A Hurdy Gurdy Song
Posted on March 17th, 2014
Sometimes when I sit still, if I sit still for long enough without moving much, I can start to feel my pulse throbbing behind and around my eyeballs. It’s not really painful or uncomfortable in any way but it is much more present than usual, pulsing rhythmically and making me think about how fragile my eyeballs and eye sockets are. I have no idea if that is true or not, anatomically speaking, but that is the sensation that I have when I can feel my pulse in my skull that way, and it usually leads to me trying to imagine the way my veins are connected to my eyeballs; in my imagination they curve around the edge of my eyesockets to reach my eyelids and the skin of my face. Somebody told me once that your eyes are basically the equivalent of having two open wounds on your face at all times, in terms of vulnerability to infection that is, and though I have no real reason to trust this person’s ideas about biology or infection the notion of eyes being especially vulnerable and fragile is one I’ve had a hard timeshaking. It doesn’t pop into my head that often, but when it does I find myself blinking incessantly as if the physical act of blinking will somehow clear the vulnerable area of any unwanted bacterial or viral invaders. Mostly this is fine when I am by myself, as there is no real danger in excessive blinking, but in public, as on the bus for example, it has garnered a wide range of reactions from people who might happen to be observing me at that moment, ranging from apparent disinterest to unconscious, or at least presumably unconscious, mimicry to visible discomfort at their proximity to an individual behaving in such a fashion. A chalky man in a slightly undersized suit in a St. Louis airport once apparently interpreted this tic as a kind of flirtation, since he promptly began sweating vehemently and eventually handed me a warm and slightly soggy business card as he got up to board his plane, and subsequently spent the entirety of his time in line trying very hard not to look at me to see how I had reacted to his gesture. Currently it is attracting the attention only of a young boy who is sitting directly across from me and seems to be comparing my face to the faces of the other people around to see if I am really blinking more frequently than them or not, or at least that is what I assume he is doing. The boy is pretty clearly not accompanied by an adult, which is something I once found very strange when I had just moved to the city and was used to children even several years older than this one going virtually nowhere without adult supervision other than school and a few areas in town which children had de facto exclusive use of for play, such as the playground adjacent to the community center and the athletic fields in the part of the park that was not widely used for picnicking, both of which were easily within walking distance of the main residential areas of my hometown. That sense of strangeness was reinforced by a basic conviction, which yes is a prejudice that I can support only anecdotally, that cities are basically less safe than areas that are not cities due to the greater diversity of kinds of people across the ethnic and socio-economic spectrums congregated into such a relatively tiny amount of space. What I had, of course, failed to consider is the infrastructure designed by urban planning professionals to accommodate safe and convenient transportation for people who do not own or operate cars, of which children comprise a no-negligible but often overlooked percentage. Said infrastructure is not widely found in suburbs, or at least not the ones with which I am primarily familiar and in which this prejudice vis-à-vis the relative safety of cities vs. non-cities was born in me. And this child in particular, the one who has apparently taken note of my aforementioned blinking habit that is, seems to be especially adept at negotiating the particulars of urban public transit, as for instance he had ready the exact amount of change for his fare as he boarded the bus, which to me indicates either especially conscientious parents or an especially astute child. People’s behaviors when doing things like boarding the bus, and their ability to handle interactions of minute scope, such as paying their bus fare, are phenomena for which I have a rather acute eye and keen memory, a trait of mine which has been noticed and pointed out by several acquaintances. I have fanaticized, on more than one occasion, about adopting a habit of journal-keeping to record such observations, and have imagined myself pouring over notebook after notebook of such entries as, “Ms. Saginal is careful not to be seen by Mr. Warengo when she goes to check her mail at the mailbox” and, “the mustachioed man who takes the Green Line from the Chapel St. stop at 7:30am on weekdays shines his shoes, or else has them shined, on Tuesday nights or early Wednesday mornings,” until these notebooks, piled high in chaotic-looking yet organized stacks, filled much of the open space of my small apartment, for no other reason than to imagine the puzzled relatives entering my apartment after my death who did not know me very well at all and who then would pour through said notebooks trying to figure out what it was that I had spent my life working on, the mystical aura such a discovery would lend to my memory, the growing consensus in the press and in certain academic circles that I had been a half-mad genius who was tragically misunderstood and ignored by his peers, the books that would be written by scholars claiming to have finally grasped the timeless and profound insights of my magnum opus, the school of angst-ridden bright young students who would read my work and struggle to make sense of it and eventually champion my memory and name me as one of their primary influences. In this I think I would be the summation of my generation and the scientific eye it turned downward and inward, the obsession it felt with observing and recording and classifying for no reason other than for the great observers and recorders and classifiers to find their place in a pantheon spoken of in reverent tones by lonely frightened people and then promptly die like mice in mouse-traps, caught unaware and happy with a belly full of peanut butter. These are the sorts of monuments to me I see forming in the tiny interactions of others. And now, as always happens when such fantasies start to fade and the world around me comes back into focus, I am overcome with a severe and overwhelming nausea, such that the sight of the young boy across from me turns quickly from an optimistic one to a thoroughly repulsive one, at least until the feeling fades. I tend to deal with this sickness by breathing in deeply, filling my lungs as fully as I can manage to and savoring the feeling of tension it engenders before breathing out slowly and methodically. It usually takes about a half-dozen or so such breaths to fully settle my stomach, and I’ve occasionally wondered if it is in fact the breathing itself or the refocusing of my attention away from my departing fantasy and onto the act of breathing that is actually the cure for my sickness. Either way, it can be tricky to maintain a proper rate of breathing such that my nausea is soothed but I do not become lightheaded and do not hyperventilate, but once I have calmed my nerves my mind inevitably returns to whatever is most immediately at