SHADOW OF A DOUBT
Reading, Erotic Awakenings performance series created by Fan Wu, 2017
I was wearing cargo pants when I met Jack. I’d been painting a room a shade of red slightly more blue than an incorrect red leftover from a previous exhibition which the gallery director had mistaken to be the new one. When he returned from a long lunch, he casually asked how my day was going. I gestured to the wall covered in the right red paint and then to the wrong one. He took this as a cue to tell me about a durational performance he’d seen in Russia years ago where two people stood painting in a small room, one painting the walls black, and the other, white. Round and round they went, obliterating each other’s efforts. I adjusted the safety goggles resting on my head as if to reflect the insensitive nature of the director’s anecdote and headed for the back room to wet my rag. When I pushed the door open, I felt it pull from the other side; a spooky lightness. Jack glared at me blankly through large aviators which dragged his face down. He was disaffected as any common stranger. I’m Jaclyn, I said plainly, putting out my hand for a quick shake. Jack had a deadness to his face like someone who is never surprised, one indicator of perversion.
Mentally, I stalked him all day, acutely aware of where he was or what other people’s voices sounded like when they responded to him, wondering what tools he might have been using and in which order. I tried to leave without saying bye, an impulse connected to a fear I have of dislodging things. It was pouring outside and by the time I pulled my hood over my head. He pushed the door open with a huge black bag of garbage pressed on his torso, asking if we should smoke. One cigarette, two, a coffee, five cigarettes. I asked him which way he was walking. He pointed to an 80’s Ford Bronco―my favourite of my dad’s many jalopy vehicles from childhood―and insisted on driving me.
I yanked the door handle open, thanking him quickly before heading back into the rain. When I set my foot on the ground, I remembered courtesy and possibility saying uh, I’d offer you a glass of wine or something but I guess you’re driving? He said maybe one glass is fine, got out of the car and followed me into my ground floor apartment which in hindsight I think about as a sticky, wet trap, the entrance a figurative turnstile rotating in consistent, burdened slowness with grinding, rusted parts, aching to be turned off. Dead men with dead hands, a fifth wheel from Lebanon who didn’t speak a lick of English who was instructed in Arabic to touch our feet, or girls named after flowers who drank quickly so I could knot their panties, among those who passed through.
I gestured to refill his glass and he lifted his hand like no. I refilled my own glass. While smoking he asked about all the covered beds so I took him on a tour of the garden, green onions garlic rosemary roses, I had changed my cargo pants for a small skirt the colour of the inside of his mouth, the bees on the patio were all in the hive from the rain (otherwise usually something great to stare at like a hot fire). I didn’t know where he was behind me, the rain was very loud, he’d already taken my panties off inside after placing his hand on the back of my neck which he held instead of it hanging off the edge of my bed where he’d instructed me to lay, upside down so he could pour wine from the bottle into my mouth which, all times, got too full of wine to say it was too much wine. When I winced and choked he half pretended to pour it, as punishment, on the white t-shirt I was wearing, that thing people do where they mock the creation of an accident until the other person reacts to the hypothetical so you can laugh together like blessed be us, good thing that didn’t happen and then did pour wine in a line down my white shirt, one that belonged to someone I loved who died. The bottle glugged once which meant the amount of liquid traveling through the hole at one time was enough to make the inside of the bottle gasp for air. I smelled myself like I can smell others and reached to put on deodorant. He protested, saying don’t do that or I can’t lick your armpits, absinthe in a coffee cup after the second glass of wine he inevitably had, a bathroom with no ventilation who regurgitated through all its holes when a tree root penetrated the steel pipe with its youthful, aggressive need to be larger and on the way back from the garden when I didn’t know where he was, the rain was loud, his two fingers made a deep almost clinical penetration between my thighs and I didn’t make a sound because I saw a video once of a cow’s face while its anus was being probed for some kind of routine inspection. He went pee inside, in the bathroom, where you’re supposed to go, and when he came back asked if I had an alarm clock.
“Every day is thought upon and calculated, but the night is not premeditated,” says the character of the doctor, Matthew, in Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood.
