—but by “came together,” we also mean that, in different ways and in different beds, and not really in beds, but on the stone floor of a reclusorium, down a windswept street, and under a proscenium arch separating a living room from a foyer, they arrived together in the ex-stasis of arriving, by which we mean, a general coming together.

The brother was a glass-hanger, or as it was said, he worked in curtain wall construction. Curtain walls were the façades—glass, aluminum, steel, and stone—that were hung on the outside of buildings, usually skyscrapers, and the brother had worked as a hanger on many projects, including the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, which were built on 120-meter foundations. As soon as a building’s structure was erected, the brother would show up to hang the façade, thereby turning the hulking mass of steel and concrete into something that glittered like a palace, or a spaceship, or the future. At the time of our story, he had recently arrived in Cincinnati to hang a façade of pink quartz crystal on Lisa of Cincinnati’s enclosure, for the couple who owned her, although they understood that Lisa needed to live in a state of complete and bare and stony deprivation, they did not understand why her enclosure should not be pretty to look at from the outside. Unbeknownst to the brother, his distant cousins the twins had also recently been summoned by the same couple to install new security technology for their moat, as wayward and drunken teenagers had been sneaking in at night to taunt the anchorite. The twins were experts at home security systems and had their own company and they felt you could never be too safe from those who were always trying to subtract things from you. There are no better security experts than those who are themselves talented thieves. Their plan was to install crocodiles in the moat, and they had brought several of them from the Everglades in their black Cadillac Escalade specially fitted with tinted windows, wet bar, and amphibious wading pool.

You will wonder how it could be that, at a certain point on a humid August night, the twins, who were two, the heroine, who could not put two and two together, the brother, who could only see half of everything, and the anchorite, who was one, could all be together in the same vicinity—even pass each other in the hallway, as happened with the brother and the twins, or one look upon the other, as the brother did with the anchorite, or roll by the open windows in full sight of the twins, as our heroine did—and not recognize each other. It is a depressing but true commentary on our times that siblings and cousins grow up and lead separate lives and, little by little, no longer resemble themselves. Promises are made to keep a better correspondence and then the years go by with no messages, or only a pre-printed card bought in a store with harsh fluorescent lighting that says, “Happy Birthday,” signed Your Brother, but it could be anyone’s birthday and anyone’s brother. Eventually, there is not even that and the years roll by like so many unclaimed shirts and dresses at the drycleaners that were once beloved.

Once, they had all been children together and instead of his bald spot, the brother had possessed long curls of golden hair that their mother refused to cut because they were so beautiful, even though their father always said, with some irritation, he looks like a girl. Every summer, the brother and his two sisters, and their twin cousins who had grown up with them after their parents drowned in a boating accident, would be sent to Dublin to live with their two spinster aunts while their parents would travel to Turkey and Greece to pretend they were lovers again, unburdened by children. Times were different then and no one begrudged the parents their happiness in the sun-blanched whiteness of the grottoes, caves, and hills of an ancient Mediterranean world. Because the aunts were so permissive and kind and thought children should lead unencumbered lives, they would send the brother and his two sisters and the twin cousins out into the city each day to have “adventures,” with the instructions to only come home at 6:00 for supper, and again, after supper, when the sun was setting, which in that part of the world was never until 10:00 or so.

The world of children is a secret one and we are reluctant to peer too closely into those past summers and to violate them. Suffice to say that the brother, two sisters, and twin cousins explored every nook and cranny and shop and alley and park of the city and they ventured out into the country as well, looking for shallow sun-drenched pools of water in the rocks above the sea, where they would swim for hours, and for orchards whose apples they could steal and eat until they were doubled over with pain. Suffice to say that they often traveled for miles and miles, concocted secret rituals and games together, and loved, especially, to sneak into empty houses when no one was at home, rummaging through cupboards and under beds, and trying on other people’s clothes. Suffice to say that they loved to climb hills and to make forts in the underbrush of forests and outposts in the tops of black pines, but that they were always too timid to go into the cold, black waters of the north Atlantic Sea. Suffice to say, they befriended many stray dogs and were expert shoplifters of candy, especially Smarties and Crunchie bars, and they often had a difficult time explaining to their aunts why they weren’t hungry at suppertime. Suffice to say, their service to and friendship with each other was a type of holiness and all their worship. Suffice to say, this chapter is now closed.

* * * * *

But what of that humid night in August and everyone coming together, arriving, as it were, at the same place, while also arriving, together? It all happened, or began to happen, when the brother, who typically only saw half of everything, was applying the last pink quartz tile to the frame of the narrow opening into the anchorite’s cell and, so concentrated upon his work that he forgot to squint, he looked through the opening of the enclosure and saw, with all of his eyes, Lisa playing dead, and he was suddenly seized with the desire to lie down beside her and also play dead. Having spent so many years winnowing and saddening and squinting himself, it was no problem to get through the opening, which he did handily. And lying on the stone floor next to the anchorite, who was one, but now was two (or was it three?), he stretched out his body so that he was on his side, facing but not touching her, and closing his eyes he saw Henry driving the carriage toward him, and one by one, the bands around his heart began to break at just the same moment that Lisa was ravished by God’s fire, the concrete splinters of her enclosure hurtling through the dark night of Cincinnati.