hand, which at the moment is myself on a bus headed towards the King Street district to visit my mother. I visit my mother somewhat regularly, and increasingly often over the last year or so, out of a combination of something like guilt and a desire to be the focus of someone else’s attention. My mother lives in a facility that could not accurately be called an “asylum” but is really more like a rest home for people whose mental state makes them incapable of coping with ordinary public life and its demands. At times when events in my life have felt particularly taxing or burdensome I admit that I have felt some envy towards my mother and her lack of responsibility and the patient care of professionals which she enjoys at the expense of a trust fund set up for her by the estate of my late father, on whose dime I will admit I also live comfortably albeit somewhat less lavishly. Truth be told, I think that the pervasive antiseptic odor and neatly ordered stacks of uninteresting magazines that constitute the facility my mother lives in would make me rather uncomfortable were I surrounded by them more frequently than during my visits. Still, I can’t help but wonder if my father’s death were not so simply the deeply traumatic rupture from reality that her physicians make it out to be but was also to her an opportunity to step back from the world and enter something like an early retirement with the pity and support of my father’s family. These sorts of speculative musings are something I am rather prone to, especially in situations such as this, a bus ride that is, in which time must be passed with relatively little distraction, and which are, I believe, the more-or-less direct result of living in a city. Something about the sheer quantity of sensory input to which one is exposed in the course of even a day of city life forces an individual, almost as a matter of survival, inwards toward introspective and, frankly, obsessive patterns of thought. There is safety only inside oneself, I would say, and that turning outwards to anything external in the hopes of orienting oneself in the universe is a fool’s errand at best. It is therefore also the result of living in a city that what small amount of spirituality I might have brought with me from my hometown has been thoroughly eradicated from me; it is in cities, I believe, that one can really tell that God is, in fact, dead. In the country, of which I will make no attempt to pretend my rather well-to-do and thoroughly modern hometown was a part but which I have visited on several occasions and have grown quite fond of, and have wished to make it well known to acquaintances that at heart I am thoroughly a man of the country, one might almost be able to convince oneself that something like God is at work in the world, but here in the city it is clear that the only force of consequence that we humans can see evidence of at least is man’s desperate struggle to pretend he will not die. And now I’ve gone and made myself nauseous again. Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck. Breathe deeply. One of the consequences of these sudden bursts of nausea, or perhaps it results from the subsequent heavy breathing, is that it often also produces a profuse sweating and flushing of the face, which similarly to the aforementioned blinking habit have little to no consequence in private but have a way of making strangers uncomfortable when occurring in public. There is little that can really be done about this other than waiting for it to pass. We should, at any rate, be arriving at the King Street station shortly, from which it is only a short walk to the facility my mother lives in. My visit with her will likely last just under an hour, beyond which she tends to grow tired from the strain of talking and focusing for so long, which I believe her medication makes difficult for her. Over the course of our last several visits she has made known to me a conviction, which she seems to have developed recently, that in her youth she was a patient of Jacques Lacan, and that not only did the two of them have a clinical relationship but also were lovers, and that this romance, and not the one she shared briefly with my father, which from all discernable evidence she seems to have forgotten completely, is the one around which her understanding of the narrative of her life is constructed. She has revealed to me that their affair went on for quite some time but was kept in the strictest secrecy, and that she used to refer to him affectionately as “[her] little Jacques” and “[her] sighing Jacques”, and that during intercourse, or as she would say, “when [she] gave [her]self to him in a wifely manner”, he had a peculiar habit of narrating the entire episode aloud in the present perfect tense, saying things such as “I have now unfastened and removed your brassiere,” “I have now penetrated you,” and “I have now ejaculated,” which rather than being off-putting or creepy my mother found delightful and quite stimulating and resulted in her finding their trysts more deeply and thoroughly satisfying than any others of her life. The fact that she has felt it appropriate to share such intimate, albeit fictional, details with me has left me convinced that she is no longer completely aware that I am her son. Despite this, I must say I am rather grateful for this development, since I have no doubt that this story is quite a bit more interesting than anything that could actually be happening in her life at the facility, and thus have spared our visits quite a bit of tedium. I will admit to having wondered if there were not some doctor or other staff member of the facility who were taking advantage of my mother’s confused state, seeing as despite her illness and somewhat unkempt appearance she is still rather pretty and has not lost much of her original charm that my father no doubt found so alluring, but if that is the case it seems to be doing her no apparent harm, and as I am at this point somewhat invested in seeing how this strange delusion develops I have decided not to investigate further for the time being. Should it ever appear that actual harm is being done I will of course intervene, but for now I am content to let sleeping dogs lie and observe the scenario during my visits. Perhaps it is selfish of me to risk my mother’s safety and comfort this way to spare myself some tedium and indulge a morbid curiosity. Well, I won’t deny that. In fact, I have increasingly become aware of a rather fundamental selfishness upon which the overwhelming majority of my thoughts and deeds are built, and I find myself much less upset by this realization than I might have assumed. I have come to terms with the fact that a basic narcissism is one of, if not the primary, foundational component of me. I am the heir to several generations of atheists and businessmen; how could I have been anything besides what I am? My children, should I ever have any, will no doubt ascend to heights of self-obsession that are forever beyond even my reach, and for their wonderful self-sufficiency and singularity of focus I envy them. I cannot manage to tear myself completely from the city around me, and as a result find myself pulled violently out of my soothing inwardness by the deafening sounds of civilization. What a burden it is, to have to share oneself with the world! But now I must rest here at this bus stop for a moment, and let this nausea subside before I go in to see my mother.