Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2015  v14n1
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This Is a Love Story

For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular
perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch
myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception.
Hume. A Treatise of Human Nature.

David had the kind of chest (convex, pasty, pimpled) that should have been ugly. David had long muscleless limbs, knobby joints, and a pelican nose. He was bald as they come. David himself should have been ugly, and he was, objectively; but, for consistent observers of David’s form, those who could feel, however faintly, the beat of the heart inside that chest, David’s ugliness dissolved. It wasn’t just his kindness, or his patience, or his articulate pattern of speech. It wasn’t the way his hands greeted old friends, palm to palm, finger kissing (such exquisitely long fingers), or the way he lectured, perched on the edge of his desk, one leg pulled into his torso, and a lit-up look in his eyes—the twinkle of discovery, as if everything he said surprised even himself. It was nothing in his persona or his habits, but something essential to his body that altered the world around him. His heart beat slower than average, a genetic defect, and David moved slower, spoke slower, made those in his presence feel slower, at peace somehow, as if the freight trains everyone else was racing up their existential mountains all stalled for a moment around the bend, and the sun was leaking through the clouds, and wasn’t the world, the world that always seems so arduous and full of fog, wasn’t it just—when viewed from precisely the right perspective—wasn’t it just beautiful?

Missy was, aesthetically, a lovely girl. Everyone thought so. Her nails were always clean, her skin was pale, clear, and freckled, just enough, and those orange curls—the little wisps at her temples, the long locks down her back—they longed to be stroked. Missy had the kind of smile that told the world I’m nervous. Missy’s peers might call her likeable and then add, but I don’t really know her that well. She was warm, yet skittish, vaguely feline in presence. She took the kind of notes (doodle-free, tiny print) that revealed a scrutinizing kind of curiosity, and she didn’t share. She always kept a sharpened pencil behind her ear and an unmarked Moleskine in her pocket, for inspiration that never came. She knew enough to know she knew very little.

They were an unlikely pair, and taboo, sure, but David had a certain university sway that scoffed at convention and explained, to whatever grateful soul found himself or herself caught up in unexpected Socratic dialogue, that hard-and-fast rules were for the scientists of the world, the doctors and logicians turning mad and grey in white-walled buildings, while the real thinkers, the skeptics and the romantics and the poets, at least those in the University of Iowa’s Department of Philosophy, were really living, and, as it turns out, falling in love.

It began like this. Missy took Skeptical Ethics: Moral Law in Modern Philosophy fall semester of her first year, fresh off the train from Boston where she’d just finished a year of graduate work at Harvard (terminated PhD in Linguistics), preceded by a master’s in Celtic languages and literatures, preceded by a bachelor’s in English literature, emphasis in twentieth century poetry. Missy was an ardent student and seriously lost insofar as she rounded every bend of her academic journey with extreme seriousness. Her flailing was strong limbed and extravagant, and her brow, when reading, was always furrowed. How she ended up studying philosophy in the cornfields of Iowa can be seen as the logical answer to the question Missy asked herself every day since graduating from high school. What do I want to do with my life? After enough time, it seemed to Missy that she was more passionately committed to asking herself this question than anything else, and if inquiring about the meaning of life was the only thing she did with any consistency then she might as well make a career out of it.

She sat in the first row of the lecture hall (wooden fold-down chairs, green blackboards), and she was not the only wide-eyed twenty-something to notice David’s beautiful ugliness. He had an ageless quality (he was thirty-nine) and a genderlessness (he was straight, effectively) that liberal-minded girls found just alternative enough to satisfy their queer curiosities. Missy was not one for competitive romance, and, lucky for her, when their eyes met for the first time—during a well-drawn breath between Hume’s ideas and impressions—well, this is the stuff metaphysics can’t touch.

Missy (hand raised so high David can see the razor burn in her armpits): Excuse me, Professor, but how exactly does Hume’s empiricism lead to a renunciation of the unified self?

David (eyeing her form, that hair, the tiny hand descending, paw-like): Empiricism. Hume asks: do you have an impression of your unified self? Can you experience it? No. The self is an idea, an invention, a cultural construction.

(the sound of scribbling, the flicker of the broken light-box above the last row)

David: The self is a bedtime story.

