Free preview: “Tiresias”

It’s probably overdue; there’s already a preview of Tiresias on Lulu, for instance, but you only see a few pages of the actual story that way. To that end, I’m posting here a large section of text from further on in the novel, and for future reference I will keep it linked on my Publications & Projects page. In so many ways, I feel as if I’ve moved on from this book, but right now it’s the longest previously published sample of my work to date, and these paragraphs perhaps belong here. (Content warnings apply for descriptions of suicidal ideation & behavior.)


The lurid hue of sodium cast upon our faces,
It stretched upon the ghastly snow and smiled,
A blackened pair of lips now beckoned and beguiled,
I ventured to abandoned places
And all the while,
To whit, to whoo, to whit, to whoo,
Athenian familiar in the night and black,
Crying, to whit, to whoo.
But whom would I woo, with so little wit.

. . . .

I would watch television with her in the shrinking, claustrophobic box of an apartment. She hoarded so much now. Half of our home felt like waste, needless accumulation, closing around us. Sometimes we couldn’t see much of the worn and ripped brown carpeting, brown like moist shit mixed with grey hairs. There was a bookcase to the left in the needlessly long entryway; the bookcase was made of cheap metal painted black and wrought into floral curlicues near the top of the frame. This was where I kept books from childhood that I never read. The entryway was narrow so Anne had to squeeze. I didn’t but it was still close and choking. Where the entryway met the living room, which is an ironic name, there was a bright green table covered by our messenger bags and an explosion of papers, mail never opened, mail still to be answered, mail ignored. There was also a coat rack. Beyond that, against the right wall, there was a table made of plain pine with two old chairs that predated its purchase. Above this table was one window, facing the east and an area meant for gardening. A red brocade curtain altered by my mother could obscure the view if so desired. There was a terrible Orientalist aesthetic to the space, the red brocade, the tatami mat that tried to hide the shit-floor, the futon sitting opposite the table on the left wall—the futon cover was white with black Chinese calligraphy markings all over it. I derived no pleasure from any of these things, no true pleasure, when we bought them, but they were the only things that Anne could accept as a compromise instead of her endless obsession with prints of roses and ivy vines and things you should be sitting on for a prim English tea, or her other endless obsession with vivid pinks and yellows that clash like the carefree whimsy of a teenage magazine. Behind both the table and the futon were the grey metal bookshelves with books I didn’t read because Anne didn’t like them. In the center of the far wall, in the midst of this agglutination of halfway-design, was the squat black coffee table with the television set that had a good picture quality but a very small screen. Around the corners of the floor, against the baseboards, anywhere that the tatami didn’t cover and even some places where it did, there was more paper, odds and ends, used plastic cups, dead insects, cracked CDs, unused diaries, unwanted gifts, a slushpile of things that should have been put in their proper place or thrown out—if only there were room. If only there were some assurance that Anne would not find a way to fill up the floor with new things in a few more weeks. If only it had not become so taxing to consider caring for my own well-being, let alone hers.

Rounding the corner from the entryway toward the left, you stepped around a temporarily constructed wire rack that had become permanent and also overwhelmed with the same garbage, and when you looked left again there was the entrance to the fluorescent formica kitchen, and there was also the entrance to the bathroom which was a different circle of muck in that the toilet always clogged, the shower stall was small and scummy and had spiders. Anne and I could never fit in to shower together. If you did not go into the kitchen or the bathroom, and you just proceeded forward past the futon and its red end table, there was another door immediately and this led you to the bedroom. Where there was the useless north-facing window, and the curtains were mismatched brocade in green and purple, and the comforter on the bed was green and the throw blanket upon it was purple, and beneath all of this the sheets were an incongruous white with black polka dots. The bed frame was thin and rickety and made of pine, and we built it perfectly according to the instructions, but we bought one size too big for our mattress, so the mattress slid on the slats constantly, making slats fall out. Underneath this poor planning there wasn’t an ounce of storage space, but it had been claimed for that anyway, like every other place, stuffed with scarves and lost quarters and candy wrappers and water bottles half-drunk so that the water inside had turned to foul petri dish. And pills, dropped and unaccounted for and now unlabeled. This was to your right, and to your left was the too-small closet and the nook for the laundry basket which was ever-flooded because Anne would buy shirts with her credit card once and never wear them again but we had to clean them.

