When I was an infant, I leapt from my crib into the radiant void scientists came to label the corporate social network. Thirty years later, I found myself in front of a stately courthouse, engraving my arm at the wrist. The only person for whom this experience was spectacular is gone.
In the wake of a 5,800 square kilometer iceberg breaking away from western Antarctica, it would be altogether too remarkable for an essay not to decompose. For everything that can be felt can be put into words; what words fail to express is said by images. But it is in the form of an essay that experiences one labels love, evil, or cruelty become processed—ground up—and attain meaning. There is no doubt this processing generates harmful chemicals. Like bacon—like ham and hot dogs, sausages and salami—like corned beef and canned meat, the essay is carcinogenic, linked to diseases of the heart.
To begin, it is the Fourth of July, and I am long-distance running through the aroma of ten thousand dead cows who, when they were alive, polluted the air with methane, a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming more than cars or planes, trucks or trains, ships or any other form of transportation. We are aware of this fact; for us, repulsion toward violence inflicted on livestock—for example, the reseeding of pastures with artificially fertilized perennial ryegrass which cows consume, and which ferments in their stomachs, producing methane—is a point of connection.
In an alternative universe, the lower surface of my apartment is covered in boxes. I live in these boxes; inside them, I am alone. To quote my friend, the poet-programmer, “to be alone is not to be alone-alone.” We exist for each other, though to be for anything denotes being in support of something else, and in this moment, I am held by nothing. On a corporate feed—a zone of mutual mass-surveillance—an image of my favorite book, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely by Claudia Rankine, appears. It is a book I have taught ten times over the span of eight years. My personal copy includes notes on the sound of its static, its snow. I have read it so many times that its text is fading, but its long rectangular shape remains a protuberance of my heart.
In the zone of mutual mass-surveillance, the image of the book’s degree of compression is adjusted so there is little perceptible loss in its quality. The JPEG is blue and green and accented by a field of wild sunflowers comprised of pixels; its cover font is sans-serif in two locations, black and white, then the font transforms into an all caps serif. The cardstock is glossy, and the spine is invisible, rendering this three-dimensional object into a flat thing.
Until viewing this image, I did not know an image could make an incision.
What cannot be shown, can be said, Wittgenstein says.
To rephrase: The corporate network designs the sights of strangers. These designs shape the limits of how we see. A stranger posts an image of a book. The book is my favorite book, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely by Claudia Rankine. Because this book is a protuberance of my heart, it is a book I presented as a gift to a person I thought I loved. Once upon a state of affairs, this person was a stranger; now this person is a not-stranger who exists at a distance. Across this distance and despite our silence, my once-love for the not-stranger stays the same, generating a near-constant din of anxiety. I feel it in my body though I desire to purge myself of it. I feel it when I try to eat and sleep. I feel it as I write, as I walk to and from the station of the metro. Sometimes, I envision myself ascending a pale staircase toward a garden. In the back of the garden, near a grove of cherry trees, is a white tent illuminated by a peach-colored light. In it, the not-stranger stands holding a flower. Depending on the time of day I perform this meditation, the color of the flower changes. Sometimes, it is yellow; sometimes, it is red. Always its stalk is bright green. I perform this meditation in bed with my legs up the wall. Outside, Earth is crumbling. This meditation is a respite from everything falling apart.
To ask how a person can love someone who does not love her back is to ask: what conditions must one implement to make it possible to re-inhabit a world? That is not love, someone says. If not, what?
A stranger posts an image of a book. The image is an image of my favorite book, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely by Claudia Rankine. My favorite book was given to the stranger by the not-stranger (to whom I gave my favorite book as gift) as a gift to woo her. I tell this story to my friend, my favorite bookseller. He says this is a beautiful story, because the not-stranger has internalized that my favorite book is a book you give to someone to get them to love you. As my friend my favorite bookseller’s mouth moves, I attempt to stomach a plate of noodles. In a world no longer punctuated by correspondence from the not-stranger, occupying space filled by verbs and nouns like ‘eating’ and ‘digestion’ almost always feels like an impossible attempt, a word synonymous with essay. This attempt—this essay—is a form of unmetabolized fodder. It is akin to ground meat stuffed in an encasement. Can this encasement yield composure? A person cannot pretend to be one with others when she is navigating the world in the midst of a crisis, so I opt for solitude. In the container with a flat base and sides that gives form to my life, I live alone. I eat alone. I sleep alone. These practices let no one in. Such is the etymology of the word apartment—to separate—a fact once clarified to me by an ice cube who wrote a book by the same title. I remember sitting on a beige carpet, reading it, feeling used, then shaving my entire body like a sheep with agency.
