by Joshua Shaw
Midway through her love story, in which we are slow dancing atop a creaky fire escape, a boozy swooning to the snow’s pitter-patter as I say I love you I love you for the first time, I interrupt Eleanor to point out that if she loved me she would stop unscrewing my head. “You aren’t the man I married,” she says. “Sweetie,” I say, “I’ve been telling you that for a year.”
After that, it’s all pursed lips in the waiting room. Eleanor sets my head down among the magazines on the coffee table, snatches a copy of Time, pretends to read, but snaps the pages like some higher authority has asked her to reconsider her life’s most shameful moments. There is a cadence to her reading. Silence. Pages riffling. Then: a sharp, deliberate snap. Silence. Riffle. Snap. The only other sound is the murmur of an aquarium, full of water, but empty of fish, and I bide my time listening to its pump gurgle and watching the greenery billow. Naturally, we wait ages before Egan pops his head in the door.
“How’re you folks doing this week?” he asks as he shepherds us down the hall. Neither of us says a word. “That bad?”
Eleanor has been making me see Egan for months. At first, I came along willingly, enthusiastically, convinced he’d assist me in setting the record straight, but it soon became clear that he and Eleanor were in cahoots. Too many knowing looks. Egan took Eleanor’s side in every dispute. I told her I was done. No more visits. No more Egan. “Just try and move this robot body,” I said, and to emphasize my immovability, I flexed my arms, good and loud, so she’d hear the hydraulics pumping away, before settling in on the couch in the den and flicking the Do-Not-Under-Any-Circumstances-Move switch in my mind. I powered down my face and sat motionless for days, internally binging on reruns of Gilmore Girls and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I awoke to find that Eleanor had unscrewed my head and that we were going to visit Egan, my declarations to the contrary be damned. “It’s for your own good,” she said as she wound the passenger seat safety belt around my disembodied head.
I continued to resist, but, as they say, resistance was futile. Eleanor would wait until my batteries died. I’d wake to find myself plugged into our car’s charger, watching treetops flicker against grey skies as we took the backroads down to Stamford, where Egan’s office was located.
“So,” Egan says once we’re settled in his office, “Tell me about this week. What happened?” There is a long silence, the usual silence. “Alright, enough. You both know we’re going to talk about it. So, spill the beans. What happened?”
I let Eleanor go first. “I can’t take it. Look, I know I’ve said that before, but this time, I can just feel that I’m at my limit. Look, Paul, we need to make some progress. Soon. I mean, I’ve tried. I’ve really tried. It’s just that, if we don’t, then I can’t. I just can’t do it anymore.”
Egan sits with his legs crossed, right ankle propped on left knee, looking calculatedly serene. He’s wearing a clerical collar and a violet stole fringed in silver that puddles in his lap, a smiley button on his lapel. He taps his clipboard. “What are you thinking, Zach?” he asks.
I don’t say a word.
“You know I don’t want you to call me that.”
“We’ve discussed this. You don’t want me to call you Zach or Zachary? Fine. Provide me with another name.”
“What’s my name?”
“My real name.”
“Zach, come on.”
Egan goes on to give his stock speech. He cannot help me until I am prepared to help myself. The first step is to acknowledge my problem. He has asked them to check it and to check it again; tech support assures him that I am, without a doubt, Zachary Doothis. Age sixty-four at the time of my resurrection, I prefer desserts to appetizers, dogs to cats. I am married to Eleanor Doothis, nee Eleanor Stimp, age fifty-eight. We have two daughters, Lori and Gina, twenty-eight and twenty-six. Eleanor and I live in a four-bedroom ranch in Washington, Connecticut. My favorite musician is Billy Joel. Secretly, Billy Joel’s “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” is my favorite song, though publicly I claim to love “Piano Man” more because I consider it to have more social cachet.
Egan peppers his recitation with a predictable but ever-changing litany of shameful revelations—my most humiliating sexual fantasies, the worst things I’ve done. I became fascinated in my later years with pornography in which husbands watch their wives have sex with other men. Often, said pornography involved scenarios in which they, said wives, are half-willingly raped by black men, although, to my credit, Egan points out that I am not turned on by the race of the offenders.
Once, I killed a small animal with my hands, just to see if I could.
Egan divulges these shames, ostensibly to verify that I am Zachary Doothis, for these are memories he, Zachary, would never share, yet he, Egan, knows them all and more. How could he unless it was true that they’d cracked open Zachay’s skull, removed the splinter that had eavesdropped on his life, and wedged it into this, my new body? How could he know unless he’d been privy to its etchings?
It seems to me that Egan delights too much in shaming me. If you watch close, you’ll see he pauses, letting the imminent description of my sins tingle on his lips like refreshingly minty candy.
Personally, I think he divulges my shames because he is a massive douchebag.
Egan reminds me that there have been other tests: inkblots, questionnaires chock full of riddles. They have compared my answers to those Zachary would give; they are one and the same. We see the same animals in ink stains.
