Ben Marcus: “The Dark Arts” from TNY, 5/20/13

TNY art by Brendan Monroe

TNY art by Brendan Monroe

These days, autoimmune diseases were the most sophisticated way to undermine yourself, to be your own worst enemy.

Hey Julian: You think you’ve cornered the market on suffering, don’t you? Maybe you have. You and your three tombstones.

Your story begins and ends with with sex; that’s a clue right there to where the problem lies, isn’t it. First, the sounds of sex in the night at your hostel, sounds that bring to your mind “animals strapped to breathing machines, children smothered under blankets.” Is the intimacy you crave really that frightening to you? No, I don’t think so; I think the craving you deny is really that smothering.

You paint your pain for us, the battle between you and you, your body that can’t tell the difference between what is it and what is not, between friend and foe. You use such exquisite phrasing, images of destruction – and you know, don’t you, how anything medical holds special interest for me – that I’m drawn in. But drawn in to what? Your trip to Germany (where you so easily tell the difference between natives and foreigners), to what “was meant to be a romantic medical-tourist getaway” for you and Hayley, you to get your rebellious white blood cells under control, she to… what, take care of you? Fix you, make you acceptable? I don’t know yet, I just know that the trip was her idea. And this brings us to your first tombstone:

That was a tombstone inscription for you: Julian Bledstein. He went without saying.

So what happened with you and Hayley? You quarreled, sure – you quarreled all through Europe until she finally stayed behind in France while you went to Germany – but what about? Is it just your nature to quarrel, like your white blood cells that quarrel with your bones? Or does Hayley play some part in it as well:

She was too stubbornly self-contained, too confident, too O.K. with it all, which was decidedly not O.K. with Julian. A self needed to spill out sometimes; a body should show evidence of what the hell went on inside it. But Hayley had built a firewall around her feelings and moods. There was no knowing her, and fuck you if you tried to pierce her privacy. You were a creep and an invader, and you’d be rebuffed, then shamed.

I have only your word for it; Hayley is not here for me to ask. Was she attracted to you for the repulsive nature – repulsive in the sense of that which sends away – of your very cells? The man who can’t be touched, the woman who doesn’t want to touch, a match made in a hellish heaven?

You repulse your father, as well, with your lies about the great hotel and the sumptuous meal you’re about to search for, your father who would send you his last dime if it meant you would get well, your father who tried to feed you over and over, just to get you to live (something about him making pancakes – the widower who learned to make pancakes to feed his sick son – touches me), then scraped the food you rejected into the trash and made more. Maybe it’s because you are the blood of his blood that he hasn’t given up on you, that he keeps trying? Is that what works for you, this repulsive nature of yours, that others have to keep trying? Do you like the reassurance? Or am I barking up the wrong tree?

“You are not supposed to be coming alone,” says the receptionist at the clinic. None of us are supposed to be coming alone, but that’s all some of us have, isn’t it? Ourselves, the ourselves we reject. Tricky stuff, this.

But then you feel better. Is it because of the treatment? And of course you sink right into existential angst, once the physical angst leaves you: maybe you aren’t sick at all: “Perhaps this was just what it felt like to be alive.” Maybe you just long for existential angst now that the discomfort has eased; at least the scenery is different.

And when the man in the hostel takes “liberties” climbing into your bed while you’re dreaming of someone who isn’t Hayley but is nonetheless warm and sweet and comforting, you repulse that as well. Hey Julian, come on, think about it: Wouldn’t it be a scream if your autoimmunity was a physical manifestation of repressed homosexuality? If your body has converted your rejection of same-sex into rejection of same-self?

You go back to wondering if your complaint is justified, if maybe it’s just this exaggerated sense of outrage you have, the one that convinces you other people don’t feel this way: maybe it doesn’t matter that a stranger sneaks into your bed in a hostel. You can’t quite get the “beggars can’t be choosers” maxim right, but you’ve got what you need from it: “Wasn’t it enough to be kissed by someone?”

No, Julian, it isn’t. But it’s kind of sweet-sad you think it might be.

And when the doctor shows you the shadow on your brain scan, the one you see in the light box, the one you want to understand, to move it from abstraction to reality – “Where is it?” you ask the doctor, but he doesn’t understand, he just points again to the scan: “It is here,” instead of putting his finger above your left ear or in the center of your forehead or just above the nape of your neck or on the very crown of your head to show you where, in fact, this shadow lives – you get your second tombstone.

This first. To understand this. Then, maybe.

Which implies, maybe not.

No doubt a scary moment for you: a moment when you want someone to comfort you, an ally, someone to become one with you. But all you get Hayley, returned from wherever, from whomever, brimming with hope and affection and you long for an animosity scan, to finally locate with precision the resentment, the detachment. For now, all you have is the feeling:

Looking at Hayley, seeing her radiate, feeling her cozy up against him, it was ridiculously hard—in fact, it was impossible—not to feel that the affection she was suddenly smothering him with was meant for someone else.

You send her away, your emotional antibodies reacting to an alien presence, here in a foreign country where you over and over stand out as an other whether getting medical treatment or arranging a hostel room or ordering a jamless crepe. Maybe that’s hopeful. Hayley is the closest other you have, which isn’t saying much, is it. In fact, it may be the problem: did you choose her because she would not get too close? Is that the this you are finally beginning to understand?

You began with the strangling sounds of sex; now you end with the hope of sex, if sex with strangers. Seen from that angle, it’s an improvement, I suppose, if you’ve stopped rejecting yourself. I know repression is a powerful thing, but did it really take a shadow on your brain to lead you to a shadow on your soul?

You come up with your final tombstone, the one that will serve you this coming night in the hostel:

Wouldn’t you like to join me?

It’s a start.

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2 responses to “Ben Marcus: “The Dark Arts” from TNY, 5/20/13

  1. Pingback: Ben Marcus–”The Dark Arts” (New Yorker, May 20, 2013) | I Just Read About That...

  2. Pingback: Short Story Day Seventeen – The Dark Arts | Bill Chance

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