Now I am fantasizing about being a non-human animal transported toward a knocker, but in lieu of being knocked myself, I knock the knocker.
But mostly I feel like an idiot for having to narrate a crisis that includes a corporate social network to you.
Now I am running eight miles in Hudson, New York. Chartered as a city in 1785, the town was settled by whalers from Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, and Providence. According to a bed and breakfast’s website, Hudson was the first city in the United States incorporated after the thirteen colonies became the United States. I attempt to check this fact, but the Internet is no longer composed of facts. Rather, it is a two-dimensional box store in the guise of a temporary autonomous zone. Here, people explore what it means to be human together by translating base impulses into images and light, sound and text—and video. All of this media takes place in-between a lie and the truth and is sold at a cost, yet the Internet’s users remain, for the most part, unremunerated.
I am long-distance running in Hudson, New York because I am temporarily living in Hudson, New York. Chock this up to the town’s double rainbows, its foliage, its light. In dead winter, I met the not-stranger here: I rode a train from New York City to upstate New York, gazed at the river’s half-frozen condition, and questioned the container giving form to my life. Little did I know that, in less than six months, I would set fire to this container, blue like a violet and perfectly weighted. But first, the not-stranger and I would crack each other’s spines until they bled, then crack them again. This destruction would be accompanied by a sequence of images: the death of a hero, a broken car window, a pool of blood on white sheets, a dead butterfly, and the following phrase etched into a stately courthouse: To hold forth a lively experiment that a most flourishing civil state may stand and best be maintained with full liberty in religious concernments. And though I have not yet learned to let go of feeling shame about my most vulnerable attributes, there are moments in which my progression toward this goal feels like speculative reality.
As I cue a song on the rectangle I use to navigate the world, a stranger warns me about poison ivy. I share this story with a friend. My friend comments: ‘This story is murky.’ On this evening, I evade a person I once touched. Then I show my face in a bar. As a symbol of my love, I leave the bartender an aquamarine stone. Then I talk to him on the phone. Then I walk home alone.
I fall asleep in an immaculate three-story house on Warren Street, Hudson’s commercial strip. The bed where I sleep is lined with white sheets, and adjacent to it is a pair of windows hovering atop an overgrown lawn. Prison Alley runs parallel to this green: every time I think of its name, I feel repulsion. A garbage truck passes, picks up used cans. Downstairs, a creature is at rest at the foot of a counter. So too is a collection of books asleep, and a pale blue midcentury chair—no doubt an antique—oscillates between fear and bravery. If eating was a verb in my world’s orbit, I would cook meals in the kitchen that overlooks all of this, but all I can do is scream.
I wake in the middle of the night and punch the night. I punch the bed and scream into it. I punch a pillow. I punch my leg repeatedly. I punch my arm, atop which a phone number is inscribed. Does it belong to my friend, or to the bartender? I punch a suitcase. I punch a bath towel. I punch a set of soiled sheets. A stranger passes and warns: beware.
There exist moments in life when a person registers photographic impressions of another person’s face in her mind. These photographic impressions subsequently call out to a person as part of a memory-void, and from this memory-void, a person intuitively perceives a deep knowing that exists between her and the subject of her photographic impression. I remember capturing the not-stranger’s face this way in front of a body of water in the northernmost state of New England. There are two other people whose faces I remember capturing this way. One—the person to whom I turn when life feels out of the question—is in the midst of writing to me now.
I report the registration of these photographic impressions to a friend who says possessing awareness around moments like these is a gift. But I can only think of it as a curse.
