They used to say I was smart, so I kept my mouth shut. They called me athletic, so I stayed indoors. And it was the day they said “ambitious” that I just stopped giving a damn. My name is Bastian, and this is my story.
“Some of us are hiding in dark corners, waiting to change the world.” It was raining outside, at night. I lay in the bed watching the black screen on the tiny television. That was Sasha’s voice on the other end of the telephone, whispering. Sasha was my girlfriend, and she’s crazy. “Some are spiders, weaving their little webs, waiting, waiting, waiting.” I never knew how she expected me to respond to things like this, so I just sat still, listening. A dim light filtered in from a streetlamp, through the curtains, like a ghost haunting the room, searching. “And when the beautiful butterfly wanders too far from the light, he’s never seen again.” I looked around the room, and every shaded edge and surface reflected her words. The hissing of her voice filled the room, like a pitcher of water filling a glass. It filled my mind, displaced everything else. When she spoke like this, my entire life disappeared, my memories, my ideas, all evaporated, leaving a ball of sound energy floating in the room, saturating every nook, crawling like insects into every crack, spreading its tentacles. I ceased to exist; I became a ghost in an empty room, less substantial than the desk, the dresser, the bed, the table. I became her voice. “No one but the butterfly ever feels the pain and the fear and the helplessness. But the butterfly dies. Those feelings disappear, as if they had never existed. The spider, hungry and vile, eats the butterfly, sucking those feelings out of him, tasting the pain like honey, digesting the fear into desire. Then, all that’s left is an empty carcass, a hollow shell, and the spider retreats back into the darkest corner of her dark corner, licking her chops, waiting for the next meal.” I often wondered if I was the butterfly, and she was the spider. Maybe that’s why I had to leave her. I thought maybe she was sucking the life out of me. I thought I had escaped, that I was safe. I called her to say goodbye, to hear her object, to shine the flashlight at the spider’s dark corner and watch her squirm. But she didn’t change. She didn’t budge. She spoke as she had always spoken, and I held the phone to my ear as if it were my lifeline, as if I could not exist without her. Or didn’t want to.
The light was too bright. It was everywhere, shining at me. I had to squint to see the chessboard. The table was too high for me, so they had me sitting on some phone books. The man was fat. He had a gray beard. He looked like Santa Claus, only a lot meaner. He was staring at me, but I didn’t want to look at him. I just fixed my eyes on the game and bit my lip. I saw a good move. Nervously, I reached my arm over, picked up the heavy wooden bishop, and pushed it forward. The intercom told everyone what I had done, and some of them clapped a little. The fat man squinted his eyes at the game, studying what I had just done. His forehead wrinkled, and his pupils grew bigger and blacker. I looked away from him, back down to the game. He’ll probably move his horse, I thought. Then I can move my queen there, and my knight there. Only if he doesn’t move his knight too. Then I’d have to move my rook to block. Or just move my pawn to get in the way. I saw the moves stretch on and on dozens of times, splitting and branching like tributaries of a great delta. Only far in the distance did they thin out and fade, and I knew that the fat man could only see half as far as I could. I could tell by his other moves that his vantage was limited. It wasn’t my fault. The fat man reached his big hairy arm over the board, and moved his horse. I moved my queen, and all the people clapped. I cringed at the sound. I didn’t like being here, but my dad made me come. If only all those people would go away, and the fat man would stop looking at me, and the lights would go down, and the intercom turned off, and the air wasn’t so cold, and I didn’t have to play this stupid game. I had to pee. The fat man was staring at me again. It was my turn. Again. I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t. I hoped I didn’t win. But I would. I usually did. And it was unbearable. I took in a deep, exhausted breath, and moved.
“I don’t wanna go to school.” I pulled on my dad’s sleeve.
“Son, you have to go to school. I don’t want to hear it.” He pulled me by the wrist.
“But I already know everything.”
“Look, just sit there and be respectful. School is good for you. You can learn to get along with other kids.”
“But dad, the other kids make fun of me. The call me ‘brainer’ and ‘geek.’ They don’t let me play kickball at recess.”
“Hey, lay off the suit. I just ironed it.” My dad looked at me. “I told you, if any of the kids give you grief, just tell Ms. Hart.”
“But she doesn’t like me either. She always asks me questions.”
“That’s a good thing. She knows you’re a smart boy, and she’s just giving you a chance to express it. You should answer her questions with confidence. You ought to be proud to.”
