On Division Street I rubbed my left eye. It was a bad idea but I did it anyway. I had a stye the size of a BB on my upper eyelid. It was heavy and made my eye droop. It was hot and painful too. I supposed some type of bacteria had gotten into my body, and had chosen to make itself known in an inconvenient location.
I was feverish too. I had been feverish for a week, or maybe even longer than that. The fever made shadows appear at the corners of my vision. Sometimes I thought I heard my own voice. At that moment I was fairly certain I didn’t see or hear anything that wasn’t actually there, but I wasn’t that certain. I wondered aloud, after I’d passed a woman pushing a stroller, if I was ever going to feel all right again. I said this: “Am I ever going to feel all right again?”
I heard myself say it. It sounded like someone else said it. I kept walking. I tried not to touch my eye. Portland was cloudy and cold. My head was fried. With a certain kind of fever, I thought, you really can lose your definitions. . . . I was in a membrane bath just then. I thought that maybe I shouldn’t be outside or around people. I tried to remember my history. It was difficult. My history had become alien to me. I may as well not be Ryan, I went on thinking, and I may as well have no history at all. Maybe nothing has ever happened to me. That may as well be true. What’s to say it’s not? I couldn’t see behind me or in front of me. I was stopped outside a Plaid Pantry. I looked around. The scenery had changed, but I was in the same place I always was: I was trapped between two pitch-black voids, in the big hazy nightmare called “Right The Heck Now.”
A month ago I wrote to a woman in Belgium, saying I feared I am no longer attracted to other people. I talk to people, many of them fine and decent, and they have bodies, and on and on, but I want nothing to do with any of it. This realization, I think I told her, came to me after I had watched ‘The Master’ five nights in a row.
There is a scene in particular that does it for me. I remembered the scene: Philip Seymour Hoffman and a dozen or so women dance around a hallway. A woman is playing piano. Another is playing an upright bass. A few other women are clapping their hands. At first the women are clothed. The camera cuts to Joaquin Phoenix, who is slumped over in a chair nearby. He is a drunk and a sex addict. There is a sort of dark expression on his face. We see his face for a long time. We start to understand, maybe, that this scene is playing out from his perspective. Now we go back to Philip Seymour Hoffman dancing around. Now every woman in the room, young and old alike, are naked. The men are still clothed. A naked woman is playing piano. Another naked woman is playing an upright bass. A few other naked women are clapping their hands.
It was the fifth consecutive night I had watched this scene. And on that fifth night I decided I just saw bodies. Yes, there they are: bodies. They are fully exposed bodies, and they are moving around. Whereas this character has an uncontrollable arousal to them, and a desire to have them, I felt the opposite.
Before that night I had seen plenty of bodies. There are bodies in the world right now. In the past there were bodies. I am certain in the future there will be bodies as well. They house a lot of wiring and circuitry and plumbing and so on. Some of us like our bodies, or at least parts of our bodies, and some of us don’t like our bodies at all. Other times we like other people’s bodies. I have liked a few bodies. They were good ones. The people who had them were good people too. It made liking their bodies that much easier because I liked the ghost living inside even more.
But maybe I don’t feel that way anymore. I have wondered. I really have. I have wondered why I am drawn to certain eyes and certain noses. I can’t find an answer. And anyway, these days that’s about as far as it goes. I’ll think a person looks nice in the same way you think anything looks nice. There is nothing sexual about it to me. What does that mean? My DNA is futureless is one answer. Surely there have got to be millions of us out there, not wanting other people’s bodies. And perhaps people like us just die off, and are replaced sometime later by some other barely-sexual being, just as I have no doubt replaced many others who have come before me. What are we doing here? Did it come from our blood? Was it born in our brain?
Forgetting why I had come to Division in the first place, I went north on 26th Street and headed home. There I could shut the wooden blinds in the living room and lie down on the rug. Yes, I thought, that’s just what I need. I stepped over banana slugs and earthworms that had been washed out onto the sidewalk by the rain. “Excuse me,” I said to them. “I’m terribly sorry.”
My eyeball was throbbing. I had rubbed it too hard. I put my hand over it to keep it safe and dark and walked into a nearby farmers market. I bought an apple. I bit into it. My front tooth, which is fake, vibrated in a bad way. The vibration made the little grey vampire fang hiding beneath it vibrate as well. I felt it in my skull. I hated my skull just then. It hurt and I wanted out of it.
I crossed the street and went into my house. Inside it was dark and spooky. I had made it that way before I left. I tossed the apple core and stretched out on the rug. I put my hands behind my head and thought about how useless moments are to me now. I had saved up so many of them in my brain, and now I wondered why. Like a magic trick I made a few of them appear. Inside my head I saw faces and heard voices of people I had known. I saw my father. I had him say my name, and then the name of his dog. I thought about the moments when I had seen him like that, and heard him like that too. There were so many. My memory of him recreated him perfectly.
And then I thought: My memories have become old and warped. Many of them involved people, most of them gone now. I have let myself be rid of people who I liked, and who liked me too. I think of them vaguely, like outlines, in quiet and shadowy rooms. They are in a well of watery voices. I can’t see them clearly, can’t bring them back to me. They will continue to disintegrate. There is no new memory to pull from. They are specters. I won’t see them again. Am I someone else’s haunted dream? Am I still in their minds too?
I got up and put a warm rag on my left eye. It was a nice feeling. The pain went away. I wondered if the bacteria was working its way into my brain. I hoped it would ravage everything inside. Oh, God, I prayed it would.
I lurched through sunken rooms. I went into the basement. A dim band of sunlight shone through the small window beneath the stairs. I put my hand against the concrete wall. It was cold. I got close. I rested my head against the wall. I turned my skull so the cold would touch my eye. I wondered if I knew what I was. Darkly I knew what I was. I imagined a body I used to know. It was a nice body. There had been a very nice ghost living inside of it. The fever boiled my past. It was hellbroth now. So was the body, and so was the ghost. My body was cold. I didn’t want my own body. I hated my body. I wanted to lie down. I felt tired. I sat on the floor. I closed my eyes. I made my memory of my father say something that I was sure I’d heard him say before.