Popo & Ix
To I. Cross & the Other Communists.
The semester after Cynthia Tsang and I split up I had what some would call a little nervous breakdown. It was probably caused by a combination of drinking and heartache, but who really knows? Everything felt like it had gone underwater. The steps I took were slow and soggy. My roommate Sam taped cardboard to the staircase. For falling foreheads. I told Sam I knew he was stealing my spaghetti. He denied it with accusing eyes. Like: we both know what happened to that spaghetti. Don’t we?
Right? I slunk back to my half-lit corner by the window where I could watch Alfred the Spider spin his half-assed web. Sam let out a ffffffffffffffft noise. He grabbed his raincoat and we didn’t speak to each other until the next weekend. Who cares? I thought. My inner speech had become echoey and faraway as if piped up from a nuclear bomb shelter buried deep underground. I inhaled the stale air of our kitchenette. What do I need to be hanging around a spaghetti thief, anyway? One plastic packet of $2.99 angel hair. Who does that?
I sat at the kitchen table, studying for an important French exam. Above me our upstairs neighbor was having very squealy sex. The other sex-person wasn’t making any noise at all. I was learning the French past participles of different verbs relating to animals and cooking. “Moi, je suis delicieux!” exclaimed an aproned pig drawn in lurid pinks.
(“I am delicious!”) Squeal. Squeeeeeeeal.
The verbs weren’t really giving me much trouble. You keep the e in the imperfect of manger so that the g stays soft, je mangeait, I was eating. So I tried to concentrate, focusing my ears on the subwoofer of some techno music that syncopated oddly with the squeals from above, bumpf, ba-bumpf-squeal, bumf, ba-bumpf-squeal, I was eating, je mangeait, I ate, j’ai mangé.
Je buvais, j’ai bu (I was drinking, I drank). Bu.
It looked wrong. Bu. What makes a word look wrong?
The room was covered with small-spotted stains. I took a break from verbs and shuffled to a flashcard reminding me that verre means glass and not cup which is tasse as in ‘tasse de café’ except when that cup is made of glass, in which case it can still be a verre, as in ‘à voir le verre à moitié vide plutôt qu’à moitié plein’, one of the few idioms that translates perfectly across both languages, perhaps because one only needs a glass and a small amount of liquid to demonstrate its fundamental truth. That thought prompted a verre plein of my own in which I cut the lukewarm vodka with flat tonic and then remembered appropos of half-emptying it that the word cliché in French does not actually mean an English ‘cliché’ but means a picture, as in cliché echogrammatique (which is French for ‘ultrasound’). And then, also, to think of ultrasounds or fMRI images of beating hearts and jaundiced livers as clichés in the US American sense (or at least in my sense) made my face fall faster than the early autumn light from the sky’s tree-lined rim, sex-squeals pushing up against my verbs: boire, *eee*, avoir bu, *eeeeep*, buvair, *eee*,boîve, *eeeeee-eeeep-eee…*
At which point I realized that the verre I was holding had cracked into three distinct and jagged pieces and begun slicing new and ominous trend lines into my palmistry. I gushed forth a splatter of dark red and made the flashcards go all bleedy. Across the table I gazed upon an eyelash floating in the meniscus of yesterday’s coffee, tasse. I peeled the wound, adding a very visceral feeling of pain to the operatic tremolo-gasm from above, and drew attention to the muddle of my situation. There’s nothing like re-learning the past tense to make one wax nostalgic, especially at this time of night, completely alone. I thought of Cynthia Tsang, hoping that she might also be sitting at a kitchen table somewhere off in a better version of reality, thinking wistfully of me. When did Sam even go out? The past tense returned, to worry itself inside me: Has it all already ended? Not life, perhaps, but living?
I imagined spending the rest of my life speaking in the French past tense. This might be the most important exam you ever study for, said the echoey bomb shelter-voice in my head.