(the hum of the projector, cooling off)

David (standing, two long strides, closer to her): Is it not liberating? The unified self is walled by anxiety, a narrative of fear and anticipation. Wouldn’t you enjoy that kind of freedom? What do you think, Miss  . . . ?

Missy: . . . Missy

David: Miss Missy?

Missy (keenly aware of: two gazes—David’s, like a spotlight, and the voyeuristic collective of the class, a willing audience): I think . . . (feeling: the familiar excitement of an unanswered question, pressure to prove intellectual vigor, burgeoning desire)

(collective recognition of sexual tension)

Missy: I am troubled by the annihilation of self.

David: You are afraid?

Missy: No.

David: It’s scary stuff, empiricism.

Missy: It’s more that . . . doesn’t the eradication of identity lead too easily to an abandonment of moral responsibility?

David (chastising himself for: romantic delusions, desire for ownership over the young and impressionable; overcome by: the beauty of familiar ideas, the pairing of said beauty with such a lovely mouth): Ah.

(collective recognition of note-taking moment)

Their courtship was classic academe—a stroll or two across the quad from the philosophy building to the library, several coffees in Starbeam’s café, a few well-posed questions about the moral law within. Their conversations were languorous and hopeful, imbued with a secret knowing. Then one moonless night, halfway across the quad, the clock tower chiming an uncounted hour, Missy, as surprised as anyone, reached to pull those erotic fingers against her breast and planted a kiss on David’s lips. His high-arched nose fit perfectly into the curve of hers.

Yes, David had been with students before, each one requiring more caution, more hope, more guilt and rationalization. (They came to him always, and he was a man, after all.) There were the thick-waisted nerds seeking sexual liberation, Freudians with effeminate fathers, Hegelians confusing their ambition for horniness, but David, the kind of slut who sleeps with his heart wide open, could never see these women fully. He’d see them in parts (the braids in their hair, the broken belt loops of their jeans). This is how we see, David knew. One part at a time. Inductive reasoning builds something whole in the mind. A woman, David thought, her face, her right hand, her left thigh—he could never see her all at once. A woman is a system built in the mind, a system built on faith. What is the diameter of our focus? A stud in the belly button? A curl of pubic hair? Can I subject a woman, David wondered, to such skeptical annihilation that she is reduced, each moment, to a fingernail . . . a knuckle . . . a freckle? This process filled David with despair. If he could only move faster, like the frames of a camera, people would be closer to full. But David could not move faster. In fact, he was moving slower and slower, and each woman who passed in front of his horn-rimmed lenses (he was terribly nearsighted) seemed ever more fragmented than the last.

But when Missy reached her small white hand toward his, eyes wide, hair blowing across her cheek, David’s focus bled open. Why Missy? Was it her disarming admittance of ignorance, the lack of pretension despite all those years of elite schooling, the steady gaze that demanded certainty from the world but knew how hard it would be to find? (Or perhaps the reason is located within David himself, a shifting of gears, greased by age and recent revelation, life’s expectations descending, as immune as David would like to think he is from such conventions). Whatever the reason, there it was, at least for a moment. David didn’t see Missy in parts. He saw her all at once.

They walked across campus, back to Missy’s apartment. They pointed out the broken lampposts and the absurd regality of the campus statues—those dead white men of bronze. They noticed the silence of the grass, the neatness of the sidewalks, the syncopated sound of their steps. They ignored the stars.

David (at her door, what can he say that won’t sound lecherous?):

Missy (dialogue doesn’t matter, their fate is written and sealed): Would you like something to drink?

(jangle of keys, quick ascension of steps, flutter of eyelashes, deep breaths, disbanding of buttons and flies)

When Missy saw that chest bare—the mounded, pimply thing, pores like chicken skin, so much more tumorous than it appeared when clothed—she gasped. She did not divert her gaze to his neck, his navel, his unbuttoned flannel on the floor. She stared straight at it. Missy thought it might burst. Is it okay? she asked (meaning his chest) and David was about to nod (meaning this-consummation-that-is-about-to-occur) but before he could answer, she was kissing it, licking it, rubbing it against her cheek. David sighed. It was the part of him that most longed to be touched, the part of him that women avoided. It looked so fragile, like the breast of a baby bird, rising, falling, quivering, mocking a woman’s faith in biology. Whether Missy was conscious of it or not, for Missy was conscious of so many things at once as to be effectively unconscious of everything, there in the chest of her professor, now her lover, was a ticking clock. Living in David’s chest was the fragility she saw in the world, and Missy, princess of the ivory tower, was ready to touch something real.

