The girl had always been conscious of them, from the moment of her birth, like the opening and closing of her mouth, or the extension of her fingers towards a doorknob. For the first three years of her life, her pupils dilated wildly when she was delighted by fear, too high up on her father’s shoulders, or when the dog sniffed at her face for the first time. They closed to periods at the end of a sentence when she stayed up late into the night, not crying, but not sleeping either. Her surprise was never her own secret to hide, because it spread across her warm blue eyes, and into the rest of her face as her eyes became dark, all pupil.
She had not expected them to invade the entirety of her retinas, to become not black, but a space to be filled, an opening wide enough for more than just light to leak in, wide enough for some part of her to spill out.
By the time she was five, she had learned to get what she wanted. By dilating her pupils, she could ask her parents for anything and they could not help but find their limbs moving of their own accord to accommodate her. She used it only for extra-large portions of cake at birthdays, and a little bit longer before bedtime. She learned she could have anything.
One morning she asked her mother to stay home, pretending to be sick, and showed her the wildness of her large pupils, and the way they fluctuated as she grew hot and flushed (in fact there was not heat or flushing, but the quickness with which she flashed her flaring pupils made her mother insert the symptoms of a fever into here diagnosis) and went too far. Her panicked mother packed her into the family’s small car, and held her head as if it might crack open for the entire ride to the doctor’s office.
If she had not remembered him, had not recognized him on the train, she would not have had this problem at all. If she had never known him. If she had never slipped her hand into the back of his shirt collar, had never pressed her fingers against the bony knobs of the vertebrae that met the base of his skull. If she had never felt him thinking beneath the pad of her fingers while they sat — IF and IF and IF.
The doctor could find nothing wrong, of course. The girl held her pupils still and strong for the whole of the visit, dilating them slowly when a light was shined in her eye, and contracting them as it receded. When informed that the girl was normal, her mother chose to forget what she had seen, unconsciously replacing an absurd explanation with a non-explanation. Nothing had happened. There did not need to be an explanation.
The girl had learned to be more careful.
She practiced the contraction and dilation of her pupils with strangers in the park, and teachers, and competitors in little league sports. She chose people that would disbelieve what they had seen, or that she would never see again. People she would owe no explanation to in case she slipped up. Her mother never suspected that the woman ringing them up at the grocery store was staring in disbelief at her daughter, as the girl let one pupil grow smaller and smaller as the other remained steady and correctly sized. By age thirteen she could move her pupils from the size of the head of a pin to the edges of her retina in a quarter of a second. Not that she ever tried it in front of friends. Not that she ever used it more than to seem a little more wide-eyed, a little warmer than she might have otherwise been. She made her pupils big for the boys with limbs like a baby giraffe’s, all knobs and misplace momentum. She made them small for girls that made her worry about what she would wear to school the next day. She kept them the right size for anyone else, for people she didn’t know and for people she knew too well.
He had found some way to fix her in place, to take her pupils and widen them so that he could jump in and hold them open. He had made her want to stretch her eyes as far as the would open, just to see if she could fit him inside.
While she grew up, in the slow brambles hills out west, her pupils began to fix. High school, packed in between other people about to really become people, she found that a laziness of her mind kept her pupils still. She shied away from questions in class because they piqued her curiosity - when her hand raised through the chalk dust and into the air above her head she inevitably lost a small measure of control, just enough to feel like a hook had stopped in her chest, caught on a rib. So she decided not to hear the question, lest she found herself unable to keep from shouting with her eyes.
He had no hearing. No sense of the tone of music, but a better, almost carnal, knowledge of the rhythm. It was why she had put her hands to his head in the first place. She had imagined the way that, in a canoe, a stick dragging across the aluminum hull made a sound that was not just a sound, but an instance of pressure made vocal. She traced her fingertips across his skull like a treebranch, stiffly, lightly, yielding only at the boniest ridges of his head. She imagined that if she were to do it correctly, that her fingertips might reach him in a way that airwaves did not.
She didn’t graduate because she didn’t answer enough questions. Tests fascinated her because without having heard her teachers, the equation was left unbalanced. Without knowing what should have filled the blank spaces, she was forced to consider all the possibilities. Each theory led to a more exciting one, until one day she found herself clutching her chair, holding on for her life in the nearly-summer light of stuffy dusty classroom. Her eyes were flickering wildly, like the clicking of a movie projector. She dissolved, crying her only option to force her eyes shut, and still and slow.
