Bobst Library, the Education of the Blind, and The Buffoon of Saint-Ovide, Essay 21 of #52essays2017

When I started my grad degree at NYU, I was given, for my nearly exclusive use, a little padded cell in the basement of Bobst Library where, in the beginning, I read books on the history of the education of the blind alongside postmodern theorists. It was black, or I remember it as such because of the black acoustic foam on the walls. The room was insulated in order to keep the electronic voices from seeping out into the quiet library. It was the A Level below the main floor and it, along with the B Level was open twenty-four hours a day, excepting holidays. This meant that studious NYUers could enter any time of the day or night.

These were the days before the several students launched themselves off the balcony, perhaps hypnotized by the interlocking pattern of colored marble on the main floor. I know that on the occasions I was up there looking down, I felt drawn, and could easily imagine the invitation, the siren song of putting an end to the interminable expectations of youth. While I was still at NYU, the gates went up on the stairways and around the balconies to keep this from happening.

As I walked across that shiny expanse that reminded me of a ballroom, I usually looked up not down. Although I thought how wonderful it would be to study up there in the light-filled spaces of the upper floors, my reading equipment was below ground. And so usually, I walked across the expanse to the bank of elevators that opened near my little room with its keypad code entrance just for the visually impaired and blind students of NYU.

If I looked left on my walk to the elevators, I saw the circulation desk and, in the first couple years I was there anyway, the card catalogue to the right. Later those very particular looking chests of pullout drawers with their little cards that held thousands of books–inaccessible to me since I was a very young teenager were replaced with a museum-style exhibition area with pointed lighting. No one would be using those cards anymore; every book would be catalogued online and accessible forever more, thank god.

The times I rode the elevator up instead of down, it was with my reader. We would hit the card catalogue and then troop around collecting my books. He would read some of those books to me–an intimate experience that deserves its own essay–but many of the books, especially those I planned to read from cover to cover and that boasted clear print, would get taken down to my little black padded cell to be scanned by an enormous stand-alone electronic reader called a Kurzweil. Today my Kurzweil software is in my laptop and I often use it to download books or occasionally to scan them on a portable scanner that is about the same size as my laptop, and it does a great job–big improvements in OCR over the past twenty years!

I kept a little pile of books in a plastic bag under the desk in my padded cell, and once, after a night out with friends–those were the days before guide dogs and white canes when I still looked normal and could mostly travel freely–I entered and scanned a book on the history of the education of the blind. I read drunkenly and while eating my bodega bagel, about Valentin Haüy’s dramatic discovery of ten blind performers, an account that always stands at the origin of the education of the blind.

Stumbling into a not-very classy entertainment venue in eighteenth-century Paris inspired Haüy to begin his path that would eventually lead him to found the first school for the blind. The scene of the blind men, gussied up and banging their broken instruments delighted the crowd. It may have been the Age of Enlightenment for the philosophes, but the rabble wanted their lowbrow fun! Here’s a representative version found in Journey into Light: The Story of the Education of the Blind (1951:

“Valentin Haüy was strolling through the streets of Paris one autumn day in 1771, some years before his meeting with Maria von Paradis, when a crowd hooting and laughing in front of St. Ovide’s Cafe on the Place Louis-le-Grand-today the Place Vendome-drew his attention. This grave young scholar crossed the cobbles to see what amused the shrill-voiced women in ruffled panniers, the rowdy men in tricorn hats, coarse yellow cloth coats, black breeches and copper-buckled shoes.

“He stared incredulously at the mummery being enacted on a platform raised above the cafe tables. Ten blind men scraped their bows in pantomime, drawing shattering discord from violins, cellos, basses and viols. They stared blankly at sheet music turned on the racks so that the notes were visible to the jeering audience. Their sightless eyes were ringed with huge pasteboard spectacles devoid of glass. They wore grotesque robes, with dunces’ caps and asses’ ears. A Midas headdress distinguished their leader. A peacock tail unfurled was the backdrop for his operations.

“Lighted candles cast shadows on their weary faces and gave raw emphasis to their infirmity. … Every day for two months they had scraped, fiddled and kept up a monotonous accompanying chant, while their audience jeered, banged tankards on the tables and screeched bawdy jokes. Now and again a drunken couple rose and danced in the street to the fantastic music. The rowdies who gathered at night stormed the blind men’s platform and would have demolished it in their exuberance but for a cordon of guards called in to keep order.

