She approaches me at a party. Tells me he handcuffed her to his dining table and left her there for ten hours. Said he’d thought she had the key. His mistake for forgetting to remove it from his breast pocket. Her eyes are the kind of green that makes you sorry to be looking for so long, matte and immovable. Not like mine. Gray and protean. There’s a distantness about her, surprising dispassion for someone as young as she is. She looks tired. She doesn’t cry or even flinch as she recounts this to me, as though explaining the plot of a movie she watched almost too long ago to recall the actor’s name. She takes a sip of her beer, offers me one. There’s a cooler on the stairs, she says. Just throw a few bucks in the cupholder. I thank her, but do not move right away. I stay in her placid stare, wanting something to happen, wanting for us to embrace one another, or break down. Isn’t that what we deserve? United by the same violent touch. But we aren’t sisters, nor are we friends, and in many ways our relation was for the longest time exclusively adversarial. Well, see you, I say. Yeah, she says. See you.
It is difficult to defend the subordination of safety to desire. I think of Barthes: Someone tells me: this kind of love is not viable. But how can you evaluate viability? Why is the viable a Good Thing? Why is it better to last than to burn? I believed my love for Z to be selfless, because there was nothing to be gained from the way I suffered. I believed that anything experienced so utterly, so wholly as to obliterate and replace all other needs, would raze the ego. Selfishness, I had thought, was a matter of agency. If one was suffering, or worse yet, if one did not know what one wanted, and behaved in deference to the desires of another, how could any act be selfish? I hadn’t yet learned about penance. I hadn’t yet learned the difference between masochism and indemnity. I hadn’t learned that agony can feel like absolution. Nevertheless, undergoing needless pain is not a means to make amends for past harm. I understand why one would like to think so. If this were true, then we could be passive in the redemption of our sins.
A Vietnam veteran visited campus to give a lecture about the invisibility of post-traumatic stress disorder. Z went. I knew by then that he’d long endured textbook pathologies from a car accident he narrowly survived at fifteen. I told him not to go. But Z enjoyed pain just as much as he enjoyed inflicting it, for the same reasons I did. We weren’t so different.
Later that night, he wasn’t answering his phone. His window was illuminated, I could see from my own, but the shades were drawn. He was dangerous, I knew. He ministered to his self-destruction like a caged snake; it was an interesting set-piece until, like everything else, he lost control of it.
His suitemate, Byron, noticed me pacing outside their dorm, and let me in. He told me Z had gotten home an hour earlier, and hadn’t looked good. Real thousand-yard stare, Byron had joked. I didn’t find this amusing. I could smell drugs under the door, earthy and stale, despite the towel he’d laid to clog the airflow. Z hadn’t yet admitted to having a problem, but it didn’t need to be acknowledged in order to be obvious. This was the tricky thing about pot. You could get high multiple times a day, every day, the way he did and still defend its essentially non-addictive properties. You can’t become dependent on marijuana. This is a tired truth, but it bears repeating: there are a lot of things that become habitual whose thrall is not chemical. I laid my hand flat on his door, undaunted by Byron’s curious eyes, and pulled my fingers into a fist to knock. But what was there to say to him, if he answered? I sighed, retracted my knuckles from the wood, and pulled away, directing Byron a resigned half-smile before disappearing back down the hall, then out into the night.
When I returned to my room, tracking the spoor of my loneliness across the hall, I threw myself down on the bed, wailing into the floral duvet my father had picked out for me from a catalog. There were many nights like this, in which the knowledge of Z’s pain and my own helplessness ravaged my insides like a rotor. This was what it meant to feel yourself alive, and therefore to love, I decided, and I never wanted it to end.
When I have failed in the past to tell this story, I have fallen prey to the useless narrative that these dynamics of pain and guilt are complicated. They are ugly, but they are not very complicated. What I can tell you now is this: Z was repulsed by his sadism, as much as I was thrilled and relieved by my subjugation. Hegel wrote about this, so I do not need to.
