November 10, 20—
I write to you in the season of death from my perch next to the hospital window. Finches are eating seeds from a feeder hanging from the lowest branches of a barren sycamore. They hop around the edge of the bowl, their claws grasping tightly, entirely unaware of the drama inside these walls.
Have you been in a place like this? I suspect not. There are no locks on the doors, no security against the roving. I live in terror of the door bursting open; every hour the orderlies shove it in and shout with cheerful authority, Just checking on you! Every hour, imagine. You could go mad from that alone.
Just now, in the sitting area, I watched a man lose it and get pinned by five beefy orderlies. He thrashed; they held his arms behind his back. Two hours before that in the dining room, a large, frizzy-haired woman grew frustrated with all the restrictions, which she sees as excessive and arbitrary—she is right, though I know enough to keep that to myself—and began hurling her food across the room. One by one: eggs, muffin, bacon, plastic utensils, water in an opaque plastic cup sailed through the air. A few items hit other patients before landing and sliding across the speckled beige linoleum.
This is not a life. Before all this, I had a life, perhaps you recall it, however faintly? On so many drugs, all sedating, all numbing, all a full-frontal attack on my memory, it’s hard to remember much of that life. If I write it down here to you, maybe you can send the letters back to me when they let me out. You’ll remind me, won’t you? I’m counting on you to help me remember my past when it slips out of my reach.
Remember, earlier this autumn, I wrote to tell you I was working on something that would blow your mind? I could tell from your reply you didn’t know what to make of that. All your hours phone-banking for this election that was so important to the country’s survival and I was going on week after week about some big personal secret.
Well, here is the secret: I’ve been formulating an elixir using ocean water and a secret molecule. My employers were not happy when they found out. The secret molecule was developed in their labs over many long hours. After all my colleagues went home, I’d stay in the lab, combining and recombining molecules. Hours and hours, stretching into each other, folding over on each other. Time is flexible. Inside its watery folds, there were many treasures to discover: the moon, a four-tusked elephant, a magic bow, devas and asuras, a tree that granted wishes.
I worked so many hours, I stopped sleeping. I was so sure this elixir would change the world. If only I dedicated myself completely, followed all my bright, ephemeral thoughts, their silvery rapidity, the spindrift cresting over them. God was working through me. I swear. Even so, it took a long time to figure it out. You might be wondering to what dream I pledged my devotion? I didn’t want to tell you before because you never know who might intercept my letter, but that doesn’t seem to matter anymore. Nothing does, and yet I need to pass my secret along to someone.
This elixir would allow us to live forever. No death. It wouldn’t matter that I’m locked away in here for this tiny blip of time, because I would have all of eternity to make it up once I get out. Imagine the fantastical world we could build, if only we weren’t haunted in every moment by our own decay.
November 13, 20—
I’m so sorry to hear you’ve wound up in a psychiatric facility. I was concerned, I’ll admit, when I read your letters from before. It became increasingly difficult to read them. Your sentences moved in tangents, like you were grooving on the disorder of your thoughts, and you stopped making sense, frankly. But I didn’t know it was this bad, like hospital bad. How do we break you out of there? It must be terrifying. Though… I’ll be honest… it also seems like it could be good for you. A place where you could sort yourself out and come back to earth. A place where you could be safe as all of society erupts into flames. A place that’s safe. Other than the intrusive orderlies and people out of their minds, I mean.
My aunt never wound up in a place like that, but maybe she should have. And the medication is rough, I’ve seen what that did to her. The weight, the twitches. The way it pins down a thought, a butterfly, so it can never fly again. There can be too many thoughts, there can be too few, finding that balance with chemical intervention seems tricky.
Don’t get upset, but immortality’s not a dream of mine. I don’t want to live forever. Do you? Do you really? It’s enough to pay the bills, to be kind to each other. And our lives gain meaning from death, from how it approaches, whether slant or straight-on, the meaning is in traveling ever closer to it, the meaning is in how time twists and folds and squiggles as we move forward or sideways or even backwards, but always approaching. As you say, time is flexible.
You can smell the cleansing sharpness, winter percolating through the air here. Soon, shaggy snow and ice hanging from pine. I’ll be scraping ice from the car windows on my way to pick up the truck for work soon. Maybe when they release you, you can come visit me here in the Lou so we can finally see each other again in this lifetime.
