< lead poisoning
Rosie and I take turns simplifying cards at CVS. Bereavement becomes sadness and sympathy becomes feels bad. She is better than me. She says the brain pills have allowed her to develop the distance necessary to excel—that where she is is soft, diffusive, gauzy, and still. There are no windows in the CVS. The air conditioning is broken and the store smells like old water. Some of the cards are embossed and creamy and luxurious, but the cheapest have begun to warp in the moisture and heat. When we get angry with each-other Rosie goes quiet instead of crying. She is full of brief absences and says simple, devastating things.
Cards for cancer are covered in flowers and vines, as if when dropped they would take root. Do you think, I ask, that people put these on their mantel, or are they meant for the deceased: thrown into the coffin? burned in a small dish? It’s insulting, I say, how many of them there are. Photocopying is cruel. Rosie doesn’t say anything. She picks out a chapstick and I get a box of pads. We agree to hand-make cards for each other, when the time comes. At checkout there is an extra small shelf with beef jerky, almonds, more lip balm, and hair ties, but we ignore it. The cashier struggles with a scuffed barcode.
Near where the Charles river bends around Allston, which has begun to exhibit tumors of Harvard real estate, there is a grass-covered bank with view of two bridges and the murky, unceasing flow. Near 7:30 the sun is bloody over the concrete flats out west, and while we sit Rosie wonders out loud if a Kennedy ever made out with a co-ed here: if he whispered something fatal in her ear. We take turns guessing what. We make up long-winded admissions of love. Ivy falls over named buildings all around us and the dandelions have gone to seed. I throw bottle caps I find toward shore—they flip and skitter and carom. We agree it would be nice to find a Kennedy, to snatch one, to bed one, even, though they are rarer now: dropping like flies. Where did they all go? Rosie would accept even a distant cousin, she says, just to taste Chappaquiddick on his lips.
Warm hazy IPAs for us from her obscure literary tote; we crack and smash them together so that a little foam comes out on top, around which I wrap my mouth, sucking, fist up, pumping. Rosie cheers. An unsteady four putts under the low bridge, its tiny coxswain yelling at the muscle on each oar. We cheer them on too. The tall triplet towers of BU are glowing geometry: one side aflame and the others cool blue, and Boston never looked so good. Reflected light from the Citgo sign is sliced by the river’s chop. I don’t actually like beer, especially ones that taste like soap. Rosie downs hers in intervals calmly, like a man waiting for the electric chair. I tell her this and her mouth goes circumflex. The summer is so young, the air too dry and naive to keep its heat very long, and I berate Rosie for forgetting her sweater, the chill settling in, stuffing up my nose. When I rub her deltoids she breaks out in patterns. I challenge her to simplify the word ‘goosebumps,’ and we think for ten whole minutes, failing, listening to the Charles’ even lap. She re-does her hair with pale fingers. Something inside her goes away from me. The IPAs make us burpy and slow. The rowing shell goes back and forth many, many times.
Rosie’s ex’s ex has the same first name as a famous young novelist. She admitted this to me on the floor of my room after three Pilsner-style ales. From photos on the ex’s ex’s instagram she learned the block on which she lives. By walking around reading nameplates she learned the apartment number too. I am not surprised that Rosie finds time, seemingly more and more of it these days: under rocks, in alleys, behind the sofa, in old jackets, presumably. I have said that she finds discount time that no one else wants. The revelation of the extent of her sleuthing excites me, makes me want to lie down. It makes me lower my tallboy fancy Pilsner beer and think about how she still keeps secrets from me, even now, and how I want that, and how terrible it is.
The things we mourn together when we are drunk include the cold April rains, the twenty-four hour Seven Eleven on Prospect that burned down last month, Rosie’s ex’s libido, and my younger brother Paul. We discuss how it would seem that hard spring rain should prevent a building from burning like that one did, and that brain pills ought to choose one among whether they will either fix your sadness or give it to you even worse. If the atmosphere were fifty percent oxygen, I say, forest fires would consume the earth, and we’d all be choked to death by the soot: our lungs like Victorian chimneys. This is what happened in the Carboniferous Period to most living things. And now we’ve evolved and gotten anxious in new ways, and are dying in new ways. Rosie sometimes forces herself to watch online videos of things that terrify her, but when I watch them with her I feel awful, and I can’t do it. She lets them wash over her before she sleeps, like it is a Benadryl on her tongue, or a white noise gadget. But after enough beer even my terror deflates, even when I am watching alongside her, terror collapsing like her ex’s Lexapro-ed penis, like the Seven Eleven’s charred drywall after all that rain, leaking milky white runoff all the way down Prospect.
