HE DIDN’T BEGIN it consciously, he really didn’t, and yet when he comprehends what he is doing, he doesn’t stop it, either. It is the middle of November, and he is getting out of the pool after his morning swim, and as he’s lifting himself up on the metal bars that Richard had had installed around the pool to help him get in and out
of his wheelchair, the world disappears.
When he wakes again, it’s only ten minutes later. One moment it was six forty-five a.m., and he was pulling himself up; the next it is six fifty-five a.m., and he is prone on the black rubber floor, his arms reaching forward for the chair, his torso leaving a wet splotch on the ground. He groans, moving into a sitting position, and waits until the room rights itself again, before attempting—and this time, succeeding
—to hoist himself up.
The second time comes a few days later. He has just gotten home from the office, and it is late. Increasingly, he has begun to feel as if Rosen Pritchard supplies him with his very energy, and once he leaves its premises, so too does his strength: the moment Mr. Ahmed shuts the back door of the car, he is asleep, and he doesn’t wake until he is delivered to Greene Street. But as he walks into the dark, quiet apartment that night, he is overcome by a sense of displacement, one so debilitating that for a moment he stops, blinking and confused, before he moves to the sofa in the living room and lies down. He means to just rest, just for a few minutes, just until he can stand again, but when he opens his eyes next it is day, and the living room is gray with light.
The third time is Monday morning. He wakes before his alarm, and although he is lying down, he feels everything around and within him roiling, as if he is a bottle half filled with water set adrift on an ocean of clouds. In recent weeks, he hasn’t had to drug himself at all on Sundays: he gets home from dinner with JB on Saturday, and climbs into bed, and only wakes when Richard comes to find him the next day. When Richard doesn’t come—as he hadn’t this Sunday; he and India are visiting her parents in New Mexico—he sleeps through the entire day, through the entire night. He dreams of nothing, and nothing wakes him.
He knows what is happening, of course: he isn’t eating enough. He hasn’t been for months. Some days he eats very little—a piece of fruit; a piece of bread—and some days he eats nothing at all. It isn’t as if he has decided to stop eating—it is simply that he is no longer interested, that he no longer can. He isn’t hungry, so he doesn’t eat.
That Monday, though, he does. He gets up, he totters downstairs. He swims, but poorly, slowly. And then he comes back upstairs, he makes himself breakfast. He sits and eats it, staring into the apartment, the newspapers folded on the table beside him. He opens his mouth, he inserts a forkful of food, he chews, he swallows. He keeps his movements mechanical, but suddenly he thinks of how grotesque a process it is, putting something into his mouth, moving it around with his tongue, swallowing down the saliva-clotted plug of it, and he stops. Still, he promises himself: I will eat, even if I don’t want to, because I am alive and this is what I am to do. But he forgets, and forgets again.
And then, two days later, something happens. He has just come home, so exhausted that he feels soluble, as if he is evaporating into the air, so insubstantial that he feels made not of blood and bone but of vapor and fog, when he sees Willem standing before him. He opens his mouth to speak to him, but then he blinks and Willem is gone, and he is teetering, his arms stretched before him.
“Willem,” he says aloud into the empty apartment. “Willem.” He closes his eyes, as if he might conjure him that way, but Willem doesn’t reappear.
The next day, however, he does. He is once again at home. It is once again night. He has once again not eaten anything. He is lying in bed, he is staring into the dark of the room. And there, abruptly, is Willem, shimmery as a hologram, the edges of him blurring with light, and although Willem isn’t looking at him—he is looking elsewhere, looking toward the doorway, looking so intently that he wants to follow Willem’s sightline, to see what Willem sees, but he knows he mustn’t blink, he mustn’t turn away, or Willem will leave him—it is enough to see him, to feel that he in some way still exists, that his disappearance might not be a permanent state after all. But finally, he has to blink, and Willem vanishes once more.
However, he isn’t too upset, because now he knows: if he doesn’t eat, if he can last to the point just before collapse, he will begin having hallucinations, and his hallucinations might be of Willem. That night he falls asleep contented, the first time he has felt contentment
in nearly fifteen months, because now he knows how to recall Willem; now he knows his ability to summon Willem is within his control.
He cancels his appointment with Andy so he can stay home and experiment. This is the third consecutive Friday he hasn’t seen Andy. Since that night at the restaurant, the two of them have been polite with each other, and Andy hasn’t mentioned Linus, or any other doctor, again, although he has said he’ll raise the subject anew in six months. “It’s not a matter of wanting to get rid of you, Jude,” he said. “And I’m sorry, I really am, if that’s how it sounded. I’m just worried. I just want to make sure we find someone you like, someone I know you’ll be comfortable with.”