“Already the place was being renamed the Cafe des Aveugles [Café of the Blind]. Prints advertising the curious show were sold by M. Mondhar on the Rue St. Jacques, with a sketch of the scene, an announcement, and some misspelled doggerel verse.”

This extraordinary scene is woven into the origin story of the education of the blind, and it continues to haunt me because, after twenty years, I still doubt I’ll ever be able to shrug the moment off as being alarming, inexhaustible fodder for art. Here’s the first piece I ever wrote for The Spectator & the Blind Man, first published as flash fiction at Danse Macabre.

The Buffoon of Saint-Ovide

Hospice Quinze-Vingts, 1772

When the first fat coin smacked my face, I had to admit Monsieur might have been right about his strange money making venture. Of course that wasn’t my first thought. My first thought was, “Ow, what the hell?” And my second thought was, “Shit! Where’d it go?” I wanted to look for it, but I thought that if Monsieur saw me groping around in the dirt for it, he’d be on my ass yelling, “Get back to your banging and scraping blind man!”

The scoundrel had got us to agree to divide The take fifty-fifty, i.e., He would get half and the ten of us would have to split the rest. So I bet you’re thinking, “Well now, doesn’t that sound fair.” And of course we recognized the bamboozle. After all, we’d be doing all the work, making asses of ourselves etc. But here’s the thing: it was his idea. I mean, how could we have known you people would be so easily entertained? The sighted have very strange taste!

Monsieur had also got us our costumes and instruments, such as they were. But he hadn’t warned us about coins being flung at our faces, so after the coin bounced off my face and into the dirt, I decided to do a subtle reconnaissance. It was a delicate operation considering the fact that I was supposed to be playing the fiddle with the stick or whatever it’s called, and all that scraping and banging and yelling and clapping made it pretty difficult to concentrate on the business of my big toe.

Now, I don’t want to give the impression that I’m used to a tranquil or meditative lifestyle. I mean, I live with three hundred blind people who are constantly bashing around and messing with each other. It’s not the Paris madhouse, but it sure can get crazy in here! Still, you cannot imagine how damn loud it was at the Saint-Ovide Fair that night. There must have been a thousand people greedily imbibing our blind buffoonery!

Anyway, while my big toe was still looking around for my coin, I heard Jacques (who was next to me), go “Oof!” I guessed that he’d been hit with a coin of his own.

Then I realized he was crawling around in the dirt for it. “Holy horse manure!” I said to myself, “So much for subtlety. That guy’s as subtle as an elephant in a tutu. As subtle as that skinny, syphilitic whore with the oozing boob who calls herself Jubilee. As subtle as the paper spectacles rimming my blind eyes and the dunce cap with ass’s ears sitting on my head. As subtle as Denis, who suddenly starts braying like an ass! Seriously? Does he think he’s singing? Amazing. The stupid crowd is eating it up. This is war!”

I was not about to be outdone by that clown, so I wagged my head a little and trotted in place like a dancing donkey. It worked! People banged their tankards and cheered. Encouraged, I wagged more vigorously and trotted with gusto, and yep, brayed out some bits of song too.

All of a sudden the coins came fast and furious, too many to count. For a few exhilarating moments I felt like I had found my calling. I would be an entertainer. Make a ton of money. Delusions of grandeur, as ridiculous as any of Jacques’s, who always comes home from a day’s begging, convinced that the grand lady who’d tossed him a penny would certainly adopt him as her blind pet project.

I don’t indulge in that kind of bullshit, and I’ll tell you why. Because just when you think you might be able to do something other than live with a bunch of disgusting blind guys who are so horny they rub against anything that breathes, and smell like piss and moldy cheese twenty four seven, just when you think you might be able to get a taste of some other life, that other life jumps up, smacks you on the forehead, and says, “Get real blind man. You will never amount to anything.”

Case in point: The coins were flying, high velocity, dropping all around. Excited and reckless, I bent over to do, I don’t know, some kind of spastic crouching jogging thing, and slammed my eyeball, such as it was, into the corner of the music stand in front of me.

The music stands had been set up in front of each of us with their sheets of music facing the spectators. Nice comic touch, eh? But I’d forgotten it was there. Being blind is so marvelous.

Anyway, it really hurt. Started gushing. People laughed. But I couldn’t keep up the dancing donkey routine anymore. Besides, now all the guys were dancing. They’d realized it was solid gold. I heard later that Monsieur wanted more dancing as the crowd loved it, but by then I was feeling quite miserable, to say the least.