In some tellings, he is the villain. In some, I am. I’m no longer interested in moralism. It is naïve to suggest that you cannot love someone to whom you wish to cause pain. If that were so, what a different world we would live in.
Someone tells me he’s supervising construction sites now. I laugh when I hear this, imagining him standing in the cracked cement and dust, clad in the designer pants and boots for which he’s paid a thousand dollars to look authentically working class, scrawny arms folded across his chest, sleeves rolled up to reveal his tattoos, at attention and equipped with a philosophy degree and the put-on ruggedness he’s gleaned from spaghetti Westerns. In a way, it makes sense. He is the type of person who needs a clipboard and megaphone to feel powerful. I picture him pulling the pencil from behind his ear thinking it’s a cigarette. Lighting it, catching fire.
There are wizened, sun-leathered men sweating in Tropicana orange vests and hard hats on my Bushwick backstreet, tilling the ground with jackhammers, and I always walk slow, hood up and eyes narrow, just in case.
He moved to Ridgewood the year I started graduate school. When I take the subway home from Manhattan and pass over the matrix of warehouses and brownstones where I’ve heard he lives, I hold my breath—the way children caution one another to do when passing a graveyard, in order to prevent spectral possession—but never see him when I step off the train, survey either side of the platform, when I glance down alleys, pass through the musky moth-clusters of smokers outside the bars I figure we both frequent. Sometimes when it’s late, especially if I’m not wearing my glasses, a bearded man will board too quickly, arching like a cat to fit his ungainly tallness beneath the handrail, and in the blur of motion it will be Z’s face and not the stranger’s appearing before me, but then the train will jerk from its halt and as swiftly as it came, the mirage will vanish.
A few weeks after we first slept together, I suffered an injury in his presence whose consequences linger even now, as I am telling this to you, many years later.
The window dropped like a guillotine. Its force knocked my brain against my skull in two places. According to the neurologist, the latter collision struck what is called the lambdoid suture, the fault line where sheets of bone adjoin across the occipital lobe, which processes visual perception. The occipital lobe is divided into two sensory sectors, ventral and dorsal, which determine, respectively, what we see, and what it means.
What I remember before and after impact recedes into a slurry of phantasmagoric throbs. His white fingers gripping the metal rail. Black night around us. New moon, the twinkling flecks of Christmas lights strewn over his headboard, which I mistook to be stars.
Injury to the occipital lobe, I learn, can cause hallucinations and delusions. One may see things that are not there; objects may appear larger or smaller than they are; colors may be muted, oversaturated, otherwise wrong. One may not be able to tell what it means.
In the morning, the campus nurse sent me to Saratoga General Hospital. The CT scan was conclusive: coup-contrecoup. Like shaking ice cubes in a glass, the doctor told me. They strike the glass on one side and bounce off with enough force to strike the other side. My brain, like ice cubes in a glass. You should go home, said the doctor. They called my father, who ran out to the car with the phone still in his hand: I’ll be there in a few hours, he panted, starting the ignition.
I rushed to Z’s dorm. He was in class. A whiteboard for RA communications hung on every door, and with the affixed Expo marker, I left him a note.
Thanks for the concussion
I’ll see you in a week
I stood back, capped the marker. Uncapped it, added:
It had happened like this. Half an hour before the window fell, Z had pinned my torso against his twin-size mattress and pushed into me from behind. This entry was never smooth like the sex I saw in movies, and I wondered if it was my body which was to blame. Alongside the shame and discomfort, there was a sort of vestal honor, the privilege of being chosen. I kept repeating apologies in my head as though I was speaking to God, or asking to be fixed, for my inertia, my dryness. Like a swimmer, I had to keep my head turned, couldn’t drown in the layers of cotton, soaked through with his smell, astringent cologne and boy musk. My face was always turned toward the door. On it, Z had taped a poster from David Lynch’s Blue Velvet—a favorite of mine—which had always seemed, to me, for him, darkly ironic.
