The Circus of the Body
[Originally published in ZAHIR MAGAZINE]
Does it mean, as I seem to be saying, that the subject is condemned to seeing himself emerge, in initio, only in the field of the Other? Could it be that? Well, it isn’t. Not at all—not at all—not at all.
As a young boy, Odilon Viellot believed that the inside of his body looked very much like a circus. It was this old memory of a supposition that Odilon shared in bed with his wife, Veronica. In the hollow of his skull, he said, a small clown car orbited his consciousness; in his arms, tiny painted elephants marched back and forth over the hill of his elbow; in his chest, acrobats performed dangerous leaps over the net of his intestines. Skin was merely a circus tent, and his heart, a sort of ringmaster.
Years of adult sense, education, and contrary scientific research notwithstanding, Odilon wondered aloud if he was but a thirty-one-year-old boy for whom jugglers caused headaches and snake handlers erections.
He told this to his wife but spoke to the dark light bulb at the center of the ceiling.
Veronica, who knew her husband delighted in remembering his boyhood, nodded at appropriate times, raised an eyebrow at others. She listened with the half ear given by those half asleep. When he was finished, she turned over, put her hands in between the knobs of her knees.
They slept ass to ass for comfort’s sake.
The next morning, Veronica Viellot, sitting on the crowded subway below the city, thought again of her husband’s childish dreams and tried picturing the inside of her own head. Passengers stepped on. Nothing, nothing, nothing came. New Yorkers rushed past her like blood cells. Emptiness hurts even when completely numb. She concentrated and focused and strained, until, at last, she felt defeated by the impossibility of completing her own autopsy. The sinking in her stomach was nothing like a falling tightrope walker. It was nothing like that at all.
It appeared silly for what it was; for the technology of it all, it looked like a young girl’s headband, forest green and plastic. Its surface had a dull sheen but was still shiny enough for the spotlights in the laboratory to reflect off the headband, an effect that caused an unfortunate halo to appear around the wearer’s head. The first test subject, Coolidge, a pygmy chimpanzee from the Congo, looked like a subject in a Renaissance church painting, solemn, pious even as it scratched its privates. A nearby janitor, a strict Catholic, intervened after seeing the chimp with a halo: it took all of Dr. Odilon Viellot’s lunch hour to convince him otherwise: “A trick of the light. Do you understand? Not a saint. A monkey.”
(In secret even Odilon thought the halo substantial, and he momentarily reconsidered the headband’s design. Perhaps a bicycle helmet design. A baseball cap. A top hat. An upside-down metal bowl. In the end—the end being a minute and a half of consideration—the device was so full of potential that he could not be stopped by aesthetics or tricks of the light, and so Odilon did nothing. The janitor grew bored and returned to work. Odilon bought a chocolate candy bar, which, much to his surprise, entirely sated his appetite. The monkey clapped its hands at nothing.)
What had started with electroencephalography quickly progressed into wireless neural mapping. When the design of the headband first entered Odilon Viellot’s brain a year ago, it did so like a long needle: he stopped making love to his wife, Veronica, and, still erect, ran to his office in the adjacent room. Pasty, hairy, soft cookie dough body, the naked Odilon sketched out a few equations on a yellow notepad, wrote the words “head-band” and “don’t forget” at the bottom of the page, underlined the words twice for effect. Already he was seeing this yellow page as if framed and hanging in a museum.
From the bedroom, Veronica called out. “Odie?”
“One moment one moment.”
“What the hell’s going on.”
“Are you masturbating out there?”
“Yes no sort of.”
He flipped to another sheet on the yellow legal pad and wrote so quickly he could barely keep up.
“Are we ready, Hermes?”
Herman, the bulky yeti-of-an-intern, lifted up his ruler of eyebrows. “Herman, not Hermes,” he corrected, his voice a soft mismatch to his appearance. He rubbed a drop of perspiration out of his eye. “Are you sure I’m wearing this right? It’s very tight.”
“Do not worry, Hermes.” Odilon moved behind the intern’s metal chair and peered down at the green headband on Herman’s head. “Try to clear your mind.”
“What if I become a monkey?”
The room was shadowed except for the spotlight on the chaired intern and, about twenty feet directly across from him, a spotlight on a short cage. In between the metal bars of the cage, Coolidge the pygmy chimpanzee used its big toe to scratch its opposite foot. The chimp’s eyelids drooped like sagging Venetian blinds. It yawned like a father in the afternoon.
“I’m wearing the receiver, right?”