In the morning, mornings which have always been bad for me (a lover once told me that I approach mornings with “great skepticism”), the sound of the central heating system slowly rose and it gave me fear. My voice was couched between our sensitive cotton ears but I sort of heard myself say did I tell you last night that you ruined my life? In that way that seeing something brightly casts a shadow on everything else. A few aura migraine amoebas floated past. His arm was curled around me, I could hardly see us un-siamese. He considered it and answered no. Oh, I said, my eyes blankly fixed on a fraying part of the dusty cream carpet, well, I think you ruined my life.
When I showed up at the gallery on Monday morning to check in for a day of work on an off site project, I was alone. After an hour I asked the boss if I could proceed without the other technician Andrew at which point he told me it wasn’t Andrew I was waiting for but Jack.
The boss paid us a visit around noon, saying don’t forget to take a break, stagger your breaks so someone is here with the equipment. When he left we asked a female Jehovah’s Witness with a razor blade nose who was handing out pamphlets if she could watch our stuff while we went for lunch. When she looked down at her watch, I looked at the fur lining on her coat which she’d put through the washer and dryer and now looked like cold oatmeal. She said, scrunching her black eyes, how long? I’m only going to be here for another thirty or forty. We said that’s perfect, purchased footlong sandwiches, hit the liquor store and headed for the pier. We picked a place to sit and he announced his need to urinate. I took him for a kind of person who would pee in his pants standing there and never wonder why I had nothing to say about it. His glasses made him look at once sombre and elegant, like a character in a Mary Gaitskill story, with matted black hair. We’d been listening to some recordings he was making with tiny pieces of aluminum. I assumed he’d leave without another word but when I met his sustained gaze, his arms hanging dumbly at his sides, he asked in a calm voice if I would watch. He walked down the centre of a grass rectangle, some courtyard between two buildings. His arms were tight and coordinated as he unbuckled his belt. He turned back in a scary, incomplete way, maybe long enough to confirm my attention. I couldn’t make out his face. The stream started.
Two hours later, we walked back to the job site in silence, the sun putting restlessness on our restlessness. The female Jehovah’s Witness was gone and our $2000 worth of equipment was still there, sitting as placidly as all lost objects. Before breaking stride, I gestured to the hotel across the street announcing my need to urinate. I crossed the street, climbed three small stairs, walked through a lobby, entered the restaurant, turned the corner, opened a door which led to stairs into the basement and when the door’s closure behind me felt delayed, I realized he was following me. I chose the stall at the end of the row, blushing. My hips ground into the multi-roll toilet paper dispenser, he held my hair in a tight fist. When he asked in a surprising, teenage desperation if I was going to call him Daddy, my knees almost gave out, suddenly remembering, like a stoned belle epoque dream, the incestuous dynamic I’d initiated that night. He withdrew and came a lot; I was dripping to my knees. He pulled off his shirt to wipe me down, like someone does when changing a diaper. When he finished, he set the soiled shirt down, lifted my shirt off and told me to put up my arms. He pulled the soiled shirt down onto me and left the bathroom.
Barthes says it best when he says, “You see, the first thing we love is a scene… the scene consecrates the object I am going to love… Love at first sight is always spoken in the past tense. The scene is perfectly adapted to this temporal phenomenon: distinct, abrupt, framed, it is already a memory… this scene has all the magnificence of an accident: I cannot get over having had this good fortune: to meet what matches my desire.”
Jack was someone I could not have made my way to under any other circumstances; one of those people I realized to be inaccessible as soon as I gained access. At the end of that day he told me he was flying to Oslo in 24 hours to meet a woman he’d been pen-palling with for months and that he’d send me something, what was my address.
At the centre of Nightwood by Djuna Barnes is Robin, an androgynous phantom of a woman who functions as an anti-heroine in a black hole in that each of the other three main characters in the book monologue and exchange extensively about her, though she herself rarely speaks. Rather than being a character who is built, Robin is seen; the reader rendered an equally puzzled and fascinated voyeur. Nora is a nurturing type, hankering for domestic pleasures and, like so many new in love, wants nothing more than time with her lover.