The splinter in my head has been lodged in other bodies as well to make sure that I, He-Who-Refuses-To-Be-Zachary, am not some bodily aberration, some recalcitrant lust buried deep in my coding cascading into a vagabond echo of Zachary. The fact that I reiterate in other bodies proves I am nothing more than Zachary-In-Denial.
“The real question,” Egan concludes, as he’s concluded before, “is why it’s so important to deny what you know to be true. You are Zachary Doothis.”
It’s a fair question. All those memories are mine, the shameful and blessed alike.
Still, I’m sure I’m not him. Maybe they mislabeled me. Some paperwork was misplaced. Perhaps the real Zachary is out there somewhere feeling just as perplexed as me. He hasn’t realized, of course, that he is Zachary. How could he? He has been told he is a Lester, a Henry, a James, but he wakes in the night beside a stranger toward whom he feels nothing, coffined in a stranger’s body, and maybe, like me, he finds himself bewitched by unanswerable questions: Who am I?
There are other clues too. Hints.
Case in point: I just said that Egan is a douchebag. I am currently executing a program that scours our memories, Zachary’s, mine, and I swear he never once used the word douchebag in his life. My brain calculates that even if he were shopping for a douchebag for some reason he would not use this term, or even the word douche. He would say something like, “Pardon me, sir, can you tell me where your feminine hygiene products are located?” And he’d leave it to the clerk to figure out what he was trying to buy.
Obviously, I’m being flippant, but the point is there are signs. I’m less mature, less confident, more of a fuckup, but, consequently, I find myself more interesting. Sure, Zach has some kinky fantasies, but, really, who among us has not enjoyed fragments of madness that made us squirm? The fact remains that when Zachary is most doggedly himself he is easily the most boring guy on the planet.
Seriously, the guy kept a blog for four years in which he posted reviews, I kid you not, of chocolate chip cookies. Chocolate. Chip. Cookies. The cookies at the Good News bakery in Stockbridge, Massachusetts? Three stars for their unconventional but effective use of nutmeg. The cookies that accompanied a ham-and-Swiss omelet at a mom-and-pop diner off of route 65 roundabouts Roselawn, Indiana? One star. I quote: “A stale bag of Chips Ahoy would have been more satisfying.”
Put it this way: there is a lack at my core, a hole in the sand, and, whoever I am, the story of that person’s life is a story of failed attempts to fill this hole, which, at least, gets me to notice the small but beautiful things of this world in my desperate, juvenile hope that they will complete me. Zach? He is a full hole. That is to say, a flat patch of ground. That is to say, quite precisely nothing at all.
Put it this way: I am a soggy mound of rain-drenched leaves on the side of a road, just waiting to be plumed by the backdraft of a passing car. Zachary is the clod behind the wheel, oblivious to the poetry of wind-borne leaves because he’s too busy singing along to Billy Joel’s “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” while dreaming up bland reviews of yesterday’s chocolate chip cookies.
“I just know,” I tell Egan. “I just know I’m not Zachary Doothis.”
I feel a certain sympathy for the fat, elderly orangutan in his Plexiglas cage. The sign says his name is “Oliver.” He is a Bornean Orangutan, the oldest in New England. There are others in his pen, his children, his grandkids perhaps, chipper, baby-faced, engaged in fittingly monkey-like activities. Swinging. Capering. That sort of thing. The kids to my right and left laugh and poke at the glass, but Oliver, who is more mound than beast, a sludgy mountain of puckered skin and patchy fur, just sits on a deflated pool toy, what was once perhaps a giraffe, and stares and stares and stares.
Gina has decided that today is a good day to take my head for a walk. It’s been about a month since my last visit with Egan. I have tried to run away a few times, and, yes, some property damaged ensued. Eleanor and Egan decided it would be best for me to spend some time away from my body.
Most days, Eleanor plugs my head into a charger we keep on the island in the kitchen, next to the day’s junk mail and a basket for things apt to clutter the counters: coins, pencils, coupons. It charges her music player and sometimes, if she’s sore about one of our fights, and feeling spiteful, she’ll leave it playing in my ears while she runs errands. To her credit, she doesn’t force me to listen to anything too crappy. She’ll set it to Brazilian music, lots of bittersweet, sunny-sounding bossa nova. It’s not a bad life. I watch chickadees perch on the birdfeeders while my face grooves to Joao Gilberto and Tom Jobim and others whose names I can never keep straight. Some might call it heaven.
Still, too much of anything is bad for you. For this reason Gina has gotten into the habit of taking my head on daytrips that are intended to soothe my anguished mind and help her fathom the crazed thing her father has become.
“What do you think, dad?” she asks, lifting my head off the sill. “Should we move on to the next animal?”
“No. Let’s stay a bit longer. I like watching him.”
“The fat one?”