My mangled eyeball got infected, of course, and for the next six weeks I lay on my cot, certain I was dying. To add to my misery, the guys came back every night from the “Café of the Blind,” as it had been dubbed in our honor, with full pockets, whores, and massively inflated egos. They thought they were made, but I knew it wouldn’t last. And I was right.

After a month the crowds lost interest. Monsieur said thanks but he wouldn’t be needing their services anymore. He told them to run along back to their pathetic lives. (Our pathetic lives.) But at least they got that month. All I got was this stupid empty eye socket.

 

*This is essay 21 of #52essays2017. Read #20 From Derrida to Diderot: The Philosophe’s Dream to learn more about the history of the education of the blind and The Spectator & the Blind Man*

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From Derrida to Diderot: The Philosophe’s Dream, Essay 20 of #52essays2017

Thinking back to where The Spectator & the Blind Man all started–and by all I mean dissertation, stage production, literary endeavor–it was probably with Diderot. And I believe I discovered Diderot in the pages of Derrida:

Diderot by Louis-Michel vanLoo, 1767.“I write without seeing….. This is the first time I have ever written in the dark . . . not knowing whether I am indeed forming letters. Wherever there will be nothing, read that I love you.”

-Diderot, Letter to Sophie Volland, June 10, 1759

I first encountered this quote in a book called Memoirs of the Blind, a perhaps ironically beautifully visual book about blindness and the self-portrait by Jacques Derrida, written for an exhibition that he curated at the Louvre.

Denis Diderot, one of my all-time favorite dead white guy writers, would definitely be at my fantasy dinner table for witty repartee and bon vivantism. As I’ve now surely quoted a million times and cannot even remember where I originally read it, he died reaching for the cherry compote (the dessert), that is, he died wanting more of the good stuff.

Encyclopedie de D'Alembert et Diderot Premiere Page.Diderot is probably most famous as one of the editors and main contributors to the Encyclopédie (1751-66), a work that flouted notions of high and low disciplines by putting Christianity alongside Chemistry , Farm Laborer alongside Poet.

But even before that great endeavor of promoting equality, an endeavor that often seems to sing the early song of revolution, Diderot was a young man with man of letters stars in his eyes and he wrote a book inspired by the thoughts of the great Voltaire and other early luminaries of what would come to be known as the Siècle de Lumière. The Age of Enlightenment is much maligned in certain circles for its idealization of rationalism and all the woes of modernity, but Diderot (as our opening quote suggests) reveled in the dark and unfathomable parts of humankind.

Diderot’s Letter on the Blind for the Use of Those Who See (1749) suggested, among other things the doubtfulness of God (Diderot dabbled in deism), and put his controversial notions into the mouth of a real life person, an English mathematician named Nicholas Saunderson, who inherited the Lucasian Chair from none other than Newton, but not his quirky but nonetheless strident beliefs. Saunderson was famously irreligious, but the deathbed conversation Diderot puts in his mouth–not to mention the glorious prophecy of Darwin’s theory of evolution–was indeed fabricated.

Here’s a little sample of the offensive dialogue:

”Consider, Mr. Holmes,” he added, “what a confidence I must have in your word and in Newton’s. Though I see nothing, I admit there is in everything an admirable design and order. I hope you will not demand more. I take your word for the present state of the universe, and in return keep the liberty of thinking as I please on its ancient and primitive state, with relation to which you are as blind as myself. Here you will have no witnesses to confront me with, and your eyes are quite useless. Think, if you choose, that the design which strikes you so powerfully has always subsisted, but allow me my own contrary opinion, and allow me to believe that if we went back to the origin of things and scenes and perceived matter in motion and the evolution from chaos, we should meet with a number of shapeless creatures, instead of a few creatures highly organized. I make no criticism on the present state of things, but I can ask you some questions as to the past. For instance, I may ask you and Leibniz and Clarke and Newton, who told you that in the first instances of the formation of animals some were not headless and others footless? I might affirm that such an one had no stomach, another no intestines, that some which seemed to deserve a long duration from their possession of a stomach, palate, and teeth came to an end owing to some defect in the heart or lungs; that monsters mutually destroyed one another; that all the defective combinations of matter disappeared, and that those only survived whose mechanism was not defective in any important particular and who were able to support and perpetuate themselves.