“I know, Andy,” he said. “And I appreciate it; I do. I’ve been behaving badly, and I took it out on you.” But he knows now that he has to be careful: he has tasted anger, and he knows he has to control it. He can feel it, waiting to burst from his mouth in a swarm of stinging black flies. Where has this rage been hiding? he wonders. How can he make it disappear? Lately his dreams have been of violence, of terrible things befalling the people he hates, the people he loves: he sees Brother Luke being stuffed into a sack full of squealing, starved rats; he sees JB’s head being slammed against a wall, his brain splashing out in a gray slurry. In the dreams he is always there, dispassionate and watchful, and after witnessing their destruction, he turns and walks away. He wakes with his nose bleeding the way it had when he was a child and was suppressing a tantrum, with his hands shaking, with his face contorted into a snarl.
That Friday Willem doesn’t come to him after all. But the next
evening, as he is leaving the office to meet JB for dinner, he turns his head to the right and sees, sitting next to him in the car, Willem. This time, he fancies, Willem is a little harder-edged, a little more solid, and he stares and stares until he blinks and Willem once again dissolves.
After these episodes he is depleted, and the world around him dims as if all its power and electricity has gone toward creating Willem. He instructs Mr. Ahmed to take him home instead of to the restaurant; as he is driven south, he texts JB to tell him he’s feeling sick and can’t make it. He is doing this more and more: canceling plans with people, shoddily and usually unforgivably late—an hour before a hard-to-secure dinner reservation, minutes after a scheduled meeting time at a gallery, seconds before the curtain rises above a stage. Richard, JB, Andy, Harold and Julia: these are the final people who still contact
him, persistently, week after week. He can’t remember when he last heard from Citizen or Rhodes or the Henry Youngs or Elijah or Phaedra—it has been weeks, at least. And although he knows he should care, he doesn’t. His hope, his energy are no longer replenishable resources; his reserves are limited, and he wants to spend them trying to find Willem, even if the hunt is elusive, even if he is likely to fail.
And so home he goes, and he waits and waits for Willem to appear to him. But he doesn’t, and finally he sleeps.
The next day he waits in bed, trying to suspend himself between alertness and dazedness, for that (he thinks) is the state in which he is most likely to summon Willem.
On Monday he wakes, feeling foolish. This has got to stop, he tells himself. You have got to rejoin the living. You’re acting like an insane person. Visions? Do you know what you sound like?
He thinks of the monastery, where Brother Pavel liked to tell him the story of an eleventh-century nun named Hildegard. Hildegard had visions; she closed her eyes and illuminated objects appeared before her; her days were aswim with light. But Brother Pavel was less interested in Hildegard than in Hildegard’s instructor, Jutta, who had forsaken the material world to live as an ascetic in a small cell, dead to the concerns of the living, alive but not alive. “That’s what will happen to you if you don’t obey,” Pavel would say, and he would be terrified. There was a small toolshed on the monastery’s grounds, dark and chilly and jumbled with malevolent-looking iron objects, each of them ending in a spike, a spear, a scythe, and when the brother told him of Jutta, he imagined he would be forced into the toolshed, fed just enough to survive, and on and on and on he would live, almost forgotten but not completely, almost dead but not completely. But even Jutta had had Hildegard for company. He would have no one. How frightened he had been; how certain he was that this, someday, would come to pass.
Now, as he lies in bed, he hears the old lies murmur to him. “I have
become lost to the world,” he sings, quietly, “in which I otherwise wasted so much time.”
But although he knows how foolish he is being, he still cannot bring himself to eat. The very act of it now repels him. He wishes he were above want, above need. He has a vision of his life as a sliver of soap, worn and used and smoothed into a slender, blunt-ended arrowhead, a little more of it disintegrating with every day.
And then there is what he doesn’t like to admit to himself but is conscious of thinking. He cannot break his promise to Harold—he won’t. But if he stops eating, if he stops trying, the end will be the same anyway.
Usually he knows how melodramatic, how narcissistic, how unrealistic he is being, and at least once a day he scolds himself. The fact is, he finds himself less and less able to summon Willem’s specifics without depending on props: He cannot remember what Willem’s voice sounds like without first playing one of the saved voice messages. He can no longer remember Willem’s scent without first smelling one of his shirts. And so he fears he is grieving not so much for Willem but for his own life: its smallness, its worthlessness.
He has never been concerned with his legacy, or never thought he had been. And it is a helpful thing that he isn’t, for he will leave nothing behind: not buildings or paintings or films or sculptures. Not books. Not papers. Not people: not a spouse, not children, probably not parents, and, if he keeps behaving the way he is, not friends. Not even new law. He has created nothing. He has made nothing, nothing but money: the money he has earned; the money given to him to compensate for Willem being taken from him. His apartment will revert to Richard. The other properties will be given away or sold and their proceeds donated to charities. His art will go to museums, his books to libraries, his furniture to whoever wants it. It will be as if he has never existed. He has the feeling, unhappy as it is, that he was at his most valuable in those motel rooms, where he was at least something singular and meaningful to someone, although what he had to offer was being taken from him, not given willingly. But there he had at least been real to another person; what they saw him as was actually what he was. There, he was at his least deceptive.