Useless desserts piling up in the freezer. Dishes stacking up in the sink. Trash in the form of papers, old boxes, damaged books, starting to breed within every corner, pleading for me to remove it except that what if Anne needed those things just once, what if what if, I absorbed her habits and her lack of motivation. I bought her a PlayStation 2 for our anniversary that February and now in May she had fifteen new games bought with debt, several never played, several played briefly and then an apparent disappointment, several played so frequently that I would lose my mind if I heard the game music ever again. Buying. Always buying. I was learning to help her feel better by buying, a lesson hard-learned when she’d spent $200 on me for Christmas and I frugally spent $25 but this turned out to be the shittiest form of support I could provide. “I understand you have all these pragmatic concerns,” she would tell me time and again, “but dearest one, without nice things… I mean I just want a little something now and then, you know?” A $200 little-something on our barely more than $1000 per month, and no, she was still not employed, not even unemployed in the benefits sense, all she had for any support was the COBRA plan for healthcare that her parents had conceded on in one rare and hard-won fight via mail. I pressed her time and again to do something else but the phone calls required scared her too much.

She was talking about cameras more, and also about voices. About the people who were mean and wanted to kill her. I asked if she meant her family, she said not them. I wondered if they would give her money, help us out in any way. We wrote and asked and the answer was still no. She bought a cat to feel less depressed, and he was a beautiful black cat with the sweetest and loudest purr, but she still stayed depressed so she never scooped his litter and I took this task upon myself because he would shit on the bathroom floor and cover it with towels otherwise. And he still did this even when I started to scoop and clean the box, because the box itself was too small and we couldn’t afford a bigger one, at least not when Anne wanted to choose between such necessities and a new pair of shoes.

One day, she started to talk about killing herself. This didn’t disturb me as much as it could have, initially; I had always known that her depressive phases involved suicidal ideation, or whatever they call it in medical terms. I had even heard her speak that way before. Distracted, chilled speech, completely bored: I don’t really know why I’m alive.—I should probably just die.—I’m going to be honest, I keep thinking about all the knives in our kitchen, I want to put one into my stomach and bleed everywhere. My uncle had killed himself but I didn’t really know what the signs of seriously attempting something were. Every time that she said these things at first, I felt panicked and asked questions like Anne do you want me to put all the pills away or hide the knives, Anne should I call someone about this, Anne have you considered changing your meds or maybe seeing a therapist again or something. It unsettled her to see me unsettled, or so it seemed, because whenever I made those responses she would assure me that it was okay, I’ll be good, as if not hurting herself were a matter of obedience. She also told me that I was probably the one who needed therapy instead, when was I going to sort out my gender confusion, and so forth. And she never even tried to carry through on her threats.

But that day, a weekend in June as I recall, because I had been home the whole time instead of slogging over to the cognitive science lab for my summer research assistantship there, that day she talked about killing herself an awful lot. She talked about it every couple of hours, from the moment we woke up to the time we snacked on some junk food for our lunch, to the time I performed a rare floor vacuuming, to the time we fought about dinner and ordered out and I picked it up. Then, after we ate and I tossed out the Styrofoam boxes in our overflowing trash—rested the boxes on the lid would be a better descriptor—I wound my way into the bedroom to find her on the bed scratching away furiously at her wrists with a plastic knife, frantic frenetic, labored enough that I could almost read the question why aren’t they bleeding yet?… Indeed, Anne looked very troubled by her lack of success, and she glared at me as I approached to snatch the utensil out of her grasp.

“Will you go to the hospital, Anne? I think we need to take you there.” I thought maybe I should have flipped my shit more, raised my voice, because after all, it was only plastic but there was no room in our apartment to hide anything truly dangerous, and I could not watch Anne 24/7.

Shaking her head, voice coming out in an abruptly terrified whisper: “I don’t want to go to a hospital. They’ll make me stay overnight,” Anne protested. We had never spent a single night apart, not since helping her flee New Jersey.

I knew she was half right, but I spoke as gently as I could, finding my mind startlingly clear under the circumstances. More clear than it had been during more mundane incidents, in fact. I said, “We don’t have to check you in like that. Not if you don’t want to. But maybe in the ER they can at least write you a prescription for some better meds, something temporary to tide you over till you could start seeing someone more often for this.”

“But I don’t want to see anyone!” Trembling. Anne reached out her hand for mine, or maybe for the plastic knife, which I was still holding. I gave her my free hand instead while she continued, “You remember what I told you about my parents, how they made me see a shrink year after year and the shrink would always tell them everything I said.”

