First Place | Nonfiction Writing Contest XLVIII | 2019
NEW MILLENNIUM AWARD FOR FICTION
Cora C. Cruz of Forest Hills, New York for "Free Energy"
Cruz will receive $1,000, an award plaque to mark the success, and publication both online and in print.
* * This is the author’s first literary award. * *
In the middle term, then, this consciousness gets freed from action and enjoyment, in the sense of its own action and enjoyment. It puts away from itself, qua self-existent extreme, the substance of its will, and throws on to the mediating term, or the ministering agency, its own proper freedom of decision, and herewith the guilt of its own act.
— G.W.F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind – section B – The Unhappy Consciousness
She had vomited again, this time in the coat closet. Mother noted the puddle of regurgitated banana in front of the vacuum cleaner and the laundry cart, and raised an eyebrow at the small, contrite face recessed among parkas behind it.
“Was it the American cheese?”
The six-year-old nodded.
“I’ll think of something to say to her.”
Another penitent nod, but this time the coats rustled wisps of relief, and soon the child was extracted.
She wasn’t blamed. Not for this anyway. Mother herself could barely call up the sight without feeling queasy. The very idea – gums, mostly toothless but for one or two incisors dangling precariously, smacked painstakingly over an undulating tongue in a slow, cooperative effort that gradually masticated the viscous yellow slices, spectators being allowed full view of the stages of decomposition. The nanny was old, mother had known this, though she hadn’t known quite how old. They’d interviewed on a bench by the bus stop. The nanny had given her age as fifty-six, and mother hadn’t thought better of it, nor thought to give her a walking test. Who does that? In retrospect, had they walked home to meet the children, the mobility issues, and the falsified age, would have become apparent. And after hiring, after all that trouble with the job posting, application reading and interviewing, the acrimony when applicants were interviewed but not picked, after choosing this candidate for her warmth and humor, her kindly wisdom, her long-suffering Jamaican heritage, her ample experience, and most of all for mother’s own conviction of fairness and giving chances to the underprivileged and needy, how could mother then turn down the increasing requests for bus fare, for unanticipated routes, in order to pick up the children from school, take them to play in the park and bring them home again, though only a few blocks’ distance was involved? Now a lumbering shadow napped on park benches while the children played unattended, now it took root on a dining chair after staggering home with them, snails’ pace, the children heedless, impatient and disrespectful. Immobilized, exhausted from herculean effort, the great dusky figure installed itself in the corner to absorb cheese and Ramen noodles until mother arrived; while the little beasts, intuitive creatures that they were, sensed the disciplinary vacuum, and took advantage.
Mother contrived an evasive explanation about her daughter’s weak stomach, but it was impossible to put a gloss on daughter’s rudeness, her constant disobedience, or little brother’s running amok. And it was not an option to overlook the internecine feuds between the siblings that went unchecked under nanny’s helpless auspices, which often resulted in bite marks that took days to heal, deep purple bruises, bloody lips, patches of missing hair, one notable black eye, and a dislocated shoulder. As if feeble cries of dismay or cluck-clucking from a safely seated distance ever deterred any red-blooded child. It was unavoidable – the nanny had to be let go. Tomorrow, mother resolved, she’d put in a new job post for someone young, athletic, assertive, strict yet fun … no, that would not be specific enough. She would need the qualities of compassion and ruthlessness combined, together with the sheer physical fitness, the brute force and command, and the technical skill of, say, a drill sergeant for marines special ops. Yet must enjoy arts-and-crafts, and playing tag.
Over the next two weeks, mother would fire this nanny and hire a replacement, a well-built, energetic young woman from Venezuela who wore sneakers, running tights and an outdoorsy jacket at the interview, who lifted weights and did cardio at the gym regularly, who liked samba dancing, and who, it turned out, never tired of trotting in parks with the children, of being deeply impressed with everything they told her or showed her, and of inventing inane games. She wasn’t very authoritative, alas, and the children would walk all over her, too, abusing her sweet, gullible nature shamefully with their imperious demands, nasty tricks and violent tantrums. But happily, it would soon become apparent that if she kept them busy enough outside, and humored their taste for novelty, games and adventure, even if it meant riding back and forth on subways to indulge little brother’s obsession with trains, which mother never had patience for, or devising artifacts out of tissue and paper clips, then the aggression would abate, and they would begin, gradually over months, to heed her when she sat them down to do their homework, or to eat their dinners.