He just didn’t understand. “But dad, the more I talk, the more they hate me. Only the stupid kids that always get in trouble are cool.”
“Well, no son of mine is going to act stupid and get in trouble just to be cool. Just stop whining and be a good boy.”
“But why can’t I even go to the special school? Michael went to the special school.”
“Your mother and I can’t afford it. Michael went to the private school because his father is a surgeon. I’m not.”
I looked down at the ground in frustration. My dad was a countant, or counter, or something like that. He didn’t like his job. He didn’t seem to like much of anything.
No one but the butterfly ever feels the pain and the fear and the helplessness. But the butterfly dies. Those feelings disappear, as if they had never existed. I thought about these words, churned them in my brain all night. I pictured an empty corner, flat and eventless. I pictured a butterfly silently fluttering about, straying too far into the shadows. A sticky trap lashes out and grabs him. In a panic, he beats his wings, kicks his feet. But he only makes matters worse. He struggles on and on, until his energy runs out. Then he sees her. The shadowy outline of a beast. The spider emerges, slowly walking forward along her sticky tightrope. Her mouth waters and her fangs twitch. The butterfly is paralyzed with fear, eyes widening in disbelief. His stomach wrenches. He knows that as soon as he moves, the beast strikes. She looms, bigger and bigger, until finally a trigger fires inside the butterfly. He flails with all his might, desperately. And the beast, quick as lightning, sinks her fangs into the poor creature. His body is flooded with unbearable pain. Tears are evaporated by fear before they’re even shed. His teeth clench tighter with pain, trembling. And then, the pain ceases to be pain, but merely a caricature of pain, an object easily dropped. The butterfly steps out of his own existence, vaporizing into thin air. And that’s where the true pain lies. After such an ordeal, all that’s left is an empty corner, flat and eventless. Like a ghost town. It was a closed loop. A void. Something had happened. Something terrible and violent. Something important. But it left no remnant. It was almost as if it had never happened. It had never been. That was the feeling of emptiness I knew. That gut-wrenching void I felt winning a chess game, or answering the teacher’s question. I couldn’t explain it in words. Only feelings and emotions that didn’t really exist. And that was the worst part of all.
I met Sasha in a movie theatre. I was sitting in the very center, in a comfortable chair, alone in the dark crowded room. The poster outside had a picture of a sunken ship. Something about it piqued my interest. Now, halfway through, my eyes were fixed, watching film taken from thousands of feet beneath the world, stolen from depths no man was ever meant to explore. With every picture, the sanctity of that ship was raped. It wasn’t peaceful anymore; it wasn’t mysterious. The darkness had been broken, but not as a favor to the great vessel who had fallen, or the hundreds who perished on it, their bodies evaporated into the ocean. The only favor was for themselves, the vain satisfaction of a mystery revealed. The few hours of film amounted to nothing when compared to the long decades of solitude and decay. It was like a dream, something interesting and fascinating, but ultimately, had never happened at all. You could practically see the tears of pain roll down the ship’s steep sides. Little did I know, my face contorted in an expression of what the ship felt. I was on the verge of tears, but tears would never come. I noticed a woman beside me, staring at me, scrutinizing. I looked at her, but she did not look away. Her eyes were not wondering why my face looked the way it did, but seemed rather to flicker in faint recognition of a familiar feeling, hitherto unseen except in her own mirror. She was quite beautiful, and she seemed to emanate an overwhelming empathy and understanding of me. I wanted to finish watching the film, but not at the expense of talking to this woman in the near future. So I smiled, took her hand, and looked back at the screen. She understood. Her face relaxed, and she interlaced her fingers in mine. I was only faintly aware of the sensation. I concentrated on the ship in front of me. After a while, the divers turned off all the lights, gathered all their equipment, and floated back up to the surface, leaving the lovely ship empty, alone, and broken. Within twenty seconds of the end credits, the audience had all shuffled out, commenting on how interesting and fascinating the movie was. I stayed behind, watching the credits, which so often went unwatched. When I looked to my side, the woman was there, waiting for me.
For a few long moments I forgot that this woman was a stranger. I forgot that I needed to tell her who I was. I forgot that I needed to impress her and make her laugh and make her feel special. I forgot that I was supposed to try to touch her and kiss her and sleep with her. I would have asked her what she thought of the movie, but I felt that I knew her so well, that I already knew what she would say. For a few long moments, we knew everything there was to know about each other. It was not overwhelming or unusual; it was simple, serene, and natural. When the haze lifted, I tilted my head up to the ceiling for a few moments, watching as the feeling floated away, as our knowledge of each other swam back up to the surface of the ocean, leaving us untouched and undisturbed. It was then I realized the vast amount of information that had to be exchanged between us, before we could feel that feeling again. I took in a deep breath, and thought: we have plenty of time; we’ll start tomorrow. I leaned in and lightly kissed her forehead.
