Believing in the Future with the Torturer's Apprentice
from The Huffington Post
I left but then returned in the after of after, when the world was mostly smoke and the air was completely ruined, without telling my husband or his other wife, those other girls with his eyes and her hair that I found under the stairs. We had agreed to leave it all behind. The silver vessels. The 132 Couroc trays I had collected. Our wedding rings. The cat's ashes. My mother's. The stinky sinks that you could never fully clean, not with help, not ever. The geologic rings of calcium around the pool. The hair clustered in the drains. The still-boxed Christmas lights. The speculum. The college syllabi. Love letters. Computers. The photographs of pain that were his life's work, women's mouths, mostly, frozen, opening into the acrid air. They were saying untold things, only my husband knows just what, and now they weren't saying anything. They were burning. They had probably already burned.
It took almost a decade to believe with him. He did, after all, have another spouse. Another house. Two kids in the photographs he kept away from me in the cubby below the stairs. We had none. He hadn't wanted another one. It didn't bother me. I said it didn't bother me. It was easier this way. I had my portion of the space. I didn't need him every day. I got my way enough. I had my work enough, my friends enough. I was coughing less and less, the lifetime of whatever it was in my lungs finally clearing up.
The press called him “the torturer's apprentice.” Though he disliked it, it was apt. You know his mentor, the more famous artist, the one who goes without a name. He uses just a pompous little glyph. Which drives people crazy. But my husband, the lesser-known, he has a name. He's the one who's into mouths. He prepares the girls. He does the contracts up. The glyph won't do the contracts or the casting. Like a wizard, he won't appear until the girls are prepped and ready, until they've been emptied out. All the materials have to be there before he shows. And he won't stay after. My husband the apprentice takes his photos while they're still in prep. Then the glyph does his famous thing. Then the girls go home. Sometimes they come to the gallery shows, sign autographs, editions. When they do they seem oddly blank. They say they don't remember anything. They look like they are haloed in light, like they are levitating.
My husband showed me inside the studio. An operating room, totally clean and bare and chemical and steel. Restraints. One-way mirrors. It's fucked up. I'm the first one to tell you it's fucked up. I've always known it is. But it is honest. Deep down all of us are fucked. It takes a special something to bring that out so far, so fast from us. The two of them may be reviled, but no one looks away. In our world no one ever looks away.
The secret with my husband's photographs is that you can't fully tell what they're about, orgasm or agony, groan or moan or first speech or hum, if there is a difference, either way it's something emerging, not yet fully formed, a breath between breaths, an aperture opening, and a way to punctuate a day, a night, a life. The close-up of the mouth is where it's at for him. The folded vee of tongue. The lemniscate of lips closed then opening. A mouth is like a flower, he said. A mouth is like a bird. A mouth is like a tease. A feet with toes unfurling. A mouth is like a fountain.
I said, no, a mouth is like a hive of bees, slow cave-in, being hung, a bomb.
You can't deny it moves you, he said. You can tell it does something to you.
The time elapsed between the photographs is short. The time between his publication of the photographs and the girls' release is short. Their skirts are short. It's always skirts. It's always girls. This world. It's a little sick. That's what makes it good, he says. They sign up for it. They confess. They open up. They release their secrets and are released. That's the trick to it, that it's not just release of voice, it's not fake or forced. It's their choice. Everyone has them, choices, secrets, voice boxes, constraints, restraints. If pressed hard enough we will all become swans.
The torture is not the point. The point is the joint between the time before and the time after. The crux. That photograph—not representing time, but time itself. That crossing space. This used to be the world. Now this is the world. Sometimes, the worlds, they seem the same. You can barely tell the difference. Clouds before. Clouds here after. But something's changed. You can feel it. If you look close enough, the seam. The way we work out memories, what gets stored, starred for later easy retrieval, what gets discarded, boarded up. How a moment—an accident, a gas explosion, a runaway train, spreading sudden fire, a dozing driver off the interstate, fragment of falling satellite, an affair, a series of affairs, hair loss, a decapitation from a sheet of glass like in The Omen, power surge at the wrong time, power line drooping in the pool, anaphylactic shock, lightning strike, band saw slip, not to mention rapture, heart attack, stroke, or other ways the body can up and fail us—these are abysses with no bottom. Narrative works like this. Our lives work like this. Our lives are not narrative except as synapse makes them so.