The termination of the elderly sitter, on the other hand, would be excruciating. Mother could afford only a week’s severance on her clerical salary, which she justified by pointing out to her husband that the woman had been in their service only two months, but it gnawed nevertheless; and she would give no notice, springing the news one afternoon just before Thanksgiving on pretext of walking the lady to the bus stop. It should be understood, mother continued to her husband on receiving an angry text a few days later from her disgruntled former employee – a text about an invalid husband and a daughter, the only child, who’d moved to California to be with a new beau and could no longer help out – that in this business, no notice could ever be given: the risks of deflected resentment were too high. Mother promised excellent references, and would give them, but employment opportunities would always fall through very quickly, and inevitably ended with texts asserting belief that Jesus would see to the needs of his flock, and sending blessings to the children (who were surely undeserving). Jesus would not appear to be very good at his job, however, for the texts would continue over the years, asking how the children fared, how they were growing, if they remembered her, and by the way how terribly the bills were piling up, she didn’t know how she would get on, and could mother please put in some advertisements for her on the internet, since she didn’t have a computer and wouldn’t know how to use one if she did. How awful, mother would say to her husband. How do we as a community, as a country, neglect the aging poor this way? How awful that such a person still needed to beg for scraps of work when it was clear she was long beyond that sort of thing and should be taken care of, herself. How awful, her husband would agree, and there would be a minute of silence, before moving on to other gossip. But this evening, that of the retched banana, mother still needed her current caregiver. She had parent-teacher conferences to run to, and as her employee sat, making good-faith but fruitless gestures at rising to assist, mother scrubbed a protesting little brother’s dirt-caked hands, hurriedly assembled sandwiches and juice cups on trays, sat the children with them in front of the TV, and asked only that an eye be kept that no one chokes, or injures the other in any permanent way. Not that mother thought substantive intervention in either of these cases was a realistic expectation, but she didn’t have time to dwell.
It was a wet night. November leaves, gold and brown, lay in laminated drifts – terrestrial halos around street lights, punctuating the dark. Mother – and now she was Anne, alone on the street, a discrete person, for the moment at least – liked the miniature square or rectangular patches that counted as front yards to the homes near her children’s schools. There was the one that had corn, real stalks, in its tiny plot. There was the dilapidated shack around the bend with vegetables growing on three sides: lettuces and tomato bushes in rows, tubers of squash suspended from reinforced vines, trellised to save space, stone pathways running among them, and one section devoted to a makeshift greenhouse of garbage bags. When Anne passed in the mornings with her daughter, she hypothesized that this place must be inhabited by a teacher who was very old and drank tea, real English tea from a real English teapot with cracks in it, and if there ever were guests, they’d be served minuscule, miserly squares of lemon sponge cake, the kind old people like because it’s easy to chew and inexpensive, with a bit of homemade marmalade as a point of pride, but the guests would be watched that they didn’t take more than a polite half-teaspoonful, and the tea would be very good but would always have bugs floating in it because the host had poor eyesight and didn’t notice them. Daughter agreed. Anne’s favorite, though, adjoined a residence of the Tudor Revival sort, common among the somewhat more moneyed neighbors of past generations: black triangulated beams, decaying brick and somber iron gates. It was surrounded thickly by evergreens, which, along with the house’s dark gables, lent it a gothic ambience. If you peered in, and lifted your daughter so she could see too, you could make out an enclosure that had clearly once been cultivated, long ago. Autumn debris lay matted, tendrils with wild rose extended, unkempt, from overgrown shrubs, a birdbath stood aslant in the center, half full of rainwater, but for all its abandonment, it beckoned more than any of the other gardens: secrets live here, they can be safe here, it whispered to you. Listen, Anne would tell her daughter, as they pressed their faces to the fence where there was a break in the foliage. But daughter would laugh and pull her mother on. She was too young still for secrets.
