For the soul has strange guests with whom it is conversing.
I don’t know how much to include and how much to leave out.
If I’d truly attained detachment, I would see no difference in the fact my doctor on Tuesday said I had two years to live (at most) and the fact my best friend Susan Ded’s marriage is falling apart. What’s more important?
The other problem in beginning is to begin; in beginning, all endings begin. So, in effect, the end is nearest at the beginning. I mean, when I finish I’ll be kaput. There’ll be no more me at the end; I’ll be so . . . gone. And perhaps Susan will be remarried — rematched, anyway.
My failure at detachment reaches me tonight in my tub water. A strangulation. It isn’t the intensity of my new bath product that chokes me, or even the high heat of the water. It is the Despair Factor, oh so delicately squeezing the neck. Friend, if you have never woken up and not known what your purpose in life might be, read no further. To care so much about the Deds’ marriage is weird in the extreme; after all, they didn’t marry me. And Bill Ded isn’t even a very interesting man. Still, I suppose, he isn’t as pathetic as I’ve become, and I do hate to see marriages fall apart.
There’s nothing more revolting than a not-too-well-groomed man over thirty-five.
On Death and Detachment
Forgive me if you’ve heard this story before; I’ve been telling it all over town. The doctor who first diagnosed me (not the one I have now) was very grim on the subject of recovery. A downhill slide at varying speeds for varying individuals was his most optimistic offering. Soon after, he fell over dead, and was discovered by his wife, who was left widowed with a group of fatherless children. The doctor’s death created a stir in the weight-maintenance community, because his shape would change radically via diet pills. His wife hates when I tell this story because, at the expense of the doctor, it
teaches his life-threatened patients the nature of Irony.
For example, Susan. Susan was dating a lot of not very nice men, and I felt finally I had to intercede. I introduced her to Bill, they married, and before long suspicious details concerning Bill’s fidelity emerged and the marriage suffered serious decay. The end is yet in sight. On the other hand, look at me. Even though I’m considered half-dead, I sit in my living doctor’s waiting room making goo¬goo eyes at the attractive, but probably also half¬dead, men.
I’m adjusting my amusing new hat, drawing attention to my interesting shoes. Then I catch sight of myself in my little mind’s eye and I have to laugh.
This is something you will have to adjust to, the laugh of my mind’s eye. It is a sour detail in an otherwise pleasant personality. “Don’t be a fool” is the gist of its campaign. It won’t be satisfied until every coffin lid is snapped shut. I have gone to countless crackpot psychiatrists to quiet this indignant voice. What can I do?
The new doctor has what he advertises as more bad news.
“Your blood’s worse — much worse. Everything’s down,” he says, his glee partially hidden behind substantiating lab reports.
Liar, I think.
“You look bad. Are you walking? Getting any sunlight? Food?”
“Oh yes, definitely.”
The “You look bad” is a low blow. I pull some various hairs in different directions across my head. How bad could I look? It isn’t even twelve-thirty yet.
Another asshole is the Deds’ doorman. Whenever I enter the building I get his “you again” expression. He says “They’re out” exactly the way my doctor’s receptionist says “Your bill.” Someone should do a documentary film on his rudeness.
The Ded apartment is surprisingly plain. Corridors that burst onto large rooms. White. Unphenomenal marquetry. Some art from the larger Ded collection, Bill’s parents’. I don’t mind sitting there waiting for Susan or Bill to appear. As I’ve already established, my ego is a diminished entity. So I’m not so fascinating; so what. At least I feel responsible for my actions. I got Bill and Susan together, and since the results have been less than felicitous, I do feel I have some responsibility to set it right one way or another before I die.
Susan and I went to the same college, a beautiful complexity among giant maple trees. I loved what I considered her urban flamboyance. I’d gone to a high school where there was a stampede of athletic activities, and I longed for poetry and art. Susan could write and draw a little, and she had strong opinions. Strong opinions, I feel, are a kind of creativity. Later, after Susan took some hard knocks from love’s fuck-you agenda, her opinions became less vivid.