Although the time cannot be set precisely, and it may have been a matter of physics more so than of chronology, at about the same time, or place, the twins, having just installed the crocodiles in the moat, had been arguing in the foyer, while the couple waited for them in the living room, over whether or not, after serving the bill and distracting one or the other with their calculations, they should subtract the husband from the wife or the wife from the husband. Although they could never explain it later, to either their friends or themselves, they were both suddenly seized with a compulsion to add instead of to subtract and there, under the proscenium arch dividing the foyer from the living room, without even worrying about the bill, they added the husband and wife to themselves, and in the midst of this delicious operation, or sum, the twins, who were now four, saw through the open window of the living room the heroine of our story, rolling in cartwheels down the street with the tumbleweeds of summer. But what they could not see, or know, was that at the moment they saw our heroine, who was also their cousin, roll by, was that their cousin was just then seized by what can only be called a tumbleweed jouissance—this is the feeling you get, or rather, a kind of explosion that occurs, after you have been blown, with and like the tumbleweeds, through the prairies and towns and cities of the Midwest, until suddenly God appears beside you and, reaching into your body, pulls you out of yourself, and yet, there you still go, rolling along your way.

This is the moment at which the heroine ascended above herself and above the tumbleweeds and above the street and above all of the houses and the entire city of Cincinnati and, like an angel, looked down through the clouds and a small window into the one apartment, on the tenth floor of a nondescript and sad brown building at the end of a dead-end street, where her brother, not a glass- or pink quartz-hanger at all, but a tax accountant, lay sleeping, dreaming all of this into existence, because none of it really happened at all, except for the childhood. That chapter is closed, as we said, but it was real and alive in the foreign country of the past, and his sister was in the heavens above him, blessing him with her tumbleweed jouissance. And that is why she is the heroine of this story, because even though she can’t put two and two together, she is always watching over the brother like that.

* * * * *

And to Henry, wherever you are, faithful servant and carriage-driver to the Frog Prince, consider our tale, if you will, as an emergency flare that has been fired into the stars from the sad brother’s heart. Do you see it burning there among the constellations, where it will burst and then scatter, like red stardust, raining back down upon those of us who are only trying to live our lives, walking with our heads bowed down along the grey avenues of all the busy cities? This is our signal to you, Henry, a momentary cry for help, and for assistance. We have only the one flare, and we have decided to stop being prudent with it. Henry, we appeal to your loyalty and to your steadfastness and even to your once-begotten sorrow. If by chance you receive this our flare, this our letter to you, come unto the brother of our story with your carriage and your horses, by which we mean, Henry, come unto us, and take us away from here, for the brother—by which we mean, we—we have great need of an hallucination such as you. In other words, Henry, we have need of love. We have need, also, of your limbs and your arms and your lips. So make yourself palpable among us, like God, who, when the anchorite, who was one, came alone, but was not really alone, God licked the edges of her heart with his tongues of fire.


Anonymous said...

Reminds me of von Kleist's half-sister Ulrike.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Wow. The story is awash with fragments of so many stories and yet is uniquely you, Eileen.

Can you say something about what brought you to compose it?

Eileen Joy said...

Jeffrey: there were quite a few impulses behind this story, some humorous and some a bit more serious, and some very private, and which have need of fictionalization, if that makes sense, so that they can retain their secrecy, otherwise I might violate someone or some memory that was intimate--it's a funny thing, but when I was in the MFA program and surrounded a lot of the time by other writers, but also painters, sculptors, filmmakers, and the like, most everyone seemed extremely content to make their private lives--especially their *family*: mothers, fathers, but also lovers, girlfriends, boyfriends, etc.--a part of their art, and often in brutalizing ways that left a lot of dead bodies lying around. It was not uncommon when certain things would get published, and in very visible and/or popular forums, for a friend/writer colleague of mine to say, "well, my mother isn't speaking to me anymore, but it was worth it because, you know, all for art," or something like that. I'm always reminded of Neil Labute's character Evelyn in his play "The Shape of Things," who claims, often, throughout the play, that any artist who isn't willing to use others, in whatever fashion, and no matter what the personal "human" cost, in their art, are just moral cowards. At one point, defending her Master's thesis, which is the "sculpting" of an actual person [Adam, a fellow student, whom she has kind of duped into being her "sculpture"--and yes, Eve+Adam, etc.], Evelyn says,

"As for me, I have no regrets, no feelings of remorse for my actions, the manufactured emotions-- none of it. I have always stood by the single and simple conceit...that I am an artist, only that. There is...only art."

