Yesterday in my office, I read an article about elephants in a zoo that spent long days of an unusually hot summer lying in the sun, refusing to go near a small pond that was filled by a cascade of falling water. The elephants’ handlers would try to bribe the elephants with treats to go into the water because they feared the elephants would die of dehydration. Nothing the handlers tried could coax the elephants into the pond. Instead the elephants drank hot water from a small plastic trough the handlers placed beside them in the sun. Finally one day a hard, soaking rain began to fall, and all the elephants got into the pond and played beneath the falling rain, sucking water into their trunks and shooting it at each other, splashing their enormous bodies in and out of the water.
Today I went to the pet store and bought an aquarium and two turtles. I bought all the accoutrements for the tank and turtles, and now in my office I can watch them swimming in a small pond and perching on a stone, sunning themselves beneath a heat lamp. For me, having pets is a novelty. I wasn’t allowed to have a pet as a child. Now I can spend hours in my office watching the turtles. Recently I noticed something strange about them. After I had siphoned dirty water out of their tank and before I siphoned clean water into it from a large bucket I keep on the floor, the turtles crawled to the glass wall of their tank and peered down. I watched them doing this for a while and finally understood that they were looking for the source of new water as if to inspect it, to make sure of its purity before it entered their home. When I understood that they were doing this, I positioned my face so that it blocked the source of new water, forcing the turtles to look at me. The turtles soon turned away and went back to the warmth of the stone beneath the lamp.
I don’t think the right sort of work for me is studying animal behavior, yet I keep thinking about the way the turtles turned away from me. I want to come to some general conclusion about the turtles and what they want in their lives that I can apply to me and what I want in my life. Self-referencing is the mind’s tendency to locate itself, so when it’s realized that there is no self apart from the perceiving, the tendency to try to find one’s self in any experience, insight, or concept, ceases, according to a book I’ve been reading in my office. The book was written by a monk who has stayed in one place for the past forty years examining the ways his mind forms attachments to its own ideas and images, which he calls his self. Images and ideas carry with them a kind of space unlike the space that surrounds real objects like turtles and stones and the knickknacks that crowd my desk. If I could get rid of the knickknacks, I might have space in which to perform some sort of task, but since I don’t know what sort of task I want to perform, I don’t know how much space I’ll need, so I keep the knickknacks on my crowded desk. Besides, during this time when I have not yet decided on the sort of work I will do, I like to look at my knickknacks and consider the few that are still mysterious to me. One of these mysteries is a spiky brown pod attached to a small branch that at one time must have been attached to something larger, but having broken off the larger thing, now it is here on my desk. Spikes cover the ball, which several days ago developed a small crack that has become a large crack. It’s the sort of enlarging that comes before a hatching, I imagine, and I imagine that something will crawl out from the crack in a few days to ask me difficult questions that I will not be able to answer. I imagine that what crawls out will be the monk.
Another of the mysteries on my desk is a rusted mechanism that looks like a small wheel inside a bracket. There are holes where screws could be inserted into the bracket and the mechanism attached to something large and stable, like a house or a monk. There is a final mystery—two nameless birds depicted on a round coaster, the sort for putting beneath beverages. The birds are illustrated in a style familiar to me from a book on the history of scientific illustration that I have been reading in my office. The coaster is one of two that I’ve had since I was a child: on one, there is an illustration of a flower, and on the other, an illustration of the two birds. I do not know what kind of bird these are—there’s no name below them like there is beneath the flower, which is named Viola odorata. The surface of each coaster has been crazed by age and heat, and I realize each time I look attentively at the crazing how comforting it is to be able to see the things around me aging. I have a sense of my own aging though I can’t see it, yet it seems right that I should be able to, that the surfaces of my eyes should craze from exposure to light and heat and the unexpected things I’ve seen, and that I should have to see after a while through an expanding network of cracks and crevices that grow wider and wider until eventually one crack is the size of a door into which I disappear. But there is only a gradual blurring in me as I get older, so I am glad to own a few things where I can watch happening on their surfaces what I would like to see happening to me. The two unnamed birds are perched on a stylized, gnarled branch, as they were when I was a child, and for the past twenty years the net in which they have always been caught has been emerging from the white background, pushing through the leaves and the white vacancies between them. If the birds were to try to fly, they would find this net prevents them from gaining any distance from the positions in which their illustrator has depicted them.