November 17, 20—
Do I detect skepticism in your letter? Perhaps you’ve already been defeated by social expectations: you don’t want to live forever because you think you can’t live forever. Perhaps your sense of possibilities is too narrow, shaped by constraints and rules entirely outside your control. All straight lines. No sense of the infinite. I can’t live like that. I’m more interested in what happens when y ≠ mx + b. How can you live a life so bounded, so circumscribed by the petty earthbound thoughts of other people when you could be carousing with the stars.
I’m not sure when they’ll let me out of here, they’ll have to release me eventually, I think. They’ll have to admit I’m not a danger to myself. Thanks for the invitation to St. Louis—maybe someday. I’ve been here a week now. Every day they ask me a battery of questions and say we’ll revisit the question of leaving once I stabilize. I think what they mean is once I stop talking about the elixir. They don’t understand that even if I do stop talking about it, I’ll still be thinking about what it might mean to live forever, to have an infinite amount of time to repair everything humans have put asunder on this earth. Not to have that ever-present deadline of death to all humans on this dying planet. I’ll never stop thinking about what it means to live forever. It’s my life’s work.
My colleagues didn’t understand either. They’d drive home to their spouses, their children, their Friday night movies, their weekend barbeques, their white picket fences, all the stuff they buy to counter their feelings of inadequacy, and they’d forget all about the lab, about the tests they’d run that had failed, over and over. They wanted to forget the daily let-downs of experiments, they wanted to live their lives, even though their lives were humdrum. “You work too hard,” they told me. “And for what? You should take a vacation. Relax.”
I smiled and nodded. Of course they thought I should relax. I was getting ahead of them. They were half-assed and conventional in their ambitions. They wore blinders. They didn’t see what I could see, how accelerating my experiments, failing faster every day brought me closer and closer to the devas.
It started more than a month ago. I’d been walking on the beach by my townhouse early one morning watching the blush of sunrise when it came to me, this legend from the Puranas I’d heard in childhood. A sage gave Indra a garland as a gift and the god placed the garland on his elephant’s trunk. Some bees buzzed by and irritated the elephant, who shook his big head and threw the garland on the ground. The sage was furious at the disrespect and cursed all the devas. A battle between the devas and the asuras ensued. The asuras took over the universe, but formed an alliance with the devas to churn the ocean of milk for a millennium for an elixir of immortality.
After I remembered the legend, I drove straight to the lab and I worked through the lunch hour, trying to figure out whether my vision could be realized. I began coming in over the weekend and stayed there, running more tests because I was sure that if I tweaked the elixir ever so slightly, if I heated it to the right temperature, if I froze it, if I added poppy extract, if I added ephedra, I’d light upon the right formulation.
The last week before I wound up here was a blur.
I’d been on a long journey, battled demons, found the fourteenth treasure. And so I’d drunk some of the elixir, you see. Sweet and strange, but I couldn’t see asking my employer to market it to the public if I weren’t willing to try it myself first. I’m still not sure the elixir was entirely ready, though I know I was close, and I won’t know for sure whether it works for years. If it does work, it won’t matter if I’m in here a little longer. Two janitors found me on the Monday morning after a long weekend of experiments. I was babbling to myself, they said. Of course they thought that, they don’t know anything about science. It’s all nonsense to them. Everything I said made sense if you knew what I know. Well, I don’t want to tell you more if you’re going to doubt me.
November 21, 20—
Be honest, if I wrote to you from a psychiatric facility and told you about an elixir of immortality, you wouldn’t believe me either. Nonetheless, I want to hear about it, this trip you’ve been on. I think I’ll always be interested in what you have to say, even though it’s been years since we’ve seen each other. Remember how we met on the cool stone steps outside the museum at the muggy lunch hour, both of us young and too broke to buy anything in the museum café, not able to afford more than a hot salty pretzel with cheap mustard from the cart propelled by an acne-covered vendor, watching the clogged traffic, the cars nosing ahead one by one, beneath the skyscrapers, beneath the tremendous clouds? How we spent the afternoon wandering through the halls looking at the paintings, at all the intensely personal iconography, the iconography of dreams made somehow eternally public. Klimt and Moreau and Redon. At twilight, a cloudburst, your address on a scrap of paper pressed into my damp, sweaty palm. It was one of the best days of my life. I was sure we’d meet again, and yet. All these missed chances to see each other again since that cloudy afternoon. One day we’ll meet again, I’m sure of it.