Z announced his closeness. Went feral, then slack. The musty sweat from his chest slicked my spine. His deadweight dug my hip bones further into the wire frame of his bed. He lay there, panting, his breath humid in the folds of my ear. When finally he stood up to pull a paper towel from the roll on his desk, he examined my face. Rubbed his thumb across my cheek.
“That good, huh,” he said. He tore a corner off the towel and handed it to me. I cleaned myself of him as though I were tending a wound, the skin between my thighs abraded and raw. There was always a sense of pride in this, too, the evidence of my success, my viability. We’d never once used a condom. It was already hard enough for him to finish on Lexapro, he’d said. The stakes felt too high to ask if he was sleeping with anyone else. (Her name was Elizabeth, I later learned. She boasted a cascade of chestnut curls she often gathered in a high ponytail so she could take notes in our political philosophy lecture. She sat a few rows in front of me, and she always smelled clean, like green apple candy. When I pictured her naked, I imagined she was hairless, without labia, like a surgeried porn star, or an alien.)
I have a dream. There is some major apocalyptic event, intergalactic blitzkrieg. Extraterrestrial spores turn humans into drones. When the news breaks, I’m at a honky-tonk bar, in line to ride the mechanical bull which twitches hulking and glossy in the center of the room. The crowd is mostly strangers, a former teacher of mine, some distant friends. Leaning against the counter, nursing an ale, checking his wrist for an absent watch, is Z. At first we do not acknowledge each other. (This is the etiquette we have accepted as necessary, and in my dreams, social relations are ceteris paribus.) Then the TV screens around the room cut from a football game to an emergency broadcast, blaring alert banners slicing through the hunched linemen. Talking heads appear. There’s been an invasion. Get to the coasts, as fast as you can. For what? No one can answer. But we know it’s where we have to go. To the ocean. I look at Z. We don’t speak as we take hands, flee the bar together, sprinting to a car in the parking lot. It doesn’t matter whose car it is. It’s the end of the world.
I finished wiping away his emission. He’d moved to the window seat, and the lunar half-light cradled his jaw in silhouette. In nothing but a pair of navy briefs, like the kind I thought a man would wear, each of his tattoos was exposed, and the pink sickle scar, menacing reminder of his teenage accident, which curled over his shoulder and onto his upper arm. He pulled a cigarette from the teal carton. It dangled damningly from the corner of his mouth like the tail of a mouse. He tipped the pack toward me, even though he knew I’d demur. I had never quite recovered from the grisly infographics they imposed on us in eighth grade health class, and had long tended a careful fear of necrotic, onyx-cratered lungs.
I turned away from him to redress, a post-coital habit I could never explain. What was there to hide that my lovers had not already seen? But I couldn’t help feeling shy. There was something about my nakedness without a purpose that elicited shame. Now my body was just that.
“Let me help,” he said, resting the cigarette in the ashtray and reaching out for me. I moved slowly through the orangey twilit space and presented myself before him. He placed his hands on my hips and turned me as a stage manager would, gentle and exacting.
He ran his fingertips across my shoulder blades and down my spine. As though it were holy, what we were doing. He pulled the bands of my bra together but did not clasp them, a puppeteer, pinning me taut, and brought his lips to my neck. When he exhaled, his breath suffused the air acrid, sharp, and slightly sour, like fermenting leaves. Neither of us spoke. Eventually, he did the hooks, and let me climb into the seat beside him.
Outside, campus was quiet. It was a Sunday. Midnight or later, and all was still. Under spectral lamplights October took hold of the Adirondack vegetation, expunging green from the landscape, replacing summer’s flowers with shades of honey and fire and rust. A network of brick pathways connected the residence halls like dendrites. Each path was punctuated by an emergency pillar, little gray alarm towers for distress calls. A column of grass shone silver in the path of their blue beams.
One lone student stumbled into view. Bundled in a red puffer, he was slumped over, his backpack contorting his posture toward the stack of textbooks in his hands. He inched across the quad, in and out of long stretches of darkness. Before he ducked inside the cafeteria, fluorescent bulbs drenched his face in white to expose his scowl. I pitied him. It was so cold.