“Come on. I’ll walk you to your car.” I never let go of her hand.
“Why do you like me so much?” she asked three weeks later.
“Because you understand me, and I like being understood.”
We lay in my bed, together in the dark, sharing each other’s bodies, relishing the good familiar warmth of a bed partner. Her body was situated on mine, our legs intertwined; she rested her chin on my chest, and looked into my eyes. Last night, she had done an exquisite and artful job of seducing me, but the part that struck me the most was when she walked toward me and asked:
“What is so entrancing about a naked body? It’s not as if nudity is some sort of violation. It is our true natural form that we’ve simply covered up. Why does it feel so strikingly different? Is it the anticipation of sex? Maybe, but there’s something else, something more latent and subtle.” She walked up to me, pressed the palm of her hand against my chest. “My hand is only millimeters away from your body, and yet it feels like light-years compared to nakedness. It’s almost as if there’s a void, a gap in our brains’ attempt to perceive a person. We see a face, body, arms, legs, and then we see the whole.” She stared straight at her hand on my chest, never looking at my face. “But something important is missing, that we just can’t place…” She moved her hand up to my shoulder. “Until…” I took her face in my hands, and leaned in to kiss her.
At the time I cared more about nakedness than I did about the mystery surrounding nakedness, but now, I contemplated the latter. It did feel natural, lying here naked with her under the sheets. It would have been a violation to be clothed. Why then was it so often reversed? I couldn’t even find the right words to conceptualize the mystery in the first place. The question was like a creature living in my brain, running away from me for all time, and yet running in place. It had many arms, all leading to other mysteries that generated a similar emotion. What was the supreme significance of taking off your clothes in front of another human being? The logical answer, when approached from any angle was: nothing. Yet the only answer that made sense was: something. Solving the wordless puzzle felt like plunging down a black hole. Any minute, you think, you’ll hit the bottom and discover the inevitable and obvious answer. But after falling for what feels like an eternity, you open your eyes, and you’re back on the surface, ready to jump down that black hole. You’ve sent yourself back in time, where the question and the answer are somehow one in the same. You contemplate jumping again, but you’re just not sure what you’re doing here in the first place. I thought I heard my name.
“What?” I asked, surprised.
“I said, what are you thinking about?” Sasha’s pretty eyes stared curiously into mine. I took one last look at the black hole swirling before me, and sighed with a reserved calm. I turned away from the void, and walked off, back into reality.
She slept for hours, but I lay awake. Sometime early in the morning, I woke her up and asked, “Do you like caves?”
“I was imagining walking through a cave. Empty. Hollow. Ageless. Magnificent. The cave and I were equal in some way. Then I realized I was walking alone. So then I proceeded to imagine walking with some friends. Immediately I saw us talking, admiring together, taking pictures, even chiseling off pieces of the beautiful cave to take home. This made the cave very sad. I felt like the cave and I were pulling away for each other. A void was being created. All of the sudden, I wasn’t sharing an experience with the cave; I was sharing it with my friends at the cave’s expense. But what if no one is in the cave? The cave just sits idly, exists peacefully, ages alone. Then again, not even that is true. To know this is happening, you have to go into it and see for yourself, thus interrupting it. So in reality, a cave doesn’t really exist in the first place, as long as no one enters it. That’s the void: the nature of existing without anyone else’s knowledge. Any mystery’s natural state is to be unsolved. As soon as someone finds a solution, it ceases to be a mystery any longer. That is what creates the void, this question: did the solution exist all along? The last thing I imagined was this: what if I am the cave? Just for a few minutes. I really concentrated, and imagined being a cave for a brief time. And in that moment, I knew the solution; I knew everything there was to know about that cave. And as soon as I snapped out of it, the solution vanished. As if it had never existed. You can’t take it with you; you can’t steal its soul; but you sure as hell can steal pieces of it. You see, I am the cave. I am the void. And people have been after my soul forever. Sorry, I’m ranting. Do you understand?”
The day before I was born, God came to me and said, “Put on this mask, and don’t ever take it off.” I took the mask from His hand and put it on. I haven’t taken it off since.