He had never been able to truly believe Willem’s interpretation of
him, as someone who was brave, and resourceful, and admirable. Willem would say those things and he would feel ashamed, as if he’d been swindling him: Who was this person Willem was describing? Even his confession hadn’t changed Willem’s perception of him—in fact, Willem seemed to respect him more, not less, because of it, which he had never understood but in which he had allowed himself to find solace. But although he hadn’t been convinced, it was somehow sustaining that someone else had seen him as a worthwhile person, that someone had seen his as a meaningful life.
The spring before Willem died, they’d had some people over for
dinner—just the four of them and Richard and Asian Henry Young— and Malcolm, in one of the occasional spikes of regret he had been experiencing over his and Sophie’s decision not to have children, even though, as they all reminded him, they hadn’t wanted children to begin with, had asked, “Without them, I just wonder: What’s been the point of it all? Don’t you guys ever worry about this? How do any of us know our lives are meaningful?”
“Excuse me, Mal,” Richard had said, pouring him the last of the wine from one bottle as Willem uncorked another, “but I find that offensive. Are you saying our lives are less meaningful because we don’t have kids?”
“No,” Malcolm said. Then he thought. “Well, maybe.”
“I know my life’s meaningful,” Willem had said, suddenly, and Richard had smiled at him.
“Of course your life’s meaningful,” JB had said. “You make things people actually want to see, unlike me and Malcolm and Richard and Henry here.”
“People want to see our stuff,” said Asian Henry Young, sounding wounded.
“I meant people outside of New York and London and Tokyo and Berlin.”
“Oh, them. But who cares about those people?”
“No,” Willem said, after they’d all stopped laughing. “I know my life’s meaningful because”—and here he stopped, and looked shy, and was silent for a moment before he continued—“because I’m a good friend. I love my friends, and I care about them, and I think I make them happy.”
The room became quiet, and for a few seconds, he and Willem had looked at each other across the table, and the rest of the people, the apartment itself, fell away: they were two people on two chairs, and around them was nothingness. “To Willem,” he finally said, and raised his glass, and so did everyone else. “To Willem!” they all echoed, and Willem smiled back at him.
Later that evening, when everyone had left and they were in bed, he had told Willem that he was right. “I’m glad you know your life has meaning,” he told him. “I’m glad it’s not something I have to convince you of. I’m glad you know how wonderful you are.”
“But your life has just as much meaning as mine,” Willem had said. “You’re wonderful, too. Don’t you know that, Jude?”
At the time, he had muttered something, something that Willem
might interpret as an agreement, but as Willem slept, he lay awake. It had always seemed to him a very plush kind of problem, a privilege, really, to consider whether life was meaningful or not. He didn’t think his was. But this didn’t bother him so much.
And although he hadn’t fretted over whether his life was worthwhile, he had always wondered why he, why so many others, went on living at all; it had been difficult to convince himself at times, and yet so many people, so many millions, billions of people, lived in misery he couldn’t fathom, with deprivations and illnesses that were obscene in their extremity. And yet on and on and on they went. So was the determination to keep living not a choice at all, but an evolutionary implementation? Was there something in the mind itself, a constellation of neurons as toughened and scarred as tendon, that prevented humans from doing what logic so often argued they should? And yet that instinct wasn’t infallible—he had overcome it once. But what had happened to it after? Had it weakened, or become more resilient? Was his life even his to choose to live any longer?
He had known, ever since the hospital, that it was impossible to
convince someone to live for his own sake. But he often thought it would be a more effective treatment to make people feel more urgently the necessity of living for others: that, to him, was always the most compelling argument. The fact was, he did owe Harold. He did owe Willem. And if they wanted him to stay alive, then he would. At the time, as he slogged through day after day, his motivations had been murky to him, but now he could recognize that he had done it for them, and that rare selflessness had been something he could be proud of after all. He hadn’t understood why they wanted him to stay alive, only that they had, and so he had done it. Eventually, he had learned how to rediscover contentment, joy, even. But it hadn’t begun that way.
And now he is once again finding life more and more difficult, each day a little less possible than the last. In his every day stands a tree, black and dying, with a single branch jutting to its right, a scarecrow’s sole prosthetic, and it is from this branch that he hangs. Above him a rain is always misting, which makes the branch slippery. But he clings to it, as tired as he is, because beneath him is a hole bored into the earth so deep that he cannot see where it ends. He is petrified to let go because he will fall into the hole, but eventually he knows he will, he knows he must: he is so tired. His grasp weakens a bit, just a little bit, with every week.