Z lived on the first floor of his dorm, Penfield. The window was no more than ten feet off the ground. He never let me enter or exit through the front door. When I came to see him—never in daylight, never to stay until morning—he made me pull myself through the tiny opening he left above the sill.
“I dare you to streak around the building,” he said, blowing smoke into the night. “What?” I asked, swiveling to regard his face. His eyes gleamed with fiendish joy. “You heard me,” he challenged. “Climb down and do a lap around Penfield. Just one lap. And then I’ll know you’re not just another worthless pussy of a freshman.” His lips peeled away to reveal his perfect teeth. Snow-white and squarely aligned, he often bragged about never having needed braces. A girl I knew from class once drew my attention to the macabre intimacy of a smile. It’s the only way we, the living, can see one another’s skeletons, she’d explained. A gesture of paramount vulnerability, inviting somebody else to glimpse our breakable infrastructure.
“Watch me,” I said. Clambering over him to slide the window open, I felt his gaze ignite. I scanned the perimeter of the quad before swinging my legs through, anchoring myself steady.
“Kiss me,” I dared him—my second request—chin perched on the sill, bare feet gripping the icy ledge outside. He leaned forward. Before he could reach me, I dropped to the ground. “You bitch!” he yelled, and let the window close, still grinning.
I winked at him and spun, around and around, aroused by my own intrepid exhibitionism. A breeze teased out goosebumps across my chest. I was seventeen. Beautiful. Free. My toes slid across the dewy ground as I leapt, pliéed, pirouetted, my long, black hair aloft in my wake. All of a sudden I noticed in the distance an encroaching flock of strangers.
“People are coming,” I shouted. “Open the window.”
“No!” he teased, his middle finger pressed to the glass.
“I mean it,” I said, sprinting back to the building. Their footsteps crescendoed against the brick. “I’m not fucking around. Open the window.” Voices could be heard now, laughter, unintelligible banter, and I scaled the ledge, bracing myself to the wall. It was freezing against my naked stomach. I tried to push open the window myself, but it wouldn’t give, locked from inside. I raised my fist to pound on the pane and lost my bearings.
“Fine,” he groused, unhinging the latch and easing up the frame.
One of the approaching bystanders lifted a finger to point at me. The entire crowd turned to look. They must’ve been half a football field away, closing the distance with each passing second. My heart thrummed. I feared penalty. I’d only just arrived, couldn’t bear to disappoint the admissions committee, my advisor, my father, and affirm so soon my reputation in the eyes of all the people back home, their suspicion that I was irredeemable, a sorry waste of potential, forever scarred by the early, unexpected death of my mother. Ungrateful for my opportunities. Self-sabotaging, careless. I brushed the dirt off my thighs and hoisted myself back up.
The tip of my nose had only just cleared the opening when Z’s leer returned. “Just kidding,” he said, and with the consummate force of his upper body slammed the window down. Sharp and fast. Like a guillotine. The cool metal kissed my forehead. This is when everything goes dark.
I felt the wet grass on my spine. With no recollection of a fall, it seemed the ground had risen to catch me like an elevator carriage. The group from earlier had vanished. I was alone. Above me, Z’s head leaned out the aperture. He was still smiling.
Z hauled me back into his room. The adrenaline and warmth moved over me like a balm. “Holy shit,” he said, scrubbing the mud from my body. “You’re dirty.” His nose crinkled in disgust as he dusted his hands on the seat cushion. “You alright, kid?” he asked.
I was laughing, too. “Narrowly escaped certain expulsion,” I said.
Then the pain eddied in, no longer shock-numb, and I lifted a shaky hand to my forehead. My fingers were bloody. “You’re fine,” he said. I wriggled from his embrace and staggered to the suite bathroom. Neglected by the senior boys, it reliably reeked of aftershave, piss, the cheap pilsner Byron insisted on drinking. A layer of inscrutable grime sheathed the mirror. Glaring through it, an inch above my brow, swelled a purpling mound the size and shape of a halved plum. Scarlet droplets trickled through the central gash. Away from it snaked filigreed veins, blue tendrils weaving through the expanding bruise, a contusion which seemed to pulse with my heartbeat.
