The Writing Disorder


ellie schaffzin

New Fiction


by Eliezra Schaffzin

       I was an ordinary child, ordinary even in the things I did extraordinarily, such as my high marks at school, my energetic pursuit of the arts and of volunteerism, my adherence to my parents’ rules and vocal support of their religious and cultural values, et cetera. It was all this ordinary extraordinariness that clinched my acceptance to a premier university, the name of which will be unimportant to this account, as will my own name. (Even now, I write under a pseudonym, a fact that will also be irrelevant here, as you’ll soon see for yourself.) In my first term I continued to cultivate my extraordinary well-roundedness with coursework in mathematics (infinitesimal calculus), in the social sciences (education), the humanities (intellectual history) and the arts (African Drumming and Dance was a favorite at the school, and I enjoyed those autumn afternoons when I pounded, barefoot, on the sloping green outside the Theater Department, losing myself in a swirl of white limbs and colorfully dyed skirts). I enjoyed everything with the proper zeal and considered nothing too deeply. As part of an agreement with my parents I took a position at one of the school’s late-night eateries, preparing portable dinners ordered by campus phone. It was there, at the place called “The Gate,” that I met Castor.
      This young man’s name was as improbable as his appearance, six-foot-nine and paper-thin, a long, wan face punctuated by distant emerald eyes. He wore a red apron that designated him, a senior, as my supervisor (I wore white), and the only garment long enough to cover his frame was also too wide, its edges overlapping one another on the plane of his back. Instantly I was in love. Cas noticed my flushed cheeks, my carelessly scribbled orders, my pony-tail askew; he soon made a habit of leaning against the wall beside me where the phone was beginning to loosen from its mounts, and, when there was a lull in its usually frantic ringings, he would tell me something of himself. It seemed that though his weight had always been thinly spread across his skeletal form, he had lost much of the meat beneath his skin during the previous school year, which he’d spent abroad, writing a paper under the auspices of the foreign studies program; no academic department had seen fit to accept his subject matter as appropriate to its own concerns. He would explain the topic of this paper, he promised, when I visited the private room he rented off-campus, one of the many privileges of upperclassmen. I devoted much of my waking thoughts to the prospect of this visit, and so many of my dreams. My hopes were cut short mid-term, however, on a night when the televisions suspended at perilous angles from the walls of The Gate broadcast the outcome of that year’s presidential election and I confessed I was too young to have cast a vote. It was true: I had matriculated at the age of seventeen, not due to any impressive grade-skipping, as many of my peers suspected, but because of the awkward placement of my birth date on the first day of a new calendar year; some nursery-school matron had deemed it appropriate for me to join the children born in the previous year and my parents had concurred. I had never been forced to face a single consequence of this formerly amusing discrepancy until that election night at The Gate, when I declared I was not yet “legal” and saw Cas back away from me with his eyes.
      That was November of my freshman year. In my humiliation, I threw myself into poetry, another of my high-school pursuits, and in my fervor applied to several competitive writing workshops that rarely admitted first-year students. I was accepted to all of them, and I returned triumphantly to campus after the first of the year to pursue my studies in the literary arts with not one, but two of the school’s highly celebrated authors. With my parents’ blessing I left my position at The Gate, promising to look for tutoring work more suited to my intellectual skills and which I could ensure would not interfere with my already advanced studies. I had not, however, seen the last of Cas: our encounters were inevitable, as my workshops met in the evening and I was forced to miss dinner in the traditional cafeteria, leaving me no choice but to collect my meal from The Gate before I retreated to the library for the night. Cas had gained little body mass over the holiday, and once again my eyes were drawn to that place where his apron curled in excess scrolls in the small of his back. On my very first visit, he shyly wished me a belated happy birthday; on my second, I received an invitation to his apartment at last. Did I resent the delay, my forced subjugation to the false construct of a new calendar year? In those days, I barely had time to contemplate such a slight to my fledgling womanhood. Other tunes—of staggering beauty, of grandiose suffering—sang in my head, and they occupied the pages I submitted to my workshops. On a February evening, I stood aside, my book-bag over one shoulder, while Cas flung the day’s collection of garbage into the dumpster behind The Gate. Then I walked in trembling silence through the icy night to his apartment.
