Everything You Are is a Fiction
by Royee Zvi Atedgi
The obsession with a town begins like this:
Two women vomit into the fountain on High Street as Téa and I, on the fire escape, stare into the triangles of West Chester attics. The lights in some of them are on and the bodies in them turn their shadows against household chores or against other bodies. Like a hundred tiny plays in a hundred tiny theaters.
Téa does yet another unexpected thing and reaches into her bedroom for a brush. She makes me sit with my head in her crotch while she brushes me. It’s intimate, without being contrived. She says that even if all we do is smoke joints and have sex, even if that’s all this is while we keep the past from tantalizing us, we should connect in other ways. “Serious question––do you ever wash this thing?” This thing being the wild mass of my hair. We look out into the middle of town. Shouts pool at the street corners like rainwater. Women dressed in our nation’s colors retreat down Church from a chorus of whistling. It’s a sweltering July 4th evening. The women exit stage right from the fountain, and disappear onto Gay. The evidence of their dinner and their one too many drinks washes away in the froth of the falling water while the reflection of the pool––waves in electric blue dotted with the copper of strewn pennies––is projected onto the windows of the old courthouse like a drive-in movie. As we shift from small talk about the oppressive weather to medium talk about family histories to the kind of talk that people ask you to contribute, in quote-form, to an obit of the deceased, I do an unexpected thing and start revealing myself––as if I can trust this person I hardly know, this person whose name I’ve only just learned to pronounce properly while lying in her bed this week, charting her terrain.
“Now you go,” she commands, pulling a black lock of hair free from my face. The sky above is flecks of milk in ink.
“Well, let’s see, I’m twenty-two and it’s taken me just about all of those years to not be so ashamed of being Jewish.”
She laughs at the truth in my self-deprecation, the self-deprecation in my truth. “What’s so shameful about being Jewish?” Téa, of New England WASPs, wants to know.
“Probably nothing––that’s what I learned. Another thing I learned is that it’s mostly to what extent other people make you feel like you should feel ashamed.”
“Like how I feel about my body,” she says, aiming for self-deprecation but missing, striking only the bull’s-eye of truth, her eyes following the line of cars exiting town on Market Street.
“How do you feel about it?” I say and, without realizing it, make a protective gesture by cupping my hands over her dry bruised kneecaps as if to say but I love your body. That’s all there is on the table with Téa to love and vice versa. Just our bodies. It’s better that way and we’re in agreement.
“Betrayed,” she answers, battling a difficult kink at my temple. “One betrayal after another. Like you said though, that’s mostly other people. But I don’t feel like going into all that. Your turn.”
I remembered having this kind of talk years ago, with someone else, about the body––about how it is a door with ever moving keyholes and ever changing shapes of keys. How people oftentimes mistake it for a wall. There was also talk, back then, about what it’s like to have others control your body, about the possibility of shape-shifting and reincarnation in this life, willful dissociation. Anything to get out of the trap of the body, its horrors and its memories. None of that happened of course, not while I was with that person or any other, much less did it ever move beyond the theoretical. But Téa is good to talk to about stuff like this, mainly because we don’t have a history. Or barely a history. Our history is only an animalistic germ, played out in the theater of bed.
I tell her that some of the more plausible things that people know about me are actually bona fide fictions. “I did not, in fact, lose my virginity to a Kennedy.” I tell her that story, that long and meandering story about a summer in Hyannis Port I never had access to except in my imagination.
“Why make it up?” she asks, stopping the brush midway.
“Why not? Everyone lives a more or less regular life. So there’s an impulse to make it interesting. We tell stories. I mean look at you! Everything you are is a fiction. We’re always acting like we’re something or someone else.”
She laughs this out-of-body laugh and finishes her stroke, my Samson hair shiny like the stroke of stars in the firmament. “What you call fiction, I call lies.”
“I don’t think they’re the same thing,” I say, preparing an alibi for literature. “Fiction reveals the truth lurking under ordinary life. Reveals. So much so that fiction, even though it’s fiction, has a responsibility to mimic the truth in a way that’s believable, otherwise it’s what you’d call a lie. A lie, by its nature, is meant to conceal. Fiction doesn’t perpetuate that harm. Everything is on the table, even if what’s on the table didn’t necessarily happen. Belief,” I say, with my index finger up, but I lose my train of thought.
The wind picks up briefly then dies.
“So, in other words, fiction is: ‘I lost my v-card to a Kennedy girl’ and a lie is: ‘I lost my v-card to a Kennedy girl’?”
“It’s really about how it’s told, and why.”
She looks at me skeptically.
“Didn’t you believe me?”
“Well, yeah. But I don’t want you to take advantage of my belief,” she frowns.
