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November 2022 Issue [Readings]

Don’t Worry About the Trace

From the novel Life Is Everywhere, which was published last month by Graywolf Press.

When I was in college, when my mother’s mother died, I did not know what to think. It took some time, the dying, and it happened mostly out of sight, in that large place called California. I considered it unimportant. I know that’s a terrible thing to say, but I didn’t have much choice.

My mother, still recouping a certain gross emotional debt, mentioned, in an offhand way one day, that her mother had been discovered collapsed outside her home. I imagined the body, “discovered collapsed,” atop a pile of neon decorative gravel.

She was discovered by someone delivering groceries. I’m not sure how many days it took. She had apparently been living on scotch and cigarettes for some time. At the hospital, given that she weighed just eighty pounds and was additionally suffering from advanced throat cancer, the doctors were amazed she was alive. There was noise about doing a study.

My mother and I went to see her in the hospice. I don’t know if I have ever seen someone so thin. Her hair was short, elegant somehow, someone’s drawing of a cloud. She was lucid yet insane in her determination.

“You are so beautiful,” she told me. “You are so beautiful, you can’t even help it.” Having spoken these two sentences, she asked to be wheeled away, and my mother reappeared.

“I had to get more pads,” my mother said.

I thought that this might be a reference to incontinence.

My mother continued, “She goes through them very quickly. The staff are in awe.” And my mother produced a set of yellow legal pads contained in plastic. She zipped the wrapping off.

This was how I began to understand.

I don’t know if it was before or after my mother’s mother’s death that it became clear what the pads were for. Always in pen, she transcribed conversations and events from her bed. She wrote down everything that happened. I think my mother said something about how her mother claimed that in this way no one would be able to deceive her.

Maybe, after the revelation about the legal pads, I asked. Maybe I said, “Did she always do this?” But it’s also possible that I did not come to this information by way of inquiry. I may simply have been told: “I threw away all of my mother’s writing.”

The living room in her house, dyed a tea color by its occupant’s dedication to cigarettes, had been full, as I was told, with piles of my mother’s mother’s writing.

I must have asked what it was like.

“The living room?”

“Her writing.”

“Her writing? It was nonsense.” My mother paused. “To be frank, it was terrifying.”

“Oh,” I said. “All the same, I wish you hadn’t thrown it away. I would have liked to see it.”

“You would say that,” my mother said.

I thought for a while, years later, that the way I got my adult life—my job and my husband—was through my determination not to become a writer. If, I sometimes used to think, I had started writing during the times when things were bad, when I, for example, would soothe myself with aimless walking, then perhaps I could have become a happy member of society, by which, perhaps, I really mean: I could have become a visionary.

I did not become that, although I have never been devoid of thought. I’m still thinking.

Instead, as is now clear to me, I got a job at a standardized testing company at which I display stolid competence. I was promoted twice.

Also, I got Cody.

Cody was, in a way, the right person. He was the wrong person, of course, but he was, in addition, the perfect person, as I doubt that there is anyone else on the planet who could have offered me a more thorough disillusionment. The disillusionment offered by Cody was a powerful dose; it was a timed release, a joyful capsule, and I savored its tasty, awful disintegration over the course of a decade.

To my surprise, I came to learn that Cody was an artist. It seems insensitive, bordering on delusional, of me, when I look back now, not to have recognized this fundamental fact about the person I was married to. But to me, Cody was the man I was always going to know. He quit his office job and took work as an art handler. We shared my health insurance.

In my conception of the world, which was in fact a conception inherited from my parents, the meaning of one’s interest in art was summed up by one’s ability to avoid (1) making art, and (2) identifying as an artist. If one could not avoid the first, it was at least necessary to avoid the second. I was, in the meantime, fairly proud of myself. I, quiet and mediocre, did neither. For this reason, the meaning of my interest in art was that I was a good person. I was so much better than Cody. I didn’t have to be an artist, because I was already—and so extremely—perfect.

I clung to this notion, unconsciously sniffing and lightly licking it—polishing my sorrows as if they were a charm.

Cody had no such pretensions. His desk in our apartment became stacked high with detritus: paint-filled yogurt containers, jars of screws and bitty litter he had collected from New York City sidewalks, a rusted hacksaw and an assortment of weary pliers, cloudy plastic sacks of colored sand, Masonite, oils, felt, cord, cotton, a dented pail, papier-mâché on a rubber hose, a non-functioning surveillance camera, a dish of green glitter, printouts of various websites, mirrors, several live flowering plants, rags, foam core, pornographic DVDs in a paper bag labeled private.

I did not know how the heap had arrived. One day it was a desk; now it was something else. Like a dune, it shifted.

“What’s in the bag?” I asked one Sunday.

“What bag?” Cody emerged from the kitchen.

“The bag on your desk.”

“Which bag on my desk?”

He had a point.

I indicated. “The private bag.”

“Sometimes a person,” he told me, “needs space.”

Or perhaps this scene did not take place. Instead I looked inside the bag one day. The titles of its contents had things like the word cum spelled with a k, the mention of youth, stuff about butts. It was pretty standard-issue.

When I mentioned my discovery to Cody over a repast of carbs and beer, he was abashed. He seemed to expect me to mete out punishment. Maybe I would set fire to the apartment. But all I wanted to know was why we could not share these interests.

This part is the most difficult. I did love Cody. I loved him, and also he loved me. This was a reality and is contained in some segment of the history of the world. We in the present no longer have access to these events, these conversations and glances and embraces, along with the more or less viable beliefs they might or might not have aroused and been expressions of—except as an image. A simple figure glitters in fossilized resin. It looks more or less okay back there.

It would be easier had I not loved this person, if my not loving him had been a key factor in our misunderstanding. However, this was not the way things worked. I remember, after things got bad, how hard it was to comprehend the decay of intelligibility, the way it no longer mattered that we could perceive each other’s thoughts in all their dappled, mixed familiarity. It wasn’t that we stopped understanding each other. It was that we stopped caring about what we understood.

Cody’s first show took place at the beginning of our third year of marriage. He was renting a studio by then, so I had a less nuanced sense of what was going on with his desk.

In fact, I did not see the objects included in the show until the night of the opening. The gallery was in a truly massive, rangy space on the fifth floor of a former warehouse. In black vinyl on the first spotlit wall was the exhibition’s title: don’t worry about the trace.

It looked really good. I stood with my arms crossed, contemplating what I was about to behold. I’m not sure if I would have admitted to myself at the time that I was afraid.

There was also a part of me that knew exactly what Cody had done. After all, he knew every detail of my life.

The gallery’s rooms were filled with recreations of my grandmother’s notebooks, ingeniously fashioned from inappropriate materials, plaster and wire and wood and sheet metal. They had been shellacked in some cases, slathered with house paint in others.

They gathered hugely in mounds. They massed. They were bright and slick and ugly. The effect was fantastic.

I encountered another artist, Scott, who for some reason began explaining in detail what it meant to give an “elevator pitch.” Over his shoulder, I could see Cody on the other side of the room.

Cody was staring at me, and I could make out that, much as I had never dreamed that he and I would meet each other in such a setting, he had not quite thought through what it would mean to see me amid these materials. I can’t say that he looked ashamed, but I also cannot say that he did not look ashamed. What he looked like was what it looks like when someone is enjoying their own fault. He had on a hard little smile. His eyes were like two bits of candied foodstuff, balls of polished dough.

private, the bag had read.

I brushed past Scott and went to bury my face in Cody’s shoulder. He held me very tight.

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November 2022

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