Aimer, j’ai aimé (I loved), j’amais (I was loving) which sounds enough like jamais (never) for a thousand years of schmaltzy rhyme schemes in Francophone pop music choruses. Here I am, said the voice. The plaintive lines of black maroon went on streaking out over the tabletop. They stained the cheap wood grain. I sat and watched them reach the edge and spill over, dripping dots of alarm-liquid onto the floor. Cynthia Tsang, her
– long silky-black hair
– wire-framed glasses
– soft, round face with forced-looking smile
– longsleeve shirts of neon animal print, mostly zebra
– breasts the size of frozen custards, XL brown nipples, plain white bra that hooked in the back
– Chuck Taylor’s that she never tied or untied, shiny black laces pulled tight
The sounds of the night faded to zero in an abrupt decrescendo beneath my sliced-up hands. I began to look at the flashcards and instead of pieces of French grammar on blue-lined paper rectangles I saw the pieces of my life laid out in front of me, conjugated in a series of vacuous maintenance activities (eating, drinking, sleeping, bathing, using the toilet, staring out at a flurry of birds pecking around at first snowfall), dozens of sunsets (each one clichéd in a uniquely different way; echogrammatiques of hearts beating inside small thrushes and frisky tree squirrels) red dots studding the distant linoleum, a frosty pane of dull colors between myself and the world, standing at a suburban front door with a bouquet of fresh-cut flowers, wondering if I hadn’t gotten the address wrong, the messiness and giddy laughter of young children at play, and then alone, waiting in the food court for an inevitable rendezvous that ended in a gym bag of objects passed from one hand to another and then returned in toto, for storage in a musty cubbyhole beneath mine and Sam’s staircase, shut up behind two latched wicker doors. Those objects, and their adjuncts in a series of past tense verbs (to eat, to have eaten, to sleep, to have slept, to drink, to have drank, drunk, to have been sleeping… to kiss, to have been kissing, kissed, to leave, to have left, to have been left).
Along the lucid blue lines of my sentimental twilight the face of Cynthia Tsang hovered, her forehead and cheeks inscribed with tendrils of shiny black angel hair, wan and bodiless above the telephone lines, calling with a chorus of dial tones that became the new intervals of silence before a smooth and sharp-toothed nothing, the sizzle of answering machine lips whispering static before a shaky voice (mine) left its final saliva-purled trace.
I am in a small place cut from fragrant wood, the hasp closed, a blotted nothing, feeling with my hands for the cupboard door, the zipper-edges of a gym bag — I am a collection of objects that has become unglued from the meaning of myself; paperback Kundera, old drawstring purse for marbles, a necklace made of spoiled candy, a pair of one-lensed sunglasses in molded plastic frames, coins with Chinese symbols from one of her uncle’s business trips — untangled I fly across the floor cracks beneath the laments and tired eyes and yes, I’m floating, yes, I’m bouncing, yes I’m clattering and making a racket all the way to where the face lies gooey-stiff beneath the ink-blackened hair of a fallen angel stroked into smooshy pasta clumps, aloft upon a woodgrain sky, fading in and out through lumps of morning. Plain air kisses the bottoms of my feet with that char-hot breath scraped from the end-places where time and space run out their spools and this feeling of being superglued to an immovable devastation encounters the irresistible force of the unknown, lucid and strong, the sweet release away from the ugliness of feeling. It says: let me out of this gray, wicker trap called life, let me back into your chest where I know a familiar vacancy. Cynthia Tsang, her name down in crusty sheaves of egg and flour. Her eyes opened into luminous buds, her breath of a time when life’s afternoons still had that aching smell of blood and soap and smoke and rainwater, shedding black hairs and red cotton panties.
So I moved my hands around the paper verbs and went on repeating them in poorly accented French as if I was saying a spell. Inside of me a disconsolate voice echoed whose clichéd grammar I tried so hard to blot out with the dull ink of my cuts, hurrying the verbs faster and faster, imagining each shuffle of flashcards as another day-cycle, week-cycle, month-cycle and then year-year-year of life hurtling me off towards death. Sure, I maybe became a little frantic when the throaty sex squeals began again, louder this time, syncopated with the slap of a calloused hand on my upstairs neighbor’s asscheek that seeped into my eyes, teeth, fingers, spine now aflame, face wild in a reflection of the bathroom mirror I just shattered, the floor covered with broken glass, my shirt soaked red and unrecognizable, the room covered in bits of bloody paper, all the verbs now shredded.
