Fiction, Vol. 5.2, June 2011
That was when I saw him, tiny and impossible, on the cushion of my sofa, glowing in TV light. But let me back up.
I’d had an operation, an appendectomy, and spent ten days afterwards convalescing in my apartment under heavy opiates. I bobbed on my couch like it was salt water. I sensed my sutures glowing violet beneath bandage and tape. I dreamed I was soluble, expansive; dreamed my skin was turning gummy. I watched TV until it melted.
I missed a lot of work. And when I finally started back, when the opiates were all gone, I found that I could no longer sleep. I’d lost the ability. I tried and tried—tried to remember how I’d done it before, how I called it to me, how I floated into it or it into me, and realized that I didn’t know how and had never known how. It was just a thing. And the more I thought about it the further it retreated, like a bashful shadow, until cirrhotic early morning sunlight spread across my walls and it was time to get up.
At work, I got sloppy. My fingertips starting peeking into photocopies. I’d collate but not staple, go landscape instead of portrait. My friend Beth would ask, “What are you doing? What are you doing?” She’d look at me with a crooked smile like I might be trying something funny, then shrug with her eyebrows and walk back into her office, leave me standing there, staring, trying to catch up.
My apartment was in a building shaped like a cardboard milk carton, divided into tiny squares. Out of nine floors, I was on the fourth, wedged between corner suites. The walls of my living room sat so close together I had to keep my couch at an angle just to make it fit, and when the sun went down, shadows filled the ceiling above me like murky bath water that seemed to rock slowly back and forth. At night I’d sit on the couch with the comforter from my bed wrapped in a tube around my body like a cushiony blue tortilla shell and stare at the television. After a night or two I found I couldn’t sit still anymore, couldn’t keep still at all. I became restless. I tried to read, but after a page would feel as if an anthill in my stomach had been stepped on and the ants were pouring out, hundreds of them, tiny wires of feet climbing the walls of my stomach, up into the chute of my esophagus and down into my small intestine. I had to move. So I’d pace the floor. I read Kafka walking circles around my kitchen, “The Judgment,” which he wrote in a single, inspired, eight-hour burst. I suppose if one doesn’t sleep, and one is so inclined, one can do such things. When I wasn’t reading, I stared at late-night infomercials. I’d peel back my waterproof bandage and look at the stitches in my skin, stark black dashes between lumps of inflamed flesh. I was too afraid to touch it. I imagined the furious activity that must have been happening on a cellular level, with long lines of microscopic bits, billions deep, struggling to join hands and stay together, all looking down in wonder and shock at the void where an organ used to be.
On my third day back to work, Beth took me to lunch at Mystic Jade, the only restaurant she said she could tolerate at the moment, even though, by some accounts, there were a hundred and nineteen eateries crammed into the five square blocks surrounding our office. In her car, I floated in my body. My insides felt shrunken and weightless, bones and all. My skin was like a jar of formaldehyde, holding it in. I stared with my mouth closed out the window at the landscaped green areas between fast food huts, fake ponds, names of businesses carved into giant slabs of decorative rock. After a while, I could hear my eyeballs moving. Beth yelled at the drivers around us, punctuating her insults with jabs at the brake pedal or short, indignant toots of the horn.
“Pick a lane, fuckerface! That one? No, that one. This one? Oh, for the love of Steve.”
Lunchtime traffic was lugubrious, like hot taffy. The air inside Beth’s car felt heavy and hot. It made my abdomen throb. “I think I’m starting to lose it,” I said to her. “My life is growing holes.” She didn’t ask me to elaborate, and I wasn’t sure I could anyway. We’d been hired at the same time, Beth and I, pulled up like herring in a fat net full of dripping and wriggling young bodies. She was charming and moved up quickly; I was not and stayed pretty much in one place. We’d remained friends, but with a new sort of understanding that one day, probably soon, she’d make better ones.
At the restaurant I ordered chicken teriyaki, forgetting that I’d had it before and it was gross. It didn’t matter, though, because as soon as I looked at the menu, with its unappetizing photos of glistening noodles, I felt like I’d never have to eat again and was relieved to be done with it. Something about it seemed all wrong to me suddenly, or counter-intuitive, like an old prank evolved into gospel. A mannerism masquerading as instinct.