” Suppose the first man had his larynx closed, or had lacked suitable food, or had been defective in the organs of generation, or had failed to find a mate, or had propagated in another species, what then, Mr. Holmes, would have been the fate of the human race? It would have been still merged in the general depuration of the universe, and that proud being who calls himself man, dissolved and dispersed among the molecules of matter, would have remained perhaps forever hidden among the number of mere possibilities. If shapeless creatures had never existed, you would not fail to assert that none will ever appear, and that I am throwing myself headlong into chimerical fancies, but the order is not even now so perfect as to exclude the occasional appearance of monstrosities.” Then, turning towards the clergyman, he added, “Look at me, Mr. Holmes. I have no eyes. What have we done, you and I, to God, that one of us has this organ while the other has not?”

Lettre sur les Aveugles (Letter on the Blind).So this, along with his bawdy yet still philosophical tale The Indiscrete Jewels–about a prince who gets his hands on a ring which, when turned upon the nether regions of ladies, gets them to talk, indiscreetly about their escapades–published around the same time, landed Denis Diderot in the dungeon of Vincennes, which is where we find him in the following piece. My literary offering is the first in The Spectator & the Blind Man series.

Diderot, a lover of women, music, the theatre and all that Paris had to offer did not relish his time in prison and, in order to avoid a future return, did not publish his literary works, such as Jacques the Fatalist and d’Alembert’s Dream, for which he is mostly known today. In other words, Diderot may have helped to sow the seeds of the Revolution, but, after Vincennes, he mostly avoided angering the regime by keeping his potentially controversial works in private circulation. Diderot enjoyed a good long life and died just five years before the storming of the Bastille.

The following is my piece of flash fiction imagining Diderot’s explanation to a friend for why he would do his best to never piss the authorities off again. The reading is by George Ashiotis with musical composition by Alabaster Rhumb.

 

THE PHILOSOPHE’S DREAM

Dungeon of Vincennes, 1749

No. I am no Socrates, no martyr to truth. A fishmonger of truths more like. My mistake was in allowing the odors to reach royal nostrils. Henceforth, I peddle my stinking truths underground or, if they are compliant truths, I shall dress them in suitable costumes, sufficiently powdered and pinned to ingratiate themselves to this foolish and frivolous city of mine. Ah Paris! How I adore your decadence. Let me die reaching for the cherry compote!

I digress. I must tell you about last night’s dream that frightened me nearly to death, for, though you may still despise me, I wish you to understand why I scrape the dirt floor with my chin, why I will do or say or write anything they ask of me in order to be out of here. Why I will denounce, without regret, my little Letter on the Blind.

Last night I woke out of sleep into the body and mind of Saunderson. Yes, my blind mathematician whose deathbed non-confession has stirred so much ire. I awoke into his blindness and found myself confronting not only the fumbling clergyman Holmes, but also the governor who has seen fit to thrust me into this cell.

The blindness I experienced was like that of Milton’s darkness visible, a blindness not of eyes but of mind. Understand me. I felt sharp as a whip, as brilliant of intellect as Saunderson must have been to inherit the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics (a seat held by no less a luminary than Newton) but there were no longer any images, no colors, no pictures of beauty or ugliness to be found in this Diderot-head of mine. All memory of seeing had evaporated, and it was this blankness that frightened me almost to distraction. The deprivation terrified me even as I enacted the very dialogue that has landed me in prison.

Nicholas Saunderson.As Saunderson I said, “Ah, sir, don’t talk to me of this magnificent spectacle, which it has never been my lot to enjoy. I have been condemned to spend my life in darkness, and you cite wonders quite out of my understanding, and which are only evidence for you and for those who see as you do. If you want to make me believe in God you must make me touch Him.”

“Sir,” returned the clergyman, “touch yourself, and you will recognize the Deity in the admirable mechanism of your organs.”

I countered, “All that does not appear so admirable to me as to you. But even if the animal mechanism were as perfect as you maintain, what relation is there between such mechanism and a supremely intelligent Being? If it fills you with astonishment, that is perhaps because you are accustomed to treat as miraculous everything which strikes you as beyond your own powers. I have been myself so often an object of admiration to you, that I have not a very high idea of your conception of the miraculous. You think a certain phenomenon   beyond human power and cry out that it must be the handiwork of a god.”

Next came his most persuasive argument, “Men of the highest genius, even Newton, have been impressed by the wonders of nature and recognize an intelligent being as its creator.”