Anne expected it would be a long evening, with tedious loitering in hallways outside teachers’ rooms, sign-up lists, other parents to avoid, and sitting on undersized chairs. She’d forgotten her headphones in her haste, and regretted it for a moment, but then acknowledged she felt less need lately for music. The attachment that had caught her in its grip the last six months was slowly but surely relaxing its hold, in the usual way, and soon, she knew, there would be nothing left of it but a memory, which is to say, a fact: an inert thing, a container of sorts, whose contents could be unpacked, laid out, and dispassionately studied. These contents had been living, they’d been voracious and greedy, they’d made claims on her attention that had been irresistible, they’d compelled her day after day to flesh them out, color them in, append their qualia, attribute their stories and draw out their implications. They had enlisted music in their service: should she spend too much time working, should the desiccating hours of expense accounting and office bureaucracy turn her imagination to dust, sterile and flat, then these contents, remaining unharmed but dormant, could quickly be resuscitated with a bit of Spotify. Should the daily grind with the kids, the endless picking up of clothes and toys, the doing of dishes and mind-numbing Sunday afternoons in play parks eliminate even the faintest inclination toward romance – toward something more, where one might actually be alive and not just going through the motions – one had but to insert the earbuds, drop the iphone with the playlist in a back pocket while fixing dinner, sip a bit of whiskey perhaps from a glass prudently out of reach to shorter persons, and the scenes would come rushing back. A movie much larger, and much better, than life.
She had noticed him at the coffee shop one morning before her commute, but hadn’t thought to speak to him until, each having gone separate ways with their beverages, she found herself on the bench next to him in the subway station. It was raining, late March, and she complained about the ineffectiveness of umbrellas, how they broke so quickly in the wind that you were better off just draping yourself in plastic, or not bothering at all. The way he agreed distinguished him immediately and unmistakably from every other man she’d ever chatted with at this station on her way to work, for it was a neighborhood composed almost entirely of Russian, Ukrainian and Israeli immigrants, who worked in construction or jewelry, who married early, had children young, wore thick wedding bands and went dutifully to synagogue on Saturdays, dressed to the nines, even their toddlers in suits with neckties or taffeta and patent leather. Not that some of them hadn’t occasionally propositioned her, but they’d done it so crudely, with such guilt and shame beneath the false bravado, that she wondered if they ever had any success in such endeavors, and struggled to conceive what type of woman could possibly be swayed by such dismal courtships. This fellow, on the other hand, was as Anglo-Saxon as they come, with a university-educated accent and mannerisms that announced as clearly as if scrawled on the wall above him that he was not only single but had never been married. It wasn’t these alone that interested her, however. What intrigued her rather was that those attributes came in a package that included what she’d observed peripherally at the coffee shop: there’d been a tremor in his hands when he’d reached for the cream and sugar, and the hands still shook ever so slightly as they stirred. This signaled a weakness, a divergence, a compelling vulnerability, in what otherwise seemed an unremarkable, blandly American, potentially but after-all-not-quite-alpha male.
They conversed briefly and then went separate ways again, in separate subway cars, out of consideration. Commutes were, after all, often one’s only personal time of the day, coveted for the precious interval of peace and quiet they afforded. The only thing worse – or tied for first place – than a conversation partner on a ride was the individual (there was one, invariably, on every car) with the post-nasal drip, whose intermittent sniffling and snorting sent Anne into paroxysms of disgust and indignation, and could not be blotted out by even the thickest of noise-cancelling headphones (she’d tried many brands). But she had warmed to her coffee-shop fellow from the start and hadn’t hesitated to show it, listening attentively, smiling sincerely, reiterating his observations, asking more about them, and leaning in to hear his answers over the din of train traffic. A theory about him had formed instantly in her mind before she’d run into him the second time, before she was aware of it herself, before he’d been anything to her but a passing curiosity at Starbucks. She’d intuited over the milk and sweeteners that no matter what his strengths, his successes or ambitions, his autonomy and self-sufficiency, his cruelties, generosities or selfishness, he had a handicap. One that wouldn’t interfere with his essential functioning, one which would not cause any extravagant alteration in his opinions or behavior, not right away, but one the significance of which would seep into him insidiously over time, would cast a blight of doubt where perhaps there’d never been any previously; would, more and more, erode his satisfaction in whatever superficial pleasures he normally partook in, and draw his thoughts increasingly from the complacencies of everyday life toward something just beyond, unnoticed till now, penumbral and ominous. If he’d never been given to deeper reflection, he’d have started at last, better late than never. He’d taken to visiting a therapist perhaps. A male practitioner at first, about his age – which is to say middle aged – with glasses and academic sweaters, but this one annoyed him because he’d be awfully slow on the uptake, foisting upon him his worn, textbook stereotypes, never grasping his patient’s self-deprecating ironies and subtle insinuations, whose bourgeois marriage and long extinct dating life occasioned spurious nods of understanding or tactless questions that only barely concealed an