“So how’ve you been feeling,” she asked me, and I had no idea how to even begin. Instead, I looked at the skin of her cheeks, which had turned a kind of milkish gray. A cluster of tan freckles seemed to float just above the bridge of her nose.
“Hello,” she said impatiently, a pair of un-separated chopsticks in one hand. She slapped her palm on the table once and gave me a sassy, condescending smile and from somewhere deep in my viscera, somewhere nestled snugly in the cushions of my guts, I could feel some tiny speck of me stirring and stretching, opening its lazy eyes.
When our server set our meals down in front us, mine jiggled like a platter of wet worms. I pictured them wriggling out from the belly of the earth and my throat closed up. I poked at it with a fork while Beth took hers to town, sucking up noodles until there was nothing on her plate but smears and broccoli florets. The waitress boxed up the portion I hadn’t manhandled beyond edibility and Beth took it home to eat that night for dinner.
On the way back in from lunch, I found a cocoon in a bush outside the front door of my office. It was small—about the size of my index finger from knuckle to nail—and dirty brown like a chewed cigar. I poked at it. It hung neatly from the crotch of a twig, suspended by a dainty white cremaster. It looked very snug. I plucked it and brought it inside, holding it delicately in cupped hands in the elevator on the way up to my work area.
My work area was a cubicle, but it wasn’t even a cubicle—it was half a cubicle. Sometime into my first year I’d found the space had been bisected by a miniature wall; my desk and all my stuff had been shoved over to one side, and a new desk had been moved into the other. It had turned into a duplex over night and the vacant side had been filled with a new hire named Derrick, a gleaming stalk of a guy with skin like a wet onion and a shelf of gleaming black hair. Neither side of the work space was big enough for either of us, and often I’d find that he’d gained six inches of space by nudging the wall between us forward slowly with his feet.
I went to show him what I’d found, but he wasn’t at his desk. Instead, I pulled a book off my shelf and began digging down into the pages with a letter opener. When I’d carved out enough space, I set the cocoon inside and attached the cremaster to the pages with a drop of rubber cement, then propped the book upright on the corner of my desk. The cocoon dangled securely within the shaded pocket of glossy paper.
I paced my apartment that night for hours. I tried sitting but that made the ants come out, so I walked circles around my living room and watched the white and blue light of the television flicker on the walls. It cast ominous, oblong shadows across the room that stretched out quickly and then disappeared, then stretched out quickly again. When I got cold, I wrapped myself tightly in the blue tortilla and watched it pulsate with my breathing. I could feel something crystallizing inside. I felt pregnant with an absence, the zygote of empty space yawning within me. I wanted to stay awake to nurture it, to feed it consciousness like a vitamin. I petted my waterproof bandage and sunk gingerly just below the warm surface of the cushions on my couch.
I spent most of the next day at work staring out the fifth floor window of my office, watching the suburbs expand before my eyes. I could just barely see the buildings that had yet to go up, scattered like seeds that would grow into giant glass boxes, themselves broken up into smaller boxes with even smaller boxes in those, on and on, down to squares the size of books that contained tiny cocoons wrapped around tiny bodies wrapped around tiny organs and muscles and blood vessels and single, dotted cells. I could see the next suburb over rolling toward this one, closing the gap between us. I stared at the last old farmhouse, in the middle of our last empty field, and imagined it exploding with the force of the great approaching squeeze.
“You alive in there?” Beth asked me. For a second, I wasn’t sure who she was talking to, wondered if maybe she’d seen another set of eyes, blinking, behind mine. “You’ve been standing here for eighteen minutes,” she said. She looked pretty concerned. “Maybe you ought to sit down for a while? What do you say?”
I looked at my watch but the hands were gone. I squinted and they came back.
“Besides,” she said. “I think I hear Boss coming. Generally, he doesn’t like people standing around staring out the windows. All right? There you go. That’s a good boy,” she said as I made my way back.