“No therapist or psychiatrist or psychologist up here is going to be able to say anything to them. They wouldn’t even try if they even deserved a license.” I drew in my breath and looked around our dismally cluttered little chamber. The cat had found his way in and now appeared without warning upon the foot of the bed, settling into a loaf shape.

“I don’t want to do any of this.”

A dry swallow: “Anne… if you don’t do something about how you’ve been feeling lately, then soon you might wind up in the hospital and there won’t be any choice about whether you stay overnight.” They would keep her while she recovered from whatever trauma, and then if she were still talking about cameras and voices or if she cried too much, they would decide she was crazy. What did madness even mean? When I looked at Anne I saw a very sad and directionless person who needed help, and that was mostly it. I didn’t want anyone to lock her up if this got worse. But while I could watch over her for just about anything, help her in almost any respect, bend over backwards to make sure her needs were met, I knew I was limited when it came to her expressed wish to die.

I waited for her to address the dilemma I’d mentioned, and the cat watched the pair of us with eyes that were the pale green of a sickly moon.

Finally Anne mumbled, “Okay, we’ll go to the hospital.”

The hospital nearest us was a small and highly dubious operation that everyone at my school knew you didn’t want to visit because the staff would tell you for serious ailments that you were simply dehydrated, and related tripe. So we collected Anne’s insurance papers to prove that the COBRA would cover her, and we embarked on a twenty minute drive to a different hospital across the Hudson, except that it really became half an hour because we got lost on the way, quite lost—lost in a literal field of cows lost. In the fading light of the nearly midsummer sunset. But we found the building eventually, a forbidding and surprisingly tall brick structure that resembled more a factory than a place to lie down and be well, and I was already regretting that we hadn’t picked yet another place to go. Anne’s fidgeting told me of her own remorse.

We parked and walked to the emergency room entrance without saying much. Indoors, everything looked as if it should have been pristine and clinical white, but in fact it had grown dingy and beige instead. All the signs looked too old. The desks were small, the waiting areas were cramped, the hallways seemed narrow, the individual exam rooms were like tiny cells. And as we got directed to the intake center for psychiatric emergencies, Anne muttered, “What the fuck,” and I could see why. The little room had space for maybe six people to sit, all in close quarters, and there were only two seats left. Immediate discomfort, heightened claustrophobia, and over in the single exam room attached to it, a wildly drunk man was lying prone on the bed because he likely couldn’t do much else. Besides curse a lot and yell at the nurses about how he wanted to go home and they were such bitches and cunts for keeping him there. Fuck knows how he had gotten there in the first place, but I kept hearing the nurses tell him that he was too drunk to go home on his own, the only way he was getting out of there was in a cop car. This elucidated little, of course, and he made Anne wide-eyed, anxious, even frightened. She wanted to go, she told me, but we had already checked in and we weren’t allowed to leave until they were done evaluating her.

A nurse crowded everything in the little space—christ, could they at least turn the goddamn TV off, its volume being broken and thus loud enough to garble everyone’s speech—by wheeling in some equipment to check Anne’s vitals. The nurse wanted the usual data but she even wanted a blood sample. She was terrible at finding a vein in Anne’s arm, too. I watched Anne wince and almost cry as the needle was stuck around and prodded nearly ten times. My head spun to the point of dizziness. How was this healthy for psych patients, exactly?

I stared at the time after a while. We had arrived around eight-thirty, I knew, but now it was ten. I couldn’t believe it, and I couldn’t believe that no one had actually evaluated Anne yet or told us what the story was. “They don’t give a shit how I feel,” Anne even said softly, and it was true. Or if it wasn’t true, these people were certainly poorly equipped and poorly trained to help people who felt like killing themselves figure out a way to feel better for even the next few days. It took another solid hour of listening to the drunk man curse and the television blare and some ten year old kid who’d arrived sit down nearby with his parents and proceed to bounce off the fucking walls, then we were shown in to see the sole social worker.

The social worker had thick glasses and aging features and a weariness in her, topped off with a brown cardigan with a horrible pattern that I thought might set off Anne’s synesthesia—colors and patterns having smells for her on occasion. And right on cue, I saw Anne wrinkle her nose. In any case, the social worker wanted us to be very clear about whether or not Anne was feeling suicidal, and suddenly Anne said that no, she wasn’t, she just wasn’t feeling very good; confused, I worriedly piped up, “But what about—” everything you’ve said and Anne cut me off. She and the social worker proceeded to have a conversation about little more than medication, although it was impressed upon us strongly that Anne would benefit from therapy or at least more regular meetings with a psychiatrist. Soon enough, we were out of there, Anne having swallowed an offered pill and bearing a prescription for a small dose of the rest, pending her ability to see someone else for a more precise analysis.