Gina is unthreateningly beautiful: flawless skin, easy smile, long tresses of curly brown hair that fall in tangles across her face in a way that conveys both childlike grace and a genius’s disregard for personal appearance. It’s the kind of hair that women envy but men overlook. She is the smart friend in the high school photograph whose beauty you never noticed at the time. Sensitive, intelligent young men fall in love with her easily. She never notices their jilted hearts.
Gina is supposed to be my favorite daughter. She is literally tagged as “favorite daughter” in some memories, a little popup box winking in and out of visibility in the corners of these recollections. Some are pretty wonderful. There is this one I like to watch. Gina is three. We’re hiding under the blankets of Zachary’s and Eleanor’s bed, make-believing we’re in a cave, deep under the earth, buried under mountains’ worth of rocks and snow. Gina has a flashlight, and we’re gazing at each other’s faces in the dark, and she puts her small hand on my cheek and says, with an earnestness that should shatter this world, “I love you, dad.”
Sure, it’s cliché, cloying in its sentimentality, but I promise you you’d dwell in that memory too if you had it. You’d build a log cabin inside it and retire there and walk its beaches twice daily, and die satisfied: the world distilled to a singular pulse of warmth and light where a child’s adoring gaze sculpts your face into something worthy of belonging in this broken world.
Gina is also the only one who is willing to entertain my conviction that I am not Zachary Doothis. She doesn’t buy it for a second, but her love for her father runs so deep that she is prepared to forgive his delusions. She’d rather have Zachary live out his days in happy self-denial than force him to be her father.
Really, she is great. But do I love her? Do I feel fatherly affection? No. Honestly, she can be a bit much. There is a sincerity about her that’s exhausting in anything larger than small doses. She does her best to make it seem as though we’re having a casual chat. But every conversation pitches hard toward some pseudo-intellectual epiphany, some longed-for spiritual connection. Spending a day with her is like being groped by an angel; it’s like standing next to someone wearing too much patchouli in the world’s slowest elevator. Zachary did a great job raising her, don’t get me wrong, but I am not above hating her the way you can only hate a stranger.
“That’s interesting,” she says.
“That sign. It says orangutans share ninety-seven percent of the same DNA as us, and they’re smarter than chimpanzees, but they can’t recognize their reflections in mirrors.”
“What do you think they see?”
“What do you mean?”
“When they look in mirrors, do they see anything? Is it just a bunch of indistinct blobs? Or do they see a bunch of orangutans but don’t recognize them as themselves?”
“That’s a creepy thought. Just a bunch of strangers staring back at them? I’d guess that they don’t see anything.”
“I wonder if that makes them happier,” I say, “not being able to recognize their own faces.”
“How would we ever know?”
“Aren’t there sign-language apes? That one with the kitten. Koko? Kiki? We could ask them.”
“Those are gorillas.”
“Can gorillas see themselves in mirrors?”
“How would I know?”
“Still, you get the point.”
“No,” Gina says, shaking her head, “That wouldn’t help. I mean, how would it even know what it’s like to have a reflection? What would its frame of reference be? I mean, even if you could ask an orangutan the question, it couldn’t answer because it wouldn’t know what it means to recognize a face in a mirror. It would be meaningless, like asking if you prefer salty foods to foods that taste like grue or bleen.”
“What are grue and bleen?”
“They’re colors, I think.”
“Not real ones. Made up ones. Theoretical colors. Philosophical colors.”
“What do they taste like?”
I can’t see her face from where my head’s perched, but I can tell from the warmth in her voice that Gina is smiling.
“Like a soggy blanket. Like a well-oiled hinge.”
“Like a caveman’s club. Like the belly of a submarine.”
“I think I prefer salty foods.”
We idle away the afternoon with meandering. Neither of us cares about the animals. We amble past sand cats and zebus, artificial rivers where geese swim in lazy parades, an indoor pool, acrid with the scent of chlorine, where we watch penguins poop on the tiled floor, but we spend just as much time in front of empty pens. The polar bear is nowhere to be seen. Something has happened to the hyraxes. We let ourselves enjoy these empty spaces, the mystery of them. Where do polar bears vacation? What is a hyrax anyway?
A rickety train shuttles around the zoo’s perimeter. Gina buys tickets. We take a seat at the back, away from the children. Midway around the park Gina gathers her breath for TheConversation.
“Dad, we need to talk about something.”
I can tell from her tone that it’s bad, something I won’t want to hear.
Gina gulps another breath. “Mom has decided, we have decided, after that last episode, that it would be better, we think, if you got some help. Extra help. All the stuff you’re dealing with, it’s beyond Mom’s ability to handle it. She needs help, and Ellen and I, we’re not sure if we can help. I mean, Ellen is so busy with the kids, and her job too. And I want to help. It’s just that I don’t know if I can. I don’t know how. But there is this place, in upstate New York, and there are people there who can help you, we think, and…”
“You’re committing me,” I say flatly. “You’re committing me.”
“It’s not…” Gina never finishes her thought. She bites her lip, fidgets with her skirt. She turns her head and pretends to watch the animals in the zoo’s make-believe safari, a scanty herd of antelopes, resting, ambling in the dry grass, but her gaze has turned inward. I can see her having it out with herself.
