This Is Joan
What if I told you that being a genius was actually quite boring? Just a little…
Would you believe me?
It’s an unfortunate predicament, at best. At worst it’s like having a fat whiny baby that you can’t dislodge from your side. A suckling little monster. Endlessly troubling you to complete some kind of “great work,” a “magnum opus.” So like any good mother, you have to engage the little shit. Coddle it. Feed it. You can’t just let it pickle in its own drool. You have to clean it, too. While it screams like a thing not known in nature.
There you are, a woman alone with this…this THING–and all you want to do is be an ordinary little dove like all the rest of them. Having a sandwich. Watching a documentary about an endangered species. Taking a nap. But no. That’s not what your odious little nursling wants. It wants you for something else. Something grand. Something it won’t let you forget. That’s what being a genius is like. It’s a forever hungry, unsleeping, angel-face little shit. I won’t be the least bit upset if you offered me your sympathy.
It’s the least you can do.
This is how it feels to sculpt with wood or bone: . This is what it felt like that time I used wire and antlers instead: .
This is the searing beauty of my work: . This is how right I am to feel self-important about it: .
But the elegance of a masterpiece says nothing of its corrupt process. Don’t let anyone convince you of otherwise. They’re lying. People only enjoy the aptitude of their own genius when someone’s handing them a check or being particularly reverent. When that’s not happening artists smell like unwashed bodies and they sound like a pair of shuffling feet on a sleepless night. They taste like coffee and cigarettes. Most of these problems arise from an innate failure to stop thinking. Is that what you want? No. It isn’t. I think you’ll agree that your interest is misguided.
This is what the night feels like: . This is how solitary it is: .
It’s fascinating, the things which are born of isolation. Guess that makes me my own walking masterpiece. Funny how that happens. While the world’s heart is beating in tandem with life, my heart skips a beat. I make an effort, though. I swear I do. Why, just a month ago I committed myself to a social engagement. With other women. I talked to them. Or I tried. All I can remember about that night is a rail of a girl with a halo of blonde hair. She was talking–about what I can’t imagine. I bet she couldn’t imagine either if you’d asked her. My attention hovered around the room like a ghost at a seance, looking at the flowers and demitasse cups while she blathered away. By the time I returned to my body it was my turn to talk. Of all the ludicrous things–can you imagine talking to a person like me? Before I even began to speak I trailed off… It was the most I’d said in a week. I could feel my mind wandering again. Maybe to other parts of my body. Maybe to other people’s bodies. In that moment my face was possibly just a blank. This happens sometimes, you’ll understand. In the middle of a sentence all of a sudden the inside of my mouth tastes like sand, as if underneath my tongue were a great big nothing. Just some air. And for the life of me I couldn’t remember what it was I might have been trying to say. Or if I had been planning on saying anything. Or what it was we had been talking about. In times like those I sometimes feel myself at the edge of a precipice, about to lose balance. I remember wondering if the heavily made-up blonde could detect my panic. Thankfully, our waiter dropped a glass and everyone clapped. After that I looked away and pretended we’d never spoken. I forgot who invited me there in the first place.
This is how many times I’ve loved anything: . This is how many times I’ve tried: . This is how many times I’ve failed: .
If only it were possible to wish something to love into being… I’d do it out of curiosity more than anything else. I’d do it completely possessed of a self-righteous indignation at the rest of humanity. How could they know something that I can’t understand?
This is how I feel about the whole business of other people: .
Then just like that everything changed. “I met someone” is how it’s commonly put. Or someone met me. I felt light. An almost insufferable lightness.
Let me explain: I was just getting a coffee.
That’s how it went. I walked into Henry’s on Henry Street downtown. I’ve retraced these steps over and over in my mind and I can say with total confidence that there had been no magic to it. Every step I’d taken was the same I always have. Exactly the same. But this time I didn’t walk out of Henry’s alone.
If I could have looked down over my own body at that moment, like a nosy specter, I’d describe the look on my face as being akin to watching a car get totaled. Only truly delightful and with an abundance of smiles. I was not the same afterwards. It made me lose my balance. Caught totally unawares in a sort of loving bear trap. It snuck up on me like sudden death. A sudden ego death, at least. Because if love is true then I don’t know what to believe.
There we were. Just him and me. He had a glint in his eye that broke my heart in the most satisfying way. The unlit cigarette hanging from his mouth ate me alive. He had a voice that sounded scorched or charred.
This is how much I didn’t mind him: . I didn’t mind him.
That might not sound like a lot, but how could you have any idea.
That’s when I stopped sleeping.
Supposed advice for insomniacs are as follows: drink a glass of warm milk before bed; turn off the television three hours before your scheduled bedtime; don’t do anything else in your bed but sleep or you’ll get confused about your purpose there; if you eat in bed your brain will think it’s dinner time, so don’t; if you read a book it’ll think you’re in a library; don’t even think about checking your email–you don’t want to know what’ll happen then. And apparently you’re too excitable as it is, so I wouldn’t argue.
This is how hard I tried to sleep after we met: . This is how long it was that I sat up sweating: . This is how I’d lay awake for the rest of the night: .
The machinations of sleep became a mystery. I was no longer sure exactly what was supposed to happen. I asked him to explain it to me–maybe I’d forgotten. Certainly I’ve done stranger things. He could remind me. But honestly, he didn’t make it sound terribly interesting.