      Cas had promised to tell me of his travels, and it was a promise he honorably kept. We spent the first eager hours of my visit on his fold-out couch—first perched at its edge, then, as the night wore on, reclining against its cushions, and then later (when I returned, still transported, from the restroom) sprawled on our stomachs across the bed he had in the meantime unfolded—examining the most curious book I had ever encountered. It was not a particularly lengthy text—it owed most of its thickness to curled and cracking pages that would not let the leaves fully touch—though its surface area was something like that of an atlas, or an oversized children’s dictionary. I did in fact come to think of it as a children’s book, with its bright colors and the round-faced figures that populated its illustrations. It was a sort of abridged encyclopedia, Cas explained, of the land where he had spent his junior year. I watched with delight as he turned to a map on the book’s cover-leaf and indicated a tiny island-state equidistant from two coasts joined at a right angle—it might have been the Bay of Bengal he showed me, his island wedged between the waters of Myanmar and Bangladesh, though perhaps the crook of the arm formed by the Alaskan and Canadian coastlines more accurately reflects the topography Cas traced with his elegant fingers that night. “Untouched,” Cas had called it, and I nodded, enchanted by his pronunciation of the word, though I gave little thought to what this could mean.
      Cas had learned to speak the country’s language fluently and even to read its elaborate script, which he translated for me as he read his favorite pages, those depicting the National Circus. From what I understood of Cas’s explications, “circus” was a very loose translation for the traveling, year-round festival that was the topic of his academic paper; his name for this people’s practice of “circus” was meant to connote neither the brutality of Rome’s ancient diversion, nor the formalized sort of performance to which we in this country take our children, hoping they will be charmed and not terrorized by the daring of the animal tamers and acrobats, the antics of the clowns, but rather something more loyal to the root of the word, to its circular nature, or even to that British landmark, that open, circular place where many paths meet. The book contained no photographs, but its lively illustrations depicted something wondrous: a spectacle both earnest and joyous—I could see this illuminated in the participants’ expressions—a ceremony of costume and mask, of plain dress and honest face. The ornate text remained impenetrable to me, even as my host recited the words in my mother-tongue; instead I was deafened by the images, which overcame me with their noise and with their light. The particular view that captivated me had a vantage point low to the ground, and I had not the sense of arena nor tent nor of any structure whatsoever, the sort of picture a bird’s-eye view may have provided. Yet my heart beat painfully when, with unfamiliar suddenness, I saw nonetheless what was meant by circle: in this gathering of foreign masses everyone faced everyone; I saw actors and audience locked together in performance, and I witnessed a story told, one which was not in the world but was the world itself—and with this realization the circus bled across the page and beyond it into my very own hands. The illusion startled me, to be sure, but I could not find the strength to push the book away, for it had stirred in me a sensation I distinctly felt myself fail to understand, and this failing frightened me more than anything in my ordinarily extraordinary life up until that moment.
      But the sensation did not last; in a split second after these thoughts crossed my mind—thoughts I believe I was meant to forget—I felt the young man I’d followed home reach for me, and I heard the miraculous book slip down the sagging mattress and fall to the floor. I’d kissed a boy before; I’d kissed in a horizontal position such as this one with little delight, with even less anticipation—no more, I’d say, than the ordinary sense of one’s adult destiny. But the flush that had stolen across my face each night of my fall semester now found its meaning in the arms of this creature, this man I’d pined for without reason ever since I’d left my parents’ home, and anything I’d experienced since I’d come to his room disappeared in the glow of that reality. I understood I was to lose my virginity to the boy called Cas, who reached one long arm up the wall to the light switch and brought darkness upon the room before he brought himself upon me, feather-light and infinite. I closed my eyes—as I have said, I was an ordinary girl, and I believed closed eyes and a beating heart were all I was meant to contribute to this encounter—and in one final thought of that odd, cheerful book I imagined Cas’s thin form towering above those unified masses, an alien standard waving in the festive circus air. Then, with my breath still tremulously held in my lungs, instead of the music I’d so long expected, I felt his struggle. I would soon understand the obvious anatomical implications of my chosen lover’s proportions and my own body’s inexperience, but at the time, I forgave myself nothing, understood nothing, consumed as I was with shame: the words crossed my mind—as so many did in the early stages of my artistry, so many words filling notebooks I would later destroy with further, more enduring shame—my heart has opened but my body will not receive him. Then with the pain I thought of the blood—this I’d been taught to expect, and even so the thought of it caused me greater shame, and even as Cas lay atop me, his face not matched with mine but somewhere beyond it on the mattress, his still-clothed torso the only sight hovering above me, a lean-to propped by his pole-thin arms—I glanced beside the bed, into my open book-bag, where wedged between too many library books I was relieved to see the sanitary napkin that I was certain would soon receive my bleeding. That deluge, however, never arrived. In my innocence, I comprehended only my failure: I did not receive him in time. His body rolled away from mine and without another glance I collected myself, my soiled clothing, my book-bag with its mocking contents—literature! Overnight pads, extra heavy flow!—and, after another, frantic stop in his filthy bathroom, I fled.

