There’s nobody there, it just seemed so to me.
— Anton Checkov
George watches the two women cry on television, their beautiful hair, how it is blown back from their face in the same spirals it seems every woman has on TV. George read an article about the ease of filming these curls, how they can handle more mess, how they don’t get in the way of the camera. But she knows she is distracting herself. When the women say thank you as they cry then George is crying too, or is almost crying, because tears are so rare and George is afraid that if she starts crying once she will just cry everywhere: bawl when a bland father reconnects with a bland mother, bawl when a cute baby is pleased on the street, when she gets a nice email, when she drops the glass of milk. On television the glass of milk is acetone, it has dissolved the white plastic gun which can nevertheless shoot. Everyone is talking about that part of the year when the stress is so high their feelings will just spill out everywhere, how they will cry with no reason, even at something guaranteed to happen under some already known rule. But these people are telling George this without crying and this is the part she doesn’t understand: how to cry and then proceed to stop crying, as if their bodies know something hers does not, about the function of crying. About intervals.
So even though there are no tears, it is as if she is crying all the time. The weight of it.
Before, when George lived farther away from herself, she did not feel like this. Or she thinks she didn’t but now from this space she’s in it’s hard to remember. She doesn’t remember feeling this closeness, though, this closeness to the edge. Denial is so safe except for the times it’s not, safe until the wall rips itself from the ground. Now she can’t have the same conversations, or, now the same conversations leave her feeling paradoxically volcanic and invisible. She watches the electrical storm of her brain, and it is unfathomable, and who could see her seeing it in order to help?
George has begun seeing a therapist in an office at One Magnificent Mile, at the corner of Oak Street and Michigan Ave. As a child, George’s parents had taken her to see a different therapist in this same building, one she doesn’t remember. Her mother says they couldn’t find parking, not even the lot for the building, the one that was so expensive it cost more than the copay. And, also as her mother would say, the copay was “not chump change, laddy.” The therapist yelled at them all that they didn’t take it seriously, that this difficulty they had in parking was in fact purposeful disrespect, but he still took George onto the couch in order to name her “a serious problem that must be fixed.” He was adamant about where the problem lay. George’s parents didn’t bring her back.
So here she is again in this same building that she doesn’t remember, talking to a therapist about where the problem lay, or what exactly the problem is. Out the window of the waiting room George had been looking at the shops on Oak Street: Issey Miyake next to BCBG or Diane Von Furstenberg or Barney’s New York, below second floors occupied by high end brands she’d never heard of, secret stores of appointments only for those with thousands of dollars to spend on a dress. George’s boss at the jewelry store dreams of opening a store here one day, on Oak Street, but even the possibility of an opportunity was unlikely. It’s a short block, filled already, and felt even when she was a child close to tipping and spilling all its beautiful things sideways across the highway, onto the beach, into the lake.
The store George works for has two locations, and George spends most of her time at the one Downtown, a block from Millennium Park but under the cover of the train tracks, where everything looks as if it is perpetually under construction. She hates the other store, north, in a neighborhood that gentrified in the 90s. The men who had cultivated one gay neighborhood moved there when they wanted another, in search of cheaper homes and brunch in different bars than the ones they’d partied at until 5 am on Tuesdays. When she works uptown, George can’t resist the urge to go shopping at the boutiques, although she knows it will end badly. She can never imagine the dresses on her body, translate them from the image in a mirror to a walk back up towards the train.
At the downtown store she has no such urge. At the downtown store she gets there early to design the windows, and the city is not exactly sleeping but it’s not quite paying attention, either. She likes the work, taking out a ring, or a pair of earrings, and putting them on a display, holding up another item next to the ring, a smooth ruby necklace, and considering. The light in the morning is limited, so George imagines the window as the day passes, in the changing but curtailed light below the elevated train, which after 3 pm simply becomes late afternoon until it is night. As George proceeds, going from one display to the next, she is soothed. It’s not mindless work, but it’s a pattern, or it’s not a pattern but there’s something unconscious about it. They’re supposed to use the same set of jewels for a week, and the other designers plan them out beforehand and leave sketches so that after the first day the other employees can do it, can mark carefully which piece came from what safe. But George comes up with a new design each day, enjoys the challenge, the feeling that eventually she would run out of ides. Commissions go not to the designer but the salesworker, but when George designs a window the window tends to sell.