A couple of days ago I was paging through the book on the history of scientific illustration and I came across the same illustration of Viola odorata that appears on the coaster on my desk. According to the book, the Viola was included in a treatise on medicinal plants by Serapion the Younger, a physician, in AD 800. His work was transcribed by a monk, Jacopo Filippo, in the 1390s. Yet it’s not known who illustrated the original treatise, I read, sitting in my office, and I began to feel satisfied, then self-satisfied, with this bookish not-knowing, a feeling that, as soon as I became aware of it, prevented me from reading any more that day.
Once, a physician showed me on an ultrasound the empty shape of my uterus. When my boyfriend and I have sex in my office, his sperm swim through my vagina and cervix into the emptiness. I imagine the black and white screen of the doctor’s ultrasound while my boyfriend’s body moves with mine and against mine. Sun reflected off the yellow house next door comes as yellow light into my office, and it is in this yellow light that I think these black and white thoughts about my body. Though I could imagine the interior of my body in any way I wanted to, the way I do imagine it looking is just like what I’ve seen on the doctor’s screen, which seems like a trustworthy intermediary. If I could see what was happening inside me directly, I’m not sure I would want to look.
People have been trying to see into themselves and the things around them for a long time. In the book about the history of scientific illustration, which I am reading again, there’s an x-ray diagram that a hunter in the Northern Territories of Australia has scratched of his prey, a kangaroo, into a piece of tree bark. In the diagram, the body of the kangaroo has been divided by lines into quadrants representing its bone structure and possibly organs, though it’s clear that these have been imagined and not seen firsthand—the kangaroo’s belly is filled with a fanciful latticework of diamond shapes, and the rest of its interior is divided geometrically into shapes like triangles and quadrilaterals. Beside the kangaroo a stick-figure hunter crouches with his spear. His erect penis is enormous, half the length of his leg.
When we moved into our apartment, I painted the walls of my office a color named Eggshell. I have begun drawing on the Eggshell walls in pencil at night when the streetlight casts shadows into my office. It’s difficult to see these drawings unless you’re looking very closely, and even then the wavy pencil lines look more like cracks in the walls than anything deliberately drawn. I’ve begun thinking of these drawings as “night murals.” Sometimes I trace my own shadow, sometimes the shadows of other things, sometimes the shadows cast by the irregular surface of a wall upon itself. Many previous tenants have painted the walls of my office, and these layers of paint have built up like strata of earth over time.
From my office in the evening, I look at the sky in the spaces carved out by the columns of the neighbor’s porch and lose track for a while of everything’s size—the carved-out spaces are the same shape as the spaces between the slats of my father’s chair back, the chair he would sit in to read to me from books about faraway places, some real, some imaginary, and I think of all the places I’ve never been that I’d like to return to in an impossible body—the body of an unnamed bird or a spiky brown ball—places I’ve seen from far above, or passing fast. Traveling through the Alps in France, I looked down and saw a town in a tiny valley nestled in the cleft of a river’s path, a precarious form of life completely dependent on a thing as capricious as a river. I think I could be happy being that.
. . .
A few days ago in my office, as the sun was going down behind the columns in vivid pinks and reds, I read that often what complicates the diagnosis of a disease are the many kinds of bacteria the environment of the disease becomes host to. The article showed a photograph taken through a microscope with polarized light in which each strain and species of bacteria was a different neon color against a vivid pink background. The caption included this caveat: “False color is frequently added to monochromatic micrographs by computer processing, and in many such modern images the information content becomes secondary to the vividness of the result.”
I have been reading a lot, trying to figure out what sort of work I want to do in my office, yet the more I read, the more I wonder how much of the information I come across I can trust. It seems that so much of what people do is unintentional, and open to interpretation, that even after I have amassed a lot of information, I will still have to figure out for myself a way to order all of it; otherwise, lacking a coherent structure in which to fit the interesting things I find out, I will forget them, or I will believe something false, or something injurious to myself and others. I’ve hung a photograph in my office of German bathers at a public bath. The photograph was taken from above, the point of view from which it’s apparent that the people in the water have arranged themselves (without, I assume, planning to) in the lattice structure of a crystal. I’ve read that a crowd of people moves around obstacles just like flowing water. I’ve read that when there’s limited information about where resources are located, people tend to move in patterns that resemble waves. I’ve read that each person, by thinking only about her or himself, contributes to a pattern that may be unrecognizable to the people the pattern includes, and I can almost start to believe that what appears to me to be chaotic is actually the orderly functioning of an organism much larger than myself, and which I am one small part of. At Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, pedestrians have walked their own, more efficient paths among the concrete sidewalks that have been laid, creating an interweaving of paths that is geometric yet informal. I’ve hung a photograph of these paths in my office beside the German bathers. The paths wind along and crisscross an oval of green grass, creating a pattern remarkably similar to the pattern on the shell of one of my turtles.
