I’d always been the one with promise. Top of my class, ticket to anywhere. Or that’s what they’d all assumed. It’s easy to predict a straight path for others, a flat run for those with conspicuous abilities. It’s easy to dismiss them that way. And it’s more telling of the class of people I come from than anything else—this notion that just by unlocking the door to a real college I’d forever be handed key after key.
I shared this faith at first. I felt a burst of freedom as I left town, sailing east toward Ann Arbor in my loaded car. But in a clog of traffic around Lansing, the cars in front of me split and doubled. My lungs seemed to malfunction, the bottom halves suddenly defunct. I couldn’t catch my breath, and it felt as if my head would balloon away. This kind of panic had sometimes awoken me at night but had never come in the daytime before. I pulled off the highway to a Sunoco, locked myself in the bathroom, sat on the toilet, and gripped the handicap bar. The blood rushed so violently in my ears that I barely heard the knocking on the door. “Just a minute,” I wheezed. I cranked paper towels from the dispenser, wiped the sweat from my face, splashed myself all over with water. I was red and blotched in the mirror, pupils dilated like a cornered animal. I slunk out, shouldering past the old woman waiting outside, and with a dollar in my wet hand bought beef jerky. I sat in the car, chewing, until I could finally drive again.
The town dangled a welcome when I arrived that first day: the restaurants and shops gaily tailored to students, the giant football stadium so much like a womb. I would be all right, I told myself. I would let myself be hoisted by the collective pride of state and school, this institution’s blind faith in my ability. But as the days progressed, the other students struck me as smugly contemptuous. Few seemed to be from Michigan. They were from places foreign to me—Chicago, Indianapolis, Boston. They were the children of psychiatrists and businessmen, and prepossessed of a team spirit that I couldn’t understand, that seemed to be drawn from the ether.
When the leaves flipped their colors that first September, it was a personal betrayal, a sleight of hand. Rather than a slow fade into gold and umber, the trees burned red. They surrounded the quad in a satanic circle. I sat on the grass and tried to quietly read the newspaper. A terrorist siege in Russia, children taken hostage with their parents. I turned the page. The Janjaweed, burning up villages. Students threw Frisbees around me and laughed on their way to the dining hall. I splayed on the ground, holding this collection of pages, this story of doom. The wet grass soaked my jeans.
I didn’t take any film production or art classes that first semester, but tried to fulfill requirements. There was no time for drawing. Courses whose descriptions had seemed alluringly dense turned out to be simply incomprehensible. Introduction to Critical Theory: We will examine core concepts of representation, aesthetics and identity, mimesis, and the hegemony of political superstructures. There were printouts of Heidegger, Lyotard, Derrida. My first essay was on the concept of the rhizome, of “multiplicity without unity,” as put forth by Deleuze and Guattari. The authors insisted that the universe was to be understood in terms of dimensions without beginning or end, as growth and spillage from a kind of infinite milieu. They were hung up on the relationship between a certain type of orchid flower and wasp. This orchid grew a dark protuberance that mimicked the appearance of a wasp, luring other wasps into attempts at copulation, thus pollinating the orchid itself. This wasn’t trickery, the authors insisted, but an “aparallel evolution of two beings” that represented something much larger, more universal, rhizomatic. “A veritable becoming, a becoming-wasp of the orchid and a becoming-orchid of the wasp.”
This behavior was in direct contradiction to what I’d learned in my biology class about the cooperative behavior of insects: worker wasps devoting themselves to the colony, slowly building the nest from wood pulp, collectively raising the brood. Only in rare instances did a worker revolt or a subservient female usurp a queen’s nest. For the most part, hierarchy equaled harmony, productivity. Still, I was transfixed by the image of a solitary wasp courting its orchid. I could envision the strange collision of the species; I could appreciate its sinister elegance. And, despite the dense theoretical text, the idea of the rhizome resonated with me. When I dreamed, I felt the truth of it. I knew, as I slipped away from consciousness, that I was abandoning finitude. In dreaming, I tapped into a perpetual multiplicity. Perhaps the unconscious mind was orchid-like, folded inward, multiform—and consciousness was the vulgar protuberance that jutted from it, intent on dissemination.