“Yes, yes, yes.” Odilon, hunched over a nearby computer, hit the PRINT key. The printout was twelve pages long; he quickly scanned it, nodded in approval. “You are in absolutely no danger whatsoever, I assure you,” said Odilon. “Safety is of the utmost importance, and so forth. Plus what are the odds you'd be the first fatality of the year? It's not as if we forgot--oh, the chimp looks fully sedated.”
“I’m not sedated. Can I get sedated?”
“Don’t be such a worry-mommy,” said Odilon. He approached the chaired intern once again, took a deep breath, then tapped the top-center of the man’s headband, tapped it twice with his index finger, a double tap of casual impatience, testing a piano key, flicking a cigarette. Immediately the green headband on the intern’s head started blinking with an internal light; it started humming a baritone. “Here goes goddamn everything,” he said in a soft voice.
Across the room, the chimpanzee’s headband started flickering in synchronization with its twin, their halos flashing on and off like a saint in limbo: almost immediately thereafter the chimpanzee collapsed in a pile of mammalian hair and whimpered. A blue spark fell from the ceiling and the individual spotlights above Herman and Coolidge blinked out entirely.
Everything, pitch black.
Arriving home three hours earlier than normal, Odilon crept up the stairs to surprise his wife. He maneuvered toward the small bathroom at the end of the upstairs hall, carefully avoiding the creaky parts of the carpeted floor. There, the door wide open, he saw his wife wrapped in a pink towel and staring at the fogged-up bathroom mirror. She looked sadder than he remembered, more vulnerable. “Look at you,” she said to her reflection.
“Look at yourself,” said her reflection.
The house was too quiet and too spacious and even his hushed sock-feet scooching across the carpet seemed to annoy the silence. Odilon cleared his throat.
Veronica turned as if expecting him. “There you are,” she said.
“Here I am, bunny,” he said. "You smell like lavender or petunias, possible carnations." He was still in the hallway.
She glanced back at her reflection. “I think I look sick again.”
“Nonsense. You look like a million glittering protons.”
Her hair was wet and bunched together in superstrands. He felt a surge of bliss and bit his tongue to calm down.
Odilon continued: “We had our first product test today.”
“You know. The product.”
“The headband. Is Herman OK?”
“Who? Oh, yes, yes, fine. Listen, bunny: the headbands worked perfectly. For thirty minutes the chimp’s consciousness was transmitted into the intern’s head while the chimp just slept. We have it all on recording. The only problem and it wasn’t really a problem-problem was that the intern took off his clothes at one point and spoke in a mix of grunts, broken English, urinated on the floor. As one does. But electroencephalography be damned, because the headband fucking worked. Perfectly.” Odilon lazily ballet leapt into the bathroom, felt some water under his socks. He stood behind her in the mirror and thought to kiss her nape but something kept him from doing it. The condensation was evaporating on the glass. Her towel had a rip along one edge, having once been caught and unfurled in the dryer. “And I had a call from The General Ainsworth today. He wants to give me a contract! Homeland Security probably. But a goddamn contract. Bunny, this it! What we've been waiting for!”
She took a pause which seemed to lower the ceiling. In the silence Odilon could hear his own breathing; he sounded like an animal on a respirator.
“I called a lawyer today,” she said.
“Come again.” He was in the bottom of a well, speaking up. “What now. I thought...”
“I’m going to stay with Stephanie starting on Friday. This Friday.”
“Wait, wait. I thought we were done with that.” He took a step back. “I thought since...with the headband, you know? We'll have more money and enough to nix the credit cards and we won’t have to fight about that anymore and we can move to a better neighborhood maybe with better schools because that's still on the table and it is all going to get so much way much better. I’m not being crazy here, we did have that conversation. Didn’t we? I’m not the crazy one here, right?”
She tilted her head and again took a moment of silence. “You never understood me.”
“Sure I did, sure I do, come on now, that's not fair. I know what it was about. Don’t think I don’t know what it was about.”
“I need to be at the office by seven.” Veronica slipped past him, toward the bedroom. Once inside she gently closed the door behind her.
Odilon watched her wet footprints materialize on the carpet; he tried to think of something to say that wasn’t spiteful or prickish or from an earlier fight. Droplets of water that had briefly run down her skin, now on the carpet. Footprints. Water marks.
The bulky interrogator, almost as short as Odilon, stood up so wooden straight that he seemed to be the tallest in the room. His first or last name was Craig: Odilon could barely give a shit. Craig wore camouflaged fatigues, useless here, and a Mickey Mouse watch on his left hand. Odilon stared at the watch for longer than was polite.