overweening prudishness. So her fellow had found a female clinician who came with scented candles, low lighting, furry carpets, deep, plush chairs, and who was old enough to make him feel he could confide freely, that she’d understand about the invisible side of things, where you spent your days overlooked or pitied, a staple in waiting areas at pharmacies, and where sexual markets, with the access they give you to the life-world, are foreclosed. They would talk about death. His meetings with her would follow his medical appointments in which, under astringent lighting, they’d inform him about early onsets, progressions and beta-blockers. To her, this therapist, he’d bring his anguish, and it would all come flooding out: the time he’d arrived home from school when he was six to find the parakeet frozen at the bottom of the cage, how he’d stared into its glassy eyes long after his siblings had lost interest, the countless fish that went down the toilet, in fifth grade the chill, an otherworldly dread, when it was announced the bald kid would no longer be in school and the social worker took him and his classmates one by one to sit in his office and eat cookies. He’d always thought of marriage as an impossible concession, for conventional truncated people, but now he looked at older couples crossing the streets, at that husband who had trouble with his hips but who led his wife to the grocery store, it was at least a way to get out, never losing his cool, never getting angry when she cried to him, terrified, calling and shouting in front of all the customers, that he’d abandoned her, when all he’d done was search for her lactose-free milk. In front of this therapist, Anne’s fellow would weep. The questions were baleful, implacable, pale-faced supplicants: who would take care of him when he no longer could, who would miss him and keep his memory, what did his life mean, what did his job mean, what did love mean, what did meaning mean, what could he leave behind, and why hadn’t he, damn it, thought about any of this sooner.
It was for these reasons that Anne had been affable, and she was quite taken aback when, the following morning, he materialized as if from thin air before her on the train platform and asked outright if she was single. It was a prudent question – you never can tell. Anne had thrown her wedding ring out the kitchen window ages ago during a bilious spat on the heels of a tense vacation, had a few years later pried her husband’s ring off his finger to throw out same window in a different spat pursuant to his half-hearted cheating, both spats having been smoothed over as they always were, they knew not how, but now they wore no rings, and they’d learned by this point that new ones could be expected to follow their predecessors. At any rate, the question was followed by a pregnant pause, to allow for abbreviated simulations of various trajectories of lying, all with disastrous consequences, before Anne answered no. He laughed, genuinely amused, less at his own forwardness than at her evident ambivalence, which betrayed moral turpitudes of daunting complexity, and vanished. She would not meet him again until months later, when they’d sit chastely beside one another with their coffee for whole lengths of several commutes, discoursing frankly on dating, marriage, work, kids, siblings, parents and mental illness in the manner of those who have no ulterior motives. But that circumstance would not prevent the immediate commencement this day, the subsequent flourishing, and the desolate demise of their amorous relationship.
Anne kicked herself inwardly for declining. The notion was preposterous of course, but there it was, the What If. What if it wasn’t just one of the many roads not taken or an asymptotic curve toward an unattainable future. What if happiness were possible. The first of such longings had set into her at the age of twenty, late by most standards but all the more potent for that. She’d been studying abroad and the object of her affection was a boy at school back home, who never returned her letters but would, she was sure, make up for it in person when she returned, or maybe by a surprise visit, or most likely he was so overcome with unspeakable reciprocity that words simply failed him. The idea of words failing him, of his ineffable suffering, gave her comfort through the solitary nights at her dormitory. It was the international students’ wing, the one other American being the bloated, hirsute pupil of European law, laconic and glum when he wasn’t drinking, but, after a few Bier, hurling obscenities from the balcony or when their trips to the bathroom coincided. Back in her room, she’d open her window for the breeze from the lake, from well-tended recreational grounds, from the Black Forest even, which was only a streetcar-trip away, to intertwine the strains of Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game, broadcast on perpetual repeat from the British quarters. It made everything so romantically defiant, and fueled such absorbing daydreams, that she didn’t feel the least left out by the nonstop party traffic, or by the omnipresence of blokes in black leather jackets, cigarette packs tucked into sleeves of white t-shirts, who were way too hip for her. The diligent, gentlemanly Chinese scholar of comparative economics kept her company at meals in the lounge, teaching her to cook – Italian food of all things. A wife and infant daughter waited for him, and he showed pictures often. There were the long jogs around the lake (whole families, three generations of them, swam nude and unabashed, a spirit the emulation of which later caused Anne’s husband no end of embarrassment), cassette tapes in her Walkman. Gypsy Kings was all she’d brought, but they did fine, nourishing both her longing and her certainty: the irresistible scratching of an itch. Twenty years, discarded academic studies, an administrative career, one marriage and two children later, it itched again, or rather as much as ever, and was nourished again on the exquisite sorrow of guitar concerti or orchestral music, on jogs early mornings while her husband slept, or evenings while he supervised the kids and mopped the floors.