So it is with guilt and regret, but also with a sense of inevitability, that he cheats on his promise to Harold. He cheats when he tells Harold he is being sent away to Jakarta for business and will miss Thanksgiving. He cheats when he begins growing a beard, which he hopes will disguise the gauntness in his face. He cheats when he tells Sanjay he’s fine, he’s just had an intestinal flu. He cheats when he tells his secretary she doesn’t need to get him lunch because he picked something up on the way into the office. He cheats when he cancels the next month’s worth of dates with Richard and JB and Andy, telling them he has too much work. He cheats every time he lets the voice whisper to him, unbidden, It won’t be long now, it won’t be long. He isn’t so deluded that he thinks he will be able to literally starve himself to death—but he does think that there will be a day, closer now than ever before, in which he will be so weak that he will stumble and fall and crash his head against the Greene Street lobby’s cement floors, in which he will contract a virus and not have the resources to make it retreat.
At least one of his lies is true: he does have too much work. He has
an appellate argument in a month, and he is relieved to be able to spend so much time at Rosen Pritchard, where nothing bad has ever befallen him, where even Willem knows not to disturb him with one of his unpredictable appearances. One night he hears Sanjay muttering to himself as he hurries past his office—“Fuck, she’s going to kill me”—and looks up and sees it is no longer night, but day, and the Hudson is turning a smeary orange. He notes this, but he feels nothing. Here, his life suspends itself; here, he might be anyone, anywhere. He can stay as late as he likes. No one is waiting for him, no one will be disappointed if he doesn’t call, no one will be angry if he doesn’t go home.
The Friday before the trial, he is working late when one of his secretaries looks in to tell him he has a visitor in the lobby, a Dr. Contractor, and would he like him sent up? He pauses, unsure of what to do; Andy has been calling him, but he hasn’t been returning his calls, and he knows he won’t simply leave.
“Yes,” he tells her. “Bring him to the southeastern conference room.”
He waits in this conference room, which has no windows and is the most private, and when Andy comes in, he sees his mouth tighten, but they shake hands like strangers, and it’s not until his secretary leaves that Andy gets up and walks over to him.
“Stand up,” he commands. “I can’t,” he says.
“My legs hurt,” he says, but this isn’t true. He cannot stand because his prostheses no longer fit. “The good thing about these prostheses is that they’re very sensitive and lightweight,” the prosthetist had told him when he was fitted for them. “The bad thing is that the sockets don’t allow you very much give. You lose or gain more than ten percent of your body weight—so for you, that’s plus or minus fourteen, fifteen pounds—and you’re either going to need to adjust your weight or have a new set made. So it’s important you stay at weight.” For the past three weeks, he has been in his wheelchair, and although he continues to wear his legs, they are only for show, something to fill his pants with; they are too ill-fitting for him to actually use, and he is too weary to see the prosthetist, too weary to have the conversation he knows he’ll need to have with him, too weary to conjure explanations.
“I think you’re lying,” Andy says. “I think you’ve lost so much
weight that your prostheses are sliding off of you, am I right?” But he doesn’t answer. “How much weight have you lost, Jude?” Andy asks. “When I last saw you, you were already twelve pounds down. How much is it now? Twenty? More?” There’s another silence. “What the hell are you doing?” Andy asks, lowering his voice further. “What’re you doing to yourself, Jude?
“You look like hell,” Andy continues. “You look terrible. You look sick.” He stops. “Say something,” he says. “Say something, goddammit, Jude.”
He knows how this interaction is meant to go: Andy yells at him. He yells back at Andy. A détente, one that ultimately changes nothing, one that is a piece of pantomime, is reached: he will submit to something that isn’t a solution but that makes Andy feel better. And then something worse will happen, and the pantomime will be revealed to be just that, and he will be coerced into a treatment he doesn’t want. Harold will be called. He will be lectured and lectured and lectured and he will lie and lie and lie. The same cycle, the same circle, again and again and again, a churn as predictable as the men in the motel rooms coming in, fitting their sheets over the bed, having sex with him, leaving. And then the next one, and the next one. And the next day: the same. His life is a series of dreary patterns: sex, cutting, this, that. Visits to Andy, visits to the hospital. Not this time,
he thinks. This is when he does something different; this is when he escapes.
“You’re right, Andy,” he says, in as calm and unemotive a voice as he can summon, the voice he uses in the courtroom. “I’ve lost weight. And I’m sorry I haven’t come in earlier. I didn’t because I knew you’d get upset. But I’ve had a really bad intestinal flu, one I just can’t shake, but it’s ended. I’m eating, I promise. I know I look terrible. But I promise I’m working on it.” Ironically, he has been eating more in the past two weeks; he needs to get through the trial. He doesn’t want to faint while he’s in court.
And after that, what can Andy say? He is suspicious, still. But there is nothing for him to do. “If you don’t come see me next week, I’m coming back,” Andy tells him before his secretary sees him out.
“Fine,” he says, still pleasantly. “The Tuesday after next. The trial’ll be over by then.”