While she rang the curviture of his skull, she tried whispering, her tongue tracing the shell-like curls of cartilage inside his ear. She said the words, then traced the shape of their letters, spelling out her sounds in a desperate attempt to make him hear her. When she remained unsure that he understood her, she tested her last remaining hypothesis. She put her mouth to his, and placed her words there instead.
She moved to the city. She had to, there was no one in her town who did not know what her eyes could do. The story of her eyes’ unnatural talent was starting to spread through the foothills to neighboring schools, and other towns’ post offices and diners. So she took the biggest bag she could fit over her narrow but perfectly straight shoulders and left town. She took Greyhounds as far as her money went, and managed to find one last long ride into the city with a small old woman in a beat-up silver pick-up truck. Her hair was silver too, and had kept it long and straight for the last fifty years of her life, since her first son was born. It nearly touched the backs of her knees, and when she wore it plaited strangers mistook her for any number of other ethnicities than her Irish forebears, for reasons they would not have been able to explain if pressed. The girl like the old woman because whenever they stopped at the florescent-lit truck-stop diners and gas stations, people stared at the woman while her hair turned translucent. It was a trick of the unnatural light, and it made her impossible not to watch. The old woman somehow never seemed to notice. She always looked just at the person she was speaking to, or vaguely over the heads of the people around her.
The girl would remember exactly three things the old woman said during their drive:
"I let anyone put a hand on me anywhere I didn’t tell them to put it," (she had had three husbands)
"You’ve got such small hands dear " (the girl did, but no one ever looked away from her eyes long enough to notice)
"My sons know where I am all the time. Now that they’re grown I don’t call them on the phone as much as I might, but everywhere I go, I mail them a letter, with a return address of the street I wrote it on. That way they know where I was, but not where I am. Makes it easier to surprise them when I do see them."
She had watched him grow up, and remembered when he had stopped hearing. They were in third grade, and he was playing football in the parking lot of the grade-school. He was looking where he was going, and tripped over himself, slamming his head against the taillights of a parked car. He woke up three hours later, unable to hear the doctors that were shouting at him, asking if he knew where he was, who he was. He didn’t anymore. He didn’t know who he was if he couldn’t hear.
She remembered how his head drooped in class. The half-hearted gestures of a school-assigned sign language teacher that sat with him, gesturing signs to him that he either refused to learn or would not listen to. Then one day he was gone. “To a deaf school somewhere” she overheard another classmate say. She remembered the angle of his dropped head all those years later, and placed the bridge of her nose under his chin and lifted it. Then she made the mistake of holding it there and looking into his eyes.
After two years in the city, she had saved nearly all the city’s lost and down-trodden citizens. She had saved them from hunger, from bad parents or boyfriends, from themselves. When parachuting into the city with no money, and less of an idea about what she would encounter there, she got lucky. She still looked acceptable, if a little disheveled, and so was able to work as a waitress at a restaurant in the Polish district. Old Polish couples made her feel at home, and left small tips but big favors. She made friends, found couches, cleaned bookshelves and kitchen counters to earn her stay. She disassembled her pieces, and put them back in different places, her shifting tilting eyes the only part of her remaining impregnable.
But the city did act as a salve to her wound. So many people she saw a day, she could let out the fluctuation of her pupils on the train, concentrate on strangers who would never remember her face. Strangers who had not had their coffee yet. She was safe. She had put limits and measures on what she had begun to see as a disease she could not cure, but could control. Some days she needed to let go of control over her pupils in the midst of a crowd, so anyone could see if they had only looked. Almost no one ever looked. She flourished. When she finally learned to look at others, she learned to help them too.
They shattered her. They took her by the shoulders and shook her, and then moved up the muscled curve of her neck and warmed her cheek. They rested briefly on the peaks of her eyebrows, the apex of her surprise. And then the boy’s eyes descended, ringing through her own eyes like a horse-hair bow across a cello. Her pupils widened, past where she kept them, outside of her control, and then cracked. Her eyes were stuck. He had broken her with a look.
