The Zeno Question
by Patrick Lawler
“I’ve never done it in a car wash,” Arielle said. She was, like me, a sophomore, but the bonus was she had a Honda Civic — which made life sweet. I carried two pockets full of quarters and pressed every button I could see: double wash, spotless rinse, double wax, drying.
My roommate had a bizarre amusement. In each of his first classes, after his name was read, he told the professor he should be called by a name that was not on the class list. Of course, each of the professors complied, but they didn’t know he used a different name for each class. In one class he was called Fred. In another, he was called Albert. He told me to call him Adam, but I had no evidence to suggest that was his real name either.
Arielle talked me into signing up for a theater class. They always did a Greek play at the end of the fall semester. She thought I would make a great Teiresias. She handed me a stone with a painting of a bird. “I got it this past summer. I want you to have it.” Later I discovered the bird was the same as the tattoo she had on her thigh. I didn’t tell Arielle or Adam but I really didn’t like school. I simply soaked up space. I was a philosophy major and felt confused.
Adam carried a tape recorder to each class. He said, “Listen. I’m trying out for Teiresias, too. Don’t get mad when you don’t get it.” Then he turned on the tape recorder so he could practice his dialogue, and I heard the words of Oedipus, “Say what you want to. It will make no sense.” When Arielle saw my roommate, she said, “Oh, Fred is your roommate.” That’s when I knew she took the World Literature class where he was called Fred.
I suppose it goes without saying, but the best thing about school was making love to Arielle. We’d lie in bed practicing for my tryout as Teiresias. I fumbled at first until Arielle said, “Just read the tattoos.”
Arielle asked, “Why do you keep calling your roommate Adam when his name is Fred?”
As Teiresias, I said, “Today you will see your birth and your destruction.” As Oedipus, Arielle said, “You cannot speak unless you speak in riddles.” She was helping me learn my lines. Arielle’s flesh was a fresco of tattoos. It was as if she brought this other self to bed. Our bodies slid under the bird tattoo.
Adam, my roommate, had what I considered an irritating hobby. He recorded himself having sex with women. I would sit at my desk, with all the get-well cards and the stone with the bird picture, and he’d play the tapes. I asked him not to, but he saw nothing wrong with it. “My name isn’t Adam,” he said. And then he started speaking with a British accent.
I told my mother on the phone that I wasn’t happy in school. I also said that I had met a woman that I really liked. She said our family was “unique in an Anna Karenina sort of way.” I told her I wasn’t going to many classes because I was sick. From that time on I kept receiving get well cards from members of my family. My roommate said he had a big test. His hands were careful as he spoke.
“Life or school—it doesn’t matter. It is all about who you are having sex with,” said Arielle. I should have seen it coming.
GREEK POSTAGE STAMP
Arielle had a tattoo of a postage stamp. My roommate would say things about “collecting stamps” and “delivering packages.” My roommate said she was just weird. “Who gets a tattoo of a postage stamp?” Arielle said her mother worked in the post office and died when she was a kid. “It is a stamp from the year she died. That’s what it cost to mail a letter back then.” My roommate called it her tramp stamp. “It’s pretty unusual,” I said. “Greek,” she said.
Our professor was senile, but, because it was metaphysics, we didn’t realize it until just before midterms. In the middle of the class he mumbled things about repairing the roof of the House of Being, quoted excerpts of Kant in little jingles, and made up limericks involving the Pre-Socratics.
Arielle said, “Make love to me as your character.” Our bodies were crushed into the steering wheel. “You mean do a lot of touching?” “No, close your eyes.” The last thing I saw was greenish soap squirting over the windows.
Arielle was pigtailed with pale skin and ice black hair. I said to her, “You know your roommate is so incredibly depressing I can’t stand it.” She said, “No she is not. Just because Kirsten doesn’t do the things you do.... Her mother is a grief counselor. I mean after awhile that’s got to weigh on you. And her father’s an alcoholic. That’s what she says.”
My room was full of guys from the floor as my roommate played the tape. He made a sound like a train. “Destination O Town,” he said with a very bad British accent.
Kirsten had watchful eyes that were almost frightening. She introduced herself, “A former poet and a future suicide.” I decided to protest the war because I liked the band that was playing on the quad.