Forgive me my skepticism. I come by it honestly. My aunt would go on trips as well. She’d come back with a black eye, a broken rib, smelling of alcohol. She’d tongue the medication into her cheek, hiding whether she’d taken it. We couldn’t monitor her every minute of every day. Forgive me my skepticism.
November 30, 20—
I thought I might burn your letter to ashes. Were I not here locked away in this facility, I surely would have. Instead, I threw it in the trash and fumed. I’m only writing because you made me so angry, I spent the last week talking to you in my head, responding and responding and responding.
I don’t think we’ll see each other again. I am here and you are there. That day we met at the museum was nine fucking years ago and I’d just graduated college. The time we met up to go hiking in Yellowstone was seven years ago. Did I ever tell you I thought we might get together on that trip? But you were distracted, barely there. We talked about art and books and chemistry and physics, and your countenance kept falling, turning grim. On the last day, we were standing in a crowd, waiting for Old Faithful to blow, and I thought I might tell you how I felt, how I’d felt since I met you on those museum steps, but you started talking about geologic time in the play you were working on and asking me science questions thinking I’d have answers because I’d just gotten my Master’s. And then the geyser erupted, all the hot white plumes shooting into the air, and we stood there awestruck, speechless, outside time. The moment to speak passed me by. When we said goodbye, you kissed me on the cheek. I wasn’t sure we’d keep writing to each other, but a week later, your letter came, as it always did, as if you weren’t aware of the moment at all.
Anyway, if you wanted to see me since then, you would have. If I’d wanted to see you, I would have. I don’t know why we’ve bothered to keep in touch, to be honest. Is it to throw barbs at each other? Do you get a lot out of that?
Sincerely, but not warmly,
December 3, 20—
You cut me to the quick. Don’t write me off. My letter wasn’t intended as an incendiary. If I had the money to do so, I would have driven out to see you in the last few years. I was distracted at Yellowstone because I was worried about money, not sure whether I could afford to take the trip at all, anxious about the cost of the slice of cheesecake you wanted to split. If you weren’t working around the clock at the lab, you probably would have flown out to see me between Yellowstone and now. I’m worried about you. Be honest, if you received a letter from me claiming to have invented an elixir of immortality, you’d question my sanity, too.
Tell me. Tell me about the adventure of making this elixir. Why is it so important to you, locked away in a facility, that you live forever?
December 6, 20—
I want to live forever because I want to live forever. I want to feel limitless, boundless. I don’t want to die a vagrant, an itinerant, babbling on some dirty street corner one hundred miles from my home, alone and depressed and unable to escape my own theories about why America is the way it is. Before all this happened, I took a paranoid man to get a burger at McDonald’s and he told me his conspiracy theories about the powerful in society, and they made a kind of sense to me. When I look at the people around me right now, the people society insists are my people, I see that dirty street corner’s not at all a farfetched possibility. I could be that man.
I want to be forever young, forever excited about life, never middle-aged and trapped and disappointed with how things turned out. The elixir would make that possible, no matter what my therapist says, peering at me from under her auburn bob. I see her every morning for a one-on-one in this hellhole, and every morning she gently reminds me that the elixir is a delusion, that I can fight this delusion by taking control of my thoughts and accepting that certain thoughts are only thoughts flitting through my mind, and not necessarily true because I’ve thought them. Then she sends me off to an hour of art therapy to make collages that express my mood. And while I cut and glue those collages, scrapping together images of the legend from the Puranas that keeps coming back to me in fits and bursts, I wish I had more talent. But the thing is I do have a talent and that talent is for making elixirs, not collages. If only other people knew.
Weeks have passed, and I still haven’t made any friends here, and this, apparently, makes me unfit for discharge. But what if I’m the only one who is sane? I feel like their thoughts might be contagious, or maybe, more clearly, like I don’t have the normal defenses against the onslaught of their thoughts. My only means of protection is to distance myself, to cocoon myself in thoughts of the elixir.