(the resounding silence of the world after orgasm, sudden awareness of one’s own breath)

David (outer spoon): How many things do you hear?

Missy (facing the window): The sound of passing cars,

David: One . . .

Missy: footsteps above us, the creak of the ceiling,

David: two, three . . .

Missy: your breath.

David: four . . . How many things do you smell?

Missy: Something in the air. Musty, sweaty . . .

David: Sex?

Missy: Yes, that.

David: Too many smells to differentiate, I guess . . . How many things do you feel?

Missy: The bed beneath me,

David: One . . .

Missy: the air, the breeze from the window,

David: two, three . . .

Missy: your hands on my stomach, your kneecaps against my calves,

David: four, five . . .

Missy: your chest against my back,

David: six . . .

Missy: your breath,

David: seven . . .

Missy: your heartbeat.

They were engaged by July, and if a two-semester long courtship between professor and student makes your eyes roll so far back into your head you can see what you ate for lunch, don’t worry; Missy, critical eye trained and exercised by the country’s finest institutions, was chief among the skeptics. There were the questions about his past, his sexuality, why he hadn’t settled down yet. They were from different worlds. He, the fifth child of Vermont hippies, a happy couple in a homemade house, front door a half-mile from their morning paper, and she, the only of two twice-divorced divorce lawyers from Boston’s Back Bay who read the Globe on their BlackBerries over separate views of the Charles. They were in different places in their careers. He: successful, published; she: still heading her papers with a date and a course number. There were the aesthetic differences—her soft, strokable beauty and his unsettling lankiness, that shiny bald head, a nose-bridge literally about to burst through the skin of his face, and did she fail to notice the ears? But Missy felt something. It was insistent and nauseating, like the lurch of a stomach at the crest of a rollercoaster. Was this love? There was always the question of love. Was it a projection, a shared delusion, a manipulation of sexual desire, thwarted for all these young adult years and then systematically bated and quenched with a look from a bespectacled superior with strange erotic fingers? Missy would admit, with much embarrassment, that she hadn’t really believed in love until . . . maybe . . . now. It was the kind of thing, like God, or optimism, that could be reasoned toward or against, but everyone knows that reason is never the reason you believe what you believe, or feel how you feel, or do what you do. As it turns out, reason explains nothing but reason, and it says nothing at all of desire.


All was well through the summer. Missy felt, with the slippery certainty of the young, that everything was falling into place. David, her teacher, and David, her lover, would not let her stop thinking. Every moment was full of unknowing, a wonder rooted in the confidence of her affection, and for this she knew she was happy.

So when she found the letter, two months after her engagement, wedding unplanned, and three weeks into fall semester, it felt like a surprise. While the civilized world (her mother, specifically) had suggested otherwise, Missy insisted: she did not doubt her bliss. Her happiness was not ill-fated, or star-crossed, or too-good-to-be-true, or any other tired, anticipatory condemnation. Tragedy was not her expectation, although, perhaps, some part of her—the squeaking wheel of her forward churn—was still unconvinced by paradise. But why should she assume expulsion? Missy knew, human minds are primed for patterns. We remember tragedy, heartbreak, disappointment, and we expect that it, like the rising sun, will eventually descend. But Missy had learned—and Missy is nothing if not the ardent student—that insistence on patterns is a fairytale for the fearful. We must abandon causality; expectation is our very downfall, self-fulfilled! We cannot—she hoped, she wished—know that night will fall. The sun could rise and just keep rising.

(Sunday, the sun is rising, the light makes checkered patterns through David’s drawstring window blinds)

Missy (who always wakes up with the sun): What are we doing today?

David (who changes his sleeping habits based on his bedfellows): Your choice.

Missy: Let’s read. I need to review the critiques of causality . . .

David (one eye opened): Let’s stay in bed all day and count the number of strings in those spiderwebs.