When I was getting my MFA, I was always sort of getting in trouble with my teachers/mentors because I only wanted to make things up and would never base anything on my real life which really perturbed some of them who felt you could *only* write fiction based on your own [or others'] so-called "real life" experiences. One professor told me to stop making up places that didn't really exist. Another professor told me to stop trying to be Kafka because only Kafka could be Kafka. Funny. It was good advice, actually [given by Richard Ellman, a novelist who had the misfortune to be confused with the biographer of James Joyce and Oscar Wilde his whole life, and who tragically died of lung cancer in the mid-1990s], so I stopped trying to be Kafka but I still wouldn't write about anything that "actually happened."

Now, this is a [typically E. Joy] long preamble to answering your question which I cannot fully answer, except [haha--here we go] I will, of course, try:

1. the story began simply with the idea of a woman who could not put two and two together, based on Anna K., who helped me concoct this joke when I was visiting her recently in Cincinnati, and while at a party that did, indeed, involve the theft of raspberries, we concocted the characters of "two" who would subtract things from people who can't put two and two together;

Eileen Joy said...

And continuing:

2. while in Cincinnati, Anna K. drove me through some of the ritzier neighborhoods and showed me one house in particular that was built somewhat like a castle and even had stained glass windows with knights' crests!; immediately, we thought, what if such houses also had anchorites in them as a sort of nouveau riche accessory?

3. so this is all, to begin with anyway, just an extended joke on these invented characters/numbers and the idea of anchorites owned as fashionable accessories

4. while writing the story this past week I received the news that the husband of a cousin of mine died suddenly [this past Monday] of a massive heart attack [his funeral, in fact, will be in National Cemetery this Friday, as he earned a silver star in Vietnam], and this death, immensely sad for me as I spent every Thanksgiving, and some other holidays, usually in summer, with Mike for the past 10 or so years, is even more *tragic* because it leaves behind two sons [fraternal twins] whose mother, my cousin, died of lung cancer when she was 42 and they were 10 [!], and just before she died, and because Mike had only arrived on the scene, as it were, just as she was dying [they were never married; he was married to someone else when the twins were born: LONG story], she gave her father [in his 70s! at the time] custody of the twins, my second cousins, and he promptly sent them off to various boarding schools in New England [you know the ones, the famous austere ones] as he was living in Paris [he died a few years ago] and they wanted to stay in the States. But over the years, as the twins grew up, Mike re-entered their lives and provided a home for them, as it were, just outside DC, and one of the twins just this spring had graduated from college and was living with Mike when he died. The tragedy is compounded by the fact that the twins have barely any living relatives [there are no living grandparents, and in fact, their mother's mother had been committed to a mental asylum in San Francisco in the 1950s--where she eventually died of leukemia--when their mother, my first cousin, was only a small child and my father's sister, my aunt, married her father, hence my connection to all of this and also the reason I grew up in DC because my father's sister married someone in Kennedy's administration and my father followed his sister from California to DC so that he would have something useful to "do"]. The twins' mother had two brothers [all raised by my aunt], one of whom committed suicide in the 1970s jumping off the Golden Gate bridge and the other lives in L.A. I could go on and on and on, but won't--suffice to say: lots of mental illness here [more than I am even sharing here--it's a whole novel unto itself, and one of the greatest fears of my life is that I will succumb to the mental illnesses that have ravaged so many members of my family] and premature deaths and ultimately: 2 twin brothers, barely 21 years old, without parents, grandparents, only 1 uncle, and assorted "sort-of-through-marriage" cousins and step-siblings: primarily, my brother, sister, and I, our aunt's son from another marriage, Keys, and another of their grandfather's children from his *third* marriage, Gregory, and thus we come to:

5. the subject I have never wanted to write about: the intensely close and intimate relationship with my brother and sister growing up, our summers in Ireland together when my parents really were in Turkey and Greece [and sometimes southern Italy, usually Florence], and the later estrangement from my brother for reasons I would never divulge in a public forum, but which I am willing to say here, has always been one of the greatest sadnesses in my life. We are actually somewhat connected in that we talk occasionally, but sometimes only once a year, or every other year, and there have been many many years with no communication at all;

Eileen Joy said...

And continuing:

6. and finally, and related to the paper I gave at Kalamazoo on the session that Dan R. organized: a new experiment for me--beginning with Foucault's "History of Sexuality" and the idea of ascesis as a spiritual exercise that might serve as “an historic occasion to re-open affective and relational virtualities,” and which also offers a way for the human to become “the site of a radical alterity. . .the space within each human being where she or he encounters the not-self, the beyond,” I want to see if we can offer an alternative to ascesis [and abjection/death] that also might locate itself within the queerest [but often labeled as the most "normative" and oppressive] site of all: the family. Might it also be possible, under the heading of "new critical modes" and also "post-post-history," to bring together fictionality and scholarship to author such an alternative? That is, I suppose, one of my current projects, which I realize entails certain risks, yet they seem worth taking at this point in time [while it remains crucial to keep certain things private--this will be the difficulty as well in this project].

Was that more than you wanted to know, Jeffrey? I wouldn't blame you if you said, yes, Eileen, it is.