The problem wasn’t the decision I made. It was the way I framed it: ignoring all the counter-indications. I happened to be reading a novel about a detective assuming a false identity, pretending to be a murdered woman in order to catch her killer; the suspects became her friends, she grew deeply confused. I mistook one alignment for another. The idea of reckoning outweighed the particular facts. I could see the ocean and overlook the missing envelope, the time change.
The first few weeks were like the opening scenes in a movie, everything taking on significance it would later shed. Lizards and rabbits startled when I ran past them. The only good thing in that apartment was the view—of a gas station and the mountains far behind it; my reflection would appear on a distant summit as I made coffee. We learned to peel arguments like fruit, dig out the essential nutrients. I listened too well to multiple paradigms, some useful, some intricate. I wasn’t unhappy exactly. I was looking for the right theory when all along it was a matter of method. Several realities were constructed in a room with small windows. We talked about transcendence: another strange impulse. There’s a kind of freedom derived from unanswerable questions. I miss the hypothetical, if anything. All winter, I borrowed anecdotes and stuck pins in them, began to regret this. I’d been studying families, their narrative strains and my unease, but the speech made an obvious thunderbolt: a revered scholar who said something about inspiration, or perhaps desperation, and reminded me of walking around a lake. I didn’t attend the banquet in his honor because I knew. He was right. There followed a long summer, the reinvention of betrayal. By this time a new roommate had arrived, an actress, who understood about appearances and layers. To exit, I signed documents, carried my boxes to the post office on foot.
I could say it was a mistake—my brain
got the better of me, I didn’t understand
what I was doing that year. But I decided;
one doesn’t end up in the desert by accident.
I applied and was accepted. I thought I should
try to fit all the pieces of my life together
and take them somewhere new. The logic
was bright and distant. I’d been pet-sitting—
stepping in and out of others’ lives, animals’
routines. I didn’t realize what a comfort this was
until the morning I saw a man smuggling his dog
onto the elevator in student housing. Then I knew.
One can’t actually study empathy, only search
for patterns. I thought I’d bring a mind and train it;
the ideas would be enough. This wasn’t ambition,
but driving uncertainty. I didn’t redirect well,
as a kid, wasn’t easily distracted if my attention
had fixed on a knife or socket. Even beforehand
I sensed I was ignoring something urgent:
a small animal sacrifice, the silent deity
requiring blood. I arrived and began reading
directions. What I learned was the mind wants
to run circles, the same every day, and the legs
memorize a path, not the eyes. I needed seasons,
weather. But the sun kept asking the wrong
questions. About vivisection and theory. I couldn’t
explain correctly and also listen. It meant
categories of being. Or let fall the facts.
Ceridwen Hall holds an MFA from the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign), where she now teaches composition and serves as an editorial assistant atThe Ninth Letter. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Cold Mountain Review, Denver Quarterly, Poet Lore, Confrontation, and elsewhere.