Missy: Kant. Let’s read Kant.

David: See, in the ceiling. You’ll never get an accurate count. The light shifts and then the whole vision changes.

Missy (laughing, pinning her hair up with a bobby pin): I don’t have time for spiderwebs.

David: This is fascinating work right here. Impossible, arcane, esoteric. An entire academic career! Right here in my ceiling. Come. Put your head by mine.

Missy (abandoning bed sheets, her sudden nudity like a light turned on): You appease the spiders, Professor. Do you have Critique of Pure Reason?

David (forgetful, as always): I was just reading it. Should be on my desk.

Missy: I don’t see it.

David (but is this latest forgetfulness part of a new will, the moral drag, those sputtering gears that, ever-slowing, are trying now to turn his head to the horizon? Forgetting is, as it turns out, quite difficult, impossible perhaps): Check the drawers.

Missy (opening the first drawer, the second drawer, the third, spotting the book): Here. (And then, about to close the drawer, about to take her place by her fiancé and lose herself to a morning of words and casual caresses—but why does her eye linger on that piece of paper in the back of the drawer, crumpled and re-smoothed, as if someone had balled it up and thrown it away and then fished it out of the trash can? Is it the telltale secrecy of something destroyed, then recovered and hidden? Is it the official doctoral heading of the letter, the gravity of the first line, the recent date? The details gesture at significance, a thread of an untold story.)

David (yawning, for something was making him especially drowsy of late, a droning in his head that exhausted his ears and which he only escaped in sleep): Then again, I think I’ll just rest my eyes for a little longer. Not sleeping, of course.

Missy (hand on the letter, rotating it): Of course.

(the sound of David’s snores, like a distant train)

Missy (reading, letter held with both hands):

Dear Mr. Rosenstein (that’s David),

I regret to inform you that the results of your EKG this month indicate
unexpected abnormalities. The graft repairing your aortic tear is
disintegrating rapidly. This puts you at increased risk for another aortic
dissection. I recommend preemptive surgery to repair the graft.
Survival rates from repeat aortic surgical grafting are in the mid-range;
although rates decrease the more advanced the deterioration.
Emergency repair in the case of repeat dissection are less than 1%.

Per your request, I am sending this in writing.


Dr. Joseph Mohel, M.D.
Department of Cardiothoracic Surgery
University of Iowa Hospital.

Missy read the letter three times. She looked at David, sleeping on his side. She read the letter twice more. She looked around the room. There was the bookshelf, stuffed full, unalphabetized. There was the window, shades rattling with the breeze. There was the spiderweb in the ceiling, reflecting strands of silver light. There was David, long limbs folded into his chest, like an unblossomed flower.

Missy sat on the bed. David slept soundly, more soundly that she ever could. She watched him breathing: In. Out. In. His chest (that mountain): Rise. Fall. Rise. Missy felt the thin scraping legs of panic at the base of her spine. If she could only stay focused. Rise. Fall. Rise. She could remain calm. Each moment is a lifetime. If she could just live a lifetime in each breath. If she could just forget, fully, about causality, about expectation. She could almost do it—each moment is a lifetime—but Missy was young, and so well-educated, so adept at pattern recognition—brain like a well-oiled machine—no she could not live a lifetime in each moment, each moment was a life about to end, each moment was the descent of a rollercoaster, each moment was the sun half behind the horizon.

Missy stood, still naked. She paced. She felt compelled to search. Her hands, shaking, groped David’s nightstand, his wall, his floor, his bookshelf, his desk. She moved quickly, driven by something primal. She opened one, two, three drawers. The fourth drawer was secured with a flimsy lock, the kind that might seal a child’s diary, pickable. She reached for the bobby pin in her hair. (If only David were awake; he loved the way her hair fell like that when released from confinement.) There, in the fourth drawer, was something strange. A file system, manila folders with dated tabs holding unwrinkled white pages. She picked up a folder. It held a series of single sheets. Dated letters. Dear Mr. Rosenstein. September 1st. December 6th. March 4th. The results of your recent . . . I regret to inform you . . . Tests confirm.