“Don’t you ever put words in my mouth again,” hissed Anne through heaving breaths as we trudged toward the car in the pitch black night. I felt baffled by the experience of being outdoors after spending so much time in that nasty little den. But I was more baffled by what I just heard, and I must have asked for some kind of explanation, because Anne went on, “If I had said in her presence that I was really suicidal, they would have had to keep me overnight. Legally. Don’t ever let them do that.”

I wanted to ask if the better thing would be to let her remain suicidal and maybe kill herself; I really wondered this, I didn’t want to pick a fight when she was at her most vulnerable. After my uncle’s suicide for several years I imagined, as many people do, that the worst thing you can possibly do for a suicidal person is let them go through with it, because life is inherently worth living. Now for another several years I hadn’t been sure about this. Life did seem inherently worth living—but only to me. I couldn’t impose life on someone who didn’t want it, not any more than I could impose death. So why had I been so insistent about taking her to the hospital and making sure she didn’t attempt anything that night? Was it because I loved her? That seemed fucking selfish. I needed a better answer.

Maybe it was because it would mean I had failed as a caretaker. I was more a caretaker than a lover by now, in any case.

Maybe I just knew that if I didn’t try to help her, save her, she might survive anything she tried and then, in a change of heart, place the blame on me for my neglect.

Maybe I defended her reasons to live because if she died, my life would return to how it had been before knowing her, and I would not be relieved that she was gone—far from it, I’d be devastated, I couldn’t comprehend the grief when I tried to picture it—but I would feel better about other things over time. All the things we’d fought over and all the ways I was breaking myself in the name of love and devotion, they would fix themselves.

. . . .

There is no drinking here, for it is dust.
There is no wine, no company,
No guest to bless the jug.
There is no laughter from the corner room.
There is no moon to smile paper thin.

Here is where they fell and had their lust.
Here is for time, and vanity—
She gives the hour a tug.
Here is the spider weaving at her loom.

It is too soon that I should try to grin.

But would it matter, could it,
If I had scorned the passing minute hand
And stayed?
As if I might have knelt upon instruction
Hand folded on other hand for a minute
While in solemnitude and sable all I prayed.
I would have never done. I read too much now,
Tour the grandes cités in only dreams.
For there are masses of dead upon their rivers.
The Thames, the Seine, with glutted death aquiver.
In brief, I cannot go.

And do I go, dear heart,
To hunt with Diana;
The youth was felled by a boar.
Lully-lullay, thou

Gifts will be brought and placed,
The shades drawn, the electric lights on,
And out they lay the Body and the Blood
For grasping hands to pluck and pour—
Il n’était pas fait pour souffrir, mon amour.
I am not Christ, but only ash,
Consumed within the hurled fire;
This, too, shall pass.

Ye verray niest morn ich maad here my bryde
So ye world myghte haven noght for to seye
Al ye belles dude ring, an ye birds dude sing
As ich crowned here ye swete quene of May

Ring out O ring out, ring ring…

The hour is darkest and my need is great
But all is of my doing. I will wait
In Somerset upon the blackened beach
Where things desired lie just beyond our reach.

. . . .

Almost four years ago, Tom went back across the sea, attempted Americana once more. He has a master’s degree now, he has no small proficiency in Sanskrit, he has some new friends, he has some faint smoking lines around his mouth, he has rather less hair about his temples—the recession swifter than he would like—and right at this moment, he has a brand new jacket being hemmed at the tailor’s just down the road. But he is in London, because so much time amongst the bricks of Boston, crammed with intellectuals and academes, spectacled faces and spotted bow ties, voices thin as ancient manuscripts, it all became too much; he didn’t know that it was the cerebral qualities of this city at first, imagining he only missed Europe. He tried Germany and then war broke out, the offered scholarship at Merton seemed safer, he languished in Oxford amongst other Americans and anti-Americans. Now he has determined the root of his dislike. At twenty-six, Tom has been a scholar all his life, and though he thrives upon such pursuits for his mind, he stares from his apartment window out onto the street, the flower seller with her roses and carnations passing by, and he knows this is what he has waited for. An alcove for his own person, his own existence and way of doing things, less people to answer to. Less of the bowing and scraping—oh, he knows how to pay respect, but he would prefer a license to be disagreeable when he wants. More time to work, to think, to write. Not to be absorbed in the culture of a university.