As determined by my folly, I answered, “Seeing nothing, I will acquiesce to you and Newton an admirable design and order. I hope you will not demand more. I take your word for the present state of the universe, and in return keep the liberty of thinking as I please on its primitive state, with relation to which you are as blind as myself.”

Finally, as I have written to my sorrow so I spoke in my dream, “If we went back to the origin of things and perceived the evolution from chaos, we should meet with any number of shapeless creatures. In the first instances of the formation of animals some were perhaps headless and others footless, some stomachless and others lacked intestines. Only those not defective in any important particular survived and perpetuated themselves.”

I stopped his protestations before they started, “Perhaps you will assert that deformed creatures never existed and that I am throwing myself headlong into chimerical fancies, but the order is not even now so perfect as to exclude the occasional appearance of monstrosities.”

I turned, my Saunderson, towards the clergyman and performed what is, in my Letter on the Blind, the coup de grâce. “Look at me, Mr. Holmes. I have no eyes. What have we done, you and I, to God, that one of us has this organ while the other has not?”

Suddenly my fanciful dialogue shifted to nightmare and, instead of the tears gushing from the eyes of the sympathetic clergyman, the menacing voice of the governor materialized from the void. “these are lovely sentiments my dear blind philosophe. They will nicely condemn you in the court of God and man. We will take your deformity into consideration by removing the mask that we offer unblind (if such things exist) heathens. It will do the people good to see your vacant eyes roll with your head. Such a treat to see a monster (as even you have named yourself) demolished.”

With the demonic intoning came the arms out of hell to lift me onto the block where my neck was stretched. The whoosh of the upswept blade penetrated my too-sensitive ears and the steel crashed down. Only then did I wake once more into this seeing body, screams strangling my throat with mingled horror and relief.

*This is essay 20 of #52essays2017. Read #19 Sometimes a Snake is Just a Snake*

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Marzipan Memories or the Scent of Plum Kernel Oil, Essay 15 of #52essays2017

Plum and Rose Eye Serum by Yes Organic.

My best friend Indigo, owner of Yes Organic Boutique in Albuquerque, sells a handcrafted Plum and Rose Eye Serum that makes my mouth water. The first time I smelled it I felt confused. It smells a little of rose but not at all like plums, a sweet scent, familiar, but I couldn’t place it. Then I looked up plum oil and found that plum kernel oil is taken from the soft center of the common European plum (Prunus domestica), and is famous for smelling like marzipan. Prunus is the genus of the so-called stone fruits like nectarines, apricots, cherries, and yes almonds too.

Besides tempting me to drink my beauty product, the marzipan scent of this Plum and Rose Eye Serum takes me back to a strange and somewhat lonely moment in my life when I stayed in a studio apartment in Paris. Back then I was neither blind nor sighted and, damn it all to hell, the iPhone had not yet been invented.

The first summer I spent in Paris was to learn French after my first year of grad school, but being unable to read normal print or see much in the way of street signs or the expressions and hand gestures of French people, I failed. I did a lot of wandering around aimlessly, walking from one end of Paris to the other and somehow finally met a guy who seemed to sort of change things. It felt like it anyway. I had been lost and then I was found. We traveled together to Limousin to visit with family and ate very well. We camped out in the shadow of the Pyrenees and loved and argued quite a bit, but that is all another story.

Prunus domestica on tree.

The following summer I returned to Paris to try again. This was after my French love had come to New York and we realized there was no future together, and my friend set me up in her sister’s place in Belleville. It was the first time I’d ever lived alone, no mother, no boyfriend or friend, no roommates, and it was, as I said, strange and lonely.


Fruit shaped marzipan.In those days I had an only child’s tendency to cheer myself up with food, and a poor child’s greedy appetite. Whenever I had the chance, I guiltily pilfered the food of others. From babysitting gigs to roommates, their food always tempted me, and I would eat without feeling good about it, stealthily and with an attempt at taking a little at a time so that the food would not be missed.

I hadn’t lived in a household of plenty growing up, and for my mom and I eating groceries was a matter of finishing and replenishing, hopefully. We never had extra, not like the rich friends I went to school with who had boxes and boxes of cereal to choose from and freezers stocked with infinite meal possibilities.

So in that little studio up the street from the Canal, in an area of lower class and ethnic Parisians–a few miles and a thousand worlds away from the Champs-Élysées, I tried to work on French grammar using my portable CCTV which blew up letters big enough for me to read–much bigger than any magnifying lens could do and in high contrast so that my peripheral vision could make sense of the letters–a task it was not meant to do, and be repelled into the tiny one-person pantry to snoop. Unable to read labels, I used my fingers and my nose to ferret out points of interest.