                                                                                          * * *

      So now you think yes, she is not modest in her protestations, she was an ordinary girl. You have heard this story before; perhaps it is your own. You should not think differently when I tell you that twenty-four hours had not passed since this episode when I learned that Cas was dead. Like any ordinary girl, I had lingered in bed longer than usual the following morning, refusing to face the obligations of the day: a morning seminar in aesthetics, an exercise class at noon, tutoring at three-thirty, workshop at six o’clock. I finally crept from my room at ten that night, when I knew The Gate would be busiest, and sought the consolation of food. I told myself I could avoid my would-have-been beau in the crowd, though of course my desire was for just the opposite: despite myself, I longed to see him. He was worldly; perhaps he would be kind. To my great surprise, The Gate was crowded but quiet. The phone at my old post was off its hook, even the hanging televisions had been silenced, and in the center of the serving area stood a woman from the deans’ office, come to tell Cas’s co-workers, and anyone else who wished to affiliate him or herself with the deceased, that the boy had fallen while he competed in a casual sporting event, fallen and not risen again. It was his heart. A girl beside me nodded, said a famously tall athlete had died in just that fashion a few weeks before. An arrhythmia, the girl pronounced. The woman from the deans was there to excuse anyone from work who needed excusing, and to talk. I returned to my room.
      I tossed my book-bag (which I had planned to take with me to the library after I dined, the second thwarted trip to the stacks in as many days) onto my bed, and I followed it there absentmindedly. For once, I felt truly extraordinary. I was eighteen years old; I had a dead almost-lover. This, I thought, would be the defining moment of my life. In my youthful fashion, I’d misread the nature of my circumstances, but I had not overestimated their significance: as I collapsed against my pillows in a mixture of sorrow and self-pity and excitement—and words, of course, the imminence of words!—my foot spilled the contents of my open bag across my blankets. There, among the borrowed library texts, the composition notebooks worn from use, and that feminine accoutrement, wrapped in plastic and pink, which had mocked me in my distress, was an envelope decorated in an artistic style I immediately recognized as that of the mysterious book Cas had shown me the night before. It mirrored the book in shape as well—a robust rectangle—though it was slightly smaller in its dimensions than the text itself. It occurred to me, with a twinge of embarrassment, that it must have slipped into my bag during our clumsy writhings on the bed. Like the book, the envelope was weathered and lumpy, but as I reached for it I realized this condition was not solely due to age and wear. A thing of some volume had been stuffed inside, and with a swift break of a seal at one end I discovered what that thing was: a collection of puzzle pieces, all marked with the ornate lettering and colorful brushstrokes that had distinguished Cas’s book. Like its boldly rendered faces, these pieces were large, the contours of their edges obvious, and I knew it would take little time to assemble the image and discover its subject. Another obvious feature of this toy was its clear demarcation of two separate surfaces: though it was painted on both sides, each side adhered to a different color scheme, so there was no mistaking the proper linkage of any of the pieces, or any question as to whether they all were properly turned in the same direction. Pulling one of my writing journals from the mess on the bed, I set to snapping the pieces together against its flat surface.
      How had I moved so swiftly from such tragic heartache to the vigorous pursuit of a child’s game? Let me assure you I had not forgotten my fallen companion. In fact, the discovery of the puzzle had led to a heightened consciousness on my part of the relevance of Cas’s death. Had he lived, I realized, I would have most likely uncovered the envelope in the calm of the library, where, amid the sober volumes, I would not have found the gall to break what was clearly an unopened seal; indeed, being my parents’ daughter, I doubt I would have even considered the act. Instead I would have gathered my books and retraced my steps to The Gate, where I would have reunited envelope with owner. And yes, I would no doubt have seized the opportunity to look once again into those green eyes and see how they might regard me in return. But I had met, at The Gate, with bad news, so I had not continued on to make my discovery in the hallowed stacks, nor was Cas aware of the envelope’s absence, and it was becoming apparent to me, as I realized the puzzle was much larger and more complex than I had originally thought, and I was required to lay another notebook beside the first, so that both poetry and fiction were summoned to the puzzle’s service, that this circumstance was more than a mere tweaking of fate. With each satisfying interlock of one piece with another—and the snap of the thin wooden pieces was remarkably satisfying, palpably so, as if something within me warmed to the process in a way of which even I myself was unaware—a certain sensation from the previous night returned to me, bit by bit, piece by piece, a memory I had been destined to forget, drowned as it was by others, but which now resurfaced with increasing force: I had seen something incomprehensible in the leaves of that bright and raucous book, in its bizarre, ecstatic circle, a thing reciprocal and omnipresent and utterly impossible—and its impossibility had nearly blinded me. Now it drove my fingers to grasp for another piece of the puzzle, then another, slinging my thoughts from despair—where had all the pieces come from? How could I possibly fit them all together?—to rapture, each time one piece of the world linked with another. And it seemed it was precisely the world in which this puzzle dealt: on the side I had chosen to configure, I recognized my native land, and the lands directly south of it, though to the East the boundary of the puzzle dropped off in a straight line, suggesting the rest of the world would constitute itself to the West, an order to which I was unaccustomed. Still, as I labored on, the world as I knew it took shape across my bed. It comforted me, this world, dulling the various horrors I’d felt fleetingly and enduringly the previous night and which threatened, for some unknown reason, to overtake me again now; I was certain that if I could finish this puzzle, all would be right with the world, so to speak; order would be restored, and I could rest.