The moment of capture will look like this: the not-stranger will be walking in front of the Atlantic Ocean. He will be wearing a plaid flannel shirt. I will be wearing teal shoes and the pair of blue shorts I am presently wearing. He will be walking beside me. Then he will be walking behind me. His phone number will be freshly entered into the rectangle I use to navigate the world. The previous evening, we will compose sentences to one another. I finished writing my essay, he will type, by which he will not mean: I finished composing my attempt.
Sun will reflect atop the surface of the earth, rendering the ocean into a source of light. I will not look into it.
Like a form of punctuation, the not-stranger will pause, turn his head, and look toward me. At a particular angle, the New England light will exist behind him, framing his face, and via his eyes, he will communicate something he does not mean. Fish are drunk and deeply psychic but also swimming in the dark, someone will later say, and I will register this information as I register the image of the not-stranger.
I play this moment in my mind, but because it does not exist as the compression of an image, I cannot share it.
On my eight-mile run, I pause in front of Basilica Hudson, a performance venue located in a 19th century factory. The bartender works here; he helps plan events. He explained this to me before I talked to him on the phone, before I left him an aquamarine stone, before I walked home alone.
Outside of Basilica Hudson, Karen Dalton’s “Something on Your Mind” plays. Accented by the music, a projection—a wedding—takes place. A group of human beings bond over a kickball. The ghost of a drone loops. I gaze into a stained-glass window that is not a pair of eyes, then run toward the Hudson River, pausing to cry. Like all crying, my crying is unremarkable, but in my body it feels like the kind of crying that will never end, that will obliterate skin. Nearby, a man is disassembling a white tent. It is the weekend of a craft fair I missed because I was busy crying. In my old life, I would imagine this man seeing me and speculate about his gaze, but in my new life, this window of cognition is shut. Heart is a window, closed.
In my immaculate, temporary, three-story home, I fill a bowl with tortilla chips and smash an avocado until it glistens. Her eyes glistened with tears, the dictionary says, and the avocado transmutes into a melancholic. I look at it; it looks at me. I evade it; it evades me. I cannot help but think of it as a lonely man, this smashed avocado, overpriced and out-of-season, plucked from a tree during god only knows when. Meanwhile, I have been awake for hours. I have cried and run eight miles. This bowl is the first meal I will force myself to ingest.
I sit on the floor and watch myself eat. Reflected in a full-length screen, my body is obtuse and acute, solid and fluid, and always the opposite of its shadow.
A window is open, letting in air.
I spend my days like this: sitting in front of the screen, waiting for silence to break. It’s an obsession, someone says, and she is neither right nor wrong.
The avocado I am attempting to stomach is an object of unprocessed grief.
I chew one chip, then the next.
I think about my corporate crisis, how the image that caused it was both a valentine from the stranger to the not-stranger, and an advertisement, for every image on the corporate social network is becoming-stock.
I think about the not-stranger, and how I obliterate my personal agency by attributing the inability to stop punching to him. In fact, the pain caused by the not-stranger is not caused by him. A ghost cannot throw punches: he can merely retreat.
And so it seems my rage is, in fact, a latent form of suffering.
In another state, the not-stranger erases my name. He drains out every heart once filled by the color of paprika, sucking away all dopamine.
I carve a line into my forearm. Imaginary love pools.
It is a fake carving not caused by a book, an image, love, evil, cruelty, or another person, be that person a stranger or not.
No—my carving is about gradations of pain, and how pain buries itself until it becomes unburied, remains unprocessed until it is essayed.
People are people, but people are also screens displaying all of our psychological voids.
How can you be there for someone and then not be?
And so I quit the feed—ctrl+alt+del—or so I essay to quit, which means that I still feed, only my feeding takes place in bursts around which I feel guilt, for when I feed I punch, and when I punch I bruise, and when I bruise I scratch, and when I scratch I bleed. I am still working to let go of feeling shame over my most vulnerable attributes.
