The professor is, of course, talking. The notion that a sentence cannot be a fragment. Adverbs, adverbs. Every language pretends that its word for nostalgia is untranslatable. Camus killed his mother. Tezeta, saudade. He missed her, probably. The professor’s lips are making noises. As professors’ lips are wont to do. A narrator is rather like a fiber supplement. Final papers. Samuel Richardson folded a song into a book. In fact, I don’t give a whisper of a shit.
It’s November, and for the first time in my life I have somebody whom I call my boyfriend, which means there’s nothing for me to write about. This is one of many problems with not being lonely. I spend hours in the Egyptology Reading Room on the second floor of the library staring at the lamp’s low light. Outside, people have started wearing jackets.
The professor, who doesn’t quite deserve to be named, who matters in the way that a slice of carrot cake matters, lets us go. I put my notebook in my bag and free myself through the back door of the lecture hall. Cold air stings my unwriting hands. I head to the dining hall for dinner and sit with a person who does deserve to be named, whose name is Jacob, who is, I guess, my boyfriend, whose plate is almost invisible under a pile of polenta and Greek salad and chocolate pudding.
How was class? he asks. He is holding his fork like a five-year-old. Gripping it. I find it endearing for now, but I wonder how I will feel in December.
Good, I say. In the sense that I sat and listened and emerged more or less alive.
He nods. I love it when you emerge more or less alive, he says. A wad of lettuce penetrates his lips.
We met in September at a four-seasons-themed party. I was dressed as Vivaldi; he had taped a photograph of a luxury hotel to his chest. Instead of greeting me, he said, I want to make a movie about an old woman in Addis Ababa who can only walk in hexagons. Instead of greeting him, I said, I want to write a novel about nothing. We slept together, by which I mean we slept together. In the morning, he said, are you my boyfriend? I said, sure.
Jacob has finished chewing the lettuce. It worms down his throat. He wipes his mouth with a paper napkin, picks up his spoon, and gets to work on the polenta.
Are you still trying to learn Amharic? I ask.
In theory, he says, but I’m stuck on the writing system. The abugida. It looks like music to me. Not language.
Are those separate categories for you?
Are they not for you?
I take a sip of water so small that I barely feel the wetness. I’m not sure, I say. When we looked at scores in my music history class, I kind of felt like I was reading a book. And sometimes, when I read books, I get the sense that I’m listening to something with my eyes.
You’re fucking insane, Jacob says, kicking me under the table. Synesthetes repulse me.
He laughs. I laugh too, because he does. My plate is empty.
I want to write a story, I say.
So do it.
So don’t do it.
I wait for him to finish eating. We go to his dorm and watch a reality TV show. It doesn’t feel particularly real. Men fondle women on a beach at least two thousand miles from here. A cliff-hanger that we don’t care about. There is a question about whether this person with a name starting with “D” will choose to take this person with a name starting with “G” or this person with a name starting with “J” to the lovers’ suite. The theme music plays. Next time, the narrator says. There will be no next time.
We’re sitting on Jacob’s twin bed and kicking the air. The overhead light is off; the lamp on the desk is on. A single slice of grapefruit sits hardening in the far corner. I decide not to mention it. Jacob turns to me.
Can I kiss you? he asks. I say, sure. I feel a lot of things when he kisses me, though none of them is the magical face tingle I’ve been led to believe lips can set off. The things I feel are: his upper lip, his lower lip, his tongue, a tooth. Chin hairs. Bodies, it turns out, are bodies.
I pull away for a moment and say, have I told you I have mild scoliosis?
When he turns off the lamp and wriggles under the covers and loops his legs around mine like tails, I’m struck by the idea that the faraway ambulance siren, barely audible in the soon-winter darkness, is itself a piece of music. A manic, mobile symphony. There’s something sick about it: the man dying inside, his spine stiff, his heart seizing. And the ambulance singing, a soprano testing her range, performing for the city, waiting vainly for the applause. Jacob’s skin warms. We sleep. I dream of nostalgia. Only the word. Not the feeling.
A friend whose name matters even less than my professor’s name sends me a song called “Greenness,” by an artist who deserves to be named but whom I won’t name, because what I care about is the song, the “Greenness,” the greenness. It’s a song not unlike a siren. It thrums with urgency. I am overwhelmed by the sense that the song is constructed to communicate a message — get out of my way, pull over to the side of the road, let me get to the hospital. But none of those. Something less vital and more important. Something I can’t quite figure out. Something related, perhaps, to the color green.