I was excited by the thought, but awake at my desk it was nearly impossible to express it. I banged words together, but they slipped from me, and nothing I wrote made sense. I feared that it was futile to wrangle language into such profundity, and I’d lose my sanity if I kept trying. Gilles Deleuze, I knew, had ultimately leapt from his apartment window in Paris. I turned the essay in, unfinished.
When I met with my adviser in December, I was clammy with sweat. I’d chosen a brown cabled sweater, serious and modest, as if that would help. I sat in the visitor’s chair and delivered the preface I’d prepared. I’d carefully chosen words that would obscure the fact that I was a fraud who never should have been admitted to the university.
“Lacan, Deleuze, the films of Perren, the dual nature of consciousness….”
“But, Abigail, you haven’t completed a single paper in any of your classes.”
I stammered to explain what was wrong.
He interrupted. “You intend to major in screen arts and cultures?” I nodded, and he looked at me for a heavy beat. “You may consider taking time off. In fact, I insist you do. Reconsider your goals.” He leaned back in his chair ostentatiously, flaunting his leisure, his job security, and dismissed me with a Jedi koan: “Let the work find you.”
My stomach plummeted, a feeling that persisted through my afternoon seminar, Cult Films of the ’60s and ’70s, where my classmates sustained a slack discussion of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. I couldn’t listen. I could only gird myself against the sensation of falling through a trapdoor, my stomach dropping again and again.
The darkness was coming; I could feel it. I scurried across campus, and in my dorm cell I attempted one more essay, on the topic of Lacan’s mirror stage: the tragic moment in a child’s life when she becomes aware of herself as a thing in the world. I wrote a five-page paragraph with no breaks, about self-consciousness as a cruel splitting, the end of animalistic innocence. Is the infant mortal before the mirror stage, or is the mirror stage fatal in itself? I was in tears by the end of it and didn’t print it out.
There was a liquor store known for selling to minors, and that’s where I went in my parka to buy Jim Beam. While my roommate sat on the other side of the dorm room, face awash in the dead blue light of her laptop, I drank bourbon from my travel coffee mug in bed until I slumped into sleep, dreaming of fingers growing from the ground, trees with razor-blade leaves.
In the daytime, the darkness in me deepened. I was repelled by the riot of sound in the campus mailroom, the pinched faces of my peers, milling at their mailboxes in aggressively puffy jackets. They all pushed into me. My head thundered, and my chest knotted. I felt my head drift up above the crowd. I tried to believe I’d become truly absent, that I was in the mailroom spectrally, a disembodied mind.
A professor needed me to do research over the Christmas holiday, I told my parents, and because they didn’t know what questions to ask, they had to believe me. The dorms closed, and leftover students—those without families, those too poor to buy plane tickets—moved into discounted rooms at the Red Roof Inn. It might have been a cozy arrangement, an orphanage of sorts, but I couldn’t pay even the discounted rate, so I swapped cat sitting for shelter in a grad student complex off campus. I brought my clip-on lamp, my backrest, my blanket and bourbon, and closed the drapes. The sun didn’t try to penetrate the cloud cover, which was a shroud of white felt. The felt turned to gray in the afternoon, then to charcoal, then black. Overhead, a fluorescent light rattled like a pit viper.
Christmas came, a weak faraway jingle. The new year slid in. One of Perren’s older films was playing at the art house cinema. I went by myself, one of five people in the audience. I’d never seen Perren in a theater, on such a grand scale, and I was in such a fragile state that it pulled me deeper into the darkness. The film soundtrack was a dissonant roar, a haunting melody trickling beneath—and that melody, that incessant drip-drop, wouldn’t leave me for days. The Perrenian spell, the black magic I’d always welcomed, had this time been cast at a lethal angle.
In the morning, the newspaper. An earthquake had shaken the other half of the world, followed by a tsunami, removing 200,000 humans from the planet. An “undersea megathrust” in the Circum-Pacific belt, the Ring of Fire. Tectonic plates shifting to get comfortable. I stared at the word EARTHQUAKE in the enlarged headline font, the letter q with its fanciful tail. I stared at the number—200,000—and at the photographs. A mound of waterlogged bodies. A child’s hand thrust out from under the rubble.