I feel bad for her. It’s probably not even her choice. Chances are, Eleanor and Ellen have made the decision against her wishes, but she feels duty-bound, out of love for Zachary, to be the one who delivers the news.
The train enters an artificial cave decorated with glow-in-the-dark graffiti: Turn back! Beware! No escape! Crude paintings of bats and skeletons glow under the black lights. The kids at the front howl like wolves; the conductor toots his whistle. When the train emerges into daylight, I see that Gina has begun to cry.
Egan once asked me what I want from my life. “If you don’t want to stay in this marriage, if you don’t want to be Zachary Doothis,” he said, “what do you want?” It was a simple question but it triggered a nasty bout of dread. What do I want? How could I know? All I have to work with are Zachary’s memories. Asking me what I want is like asking a blank piece of paper what words it wants written on it. How should it know?
But I reconsider as I watch Gina cry. Maybe I’m thinking about it the wrong way. Suppose I am a blank page, what then? Maybe once you start a story you inch toward some words, away from others. You write a sentence like The man in the hat stepped onto the train. Well, now you know: he is either going to step off or stay on. Either that hat will park on his head forever, or something will come along to knock it off. But prior to the sentence, when there is just a blank page, all words are fitting, which is to say that they’re all equally inconsequential.
Perhaps the same should be said of me. Zachary might prefer deserts to appetizers, dogs to cats, but me? How should I know? More importantly, who gives a fuck?
And that seems about right. Prop me on a windowsill and leave me staring at a fat orangutan? Meh. Doesn’t sound so bad. Leave me near a window to listen to bossa nova music while watching chickadees nibble seeds? Can’t imagine anything better. It doesn’t take much to satisfy me.
I guess what I am trying to say is that if I cannot be myself, then I shouldn’t give two shits who the world wishes me to be. And if that’s the case, then I might as well suck it up and be the father whom Gina needs in this moment.
“Actually,” I say, “Maybe you’re right. Maybe it’s best if I went away for a while.”
“I don’t want you to go, dad.”
The train returns to the station, where more families wait for their turn to ride. Gina wipes away her tears.
“Why don’t you tell me about this place,” I say, as she picks me up.
And then she does.
True-or-false questions are supposed to be easy but Schroeder’s unstitch us. Today he has asked a question about a box. We are arranged in a circle, seven heads on seven folding chairs, a cardboard box in the center. Inside the box is a wish. If we choose to open it, our wish will be granted. Schroeder stipulates that the wish in question will fulfill our innermost longing. Seven envelopes have been placed in front of us. Their purpose has not been explained.
“True or false,” Schroeder says, “You should open the box?”
No one answers.
Schroeder sits in our circle, on an eighth chair. Like Egan, he wears a clerical collar, a stole, and a decorative button. His says, “You do not need to be crazy to work here but it helps.” It is his idea of a joke. He wears a headset with a microphone. The tip of a pencil-sized wand peeks out of his breast pocket. We have seen it before; it is perfectly cylindrical, shiny like chrome, featureless except for a single rounded button on its tip. Not to be crude, but it looks like a vibrator.
He carries a clipboard. Unlike Egan’s, his is clearly ceremonial. Cameras are scattered around the room in plain sight and in great abundance. They clutter it. Everywhere you look you see tripods and mechanical eyes. There are cameras mounted on the ceiling as well. The sheer number is absurd. Some of us speculate that their purpose is not to record us but to make us feel watched, to render our witnessing palpable.
Schroeder has also informed us that there are computers hidden in the room, under the floorboards, above the ceiling panels. They monitor everything we think, all we feel, and compare this data against the thoughts we are supposed to be thinking apropos the people we were intended to be. Nothing escapes them.
They are one reason for our ongoing debate about answering. Why should we vocalize our answers to Schroeder’s questions if the computers already know them? Also, who is to say that our spoken answers are truthful? If the computers know I subconsciously long to have my body back for a day so I can masturbate, why should I pretend otherwise by misguidedly convincing myself that I’d like nothing better than to feel sunlight on my skin, or to hold a flower or a baby bird or some shit like that in the palm of my hand?
Clearly, I’m of the opinion that we should not answer Schroeder’s questions. Doing so only provides our observers with more information. Case in point: What does it say if I lie to Schroeder even though I know that the computers will spot my deception? What does it say if I don’t know what I’m thinking? The last thing I want is to give a fucknut like Schroeder more insight into me.
Thus, I sit in belligerent silence until answers are forced out of me. Obviously, this too is revealing.
Most agree, though, that we should resist. An exception is Leonard. Leonard sincerely wishes to be the person he was meant to be. He is prepared to give group therapy a try. He tries to convince us that the act of speaking transforms the speaker. Think Schrodinger’s cat, neither alive nor dead until some scientist cracks the box. So too, Leonard says that there is no Leonard, no Zachary, until we speak them into being before a witnessing public. “An individual can be transfigured,” he says breathlessly, “through the communal discourse that transpires within a therapeutic setting. So let us talk our way, gentlemen, into being the men we should be.”