But Robin is a nocturnal animal, eliding Nora’s tender requests to stay home, which descend into pleading, wailing, that fitful, horrible keeping an ear to the front lawn until the lover returns. When the situation reaches its puffy eyed, drooling futility, Nora starts leaving at night too. Not in pursuit nor vengeance but in the only attempt she can think of to saturate herself in the woman who singularly defines what love is to her and then destroys it, the woman who ruins her life for a little while, someone who exemplifies an alternate reality, making the previous one impossible to bear; a woman so made of night that she wobbles fecklessly against and around notions of anything that claim to be made of anything for any reason and ideas of sole meaning-structures so casually traded by those made of day.
“Looking at every couple as they passed, into every carriage and car, up to the lighted windows of houses, trying to discover not Robin any longer, but traces of Robin, influences in her life... Nora watched every moving figure for some gesture that might turn up in the movements made by Robin: avoiding the quarter where she knew her to be, where by her own movements the waiters, the people on the terraces, might know that she had a part in Robin’s life…”
In my returns to that hotel bathroom on so many nights, as a last stop on my way home, and only there, I would let myself wonder, like an over-sexed fatherless child, where he was, why I hadn’t heard from him―not in anger but disbelief, always prompting a reassessment of my reading of the whole scenario. In the midst of a gentle 69, he’d muttered we’ve met before, right? to which I said what?, to which he said we’ve met before, right?. Before I could ask what do you―he said, Like in a past life or something, and then breathed on me hot like the donkey on baby Jesus in the nativity scene.
Kim Gordon whisper-sings in the song Shadow of a Doubt:
Met a stranger on a train
He bumped right into me
I swear I didn't mean it
I swear it wasn't meant to be
Must a been a dream
From a thousand years ago
Sigrid Weigel writes: "poetic work are perhaps the only form in which the expressionless power of the sacred can actually assume a nonviolent image."
In a way, I didn’t mind the silence. Again, my fear of dislodging things, which I’ve also referred to as “disrupting the universe,” is least troublesome when I’m alone, not out, continuing stories, relating. And there’s something to be said about a pause being an action too, that water is always moving somewhere.
The French art critic Catherine Millet, in her second set of memoirs called Jealousy: The Other Life of Catherine M., recounts her green eyed issues with her non-monogamous partner Jacques which start when he asks her “to fetch something from his desk,” and she stumbles across an image of a young, pregnant woman who has photographed herself naked in front of a mirror with her legs spread.
Catherine puts this photograph in her pocket, taking it out for examination at regular intervals throughout the day to enter pain. As days and subsequent discoveries wear on, she steals different objects and switches the new for the old, never without one. Of these pocketed items, she says, "Their sole function was to trigger total surrender to grief… sometimes when we wake up from a bad dream, we hesitate before opening our eyes, not out of fear that the dream will continue, but on the contrary, out of fear of leaving it, because deep down we are reluctant to leave the cocoon in which suffering is held in check."
The pocket objects provided a definitive border between paralysis and carrying on. She creates for herself this dark luxury; the choice to access or refrain. Part of me thinks that considering it a choice means actually being completely suspended from the reality of the situation, objects or not, the pain a kind of holiday, but maybe it’s best assessed as a notice that jealousy itself is an animal problem, something not encoded in a sole meaning structure but rather embraced. The concept of masochism is flashing around in my head but I can't bring myself to say it because it seems like a gross dismissal of what she, and I suppose I, chose to put myself through by returning to the bathroom. It seems less like a fetish for the pain that longing brings and more like a realization that a physical thing can be used to tap or untap pain that is relative to a much larger spectrum. A talisman, I guess, for saturation.
Back to Nora. “At times she would get up and walk, to make something in her life outside more quickly over, to bring Robin back by the very velocity of the beating heart,” like Harry Dean Stanton’s character in Paris, Texas, walking and mute, putting his body methodically through the incomprehensible division between a love once had and lost, with absolutely nothing to say, everything on pause, dislodging nothing.
“And walking in vain, suddenly [Nora] would sit down on one end of the circus chairs that stood by the long window overlooking the garden, bend forward, putting her hands between her legs, and begin to cry, ‘Oh, God! Oh, God! Oh, God!’ repeated so often that it had the effect of all words spoken in vain.”