“The fear that I may start screaming… the fear that I might betray myself and tell everything I dread, and the fear that I might not be able to say anything, because everything is unsayable…” ~R. M. Rilke
The crammed little bar sizzled with so much energy that it began to unsettle him. He wondered why he ever said he would meet his friends here.
His friends were late, and Ted’s brain started running on the hyperactive groove that, once out of control, often left him terrified and unsettled.
But Ted Krueger had a mind game he played to help him gain control of himself in these situations. He would focus on an object, enabling his thoughts — which at this point were so numerous and random that he felt overwhelmed by them — to narrow their scope. In this way he was able to harness them and feel he had some measure of control over himself.
He held the view that though feelings were nebulous and impossible to direct, with a great effort of will thoughts could be managed and coerced, and that one’s feelings would eventually come into alignment with the thoughts that preceded, and stirred, one’s emotions. His feelings of terror were often so immense that only a more immense distraction could deliver him from being tyranized by his fears. Hence the game.
The game would lead him into a place removed from himself, a mental space where epiphanies occurred. Ultimately, on many occasions, he had a direct encounter with God. This was his own interpretation. That is, the game produced profound illuminations at critical moments in his life, which he believed to be meyaphysical insights, powerful and humbling. It filled him with a sense of awe and gratitude.
He knew that he had created the game out of necessity as a means of holding on to reality, to keep from flipping. He took no credit for it. In fact, he knew that everyone played games of some kind or another to stave off boredom or reduce the intensity of disquieting anxieties, and that this was nothing more than his own way of keeping control. In this regard he was quite self-aware and not really so odd, or so he told himself.
May 6, 1994. A Friday night. His friends had wanted to hear a band at Mephistos, a small night club that had recently opened near The Wharf. Too much was already happening in his head even before he entered the room. Ted carried an enormous amount of responsibility at the office and when he left that evening he didn’t leave it there. There were other unresolved personal conflicts as well. Mind overstimulated, he seated himself against the far wall, the only table available.
The band was on a break between sets. To calm himself he sought out an object for contemplation. His eye traced the the outlines of edges, spots of reflection on tables, a glint of glass, the flutter of a bow, radiation from the neon, loose change, a laughing mouth, five fingers, a shred of napkin.
At last his gaze fell upon a nose. It was, as he later recalled it, the plainest, most ordinary nose, with no distinctive features whatsoever. It was a universal nose, not belonging to the young woman who wore it, but representative of the archtype nose, of unknown origin, any nose. And at that precise moment it seemed as perfect an object for contemplation as any he had ever devised; uncarved, unassuming and indistinct (where does a nose end and the face begin?), yet specific and focal.
He took hold of it in his mind, plotting coordinates for this object that he might track its movements through space and time. Fourteen inches from the tabletop, 48 inches from the floor. Six feet from the window. Moving back and forth two or three times in a slow arc, dipping downward and then swinging back up into a fixed jutting motif, the nose began to take on a life, to become an entity. And this pleased him, for he knew the game he played with himself, and it required a certain mental dexterity to create an object of contemplation toward which he could remain indifferent.
So he studied the nose, contemplated it generously, and reflected upon the whole meaning of noses.
He thought about noses in general, how they come in a wide variety of sizes and shapes, though for the most part human noses have a set of common characteristics. Chief of these are the two holes which enable humans to breathe and to smell, the raison d’etre for the nose’s existence.
He thought, however, that a hole in the center of the face could serve this function just as well, and he wondered if the primary reason for a nose’s existence was not its utility but rather its aesthetic quality. One need only glance at a naked skull to see the hideous condition noselessness would evoke.
Noses are deceptive, too, he reasoned. They appear substantial. But this, he conceded, is illusory. The solid bridge is a cartiledge that passes itself off as bone, is in fact no bone at all.
He recalled to mind the history of his own nose. How strange to think that at a certain point in time there was nothing there at all, and then, a tiny pinch of tissue which emerged to become the mutton of flesh that was distinctively his the rest of his days. How tiny it had been the day he was born!
He thought of the nosebleeds of his youth, the difficulties he endured as a compulsive nose picker, blistering sunburns, sniffles, sneezes, congested nasal passages, irritating nosehairs.
All the while his vision remained unwaveringly fixed on the nose across the room.
For all intents, he reasoned that if the universe were infinite, that is, if space extended infinitely in all directions from any point in space, this nose could as easily be considered the center of the universe as any other point.
He thought about the immensity of space, and was captured by the immensity of his thought, which seemed to orbit about this very present truth, as did the fly which now seemed to hover momentarily before the woman’s face.
She swept her hand through the air, but missed it.
He had forgotten his friends now. He had also forgotten his terror, had successfully calmed his soul. Though the band had reconvened, he no longer heard the music. His vision remained focused, undistracted by the movement, the shadows of bodies rising, sliding, staggering, sauntering, gliding between the tables, moving about the room which had itself become a swirl of shadow.
From a deep part of him there emerged an anticipation. Here, this very night, he would experience a new sensation, something unique. The notion came from deep within while he watched the drama of the fly. For the fly had returned and hovered briefly again before alighting, and at the instant of contact….
It was the last thing he remembered. Awakening in the emergency room at Somerset Memorial Hospital, he heard voices, saw only light and experienced extreme anguish in the region of his face.
“What a mess. How did it happen?”
“Some guy flattened his face.”
“Prepare an operating room.”
“The cartilage has been shattered and pushed up inside his skull.”
“He’s coming to.”
“He has no idea.”
“What’d he get hit with? Looks like a flatiron.”
“God, he’s a lucky bastard.”
“He had it coming they said.”
“Nobody has this coming.”
“Staring at some guy’s wife he was.”
“Can you hear me, Ted? Ted? We’re going to have to operate. If you can hear me nod, all right? Ted? Can you count backwards from one hundred. I’m going to count and you count, too. One hundred, ninety-nine, ninety eight…”
As he drifted off under the ether he recalled from somewhere fragments of a poem. “For there is a boundary to looking…. Now the work of the eyes is done.” Then he began to dream.
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Copyright 1996 Ed Newman
Digital art at top of page, by Ed Newman