On Fridays, after she designs the window, her coworker holds the store alone for an hour while George goes to her therapist. Her boss doesn’t know about this—she’s only come to the store once when George was out, and George’s coworker did a kindly thing and used the tricky lock on the bathroom to make it seem like it was locked from inside, and told their boss George was very ill—but their insurance doesn’t cover therapy not attached to a medical diagnosis, so George thinks of the one hour of pay she steals as a small way to game the system, of supplementing her health insurance. A bonus. Although she is frequently reminded by her boss that she’s lucky to have health insurance for such a job at all. “It’s old-fashioned,” she says. But George’s coworker has known George a long time, and she’s a good woman, whatever that means, but in this case it means she knows George could use the help. So long as George returns by 9 to help with the business rush of suits buying presents for spouses, who always come right at 9, and are gone by 9:30, and then there’s a slow trickle before the tourists begin stopping in just before noon.
This Friday the therapist says to George, I think you’re trying to decide what you want out of therapy.
George is surprised—does one decide what one wants out of therapy, or does one just sit in therapy in the hopes that it will make one more, what, mindful, aware, as one moves through the world? So George and her therapist wait. Handholds, George finally says. I want handholds, or notches in the wall to hold on to. There are arbitrary judgments over everything and in therapy George is starting to feel like these weren’t just arbitrary but also nonexistent, and she feels herself flailing. But maybe wanting handholds is itself a symptom of not letting go of the arbitrary judgments. They’d been working on congruency, how it seemed as if George’s sense of congruency was becoming rooted in whether or not someone else knew about it. She was trying to shift her felt sense forward, or backward, or somewhere other than her self. She was tired of her self, and yet obsessed with it. She was tired of the day throwing her self in her face every time she wanted to use the bathroom.
She’d been reading about Margaret Cavendish, and about Howardena Pindell. Pindell created huge uncut pieces of canvas with acrylic paint and hundreds or thousands of pieces of paper shaped with a hole punch; that is, of small circles, sometimes numbered. In an artist statement, Pindell describes her art practice as being sustained “through sheer tenacity,” and this overjoyed George— not the suffering at the root of it, the racism that the art world leveled against Pindell & her work, but Pindell’s practice of holding onto and transforming her bodily feeling into a diffuse, minute practice of aesthetics. How abstraction was not abstraction when it held traces and textures of its process and brought them onto the horizon of the artist’s life. They were an unlikely pair, Margaret Cavendish and Howardena Pindell, but they made sense to George: she wanted to go to an exhibit of Pindell’s work in Margaret Cavendish’s infamous theater gown, all billowing folds with her nipples exposed, wearing a mask, holding it in place with a glass ball in her mouth like a gag.
In another story George read, there was a tree museum, underground, big glass domes in which different ecosystems grew. In a dream George had, there was an art installation called Siegfried, half a gallery filled with water and a floating staircase to be climbed over it, no railing, ending in a small hop over a barrier, to a ledge you couldn’t see from the bottom.
In another dream, George woke in her room and tipped over a cup when she put her foot on the ground, tipped a cup, which tipped the next, and so a wave moved across the floor.
George wonders if, as she sometimes feels, she’s the protagonist of some story. How could one test such a thing? What were the rules? She decides: only that, in a story about a single protagonist, that protagonist must not die until the end, or if they did, it must be a world that accounts for it in some way, unlike the void of death in life. George un-decides: would it be comforting to know one would live to the end of the story, or distressing? What if something happened in which one would want the comfort of imagining death as a possible outcome?