“Darling, I don’t believe you’re taking any of this seriously enough! Think of what your doctor has told you! Can’t you see this turn of events demands you take some action? And you want to sit there and chat about my stupid marriage as if it mattered a bug in the scheme of things? You’re my dear friend and I want to be there for you. And even though we both know Bill’s a bastard, he’s there for you too. Oh, darling!”
“Don’t scold me, Susan.”
I was not yet prepared to tell her about my budding commitment to detachment. I wasn’t ready to say yes, death is large and its cheerless theater dark, but I am determined now to enlarge upon the attendant despair and make a home of detachment. Death, inevitably, our second residence.
All creatures are pure nothingness. I do not say they are small or petty: they are pure nothingness.
The Let’s-Do-Nothing Club
Once Bill found out about my predicament he de¬cided to be of help.
He took me to his Philandering Husbands Sup¬port Group. The support group baffled me. Was it a group to help curtail sexually compulsive behav¬ior, or was it more of what it said it was, a club for husbands who wanted to be supported in their phi¬landering?
Many of the men in the club were in the process of divorce but, oddly, were adamant about not ever using the word. They would insist they were merely “separated.” “It’s a separation,” a philanderer shouted to the other fellows.
It was a not particularly attractive group of men. But I have to admit the majority of their stories about sneaking around for sex were very sexy. I couldn’t help admiring the ingenuity and the down¬right Jacobean backdrop of guilt and self-loathing. Clearly, Bill had informed the crowd of my own sit¬uation. I was afforded a wide berth in every way. There were no other homosexuals in the crowd; that was clarified by the zealous description of their expeditions. They loved Secret Vagina and would find no way to halt their enthusiasm. I won’t be un¬fair and say they looked at me with pity. I was an Other, and they would tolerate, even welcome, a visitor from a foreign planet, providing I did not squirt alien fluid in their direction.
The support group reminded me of an unfortu¬nate club I joined in the fourth grade. Sex United. A silly, small organization of fourth-grade boys who, to maintain membership status, were required to bring in any sex-related nonsense culled from mag¬azines and newspapers. It was a pansexual organi¬zation without knowing it. Photos of male movie stars standing outside their hotel rooms with slight erections beneath their bath towels, as well as fe¬male movie stars brazenly dropping their towels on the boardwalks of Cannes, were admissible. The club inevitably disintegrated (evolved?) into a kind of wrestling club, and membership fell off when older siblings labeled its chatter perversion.
Frankly, I could not fully grasp the name Sex United. Then it was explained to me that it simply referred to a penis being in a vagina so they were united. Well, it seems so obvious now, but at the time I was confused.
Although I know Bill had spoken previously of my poor health, he leapt up to give me an embar¬rassing introduction. “We’ll help any way we can!” rallied Bill. You can well imagine the bewildered ex¬pressions of the philanderers. What could they do? As nonhomosexuals, they could not at this late date reinterpret how sex should be united. One intelli¬gent member set forth the forthright notion that a lot of their promiscuity was probably based on an avoidance of death, so it would be difficult for them to honestly embrace one so clearly earmarked for doom. I respected him and admired the way his suit clung to his chest and thighs.
I’d started to dress like a pregnant woman in her third trimester: very large things with balls of Klee¬nex in all the pockets. I don’t believe any of my eccentricities were judged harshly. Because the phi¬landerers came together in a confederacy of shame and chauvinism, they couldn’t very well care what I was wearing. Anyway, I probably very much fit their idea of what a modern homosexual was about.
“I’m a shit, I’m a shit, I’m a shit,” a husband pro¬claimed.
“You mustn’t say that,” I said, trying to be en¬couraging. But, in fact, after he listed all the twisted assignations that had tortured and embarrassed his family, I could agree there was something feceslike about his character.
I’m certain that when I was entreated to speak of my sex life, I disappointed the majority who had far fiercer footnotes to their phallic histories. I won’t lie and say I was condescended to; no, the philan¬derers were not hypocrites. They did ask my per¬mission to bring a prostitute in for one session, and I properly volunteered to stay home.
Later, deeper into my disintegration, I joined another group. It was in no way based on the naughty husbands club and lacked totally its joy in self-flagellation.
