37. I think I made you up inside my head

Memory. Too much of it rather than too little, layers and layers of it. Peel one back and discover another: this year or that, compressed into a potent concentrate, like Gentian Violet. Try to describe the sensation that rekindles a particular period of time, and you find that it’s outside the boundaries of the tangible, the intelligible. It’s like opening a capsule and something flashes in the mind—not a smell or a sound, but a quicksilver essence that escapes into the air and just as quickly dissipates, too rash to apprehend any individual attributes. You glimpse a fundamental form, recognize it somewhere within yourself, as though the nerves in the body were retracing a geometric diagram for a moment, and then poof! The blackboard is erased, the sensation vanishes, and although you try to retrieve it, you know that its very nature is evanescent, that whatever secret it might be hiding is not to be understood in words.

How does the mind store things, and what is the label it puts on each box—is it a function of chance that the sound of my own breath inside a fur-lined hood becomes the emblem of an entire winter of shifting emotion? The uneasy look X. gave me when I reacted in dismay to a comment he’d made. We were at a writers’ residency; half of us were suffering from a recent loss of love, from the disjointed communication and delphic utterances we stayed up entire nights poring over, trying to glimpse some meaning in them, giving them not the benefit of the doubt but an extravagant advance of belief and credence, never considering for an instant that the respective emails we were trying to decipher, to read between the lines of, had been dashed off in a hurry—one of a list of chores gnawing at the conscience of someone not in love, but too vain, perhaps, to let go. We congregated in the kitchen and read poems out loud to each other off someone’s iPhone. The sinister singsong of the villanelle: I think I made you up inside my head / I should have loved a thunderbird instead. An unusual conference of the lovelorn: each of us had given up on the cause of our respective misery, but a molten core still churned inside. And X., whose English was difficult to understand, who appeared at noon each day to make his wonton, stopped, in a rare moment of curiosity, to listen in. Someone asked him if he’d ever been deeply in love; break it down, we learned, break the phrases down into individual, simple words. The rephrasing of the question; the widening of eyes when he understood. Yes, X. had been deeply in love. He frowned. But never again, he stated with a sudden, lucid burst of fluency. Better not to love someone else. Love someone else and you suffer, he said as his hand made a rapid slicing motion in the air before him. Better to love yourself, he said, and he slapped his chest several times to underscore that he would never again squander away its contents on anyone as undeserving as the woman who had evidently broken his heart.

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