On one of our night walks down Hampshire toward the huge houses north of Agassiz, while we are looking inside windows at hardwood bookshelves and playing ‘Guess That Spine’, Rosie identifies a copy of Tropic of Cancer, The Old Man and the Sea, East of Eden, as well as the latest novel by the famed young Turkic author whose name is her ex’s ex’s. Next to the bookshelf is a small table with a globe on it, a bar cart with fine crystal tumblrs, a decanter of amber liquid, all of it reeking too much of Cambridge. We talk about raising a child here—what it would even mean—whether its head would expand like a balloon and become fucked up, hydrocephalic and pitted. Can someone read so much literature, become so cultured, that they become unsocialized and cruel? Yes, Rosie says. She spies a copy of The Magic Mountain. She says literature is a little like lead poisoning—a common subject of some of the videos she makes me watch with her on YouTube—says both are an insidious element that replaces the calcium in your bones. The root of the fear is this: by the time you notice you’re sick, it’s too late. On the walk I learn that her ex’s ex’s voice is similar to her own, that their eyebrows are apparently close in color and circumflex shape, that in bed they were shy at first but later, too needy, they thought. Eventually Rosie’s ex forbid her from saying the ex’s ex’s name, but she kept referencing her indirectly. During the walk we identify the spines of books by Franzen, Rand, Camus, Handke, James, Böll, Bolaño, Woolf, Wolf, Vollmann, Ishiguro, both the American and English editions of the ex’s ex’s double, who has published prolifically, and many, many others.
A cafe opens on Prospect before the bridge and the owner, a Vietnamese man in his thirties with a tamed grey bun, makes us try his creations. In the summer, we are told, it is important for drinks to be sweet, cold, and have the proper amount of salt. He dispenses saline from an eyedropper. He says to Rosie put our your tongue and he drops saline onto it, handing her an espresso shaken over ice and demerara. We grow stupid with caffeine. It hurts my skin, the energy, the fun of it. The first few times we go we descend into familiar madness, but the café becomes where I watch Rosie type translations she intends for her thesis, her forehead wrinkling, her describing how en vogue now is a more restrained style, a simpler style, especially for Korean lit, whose popular examples benefit from an austere, invisible touch. Auto-elision, she says. Death of the translator. Something about offsetting the emotionality of the plot. Contrapuntal, she says, weirdly, and I take my coffee black. She doesn’t let me read it anymore, the work. The café owner tells us he has been trying to plant a garden out back but that the seedlings die. To this Rosie says, eyes still in her MacBook, that the building used to be a paint store—the dirt is probably soaked with turpentine and stripper and lacquer and tung oil and varnish.
In June Rosie is invited to a small conference to give a reading and discuss her work. It is a collection of short stories by a hermetic Korean woman who died in 1972. The manuscripts were recovered when the surviving children cleared out the crumbling ancestral home, and facsimiles of the raw handwritten documents had been being passed around second rate literature departments throughout the south of the peninsula for years. In her room Rosie shows me pictures of the estate, then a photo of a photo of the family of four standing in front of the house, the author shorter than the rest—her three children—jet hair cropped at her ears. She does not look like anything to me. She makes no expression. Rosie pours her energy into this woman and she looks like nothing, and I feel bad for thinking ill of the dead. Rosie stopped reading to me a year ago. A photo of the flooded fields by the house. Then a photo of the attic space where the manuscripts were discovered, light sieved by a broken roof onto damp boxes of paper, spots of mold like kiss marks. It is all very beautiful and sad. I say to Rosie, this is all very beautiful and sad, and she tells me that she thinks so too.