The last cord holding me together snapped. All I remember after that was the underside of my synthetic down comforter, the clip-on lamp craning to leer at me in bed, the padded backrest like a headless torso. And then, the cold. The sky, yawning open. The stars’ sharp crystals. The buildings across the bridge, paper cutouts. And me, a roving shadow with no birth, death, or knowledge, following the sidewalk onto the bridge. My feet, bare in the snow, the Huron River half-frozen beneath. Then, the leap into the milieu. Like Deleuze, I felt the grip of gravity, that authority. The plunge. The crack of the ice, the multiple entryways, the frigid water. Spirituality, physicality. Life, death.
Then, all at once, I was home.
I’d dreamt of the bridge ever since. The dream was always the same. Again and again, I walked barefoot in the snow. I looked down at myself and recognized my pajama top from Ann Arbor, the falling snowflakes layering the flannel. I saw the Christmas decorations. I heard the roar in my head, like radio interference, and the scrape of my breath. I felt the numbness in my feet, more hot than cold. I watched my hands unbutton my pajama top, exposing the valley between my breasts to the street. Again and again, I stepped onto the bridge and saw the headlights approach. Again and again, I leapt, and awoke with thunder in my ears.
Now, in your library in Malibu, I put my face to the pages of a book about mythology, and inhaled. I was alive, not dead in the river. I was holding a book. I’d survived. You were reading, too, on the patio. You’d showed me your paperback copy of Slouching Towards Bethlehem. It was about the desert, you said, all the weirdness that happens out there. You wore a sun hat, a crocheted top that bared your shoulders, and a pair of cropped cigarette pants—and as you pulled on your big black sunglasses in a dismissive motion, you were the simulacrum of a young Joan Didion.
For hours, I read by the window. I learned that the Egyptians thought the spirit—a bird with a human head—left the body during sleep and received revelatory messages. They believed that dreams were the siblings of death, and yet their term for “dream” was synonymous with “waking,” represented by a hieroglyphic of an open eye. Some dreams were deceptive and some were true, depending on whether they came through a gate of ivory or horn. A full moon was a sign of forgiveness; a large cat meant a good harvest. There was an oddly common dream of eating feces. And, my heart caught when I came to this: “Immersion into cold water is considered a sign of absolution for all ills.”
In the section on the Greeks, I found a reference to Hesperia, the ancient land of the West, at the farthest edge of the world. I read about the river nymph Hesperia, dead from a snakebite while fleeing Aesacus, who loved her. In grief, Aesacus threw himself from a cliff into the sea, but was transformed into a bird before hitting water. His suicidal wish has been perpetuated forever after by seabirds diving into the water again and again.
Together, we drove out to the Mojave so that you could absorb some essence of Joan. On the way there, you told me about her life, how she’d spent much of it in Malibu with her husband and daughter. Both were tragically gone now. But the time they’d spent together had been so beautiful, you said. She and her husband had written their books independently but collaborated on screenplays. You handed me your phone, showing a photograph of the family on their deck overlooking the ocean. I couldn’t stop looking at it. The cigarette between two fingers, the drink balanced on the weathered wooden railing. The sideways glance—the ephemerality and permanence of a moment caught on film—this delicate triumvirate perched between land and sea. I wanted a photograph of us like that someday. I hoped that you and I would be collaborating, too, before long, and I’d be looking at the camera head-on, asserting myself as your partner.
“It’s hard to imagine ever being like that,” you said quietly. “So much at home, with Rafael, or anyone.”
“Just because you can’t imagine it doesn’t mean it can’t happen,” I said, ever the supportive friend. What I didn’t say was that if you failed to imagine it, it was only because your imagination was chronically lacking. I had enough imagination for both of us.
We stopped in a café near Joshua Tree, where an old California flag hung on the wall over the counter—the lumbering brown bear forever in search of sustenance. We sat together at a little table by the window and drank coffee, the way you thought Joan might do. You quietly watched the cars go past in a way that was probably meant to be ruminative. I sat there until you were done with whatever you were doing. After that, we kept driving west, into blank space, past hopping gnatcatchers and creosote, jumbles of ancient rock.
As we drove, I remembered the dream I’d had the previous night, about a woman who goes for a swim in her backyard pool and stays there. Her husband tries to lure her out, but she won’t leave the water. She spends the night and the rest of the week submerged. I’d drawn it out on paper before we left that morning. Already, I could see it as a film, with you in the starring role.