After Andy leaves, he feels momentarily triumphant, as if he is a hero in a fairy tale and has just vanquished a dangerous enemy. But of course Andy isn’t his enemy, and he is being ridiculous, and his sense of victory is followed by despair. He feels, as he increasingly does, that his life is something that has happened to him, rather than something he has had any role in creating. He has never been able to imagine what his life might be; even as a child, even as he dreamed of other places, of other lives, he wasn’t able to visualize what those other places and lives would be; he had believed everything he had been taught about who he was and what he would become. But his friends, Ana, Lucien, Harold and Julia: They had imagined his life for him. They had seen him as something different than he had ever seen himself as; they had allowed him to believe in possibilities that he would never have conceived. He saw his life as the axiom of equality, but they saw it as another riddle, one with no name—Jude = x—and they had filled in the x in ways Brother Luke, the counselors at the home, Dr. Traylor had never written for him or encouraged him to write for himself. He wishes he could believe their proofs the way they do; he wishes they had shown him how they had arrived at their solutions. If he knew how they had solved the proof, he thinks, he would know why to keep living. All he needs is one answer. All he needs is to be convinced once. The proof needn’t be elegant; it need only be explicable.
The trial arrives. He does well. At home that Friday, he wheels
himself into the bedroom, into bed. He spends the entire weekend in a
sleep that is unfamiliar and eerie, less a sleep than a glide, weightlessly moving between the realms of memory and fantasy, unconsciousness and wakefulness, anxiety and hopefulness. This is not the world of dreams, he thinks, but someplace else, and although he is aware at moments of waking—he sees the chandelier above him, the sheets around him, the sofa with its wood-fern print across from him
—he is unable to distinguish when things have happened in his visions from when they have actually happened. He sees himself lifting a blade to his arm and slicing it down through his flesh, but what springs from the slit are coils of metal and stuffing and horsehair, and he realizes that he has undergone a mutation, that he is no longer even human, and he feels relief: he won’t have to break his promise to Harold after all; he has been enchanted; his culpability has vanished with his humanity.
Is this real? the voice asks him, tiny and hopeful. Are we inanimate now?
But he can’t answer himself.
Again and again he sees Brother Luke, Dr. Traylor. As he has gotten weaker, as he has drifted from himself, he sees them more and more frequently, and although Willem and Malcolm have dimmed for him, Brother Luke and Dr. Traylor have not. He feels his past is a cancer, one he should have treated long ago but instead ignored. And now Brother Luke and Dr. Traylor have metastasized, now they are too large and too overwhelming for him to eliminate. Now when they appear, they are wordless: they stand before him, they sit, side by side, on the sofa in his bedroom, staring at him, and this is worse than if they spoke, because he knows they are trying to decide what to do with him, and he knows that whatever they decide will be worse than he can imagine, worse than what had happened before. At one point he sees them whispering to each other, and he knows they are talking about him. “Stop,” he yells at them, “stop, stop,” but they ignore him, and when he tries to get up to make them leave, he is unable to do so. “Willem,” he hears himself call, “protect me, help me; make them leave, make them go away.” But Willem doesn’t come, and he realizes he is alone and becomes afraid, concealing himself under the blanket and remaining as still as he can, certain that time has doubled back upon itself and he will be made to relive his life in sequence. It’ll get better eventually, he promises himself. Remember, good years followed the bad. But he can’t do it again; he can’t live once more through those fifteen years, those fifteen years whose half-life have been so long and
so resonant, that have determined everything he has become and done.
By the time he finally, fully wakes on Monday morning, he knows he has crossed some sort of threshold. He knows he is close, that he is moving from one world to another. He blacks out twice while simply trying to get into his wheelchair. He faints on his way to the bathroom. And yet somehow he remains uninjured; somehow he is still alive. He gets dressed, the suit and shirts he’d had recut for him a month ago already loose, and slides his stumps into the prostheses, and goes downstairs to meet Mr. Ahmed.
At work, everything is the same. It is the new year; people are returning from their vacations. During the management committee meeting, he jabs his fingers into his thigh to keep himself alert. He feels his grip loosen around the branch.
Sanjay leaves early that evening; he leaves early, too. Today is Harold and Julia’s move-in day, and he has promised to go uptown to visit them. He hasn’t seen them in more than a month, and although he feels himself no longer able to gauge what he looks like, he has dressed in extra layers today—an undershirt, his shirt, a sweater, a cardigan, his suit jacket, his coat—so that he’ll appear a little bulkier. At Harold’s, he is waved in by the doorman, and up he goes, trying not to blink because blinking makes the dizziness worse. Outside their door, he stops and puts his head in his hands until he feels strong enough, and then he turns the knob and rolls inside and stares.
They are all there: Harold and Julia, of course, but Andy and JB and Richard and India and the Henry Youngs and Rhodes and Elijah and Sanjay and the Irvines as well, all posed and perched on different pieces of furniture as if they’re at a photo shoot, and for a second he fears he will start laughing. And then he wonders: Am I dreaming this? Am I awake? He remembers the vision of himself as a sagging mattress and thinks: Am I still real? Am I still conscious?
“Christ,” he says, when he is able to speak at last. “What the hell is this?”