If he needed to photograph it, which he did, needing to document it—I accepted that. He had nodded off in an ether haze in the medieval-themed Best Western (formerly the Sybaris, where we used to meet in the early days of our affair: now it's under new management, but it still takes cash and asks no questions), so I clicked on his camera. There were sixty-six shots of the fireball going up, our house bursting with gas, our stuff being converted to flame, and one close-up of a mouth. My mouth. Was I laughing? I wasn't sure.
He didn't need to know I would go back. We agreed there would be no going back. It made sense. We left the cars; otherwise they would know. Ditto with the clothes, the photographs. The pornographic DVDs that we hadn't watched for years. The two irreplaceable pieces of his mentor's work. Anything that meant anything had to stay, to burn. Needless to say could be no note or explanation.
Since he didn't need to know, I took the rental back. It was dark, but I knew the route. I wore a wig. I wore a skirt. In my old life I never wore a skirt. As I watched from down the block, I could see my mouth, an apparition in the daylight side of the rear-view, and, surprised, I closed it. I disappeared.
Ours was not the first to burn. For the last week in the hills around the town houses were going up like far off Christmas lights. It was festive. I'd have a drink each time. Plumes of gas erupting through roofs, the slow wind of sirens up the curling streets. I couldn't sleep so I would watch them go. Sometimes I would take the car to get a closer look. No one knew exactly why they would burn. Faulty gaslines were blamed. Weak hearts were blamed. Electrical fires were blamed. Arson, maybe, the police started to think. Just bad luck, said others. The more of them that disappeared the more I started to think about it myself. I didn't know where that feeling came from, but what I knew is that I wanted me gone, we gone, the whole record of us and who we had decided to be gone. We too could be swans, I said. We could come out of this something else.
It was a calculated risk. It's not as if I wasn't willing to share him. To be sure, I didn't want him more than occasionally. His other wife, that family, I knew almost nothing about. He wanted it that way. I didn't even know their names, though I knew where he kept the photographs. He said that way it would be pure. Prudent. Unputrefiable. He knew how women were, he said. He knew how knowing could weigh you down.
He did give up his secrets. That's why he loves me, because I can know and hold his secrets suspended in my body and not hate him for it. Because I said I understood. By the end I knew them all, and that knowing was really something. That's why I stayed. I couldn't stand the house, his second house, the constant smell of gas, the unbroken winter sunlight, the flimsy walls that could barely keep the howls of the neighbors' dogs outside, our sex lives in. The whole neighborhood, Lakewood Grove, had no lakes, no wood, no groves. The whole place was a fiction, a city without a city government or police force. It had no past. We had no past. We were pressed flat. We were drying paper. Without a past what were we? A moment in a photograph?
What he doesn't know is this: I take my photographs when he's asleep. I pet his throat. I pen him up. Subtly pluck his eyebrows. I tease his lips apart. I pry his eyelids slowly open like a clam. I touch the eye. Roll it in its orbit. Sometimes I spit on it. Interrogate it. Put small objects in the mouth. Make him swallow and wonder later. He can't tell. He'll never tell or know. He takes these sleeping pills because of restlessness. I can do whatever to his mouth when he is out. The drugs make him suggestible. This is my mouth, I whisper, breathing onion on him. I exfoliate his skin. Peel his lips. Watch his muscles move involuntarily. Stroke his teeth. Depress the tongue. This has been going on a year. When will it be enough, I wonder. It's not art, I said. It's something else.