Sometimes I read and sometimes I look at the turtles, but mostly what I do in my office is think about what I would like to be doing in my office. When I make friends online from a computer in my office, it’s with the belief that the more contacts I have, the more lives I will have access to, and the more lives I have access to, the more advice about offices and what to do in them I can solicit. But more information is not necessarily going to lead me to make the best decision, and it may be that I’m not any more likely to figure out what sort of work I want to do in my office by talking to people I barely know about the sort of work they do in their offices; maybe I’ll be more likely to figure out what’s right for me if I talk to nobody, or only to a small group of people, my family and neighbors, for instance. From my office, I can see into a small, office-sized room of my neighbors’ house, and when I look into this room I see my neighbors sitting in the flickering light of a television. I know that watching television isn’t what I want to do in my office, so it seems useless to ask these neighbors what work is right for me to do in my office—unless they can recall having seen something on television that might reveal my work to me. I know that neither my mother nor my father has ever been in my position—having an office but not knowing what sort of work to do in it—and that if I were to ask them for their advice, they would tell me things like, Your generation has too much time on its hands, or, When I was your age, and so on, and I would never get them to sincerely attempt to address my predicament.
Possibly, I would be better off not having an office until I decide on the sort of work to do in my office. It might be best for me to spend my unemployed days wandering my neighborhood, following established paths and creating new ones, and watching traffic as it passes. I would be an exile from my office, and in general I think an existence of exile would suit me. I don’t really know who I am, and I can never feel settled. When I come home after a day of being out, I feel sad, as if something that never had a chance to begin has ended. In my office, I have tried to think about my origin, but the place that I come from—the roads through it and the roads leading up to it—seems non-descript and vague, without clear boundaries, and I don’t really know how to think about something that seems limitless. Looking from where I sit in my office through the columns of my neighbor’s porch and seeing at the same time through the slats of my father’s chair, I feel that I occupy two times at once, and since in each of these times I have a body, I also occupy two bodies at once. It’s an uneasy feeling, so I sit very still, uncertain which body will respond when I next decide to move. Yet I am finding I don’t mind this uneasiness—I think I am good at tolerating it, so I wonder if this could be the work I should be doing in my office: sitting still, feeling uneasy and uncertain of which body, in which time, will move when I eventually get up to go to the bathroom.
I have never been good at knowing where I am, but when I was a child I didn’t know this, and believing that I knew which room of my house I would be looking into at the top of my climb, I began my way up the trellis in my mother’s garden. I was startled when what I saw wasn’t the sink and dirty dishes in the kitchen but my mother’s naked body reflected in the mirror of the bathroom. Surprised to see my face suddenly next to her body in the mirror, my mother screamed. This startled me again, and I fell down into the roses, crushing them. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen my mother naked—the sight of her body hadn’t startled me because it was naked but because it was in the bathroom. Had I seen her naked in the kitchen, the room I’d been expecting to find, I doubt I would have been so surprised.
I haven’t told my boyfriend about my night murals—I think they would make him uneasy. He’s already uneasy about the walks I’ve been taking alone at night through our neighborhood, which many of our neighbors believe is becoming less safe. After his bicycle and kayak were stolen, one of our neighbors began locking his new bike and kayak to a frame in the bed of his pickup truck. Even in winter, when he pulls his truck out of the driveway, it looks as if he’s going to the beach for a weekend vacation. Walking around our neighborhood at night, I don’t feel threatened by things outside of me but by things inside of me, which flicker and take different shapes. Sometimes the shapes are familiar—people I’ve known, things I know I’ve seen—and sometimes they are strange—unknown and frightening. There was a day last week when I woke in a terrible mood after dreaming of a door through which I could not pass though the way wasn’t blocked—there was something else preventing me. I spent the day in my office brooding over the little tasks I’d set for myself—changing the water in the turtles’ tank, reading from one of the many books I’ve begun but can’t seem to finish—without accomplishing any of them. Finally I began to feel less oppressed as the sun was going down, so I left my office and then the house.
-first published in flyway