I woke up, startled. I had just had a nightmare, but I couldn’t remember what it was. I saw myself covering my face, defending myself against a horde of hands. They were all pulling at the flesh of my face, and I was screaming. Some of the hands were normal, but some were deformed, with hair and claws. There was more to the dream, but I couldn’t remember it. After a few moments, even that image vanished from my mind. I was used to the feeling of forgetting a dream. As long as you don’t try to remember it, you can feel it in your mind, waiting, buried, untouched and unspoiled. But if you try to remember it, then retracing the dream corrupts it. The more you go over it in your head, the more distorted it becomes. Finally, you just let it go.
“What is it?”
I woke up again, this time to the sound of Sasha’s voice. “What?”
“I said, what’s wrong? Did you have a dream?”
I blinked. “I don’t know.” I looked over at her, afraid. She stared at me in the dark for a few long moments, but it was too dark to see each other. I didn’t want to see the truth.
“Good night, sweetheart.” She laid an affectionate hand on my bare shoulder. I shivered under the sensation. It felt vile somehow. I felt like I was sleeping next to a monster. I hoped I was still dreaming.
“I’m so proud of you, boy.” That’s what my dad said on the day I graduated magnum cum laude from Harvard, physics department in spring of 1996. “Your mother would have been proud of you.” She had died of cancer two years ago, at the tender age of fifty-three.
We went to a nearby coffee shop after the ceremony. He was beaming.
“So, what are your plans? You gonna take that offer from Bell Labs? Or that teaching position at Princeton?” It all made my head spin.
“I don’t know yet,” I lied. “I’ll have to give it some thought.”
“That’s my boy. Always making sure to take the time to do the right thing. That’s a good practice. God knows I would’ve jumped at the first opportunity available to me. But you’re the smart one; you know to keep things in perspective.”
“Thanks, dad.” I had planned for years to go to Italy. There was a picture of a beautiful green vineyard that I carried around in my head, sneaking a look at it as often as I could. I thought guiltily about boarding the next plane. I had looked forward to it for so long, but my dad’s vulnerable smiling face filled me with doubt.
Two months later, I sat at my desk, laboring away at a complicated problem that had been eluding me for some time. I was an R&D slave at Bell Labs. The reality of student loan debt had finally sunken in, and the numbers did not paint a pretty picture. I had a seventeen-year sentence here before I broke even, and then it was time to think about retirement. At least once every hour I thought about the lush unbroken beauty of Tuscany. But it was only a painting, a glossy magazine cover, a brittle antique under glass. No one I worked with could see it, all they saw was a genius, laboring away like Atlas, impervious to distraction.
Every so often someone would peek in and see me staring at the phone or out the window, blank. Lunch breaks were usually spent out in the courtyard in the shadows, or behind a closed door, ear pressed to the receiver, letting the soothing melody of the dial tone flow through me. I always imagined closing my eyes and waking up in my dream house on a lake, or out in my boat, or lying in the vineyard under the sun, or picking fresh blackberries from the brush. If only the phone line could carry my body like it carried my voice. But I knew enough physics to leave that a fantasy.
“So what did you study in school? Law?” Sasha asked, the day after we met.
“Physics? What for?”
“It’s where my head is. Just born there, I guess.”
“I flunked high school physics. Never was much good with math either. I’ll finish my degree in political science next year.”
“And what will you do with that?”
“I don’t know.” She shrugged carelessly. “Maybe run for president.” She bent down and plucked a dandelion. We were walking through a park on a warm afternoon.
She didn’t laugh it off, and I didn’t want to call her on it. “That takes a lot of hard work and commitment.”
“Have you seen some of the idiots that have done it before? You can be my Secretary of Defense.”
“National Science Advisor, maybe.”
“You’re no fun. So what do you want to be?”
“What like genetic engineering or something?”
“No, just a farmer. Raise crops, livestock, maybe children if it’s in the cards.”
“Sure. Why not?”
“Just seems…boring. Underachieving.”
“With all you’re brains you can be whatever you want to be.”
“I’ve heard that since I was five. And all I’ve ever wanted was peace.”
“But you’re so smart. You could have a voice in the world.”
“When I was a kid, I used to read like hell. I used to show off, approach random people and force them to ask me questions so I could regurgitate the volumes of information I inhaled. No one liked me. They said I was smart. It had never occurred to me that I was smart. I didn’t want to be smart. Being smart meant being different, meant being alien. So I kept my mouth shut. But I never could hide it.”