Leonard does a lot of crying in our sessions, unwarranted crying in my opinion. He is always talking about places where he and his ex-wife had sex: a sand dune overlooking the Black Sea, a virgin forest on the Appalachian Trail, a rest stop en route to Nashville. Unfortunately, there is nothing salacious about his descriptions of sex: it’s always a religious event, and Leonard weeps the bitter tears of a reluctant apostate when he recalls it.
He tends to monopolize discussion too, and for this reason Schroeder has stipulated that he is not permitted to confess anymore until others have spoken, which means that we usually sit around in stroppy silence until Schroeder zaps a few of us into submission. Then he lets Leonard blather about how he couldn’t get a boner after his resurrection.
Schroeder taps his clipboard, gazes around the circle. There is a predatory look in his eyes. Didn’t get enough sleep maybe. Not enough coffee. Maybe he has a headache. He locks onto me and I know I’m fucked.
“Zachary, what do you think? Should you open the box?”
I made a promise to myself that I would never, EVER, under any circumstances, answer Schroeder’s questions the first time he asks them. No matter how dire the threat, I will never answer the first time. Schroeder knows this, of course, thanks to his computers, and so after a brief, perfunctory silence he restates his question.
“Zachary, should you open it?”
This is when I worry. It’s difficult to know how long to resist. At first, I would hold out. Schroeder would wait, reiterate his question a few times, reason with me the way you plead with a child who refuses to eat supper. If that didn’t work, he’d take out his vibrator, sigh, and click the button, at which point all manner of torment would be visited upon me.
He has since become more devious.
He’ll click his wand but instead of pain you’ll find your mind has been royally fucked in some subtle way. Click. And then, in a blink, you’re weeping because you remember you slept with your sister when you were fourteen, and it takes days to recall that you don’t even have a sister. Or, he’ll talk into his microphone, hiding his lips, and then, click, nothing will happen, but later you’ll notice that Schroeder’s eyes are green, when they should be brown, and for some reason a scar creases his lip, and his voice is different, perhaps he is a woman, and you’ll wonder why no one else is troubled by the fact that he is being impersonated by someone else, until you look around and realize that everyone, everyone, is somebody else.
Worse: Schroeder has played these games often enough that we cannot be sure when we are being manipulated. Nothing will seem to happen when he clicks his wand, but you’ll spend the week dissecting yourself, scouring your longings, your insecurities, every flicker of desire, wondering if they’re the tip of some nightmare Schroeder has installed in you. If nothing happens, you’ll still worry because, for you all know, it could be down there somewhere, deep in the pipes. And God help if you do find something. Then you’ll be left worrying whether it’s Schroeder’s doing or your own.
“What will it cost me if I refuse?” I ask.
Schroeder raises an eyebrow.
“If I choose not to answer,” I say, “what’s going to happen when you click that fucking vibrator?”
Schroeder talks into his microphone, waits a moment, nods.
“We will remove an inhibition,” he says.
“The one that keeps you from opening the box.”
I contemplate the threat. If I refuse, I will be forced to wholeheartedly desire the thing I most desire. It sounds mild. But Schroeder is wearing his Big Bad Wolf grin, which means I am missing something.
“Just answer him, Zach,” Leonard says, “It’s not a difficult question: If you had the opportunity to get the thing you want most, would you take it? Obviously, you would, right?”
“Shut up, Leonard,” I say.
“Am I missing something?” Leonard asks. He can’t shrug or shake his head. So, instead, he rolls his eyes. “Zachary, look, the question, it’s borderline tautological: Do you want what you want? Obviously, the answer is ‘yes.’”
“Shut up, Leonard.”
“I’m just saying…”
“That’s enough, Leonard” Schroeder interrupts him, and he pats the pocket where he keeps his wand to emphasize the risks Leonard runs if he keeps running his mouth. “What do you think, Zachary, are you ready to answer my question?”
I contemplate Zachary’s life. Which of his humdrum aspirations will Schroeder force me to desire if I invite him to fuck off?
Or maybe his computers have me figured out. Maybe they know me better than I know myself. I seem easygoing. I’d assume that my wishes are tame. But maybe there is some memory, now lost to me, which they can deduce, and maybe, if I had it back, I’d vividly recall how I once longed for my brother’s death, and how I’ve always feared that this wish lingers yet within me. Maybe Schroeder will infect me with my own desires.
Perhaps, I think, there is no I which is not a burden.
Fuck it. At a certain point, you can drown in a question. Listen too close to the world, or to your own mind, and it starts to sounds like some god-awful seashell, a roaring plenitude of whispers. Better to choke down the question before I drown in it. “No.” I say. “I would not open it.”
Schroeder nods, adds a meaningless mark his clipboard. “Thank you, Zachary,” he says, “Thank you very much.”