This fellow, the one from the subway, would not have cared whether she was single, was how it would go. It was not a moral issue. He’d understand about the sorrow. He had come to know it too, now that fate admonished him. They were not religious, either of them, but they would attend a special performance of Mozart’s Requiem at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in Morningside Heights, followed by Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. The cathedral would remind Anne of the Freiburger Münster, of sitting in the pews early mornings before tourists arrived after buying a small role of bread from the bakery on her meagre allowance, to save for later – the sole meal of the day, this day at least, thinking as she gazed up into the dizzying heights how good it was to be hungry, how good to diminish and deny the self, that in this there was perhaps an answer, that in this way one might, perchance, pass through the eye of the needle. Shadows of monkish robes, faces hidden, passed like phantoms, their souls beautiful, in whose company she would be home. The needs, they were endless, insatiable. She’d gathered this by now. There was no natural guide to appetite but capacity, caprice and scarcity – every pleasure could be better, more constant, amplified or varied; every luxury could be more luxurious, or more enduring; every victory could be topped, every certainty more certain, every satisfaction deeper, or more lasting, and nothing was secure from theft, decline and destruction. Left to its own devices, the natural world, understood as material cause and need, was a bottomless abyss. The guidance – the limit or form – could only come from elsewhere, she surmised. There was no such entity as a natural law, this was an absurdity. Law was to nature as a cup to water, another kind altogether. But grasping law, obeying it, one aligned oneself to higher purpose – to that which had, or gave, meaning. How to manage this alignment, then, was the question. She could only imagine that it was by denial, by the purest, most thoroughgoing abstention, that it could be accomplished. If the material world consisted in things, and the forms were not things, then the negation of all things, of all positive assertion, of want, of need, of any object of either desire or knowledge, was necessary for purification. Surely beauty was a purifying agent, if ever there was one suited to the halflings that we are, for it was earthly pleasure elevated, transmogrified. Impressed by these thoughts, by view of the arches and towering columns, beneath the stained glass and candles that threw shadows up and down the walls, she felt she was no longer herself, that she was free, her pedestrian life the mud from which she’d been salvaged. She was filled with love. She was nothing but this love, a love purified by beauty, by the infinite sorrow of its very kind as negation. This must be that of which Augustine had written – of which they all had written and spoken in these cathedrals, though the crasser folk that went to sermons were incapable of comprehension, it was all just rules to them, obedience to which would get them a treat, like in Kindergarten, and they turned back to their ordinary lives with their ordinary desires without pause.
Anne had not, as a student in Freiburg or any other time, succeeded in becoming an ascetic. It wasn’t necessary. To have grasped the principle was enough: that there was more to life, to happiness, than the maximization of satisfaction, and that aiming directly at the latter, rather than conduce to its achievement, was rather like persisting in filling a glass that has a hole in the bottom. Neither form, as negation, nor matter, as determinate stuff, could exist without the other, she surmised, and so it must be the play between them, which one could cultivate more or less, toward which one’s energies and attention should be directed. This – extemporizing Plato and Hegel – was what was meant by the life of the mind, she decided. She could sense a kindred inclination, or lack of it, in others, and over the years this sense sharpened to bloodhound precision, much to her own inconvenience. From down a hall or across a room, Anne smelled it on people, their boorishness, their bad faith, their childish, neurotic, literal or linear ways of thinking – whatever the fashionable term. It was all the same to her: a primitive simple-mindedness, a gross, unsophisticated avarice, a clod-like, plodding mental bent, that made her turn abruptly to exit elevators, jump from treadmills at the gym when patterns of movement from the runner next to her made it all too clear what sort of person it was, or discreetly lower her eyes in streets and subways lest they see her expression, which was not favorable or friendly, and anyway she saw no point in offending. How much easier not to know. If only she could drift obliviously through life, like she had as a kid, trusting in the basic goodness and good sense of grownups. Why couldn’t she unlearn it all – it would be so much better than this continuous, acrid disappointment. Yet what could one do? Love of God, she confirmed, did not lead to a love of people. Her subway fellow was different. He would save her. His existence would make it more bearable. Through him, the world could be redeemed, even if just a little.