The more I rehearsed being Teiresias, the more I saw glimpses into Kirsten’s life. I picked up her notebook. I read: Time carries itself on its back.
Once I was selected for the part of Teiresias, I began to have premonitions. Arielle was going to play Jocasta. I saw the bird tattoo on Arielle’s thigh seem to fly away. The student who was selected to play Oedipus only had one eye. “That way the play won’t be quite as tragic,” said the Theater Professor.
The world was far too beautiful and mysterious to be contained in any building or book. After midterms, I realized I was flunking out. Except for the Philosophy lectures, I stopped attending classes. I guess I wondered what was going to happen.
Kirsten said, “The whole world’s a cage.” And I corrected her, “Stage.” “Don’t you even know what the play you are in is about?” She was definitely irritating.
I kept receiving get-well cards from home. I had so many on my desk, I had no room to study. The cards covered the stone with the bird painting that Arielle had given me. I could tell Arielle wasn’t as happy with me as I was with her. I attended the protest on anti-globalization because they had imported beer. I told Arielle that this wasn’t a good time for me in terms of commitment. She said no problem. I said something like you know the same old tattoos — which wasn’t a very good idea.
On the philosophy exam the directions were: “As you answer the next 33 Questions, explain Zeno’s philosophy.”
My roommate asked how Teiresias was going. I said I always know what the other actors are going to say, but I have no idea about my own lines. I looked at what Kirsten had written:
Journeying through the world
To and fro, to and fro
Cultivating a small field.
“That seems grim,” I said. “The problem is we need a new way of imagining the desperation of our lives,” Kirsten said. “We are conditioned to think of the drudgery as Sisyphus rolling his rock. But it is not. It is beautiful. It is Basho cultivating his field. “ That’s when I knew she was also taking the World Literature course.
My roommate stopped using the British accent. He suddenly became silent and moody and wanted me to call him Randall. Kirsten said, “Oh, Randall is your roommate. It must be amazing living with someone who writes such sensitive poetry.” I said, “He doesn’t write poetry. And his name isn’t Randall.” Kirsten was upset. “Then what is his name then?” When I couldn’t answer, she said I was pathetic. And I wasn’t about to get into an argument about that.
Near the end of the semester, my roommate wanted to be called Sophocles. I started thinking about leaving school. Arielle said she didn’t appreciate the joke I made about Civic duty. I said I didn’t mean what it sounded like.”
“Grow up,” said Arielle. But I wasn’t ready.
I told Arielle that everything was so incredibly nuanced and confusing. I needed to guzzle down life and not somebody’s theory about life. I craved huge gulps of experience. “So what are you going to do?” asked Arielle. “Move back with your parents?”
That’s when I realized Arielle had the cleanest car on campus.
She played a wonderful Jocasta, and, when she said, “Forget your fear of marrying your mother,” everyone in the audience felt a new fear. Sophocles sat in the audience with his tape recorder in his lap.
Without having Arielle’s tattoos to read, I forgot most of my lines, but it wasn’t a tragedy.
The student who played Oedipus cried his eye out. The evening after the play, Sophocles, my roommate, left his tape recorder on my bed with a note that read — ”Teiresias, you may want to listen to this. But, of course, you already know what is on it.”
Later, Kirsten was below my dorm room window outside in the new snow. She was picking up the tape recorder. “Leave it,” I yelled down through the hole it had made in the window. I had thrown out everything through the glass opening — my books, my get-well cards, Arielle’s gift.
Kirsten stood with the broken tape recorder in her hands, and the snow kept falling. I thought I had never seen anything more beautiful. The whiteness grew around her. I wanted to yell down to her — but suddenly I saw everything so clearly and my words were no longer capable of moving through the hole in the window.
Patrick Lawler is the winner of the 2010 Ronald Sukenick/American Book Review Prize for Innovative Fiction. His novella Rescuers of Skydivers Search Among the Clouds is scheduled to be published in Fall 2012. In the past, he has published three books of poetry: A Drowning Man is Never Tall Enough (University of Georgia Press, 1990), (reading a burning book) (Basfal Books, 1994), and Feeding the Fear of the Earth, the winner of the Many Mountains Moving poetry book competition (2006).