Now that I am not feeding, I should be able to carve out a clearing. But I cannot yet carve out a clearing! Instead, I feel unprocessed rage. It shimmers when I run away, the only way I know how to break free, to possess agency, to clearly see my thoughts. Often, this running away is punctuated by caesuras I type into a rectangle. For example, I type: There is no closeness, only gradations of proximity that fade in and out of light. I type: You do not eat eggs, but you eat eggs. You do not eat hearts, but someone ate yours. Then I type a list: running, houseplants, dopamine, opting out, being alone, tenderness. Not even happiness.
For a long time, I did not believe in romantic love. I questioned the couple-form and ingested books I thought could prevent me from experiencing heartbreak. These books protected me, allowing me to exist in conceptual frameworks versus actual relationships. This form of protection eroded when I met a not-stranger into whose gaze I felt I could see, whose eyes felt like a pair of windows.
That doesn’t mean it wasn’t real, the not-stranger said.
Had you ever experienced that sensation before?
No, and I hope to never again?
As Earth crumbled, there existed the repetition of the phrase things will be okay. This phrase—things will be okay—denotes that which will be “satisfactory but not exceptionally or especially good.”
In a notebook, I recopy a fragment I typed into the rectangle I use to navigate the world: You clobber me with a bat / then I clobber you back / like an obedient bag that punches.
The year is 2017. Several young girls are singing songs about being toys. I ingest these songs as background music accompanying my long-distance running practice, which is neither powerful nor weak, but rather something pleasant that is also a punishment for something unpleasant. In this way, my long-distance running practice is not unlike essayistic processing, though websites purport it is fruitful for my cardiovascular health. If I keep this practice up and maintain a plant-based diet, my heart rate will be regarded by doctors as excellent.
When I was young, my mother and I would go to the mall on Friday nights to alleviate our pain. I would order chicken tenders and eat them, fattening my body like a good middle schooler. This was before I possessed a sense of ethical responsibility around not eating meat, before the young adult Buddhist primer on reincarnation entered my orbit, before I became a paper mouse extracted from a book that was also a toy containing adhesive accessories to clothe my two-dimensional form: a t-shirt; a pair of jeans; a baseball cap; a pair of sneakers; a charm bracelet disguised as an heirloom that was a reproduction of an heirloom.
Now I am putting pantyhose over my head. They are beige and asphyxiating. When I can no longer breathe, I tear a hole at the mouth and eat a pomegranate. As the pomegranate’s juice stains the nylon, I press record, then fantasize about broadcasting this performance to a website where strangers pay me coin after coin after coin.
Once upon a time, I dated a scholar-athlete. We were an anomaly. I had dyed black hair and wore antique slips. He withheld affection but was an exceptional pole vaulter. I never trusted him, but it felt calming to make him homemade gifts.
Tell me what you’re thinking.
During this period of my life, I was always writing love letters to other people because I did not yet believe in the abolition of cathexis. And then you're sucking a teenager's dick because you know no other choice.
What comes to mind?
I am glad to no longer suck dick. It is a violent act, one I associate with the post-punk vegan bicyclist who declared I have to come eventually or I won’t be able to stand before sitting on my face. This was before I took a shower, before I read on the Internet that his girlfriend died of cancer. Was I a virgin? At home, I drew a detailed black-and-white comic documenting the encounter.
Across a landscape of months, I painted the comic red. It was a crude attempt at employing watercolor; the scenes contained my avatar being attacked an anthropomorphic fox. In one panel, my avatar is lying face down on a bed. The fox is gripping the back of her skull, smothering her face into a pillow. Perhaps she is dead, but I am not dead. I am very much alive and here to tell it.
For more information about this piece, see this issue's legend.
Claire Donato wrote Burial (Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2013) and The Second Body (Poor Claudia, 2016; Tarpaulin Sky Press, forthcoming). Recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Folder, Bennington Review, DIAGRAM, VICE, Fanzine, and The Elephants. She teaches in the BFA Writing Program at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY.
The Bailey Fountain at Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn, NY
On long runs in Brooklyn, I always stop at The Bailey Fountain at Grand Army Plaza, to the north of Prospect Park. On sunny days, its nude figures stand accented by rainbows, "their backs [...] forever turned to each other". But my favorite thing is to run here in the rain.