There were other ways, she acknowledged, of facilitating the harmonious play between mind and matter: daily custom and ritual did the trick, minimally at least. Living with families abroad over the years in her youth had taught her the great liberating stability that routine could bring: the regular, predictable meals together, the way you had things just so and did not question them, it was wonderful in its way, admittedly superior to the catch-as-can at her own home, where parents worked increasingly long hours as the children grew and housekeepers chronically quit. The structuring, the artifice of sculpting and reining in desire, opened space for higher operations, this was certainly true: not only was there significantly more leisure time, and communal time, when affairs were organized in a civilized manner, but one could be at peace, one wasn’t constantly tormented by invidious comparisons, as with way too many brands of the same breakfast cereal, which would – and do – merely bring paralysis. Her husband was of this solid stock, who cleaved to his immigrant traditions (there were the inevitable one or two in his family, went the gossip, who’d flouted their upbringing, and it hadn’t ended well for them). This had been a great attraction and a real solace in the initial years of their marriage, a secure footing she’d previously missed, which allowed for some much-needed maturation. But, being met, the need would eventually be outgrown, and soon custom was just dull, regularity nothing more than laziness and fear, and it was her husband’s lack of imagination she could not forgive. No one, she told herself, and sometimes him, had ever held a gun to his head, to scare him off books. There had been opportunity for study, for discipline and ambition, for breaking out and up, for experimentation and exploration, yet he’d been content to line the walls and lurk in corners, hemmed in by his class, by his inhibitions, by the education that had been his blue collar lot, by the stereotypes he could not throw off because he could not simply become someone else to other people, they saw him the same no matter what he did, and so he did the only thing he could: the same routine, the same thoughts, day after day. Now that they were of middle age, if she brought it up – this reproach – he demurred it was too late. Anne could not forgive this either – it being too late.
The constancy that had been a blessing early in her marriage gradually became naught but a low bar. There was bit of drinking at first, here and there, occasionally mixed with antihistamines for full anaesthetic effect; then the compulsive, devil-may-care eating, then more drinking, then the days of gym and green juice, and the cycle resumed. It didn’t show much, she didn’t think, but she was always a bit ragged around the edges, like laundry gone awry. Colleagues and friends, the few she still had, attributed it to parenthood and work stress, but she knew better. Her weight, while it didn’t change significantly, fluctuated enough so that she was constantly buying, throwing out, and re-buying clothes. At some point her cholesterol was high, but she stopped going to checkups, finding them ridiculous, the advice annoying in its useless obviousness. She stopped doing much about her hair, cutting it herself when absolutely necessary in front of the bathroom mirror while the children stuffed Shopkins down the shower drain, and when the frames of her glasses cracked, she wore them with a bit of duct tape affixed to the middle for several years.
The heartache, it sprang from two wells. The first she could not change, nor wanted to, since it was, as they say, sweet. It consisted in the negation of all that is, of all real stuff and all determinate ideas. It was their denial, their diminishment, but it made them possible, and so this sweet sorrow, this sublime grief, was the source of life, in Anne’s estimation. It gave birth to the play between ideas and their correlates, and this was what music and books revealed to Anne. These mediating agents opened dimensions – permutations and depths without which her days were insufferably, excruciatingly dull. She would discuss books and listen to music with her fellow. After they made love, they’d lean against each other or she’d perch on his window sill, one leg bracing the frame and the other swung over the ledge under which the landlord kept his potted plants, talking about the difference between, on one hand, the existential-ontological: that irreducible layer which introduced the Nothing, the Clearing or Lichtung; and on the other hand, the existentiell-ontic, about which Anne adopted and adapted Heidegger’s terminology to describe the more superficial level, on which we abide, populated by recursive loops, in spiralling, sedimentary systems, between word and referent, intention and fulfillment, norm and its failure or its realization, and back again in the corrective, self-substantiating circles that