Z materialized behind me. “You’re fine,” he repeated. His voice cracking.
Another dream. I kneel in a garden. I am gathering fruits into a basket. I do not know why, or for whom, all I know is I cannot stop. There is a rustle in the foliage. At first I see nothing but blackness beyond the grass, but then, from this crepuscular dark, a figure emerges. He steps into view, tall and broad, his hair wild. He’s beautiful. He doesn’t speak. I watch, paralyzed, as he closes the distance between us. He kneels down in front of me. I know he is hungry but I do not know how I know it. I let him reach his hand into my basket. He palms a single fruit, training his eyes on me as he brings it to his mouth. The moment it passes his lips, his teeth glint. He shudders. I feel funny, he says, what have you done to me? His face trembles, then lengthens. I don’t know, I say, I’m sorry I don’t know. He throws his neck back. Hair erupting across his body like a jacket. What have you done to me, he says, but he’s only howling now. This is how language works in dreams. I’m sorry, I say. I’m so sorry. The wolf still has Z’s eyes. I lay there and let him devour me.
When Z was fifteen, a car blew a crosswalk stop sign and struck him at cruising velocity. The impact launched him twenty feet through the air. His left arm was torn from the socket, tethered to his shoulder by a mass of gnarled tendons and ligaments. He was comatose for three days, in and out of surgery for weeks, months. He liked the way Vicodin made his head fuzzy. When I was fifteen, it was my mother who had been crossing the street when a car blew a red light at sixty miles per hour and killed her on impact.
When I returned to campus a week after the hospital visit, Z had ordered a pair of handcuffs off the internet. “I want to try something,” he said. I told him the neurologist said I shouldn’t be having sex for a while. He closed the door behind me. “I don’t care what the neurologist said.”
The structure of my life had collapsed, and in its wake, all that remained, could remain, was the project of our experimentation. I couldn’t attend classes and slept, with the blinds drawn, until late into the evening. My roommates would come and go, silently retrieving a folder or textbook from our room without ever turning the lights on, careful not to disturb the blanketed mass in my bed. Why don’t you just go home? one of them eventually asked. They pitied me, I think, more than anything else, watching me sneak out long after dusk had fallen, shirking my responsibilities. I wasn’t eating. I wasn’t making anything of value. They knew I didn’t return most nights until first light. I can’t, I told her. There’s nothing for me anywhere but here.
I was not religious or fatalistic, nor did I believe in some moral ledger tabulating the debts and credits of our lives, but there did feel to be some cosmic exoneration in the punishments Z leashed on my flesh, and after having lived in the eyes of those around me as a selfish person for longer than I’d cared to admit, I welcomed this backwards mercy. I wanted to hurt because I thought it would make me a good person. Perhaps more essentially, I didn’t have to enjoy the sex. I was liberated from the imperative to feel good. In this way, pain was a different kind of safety.
One of my principal symptoms was a condition called cyanopsia. For months I saw everything with a blue tint, as though I were always peering through an ocean fog. The neurologist said it was my occipital lobe. The neurologist prescribed me triptans for the migraines, and an SSRI. The neurologist could not formulate a prognosis. Recovery is up to you, she said. There’s no real testing one can undergo to monitor a concussion. Severity is subjective. She rinsed her hands in the sink. You’re the only one who knows how you feel.
After a matter of weeks, the neurologist, weary of my evasiveness, stopped asking about the bruises. I gave her the same answers every time, and after all, it wasn’t her job. She did demonstrate genuine concern, but whenever an older woman showed me affection or care, I recoiled, loath to project any longing for maternal love onto her. I’m fine, I would say. Or: I’m anemic, which was true. I was learning, among other things, how easy it was to keep the truth hidden and never lie.
