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On the Unity of the “I”

ISSUE:  Spring 1992
“Where in the world is a metaphysical subject to be found?”
—Wittgenstein, Tractatus 5. 633

My past, his past. I do not know the difference. A useless distinction, useless to the reality of a thick summer in the past: he was nine and was finishing the fourth grade. There was a brick and tile portico roof built over the slab of concrete that lay outside the classroom door; at the bottoms of the metal posts that held up the roof were rippled pools of paint that had run down into the sand when they were wet. There were Venetian blinds on the door and on the row of windows along the side of the classroom, stacked opened eyelids of the windows that could be shut simultaneously in shadowy fatigue when the sun was high. The pollen and powdered spittle from the rows of geraniums and the frogs in the terrarium that grew gray and fat and died one rainy afternoon in February all at once and all together in a cough: these had become the motes in the air that had settled onto the slats.

Once they had measured the hairs from people’s heads with a micrometer. Blond was the thinnest of all. Perhaps the dust on the Venetian blinds was no thicker than this; perhaps it was the thickness of red hair, of black. The dust itself was gray. No one had ever seen the dust on the topmost slats of the blinds, for these were beyond reach even when someone had pulled the frayed cord at the side and brought them down onto the thin green necks of the plants and to the sill.

He had once thought about things-never-before-seen-by-human-eyes. The interior of eggs, slopping out over thumbs onto a frying pan. Fetuses. Raw diamonds. And blood. Someone had told him that blood wasn’t red when it was inside the body, but that it only became red when it hit the air. But how could we know this? Like saying that there are no colors in the dark. For when we turn the light on at midnight hoping to catch the rug in black and white undress we can never do so silently or quickly enough to avoid alerting it—and it is always smugly colored, satisfied in its ability to outwit so feeble a creature as ourself. A ladder? But no. For this would have meant going down past the kindergarten room where the teacher was seated in front of children clutching shoe-shaped cardboards dangling limp laces, past the glass showcase (this month: Our Favorite Flowers) and into the darkened storage room, where ladders and paint cans sat in the dust.

It was hot, and the windows were opened because the gray metal blower was not working, or was blowing tepid air up under the leaves of the plants like a fun-house hot air hole that had destroyed its surprise element by remaining perpetually on. What is that physical cringing we have when we visualize ourselves being cornered? That feeling of wanting to turn inside out into the ground, to fly straight upward when we are confronted with those who are actually going to hurt our flesh, cause us pain. He had heard of spies having a shirt button made of poison for just such situations. But they might strip you before they marched you off into the gray walled building, and so the escape inward would be cut off, cut off just as absolutely as the escape outward. If only the cord from skin to brain could be severed, if only the razor blades at work on the legs and the testicles, could find the vulnerable spot and snap the silver pain thread. When he was younger, he had heard of Indians taking scalps, had imagined the scalp to be one particular hair on the head. Just this one was all they wanted. Just snip this tiny thing and the job was done.

He had taken to carrying a tennis racquet home from school so that he would not be beaten up by them again, but he stopped doing it when his mother noticed and asked why. He checked street corners before turning, spent hours thinking of how to avoid them, how to run, thinking of a fist in his stomach and the limp feeling of not being able to cram air into deflated lungs, of the terrible sucking groans he had made once when he had landed wrong going over the high jump. He had imagined a month, a year, a life of this cringing, this separation of skin from bone; had built elaborate walk patterns home around blocks, through back yards. And on the last day he did not go to the class pool party (prime attacking spot: hurried shower, echoes of their voices off the tiled walls, black and blue that neither warm water and soap nor a scouring pad could erase); instead he walked home quickly in order not to see parents picking up carloads of children laughing and calling.

The day after he left with the parents for the ocean. It was evening when they arrived in the resort town which was just beginning to wake from its daytime lethargy and sun sleep. Negro porters took their bags and led them down the quiet hallway and up the metal elevator cage with its thick glass doors to their rooms, where he slipped the shiny wax paper bag from a plastic cup and slowly drank some water filled with tiny white bubbles.

Later he was allowed to go down to the lobby where the walls were covered with red velvet curtains that caught the smells of dust and age; the big glass chandeliers, the television set flickering silently in a corner. He knelt before an aquarium to see the ripples of light on the surface when the fish pierced it with their mouths, but it was dark and he saw nothing. Businessmen in white jackets and women with painted eyes and stiff hair came gliding down the stairs or sweeping out of the elevator and into the dining room. Tall mirrors in heavy gilt frames reflected the thick air, the heavy furniture, the people, and him, a little boy standing tense and straight.