comprise practical reason, fully along Aristotelian lines – games which define us as creatures of symbol, signifier, language; games the intensification and advancement of which is what it means, quite simply, to cultivate, to be cultured. It was this intensification that Anne would experience with her fellow, as both bliss and anguish, for it brought her closer to its incomparable, inconceivable source and end, and gave every projected touch, every envisaged gesture, its thrill. He’d have vinyl records and a record player, and piles of dirty dishes and reeking ashtrays in the dingy alcove that passed as a kitchen. His bachelor furniture would be outdated and stained, in seventies pastels from a previous owner, though hard to make out because the standing lamp is broken, lighting therefore permanently crepuscular, except for one hour each afternoon when the sun angles just right between the tenements to bathe the tiny apartment in columns of gold. They’d listen to original recordings – Monk and Armstrong and Fitzgerald, the Beatles and Queen, but very, very best of all, the New York Philharmonic in its glorious days, they’d play Mendelssohn, Mussorgsky, Mahler, Dvořák, Elgar in E Minor, Richard Strauss and the Tannhäuser Overture – they’d crank them all the way up till the walls shook, the hell with the neighbors’ pounding on their door and from their floor. There’d be the Chopin then too, and Liszt, pensive and meticulous. They’d smoke the Marlboros that she hadn’t tasted since those cafés in the Alsace-Lorraine, not long after the Wall fell and she could take a train east, marking passage through Alpine landscapes, towns and farmland, watching them steadily lose their lustre, grow ever more drab and overcast till she reached Dresden, its splendor stygian still with soot, littered with nasty Trabants and fifty-year-old rubble. She and her fellow would find their times to meet and though this would make Anne’s days more hectic than ever, running from her assignations to her kids and to work again, everything would return to life: balmy zephyrs of spring, silken summer nights, the ushering of autumn, each leaf a remembrance. The world would come back to her, rich and varied and textured like it was supposed to be, now that Anne could feel its pulse again, the one she’d suspected was still there, but from which she’d been separated by stifling years, stupefying labor, insipid prattle and egregious, empty lies.
This, the second source of the melancholy, of which the music also spoke, she would change, if she could; it was the intransigence of the issue that distressed her. The untutored mind was an acute and constant annoyance, both as a practical matter and in principle. For it could not be denied that a ubiquitous habit of careful reflection together with a cultivated taste would vastly improve the general state of affairs – perhaps no cure-all, but it would certainly help. It would be universally agreed upon, for example, that consumer culture was nonsensical and that the capitalist mode of production was unsustainable. It would be obvious to all that spending one’s time honing capacities for contemplation and working toward scientific or artistic appreciation and understanding, while equitably pooling the grunt work, were the only properly human activities, simultaneously conducing to peaceful, considerate coexistence. Nevertheless, to her chagrin, philistines abounded. Hefty noise-cancelling headphones completed a fine ensemble with the duct-taped spectacles, but they occasionally had to come off; at which point the idle chatter of her colleagues, or of fellow subway passengers ill-mannered enough to speak to one another – when, that is, they were not too busy finding new and inventive ways to deal with mucus, fidgeting, mouthing lyrics or courting various other forms of regression – drove her to bouts of fulminating irascibility. She couldn’t help but meditate on the cause: was it the price, the opportunity cost, of repetitive, low-grade work? Could it be generations – millennia – of neuron-numbing indentured toil that condemned the vast majority to mental stagnation? Or was it their fault, a moral crime, that most failed to rise to even minimal developmental and cognitive capacities? She herself had settled for ignominious employment in middle management, and deeply resented every moment she was compelled to spend on it. For this reason, she blamed labor. A system that, as they say, mortified the bodies and ruined the minds of so many could hardly be expected to produce the basis of an intelligent democracy. She had become one of them in spite of herself: voiceless, ineffectual, insignificant, under-educated, unaccomplished, exerting most of her energy at menial tasks whose only purpose, aside from temporarily keeping her and her family fed, was to further an economy that laid waste to the planet and abused every form of life. And like everyone else, she forged her escape through fantasy.