The previous day, as George watched a cop show on television while she made dinner, she had thought about this question. Cop shows, like other stories or a life, had characters that continued on until they didn’t. George thought the numbing effect such shows were supposed to have on her senses didn’t happen to her. She spent most of the time seeing herself become manipulated into caring about characters she didn’t otherwise care about and almost crying anyway. She almost cried whenever someone was shot, whenever a victim felt they’d gotten justice, or whenever they felt they hadn’t, she cried whenever the show ended with a reminder of the sacrifices some character had made to uphold an unjust and arbitrary law. She wondered what happened to the minor characters on the cop shows after the shows ended—so many people living with grief, or with pain, or with some moment in their past that had been defining but that they would spend years not disclosing, not sharing how pervasive its impact had been. Or, perhaps, George thought, they simply got on about their lives. Not everyone lives in the past as the present like George does. But the present had its dangers too, she thought, and she had picked up the book by her bed and read: In its will to protect the living from the maddening effect of a constant present, nature created memory.
Something else the therapist asks her, as part of the suggestion that she was ambivalent about therapy, or perhaps only ambivalent about her therapist, was whether she’d ever asked someone to change for her. That is, had she ever asked for such a change when she wasn’t sure what she wanted the outcome to be, or when it was simply an exploratory move to learn more about a relationship? George is ashamed (although that wasn’t the intention, she doesn’t think) to discover she can’t summon any relevant example, any conversation with a friend or loved one off the top of her head. Moments where there had been a misunderstanding, yes, but somehow seemingly never a moment arising out of uncertainty, in which George didn’t know what the desired change should be. She had once asked a lover to leave her alone more, tried to explain to him the contradictory effects his presence had on her, both restorative and draining, the feeling that she was comfortable but also that her own mind had become completely opaque, that it had escaped behind a face- shaped wall. And he had acquiesced, and George still felt guilty—he had his own anxieties, and he rarely slept, and he slept somewhat better with George around. He would wake from a dream in which someone had died, or in which they had fought, and would say, in the morning, “I was glad you were there.” But she was asleep, so was she really?
She’s still not sure what it means that she could sleep so soundly next to his nightmares.
In her own nightmares George drowns. She had been a competitive swimmer for a long time, in a life that felt built around that particular form of freedom. Each small fever after a hard practice. Theoretically—again those arbitrary standards—this should mean, when someone asks the way in which George most fears to die, that it should be by some other method. But the shame is strong, to know how to swim and drown anyway. To feel inevitability and simultaneously like an erring logic. When George finally stopped swimming, mid-twenties, she stopped baths, stopped floating in ponds, never went in farther than thigh high at the beach the next summer. During that time she could manage a shower, barely, if she was quick. She couldn’t wash her hair in it. She’d had to move twice that summer, and each time she made sure there was a bathroom big enough to put a chair in front of the sink, to let a kind friend wash her hair, gently soften each strand. In this way she learned her hair was thinning, which, like the way a strand of hair gathers water until it is dripping, eventually took on all of the anxiety that had been diffuse in the water.
You could look at George and point to the parts of her that held such energy. —
The therapy session ends somewhat abruptly, in that way that feels fine to George but, from the outside, she could sense would seem awkward. Next week, both George and her therapist were out of town. George is due to leave tomorrow. In the store, the businessmen come, buy much of the window, leave. A good morning. George’s kind coworker is happy. She has plans after work. As George arranges a new window a woman enters with a child in a suit and bowtie, and George names a problem she has, that a space has opened up between her feelings and her life. Or the reverse, that some chasm has been filled and the feelings are so close to the surface some new separation has encircled them. She wonders whether this skill she thinks she has, of “reading the room,” which sometimes made her a good salesperson, perhaps it is all unreal, a projection. Perhaps she imagines arbitrary rubrics lived within that limit.
The way the woman asks the child for advice makes George hope the pair will choose something this child could swap for the bowtie, when this beautiful mother doesn’t wear the necklace they’ll picked. Even just at home. There’s something to be said for secrets, for knowing something to be true even when one couldn’t convince anyone it was.
George doesn’t sleep that night. The difference, to her, between day and night, or evening and morning, or whatever two time periods she tries to compare, always had less to do with light and more to do with social proximity. Does she feel beholden to respond? Then it’s day—it must be. So nights sometime appear dramatically within days, days blossom quickly at nine p.m., ambivalent evenings last longer than any rotation around the sun. The next morning, when to all others it was morning, George can feel the night permeate the trains, the red line to the blue line she takes to the airport. Aboveground, to underground, to aboveground, to underground, a clear day another social feeling would characterize as “blazing.” To George it is twilight.