He awoke the next morning when it was still dark, tasted again the taste of bubbled water in a plastic glass, dressed and left the room down the red carpeted hall and the polished white stone stairs. No one was awake in the lobby but the night clerk, who nodded over his coffee. The gray from the outside showed through the slits in the nearly closed curtains, fuzzy like a streak of cotton. There was a second-story porch set on top of the portico like a roof garden, growing rocking chairs and awnings, where scrubbed old men in white clothes and caps sat to watch the morning sea. There may have been some there now left over from last evening untended by their keepers; he did not look.

He stepped carefully onto the gray splintered boardwalk, walked across its slats, and climbed down the ladder to the beach. It was cool, and there was no one around, only the row of hotel fronts, as blank and gray as the droning ocean. It was cool, and he had put on his blue sweater and sandals. His mother had insisted that he always wear socks with these sandals. At the beach? But he had not fought, had not argued because he liked the feel of the sand crystals between the sock and the shoe, liked the precision of the pattern of the cloth through leather. He enjoyed wearing these socks with shorts, was amused by the splat his feet made when he put them down hard on the salted boardwalk.

He thought of the other places he associated with the name of this carnival town, though they seemed further away from him now than the tiny specks of seagulls whose sounds he could hear across the water, seemed further away from this cool darkness than even the tennis racquet and the schoolroom. Buildings oozing music through whose roofs spinning ferris wheels had popped, a bandstand far up the beach, now empty and falling apart piece by piece onto the sand. Shell shops with baskets of stuffed baby caimans and strings of plastic trinkets patronized by housewives whose white buttered noses stick out from under multicolored fishing hats. Night, colors, and lights. Bright glass boxes with a waxwork of a gypsy, her brown skin peeling not from organic decay but from the heat of the light bulb over her, her eyeballs painted slightly bloodshot, her fading smile crooked and her head tipped slightly in meditation as she fingers the cards before her, a gold hoop in her ear. Her sleeve had begun to fall into piles of glittering surface fragments and had been covered by three playing cards, all spades, curved around and held on with a rubber band. She did not need to breathe, and could not be touched.

But at this translucent hour between night and day the Ferris wheel and the whip-the-whip have stopped. There is only the gray whitening dawn rolling over piles of beer cans, cigarette butts, over closed doors. The fun house has turned out its lights several hours ago and will not reopen until noon. The muscled bronzed young men and blonde-haired cheerleaders have gone; it is mostly fat men and aging women who lie in pairs under the boardwalk, the sand sticking to their naked thighs. A few seagulls strut along looking for parts of candy apples and pieces of caramel corn. The fried chicken house has closed its doors, and the pale thin men in stained aprons and white paper hats have picked up the larger wrappers from around the picnic tables spread out in front and have gone away. The neon light of the auction house still glows an eerie green that flickers as if in response to the sea breeze that blows a beer can along near the ground. In the apartment overhead a light or two still burns, and the wind blows into the open windows and roils the curtains. The sand stretches outward from the backs of the buildings painted in fading paint, out to the black breakwater made of rocks between which are caught live horseshoe crabs and strings of conch egg cases that now will never hatch.

He jumps off into the sand and looks over his shoulder at the uniformly circular tracks his feet make as they punch into the thin hard gloss of surface sand glued together with salt, watching the scraps of paper and the patterns that the tide has made and frozen in the beach. He pulls the edges of his blue sweater together and looks at his knees. Then he walks to where the sand is dense and hard with the compacted force of the waves and in which are held hundreds of moving sand crabs. He goes to the edge of a ridge made by the tide and crouches down in the sand, hugging his knees. The waiting sea and air are like a grainy photograph held up beside a candle. Slowly they become pink, in ridges, then the color spreads outward, and the picture crinkles and catches suddenly on fire. The sun touches his skin and runs out along his arms, singeing the grains of sand that cling to his hands. His eyelids redden, bloat, and seem to flame.

And what happened to this thin young boy with dark hair who crouched alone one morning in the half light on a white beach and watched his world be burned? He died, of course. For this must always be the end of such tales of young sweet sickness. Or, if you will, he simply evolved into another stage, like a butterfly from a chrysalis—he stayed there for a while until the lifeguards began to appear.

But it may be that he was not so radically changed as the insect. Eventually his parents went home. And gradually the image of the silver pain thread disappeared from his mind until finally, one afternoon in a cold room full of fluorescent light, he thought of it again, quite suddenly, and from nowhere. And for a great while he could not go on with his work.


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