“Exactly what you think it is,” he hears Andy say.
“I’m not staying for this,” he tries to say, but can’t. He can’t move. He can’t look at any of them: he looks instead at his hands—his scarred left hand, his normal right—as above him Andy speaks. They have been watching him for weeks—Sanjay has been keeping track of the days he’s seen him eat at the office, Richard has been entering his apartment to check his refrigerator for food. “We measure weight loss
in grades,” he hears Andy saying. “A loss of one to ten percent of your body weight is Grade One. A loss of eleven to twenty percent is Grade Two. Grade Two is when we consider putting you on a feeding tube. You know this, Jude, because it’s happened to you before. And I can tell by looking at you that you’re at Grade Two—at least.” Andy talks and talks, and he thinks he begins to cry, but he is unable to produce tears. Everything has gone so wrong, he thinks; how did everything go so wrong? How has he forgotten so completely who he was when he was with Willem? It is as if that person has died along with Willem, and what he is left with is his elemental self, someone he has never liked, someone so incapable of occupying the life he has, the life he has somehow made for himself, in spite of himself.
Finally he lifts his head and sees Harold staring at him, sees that Harold is actually crying, silently, looking and looking at him. “Harold,” he says, although Andy is still talking, “release me. Release me from my promise to you. Don’t make me do this anymore. Don’t make me go on.”
But no one releases him: not Harold, not anyone. He is instead captured and taken to the hospital, and there, at the hospital, he begins to fight. My last fight, he thinks, and he fights harder than he ever has, as hard as he had as a child in the monastery, becoming the monster they always told him he was, yowling and spitting in Harold’s and Andy’s faces, ripping the IV from his hand, thrashing his body on the bed, trying to scratch at Richard’s arms, until finally a nurse, cursing, sticks him with a needle and he is sedated.
He wakes with his wrists strapped to the bed, with his prostheses gone, with his clothes gone as well, with a press of cotton against his collarbone under which he knows a catheter has been inserted. The same thing all over again, he thinks, the same, the same, the same.
But this time it isn’t the same. This time he is given no choices. This time, he is put on a feeding tube, which punctures through his abdomen and into his stomach. This time, he is made to go back and see Dr. Loehmann. This time, he is going to be watched, every mealtime: Richard will watch him eat breakfast. Sanjay will watch him eat lunch and, if he’s at the office late, dinner. Harold will watch him on the weekends. He isn’t allowed to go to the bathroom until an hour after he’s finished each meal. He must see Andy every Friday. He must see JB every Saturday. He must see Richard every Sunday. He must see Harold whenever Harold says he must. If he is caught skipping a meal, or a session, or disposing of food in any way, he will
be hospitalized, and this hospitalization won’t be a matter of weeks; it will be a matter of months. He will gain a minimum of thirty pounds, and he will be allowed to stop only when he has maintained that weight for six months.
And so begins his new life, a life in which he has moved past humiliation, past sorrow, past hope. This is a life in which his weary friends’ weary faces watch him as he eats omelets, sandwiches, salads. Who sit across from him and watch as he twirls pasta around his fork, as he plows his spoon through polenta, as he slides flesh off bones. Who look at his plate, at his bowl, and either nod at him—yes, he can go—or shake their heads: No, Jude, you have to eat more than that. At work he makes decisions and people follow them, but then at one p.m., lunch is delivered to his office, and for the next half hour— although no one else in the firm knows this—his decisions mean nothing, because Sanjay has absolute power, and he must obey whatever he says. Sanjay, with one text to Andy, can send him to the hospital, where they will tie him down again and force food into him. They all can. No one seems to care that this isn’t what he wants.
Have you all forgotten? he yearns to ask. Have you forgotten him?
Have you forgotten how much I need him? Have you forgotten I don’t know how to be alive without him? Who can teach me? Who can tell me what I should do now?
It was an ultimatum that sent him to Dr. Loehmann the first time; it is an ultimatum that brings him back. He had always been cordial with Dr. Loehmann, cordial and remote, but now he is hostile and churlish. “I don’t want to be here,” he says, when the doctor says he’s happy to see him again and asks him what he would like to discuss. “And don’t lie to me: you’re not happy to see me, and I’m not happy to be here. This is a waste of time—yours and mine. I’m here under duress.”
“We don’t have to discuss why you’re here, Jude, not if you don’t want to,” Dr. Loehmann says. “What would you like to talk about?”
“Nothing,” he snaps, and there is a silence.
“Tell me about Harold,” Dr. Loehmann suggests, and he sighs, impatiently.
“There’s nothing to say,” he says.
He sees Dr. Loehmann every Monday and Thursday. On Monday nights, he returns to work after his appointment. But on Thursdays he is made to see Harold and Julia, and with them he is horrifically rude as well: and not just rude but nasty, spiteful. He behaves in ways that
astonish him, in ways he has never dared before in his life, not even when he was a child, in ways that he would have been beaten for by anyone else. But not by Harold and Julia. They never rebuke him, they never discipline him.