She scraped and saved. She felt in control for the first time since she had been a child. Her eyes followed her lead, like a dance partner that had finally learned the steps, and as long as she payed attention she was able to focus the apertures of her eyes with the precision and dexterity of a camera lens. She had trouble figuring out how to buy a plane ticket because she had never done so. She packed her bags (lightly as when she had left home before) and strained with her unwheeled suitcase down into the city subway. Her hair had grown long since she moved to the city, and she had decided to cut it before leaving. It kept it up, out of her face and away from her eyes. She found herself going to stroke or pull on it, and found herself touching her cheek instead. She would blush slightly. It was pleased embarrassment at the seeming nudity of her face. The subway shook around turns, and brought her to the outer rim of the city proper. As she climbed out of the subway station and into the airport terminal, a kind man with a hat helped her with her bags.
"Where do I buy my ticket?" she asked him after he pulled her bags off of the escalator.
He looked at her, seemed to think to ask a question, and then thought better of it. He pointed to the rows of men and women at computers, along the long counter in the middle of the giant room. She looked at all of the signs hanging above them American Airlines, Air France, Lufthansa. She had not known, she realized, that each destination had a separate airline. She decided on Rome. If asked why, she would only have been able to tell you that she knew once it had been the center of the known world. It was not known to her, or even imaginable yet. But it seemed like a place to start. The word itself was easy to say to the woman at the counter, and so seemed right to say when asked,
The next question was
She gave it, and handed over the passport that her neighbor had diligently helped her acquire a month ago. After a few moments of clattering at the computer keyboard, the woman’s gray eyes turned confused.
"Do you have a flight reservation?" she asked.
The girl’s blank stare answered sufficiently. “I’d like the next ticket to Rome,” she tried to clarify.
It ended up that the next ticket was a day later. It cost more than she had guessed, but having had nothing before it didn’t bother her to nearly return to nothing. She decided, or perhaps never thought to do anything else, not to leave the airport. She spent the next day talking with businessmen who both missed their wives at home, and missed their wives in the past, and so projected both onto the girl talking to them in the uncomfortable metal seats they were waiting in. When they would leave, she would read magazines, and mostly avoided travelers that seemed her own age. She read every part of the paper that day, each at a different newsstand in the airport. She spread her dinner and breakfast over different small courses of plastic bags of dried food at the small shops scattered through the terminal. She watched as families convened, or dispersed, or became larger or smaller. She saw a proposal (without a ring, but on the verge of tears and with a shouted “of course”). She heard every language she knew any words in, but more that she did not understand at all. Even the janitors and flight attendants waiting to move on to different cities noticed her seeming occupation of the airport.
She nearly ended up sleeping through the arrival of her plane, but a bag knocked her in the knee as its owner passed her, and she was awake as the plane taxied to a stop out her window.
The flight seemed quick. Her neighbor was only interested in the movie playing in the seat in front of him, but after a day spent talking to strangers she found herself unusually relieved to be left alone. She fell asleep reading the emergency instructions on the laminated foldout from the seat in front of her.
She woke up in Rome, and walked her suitcase through turnstiles, customs, and crowds. She deciphered signs, gestured to other travelers and finally found her way into a metro car, in an underground train system that wound it’s way around inconvenient ruins, and archaeological sites.
The train car was burnished metal, and shone yellow with the lights that made a line on its ceiling. The windows shone the dark stone walls flashing past, a black drown punctuated by the occasional flash of an underground light that appeared as a white streak flashing into the passengers quiet cabin. And then suddenly they were out into the air. The subway had lurched out of the ground and been born again as a train, and suddenly in the light, she saw him. He was faced away from her, not reading, not even seeming to be watching the train around him or looking out the windows. When sound is gone, she couldn’t help but think suddenly, why would you not look at everything, put your eyes up against the glass and watch the world in the windows?
And she took her hand and pressed it lightly to the back of his head.
She walked forward to put her hand on his shoulder, to get him to turn, to make sure it was him. But it was not where her hand went.
Her pupils opened up beyond the limits of her eyes. They became a space that enveloped them both, that took him in and brought him to her ribcage. The slight pause between her heartbeats was the first sound he ever heard.
The first word ever spoken was not Mama, or Yes or even a cry or HELP. It was fuck. Small, and easy, and hard. Until then, there had been no word, only yearnings, pulls of desire in the cold air outside our burrows in the sides of hills.
