Blue knitted cardigan, the boots with the clackety heel. I’m afraid to lace up today. It’s as if I’m running on simple sentences, a single bag of sugar in the raw in my blond roast. Light therapy is a slow antidote for what will be the months I dread. Thirty bright minutes and it’s back to black. Back to the novel I do not plan on remembering.
K. and I fall into fragments, so we pause to process the past twenty minutes of our incoherence. We’re looking at a portait of me at eighteen painted with all my nostalgia of some prior moment. The expectations that I’d be a taken man by now. The belief that I’d be sharing a house with him, one that could shelter me from a familial storm. In creeps the language of failure, of precisely the logic I mocked when I heard A. had gotten engaged and I had to be happy for her. There is an arrogance and a longing curled up beside me. K. and I see them together, my queer and perverse bedfellows.
I start to cry.
I sleep with very little now. A sheet, a bare chest, a single stick of white plum incense. And that single hall light because I can’t bear to be in this place alone in the dark. In some cases, childhood ghost story contests don’t really end when the candles are blown out. I still remember when the ouija board spelled out that I’d be alone. Even if I know who pushed the planchette to each of those letters, it doesn’t change its prophetic wisdom. As is the case with my tarot deck and my copy of the Iliad. Wishful thinking, a handful of placebos. But I take her word for it: no coincidences, merely 必然. That and a slew of improvisational readings. Close, but not deep.
To quiet the noise, I wilt like the plant S.’s daughter left on the patio over five years ago. Still life: a game of emulation, where my arrogance plays dead. I’m after all turgid with something. The monks and the acupuncturist say its blocked energy. The shrink says its cathexis and bad objects. Mom says its because I haven’t grown up enough. I palm the reasons like baoding balls. A meditation that yields nothing. My unmoving labor.
The oil of the witching hours continues to burn.
"Alas, poor Yorick! cried I, what are thou doing here? On the very first onset of all this glittering clatter, thou art reduced to an atom…"
Urbanity like Dickens said it would be. I’m here, and the question continues to be what now, what now? The same books telling me about my condition, about the way we’re all atomized in the density of space and the configuration of streets into grids. Thousands of possible collisions and we manage not to make a single one. There is clatter but no glitter.
Meanwhile, there are two men beaten a few blocks down from me, and I am wondering why those same books suddenly seem to have nothing to say. Diagnosis, a problem, the attribution to the liquid flows of something that exchanges unwashed hands. That same academic will also go into the Starbucks and make an order with five stipulations. The barista deliberately writes his name incorrectly, and he complains it isn’t made right. There is clatter but no glitter.
I see his face on the cover of the new issue. A silent congratulations, and I tuck him underneath my coffee saucer. His collection takes the prize. I don’t even want to see my image on page thirty-nine because of what it has done to me since. That act of Dorian Graying: I am encased in gray with not even the play of light to save me. He likes to think its salvific, but I kissed that fantasy to sleep. Single hue, the color of binchotan.
There is clatter but no glitter.
And how am I expected to behave, how when I’m alone with myself everyday?
The tea garners me about twenty minutes for a series of astral projections into some moment beyond the confines of a carrell. The smoke from the votive candles has followed me to work — the residues from that family’s prayers still unanswered and my shadow of a eulogy to her, where the words still fail to soothe the rawness of days that were well before me.
So I sit with page forty-six opened, and I taste the trickle of a scene as it percolates. He is there. I am there with my organic hesitancy. A stutter, sentence fragments, incomplete thoughts, euphemisms, a line in lieu of, in spite of. I do not know how to conduct myself because I feel driven by other forces. Yet somehow, I can feel lonely in the face of so many other presences: to play wallflower even when there is no party. Even when it is him holding my face the way I’ve somehow learned to like. A kind of memory that doesn’t slough off even as I’ve continued to make the bed. How it comes, how it returns in diminished forms many shades darker.
The scenes collide — I am there alone encased in the aching wood of the carrell, I am there alone in the projection of what I still want to believe is the feeling of his hand on my face.
My act of diplomacy — to fold the two into a series of lettered exchanges.
Ask your critics this Q:
"What do we stand to miss, or misapprehend, or get wrong, or not see if we don’t attend to your argument?"
I sit down with M. after about two and a half months of being away, and I tell him about my fraying relationship with T. After damning me in the way that she did in writing, I think it has become clear that she neither trusts me nor believes in me to be able to produce quality work. I should not need to decode her commentary or guess at her intentions. Mentorship should not be a game. Neither of us has the time.
This summer has been about evaluating and reevaluating stakes: what is at stake in a choice, in a reading, in an argument, in a project? M. scribbles this note on his legal pad and hands it to me. On the inside of each cover of my books is this same question. Ruminating, processing, evaluating, taking stock. What does this book seek to do, why does it do it, and to what ends? Where does it succeed and where does it fail? What is brought to the fore and what recedes? Where does the book intervene, and where might I attempt to respond with my own intervention?