I first listen to the song on the way to class. When I get there, as I sit down, all I can do is let the lyrics loop through my head. Coriander, capsicum, cucumber, chameleon, coriander, capsicum, cucumber, chameleon. The professor’s words pour into me like the watery nonsense I want them to be. Alliteration, consonance, assonance. Various samenesses. In a sense, the universal preoccupation with linguistic determinism is a refutation of the same. Folks, is asking what we don’t see when we don’t open our eyes the same as asking what we see when we open our eyes? Please don’t let Homer be forgotten. I am a widower; my wife is dead. Barthes wrote “The Death of the Author” and died thirteen years later. That essay is a stroke of genius. It was a stroke; I am so lonely. Welcome to Lilliput! Who says To the Lighthouse isn’t a book-length letter to the lighthouse? Who? Never rhyme in real life. Rhyme, real. Alliteration. A sameness. Feel it in your mouth. Like a kiss.
He releases us. We say thank you, by which we mean, thank you for showing mercy. I play the song again on the way to dinner. The lyrics comprise a list of green objects beginning with the letter “c.” “C,” I decide, is the greenest letter. See, sea. Visions and oceans, the vague jade of Jacob’s eye and the licking mantis of the Long Island Sound. Crocodiles eating celery. Crickets eating clover. Caterpillars eating cabbage.
Jacob’s plate, as usual, is fat with polenta and salad and pudding. He eats methodically tonight, like a reptile, or maybe an insect. The polenta enters him teaspoons at a time.
Have you heard “Greenness”? I ask him.
Is that a podcast?
Then no. I don’t listen to songs. Only podcasts.
You know I know that’s not true.
There are songs in podcasts.
I watch Jacob eat. There’s nothing more compelling, I decide, than watching a man with a well-proportioned face consume buffet-style meals for which his parents pay in monthly installments from their home in Wisconsin. I consider telling him this. But he is busy with the pudding now. I imagine the stuff filling his arteries, clogging all the tubes and passageways. I would go with him in the ambulance. I would sit with him in the hospital. I would walk with him to the operating room. At the double doors, I would sing to him. “Greenness.” And cry bluely as they took him away.
I hadn’t known you had scoliosis until you told me the other night.
Yeah. The orthopedist told eight-year-old me that I was like a tree that had forgotten to grow toward the sun.
You can see it in the shoulders.
Oh, yeah. The left one is higher.
No, the right.
We’re silent for a while. I try to recreate the song’s synthesizer in my mind, but the effort makes my forehead hurt. All I manage to do is imagine a muddy buzzing, like a horde of bees trapped under a blanket.
Fuck, I say finally.
I mean, something, he says. His left eyebrow is a backslash.
Just this song.
I laugh. “Greenness,” I say.
It’s stuck in my head.
That’s a problem.
Right, I say.
I nod, he nods, we nod.
In Jacob’s too-small bed, I start a story that I’ll never finish while he repeatedly rearranges his pajamas around his crotch. I briefly consider whether this is some sort of signal, then return to my blank document and write, “It is a rare penis that is green.” I delete the sentence and write, “It is a rare thing that is both a penis and green.” I delete the sentence and restore the original. I close the laptop and do the thing other people call snuggling, the thing I prefer to call being a body that is not distinct from other bodies, forgetting that one never truly touches anything, that the atoms are always alone.
With the lights out, the room is so dark that it’s almost green. My spine feels distinctly unspine-like. I remember that there is a slice of grapefruit in the corner. Soon it will grow lush with mold. I think about the grapefruit, about the grapefruit rotting. I forget my spine. Jacob snores.
I opt to write my final essay about the literary resonances of coriander. The professor seems skeptical. I attribute this skepticism to the death of his wife.
It’s late November, and every day fewer things are green. Jacob insists on taking me to an Ethiopian restaurant. The doro wat is good, fills me up. Three days later, my head fills up, like a stomach. I never really learned to blow my nose. Mucus drips out; I collect it on a folded tissue. And wait for more. A slow process.
In class, the professor, whom I can barely hear through the static of my congestion, says words. Has anyone heard of the poet (name inaudible due to rhinovirus)? Wrote a recently rediscovered (poetic form inaudible due to rhinovirus), in which a woman decides her husband is raucously ugly and severs his head with a fingernail she finds behind the dresser. The epistolary novel, like all second-person texts, (verb inaudible due to rhinovirus) the reader. Points. Finger sticking out from the page. Has the nail on said finger been clipped? Where have the clippings gone? Check behind the dresser. Ha, ha. Nobody writes letters anymore. I have never read a good novel. I don’t read novels and hope that they are good. I hope that they are (adjective inaudible due to rhinovirus). Metonymy. Meta-nomy. Djibouti is the capital of Djibouti. Capitalizing capitals: essential. Imagine calling a city manila. Becomes an envelope. Or (city name inaudible due to rhinovirus). Becomes a bean. Is a city a bean? No. No! Most days, I am nostalgic. Most nights, I am nostalgic. But for different things. A wife, a song, a story, a blank notebook (participle inaudible due to rhinovirus) in the basement. Baudelaire, Borges, big bowl of brown bananas. Let them ripen until they rot. Phones off, please. Do I think that Emily Dickinson knew what she was doing with those dashes? No. Do I care? The tempting answer: no. The rigorous answer: no.