An unmistakable pattern. A series of letters that, if properly analyzed by, say, a scientist or a logician, would prophecy an untimely, incumbent demise. A systematic advancement of disease. A train on a charted course, a sun halfway beyond the horizon. Missy began to cry.

When David awoke (Missy and her clothes gone, his secret drawer unlocked, his most recent letter on the floor, tear-stained), it didn’t take a logician to figure out what had happened. Why had David, the man who had confined a lifetime of disease to a single, locked, uncharacteristically organized drawer in his desk, let this letter escape its holding cell? Why had this one letter precipitated atypical aggression, evidenced by an attempt at destruction? Something was squeaking, calling out, a lurching sound he’d so well silenced in the past. Now it was blaring, filling his ears. David knew he had to discuss his fate with Missy, a fate he never discussed with himself. His illness had never mattered this much to anyone other than him, and while the annihilation of himself as a continuous body of agency, a man with a certain story, a man confronting mortality, felt adequately ethical for his own purposes, skepticism in the presence of another (the body that lived and breathed beside him each night, the face that formed the expressions of attachment, the softened eyelids, those delicate nostrils, the mouth that made the words I love you), it was, David knew now, immoral. Missy was, according to convention, a girl with a future. She deserved the truth, or at least all the information. But a discussion of David’s fate meant admittance of David’s fate, it meant recognizing the kind of causality he’d spent his whole career, his whole life, systematically denying.

David spent three days alone. He missed his own class, Metaphysical Morals. A lecture hall full of skeptical students tapped their pencils. The lightbox above the second-to-last row flickered until it turned off.

David couldn’t get rid of all the orange hairs in his bed sheets.

Day four since Missy’s departure. David woke up with the sun. He dressed. He washed. He shaved. Once responsible only to his ideas, David would answer to another person now. And yet, thinking like this (how it made him yawn), David suspected that he had always operated with the guise of a self, even when he believed he had no self. I have no self, he said aloud, hearing the contradiction. He considered his face in the mirror. His bright, sunken eyes, like two buoys in an ocean, that nose, those ears. David did not think he was ugly. Ugly is not a word for a face, he thought.

He found her in Starbeam’s café, reading Critique of Pure Reason (his copy), pencil in hand, eyebrows in a knot. David sat across from her. What could he say to resurrect his honor? How to live the morality he’d claimed, in print, to understand, the ethics he knew only as abstraction?

(the glare of onlookers, attracted, as they are, so instinctively, to private dramas)

David: I . . .

Missy: I’ve been trying to imagine what it’s like, to live as you have, year after year, filling a box with prophesy.


Missy: I’ve been trying to envision the stress, the uncertainty. How to live with that kind of fear? How to keep breathing and see beauty in the world?


Missy: I’ve never considered the end of myself. I’ve never had to.


Missy: How confined you must be by your self.


Missy: How much you gain when you forget yourself.


Missy: To live as you do, to think as you do. I understand. It’s the only way.


Missy: The self is a story.

(craning of necks, scooting of chairs, cupping of ears)

David: It’s a story I should have told.

Missy (pleased with: her analysis of David’s character, her well-delivered speech which, under the guise of sympathy both real and rehearsed, became a vicious condemnation of his entire existence—a suitable punishment, she thought—and then—here it comes—her love, which, descending so rapidly as it is, eradicates all other feelings):

David (breathless, wordless, beaten down by the censure he knew he deserved, angry at the dismissal of his well-researched worldview and yet, nagged by this new sensation, blaring like a train whistle through the tunnel of his head, erasing all conscious thought and compelling him toward his lover’s face):

(embracing, breathless jogging to David’s apartment, disbanding of buttons and flies)


A distant clock tower chimed. 6:00 p.m. Dusk. Missy stood, eyes averted, surrounded by mirrors in the dressing room of University Bridal. Her first real outing all week; she was spending most of her days with her nose to the page (she finally had something to scribble in that Moleskine). When her pen would run dry, she’d find David, who was spending more and more time sleeping, and Missy would forget what, exactly, was troubling her. In his presence, her practical concerns melted away and everything slowed. But when she was alone again, her fingers itched, the ground began to move beneath her, and she had to run to keep up with it. She’d compile to-do lists (Call Dr. Mohel, Schedule pre-operative evaluation) and compose Aristotelian syllogisms (To love a mortal causes pain / David is mortal / Therefore / To love David causes pain). Try as she had, she could not align the actions of her body with the logic of her mind, and so, she decided, if she could just be around David all the time, she could hide from the anxiety that threatened to run her over. Marriage was the answer.