But airplanes are extraordinarily invested in shared understandings of time, even as they constantly misunderstand it. George realizes, as her driver’s license grows blurry in her vision and the list of departures collapse on each other, that she has not slept properly in three days. A few hours a night once, not so terrible. A few nights of that, she knows, would not phase some people—she had a friend at school who could live off three or four hours a night for two weeks straight, and a teacher who once who bragged that he lived his entire life on that amount. She once dated someone who slept so erratically that she found it hard to believe he could move through the world with either memory or coherence.
But this is new to George even though it seems, on this third day, to mark out a new commonplace, a new feature of her life. It fills her with dread. I was an object of time, filled with dread, she remembers a poet somewhere writing. I have a lot of dread, a friend had recently said to her, about a poem. George wonders if it is dread that keeps her awake, or anxiety, or what the difference between the two might be. She’d recently seen a cop show in which a cop said something like, “men are quick to assume a fight or flight response, but the most common response for a woman, especially if she afraid for someone else, is passivity.” George had thought that would in fact be most people’s response to true and knowingly violent danger. A disassociation.
Feelings, it seems, were a kind of violence, and they’ve been keeping her awake. That the exposure she feels, the quick moving water of her thoughts which, despite her difficulty in finding them when she wants them, come in great rushes of hypothetical outcomes at night, whenever night erupts, and prevent any loss of consciousness. The line between inside and outside seems permeable. It’s not that there’s a strict Cartesian dichotomy, it’s that the mind had controlled the body for a long time, and cohesion seems still far off. Perhaps once someone told George the mind could control the body, and George thought: wouldn’t that be easier.
As George walks toward the bathroom, as boarding begins, two gendered doorways companionably resting next to each other, a man comes running out, pushing her to the ground where she waits, stunned. The way that your hand, as it moves through the air expecting only air, sometimes meets the edge of a door but still proceeds on. Is this what they mean when they say there’s danger for her, waiting in the bathroom, that a man, muscled and strong and not unattractive, would come hurtling out of it to push you to the ground, where you would feel the sound of your skull hitting the tile? She thinks about football players being tackled, whose heads bounce around in their helmets. She passes out for a few seconds. She comes too. It doesn’t seem anyone came to help her, although she hadn’t seen anyone else around before. She tries to imagine what this man had been doing, running out. She touches her head. Finds no bump. Two concussions, then, in a life. One major, having fallen off a porch as child. One minor, having been pushed to the ground in an airport. She does not miss her flight. She would go to the doctor if she had a headache, later.
A baby wails on the plane. Her ears are popping. George remembers once, as a child, in a trip to visit her grandparents before or just after her grandfather had died, when her right ear hadn’t popped, and she had an earache the whole trip. It seemed highly unlikely now, but that is what she remembers. She remembers too the first time someone told her that babies cry because what they are going through is truthfully the most painful experience they have yet experienced. How one of the diagnostic tools for headaches is the phrase, “the worst headache of my life.” How much must we have gone through, George wondered, this plane full of people, that we are not all wailing the whole flight? That this air pressure feels unimportant, its force on our ears. “Why are you still crying?” the baby’s mother says to the child. “Haven’t your ears popped? You’re just crying because you like it?” And George thinks, even once the pain has passed, it might be worth making a ruckus, telling the world it had happened, making sure someone knew there had been a bump, a change, a small piece of pain instead of a clean line.
S. Brook Corfman is the author of Luxury, Blue Lace, chosen by Richard Siken for the Autumn House Rising Writer Prize, and the forthcoming collection My Daily Actions, or The Meteorites, chosen by Cathy Park Hong for the Fordham POL Prize, as well as two chapbooks. This Lambda Literary Fellow’s recent work has appeared in Conjunctions, DIAGRAM, Indiana Review, The Offing, and The Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day, among other places.