Again, today, a wisp of a young woman was pinned to the ground by guards. Like me, she was from South Asia, but from the North somewhere, I think, and she kept sitting next to me in the room with the television and asking me questions in a fragile, vacant tone. Where did I live? What part of India was I from? When was I getting out? And I didn’t want to answer because the familiar way she asked made me uncomfortable, like we were the same. Now I keep thinking of her defenseless, nose to the ground, vulnerable, trembling, not dangerous at all, with an enormous male orderly with his knee pinned against her back.
I don’t want to think too long about the reality of that, of how people try to control and overpower one another, how fragile our shared reality is, how democracy in America has been falling apart for years, broken by the bullies of society and their quest for power and control—that knee of domination on a young woman’s back—but the thought keeps slipping unbidden into my mind. I try to push it away by thinking about that day on the beach when all this started.
The memory of dark blue waves lapping the pinkish, sunlit sands brings me peace. I’d been walking along the cliffside and found a garter snake. I picked it up and carried it with me to the edge of the sand. The snake told me to put him into the water. He stared at me with beady eyes. He told me to put his tail in the water and churn. I churned and I churned. Out of the water rose treasures. The churning was so strong, the mountain behind me was upended and moved slowly forward, slipping into the ocean. A giant tortoise emerged from the ocean and told me to take some of the spindrift and carry it back to the lab in my water bottle. I let go of the snake who was washed out to sea. I bent down and filled the bottle with saltwater and drove back to the lab, traveling the happiness curve to a brighter future. That’s the feeling I want, the feeling of infinity.
How do I find that feeling again? I won’t find it in here.
December 10, 20—
I suppose it might be easier to secure your release if you follow their rules? Nobody wants to live by other people’s rules, but we all have to do it. I’d rather be at the ocean myself, but instead I am here, inland, in one of the cheapest cities in the country. I wanted to be working on a play, and I’d thought I had a breakthrough, but instead I had to phonebank and work the polls because our country was going up in smoke. I didn’t think the candidate was particularly amazing, but the only way we’ll get the country we want is if we keep doing the work to put people into power who have hearts. I don’t want to wake up at five in the morning to deliver furniture for a living, but how else will I keep the lights on?
Here is what I never told you about that day at the museum. I sat down close to you on the steps on purpose. I knew straightaway that we would know each other for a long time. Who knows why I thought that. It was probably a delusion. But the thing about delusions is that you can make them come true sometimes. You looked at me and said something about the pretzel and street food. You said you’d had better on the streets of Mumbai. I was taken with you right away. Your ease with strangers. The sense that wherever you went would be home because you would make it so. That same expansive confidence, I fear, has you invested in an elixir that hasn’t brought you much good. Whether immortality is a delusion or not—I know you think not—you don’t want to waste away in there, do you? I hope you follow the rules, go to therapy, socialize with your fellow patients, so you can go home again.
If you manage to go home again, I promise I will come see you.
December 13, 20—
You are right. Of course you are. That day on the stone steps, I had no thoughts of immortality. I cared only for the moment, that one point in time, oblivious to all that was tangential to it. I didn’t care much if death was around the corner because I was so thrilled to be there in the city. I just wanted to talk to that beautiful boy sitting nearby on the steps watching the traffic go by. The pretzel was a good excuse. We were both broke.
Immediately, I was absorbed in what you knew of the Symbolists. The stories you could tell about those artists, their obsessions. I fell for you, I think, while we were wandering through the museum, telling each other what we saw, as if the other were not there, seeing it, too. We interpreted for each other. We didn’t see the same thing in any of those framed canvases. It was exciting in the moment, but I am thinking of it today because now, reading how little you think of my invention, I wonder if there was any connection there at all.
I followed your suggestion anyway. I’ve started socializing with my fellow patients. I do not talk about the elixir anymore in my therapy sessions, though this doesn’t mean I don’t think about it. My therapist says she’ll let me out by next weekend if I keep up the good work and progress. I don’t know if there’s anything good in the world out there though. The medication has slowed me down. I hate the way that it cuts the wings off my thoughts. There is no flying away on these drugs. It forces me to think I’m earthbound after all, no different from the others locked up here. I keep that in mind as I try to make friends.
There is an intimacy, us against the orderlies, but that’s not fellowship, is it?
