The Robes of Aloneness

by Gareth Sénèque

Lisa asked me to lie until the experience became memory. I said that yes I would try, but I may fail to reach back and move the truth.

                                                       * * *

It is a summer evening in Sydney, a Tuesday in November, and I am watching someone mine their own reflection in a giant pane of glass. They are lining themselves up, assessing angles and light, their arm outstretched, balancing a little glowing phone at just the right height to capture their face as it tapers into digital oblivion.

I am in a gymnasium that has swallowed me; I have entered its Cetacean mouth. The warehouse lights above buzz mechanically, adding to the noise from the ceiling’s speakers. There is no stillness here, no balance. I feel the seams of the thing inside me stretching the leather of my skin. Each breath is an act of refuge for the air it contains.

I look left, then right. So many people. Everyone here looks like someone I used to know. I’m reminded of a conversation I had last year. Lisa told me about her ghosts, the things she sees at night. They know her, were her, are her. They’re her mother and her father, she says, a composite image, and she lives in their shadow. I’d nodded and said that I understood. This memory dissolves just as soon as it completes playback, and I’m just here, again.

I see faces that appear to be covered in sweat or tears. I almost want to greet all of them at once, to come home in a moment. So I take the red-and-white capsules out of their little container, remaining calm. A girl comes toward me. Her eyes are focussed at a fixed distance, not shifting as she moves closer. I look down, state my intention to the drug: intervene, pharmakos. She passes. I cough, cover my mouth, drink some water. I wait. It begins. I move out onto the floor, mind on fire just one more time.

No headphones today. Instead the sounds of human industry and spent carbohydrates leap and soar. The anonymous spirit that is alive and real floats soul-like deep inside me, holding me up for inspection. I sit now on a bench and breathe, gather myself, close my eyes. But the scrolling dream I see on the inside of my lids merely enumerates reality. All numbers, no meaning. Experience measured and represented. What matters is lost in the flux of information.

I shift to another bench. My towel is covered with blood. It slips off every surface, too wet to grip. I drape it over the back of the bench, Soviet curtain to my temporary politics. I sit and lift and watch. I count the repetitions of others’ lifts. I do the same thing over and over and it gets later quickly, the saga of time no kind of chore at all.

I move to the exit. The outline of everything that is not the floor shimmers wildly. The desk pours into the chair behind it. A vending machine vends endlessly, turning and folding over and over again as the symbol of Coca-Cola leaves a red footprint across the reel in front of my eyes. I am just standing there, my mouth half open, unable to locomote. I’ve been here before, caught between a future and my past, stuck on repeat. Each day my feet sink deeper.

Others witness but offer no reaction to my pause. I want to leave, be better, more human. I am split down the middle, bisected by my indecision. I want to put the capsules in a locked drawer and spend more time with Lisa, somehow travel into the past, before illness carried her away. I want to forget every private horror and cast out for new enemies. But here, alone among others, sharing in a predictable mix of nutrition and fear, I find myself in a cathedral that is without end. It is a place of safety, an indifferent institution that cannot abandon me. Take cover here, I tell myself. Never leave and she cannot intervene, cannot convince me to leave my feelings to chance.

I follow my legs and begin a steady circuit of the gym’s named sections. Section chest, section back, section legs. I pass through each area feeling like a virus trying to find an organ in which to settle and fester. I go deeper, away from the sounds outside, into a room with red walls and punching bags hung from the ceiling at regular intervals. The bags all sway slightly as the class held on the floor above reaches peak fitness. I stop and watch as they move. I begin to feel essential and hidden, arterially located, first vessel in a spool of blood shot through a long needle. I hug the nearest bag and slide downward, coming to a slow stop as my knees hit the ground. Whatever Lisa transmits will not find me here.

An hour passes. I stand and again attempt to leave, the room receding. I pass a row of slender women militantly acycle, unionised supermodels arguing their contract with God. And then through the lobby and out on to the sidewalk, the street lit by an urban night. I could go home, seek peace. Or I could explore the world, hungry. I see someone at the top of an escalator that rises from the ground beneath us. My mind reels, begins to process colour as light. Lisa is waiting for me. She has been thinking that she can’t trust someone blind to their own pathology. But she’s not sure if it’s blindness that she sees. I know all this because I don’t need to ask.

My mouth opens but a link breaks down, no words come out. She waits, says, “We’re the only two here, you and I”. And as I move to speak again a feeling builds at the back of my head, sudden voltage applied to calcium channels that now signal their outline. And then the rush of silver up my spine and eyes that open wide. Oh these capsules, little measureless ends, yours is a love I can buy.

Emboldened, I tell her how I sin, how I can’t not and don’t care. She understands, says she sees me anyway. Then I tell her that there is a kink in the system of choices that made who I appear to be. “Don’t worry, it’s a case of identity coming into phase”. But all I had for her was silence. I did not listen and I did not change and now she is gone forever

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