It was during one of those gluttonous reconnoiterings that I found the tube of marzipan. From that moment forward, I obsessed over that foil tube. As I, day by day, chipped away at the sticky, mealy, nutty sweet stuff–almost savory with its dark undertones of almond smoke–my understanding of almond flavoring was forever altered. I had certainly tasted it before, but not in its natural state. No. Almond flavored items from America with their synthetic benzaldehyde pushing itself into cakes and cookies on the cheap could not compare to that ambrosial and addictive paste.

That second summer, I did not fall in love, but got better at French. I took language classes at the Sorbonne, learning the language with other foreigners who thought I was quite weird and stupid with my CCTV pulled out of its mysterious black suitcase and plopped onto my desk. The class was too hard for me and I didn’t really know how to study. I did not meet any friends until after I gave a presentation on Derrida and other postmodern theorists that I worked on in my head smoking cigarettes at the Canal. I composed and memorized my little presentation in perfectly acceptable French, and they were impressed.

I believe I spoke of the Siècle des Lumières and quoted Diderot, and when it was over I was invited out on the town for the first time. Not much came of it, but a sense of gratification and relief. The class ended, and friends from America would visit soon.

Paris eclipse.

One of those friends (whom I somehow lost) and I visited Paris Disney and we twirled in a teacup, innocent still. There was an eclipse that summer also, and I saw the strange light filtering onto the upturned faces wearing funny glasses. The light had been so odd, silvery eeriness with the earth and the moon and the sun aligned, that I took a picture. I can never remember which is which–solar eclipse versus lunar eclipse. I only remember the light and how everything glowed that last summer in Paris.

 

*This is #15 of #52essays2017. Check out #14 “The Hand That Extends” here*

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A Paris Wasting, Catherine’s story from Death of Godin

Saint Catherine of Siena 19th century painting (anonymous). She wears a nun's habit and a crown of thorns. Her head is encircled by a halo, and in her hands, she holds a cross and a flower.Catherine had been exalting in out of body bliss but the flesh sucked back. I must get up. She rolled onto her belly and lifted dizzily onto hands and knees. She executed a wobbly circle on the futon that lay on the floor and pointed herself towards the kitchen. A kitchen made for one in a studio apartment made for one on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine, but just exactly like so many other such solitary places she had sublet around the world.

Catherine opened the little refrigerator and slammed her eyes shut. The lurid light pierced her brain. She groped amongst the cold. She took ahold of the distinct jar. Then in the door, the bottle. She pulled it out. So heavy. How would she get these things over there by the window where she wanted to be? Baby steps. Her favorite coach used to say that the only way to do the impossible is to break it down into its constituent parts and tackle one bit at a time. Of course, in the end, you simply had to forget all and just let the horse jump.

With her eyes still shut, Catherine put the bottle in one hand and the jar in the other and slid them ahead as she crawled behind along the narrow path between the futon and the television. When she felt she could go no farther, she opened her eyes and saw the dim dawn filtering through the pale curtains. Her head felt so heavy that she wanted to drop it and the whole endeavor but willed herself to want food and water instead. If she did not fight her body, her mind would surrender to the calm inevitability.

Thankfully, the bottle’s top had already been opened. It exuded a small sigh. She lifted it and drank an explosive sip. She put the bottle down and held the bubbly water in her mouth, afraid to swallow. She lay back carefully, pointing her knees up in defiance of the desire to be prostrate. She tapped the count, One. Two. Three. Swallow. She waited, fighting with all her might not to wretch. Please stay down. The water felt positively poisonous Trampling along her esophagus. It pushed into her lower organs. This was the crucial moment. Though some would argue with her, she did not want to die. It stayed down. Give that girl a ribbon!

She let go the bottle and, still lying down, took hold of the jar. It was an unmistakable shape, bought during her first exuberant week in Paris. She had been eating then. But as the empty days of writing-avoidance stretched on, the old familiar lack of hunger set in.