From the window, I watch the bird feeder, but the birds don’t come back. I wonder if they’ve migrated, if it’s too cold for them.
December 16, 20—
Perhaps the birds flew here. When I look out my window, I see a flock of them sitting on the telephone wire, hanging out on the tree, gossiping to their heart’s content. I’m tempted to give one of them this letter and see if it returns to you. Do they allow you to open the windows and let some fresh air in over there? I’m glad, I can’t say how glad, that you’re doing your best to get released now.
That day on the steps: I wanted to impress you with those stories. I could see you were brilliant within the first five minutes. You terrified me. I was sure you’d see right through me and everything I was saying about the Symbolists. And if I’m honest, I was a little terrified by how quickly your mind worked. The thing is, you might feel slow, but you’re probably now working at normal speed, like a mere mortal. There’s nothing so wrong with that, is there? Being mortal, being alive?
December 19, 20—
Everything is wrong.
It feels like I’m being dragged through quicksand. Time dragging me in its jaws. Nobody would want to live forever like this; plowing through this sludge of days, hours, minutes. Is this what having a normal brain feels like? All the magic drained out of everything? Every shape, every color a little dull, blunted, boring? I don’t know how anyone could go on for an entire eighty years this way, much less all eternity. It’s so disappointing! Don’t you think so? That there’s nothing spectacular in all of this, just atoms and molecules colliding. No crashes, no thrills, just this painfully ordinary, bounded life.
I’m never going to recapture that feeling of the day by the ocean, am I? It’s gone forever. Nobody understands how beautiful that moment was with the snake and the water spiraling down a whirlpool. The radiance of sunlight glinting off the ocean-slick head of the snake, the droplets hanging from its teeth. It was a mere flash of time. I’m expected to live on that brief ecstasy for the rest of my lonely minutes on this planet? It’s too horrible for words.
Today is my last day in this facility. I tried to explain the beauty I’d glimpsed to the people in group this morning, but nobody understood. Their faces were blank, and there were no words that change their expressions. Nobody was inside for the same reason. They’d been depressed, or they’d been mad, but none of them had been exuberantly so. They’d never had that pure feeling of being transported out of your body, the promise of eternity in the lip of a wave. They have always been bounded, I think, and they understand boundaries as worth the trouble. Or maybe language, that tool of sociability, simply wasn’t designed to match the blissed-out, tremendous feeling of standing outside society, outside everything, including yourself. Maybe I’d be doubtful, too, if I hadn’t seen the way that churned ocean looked for myself.
I stopped trying to explain once I saw how they looked at me. In disbelief. Smirking. Scowling. Medicated. Within these four walls, walking around on this linoleum, you’re supposed to be suffering and slow or agitated and angry. Nobody here knows what to do with the inconvenience of euphoria, the way it eludes all the words.
I have to pack to return home now. They’re letting me out. Finally.
I am half-expecting they will change their minds and keep me for further observation.
December 22, 20—
Relieved to hear you are getting out after the past, what, month? Has it been longer? Steep price to pay for a single moment of ecstasy I’d say.
Don’t take this the wrong way, but what if an ordinary life were a dream worth more than you think? What if it were possible to have had that moment of ecstasy alongside all the ordinariness of everyday living? The work of paying bills. The cleaning of your house. The sweat of cold-calling, fundraising, trying to get a decent candidate elected. The feeling of wriggling your toes at the bottom of cool, clean sheets. The feeling of slicing open the mail, not knowing what you might find. It might be implausible in an opera to have that ecstasy and yet return to finding serenity in the lowly ordinary, but that is your life. How stunning is that? You were able to have both in one life.
Maybe that one singular moment you had at the ocean is enough. Maybe—hear me out, don’t burn this letter in anger—you don’t need more.
December 26, 20—
I walked to the ocean at daybreak today. There were no garden snakes, no gods or goddesses. It was freezing cold. The sky was overcast, muffling the gold line of the sun at the horizon. The ice plants looked subdued. Even the birds seemed chastened.
While I was walking up and down the sand, HR called me to let me know they are sending me all my effects by mail, so I shouldn’t come back to the lab. I tried to email a few colleagues, but none of them responded to me, not even a sentence, and it first I couldn’t believe it. They would eventually write, they would care what happened to me, wouldn’t they? They didn’t.