Her fellow would be an exception, a jewel among the dross. Her admiration would find its rightful object at last. She would not need to dissimulate with him, pad his qualifications, excuse the inexcusable, restrain or cauterize expectations and desires. She could be herself completely, cleave to her standards, and yet love him fully, in every concrete aspect – for every universal, its synchronized, signifying particular: the curve of his profile, the slight hunch of his shoulders, the brush of his skin, his graceful hands, his awkward gait and thinning hair, the timbre of his voice, inflections of idiolect, moods and habits, memories and regrets, his courage and fortitudes and his lapses. He’d not have capitulated to convention, bad faith, cheap pseudo-thought, Kitsch. What imperfections he possessed – and there would be enough – would serve only to humble and deepen his understanding; that is what imperfections are for. It was this kind of love, above all, of which her music sang. Over the months, seeking but not finding him on commutes mornings and evenings, searching at the coffee shop, or perhaps she’d run into him at the grocery store or on her way to the park with the kids (she’d explain it all, she’d take it back, her rejection, he’d see how it was) – music would configure him, construct their interactions, assemble their reality, piece by piece. Her habits improved: she no longer drank, enjoyed her workouts at the gym, ate sensibly (it came naturally now), took more care dressing, purchased pretty shoes and new frames for her glasses (less severe ones this time), got a real haircut from a trained stylist, and let him coax her into highlights. She took her children to Church on Sundays to hear the choir, and noticed them as if for the first time, sitting before her on the benches – how small they still were, how bright and eager to learn, how dear to her.
And to him, she would be… but what would she be? What is any woman, to any man? What would he seek in her, person that he was, that she could offer? It was difficult to say, now that she considered it. Her own mother had been young and pretty of course when she’d married her father, she’d loved art and travel and all things nice; Anne’s father enjoyed coming along for the ride. In time, her mother took over the administration of household and husband till the latter quite literally could and would not take a step without her. Anne observed couples like her parents often. Just the other day an elderly Chinese pair had boarded her train. The wife walked first, indicated to her husband where he should sit, motioned him to move when she revised her decision, and kept her eye trained on the map, calculating their stops. Husband sat where he was told, opened his newspaper, read until instructed to get up, wordlessly and obediently following his wife to the exit. In graduate school, back in the day, Anne had noticed that most of the male students and teachers married women outside their own fields, and, far more often than not, in significantly less rigorous occupations. The lawyers and bankers with whom Anne worked were beholden to their spouses for domestic management, as well as for a soft and fuzzy quality generally. Female partners were not usually, she observed, chosen out of intellectual respect, as reach, as challenge, as colleagues of sorts, towards mutual independence and growth. The only man Anne had ever personally known who spoke this way about his wife, who had first selected and still selected her for these reasons, was Anne’s husband.
Six months after their initial encounter, Anne was again on the subway bench next to her fellow. Again it was raining. His hands still shook as he closed his umbrella. He was a computer programmer, in the advertising industry, he offered. Yes, he liked it all right. Yes, the hours were intense. To relax? Well he liked electronic games. Lately he’d gotten addicted to Candy Crush. Anne’s kids were into that, she smiled. It seemed fun. Books? No, he did not like them. Wasn’t particularly into classical music. If he could get a break from work? Why, he’d take a backpacking trip through Europe. He’d always wanted to do that, his friends went after college but he missed out. He doubted he’d ever get the chance though.
The night of the expelled banana, Anne made her way home in silence, without earphones, after teacher conferences. The air had grown cold, it bit into one’s thoughts and pulled toward winters past and future – the cozy ones with snowmen and sledding and toddlers waddling in snowsuits, and the bleak, forlorn ones when disappointment crept like ice into one’s bones. But Anne wasn’t interested in speculating. The gardens were just gardens, a tree was just a tree. At home, the kids had dozed off, brother spread-eagled on a wreckage of Legos, sister face-planted in her laptop, which still played the latest episode of My Little Pony. Anne thanked and dismissed the sitter, who’d also had a good nap, swept up Legos with broom and dustpan, and carried the children to bed, undressing, toileting, warm washcloth for faces and hands, a dab of moisturizer, teeth brushing can wait till morning. Big sister to the top bunk, little brother on the bottom. Anne crawled in beside brother. He was a continual disaster: mess-maker, picky eater, despotic issuer of demands, allergic to homework, perseverative tormenter of sister. There was never a waking moment, it seemed, when Anne wasn’t reprimanding him or ordering him about. He was better asleep. She burrowed her nose into his hair and kissed his ear till he sighed and turned, like always, and wrapped his arms around her neck.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cora C. Cruz is an independent scholar in New York. She studied philosophy at Hamilton College and then at the New School for Social Research. Cruz’s publications include short fiction, academic work, and a recent novel, The Meditations of Manuel de la Vega.
* * This is the author’s first literary award. * *
Free Energy © 2019 Cora C. Cruz