Missy slipped into the pair of shoes in the dressing room. She turned off her phone—she was avoiding communication with her mother, who was calling more frequently now with unsolicited legal advice. Missy had also been avoiding her peers, the gaze of strangers, and most of all, her reflection. And yet here she was, in her wedding dress, recently altered, besieged on all sides by her own image. She raised her eyes. Myself, Missy thought, swaddled in white, bathed in overhead light. She looked beautiful, yes, but the self is constructed. She blinked her eyes. Self, gone. She opened her left eye. Self, wrapped in tulle. She imagined herself ready to walk down an aisle. There would be a red carpet underfoot, and the cry of a violin. Missy closed her left eye, opened her right. Self, uncomfortable in stiletto heels, one size too small. Self, still unheeding to common wisdom, to caution of mother, to logical part of self’s own mind. Self, bathed now in the overhead light and the multiplying gaze of so many mirrors. Missy shut her eyes. She inhaled. She could not, empirically, account for the dark space behind her closed eyes. She did not know how and when she’d built herself a narrative of love, but she knew it was the antidote to herself. She exhaled.

Missy. She heard her name, a question, distantly, from beyond the closed door. She slipped out of her heels.

Outside the dressing room, David, garment bag draped over one arm (his wedding tuxedo: one-button, satin-trim, pant-legs still too short) was out of breath and, as was typical these days, struggling with the weight of his eyelids. He felt a weakness in his elbows, his wrists, the joints of his fingers. He shuffled his feet against the linoleum floor of the bridal shop. Everywhere was white, long trains of silk, layers of satin, billows of lace. He felt like he was inside of a cloud. How lovely this was, he thought, such manicured stillness. He planted his heels. His exhaustion, a fog that followed him everywhere, wrapped around him like a blanket. He was happy. He felt himself melting around the mountain of his own heart.

David. He heard his name, muffled, from beyond the door across the room.

What is the maxim? Missy tried to recall. Was it unlucky if David saw her in her dress? But Missy had abandoned conventional wisdom many months back, and the mirrors were making her dizzy.

David, she said again. She reached for the doorknob.

David saw the door stutter and swing, and a smaller cloud emerged. The cloud moved toward him, hovering, floating. He squinted and adjusted his glasses (he needed a new prescription, although he did not care to seek the company of more doctors). The cloud moved forward and dissolved. Missy bled into focus—such blinding beauty—she cut through his cloud vision like a sun’s last glimmer.

Missy practiced, eyes closed. Right foot first, the left to meet it. How good it felt, to walk a slow straight line. How steady everything was, with David as her destination.

It felt like the sudden lurch of gears, it sounded like a long, loud horn in his head.

A piano would ring out. A violin would sing. How handsome he’d look in black.

It felt like he was moving faster than he’d ever moved before, moving without moving forward—he must be spinning, spinning inside the room, fast enough to see it all at once: the silk, the satin, the lace, the fingers of strangers petting fabric again and again.

The deep V of the single-button blazer. Satin trim. Three black buttons of a crisp white shirt arcing toward his neck.

He saw the world outside the windows, the grey stretch of street flanked by curbs and cars, people and trees, trees with their branches fractaling against the sky.

A bowtie. A smile.

And when David fell, Missy’s eyes opened. She dropped to her knees, tulle all around, one hand clutching those long beautiful fingers, the other resting, palm-up, on his chest. Missy saw David: his hand in hers, his feet splayed inward, his mouth o-shaped. If she could see him forever, breaking him into ever smaller pieces (the dirt in his fingernails, the white of his knuckles, the undone button of his lapel), if each moment was a lifetime (his adam’s apple, the chapped skin of his lips), the next moment would never come (the broken capillary at the bridge of his nose), the sun would never set (the grey hairs in his eyebrows), and none of us would ever die (the blue in his cheeks). If she could just keep unknowing, (flashing of lights, disbanding of buttons) then David (ripping of fabric, pounding of chest)  end  

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