I had to watch the miracle of sleep happen across his face every night while I grew sallow and wore a hole into my side of the bed. I was somehow barred from the paradise of sleep, so he always went in alone. And why couldn’t I get there too? I just couldn’t.
This is how long it’s been since I’ve slept: . This is how many times I told myself to get over it: . This is how happy I tried to be anyway: . This is how very wrong I was: .
He read aloud to me. That was his big idea. He’d say, listen to the sound of my voice. This man with his glasses pushed too far up on the bridge of his nose. I’d watch it slide off as he read with affection. I suppose I was expected to follow the sound of his voice like a thread that would lead me to sleephood–as if I were Perseus and insomnia my minotaur. It was at just that moment I realized he couldn’t possibly ever know me. If he thought a way to escape from torment was through any other means but endurance… Well, then I guess he’d never really been tormented.
How nice for him.
Thankfully this promised to become a real problem or I’d have been stuck, bored to death with the tenderness in his voice, the easy smile on his face, the way he seemed so hopeful for things… He always had a despicable look in his beautiful eyes that told me he’d never once experienced anything that could qualify as “gruesome.” He even smelled like someone who’d been loved as a child. I won’t mince words: I find that sort of thing hard to stomach. There was a good reason why I didn’t lose my lunch every time I looked at his stupidly mesmerizing face.
He read with a voracity I’d never seen.
So I smiled instead. This is how my face looks when I smile: .
The day he walked me through his foyer and all but risked his stupid little life climbing over the vast plenitude of his books, all just to reach the lamp, was the day I pardoned him for every future wrongdoing a man could ever commit. I even forgave him for being so well adjusted, irksome as it was. When I first saw him crack open a healthy 900-pager something inside me forgave him everything. I forgave him for disappointing me in all the ways a person inevitably will. He hadn’t know it at the time, but I’d just gotten done forgiving him for forgetting my birthday when he stubbed his toe on a mountain of hardcovers on his way to the bathroom. He was given carte blanche to commit any foul behavior that he saw fit. I forgave him all of it. I knew that when it no longer thrilled me to smell him or hear him talk, that I would stay and listen anyway. It’s an even trade. My own personal vow to meet him between the pages for as long as I was living. What could there possibly be to want after that?
I didn’t have to wonder about all those petty things that make strangers out of people who love each other. Questions like “does he really understand me?” would never cross my mind. What concern is it of mine if he doesn’t understand parts of me that matter so little, even to me? Whether he lets me hold the remote is really of no consequence. I can’t be bothered with being truly known in all the absurd ways in which people want to know each other. When he reads, digests the words, he’ll know me. When he falls into blissful sleep with a book on his face, he’ll know everything. There’d be nothing left to find out.
This is how I feel about books: .
There’s a real difference between someone who enjoys a good read and the fanatical desires I’m confronted with if I’m close enough to smell them. Back in the days of sleep I’d curl up with a stack of them. My eyes would light up like a candle in a dark window when I read Wallace Stevens; I was an empty house otherwise. Always hungry for Beckett or Ballard. Reading is like being close to an explosion. You walk away dazed, stuttering, head in hand, semantic shrapnel buried in your gut, and scarred for life.
Here is a scar inflicted by my favorite book: .
Maybe he was on to something when he tried to read me to sleep. Who wouldn’t feel soothed by the soft sound of pages turning? He read Foucault’s Pendulum until I could see Casaubon squinting into a fog of ectoplasm. But he was always the one to doze with the book on his face.
And I still couldn’t sleep.
There was one time I managed it. One time. This is how he woke to the left side of the bed soaked with my sweat as he felt around for me in the dark: . This is how he shuffled down the stairs, groggy, eyes unfocused in the light: .
This is what people do, in case you were wondering. They look for each other, track down their loved ones when they are gone. I didn’t get it the first time either.
This is how he searched through every room: . This is the back door, unlocked and slightly ajar: . Here is the flashlight he grabbed as he walked outside, following something like the sound of scratching: . This is how he walked through his own yard like he’d never been there before, unsure of everything the moon had drenched in eerie luminosity: .
Out in the garden. That’s where he found me. Still as a stone that cuts the water in a stream, dressed in nothing but the white fire of the stars. I wondered if he could hear me breathing, panting like an animal, keeping time with the tiny kingdom of nature breathing around me. All those busy insects doing their work in the darkness. I couldn’t even remember his name.
This is how it felt to see me squatting in the moonlight: . This is the shape his face made when he couldn’t understand what it was he was seeing: . Here is the strangeness of coming up behind me to put a hand on my shoulder: . This is my face as I turned to him, soil streaking my mouth black under the pale light, caked under my nails, caught in my hair: . This is me shoving fistfuls of dirt into my mouth, smiling at the way it stuck between my teeth: .
The look in his eye was haunting and feverish. It reminded me of that poem by Stephen Crane, the one I like best, the one with the beast who was come upon by a stranger as he ate his own heart. “And the stranger asked, Is it good friend? To which the beast answered, It is bitter—but I like it because it is bitter, and because it is my heart.”
This is how he gaped at me like he never knew me a day in my life: . And he didn’t.
This is me, this is Joan: .