“This is disgusting,” he says that night, pushing away the chicken stew Harold has made. “I won’t eat this.”
“I’ll get you something else,” Julia says quickly, getting up. “What do you want, Jude? Do you want a sandwich? Some eggs?”
“Anything else,” he says. “This tastes like dog food.” But he is speaking to Harold, staring at him, daring him to flinch, to break. His pulse leaps in his throat with anticipation: He can see Harold springing from his chair and hitting him in the face. He can see Harold crumpling with tears. He can see Harold ordering him out of his house. “Get the fuck out of here, Jude,” Harold will say. “Get out of our lives and never come back.”
“Fine,” he’ll say. “Fine, fine. I don’t need you anyway, Harold. I don’t need any of you.” What a relief it will be to learn that Harold had never really wanted him after all, that his adoption was a whim, a folly whose novelty tarnished long ago.
But Harold does none of those things, just looks at him. “Jude,” he says at last, very quietly.
“Jude, Jude,” he mocks him, squawking his own name back to Harold like a jay. “Jude, Jude.” He is so angry, so furious: there is no word for what he is. Hatred sizzles through his veins. Harold wants him to live, and now Harold is getting his wish. Now Harold is seeing him as he is.
Do you know how badly I could hurt you? he wants to ask Harold. Do you know I could say things that you would never forget, that you would never forgive me for? Do you know I have that power? Do you know that every day I have known you I have been lying to you? Do you know what I really am? Do you know how many men I have been with, what I have let them do to me, the things that have been inside me, the noises I have made? His life, the only thing that is his, is being possessed: By Harold, who wants to keep him alive, by the demons who scrabble through his body, dangling off his ribs, puncturing his lungs with their talons. By Brother Luke, by Dr. Traylor. What is life for? he asks himself. What is my life for?
Oh, he thinks, will I never forget? Is this who I am after all, after all these years?
He can feel his nose start to bleed, and he pushes back from the
table. “I’m leaving,” he tells them, as Julia enters the room with a sandwich. He sees that she has cut off its crusts and sliced it into triangles, the way you would for a child, and for a second he wavers and almost begins to bawl, but then he recalls himself and glares again at Harold.
“No, you’re not,” Harold says, not angrily, but decisively. He stands up from his chair, points his finger at him. “You’re staying and you’re finishing.”
“No, I’m not,” he announces. “Call Andy, I don’t care. I’m going to kill myself, Harold, I’m going to kill myself no matter what you do, and you’re not going to be able to stop me.”
“Jude,” he hears Julia whisper. “Jude, please.”
Harold walks over to him, taking the plate from Julia as he does, and he thinks: This is it. He raises his chin, he waits for Harold to hit him in the face with it, but he doesn’t, just puts the plate before him. “Eat,” Harold says, his voice tight. “You’re going to eat this now.”
He thinks, unexpectedly, of the day he had his first episode at Harold and Julia’s. Julia was at the grocery store, and Harold was upstairs printing out a worrisomely complicated recipe for a soufflé he claimed he was going to make. There he had lain in the pantry, trying to keep himself from kicking his legs out in agony, listening to Harold clatter down the stairs and into the kitchen. “Jude?” he’d called, not seeing him, and as quiet as he had tried to be, he had made a noise anyway, and Harold had opened the door and found him. He had known Harold for six years by that point, but he was always careful around him, dreading but expecting the day when he would be revealed to him as he really was. “I’m sorry,” he’d tried to tell Harold, but he was only able to croak.
“Jude,” Harold had said, frightened, “can you hear me?,” and he’d nodded, and Harold had entered the pantry himself, picking his way around the stacks of paper towels and jugs of dishwasher detergent, lowering himself to the floor and gently pulling his head into his lap, and for a second he had thought that this was the moment he had always half anticipated, the one in which Harold would unzip his pants and he would have to do what he had always done. But he hadn’t, had just stroked his head, and after a while, as he twitched and grunted, his body tensing itself with pain, its heat filling his joints, he realized that Harold was singing to him. It was a song he had never heard before but that he recognized instinctually was a child’s song, a lullaby, and he juddered and chattered and hissed
through his teeth, opening and closing his left hand, gripping the throat of a nearby bottle of olive oil with his right, as on and on Harold sang. As he lay there, so desperately humiliated, he knew that after this incident Harold would either become distant from him or would draw closer still. And because he didn’t know which would happen, he found himself hoping—as he never had before and never would again—that this episode would never end, that Harold’s song would never finish, that he would never have to learn what followed it.
And now he is so much older, Harold is so much older, Julia is so much older, they are three old people and he is being given a sandwich meant for a child, and a directive—Eat—meant for a child as well. We are so old, we have become young again, he thinks, and he picks up the plate and throws it against the far wall, where it shatters, spectacularly. He sees the sandwich had been grilled cheese, sees one of the triangular slabs slap itself against the wall and then ooze down it, the white cheese dripping off in gluey clumps.