Craig gripped Odilon’s limp hand and forced it into a handshake. “I’ve heard so much about you, doctor. Ainsworth and the brass recommended I come first thing Monday morning, but I told 'em to fuck right off. Got on a cargo and here I am today.”
“Ok, well. Ok. I mean I thought Ainsworth himself was coming.”
“He sends his regrets.”
“But not himself. So then, ok, you brought somebody to test it on? I mean my device works perfectly, of course, of course, but you need a consciousness to be sent otherwise it's just a piece of unstylish headware."
Craig nodded as if his neck were lifting weights. “We have a test subject coming in any second now. A prisoner. Hand-picked. Carefully vetted. Whole nine yards and then some.”
Looking around, Odilon spotted a number of examination tools that could probably be used as weapons. “How dangerous are we talking here? Like is he a terrorist or a thief or an arsonist or a mustached villain tying young women to train tracks or--”
“Don't worry, doc. One a scale of 1 to 10, the prisoner's, ah, they're nothing past a four.”
“Wait but the scale. Like is 1 murderous psycho-killer and 10 safe puppy, or is 10 the murderous—”
The lab doors whooshed open and two nearly identical military guards pushed forward a handcuffed prisoner in a bright orange jumpsuit.
The prisoner had a burlap sack over his or her head.
“You don’t need to know their name, doc. Just that this is a very goddamn evil person with very goddamn important information.” Craig motioned with his hands, directing the guards to bring the prisoner over to the nearest chair. There the prisoner sat, sack still on head. Across from the prisoner: an empty chair for the other test subject. “Let’s not pussy around here.”
Odilon wearily handed Craig two green headbands. “The first one, here, is the transmitter. The second is for the interrogator.”
Without waiting further instructions Craig placed his headband atop his baldness. “How do I look?” he asked.
“Like a million glittering protons,” said Odilon in reflex, and felt sick.
Craig ignored it or didn't notice, approaching the prisoner’s chair with a cowboy stride and slapping the other headband overtop the burlap bagged head without any hesitation.
“Shouldn’t you, ah...?” asked Odilon.
“Take off the bag first? Hell no. A face is a face, doc."
The prisoner squirmed a little in the chair, but didn’t seem to struggle or attempt an escape. Tufts of the burlap bag stuck out on either side of the headband, reminding Odilon of a pillowcase or a sagging bag of dog food.
Odilon cleared his throat and spoke in a louder, more masculine voice than he normally used. “Tap your own headband. Tap it twice softly somewhere near the center. I’ll tap him. Her. It. The evil prisoner person.”
Craig took the seat across from the prisoner and sat with a yogi's posture. “If this works, doc, you’ll be a goddamn national hero. We're talking awards and sciencey magazine covers and the like. This'll be the big top.”
“Yes, ok, yes.” Odilon tapped the prisoner’s headband and sighed concurrently. “Here it comes, Craig. Here comes somebody else.”
Thursday evening, the night before she left. His (their) house felt chillier than normal; he thought he could see his breath. Dark matter filled his torso with nothingness and a blackhole's sucking void. Odilon moved about as if recently undergoing surgery.
The office walls were littered with sketches, dead ends with quantum entanglement or neurotransmitters, notes to himself about brain waves, dendritic roots. Most scraps of paper were pinned up hastily. Why hadn't he already put a picture of Veronica on the wall? For that matter, what the hell had stopped him from ever thinking of the idea in the first place?
Time, relative, slogged forward until the inventor found himself standing in the open doorway to his (their) bedroom, inside which he would not be allowed to sleep. He looked at his wife, taking up the bed and dead asleep.
An orange glimmer from an outside street lamp or car headlight beamed into the room and fell across her face and throat, the soft waves of her hair, illuminated, and Odilon in all his imagination could not have created such a picture.
He stood in the doorway holding two green, plastic-looking headbands.
As soon as the prisoner’s consciousness had been sent to the interrogator, Craig began to weep: Odilon wondered if in that moment of transference Craig had lived the prisoner’s entire life, thought every thought the prisoner had considered, felt every thought the prisoner couldn’t articulate, had an imagined future as every human being does, died an imaginary death and then attended his own imagined funeral. Craig might have even seen Craig capturing him, the prisoner, saw himself through the prisoner’s eyes and realized his own ugliness and lack of humanity. Perhaps Craig saw the prisoner see Craig and thus see the prisoner and so see both selves (ad infinitum) and so Craig lost himself entirely. Regardless, the interrogator tipped over in his seat.