There is more to the session. Leonard volunteers to open his box; the other heads remain silent. Toward the end, when the orderlies file in to carry us off, silent in their jumpsuits and masks, I catch a glimpse of Schroeder stooping before my chair and opening the manila envelope in front of it. He unloops the thread, withdraws some papers, considers them. He smiles. It’s a confusing smile: neither malicious nor smug, nor amused. What the papers said, what his smile meant, these are things I could never guess.
“What is a soul?” Schroeder asks. He has grown a third eye in the center of his head. There is another on his jawline, a bit rheumy, and another again on his hand. His voice sounds like a dry bone snapping under the foot of something heavy and mean. Time flickers. It’s a little like watching television back in the old days, when you would have to manipulate the antenna to pick up a signal, the image distending, snapping out of existence, then reappearing, recognizable but changed, inched along in time. That’s what’s happening in group therapy these days. We undulate. We flicker.
These changes should scare me, but, frankly, I’m more worried about the remaining heads. Leonard is long gone. Only three remain. The others never speak. I have begun to wonder whether they ever lived. Perhaps they are just props intended to trick me into confessing, mere shells.
“What is a soul?” Schroeder asks again. He rises from his chair and crosses the circle. He lifts me up, peers into my eyes. “Can a soul break? Can it shed? Does a swarm of butterflies have a soul?”
He paces, juggles me from hand to hand. The tossing should make me sick, but my MEMs sensors compensate for the arc and spin, and my visual processing system slows the feed, so that, instead, it all feels rather pleasant, as if I was a dimwitted child bouncing on the world’s gentlest trampoline.
“Where do souls live? Bottled in our brains? Or are they smeared across places and times? A little here, a little there, like watercolors bleeding into tissue paper and mingling?”
Schroeder pauses for a long time. He is not wearing his headset, but it is as if he is listening to something that talks to him from far, far away.
“Here is the question, Zachary,” he says, breaking the silence. He sets me down on my chair. He squats next to me and looks me in the eyes. “Here is the question you must answer.”
“Knock-knock,” he says, rapping on my forehead with his knuckle, “Who is there?”
I say nothing. Everyone has a breaking point. This, apparently, is mine. I draw a line in the sand. No matter how dire the threat, Schroeder is getting nothing out of me today.
“Knock-knock,” he taps again, “Who’s there?”
I’d shake my head, but, alas, I haven’t a neck to do the shaking. So, instead, I glower. For all I know, I could look silly: a grumpy little face on a battered folding chair wearing a sulky frown. Schroeder considers me for a moment and bursts out laughing.
“Do you want to hear what I’ll do, Zachary,” he says, “if you do not answer the question? Here is what I will do: I will force you to relive the best moment of your life. Doesn’t sound bad, does it? Almost like a vacation. Yet consider the risks: how many memories are unvarnished records? How many are inspired reconstructions? What will you uncover if you relive, to the letter, the moment upon which you, Zachary, have erected your life?
I mull over the threat but decide it’s worth risking. Really, I’m not sure I have a dog in this race. These are Zachary’s memories. No skin off my back if they turn out to be even lamer than I remember them to be. Thus, I hold my tongue and glower away.
He finds excuses to marvel at her cupboards. They are full of jellies: dewberry jelly, elderberry jelly, gingered honey, boysenberry jam. There are apple butters and fruit preserves in mason jars, and little pitchers of pure maple syrup from New England farms with names like Dewy Meadows and Apple Jack Creek. He likes to touch them, to run his fingers across the neat, precise rows, to reach all the way back until his hand touches the wall. This feel of his arm wedged in among all those little jars, it thrills him.
He is spending the weekend at Eleanor’s. It’s a cold night, the first snow of the season. They are sitting by the bay windows, drinking wine and watching it fall.
Eleanor says, “Has it ever occurred to you that the processes by which the Culture Industry inures us to our alienation could foster the seeds of its own undoing?”
She says, “I don’t think technology has made our lives better. Do you?”
She says, “I think we’re forgetting how to live. I really believe that. I really do.”
He nods without being sure what he is accepting. He is, perhaps, a little drunk.
Talking with Eleanor still leaves him unreasonably self-conscious. He knows he is smart. It’s his second year at the lab, no small feat in itself, and Dr. Galois has indicated that he is being groomed for big things.
He is a few years Eleanor’s senior, too, and he recognizes that much of her speech is affectation, showing-off, trying to convince him, and maybe herself, that she, still an undergraduate, is worldly enough to be dating him, The Older Man. Still, her way of speaking makes him feel as though he is trespassing into a world where he does not belong, a world where people spread dewberry jelly on their toast while predicting the downfall of something called “The Culture Industry” through Brechtian theater. He feels small-minded. He becomes tongue-tied. It is easier, sometimes, to simply nod his head.