At the time, I didn’t think: Oh, I’m just having a little nervous breakdown.
What I thought instead was: This feeling is love yes this is what love feels like yes I am in love I am really in love now I know what it feels like and I must not let go of this feeling no matter what the consequences. I needed to figure out how I was going to undo the mistakes of the past and more importantly how I was going to get Cynthia Tsang back in my life. Because, what I realized at that moment was that I missed her and needed her more than I needed anything else I had ever thought I needed.
First I swept the bits of my French past participles into little piles on the greasy linoleum of my kitchen floor. Then I fetched a writing pad and a pen, sat down and took a deep breath. I resolved to write what I was sure would be the most perfect love letter ever composed, an epistle so tender and expressive that it would breach all of her barriers, subdue all of her doubts and open a door for me and Cynthia Tsang to get back together.
Yes, I thought, feverishly. This can work. Isn’t this what happens in old movies? And isn’t some % of romance cinema, like, legally required to be based on improbable success stories from real life?
I started writing, holding my tongue out just above my upper lip and really cutting into my best tight cursive, flying through paragraphs until about three pages in I realized the whole thing was just leprous with clichés in the US American sense and way, way, way too sentimental and besides that, it sounded whiny and pedantic and pretty much completely shitty. So I ripped the pages out of the pad and tossed them to the ground where they curled up into little telescopes atop my ensanguinated verbs and I, unphased, began again, working into the same self-possessed lather as before.
This effort would be a draft, I decided, after a few cross-outs, but getting the flow and overall gist of the letter down tonight was the important part. Ruled or unruled for the final version? Handwritten was a must. The key would be to send something heartfelt, something euphonious and clever, something capable of moving Cynthia to little, secretive smiles and (possibly) even to tears of real feeling. I eschewed adjectives and kept my sentences short. I muted the use of parentheticals and always used my Oxford commas as Cynthia Tsang, of all people, would insist upon.
My hands flew and cramped up and then flew again. I ran my first pen out of ink, then my second. I went to the gas station a couple blocks down the street as soon as the sky turned light so I could re-up on Bic pens.
The graveyard shift cashier looked at me like I was crazy, like I might be purchasing the pens to stab someone in the eye.
No, I assured him in an indistinct mumble, these are the pens of love, not war.
He nodded like: Oooooh-kay, then.
I asked the cashier: Have you ever been in love?
It was daylight by the time I finished the letter and noon by the time I opened and then promptly choked down the rest of the vodka. I smoked a little green to take the edge off. And I wasn’t even tired!
I read and re-read the letter. It was perfect. It was addressed to Popo (Popocatépetl), from Ix (Iztaccihuatl)and drew from the repertoire of a long-standing playful argument that Cynthia Tsang and I had been having concerning themes from Malcolm Lowry’s novel Under the Volcano. The letter contained several elements composed in blank verse, though most of the text was written as a kind of teleplay, a love story in dialogue between the two volcanoes above Lowry’s fictitious Cuernavaca (Quanhuac). Two pens shattered into their rubbish of sticky plastic, and I felt lost (perdre, in both languages and equating a losing of otherness, subjective or objective, whereas to lose oneself is the reflexive se perdre) and now my eyes pulled wide and tumid as foxgrapes, mouth heavy opened, my breathing heavy, filled with vodka fumes that furled around my cheeks blood-grimed with sweat in the lavender-colored glow of late Tuesday afternoon when I finally gazed down at the floor (shredded flashcards, blood spatter, French verbs) and then up at the wall clock (6:45 PM) and realized that I had completely missed my French exam.