In my mind, for I dared not identify it as such out loud, I called this group the Let’s-Do-Nothing Club. It was originally organized as an opportunity for fellow sufferers to run over the miserable mis¬takes of their doctors and the perils of the disease. But that ran thin, and soon a capacious silence sat on the room.
Let me tell you, because it’s no joke: this was a mysterious club with a vanishing membership; members would die and they wouldn’t come back. Yes, many of us were visiting hospitals for spalike spans of time, but that was to be expected. It was the Xeroxes that created violent quiet. Suddenly someone would not be at a meeting. Suddenly you would look over your shoulder and there, on the wall, would be a Xerox of a photo of a recently de¬ceased group member.
“Patrick died,” someone might say to accom¬pany the blatancy of the Xerox.
Before Patrick disappeared he was, for me, a source both of ego fulfillment and its grim cousin futility. I don’t know why, but whenever I chose to speak, my simple words were greeted with great enthusiasm. It was a little embarrassing, effortlessly reaching guru status.
“Hector’s right. I agree with Hector. Hector’s right.” What did I say?
Eventually, I had to admit to myself there was some pleasure in having my small thoughts and ad¬monishments to stay brave held up for praise.
Patrick said, “When I go home I think all week of what Hector said.”
So when they brought the Xerox of Patrick to pin upon the wall, with baseball hat and simple grin. . . you understand?
Susan only half understood the silence of the Let’s-Do-Nothing Club.
She had been part of her own noisy club when she discovered Bill was a philanderer. She screamed out, “I’m destroyed! Destroyed!” Then she pro¬ceeded to call her closest girlfriends and demand they come over, even leave work — and why? “Be¬cause I’m destroyed!” Those who were curious enough about this state of being — and more than you’d estimate were — came over.
Susan, crying, explained how discovering Bill’s infidelities all at once made her lose confidence in reality. After all, if she could be so wrong about her marriage, what else was she off on? Slowly everyone was confessing her own bitter disappointments and humiliating concessions.
She would paste herself back together, she’d see. Let’s hear no more of this “destroyed” word. Since nature was quick to destroy everything anyway it was silly to assist that process in any way.
The fact that I was sitting there didn’t seem to affect anyone, even though I had no husband who telephoned whores or who had a student girlfriend (seventeen!) or fellow office workers who in lieu of the gym exercised a rough leisure after work.
The women calmed down after a while — except one woman, who threw herself on the floor but then said, “.I forgot what I was going to say.” A discussion on changing the carpet took over, and the woman on the floor had the best vantage point.
I didn’t want everything to get so parodistic. I didn’t want to be such an isolated character. Even if I was going to drop dead quickly, I wanted some feelings of being integrated among my fellow be¬ings. Even a romance: someone to kiss tenderly and expressively. Modern, I took these feelings of vague hurt to a therapist. Bold of me too, since I’d had a history of nut therapists. I didn’t know until I was told that nuttiness went with the territory, that people already having brain problems felt their own agonies would offer them insight into other sufferers.
“I’m an HIV expert!” said the therapist. Here we go again, I said to myself.
At a first session I always like to come up with something good. Something that sums up all my despair and malformed affections. Something shrinkable.
Avoiding parent-related grievances, I went for a rather curt tale of how in the fifth grade I was asked to deliver a note from one teacher to another and upon entering the foreign classroom was greeted with the warlike cry of a student extrapolating, “He’s a girl!”
I’m lying. This never happened to me (although God knows it could have!) but to a friend, a friend now gone who perhaps in shady eternity must en¬dure the derisive laughter of nasty children, ap¬prentice devils. I return often to this scene and, in honor of my friend, I interject my present-day persona and scold the laughing class:
“Reverse your treacherous hearts! Renounce the antilove movement! Villainous children of the damned, future ghosts, baboons, apologize!” And so forth.
The therapist says, “Leave your bitterness be¬hind,” but it sounds like she’s asking who has the bitterest behind.
I already know what God will say when I con¬front him about what an unjust and monster-filled world he oversees: “It’s supposed to be that way,” in a schoolyard baby voice. Oh, God, why could you not have had a more sophisticated sense of humor and made everything happy? Who could ever for¬give you now?