As I retreated further into the blue of my solitude, Z became the lone arbiter of my ontology, determining for me what it was that I was seeing, and what it meant.
In his autobiography, Roland Barthes writes about the romance of his migraines. Virginia Woolf laments the destitution of language in the order of describing them. She likens sufferers of migraines to the early inhabitants of Babel, taking his pain in one hand, and a lump of pure sound in the other. Joan Didion defends their utility: Right there is the usefulness, she writes, the concentration on the pain. The way it is consumptive, makes one new again.
Emily Dickinson tells this another way. The pain was no reset, only loss. “I Felt a Funeral in My Brain” (340):
I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing – then –
One night, we were out at some apartment party off campus. It was right around my eighteenth birthday. He’d said he wasn’t going to drink for a while, but when he pushed past me in the entryway—he didn’t like to be seen with me in public—I could smell it on him. He slipped his jacket off to throw it on a pile by the front door, and I recognized his shirt from an album cover. The colorful print was an optical illusion, an example of the phenomenon of illusory motion: a pattern of tilted green ovals, like leaves, sequenced across a wavy bluish background. I had read somewhere that the conflicting outlines from the rotation of the leaves artificially activates motion-detecting neurons in the brain. The brain is fooled into perceiving motion in a static image.
When we bumped into each other later on, tucked away in the side hall by the bathroom, I pulled him in for a kiss. “Not now,” he whispered, pinning my shoulders against the wall and glancing nervously over his own. “Come over later.” But it wasn’t long before I lost track of him in the crowd. Another nondescript lanky white boy in an Animal Collective t-shirt. He could’ve been anyone. Anyone could have been him.
A few hours later, I left the party with a friend who lived in Z’s dorm. Z hadn’t answered any of my texts, but his dinosaur Android was often off, or dead, and I had no way of telling the difference. This was another thing that made him seem adult. Green text bubbles, the currency of an iconoclast.
I was wasted, and before I could think better of it, I was knocking on his door. I could hear them right away. A girl’s voice. “Shit,” the man’s voice said. The sound of bodies, bed creak, rustle of linens. Then footsteps. Z cracked open the door. He was naked, save for a dignity-preserving towel he clutched to his pelvis, his hair slick with sweat, and messy, falling in damp pieces across his forehead. He smelled like a gym locker room, treacly perfume and rank underarms. Time became something gelatinous and untrustworthy. Behind him, on his bed, she stared at me wide-eyed, a girl I knew from around campus whose name sounded like mine, two fewer letters. She drew her knees to her chin, legs crossed to cover her breasts. She was my year, too, younger than him. She looked startled. “You shouldn’t be here,” said Z. “Sorry,” I said, stepping back. “Just—just wait in the lobby, I’ll come out and get you. We can talk about this later.” I nodded. My friend was sitting on the couch, reading the book he’d brought with him. Remains of the Day. “What the fuck happened?” he said. “There’s a girl in there,” I said. “What?” he said. “He’s fucking someone else.” “Right now?” he said. “Right now,” I said.
It was an hour until the two of them emerged in the lobby. Neither of them looked at us. Z didn’t blink as he walked past. Fifteen minutes later, he returned, red-nosed, letting in a burst of cold air from outside. I stared at him. “Well,” he said, and we looked up at him, and we waited. “I’m going to have a joint. You guys are welcome to join me.” We followed him into his bedroom. It was the first time I’d ever entered through the door, but neither of us mentioned this. I sat in the window seat, farthest from the bed. I couldn’t smoke, on account of the concussion and my predisposition to panic attacks. I sat there watching them get high. They were saying words but nothing made any sense to me. Why were we arguing about Ishiguro? The value of film adaptations. Something about Anthony Hopkins’s gestural subtlety. Eventually I left. We never talked about it. A few months later, in an unusual flare of nerve, I asked him why he’d walked her home, and never me. Why he restricted me to pass in and out of his window like a ghost. “I trust you to take care of yourself,” he said.