I begin my final essay by reorganizing coriander into carried on. The discovery feels significant but isn’t. I give up and go to dinner. Jacob at a table. He, like the professor, says words, but I am busy thinking about the song, which makes me feel warm inside. Coriander, capsicum, cucumber, chameleon, coriander, capsicum, cucumber, chameleon. I hold the fork with my right hand and trace the words on my thigh with my left. My sinuses pulse. The snot, when it comes, is green. Jacob calls me gross. I smile, he smiles. My fingernails are getting long. They scratch my thigh with every word. Coriander, capsicum, cucumber, chameleon. Coriander, coriander, coriander. Many things are carried on: conversations, bags, lies.
Hey, Jacob is saying. Hey, where are you over there?
Sorry, I say, sniffling. I’m sick and out of it. And this song won’t leave me alone.
“Greenness”? I listened to it. I like it.
What, you don’t like it?
Jacob, I love it. I can’t stop hearing it.
Interesting how it’s normal to say that we love songs, but not that we’re in love with them.
I am in love with this song. That’s what I mean. I’m in love with it.
Jacob finishes his polenta. I tell him I’ll meet him in his dorm a bit later and go instead to the Egyptology Reading Room. Normally the room is musty with dust, but my nose is so plugged up that the smell is gone. I try to write. About a man who sells green apple candy in Chicago. Bo. Is his name. Bo’s Green Apple Candy. Is the name of the little stand he sets up near Millennium Park. People come in droves and pay for bittersweetness. They know his name, not because they know him, but because his name is printed on the stand in big green letters. Hi, Bo, they say, as if they are old friends, as if he will greet them by name in return. He doesn’t greet them by name. He gives them their candy and tells them how much and waves them away. Somehow this only makes them want more. By mid-afternoon, he is out. Of candy, and of space in the story, because instead I find myself typing the lyrics to the song in the document as the lamp casts yellows and greens and browns across the desk. This is not a story I will finish.
I get to Jacob’s dorm late. He’s already in his pajamas. Reading Tolstoy. The fan is on; it’s frigid. Everything feels very far from itself. Jacob, with his book and his bare feet and his goose-pimpled arms, looks like a hologram. A version of himself projected from a place I’ll never reach, even if I start walking now. I almost start crying, right there in the doorway, but I don’t, because I’m afraid the tears will come out the color of limeade.
Hey, one of us says.
Hey, the other one of us says.
How are you?
I’m okay. How are you?
December. Alone in bed, I am struck by the strangeness of not being touched while I sleep. In the evenings, I listen to “Greenness” over and over. Coriander, capsicum, cucumber, chameleon. I want to paint my room green. I want to paint the world green. I want to eat green. I email the professor on an excruciatingly cold Saturday and ask for an extension on my paper, which explores a concept that I have begun to call coriandic fictionalization. He doesn’t reply. He stays silent, like a dead wife with a clot in her brain. I begin to resent non-green things. Sunsets, the pages of books, polenta, people. I hear ambulance sirens and imagine Jacob on the stretcher, hands pushing down on his chest to the beat of a song whose name doesn’t matter. I imagine a greenness in the ambulance. Yes, say there is a greenness in the ambulance. A jar of pickles by the gauze. A lizard in the glove box.
In class, the professor speaks. My sinuses are clear; his words enter me. There will be no extensions on the final paper. Sometimes it is wonderful to make no sense. What is color? Oh, by the way: homodiaspora. Consider the dire implications of a flower. Many, many words begin with letters. See? Do you see now? Well. Reading is about being alone. Being alone is about reading. Intersectional subversion, subversive intersectionality. Hide all things that matter between quotation marks. Never trust a person eating a grapefruit. Oh, my wife. My wife. The scent of a comma. Here is a novel that does not exist about what it does not mean to be alive. It changes everything. Here. The last bit. Listen closely: the trees are dying. The trees are dead. The trees have died. Leaves will be back. When? After.
Xavier Blackwell-Lipkind serves as editor-in-chief of the Yale Literary Magazine. His work appears in The Threepenny Review, Gulf Coast, and West Branch.