“I have a story for you,” I began, in the passenger seat.
You glanced at me from behind your sunglasses and said, “Sorry. I’m trying to be in character right now. If you don’t mind, it would be great to just be quiet for a while.”
I sat silent after that, peering over the dashboard. I didn’t want to look at you, for fear of betraying my irritation or, worse, appearing to need attention. I also didn’t want to see your face right now, as you pretended to be in character. It would only repel me.
Somewhere along Route 62, we got out of the car and walked into the desert, in different directions. The sun was ruthless, impressing a sense of danger with each step I took away from the road. The heat was primordial, baking through my skin, drying my muscle and bones, desiccating everything but my darkest, wettest core. A tawny lizard darted past, feeling the air with its tongue, then froze and faded into the surrounding rubble until it was only a blinking eyelid. I’d seen this same lizard in a dream, I believed. It had darted and frozen before me, in just the same way. I’d walked over this same ground before. My eye traveled ahead and lit upon the dark spot on the ground, just where I sensed it would be. I lifted the stone, which was elaborately notched and almost too hot to touch. I knew this rock, and knew it was a meteorite placed here for me. I put it in my pocket and went back to the car.
“God, I am so ready to start filming,” you said as we headed back on Route 10, toward Palm Springs. You were, apparently, no longer in character. “Don’t get me wrong. The prep’s been great, but it’s intense. This film’s so different from the others I’ve done. It demands a lot more. I’ve never been so immersed in a script.” You took your hands off the steering wheel and stretched your arms. “It’s hard to get back into my own skin. It feels like I’m in character all the time. Especially since practically all my Rhizome sessions have been in service of it. But it’s really cool, too, kind of like living through an era I never got to experience.” You glanced at me. “The sixties seem like ancient history now, know what I mean?”
“And the best part is that it’s helped my relationship with Raf.” Your voice dropped. “Seriously, the sex is so amazing right now. I mean, it always was. That’s one of the things I’m addicted to, to be honest.” You laughed. “But it’s gone to a whole other level. Ever since I got this job, it’s been different. Partly because I’m more confident, I think. And I feel like the Rhizome sessions have put me in better tune with my body and cycles. We’ve been using the rhythm method, old-school style, and it’s so much better that way. It’s natural and kind of risky, and just hot.”
As you spoke, I felt a spiking sensation under my skin. I didn’t want to hear any of it. I tried to tune out your words while I studied the black stone in my hand. I marveled at its weight and warmth. It was solid and eternal, not of this world, burning with the patience of the ages. It would outlast your folly and my pain. It would outlast everything.
When filming finally began, you spent full days on the set. I loved watching you act. It was a revelation each time you began speaking, your body inhabited by some pliable force, your face alive with someone else’s thoughts. You seemed to physically shrink in size, to become tiny Joan. You were, in fact, gifted. You possessed the uncanny ability to empty yourself at will, to serve as a receptacle for others to fill. Your tools of emulation were built into you, just as the tools of creation were built into people like Perren and me. Yours was the lesser role, but a crucial one, and one for which you were perfectly made.
I loitered behind the ranks of fatigued production assistants, and from time to time our eyes would meet, as if across a galaxy. After a few days of this, you told me to go home. If you needed me, you’d call. There was enough to do at the house, you said in your Didion voice.
In truth, there wasn’t enough to do at the house. After food shopping and laundry, I had time to spare. I adopted the role of household chef, creating the midwestern dishes I thought you’d crave, slow-cooker stews and pot pies. I took landscape maintenance upon myself, hydrating the rosebushes and citrus trees within the water-use guidelines for drought. I discovered the names of the plants that you’d never learned. I removed the defunct wasp nest from the downspout, admiring the drab beauty of the fibrous gray swirls, the dark hole that led to hidden pavilions. Of the two of us, I was the observer of the natural world. I was the one who noticed the growth and decay that surrounded us, always in flux, who perceived so many small noises at night. We were part of it, too, although we liked to consider ourselves superior—evolved and orderly. We liked to believe our consciousness gave us supremacy, but the truth was that we were animals, mysterious to ourselves.
The Paper Wasp © Lauren Acampora, 2019. First published by Grove Atlantic.