We have to drive hours in the rental to get to the reading, and I am tasked to decrypt the instructions concerning which wooded road to turn off onto. My pants’ thin fabric saturates between my thighs and the cheap seats, and the freon is busted. We roll east away from the setting sun, which blinds us in the rear-view. Owned nominally by Amherst, the plot of land has been given over to some sort of writerly commune. Their website, covered in many small JPEGs of Beat-era authors, has bold italic text which bleeds over the boundary of my phone’s screen into nowhere. Rosie tells me it is very prestigious, very avant, very garde. In the winter, I am told, the grounds are great for cross-country skiing. There is a small orchard, and a historical well. I am told so many unimportant facts. I keep my eyes out for an imported stone lantern that marks the right turn, eyes stinging from sweat. The radio catches local stations as we pass them, but mostly it is silence. Rosie’s knuckles blanch as she drives and evening falls and I think about how when I looked up the panel speakers for the mini conference, and saw her ex’s ex scheduled to present in the session after hers, that for a moment I thought the thumbnail picture was of her.
Before the brain pills, when things got bad, Rosie slept into the afternoons. For an hour or so after waking she would remain on her bed, strands of hair clinging to her temples in damp question marks. She forbid an air conditioner in her window, because of the freon. We had stripped the old walls in respirators and repainted once. Hired an asbestos inspector. A radon man. I came up with the games she could play by just turning her head. We would name her books on her shelf, any new ones I had brought, and we would rate them, not on content, but on qualities of the title alone. Incredibly Loud and Extremely Close. Incredibly Close and Extremely Loud? A Staggering Work of Heartbreaking Genius. Soundless fury. I challenged her to describe something she wanted with one word—to simplify to the extreme—and together we picked out small beautiful cruel single words. Lexicon. Cathexis. Anhedonia. Autoenucleation. Nachlass. When she ran out of words—when we felt that the words we found weren’t terrible and small and cruel enough—I would pull up a ripped digital copy of the OED on my phone and we would browse starting somewhere fun. Crenelation. Lemniscate. Medullar. Sublingual. I taught her the latin name for a plant whose extract cured malaria, a type of religious rapture and its companion poetic form, rare tricyclics and lithium compounds, a loanword from the Korean concerning the deathlike peace experienced in the moment before total internal chaos.
In the back I find a place next to an enormously fat professor of Russian and Belarusian literature. In the wings wiry students in wire rims sit cross-legged rigidly. The ex’s ex sits patiently off to the side, I see, in one of the nicer padded chairs reserved for panelists, half her face in shadow and the other, with its Rosie-style circumflex eyebrow, spotlit by the overhead projector’s errant light. Rosie had had to spend all day at the Kinko’s next to the destroyed Seven Eleven bartering for her slides to be printed on transparencies, forcing the poor employee to go to the basement to search for back-stock. He had emerged fifteen minutes later, sneezing in fits, covered in dust, and charged her a mean rate. But while she had complained then I now watch her underlit features, ghoulish above the projector’s fresnel lens, curl into pleased koan shapes. Pleased at the chiaroscuro she now was, an apex at the fore of the dark hall, pleased at the low twisted bodies of other graduate students in the peripheries, breathing, pleased that her ex’s ex sat rapt in the candle-temperature gloom.
Over twenty five minutes she intones lowly in many distinct rhetorical directions that there are reasons to believe that this woman, perhaps hermetic and distant from a rapidly changing Korea, was in fact a satellite dish: immense and parabolic, electromagnetically susceptible, receptive, concerningly prescient for a future on the peninsula she never lived to see. She reads five pages from a story in which two paranoid university students start to lie to each other, and end up dating the same woman. It closes with one of them starving himself to death, the other falling out of love years later with the woman, both now fat and broken. At questions Rosie produces transparent scans of notebooks demonstrating the breadth of literature and criticism imported and internalized and annotated by this poor woman in a bent, angry hand. Sometime in the past two years Rosie has learned to be academically deadly, and the questions grow weaker, less combative and then stop. People fidget. Her thesis, this person, are not just un-simple, they are impossible. The country home where the notebooks were found is an area best known for a special yam varietal and an iron clay for ceramics, and Rosie has shown, in extreme, miniature portraits, one after another, relentlessly, that a child of this place had been preternaturally literary and extremely alone and, despite it all, content, putting the question to every dysfunctive student in the room: what the hell are you doing?