Eleanor lounges on her couch. She is dressed in flannel pajama bottoms and a grey t-shirt, her long legs tucked underneath her, a loose-knit blanket draped over her shoulders. There is music playing in the background, something classical that Zachary does not recognize, raindrop sounds on a piano with gobs of silence between them. Sometimes Eleanor plays such music herself. He tells her it is pretty, although, truthfully, he is unsure of it. It makes him feel funny. He is not sure why someone would want to listen to music that makes them feel such sugary pain.
He holds up his empty glass, says “I think I need more wine.”
She says, “Why don’t you uncork the Malbec?”
He saunters to her kitchen, fights the temptation to peak in her cupboards, rummages through her wine rack for a bottle labeled Malbec.
He prefers to meet at her apartment. His studio shames him. It is little more than a high-ceilinged walk-in closet, with just enough room for a futon and a kitchenette. Its windows face the bricks of the neighboring building. If he wishes, he can touch them.
Eleanor comes from money, and it shows. She rents out a spacious two-bedroom on the tenth floor of a building on Kirkwood. She has a piano, a dining room, hallways. It feels like a home. Canvases adorn the walls. House plants abound.
But it is her cupboards that thrill him. The jams and jellies, the syrups and preserves, which her parents send in monthly care packages, delicacies from boutique farms in the Berkshires that they tour on the weekends. Above them are shelves of imported biscuits and teas, Belgian chocolates and tins of European cookies. He loves to open her cupboards and gaze at these shelves. They make him feel like he is living a story.
He does not usually think of himself this way. Eleanor talks about herself like a character in a book, one whose least decisions carry certain burdens of interpretation. What is the meaning of a frown on her face in that photograph from the summer when she was fifteen? Why can’t she recall where her father took her for dinner on the night of her coming out party? It confuses her that he does not think of himself this way. There is no story to be had for why Zachary likes the things he likes. These are not things, he thinks, which necessitate stories.
But standing in her kitchen, gazing at her cupboards, he feels himself awash in one, uplifted by it. Once upon a time, he thinks, there was a Midwestern boy, small-town naïve but full of can-do spirit, whose worthiness to inherit the best this world has to offer shall be made manifest through a good job at IBM and the hand of a girl who grew up eating blood orange marmalade on imported biscuits. Her cupboards make him feels like the deserving peasant boy on the eve of marrying a princess.
He returns with a bottle of red wine that is not a Malbec. Eleanor chides him: “Oh, Zach. A Beaujolais? That’s too sweet for such cold weather.”
“I’ll get another,” he says, rising.
“No, it’s already open. Let’s drink it up.”
He listens to her talk, the ebb and flow of her voice. He talks too, the wine softening his inhibitions, the tensile strength of beryllium, bottle rockets and Bluegill fishing on Shipshewana Lake. Mostly he watches her legs. She drapes them across his lap; he massages her calves as they talk. Her body intrigues him. She is tall, nearly as tall as he is, and it fascinates him how she can appear, in one moment, insubstantial, lank and willowy, and, in the next, substantial. He revels in the heft of her legs. He studies the shape of her breasts through her shirt.
“What is it?” she asks.
He realizes it is quiet in the apartment. He has been staring.
He begins to murmur something inconsequential but stops. There is a sensation growing in his gut, a smoldering, a lurching too. His mouth feels dry. And then, for a moment, he is not himself. Someone else speaks through him.
“I want to dance with you,” he says.
“No. Outside. In the snow.”
His voice sounds strange to him, lusty. (Later, he thinks, I can blame it on the wine.) The churning is more emphatic now. (I could stop it, he thinks, but not yet.) Then there is a moment of fervent self-forgetting. It feels like stepping off the edge of a bridge, a falling into his own flesh.
“I want to fuck you,” he says.
“I want to fuck you.”
There is a long silence. Eleanor likes to pass herself off as worldly, cosmopolitan, but she is apprehensive about sex, still beholden to her parents’ Catholicism. She has made it clear that sex will wait until she is married. For his part, Zachary is a virgin, though he is loath to admit it. He talks around the issue, leads Eleanor to think that there may have been another girl, some summer not long ago, a careless mistake, perhaps on a beach near a lake.
They rarely talk about sex, and, when they do, it is dispassionate, clinical, a contract to be negotiated. The standing agreement is that Eleanor will perform fellatio once per weekend should Zachary spend it at her apartment. He may decide whether he would prefer it on Friday or Saturday night, prior to going to bed. There has been no talk of “fucking.”
He watches Eleanor’s chest rise and fall with her breathing. Her face is flushed. Some part of him, he supposes, must be worried that she is offended, but, if so, it is far away and very quiet.
“I want to fuck you in the snow,” he says.
“Okay.” Only the way she says it: more shudder than word.
Somehow, they manage to open the door to the fire escape without setting off the alarm. They prop it using the cassette player from Eleanor’s apartment, which she sets to play more piano music that sounds like pennies being dropped down a well. They drape her blanket over their shoulders, cling to each other, and shuffle in tight little circles on the landing.