Along with my two other Tuesday classes it had taken place hours ago, started and ended, a blot of encircled, star-studded, exclamatory ink in my spiral dayplanner — and given our French class’s ironclad attendance/exam policy (no misses, no retakes, any absence must be given advance notice and granted prior approval except in the case of severe unplanned medical emergency) there would be absolutely no possibility of me passing the class, the hard work of my scraped-by B- being no match for the GPA-imploder of a 0/100 exam score, which in turn would snip the final threads of my academic scholarship, thus forcing me into a loan situation that I doubted even the most charitable of financial institutions would qualify me for, on top of making me re-take this semester of French as a requirement for graduation which would make it impossible for me to graduate with my class, which I knew would sit poorly with the parents even if I did manage to either keep or conceal the loss of my academic scholarship.
And all of these realizations came blasting towards me with such torpedo force that I very quickly arrived at the conclusion that the only suitable course of action was a real-deal severe medical emergency whereupon I seized one of the broken shards of verre from the not-yet-previous evening and jammed it into my little finger, spurting blood everywhere and then in a rush of pain finished the poor digit off with Sam’s stainless steel meat cleaver. I wasn’t satisfied and went back for the ring finger. They looked ugly, severed, lying in my palm; those fingers — I thought about eating them and then realized what a dumb idea that would be.
Chest heaving, the blood in full-spatter mode across the graylit desolation of my flashcards I scanned the room for my smartphone to look up directions to the University hospital. Honestly, it was more blood than I had expected and after toweling some of it up I began to feel a little woozy, seeing the kind of spots in my eyes that appear on old films to signal the projectionist to change over reels. Adrenaline kicked in and all of a sudden I began to wonder if something in my overall mental state might have gone seriously haywire.
Outside, the squealy sex neighbor was standing on the second story fire escape smoking cigarettes with last night’s stallion, a scrawny White boy tattooed with a bib of cursive.
Hey, she waved.
Huh, I thought, waving back. So this is what it feels like to wave a hand with only two fingers. Not that different. Not that bad.
The boy made a stoned-looking grin like: cool hand, man!
I turned and tried to concentrate on what I was doing. It was feeling a little more loopy to walk and maintain composure than I had anticipates. Desperate now, I kind of half-jogged-half-skipped the eight blocks to the University’s hospital emergency room.
The intake nurse was appalled at my condition and didn’t hesitate when I asked her to indicate that my injury happened early this morning around 9:00 am while I was on the way to my French exam and that the fingers had then fallen into a difficult-to-reach storm grate, forcing me to spend much of the rest of the day fishing them out with an apparatus made from several coat hangers knotted together.
Please note it all down, I said.
The next day I took my French exam with my Gabonese TA bringing her two small children to help proctor because she had already used up some quota of proctoring-related daycare dollars on the day of the actual exam and she looked very mordant and reproachful and scared even, to look at my bandaged and sewn-back-together left hand. I got a B+ on the exam and a B in the class which was better than the average and way better than I expected, all things considered.
The thirty-seven page handwritten missive draft (Dear Ix… With all my love, Popo) got folded up and jammed in the index of a very used copy of Gray’s Anatomy on my bookshelf, a tome which I opened years later in a trial-and-error effort to self-diagnose herpes. Wow am I glad that I never sent it! The letter, I mean. I guess because the entire concept of the letter derives from what I’d call a slightly-more-extreme-than-typical undergrad crack-up, and hence, is pretty embarrassing. And also because the thing about the letter was not sending it but writing it, insofar as it taught me some things about what I was willing to say to myself when I felt the imposition of an overpowering force, a force I thought then was called “love” and may clinically be called “madness”, although in my years since then the line between those notions has always worn a little thin.
Elizeya Quate (b. 1988) is a writer in the Midwest, USA. After graduating from the University of Michigan with degrees in mysticism and brand marketing, Quate became among the first (human) Americans to legally wed Earth’s Moon. Previous work has appeared in Axolotl and sleepingfish. For more bits and pieces: http://elizeya.tumblr.com/
Cover photo: Stefano Corso (https://www.flickr.com/photos/pensiero)