I didn’t tell you this before because it was too humiliating and painful—my chest tightens so fiercely with despair I want to throw up just remembering it—but the janitors weren’t the only ones who found me that Monday morning. After they called the ambulance, a number of my colleagues arrived and tried to calm me down. I can’t remember what happened clearly. I told you I would forget. It’s all dark shadows and strange angles of faces. Dark, angry eyes. Suspicion. My chest aches with the weight of seeing in their eyes who they thought I was: a threat. They thought I meant them harm. They didn’t mean me well either and I didn’t know how to convince them I was safe because they didn’t know what I was talking about. My language failing just as it would inside the facility. I was bedraggled, unkempt, unwashed, talking about a secret molecule, certain I could convince them of my delusions. I am left with their faces. When I think of their faces, I can’t go on. How do I go on, left only with all of that wreckage? Tell me; I’m out of ideas.
Maybe I try to think so much about the ecstatic moment when I thought up the elixir of immortality in order to survive the loss of trust, the unshakeable knowledge of how quickly fellowship can be undone, how quickly the people you ate lunch and laughed with and worked with every day see you as a threat to their buttoned-up lives and would rather never speak to you again.
This life is so lonely.
December 29, 20—
My aunt had experiences like that all her adult life, or at least I think she did. It’s hard to know anything from the outside. As you say, the feelings elude language. Out of the blue, she would get happier and happier, a soul like a helium balloon, propelled upward. Flights of ideas that seemed to fit together, but not quite—angled speech—traveling along currents none of us could see. For weeks she’d speak quickly. We couldn’t follow her. She went somewhere we couldn’t, though looking back, I’m not sure she could even follow herself. She didn’t want to sleep. I always wondered what was happening in her mind.
Once or twice, we had to call the police to restrain her because her energy was unbelievable. She lost her job, and then she lost another one and another one. Her husband paid the mortgage until he died, but he left the marriage and the house. She lost all her friends. That was the saddest thing to witness. As years passed, they stopped checking on her, stopped calling. I tried to see things from their perspective, to understand how they could abandon her like that, but I couldn’t. I was left only with judgment at their cruel apathy. When you have cancer, people bring roses and zinnias and daffodils, a whole kitchen full of flowers, but with this, eventually even her sons, my cousins, stopped checking on her. They went off to chase their ambitions, while she fell into catatonia. In her last cruel years, my parents who lived down the street were the only ones left to buy her groceries and pay the utilities. There was only so much they could do. She lived like a ghost alone in that big empty house in the suburbs, hoarding every scrap of paper, every knickknack, trying to keep alive the memory of being well as it receded further and further into the distant past, perpetually deciding that medication didn’t help her, that it slowed her down too much. She never came out alive again.
But I don’t believe for one second that had to happen, you know? Nothing is inevitable. She could have stayed on her medications, understood herself as simply a speck in history, made peace with the ordinary. You can, too. And her friends! Her friends could have stayed and seen she was one of them, not only her illness, in spite of what the horrific thing that had happened to her. They could have loved her.
I will be away for the next three or four days. You’ll see soon enough why.
January 10, 20—
I didn’t expect to find you on my doorstep last week. Did I dream you up? Was that real? Please don’t tell me if it wasn’t.
I can’t believe you drove out here to see me. You were as I’d remembered you. You haven’t aged! Do you have a portrait of yourself in some dusty closet that reveals all your lines and wrinkles?
I hope I wasn’t too much? There is such a thing, I know now, as a limit, a hard limit, even if it’s invisible. You keep approaching, but you don’t want to cross over. I crossed over. I don’t want you to feel like you cross over when you’re with me.
This is what I struggled with most in group. This mechanical way of talking about reality as entirely determined by society’s expectations, this realization that to live among other humans, I need to want boundaries and limits that in fact, I don’t desire at all. Want suggesting lack, desire suggesting excitement. But I think you’re right. I can’t want that illusory moment by the ocean to last forever, at least I can’t chase it and also respect the ordinary.
There is an asymptote to the happiness curve, I’m learning. I need to travel it, whether or not I’m ever going to quite get there. When you move out here, you’ll travel it with me, won’t you?
The ordinary is enough, I think.