A Paris month had barely passed when she’d begun translating Baudelaire, even knowing that, though it was gratifying, it was not her novel, merely a diversion with dangerous pitfalls. Almost as soon as she’d started translating, she’d stopped going out. Catherine recognized the signs, but the feeling that she was accomplishing something became her drug and she would not have gotten out of bed without the dictionary and Le Spleen de Paris to draw her. She rationalized that she was preparing for her reimmersion into University life, but it had all been superfluity. The disgust and fatigue soon weighed her down and pressed her into bed. She stopped visiting her desk. Dangerous time had passed.

This was precisely what they—the doctors, her family, her few friends—had all been afraid of. The decision to go to Paris in the summer so long before her teaching position started, with nothing (as they saw it) to do seemed to them an eccentricity fraught with foreboding. For Catherine, it was the writer’s dream. Three months of solitude in the city of writers!

Eyes averted to the ceiling, she unscrewed the top and stuck her index finger blindly into the goo. Then, extending the soiled finger away from the jar, she screwed the top and let the weight of it drop to the floor. She folded her hands, right over left over her ribs. Except for her knees and the straightened finger, she might have been a corpse.

An unsought memory put her eight-year-old self with her friend Michelle at the kitchen table of her family home surrounded by grey paper and charcoal horse drawing efforts. They were eating Nutella and giggling. It must have been a rainy day. Catherine’s cracked lips parted into a painful smile as she remembered the paces she’d put Michelle to when the days were fair. Catherine would set up hurdles and time her friend over them, all the while judging as she would have been judged herself in the children’s competitions.

It had all been so much fun then. When did it turn ugly? It had been gradual, that shift from love to loathing, but the beginning arrived with puberty, when the coaches turned mean and the friends turned competitive and the competitions revealed their ludicrous pomp. When the dream of starting fresh in New York City became a reality in the form of a Columbia acceptance letter, Catherine quit show jumping, suddenly and without explanation. The insular world had been stunned. Secretly she wanted to be involved in what she naively thought of as the real world. She did not want to move blindly through college as she had through high school, thinking always of the next show or the last. Silently she had planned to reinvent herself as a writer and intellectual. But the triple major and endless clubs and activities put her into a fever pitch of excitement that was not unlike her final years of show jumping so that, if she were very honest with herself, her metamorphosis had been incomplete. The truth became undeniable when grad school was put off for the first of her hospitalizations.

Grad school was reclaimed, but from then on, each time she moved, from New York to Russia, China to Honduras, she would think the loneliness and anorexia were gone for good. It was her fatal flaw to believe she was cured. That hubris that suggested sovereign power over self had been inherited from her father. But what fueled Mr. James Mirth, CEO extraordinaire, consumed his daughter. Inevitably, almost without her being aware, the evil twin pillars would rise again out of the seemingly smooth sea of activity and bar her way to happiness. Finally, again, she would have to be rescued from her far-flung existence.

Her family attributed her troubles to her excitable nature, and constantly tried to dampen it. They were not misguided. She had seen for herself on countless occasions that her enthusiasm was off-putting to people who did not know her well. And worse, though she felt it to be right to be passionate, her passions too easily turned into the flames of an insatiable furnace that burned up all mundane appetites.

Catherine had no religious convictions to speak of, but she sometimes felt like her anorexia had more in common with her saintly namesake than might be expected from the average intelligent, cosmopolitan, twenty-first century woman. As a self-examining humanist type, she hated that she did not understand this part of her. She considered her Nutella dipped skeleton finger. She considered her literary ambitions. She felt a failure. She was thirty-three and on the verge of dying a starved virgin in the city of food and love.

Catherine rolled her burning eyeballs to the left at the neglected desk. Could she ever admit this to her pen? Was it somehow lack of honesty that made writing so hard? Her novel suddenly seemed false, a translation of her show jumping prodigy childhood into a concert pianist prodigy childhood. Was it subterfuge or merely an attempt to write fiction rather than memoire? A lesser genre if you asked her.

Her head ached. She could not figure this all out now. The important thing was to fight the urge to give up. She did not want the story to end here.

Letting go of intention, Catherine lifted her hand and kissed the back of it, as you would that of an Orthodox priest, her hand even more boney than those consecrated Russian ones. Thrice she lifted and kissed and then, thoughtless, she put the Nutella into her mouth. Please. Stay down, she prayed to her body. Beneath the waves of nausea that threatened negation, she felt a feeble acquiescence echoing deep in her hollowness.

 

[First published in Newtown Literary Issue 7. You can read about the investigation into the mysterious death of my childhood friend that gave fuel to this story in “The Detective Story Behind ‘A Paris Wasting'”.]

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