After a time, the cassette unspools, clicks to a stop, and there is nothing but the spectacular silence of the city blanketed in the freshly fallen snow. Eleanor turns her back to Zachary, looks north to the Loop, but the cityscape is hidden. Only nearby streetlights are visible, their light lush in the haze. He holds her and they continue to dance in a way, swaying.
Soon, he has an erection. He presses it tight against her, delights in the feel of it cradled against her back. She cranes her mouth to meet his.
Soon, it is over. He turns her around, kneels before her, and licks her through her pajama pants until they are soaked. He pulls them off, tosses them and her panties over the railing, a gesture intended to convey how, at that moment, he is only his devouring lust. Afterwards, she offers to go down on him, but he is cold and his legs ache from kneeling on the landing. The moment has passed. They return to her apartment. There are no declarations of love.
Instead, he wakes in the night. For reasons he cannot he explain, he undresses in the dark, and, naked, steps quietly to her kitchen. The apartment is cold, the heat turned low for the night. Gooseflesh rises on his arms and his back, his buttocks and thighs. Moonlight spills through the windows, its glow magnified by the snow. One by one, he opens her cupboards. Then he stands in the center of the kitchen and gazes upon them.
He considers getting on his knees and praying, asking God for something, he is not sure what, maybe just giving thanks, but, instead, he stretches his arms and lets himself be for a time, alone but a part of all things.
I return to Schroeder’s face. It stares at me in confusion. His rheumy eyes are gone. The world is sober, and I, apparently, am smiling. Schroeder asks, “What is it? Why are you laughing?” But I cannot explain it.
It is only later, when I am returned to my cell, that I am able, perhaps, to fathom my laughter.
The water that sputters from the facility’s faucets, milky in our cups from the air in the pipes. A scuffed patch on an orderly’s boot. The clatter of plastic silverware being dropped onto our trays in the cafeteria. There is a newfound realness to these things that fills me with so much delight that I cannot help but laugh. Call it Whitmanesque exuberance. My mind reels off Brooklyn Ferry thoughts. I am you. You are me. Time and distance avails not. Something in me has changed, a bitterness lessened. For I have been Zachary Doothis, and, you know, it’s not that bad, really.
Put it this way, suppose there is another inside you, right now. When you get tired of being you, this other takes over and lets you catch your breath. It has lived in you from the moment you existed. Everything you felt, it felt too. Everything you thought, it thought too. It spent its whole life being you.
Now, go stare in a mirror and ask yourself this question: Which one of us is doing the staring? Shuffle the possibilities: see the duck, now see the rabbit, be yourself looking at yourself, now be the other looking at you. Play this game long enough and your face will feel slack, as if anyone could wear it, as if, consequently, the you behind it, oh so ball bearing smooth, could be anyone. Anyone at all.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not Zachary, or, at least, I’m no more him than you. But I realize now that there is no small peace of mind in that thought, my friend: myself disintegrated, you disintegrated, everyone disintegrated, yet part of the scheme. No small peace of mind indeed.
They gather around me: Eleanor, Lori, Gina. Lori has brought her husband and the kids, Zachary’s grandchildren, Owen, Nicole, and the other one, the one whose name I can never recall. They hover by their father’s side, gravitate to the corners, confused but respectful, awkward in their formal attire, a couple of stiff navy blue suits and a flouncy dress for Nicole. Gina is a mess. They are saying goodbye.
I am smiling affably, beatifically even, bathed in an afternoon sunlight that pours through the visitors’ room windows. It’s a wonderful sunlight, the kind that makes you notice the dust on its beams. The smile is not of my doing. It’s been programmed into me, perhaps at Eleanor’s request, perhaps at Egan’s or Schroeder’s recommendation. Otherwise, I don’t do much. I cannot speak. I cannot stand. They have programmed me to simply gaze upon them, these beautiful mourning people, and give them the smile they deserve. There is, I believe, a slight look of senility in my eyes, something that may upset the children, but Eleanor, Lori, and Gina will remember me as elsewhere-minded but so bound to them in husbandly and fatherly love that some part of me dragged itself back to be with them one last time.
To be honest, I’m glad they’re making me smile. Eleanor, Lori, and Gina deserve it, and I don’t think I could pull it off on my own.
Lori is the first to leave. Some invisible sign passes between her and her husband, whereupon he shepherds the children past me, quietly instructing them to say “goodbye” and “we love you, papa,” which they do in soft little voices. Some time passes. Lori stands up, leans over me, kisses my forehead. “Goodbye, Dad,” she says.
Gina is beyond words. She simply clutches my hand and stares, our fingers intertwined, so engulfed in the sadness of my passing that her world contracts to include two things: her hand, mine. Before she leaves, she presses her face into my chest and sobs.
Eleanor waits until they have left.
“It seemed like a good idea, didn’t it?” she asks. Her voice is flat. She shakes her head before she stands up to leave. “It is all so confusing.”
It is difficult for me to narrate what happens next, after she leaves. I know that I sat alone a long time. The sunlight greyed. My vision wavered, and, at some point, it seemed to me that I was not alone.