Now, he thinks, almost giddily, as Harold comes close to him once more, now, now, now. And Harold raises his hand and he waits to be hit so hard that this night will end and he will wake in his own bed and for a while be able to forget this moment, will be able to forget what he has done.
But instead he finds Harold wrapping him in his arms, and he tries to push him away, but Julia is holding him too, leaning over the carapace of his wheelchair, and he is trapped between them. “Leave me alone,” he roars at them, but his energy is dissipating and he is weak and hungry. “Leave me alone,” he tries again, but his words are shapeless and useless, as useless as his arms, as his legs, and he soon stops trying.
“Jude,” Harold says to him, quietly. “My poor Jude. My poor sweetheart.” And with that, he starts to cry, for no one has ever called him sweetheart, not since Brother Luke. Sometimes Willem would try
—sweetheart, Willem would try to call him, honey—and he would make him stop; the endearment was filthy to him, a word of debasement and depravity. “My sweetheart,” Harold says again, and he wants him to stop; he wants him to never stop. “My baby.” And he cries and cries, cries for everything he has been, for everything he might have been, for every old hurt, for every old happiness, cries for the shame and joy of finally getting to be a child, with all of a child’s whims and wants and insecurities, for the privilege of behaving badly
and being forgiven, for the luxury of tendernesses, of fondnesses, of being served a meal and being made to eat it, for the ability, at last, at last, of believing a parent’s reassurances, of believing that to someone he is special despite all his mistakes and hatefulness, because of all his mistakes and hatefulness.
It ends with Julia finally going to the kitchen and making another sandwich; it ends with him eating it, truly hungry for the first time in months; it ends with him spending the night in the extra bedroom, with Harold and Julia kissing him good night; it ends with him wondering if maybe time really is going to loop back upon itself after all, except in this rendering, he will have Julia and Harold as parents from the beginning, and who knows what he will be, only that he will be better, that he will be healthier, that he will be kinder, that he won’t feel the need to struggle so hard against his own life. He has a vision of himself as a fifteen-year-old, running into the house in Cambridge, shouting words—“Mom! Dad!”—he has never said before, and although he can’t imagine what would have made this dream self so excited (for all his study of normal children, their interests and behaviors, he knows few specifics), he understands that he is happy. Maybe he is wearing a soccer uniform, his arms and legs bare; maybe he is accompanied by a friend, by a girlfriend. He has probably never had sex before; he is probably trying at every opportunity to do so. He would think sometimes of who he would be as an adult, but it would never occur to him that he might not have someone to love, sex, his own feet running across a field of grass as soft as carpet. All those hours, all those hours he has spent cutting, and hiding the cutting, and beating back his memories, what would he do instead with all those hours? He would be a better person, he knows. He would be a more loving one.
But maybe, he thinks, maybe it isn’t too late. Maybe he can pretend
one more time, and this last bout of pretending will change things for him, will make him into the person he might have been. He is fifty-one; he is old. But maybe he still has time. Maybe he can still be repaired.
He is still thinking this on Monday when he goes to see Dr. Loehmann, to whom he apologizes for his awful behavior the week before—and the weeks before that, as well.
And this time, for the first time, he really tries to talk to Dr. Loehmann. He tries to answer his questions, and to do so honestly. He tries to begin to tell a story he has only ever told once before. But it is
very difficult, not only because the story is barely possible for him to speak, but because he cannot do so without thinking of Willem, and how when he had last told this story, he was with someone who had seen him the way no one had since Ana, with someone who had managed to see past who he was, and yet see him completely as well. And then he is upset, breathless, and he turns his wheelchair sharply
—he is still six or seven pounds away from using his prostheses for walking again—and excuses himself and leaves Dr. Loehmann’s office, spinning down the hall to the bathroom, where he locks himself in, breathing slowly and rubbing his palm against his chest as if to soothe his heart. And here in the bathroom, which is cold and silent, he plays his old game of “If” with himself: If I hadn’t followed Brother Luke. If I hadn’t let myself be taken by Dr. Traylor. If I hadn’t let Caleb inside. If I had listened more to Ana.
On he plays, his recriminations beating a rhythm in his head. But then he also thinks: If I had never met Willem. If I had never met Harold. If I had never met Julia, or Andy, or Malcolm, or JB, or Richard, or Lucien, or so many other people: Rhodes and Citizen and Phaedra and Elijah. The Henry Youngs. Sanjay. All the most terrifying Ifs involve people. All the good ones do as well.
Finally he is able to calm himself, and he wheels himself out of the bathroom. He could leave, he knows. The elevator is there; he could send Mr. Ahmed back for his coat.
But he doesn’t. Instead he goes the other direction, and returns to the office, where Dr. Loehmann is still sitting in his chair, waiting for him.
“Jude,” says Dr. Loehmann. “You’ve come back.”
He takes a breath. “Yes,” he says. “I’ve decided to stay.”