They tell me he ran his car off the highway. The stale air in the ice cream parlor cloys with waffle cone steam, fresh off the hot iron. Kelli licks beads of lurid green mint, her tongue piercing catching chocolate chips as she tells me how the man I loved tried to die. After his discharge from the hospital, they suspended his license and mandated he enroll in a state-sponsored substance abuse workshop. His Corolla hatchback was ferried in smithereens to the impound lot. He always did love Freud, she says. What? I say. Get it, death drive, she says. The custard melts to bile in my throat.
One particularly windy night in December, when the brick walkways were slick with layers of black ice and I was still negotiating medical extensions with professors whose classes I hadn’t been to in months, Z called me to say he had something special planned.
I pulled myself through the window. He was sitting in his desk chair, positioned to face me as I entered. He wore a button-down and black slacks. Black dress shoes reflected the sheen of his string lights. “Get undressed,” he said. At first, I stood there, silently appraising the primacy of solemnity or play. Then I unzipped my jacket and left it on the window seat, unlaced my shoes. I was wearing a cashmere periwinkle turtleneck that had been my mother’s. I pulled it over my head. I’d worn nothing underneath.
“Now the pants,” he said. I did as he asked. “Those too.” He wasn’t smiling. He watched as I crawled onto the mattress. He slid open the drawer of his nightstand, pulled out the handcuffs, a paddle. It wasn’t up to me. I didn’t know how far the game extended, but I trusted that for me to collaborate on any of the rules would defy its very premise. In any case, he’d acquiesced to my requests for safewords. Yellow for slow down, red for stop. It was that simple. When I invoked them, he either laughed or pretended he didn’t hear me. Sometimes he took my resistance as a reason to increase his intensity. This was the outcome I could never predict. In any case, I stayed mostly silent. He cuffed my right wrist to his headboard, so I was teetering on my knees and left palm, facing the wall. “Why are you so scared?” he said.
Another dream. I’m back at college. It’s a reunion of sorts. Friends I haven’t seen for any number of years gather at the heart of the dancefloor, spilling wine from plastic cups, and secrets, twirling and singing along to the indecipherable music. He flits through my periphery. He looks timid, and when our eyes meet, he cowers from my glance. I watch him meander through the crowd to the hallway, and once he is out of view, I ask a friend to hold my drink, bathroom, I tell her, and follow him out. No one can know we’re convening. He’s bending over a table, ladling red liquid from a bowl. Hi, I say. In his eyes, the same apprehension, but then he warms, matches my smile. We can’t be here, he says. I know, I say. Someone will see us. But then I kiss him, because I need to remember what he tastes like, but when my lips reach the point in space I thought he occupied I can’t taste anything at all, and, I realize, I can’t feel anything, and the world is dissolving, has dissolved, and now I can’t remember what it is I had wanted but I know there’s something missing, something I had wanted eluding me but all I am is falling forward and down and when I try to open my eyes there is nothing there but static and phosphenes.
On Valentine’s Day, he hit me hard enough that my front teeth retained a rouge for days following. He had moved out of his dorm and into an apartment for the spring semester, a privilege exclusive to the upperclassmen, and one which afforded us more privacy. None of the protective measures of communal living. If I screamed, I couldn’t be sure anyone would come. He stood behind me in the bathroom mirror, grinning as I filled my mouth with water and rinsed the blood. Saliva streaked trails of ruddy sediment along the sink. He grabbed my chin and pulled me toward him, stabbing his tongue against my busted lip, sucking the iron into his own mouth. “You taste like money,” he said.
A week later was his twenty-first birthday. I thought this made him a man. His friends prepared for him an elaborate charcuterie board and array of craft beers to taste. He mentioned I could stop by. It was the first time he’d permitted me to meet his friends. “You have to try it,” Z said, cramming a cracker stacked high with soppressata and brie against his molars. He knew I’d been a devout vegetarian since I was thirteen. “It’s your ticket to ride,” he said, bringing a slice of cured meat to my lips, raising his other hand to my jaw. I spent the rest of the night keeled over the toilet, heaving. He sat by the door, apologizing and mocking me in turns.