I give her a conciliatory look. “I only wanted to see what you found reasonable to believe. If I wanted, for instance, to conceal my virginity from you––or maybe my life at the bottom of every social totem pole––it would be a lie to tell you I slept with a Kennedy girl. But I’m not a virgin and most people in most social circles find me agreeable, so the fiction is a fiction for harmless purposes. It’s a decorative detail––the same way married people at dinner tables embellish their boring, ordinary workdays or how job seekers embellish their titles on résumés. A guy I knew once put in that he was a Bacterial Deconstructionist Coordinator.”
“Sounds interesting,” she says.
“He was a janitor.”
“So, at best, what you call fiction is harmless dishonesty.”
“Better than when you called it a lie ten seconds ago.”
Téa tosses her arms about my neck and––as gracefully as a mother bird returning to nest––plants her lips on the ledge of my ear. I brace myself for the feelings this normally elicits, but they refuse to come.
She has these pygmy canines that look like baby’s teeth still. “God’s method”, she says, of predetermination. She’s a vegetarian––nothing to do with her teeth, but it’s one of her bona fide fictions, blaming her diet on her teeth. She still believes in God. That’s the next thing she says.
“Well, I still believe in God.” She says it looking right at me.
Just then, like in the movies, fireworks go off above Marshall Square Park, speeding into the air and exploding like tossed saffron.
This is when I seize the opportunity to change the subject, to inject some action, because I don’t really want to talk about God or what it means to her or what it doesn’t mean to me. Titling my head up to meet her inverted face––green eyes, blonde hair like a coat of gold, a spread of freckles like its own set of fireworks, I ask her to get dressed.
“Where we going?”
“Out. Let’s go out. It’s the Fourth of July.”
“You mean it?”
“Yeah, why not?”
Her eyes widen. Eyes like a whale’s––ancient and gentle. We’ve never been out in public together. She smiles so wide it looks like it hurts, puts the brush aside, and tumbles into her bedroom. She puts on this enormous brown fur coat over her white tee, no bra. She shakes her long hair down behind the collar.
“Are you crazy?” I say. “It’s eighty-five degrees.” She slinks into dark jeans and tosses me my shirt. “Just get dressed already,” she says.
We chase each other down the fire escape as if in the midst of an actual emergency. A busker is playing Billy Joel’s Vienna, very poorly, between the Parthenon pillars of the darkened bank.
We head for Jake’s Bar. Téa suggests taking the alleyways.
“There’s so much hidden in these alleyways,” she says, as we turn onto Sharon Alley. “Plus I feel invisible, shrouded, like I belong to the town itself when I stay off the main roads.”
I look up at the red and green ivy that is patiently, with time on its side, engulfing the brick building that houses Philip Jamison’s piano repair shop. In the daytime it must look like a fire. I stare in on the transformed backyards that I’ve never seen, bushes overgrown and spilling out, disobedient to borders, hand-held pruners abandoned at their brown roots, the faint scent of honeysuckle like a perfume slouching in the hot air.
Sharon dead-ends at Magnolia, where we cross over Walnut and take Mechanics Alley, zig-zagging onto Beech, then Elm, onto Ash, then Mulberry Alley until we reach a Matlack made sparse by summer vacation. In this part of town, down by the campus, the backyards are ruined. Sanctioned by college transience, some are little more than rectangles of yellow grass with lone, eaten-up chairs and rusted aluminum trash cans, toppled black orbs of old charcoal grills and sun-bleached junk. The fences lean, warped, as if to catch their reflections in all this Mid-Western-looking neglect. Téa and I stand outside for a while, kissing and watching the neon insides of Jake’s.
We walk in, buy a couple beers, and Téa goes to work on the jukebox. Cigarette smoke is cut into shreds by a lone fan above. The bright neon displays of every beer imaginable shout through the hum of college conversation. Carole King’s Tapestry album begins to play with neither objection nor approval from the other patrons. The unmistakable up-tempo keyboard of I Feel the Earth Move begins as Téa joins me. We have more beers and press fast-forward on the night. We make up stories about everyone in the place. When Will You Love Me Tomorrow? comes on, Téa tugs at my hand.
“What?” I say, staring at ourselves in the mirror behind the bar.
“Dance with me.”
Embarrassed a little, though Téa looks beautiful at looking so absurd in her big fur coat that she refuses to take off, I get up and we slow dance. This too raises neither objection nor approval from the other patrons. Is this a lasting treasure...Or just a moment’s pleasure? As we dance, I notice that she isn’t looking at me but behind me, at the enormous deer head mounted between the Molson and Coors Light signs. Its silent black eyes magnetizing her bright green ones. Its fur, its sharp pointed antlers, the contour of its nose and mouth and ears lending the necessary elements of a plausible life. Of a lived experience now mounted, like a headstone, in a Pennsylvania bar. Téa’s trance breaks only when the song ends. She turns to me, appearing on the cusp of tears, presses her lips onto my jaw and croons, tone-deaf, “Will you still love me tomorrow?”