      Rest! Why did I feel it had eluded me for so long? I had slept little the night before, that is true, and though I’d passed the better part of the day in bed, it was in waking torment, not in dreams. But this weariness I now sensed within me as I persisted with the pieces still left in the envelope felt entirely new and stretched back several lifetimes. I felt soon I could not go on, yet I would have to; I was compelled to complete the puzzle; my life—my life!—depended on it. Already you’ve dismissed this rant: the dramatic hallucinations of a young girl new to loss. But you’ve stayed with me thus far, with the familiar imaginings of an ordinary girl, so perhaps it is familiarity that will urge you on with me now. A fever had overtaken me, yet I was not overcome; I could do nothing but complete the puzzle, and complete it I did—perhaps in minutes, perhaps hours, I cannot be sure which. And the relief I had anticipated descended like waterfalls, thunderous and refreshing. I stood beside the bed and stretched my aching limbs; below me lay the completed puzzle, the globe, intact, and as I basked in the glow of accomplishment a thought occurred to me, a memory of the island from which this puzzle was certain to have come; I knelt at my own bedside to look for it, though surely on this map it would appear as only the tiniest of specks—would I truly find an island, or some errant piece of dust? Yet before I could seek it out, I was seized by another compulsion—not violently, but with a steady sort of momentum that had crept up behind my sense of satisfaction, my peace with the world, and now loomed larger within me than my sense of the world itself: what of the other side?
      I had not forgotten: there was another image on the reverse, one I had forsaken in favor of this satisfying one, though when I set out to assemble the puzzle I could not have known I’d chosen the surface that would depict my world in such absolute and edifying terms. Instinct may have drawn me to this side, but now instinct forced my hands beneath my notebooks; I gently flipped the image and gazed at its verso. My brow furrowed as it had numerous times that evening: though the edges joined as smoothly here as they had in my world on the reverse, here they formed no picture at all, just a mélange of shape and color, hardly different from the opposite side’s appearance before I had accomplished my task. A clever trick, I thought: surely the pieces of the puzzle—so numerous, so curiously shaped—could come together in some other order than the one I’d already followed. One side would have to be disassembled for the other to be complete. And before I knew what I was doing I was seated again at my notebooks, tearing the pieces apart that had only just delighted me with their juncture. I set to constructing the puzzle’s other side.
      Oh, why could I not remain satisfied with the colorful world I’d discovered first? I had triumphed once, fashioning the world as I knew it to be. It had its flaws, to be sure, its terrors, its tyrannies, but I had heard its music ringing true to my ears—if only I had left it at that. I was an ordinary girl, one who could have slipped that picture into her bag and skipped along as she had done before; perhaps she would have been a prolific writer, one whose words came easily, full of knowable beauty and lyrical suffering, a professor at a premier university with workshops in the evening. Not the writer that I am, the other sort you know, alone in her study, with her books, her manuscripts, nothing she can show for herself, how does she spend those dusty hours, and whatever for? Or perhaps I could have been a lawyer—have I said my mother was a lawyer? And my father a doctor, always disappointed I hadn’t found faith in the sciences, since he had and was saved. Not I: I sat at my notebooks, and, recalling a circle I was never meant to understand—not I, with my high marks and clever looks and ear for music and eye for beauty—I tore my beautiful world apart, and reassembled it (after all, I was a clever girl) to find another world, one so perfect it is impossible to look upon without pain in one’s eyes, and then the pain in the eyes disappears because one’s eyes are gone, one’s self is gone, and the only way to return is to rip this better world, the one barely discovered, to pieces.
      I would like to ignore the puzzle, but that is not my fate. If it is I who stopped Cas’s heart then it is I who brought this life upon my own self, and if other forces brought him down, then that the puzzle fell into my hands is nothing more than chance. Either way, I am its prisoner, assembling and reassembling two worlds that cannot co-exist, one world that I cannot let lie, another I can’t bring myself to see, for fear it will obliterate me. Indeed, it should have fallen into other hands, not the hands of an ordinary girl such as myself. But who else to bear the burden? Should it have been you?

Eliezra Schaffzin taught writing for ten years at Harvard University and the Rhode Island School of Design, but she has recently turned herself over to her own fictions. Her short pieces have appeared or are forthcoming with Fifty-Two Stories, Agni Online, Post Road, mixer, SmokeLong Weekly, elimae, Barrelhouse, Word Riot, Knee-Jerk, PANK, and other publications. She is at work on a novel—a story of magic, seduction, and the first American department stores, for which she received a research grant from the New-York Historical Society.

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