“Why would you want to?”
“You don’t know what it’s like to be different. To be in the spotlight all the time. It’s humiliating. Jealousy is a cruel creature.”
“I’ve always liked being different. Makes me stand out.”
“That’s why I like you.”
Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle states that the more accurately one measures a particle’s velocity, the less accurately its position can be determined, and vice versa. Therefore one interpretation is that a particle has no “velocity” or “position” at all, but is rather a ghost, a wave, an incorporeal collection of probabilities, a ball of likeliness to be here or there. It can’t be pinned down, but it’s there, lurking. It’s a sunken ship, waiting, rusting and rotting. Undiscovered and indiscoverable.
The part that unnerves me is that this is the basis of reality. There is a scale of space so tiny that distance cannot be interpreted. It doesn’t exist. Zoom in on the fabric of the world close enough and it blurs into nothingness. That is the foundation of reality. Like stone columns standing strong, supporting a coliseum, but rooted in mud, beneath which one cannot venture. What is under and behind and between the fabric of the world? What is God hiding in that tiny scale of space? Is that ball of likeliness a cage? What secret, what treasure does it guard?
I held the phone to my ear.
“Have you ever wondered what an ant thinks about when you kill his queen? It must be very lonely, confusing. Think about it. All your life you’ve had the thoughts and ideas and motives of something else, an entity higher than yourself. You’ve had a purpose. A duty. Then all of the sudden, nothing. No reason to walk this way or that, no way of distinguishing the two. Every action, every direction, and every object blends together into the same thing because none is more important than any other. Vision becomes blindness. Sound becomes static. You walk around in circles because you have no mind. You have energy with no drive, a motor with no tracks. You love the queen, worship her dead self, but you hate her because you ask her what you can do for her and she doesn’t answer. She never answers. She just watches you blunder about aimlessly and frowns. You cry. And then you die.”
“They used to call me ambitious. I didn’t really know what they meant at first. Then slowly I realized that it was kind of like running. You never slow down. You never stop to take a breath. You never take the time to appreciate the world. I was so scared that I actually screamed. The realization of what they meant came to me all at once, and I decided I didn’t want to be that. And I just stopped giving a damn.”
“Why do you like me so much?”
“You’re the only reason I’m still here.”
The door opened to my office. I hung up the phone.
When I was twenty-eight, my father died. He had a stroke. My hand hurt. Blood ran down from between my fingers. I stood naked in my bathroom in the dim light. I stared into the broken mirror. Each fragment offered a picture of me, slightly different, each telling part of the story from a different angle. My blood trickled down from the center of the spider web of cracks, like a spider creeping down from its nest. Each shard of glass held my eyes steadfastly, intensely, like puzzle pieces that didn’t quite fit together. I stared into a dozen sets of eyes, trying to decide which one was most important, how they related to each other, how they fit together into one face. But I couldn’t. They all told the same story. They all showed the same face. Some parts of the story were repeated, others left out, but it was mostly all there. I looked into the mirror that I destroyed out of helplessness and saw for the most part myself.
I sat still on the bed, listening. A dim light filtered in from a streetlamp, through the curtains, like a ghost haunting the room, searching. And when the beautiful butterfly wanders too far from the light, he’s never seen again. I looked around the room, and every shaded edge and surface reflected her words. The hissing of her voice filled my mind, like a pitcher of water filling a glass. My entire life disappeared, my memories, my ideas, all evaporated, leaving a ball of sound energy floating in space, saturating every nook, crawling like insects into every crack, spreading its tentacles. I ceased to exist; I became a ghost in my own head. I became her voice. No one but the butterfly ever feels the pain and the fear and the helplessness. But the butterfly dies. Those feelings disappear, as if they had never existed. I often wondered if I was the butterfly, and she was the spider. I guess it doesn’t matter now. I thought I had escaped, that I was safe. I called her to say goodbye, to hear her object, to shine the flashlight at the spider’s dark corner and watch her squirm. But she didn’t change. She didn’t budge. She didn’t even exist in the first place, and I held the phone to my ear as if it were my lifeline, as if I could not exist without her. Or didn’t want to.
Everything she was, her voice, her ideas, her body, was contained in that dial tone. I sat on the bed, legs sprawled in front of me, receiver pressed against my ear, letting the sound flow through me, and all I could think about was my dad, waiting for me at the lake.