The Inverse of Pleasure
by LUCY MORRIS
It’s that time of year again, when I’m besieged by the broad past. I call it memory season and when it arrives I might remember in sudden, dense flashes being in the kitchen with my mother fifteen years ago or a hallway in a university building in the city where I grew up. I might remember with startling specificity the dates of minor events or the songs that were playing at a certain party. The scenes and settings — which overtake me in the aisles of the grocery store, in the middle of a run, at any moment they don’t belong — are not necessarily charming or dismaying or loaded at all, they are just there, but their accumulation feels intermittently unbearable. One drink helps it abate but two brings it back in full force.
I picture a barstool with a crosshatch tear in its leather that sat conspicuously empty beside mine one night. I recall a cold bench on Fifth Avenue in February. I think of beds with sheets that did not lie flat, of couches that couldn’t comfortably seat two, of high-rise windows with paper birds on them to confuse real birds away. I feel an abstract pang for each of these surfaces, for how I once knew them — felt the icy bars of the bench, saw the light penetrate the dirty windows — and never will again.
I think next, in a layered flash, of a large scar on a left bicep and the smell of cigarettes that were the cheapest you could buy in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn in the year 2007, and a note with a stick figure rendering and my name in brown Crayola letters. You wouldn’t know by looking at it but the note represents proof that I once knew and later lost someone who loved me so much he’d reach over and scratch my itches for me, softly pull apart the knots in my hair. The scar and the cigarettes were his, too, and I had hoped to forget them forever along with the rest but, as it turns out, I did not.
The pangs are not as random as they first seem, either. They are, after all, not really for the pebbled leather surface of the barstool, the black pigeon cutouts on the windows. They are for the mood I was in when I sat at that bar (a little bit in love, a little bit confused: that condition of being twenty-two), for the moments when I stood by those windows (feeling, as a teenager, an unfamiliar magnetic sensation it would take years to name). But you know all this, of course: you were beside me on that winter bench, shooting me messages of comfort while I sat at that solitary bar stool.
I used to think I wrote to remember, but lately I have been finding that I write to forget. When you isolate an event on paper, commit its details to the page, you are free to release it from your consciousness, let the record of a time exist somewhere outside yourself. I write these lines in the hope not of commemoration, but of erasure. I write them to you in the hope that memory season will end.
Once, when I was very young, I felt things acutely, physically. Disappointment would strike me below my ribcage; the effect of great beauty would hit me somewhere behind my knees. My cheeks were often red with thrill, my hands clammy with excitement. Anything could set it off: I remember with great acuity the sensations triggered by someone I saw on the city bus one afternoon.
But sometimes, for spans of several months, things would go dark. The space below my ribcage was still, my knees straight and immobile. My cheeks would stay pale, my palms would dry out until they flaked, papery. It had happened to many in my family, even to those generations now confined to thin sepia prints in leather albums. The photos could be categorized this way: there were the ones who had successfully killed themselves and then the ones who had tried, in ways that were not always so direct as to spare everyone around them. There was a time when it was difficult not to wonder which one I would be.
But then for years, things would not go dark; they would stay light, and I slowly stopped identifying as someone who had felt any darkness at all, I left it off the emotional resume presented to people who endeavored to love me. It had been something that had happened to me but was not a part of me. That past had belonged to some other, smaller person, a person with a different height, weight, haircut, glasses prescription — it wasn’t me. I never wrote about it because it would be dishonest to write about an experience that I did not fully identify with myself.
It has been so long since I was afflicted by it that I almost forgot what the dark is like. It feels different now then it did when I was very young. It used to be that when I felt the inverse of pleasure, it was not without its own joy, because to feel so intensely — to feel anything intensely — is one of the chief pleasures of being human. Even a desire not to be alive, as I sometimes had then, seemed an acknowledgment of how very good life could sometimes be, a foolish way of saying: if I can’t have it as it should be, I don’t want it at all.
Now it washes over me in a blank way that is devoid of pleasure. It is hard to see solutions. I remember calling you from Russia five years ago, when I last felt this way, asking permission to extricate myself from what had seemed to bring it all on (it was a fear, then, of giant falling icicles, speeding cars, of, at its core, not being happy again), and in telling me that I could I knew that I would not need to. I write in the hope that the same will happen now, that in asking—broadly, anyone—for permission to escape (the ceaseless snow, the sense that, unlike everyone around me, I was not divined for this), it will turn out that I do not need it.
I’ve been riding through the middle of America a lot lately, trying to find a spot that works. I am calmest on a bus, irate driver on the loudspeaker, a book on my lap, snacks at my feet. I keep my polka dot backpack half-packed; the bus company website is always open on my browser.
I think of what I would do if I weren’t here. I could go live in Los Angeles with my grandmother, help her out, hang out by the pool where the studio execs swim, hope that the proximity to their success renews the incorrigible belief I once had that I, too, would achieve something. I could move to St. Petersburg, get an apartment in the city center, jog along the Fontanka, come to inhabit, again, the language that was my favored one for so long. Or I’ll go to Beijing, live on your floor, make you coffee in the morning before you wake up. The alternatives are appealing but they remain abstract, hard to access, the here-to-there route unclear.
Back here in the startling present, signs of spring are nowhere to be found but the sun seems to shine differently on the days it decides to shine at all and I am remembering the sense of prophecy that springtime brings, some glimpse into a panoramic future in which things look doable, or already done. When I, for instance, tie on my roller skates at the Rec Center here on a Saturday night, what I feel is not necessarily the fun of the moment—the whoosh of a cross section of town skating by me, the bass-heavy boombox playing three-year-old top forty hits, the thrilling uncertainty in my knees as they slide forward—but instead how good this will all seem years from now, when the town is behind me, the top forty tracks forgotten, my knees creakier than they already are. This future-perfect mentality is not a great way to live, but it is better than past-imperfect, and it is the way I know.
There’s a moment, at the end of a bus ride, when people start packing up. The bus slows, easing through residential streets, and the rummaging begins: bags are pulled from under seats or overhead compartments, purses and pockets checked and rechecked for wallets and phones, coats zipped, scarves tied in place, and people move to stand in the aisles, hands drumming impatiently on the tops of the seats. There is, in the aisles of the bus, a thick kind of impatience. I knot my scarf, hoist my backpack with the rest of them, but I stay put in my seat until the last possible moment, until I have to go. I wasn’t always like this — I used to be known for the expedience with which I could flee anything — but sometime lately I have come to fear the final paragraphs of chapters, closings of books, ends of ends. I write these last lines, too, in a kind of fear — a fear of what will happen if I do, but equally a fear of what will happen if I don’t.
Lucy Morris is the contributing editor to This Recording. She is a writer and translator living in Iowa City. She tumbls here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about living alone and losing the excitement.
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