(We first burrowed into caves not to live, but to worship the earth we believed we had risen from. Worship, and digging, came before language, or song, or even the caves themselves. Worship came with the first man’s sight of a woman’s hipbones. That Eve is supposed to have been made from Adam’s rib is literary residue of that first man’s thought, seeing the first woman’s hip bones protruding skywards from the low small swell of the her belly. Her ribs are lower than mine was his thought, — her lowered ribs guarded something like his heartbeat. He was right in a way, looking through the dim of the first days made up of nothing but mornings, his attention like dew clinging to her skin. Her lowered ribs guarded the promise of a future heartbeat.)
The first person to speak did not know she could until she did. She was five, and round-faced and had eyes and hair the color of the inside of a walnut. She sat on her mother’s knees, looked up from the fire at the night sky and out of her little voice tumbled the first word, popping like a seed,
It meant, the first time it was spoken There are so many lights even though it is night. I have never wondered until now what they are. This makes me feel smaller, but also older.
The second word was also, Fuck, this time from the girl’s mother, but spoken with the single syllable lifted into a question. This time it meant, We can speak. You see the stars too, don’t you?
Before a glance upwards only meant look. But now the girl’s mother could be sure that they saw the same thing.
From the first time it was spoken, Fuck has never meant the same thing again. For the full memories of our earliest ancestors it was the only word that existed, but experimentation with sound and our inclination to make tools led to more words, whose meanings stayed fixed. Words became tied down to objects, or temperatures, to plans and hopes. But Fuck never was tied to one thing, and it’s metamorphic character is what led to it’s flexibility in language. Even those who are against it’s use are forced to admit, if not admire, it’s uniqueness, as a verb, noun, adjective, name and punctuation. Silly fuck. This trip is fucked. The concert was fucking amazing. He just wants to fuck you. My grandmother’s car. Fuck.
I have been awake for nine days.
You really made me proud today.
I am in awe of how small his toes are.
I will love you too much to ever leave you.
It didn’t take much longer than you might expect for fuck to stand in for sex. The marriage of the act and the word was inevitable: the first act (before even eating and in the midst of the first hurried breaths) was described by the first word, in a union of body and thought that can only be described as a natural, inevitable but no less than tectonic plate upon tectonic plate fuck.
I want to fuck you; the first time it was said it meant I love you more than I could ever begin to love anything else, myself included, and so I want to be you instead of just me, and for you to take over the part of me that is left, so I can love that too. Leave the hearth un-stoked, we do not need it.
It was the ultimate expression of love, and like everything beautiful it was made private to protect. But like someone watching from a hill as two people fucked in a field, time turned the word public and perverted it in the process.
Did you fuck her? meant not just Did you have sex with another but Did you tell her all my secrets, did you explain my body while you learned her own?
When I will fuck you became violent was the first time it was unwanted. It became a spat threat, something to hope against, something to run over the hills from. The violent, angry, and betrayed uses of the word eclipsed it’s versatility. It became forbidden in the open. If it were spotted among other words in polite speech it was scoffed out. If it were read among other writing it was erased, leaving a deep, dirt smudge.
That fuck is a filthy word is a sign that over time we have lost our minds in the foundations of the buildings we have raised out of the sand.
The land was flat, and white and bare, nothing but sand that wind and heat had nearly turned to glass, but in the middle of it a fire burned, ejecting black smoke into the sky rapidly, as if the fire was in a hurry, wanted whatever it was burning to be gone, now. The fire wanted to erase it’s fuel as if it were ashamed of it.
That fuel dreamt of it’s childhood home.
At the center of the fire was an old man. He was wrapped in all of the clothes he had ever worn.
His family (his greedy son, his forgiving and talented daughters, the little boy that had wandered into his kitchen one day, while he was mincing bay leaves and tarragon, and had become his surrogate grandchild) had collected every shirt, sock, tie he had ever worn, every single article of clothing he had ever put on, even once, even as a joke. The family mended them. They cleaned the clothes. They made sure the underwear was not inside out. Then they soaked the clothes in gasoline while they sang songs under their breath.
One by one a family member, or friend, or doctor, or anyone else who wanted to, put a piece of clothing on the old man. Each asked a whispered question and he listened with his eyes almost closed. He occasionally answered yes or no, but after others had asked their questions too, so no one knew if it was their own question being answered.