A week later, he was explaining to me the terms of our relationship, again, as though I had misunderstood. He would never be my boyfriend, he said. He had his finger pressed to a passage he had marked in the worn Dostoyevsky novel he kept on his bedside table. “He loves the process of attaining, but does not quite like to have attained,” Z read aloud. “And that, of course, is very absurd. In fact, man is a comical creature; there seems to be a kind of jest in it all.”
“That isn’t the point of this scene,” I sneered, sotto voce.
“What?” he said.
I countered the superficiality of his implied interpretation. The Underground Man, as a construct, is paralyzed by the inescapability of his own consciousness (which becomes inescapable too, of course, for the reader, trapped in the bleak, contradictory network of his journals) and while he obsesses relentlessly over the potential consequences of every possible action, when he does act, he errs, grievously, and blames everyone else for the folly of his own misanthropy and arrogance. “Self-awareness is his downfall. What you’re excerpting, out of context,” I said to him, “is the moment when Liza, the prostitute, arrives at his house a week after he encourages her to disavow her work. He’s veiling his contempt for himself by making her feel small, directing his anger outward, when in reality the cause for his outburst isn’t her submission at all, but instead his realization that he’s laid himself bare before her. In spite of knowing it all along, having declared it at the outset, he can’t handle that he’s revealed himself to be a sick man, a spiteful man, an unattractive man—we all know the line,” I said. “What’s repelling him isn’t the fact that he’s lured her in successfully, but the fact that she recognizes how pathetic he is. It’s a cover-up. He’s posturing to hide his own abject vulnerability.”
My screed was gaining velocity when Z interjected. “I love you,” he said. “You don’t love me,” I said.
“I do, I love you. I love you, Hannah.” And then he was crossing the room. Then he was kneeling at the foot of the bed, looking up at me. “I love you,” he said again.
“You don’t love me,” I said. I was crying.
The Underground Man says: Love really consists in the right—freely given by the beloved object—to tyrannise over her. I did not imagine love except as a struggle. I began it always with hatred and ended it with moral subjugation, and afterwards I never knew what to do with the subjugated object.
Snow was melting on the eaves I could see from Z’s window seat. Late March sliced through the slush but left a stream of unsightly muck in its wake. Sideways raindrops pelted the glass. “Why are you being such an ice queen?” he prodded. “Is this foreplay?” I thought again of Dostoyevsky. “Apropos of the wet snow,” I said, which was the title of the chapter he’d read aloud, concentrating on the puddles which were trading stagnant water for fresh. The mangled corpses of worms who’d pushed themselves through layers of topsoil, only to be stepped on by passing giants, littered the walkway.
It wouldn’t be long before I would leave him. By then, I had restored much of my cognitive function; I had resumed writing, taken up trail-running; my friends had begun to use words like abuse and victim. Neither of those terms felt correct; they seemed to contain a certain reductionist lie at their center, or to describe a woman I could not have been, a woman I failed to reconcile with my apperception of agency, I will explain to my therapist later, but even their tenuous relevance, the way the facts of my relationship invited them, gestured toward a different kind of truth—one of danger.
When it was finally over, he told me it was probably for the best. “I don’t want to keep hurting you,” he said.
It’s his birthday, I say. We’re sitting around in the restlessly idle way people do on Friday evenings before anything happens. The TV is on, but it doesn’t seem that anyone is paying attention to the program. Whose? one of them asks. I’m quiet. Oh, they say. Technically it’s also David Foster Wallace’s birthday, I offer, allowing mirth to smooth over the tremble in my voice. Nobody laughs. You’re not allowed to contact him, Hannah, a friend I have loved in the meantime says, sternly. His face is dour. He means well. Finally I sigh, and say, I just want to know how he’s doing. Glances are exchanged, legs shifted, then somebody changes the channel.