Well, if you can believe it, it wasn’t until then that I realized I indeed was in love with her and it was a safe bet that by tomorrow I still would be and perhaps into next week and then maybe month to month like a seasonal tenant of the heart, renting devotional territory.
“I don’t see why not,” I say, my throat burning with happiness. But who I say it to is fundamentally changed, subterranean, in a way I can’t put my finger on. As she pulls her face up to look at mine, I’m alarmed by the distortions at work. The blonde hair has suddenly lost its luster, the bright green in her eyes turns hazel with panicked streaks of black, the red freckles fade into a spatter of muted brown.
“I’m gonna go to the bathroom and then we can go back to your place?” I ask her, unsure, with the timidity of a stranger.
“Sounds good,” she says blankly, fireworks cracking off in the distance. “I’ll wait for you by the door.”
As I walk into the bathroom, the last thing I see is the sleeve of Téa’s mammoth furry arm resting on top of the cigarette machine and her hair in her face. When I leave the bathroom, she is gone. Now I’m not exactly a believer in the paranormal or the mystic, but here is where I begin to doubt my own memories of that night. As I burst through the screen door of Jake’s and out into the humid night, shouting Téa’s name, running through the surrounding alleyways, asking people in the street if they’ve seen a woman in a large fur coat and receiving emphatic “no’s” and disquieting looks, I am overcome with the sensation of having been the victim of a metaphysical oddity I can’t understand. Being, knowing, substance, cause, identity, time, and space take on new and painful meanings. I walk through the borough drunk, starving, in love. But in love with what? With what creature did I spend these last days in bed, cutting emotions out of my sexual equation with pure physicality, with everything in my body, with only my body? At some points in the night, I think I see a flash of fur behind a parked car or hear animal sounds rushing behind me on the brick-lined streets. Twice I mistake a muscular squirrel darting up a tree for her phenomena. Sometimes I see ancient eyes that turn out to be stray cats. Over the course of that night, from south to north, beginning at Sharpless Street, I exhaust the East/West alleys named below:
Followed by these North/South alleys:
I even, on my delirious hunt, pause in front of the old Kesher Israel Synagogue on Church Street––now a members-only bar––where in 1925 it was built from the ground up for the growing congregation of Jews in the borough who began to populate out of their cramped home services. I sit on the steps. The inscriptions in English and Hebrew on the arched entranceway remain. The carved Stars of David, three of them, are perched in a triangle along the crowstepped gable. There was a time when these stone-grey stars might have elicited more emotion, wonder, and reverence from me than the ones burning in the night sky behind the synagogue, the light of some of them older than the conception of a God, measured in light-years, as science explains.
But even in an age of science, where hypotheses rigorously tested largely come to explain everything, does the as yet unexplainable bring us back to God? I had had my back turned for some time now. When I was a young boy about ten-years-old, I cursed God after losing a basketball game. I looked up into the heavens and told Him I no longer believed in Him. If He couldn’t grant me the selfish wish of sinking a shot to win a close game, was He really so all-powerful? Did He really love me and want the best for me? Was I truly made in His enigmatic image? Look at me, capitalizing Him anyway. Perhaps Téa knew something about God that I didn’t. About belief and its possibilities that I didn’t.
Then I see the cold pink of the day’s first light appearing on the horizon. The humidity has been cooked off into the atmosphere, along with my will to search. I wait on the fire escape for a week, two weeks, hoping Téa will come back. The plants in her window die. The dust collects on belongings that soon look like artifacts. I go on a trip across state lines one weekend and come back to find her room empty. The piles of clothes and books, the tapestries and sheets, the bed itself, the imprints of life––all gone, as if no one had ever lived there. What it fills me with is not hope that she still exists, but fear that I am losing my mind.
So this is how I’ve come to obsess over every corner of the borough. I look for her even now, to this day, you’ll see me, on lunch breaks and weekends, still studying possible hiding places in the alleys of West Chester for a sign, a hint of where she is. There in the arrow of a weathervane? Or there in a shard of light broken into a kaleidoscope by spidered glass? The more I look, the less of a thing resembling an answer I get. If anything, she is everywhere. That’s what I learned––or chalked it up to out of sheer exasperation. I view her now as she viewed herself, as belonging to the town, wound into the thread of history that begins with the Lenni Lenape, William Penn, and Turks Head…and unspools through time, beyond time––to a West Chester University, a Jake’s Bar, to alleys named after bygone America, after trees. Without a use for her body, the tomb of the body, she becomes something else entirely.