They kept adding the gasoline-soaked clothes to his body until the layers could not fit on top of each other, and then they piled them on top of them. Eventually they could no longer see him sitting in his wicker chair, adjusting the tufts of hair at his temples, or smiling when he closed his eyes, or answering their questions. And when at last they could no longer hear him, on the white desert plane, they left. They gathered into the backs of pickup trucks, and each other’s old cars and drove out of the desert, leaving behind only one person.
It was the old man’s youngest grandson. His youngest progeny.
The end of his genetic line stood before him, with his stomach puffed out in a gesture of confusion. He was small, even for his young age, and looked like the skin of a peach. Fuzzy blond head, pink skin. He held the box of matches they had left him with.
He looked at them, knowing how to do it. He had played with matches when there was nothing to burn but the sulfur on the match head. But now, he fumbled with he box.
He struck and lit the match, and set the pile of clothes, and the old man, ablaze.
From a distance people gathered to watch the black plumes, and knew that the boy was beginning his long walk back to town.
He was born in france, but was not tall. She was small-breasted but not a good cook. Their house was shared between them but they could not see through walls. If she could have seen through the walls, she might have been the first to notice that he kept more pictures of horses than the average 29 year old man. If he could have seen through the walls he might have been only the most recent person to notice that she kept her bathtub in the kitchen.
She might have guessed, wrongly, that he admired horses but didn’t know how to ride. He would have guessed, rightly, that she kept ice in the bathtub during parties, but would not have known that she bathed in it in the mornings of sundays, and evenings of all the other days, enjoying the ability to stay submerged and pour another cup of coffee.
By the fifth of may of last year, they had had exactly four conversations. They went like this:
She: I heard you playing Billie Holiday late last night.
He: Oh. I don’t think that was me.
She: Could you give me a hand? I think my lock is jammed, but maybe I’m not doing it right. Can you try?
He: Sure. My lock sticks too, all the time. Here.
She: Thank you, wait, that’s your own — oh.
He: Oh. Well. It worked. Do you think we have the same keys?
She: I guess. I’ve only got one, for everything.
He: I must have the other one.
He was often tired, but only ate at night. She was often paying attention in her french class, but her last boyfriend had left her when he left the college she still attended. He picked which charities he gave to very carefully. She listened to her best friend about boys, because neither of them knew any men. He wasn’t married, but he missed his wife very much. She had never heard a man propose to a woman, but she once saw a new bride feeding some birds and always thought she would do the same after her own wedding.
He remembered how, at his wedding there had been a breeze that made his wife’s hair move and look curly. She remembered finding her mother’s wedding photos and hoping she looked as good, but would be smarter than her mother. But he could not remember the color of his wife’s hair when it was on the ground, after it all fell out. But she could only remember the big mistakes her mother made, never the little ones that begat the big ones.
He: So, are you a student?
She: Yeah, this is my last year. I have no idea what I’m doing after.
He: What do you study?
She: French. I still can’t speak it though, it’s so embarrassing.
He: I can help you if you like.
She: You speak french?
He: I am french.
If she hadn’t been so quiet when she first used her key to unlock his door late at night, she thought, she might have woken him when she slipped into bed. If she hadn’t walked so softly, he thought, he might have had to acknowledge that she was there.
If she hadn’t left before sunrise, they would have had to talk.
As it was, they kept their secrets, but learned each other’s names.
At the moment I’m listening to Rob work out a tune on his guitar. I think that I like what’s happening more than he does. Or at least I think I can hear where the song is going, and know what he’ll do next. Maybe even before he does — but then again, that’s the gift of perspective.
So many things to tell you about. The little miracles of daily life in the city. I start my job at the Strand tomorrow, and remember that day in Union square in the fall, right before we went into the store. You were laughing and happy, and I wanted to tell you everything.
I’ll let you know how it goes. I’ll still tell you all the little wonders where life comes through the day at the seams.
Just saw Gary Shteyngart read tonight from his book Super Sad True Love Story. I suggest picking it up. It’s about a near future, in which we watch America fall apart and love the same way we always did anyway (with flaws, leaps of faith, misunderstandings, and unlikely unions). He is also REALLY funny. Even when writing about the end of our world.
He said one of the best things his parents ever did for him was to get him out of the Soviet Union, and I feel like its no accident that all of the good parents in this book move their babies somewhere else than where they were born, in hopes that they can achieve more. There is some part of the root of parental love that comes out in the thought “for me yes this is enough, but my child deserves more.”