Tom sips his coffee gingerly, for it still needs to lose some steam. He does not know yet how much he likes England, but he is not an elitist about coffee, and he will accept this much. Another glance out the window—June is in the breeze, arriving any day now. It will be lovely to explore and learn London in the summer right away, and then to commence his doctoral work. More poetic work, too, perhaps. Slowly, gracefully, Tom prepares to drag his typewriter near to him, letting it clunk over the small kitchen table covered by plain white cloth. He needs to draft a letter thanking that fantastical gentleman Pound for the pending publication of Prufrock, it is only to be regretted that I shall not be in Chicago itself to pick up a copy of the magazine myself, et cetera. The poem had been “Prufrock Among the Women,” all that time ago, but he’s altered the title slightly, not to mention slashed a few lines from the middle, retooled the opening epigram from Dante… Jean had dismissed the Italian ignorantly, when he read the early version. Tom remembers this with a strange stiffness creeping through his fingers. No, he will not write the letter now. Why has he thought of Jean, in any case? Their correspondence has slowed ever since the war started, and in fact Tom merely knows that Jean enlisted. Medical officer, of course.

The telegram thus arrives with perfectly malicious timing. While Jean could never have written very much about his location or life in the service, he had promised one thing: to make sure his family kept Tom apprised of the French Army’s activities on the level of civilian knowledge, which would likely prove quicker and more accurate than what Tom might read in an English newspaper. If not more accurate, certainly more interesting and personal. Tom has received several letters over the months, and recently directed one to be sent back providing his new address in London. The other times, he hadn’t thought about Jean very much. This is the first time that such a thought has unexpectedly heralded news—who else, indeed, would send him a telegram but the Verdenals, and why a telegram of all things if it were not important. All of that is why Tom finds his heart rushing and booming somewhat too feverishly, as he hears the front doorbell ring, comes downstairs to answer it, and sees the fellow with the neat little card in hand. It is all happening too momentously, the thoughts and events aligned in perfect precision. If only he could kick the doorframe and throw the world out of balance, because then it would not make such agonizing sense. Young men befriend each other during their collegiate studies to become lifelong companions or mere ships passing in the night. Young men become soldiers to die.

In a certain case, drowning in mud while attempting to save the lives of his injured brothers in arms, somewhere on a far Turkish beach. Gallipoli, the Dardanelles. Tom knows the place, chiefly from Homer, that stretch of Asia Minor generally designated the site of Troy. He reads the news in French again, translates it in his mind, while turning away from the telegraph courier and returning back up the steps. Back up to the apartment that he calls all he could want right now. He’s been forgetting something from that evaluation.

“Sweets to the sweet,” he murmurs, the allusion impossible to restrain, only then his guts curdle and he vomits suddenly and simply on his floor, a hot rush of bile and bitterness. He cries, “Oh Christ,” and his ears ring, the sweet summer wind whistling under the cracked window could be as bleak and choking as a desert storm after apocalypse—

I lifted my hands from the keyboard.

I thought I had stopped writing.

I had only stopped writing the biography. This was a work of fiction. How did I know the way that Eliot received notice of Verdenal’s death? I didn’t. Why had I never included such basic details as the truss that Eliot habitually wore for a lifelong hernia? It hadn’t seemed interesting. I was writing a work of fiction about real people. I realized this with sweat beginning to form on my back. And here, in the present, the actual, I was the lie. Stop writing about other people when you don’t even know who you are, Anne had said, but it took those words to make me stop knowing myself. I’d known who I was before she fertilized any chance of doubt. There is great value in introspection, in scrutiny, in questioning one’s essence, but it is a fool’s errand if performed only to placate another soul, and if the other only prompts this strip search because of what they would prefer to see.

I had not lived through Tom before, but the moment Anne invented the notion, something crystallized. Now I started to see what it was, and I shuddered, pleaded with myself not to finish this scene, because I had already wept and begged forgiveness and stared into all my abysses of inadequacy, I did not want to do it again.

But I did finish the scene. Tom cries for me, this time. He cries with less loathing and more horror, but he doubles over from it all the same while the vomit stinks like decay from down at his feet, and he is loud and childish in his sobs and cares nothing for his neighbors’ repose.

Somewhere else in London there is a girl whom he has met and known since February or March, a governess who would like to be a dancer, or at least they have danced together from time to time. He decides to get married to her. It seems like the best solution to everything.

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