There is a break for soft chocolate chip cookies, grapes, hard cheeses, and water crackers. Eminent hands clasp small plastic cups of discount red and white poured by teaching assistants whose instructions were to wear anything black, anything at all. The deafening air conditioning, turned off during speakers’ presentations, is briefly blasted and adds to the din, layering into refutations, counterarguments, anecdotes, and long-windedness whose collective crescendo is mercifully killed by a quick flashing of the lights. I have stayed in my corner, feeling ill. In darkness a balding man squats by the overhead projector and presses something on its underbelly. It sputters up. The air conditioner spins down. Rosie’s ex’s ex is just as tall as Rosie is, a lithe 5’11 without heels, and she waits patiently for silence as the remaining cold air pools at my ankles. Her neck is extremely long and thin.
For a while after we met Rosie shared stories she had written with me, emailing clean copies of them in the night. They appeared in my inbox like a diagnosis. Do you think it is true, I had asked once when we smoked on the unstable wooden balcony of my first Cambridge apartment, that as we get older our thoughts and experiences tangle inside us, and that maturity is just forgetting the knots—going senile—or can we actually undo them? Rosie is already high and starts talking about brain spaghetti, and soon I am with her, picturing something immense and insane and delicious. From my balcony we can see the inexplicable tall eucalyptus trees in the neighbor’s yard, the sodium lamps on Prospect, and the Seven Eleven, untouched then, squat with pink tiles. It’s the night I tell her about Paul, and one of many when she is still willing to tell anecdote after anecdote to me. She once saw two people kissing in a fun-house mirror maze, suddenly a thousand of them at once, it felt like, around a corner. She once saw a student jump off a tall art’s building on campus. She once dated someone who got down on his knees to apologize for something that he had done, and she forgave him. Somewhere far away near where Watertown begins her ex’s ex has just moved in, but we don’t know that. Rosie’s writing, sent to my inbox without thought then, is terrifying and contradictory and cruel and extreme and very good. She is smeared all over it, and does the work. She embeds PDFs in them, screenshots from bad foreign films, copied Craigslist missed connections, blurry photos of a neighborhood cat she despises, and they are everything.
Rosie has stood up and exited through a door on the far side of the lecture hall, drawing a quick line of light over the audience. The ex’s ex has laboriously defined a large number of compound nouns and is now in the process of drawing many colored arrows between them with a dry-erase pen. Her hair is in messy slick curls. Instead of saying ah or um she quickly swallows air, and can’t choose a foot to stand on. She is preternaturally beautiful. I excuse myself, avoiding cross-legged students whose cocktail napkins on the floor, piled with extra cookies from intermission, lie like landmines.
The hall is empty and smells like Pine-Sol. Following signage toward a bathroom I descend steep steps to an unfinished basement, old mortar frozen in place, oozing from imperfect masonry. One corner has a door marked “WOMEN” on an 8 1/2 by 11 in black pen. The bottoms of Rosie’s flats show out from under a stall, and when I knock she unlocks it for me, keeping her head over the bowl. Bad cookies, she whispers, and I see them too. But it’s never the cookies. I pull her hair up and back, but there is nothing left to come out now. I am late. She heaves anyway. She doesn’t grab the side of the bowl, or brace her arms against the ground, but holds them up, hands trembling, curling around air as if she were being tortured, and I am powerless. A tornadic automatic flush and mist on my face. I go dampen a paper towel, fold it in three, and curl it around her neck, latching us inside the stall. An old fan whines in the corner of the ceiling. The fine blood vessels under Rosie’s eyes have burst—dark rings around pale zeroes.
I’ve run out of stories and games. Your ex’s ex was very technical—lost me in the first five minutes, I say. Rosie is inside an absence. The inside of the stall is covered in various extremely literate curses and insults, and I pick at one with my nails; it was gouged, perhaps by a knife. I say to Rosie that she gave the talk of a lifetime, and that I had never heard something so complicated be so moving—that I had always thought that complex things only ever put people to sleep or pushed them away. That complexity means exile. But she looks at me confusedly, and I realize that I had been wrong. I am worse at this game than her. But look at you, I say while swallowing little pieces of air, lips dry, you brought me all the way down here to the bathroom, just with words, just with those things that came out of your mouth. And then I kiss her on the forehead. But this does not make my fear go away, or convince me that those things I had been thinking for months, during our afternoon naps, during the drive over here, when I am drunk and see again in my mind’s eye Paul and what he did, were untrue or overblown, and it does not bring her eyes back to me, or to the simplicity in anything.