I think of my relationship with T. in similar terms. What do I stand to lose if I decide to part ways with an academic mentor? Can we do this as professionals given that she has already conflated me with my work (or perhaps narrowed me to being only as good as my work)? Can I put behind me what has been perhaps one of the harshest critiques of my work? It is easy to antagonize her, to flee from from this explicit source of negativity, one that is now thousands of miles away from me.
But in a way, it also comes down to what kind of pedagogy she models. Is her inability to see her students as scholars-in-progress the kind of mentorship to which I want to subject myself, let alone emulate? I think about the necessity of generosity in our line of work and the great value there is in collaborative, mutually sustaining forms of academic partnerships. This simply isn’t it. We simply do not do academia the same way.
And that’s okay. But it’s this last part that is most difficult. There’s this part of me that is deeply disturbed by the fact that I am the only one in my cohort experiencing this kind of tension with his advisor. The same voice wonders why I am failing to meet standards, failing to please. The same voice ventriloquizes her critique: if I’m struggling now, is this only the beginning?
But what am I not attending to by thinking in this closed circuit? The future of my project, my well-being, my progress thus far?
The studio saps my energies in strange ways. Little vortexes of everyday habits. Sometimes, I fall and don’t get up. I erect a makeshift gohonzon on the center wooden shelf. It receives my forms of devotion, my offerings of smoking confessions and a prayer to someone. But there is the bed that refuses to receive me at night, the space where the battles are fought and lost, where Hypnos has not visited in months. Quadrants, sectors, delineations of space, which find themselves living lives of their own. Maybe I am merely the interloper who pours the tea.
I’ve isolated you into a single jazz lick. Once, twice. You dissipate back into the flow of things. Irrecoverable until the next play through, but De Quincey says I’m wrong for relying on my ears. I am supposed to be able to find you where the pleasure is constructed. Yet I hear other strains, other noise that reminds me why I’ve put you into this lyrical quarantine in the first place. Unbearable permeability. How your presence lingers in places I did not expect it would. Yet now you return, and I hear your lick again, this time without my calling you into being. I wait for the modulation, a fantasia on a theme.
As I try to sweat off last night, I get a text from Mom. In the preview, I see an old photo of me as a toddler in the Harbor City flat that has since been replaced by a shopping complex. There I am, clutching the edge of the coffee table and looking toward my mother behind the camera. My mother likes to think of it as one of the few photos of me in which I look entirely natural, vulnerable. At first glance, it looks almost deliberately posed, but she and I both know that I am holding on to the table corner for a reason.
I was considered a “late walker,” which many other parents saw as a red flag in terms of my development. Concerned as she was, my mother never took a forceful approach to her parenting. She was much more concerned about my safety. The philosophy was and still is that danger could be around any corner, and if I could be shielded from it, she would intervene. The force, if any, was in her vigilance, the kind of energy she invested in trying to keep me from taking certain paths literally and figuratively.
But when it came to walking, exposure to danger was unavoidable. In order to get me to take my first steps, she would have to literally let go. I also internalized quickly this impulse toward safety and self-preservation. My process of learning to walk was slowly pacing around the safe space of the sofas and the coffee table. I would just hold on to the edge for support and dig my toes into the floor while making my way slowly around. And I would do this for months before ever attempting to let go.
The photo was the day I actually did let go. What my mother and I both see is the momentum leading up to that moment, the emotional and psychological labor we both put in for me to be ready to part with my object of security. On my face is not liberation because I never did and still do not see risk-taking as that at all. Though my childhood was a series of these kinds of moments — of separations, departures, dissolutions — I never did entirely outgrow this tendency toward holding on. It’s not so much the moment of parting but the possibility that the parting will somehow be mistaken, harmful. At what price, at what lengths?
Because I always knew that there might be a day when my mother wouldn’t be there to catch me when I fall. I never wanted to fall alone.
Notes for K. (7)
Cruelty and laughter. Not with me but at me. To defer the moment of surprising disgrace, the power of knowing in advance. Crystal ball even if the glass is dirty with my own fingerprints. But I’d rather be the one to do the smudging. The one to deal the blow as opposed to nursing a sting. This is the familiarity of a cosmos that bears no secrets, that aspires to no little contracts of faith. Pleasurable self-erasure, self-violence in its own right, verbal tectonics. Like Medea’s psychomachia: all so that Jason could not react. I’d rather do it myself. You will not expose me because I would rather do it for you.
Madeleines and the last satchet of english breakfast out of the tin. A breakfast made famous by Proust, a sensuous cake resuscitated by involuntary memory. And it takes me back to Mme. Marie-Claude and her poor cat, Cocotte. This same meal that sent me into the day until dinner at seven o’clock sharp, where the paired cheese and wine would be already laid out in waiting. The meal began promptly because we would dine for three hours. Exchanges lost in translation or in between bites, verbal meanderings that composed our breaking of daily bread. All before phones were smart enough to come to the meal with us, all before I dared to place my heart in his hand. How I long to return to that table.