My boss was ghoulish. His heavy mustache and eyebrows weighted the skin of his face and made it sag. When he talked I could peer in to the space between his eyeballs and their sockets. He handed me a thick stack of multi-colored pages. “Thought you might have some fun with these, right?” he said. “Big fun.” He rolled his eyes: this month’s affect. “Hey, look at that,” he said. “A chrysalis. Fantastic.”
I blinked at him.
“How you feeling, eh? How’s the old…” He patted his big belly twice and then pointed to mine. “No overwork, remember. Don’t push it. Take care of yourself, that’s the most important thing.” He rocked on his heels and smiled through an exhalation. “Get better, that’s priority one. Health. But see if you can’t get to those right away. Great. Thanks, bud. Keep me informed.” He winked and strode away.
That night I could sit. The ants were gone, I hoped for good. I read a while and watched horrific-looking people on TV, men who looked trapped inside huge orange faces. I expected hands to burst from their mouths and pry the jaws apart, so wide that they snapped and fell away, creating a hole just wide enough for something smaller to escape from. Over and over, I thought I noticed panic in their eyes as they talked about real estate and net earnings per month, as if they suddenly felt arms rising in their throats, but those moments came and went with nothing even close to that happening.
I began to think about sleep and why I wanted it so badly. I didn’t know anymore. I’d forgotten how to get it, and now I wondered if I even needed it or if maybe I was better off without it. I was approaching an understanding of something, something primal and old, something that transcended me and the things I knew. I was just about to retreat from it when I noticed him there on the couch with me.
He was small, a narrow pink tube about half the size of my pinky, and he glistened in the TV light. He was smooth all over, no features at all, and the top of his head had been gathered in a bunch and tied off with a little black stitch. His body made a wet splotch in the fabric where he was sitting. He looked at me, wrapped in my blue comforter, and said, “Hey look at us. Could we be more alike?”
I didn’t reply. I wasn’t surprised by his presence, which surprised me.
“Well, I mean, I’m pink and you’re blue, but other than that… Hm.”
We studied each other, considering. Finally, I asked him, “How did you get here?”
He looked at me pitifully. “Out of all the questions, that’s the one you ask?” It had seemed a reasonable enough question to me. “Don’t you want to talk about what’s inside?” he said.
“I know you can feel it trying to get out. Can’t you.”
I could. Everything felt like it was trying to get out. I hadn’t eaten in two days. I didn’t think I’d be able to get anything in with everything trying to push its way out. Even in the moment I felt pressure on the inside of my skin.
“How do you know about that?” I asked. My voice was quick, as if even my breath was making a break for it.
“Look at me,” he said. “I’m out. I got out. Lookit.” He took a few steps back and forth, his head cocked toward me with pride.
“Yeah, but you’re vestigial,” I said. “You don’t do anything.” He looked hurt.
“I do what I want to do,” he said. “That’s the difference between you and me.”
We watched TV in silence for a couple minutes, both of us pouting. I glanced over at him and he ignored me. His little body pulsed in the white light of the television, which flickered images at a riotous pace, so quickly I could barely make sense of them. I stared as long as I could but then the screen went white, filling the room with brilliance, and when the flash was over it was morning and he was gone.
I spent the next day dreaming without ever falling asleep. I’d wake from waking and find myself sitting in my cubicle, staring at my phone as it rang, or standing motionless in the hall, watching the walls in front of me get narrower and stretch into a funhouse infinity. Then I’d wake again and find myself standing uncomfortably close to my boss as his lips jerked recklessly around the bottom of his face, contorting to reveal different sections of tongue and crooked teeth, his skin just a sheet of imperfect rubber draped loosely over bone. I stared into his throat and struggled to remember dressing myself that morning or driving to work. I couldn’t.
I went to Beth out of nervousness, sat down in her office as she berated motorists over the phone. “What’s with the signal?” she kept saying. “If you’re gonna change lanes, fucking change. Jesus, people.” I gaped like an idiot but she paid me no mind. “Are you hungry?” she asked me. “I am starving.” I felt prickles on my skin and started to sweat. A nauseating image of squirming lo Mein flashed in my head. She plucked a piece of fleshy chicken off my plate with her chopsticks and put it in her mouth, honked her horn once, and I was back at my desk staring at the walls as they moved slowly towards me. I poked my head around the cubicle wall, but Derrick’s chair was empty. He seemed to have moved out altogether.