Odilon rushed over to him, threw off the bald man’s headband, concerned more about a lost contract than the man's health or life, but it was far too late: according to the EEG, Craig was both Craig and the prisoner. His mind, unable to settle on a decision of identity, must have given up, and not knowing what else to do, so shut down.
Odilon called for the intern to help. It was of no use. The inherent danger of empathy had been made real.
Yet standing in the doorway to his bedroom, Odilon Viellot thought none of this, for his wife was sleeping in his bed for the last night of their life together, holy shit, and time would undoubtedly be so cruel as to progress from moment to moment until his wife would undoubtedly awaken and pack her final things and (please don't) leave, for good. He felt this loss deep in his chest, a bullet ricocheting inside a hollow room. The pair of headbands in his hand clinked together like wine glasses. Again he considered them, how the green surfaces attracted any nearby light as if to say, “Be an optimist, Odilon. Try it out.”
Still he considered the ethical implications of placing a transmitter on his sleeping wife. It would be a violation of her consciousness, a mental rape; the realization of this psychic violence--against his spouse no less--greatly disturbed him. Could he do such a thing? Quite easily: yes. To know his wife, to really and truly know her, something no husband in the history of the world had accomplished, to close the infinite separation between one person and another. Why was she leaving? What had he done that was so abhorrent? Did she truly love him? Did she know that he loved her? Needed her? Was there a chance for him to fix something? What needed to be done?
Odilon took a deep breath and crept over to his wife’s resting form, where he fought every human urge to kiss her, to stroke her hair, to smell the side of her face, anything.
He put the receiver atop his own head but remained frightened of the transmitter, the other headband still in his hand.
It would fit on her head, in fact, it would fit nicely, as if she had wanted to wear the headband, right?, a style choice. He’d tap each headband in their centers, watch them glow and then blink, and then he’d receive his wife for the first time in their marriage.
He would feel her accelerating depression, of being trapped like a caged animal, of living an unhappy life and pretend-smiling with Odilon; he would see abstract hopes of a single life and freedom and sunsets and unnamable celebrations with green fireworks. Perhaps he would see only images at random, though, each flashing over one another, without explanation or logic.
He would see an oak tree, the dried wrinkled bark and an ant maneuvering in its grooves; he would see the ugly color of a light switch panel in a room he had never visited; a plastic bag of candy corn and the sound it made in transit; her favorite book cover, a hardcover edition of Emma, askew on a coffee table; a nun strolling down an endless forest path; an overcast sky and the first drop and smell of rain. He’d see her childhood cat, Rugrat, the velvet of her fur; an oxidized penny with its blue cheese coating; the smear of ink on a page of a little girl's first diary; a sponge, half-off the kitchen counter, dripping water on the floor, each drop audible. And he would see Veronica see him, on their first date, at the circus; his overeager eyes, his embarrassing fashion sense and "dad jeans"; the sight of an elephant from between two pillars; the mottle of strangers in a crowd, each meaningless as if they were a single boring person repeated over and over again; the red tent high overtop them and the sound of the wind whipping through that tent; a bored looking child holding a green balloon. He’d see his own hands trembling, then fisting to hide it; he’d see the stubble on his poorly shaved face, and, perhaps worse, the empty space in the half-foot above his head, because he’d first discover how short he really was.
He’d see her in the house, by herself, at all hours; the ghost gray of the the refrigerator light spilling across her vision; he’d see the sad hesitation to look in a mirror and the oddly disappointed expression that followed; he’d see her look at her wrists for far too long; he’d see a pink hairbrush full of clogged hair; nylons hanging over the shower railing; he’d see her purposefully tilting the paintings hanging in the house just to reflect her mood; he’d see the bottom of the bedroom door from inside the bedroom, an angry hallway light that meant Odilon had come home after midnight, again, that he hadn’t bothered to text her or otherwise let her know, to let her know he still fucking loved her, which wasn’t too much to ask, right? He’d catch himself exiting the shower and saw his own nudity from the perspective of a stranger, and he’d see her put on eyeliner, that desperation in her eyes; the drops of water from the shower; the fogged up mirror and Odilon standing behind her; he’d see his own cowardly desperation; his nauseating fascination with himself; the undecipherable scratch of his handwriting compared to the care with which she held a pen. Perhaps he’d even see himself leaning over her sleeping form; the foolishness of what appeared to be a blinking headband atop his head; and he would see himself cry, because he wouldn’t know what else to do; he would see the infinite violation of the woman he supposedly loved.
Intimacy: noun, a tightrope walker crossing a chasm of infinite space.
Veronica dreamt, and Odilon with her.