I picked up the book on the corner of my desk and opened it to look at the cocoon inside. It had swelled against the ragged pages. Pinching it lightly between my fingers I twisted it as much as I could without pulling it free, and leaned in close to get a good look. I felt something strange along the back, a seam running the length of the cocoon’s surface, and turned it to find a thin line of tiny black stitches embedded in the brown flesh. I ran my finger slowly across them, then picked at one with the tip of my nail until it bled. I looked up in time to see Beth, standing in her office, shutting the door.
The narrow tube appeared in my apartment again that night. The television seemed to project its images onto the walls all around me, fragments of whites and blues shuttering in and out like a slideshow on every vertical surface in the room. I sat in the center of it all on my crooked sofa, wrapped up in the blue tortilla, thinking of tethers and chains and not knowing why. After a while, I realized he had been sitting next to me for an immeasurable amount of time.
I didn’t look over at him, but said: “Sorry about last night. I didn’t mean what I said to you.”
He shrugged it off but didn’t respond.
“I haven’t been sleeping well, you know.”
“Yes, I know,” he said at last.
“I think it’s beginning to affect my judgment.”
“You may have had a point.” He was being conciliatory and I appreciated it.
We sat in silence for several minutes, getting re-accustomed to each other. After a while I told him about my cocoon.
“Why are you so interested in that thing?” he asked.
“I’m not sure,” I said. “There’s something comforting about it. Or no, that’s not quite it. There’s something…” I drifted. It was getting harder to concentrate. “…comfortable about it. I’m not sure.”
“Is that why you wrapped yourself up in this blue chrysalis here? Trying to make yourself as comfortable as that slug you got pinned up in a book on your desk?”
I looked down at myself. “This isn’t a chrysalis, it’s a comforter.”
“It’s all a chrysalis,” he said. “It’s all just wrapping over the pupa. It’s a shell.”
“Why do I sleep?” I asked him.
“What do you think?”
“I don’t know. But I don’t think I need to anymore. I don’t think I should. In fact,” I said, “I don’t think I want to anymore. I want to stay awake and see what happens.”
“What do you think might happen?” he said. He was leading me, I knew, but to a place I was searching for. I looked at him.
“I think the pupa might escape from me.”
“That’s weird,” he said slyly. “I don’t even know what that means.” He did. He was toying with me, enjoying this.
“I think the spirit wants out but the body keeps it in by making it sleep. If I stay awake long enough, I think it’ll break loose, break free.” I imagined the butterfly in my book sliding out of the cocoon and flying away, and behind it, when it was gone, an idea pulling free of the pages and all the letters of all the words collapsing in a useless heap on my desk. I imagined all the glass and concrete in the world giving way and dropping off, revealing nothing but air and space. I imagined cars dissolving as they drove, like sand castles in the wind, from front end down to back, and the bodies in them tearing away from feet to scalp. I imagined miles and miles of nothing at all.
My fingers slid down to my abdomen and I dragged them over the bumps of my stitches.
“It wants out,” he said. “That’s just the way it is.”
“It all wants out.”
I dug my fingernail into the puffy flesh and felt the seam.
“It’s all right.”
I scratched at it with the blade of my nail and felt it open up the slightest bit. Air seemed to rush in briefly, then turn warm and trickle back out. I dug in further and felt another stitch pop.
“That’s the way.”
I wiggled in with the tip of my finger and felt the soft cells splitting, the microscopic bits rending away from each other, pulling thin and snapping apart. A thin black leg emerged from the tiny space. We looked at it, together.
Dark sloshing shadows seemed to be draining from the ceiling above us. Were the walls moving? They may have been, slowly, away. The TV went gooey and sagged, vomited all its light out onto the carpet in a pool, which bubbled and dissipated cleanly away.
We watched the leg shiver and twitch, dry itself on the plane of my skin. We waited for another, but none came. We waited. We willed it to pull itself free, shake the dew from its body, to gently test its wings. We stared at it, the leg, but it stayed where it was, thin as a whisker, perfectly still.