In the grip of obsession, a man turns an open relationship into a triangle in an excerpt from a novel by Kári Tulinius.
Listen to Kári Tulinius read "Abel's Autobiography" in the original Icelandic.
Life never chooses the right moment to unveil love to you for the first time, when you’ve not yet experienced it—not, for instance, at a moment when the days are lumbering by at a crawl, like station wagons in bumper-to-bumper traffic—but rather when you’re speeding along the freeway with a scalding hot cup of coffee in one hand on your way to meet your friend near the old abandoned military base so you can sneak through a hole in the fence and leap naked from the barracks roof into a swimming hole and then look over at the other lane where there’s a person who’s in just as much of a hurry as you and who looks over at the very same second and your eyes meet and something sparks in your mind, and your friends, your plans, your future are all forgotten, and then suddenly, it’s clear there’s only one right choice: to smash your cars together and make love in the wreckage.
The person in the car next to mine in this metaphor was Jerome, who, as he put it, had needed to correct the misunderstanding that he was a woman and had had a mastectomy, had been taking testosterone for two years, and carried himself, looked, and smelled exactly like what he was—and I didn’t just want to be with him, I wanted to be him, minus the receding hairline—I even considered quitting theology and transferring to the music composition department where he was completing his PhD because his whole inner self came together in one whole, wasn’t just draped around him like rags.
We met because he was composing not music exactly, but rather a soundscape for a play I had a part in, which bore the long and cumbersome title of Scies Sub Ista Tenui Membrana Dignitatis Quantum Mali Iaceat—You Will Know How Much Evil Lies Under That Thin Coating of Titles—which quite rightly indicated that the work was a bit pretentious, though the title had actually come about by chance; it was supposed to have been the epigraph, but the playwright, Rhea Wilkins, wasn’t able to come up with a title and ultimately, the Seneca quote ended up being the only thing written on the cover page and anyway, it corresponded perfectly with the content: an amalgamation of short retellings of Greco-Roman myths that dealt with gender roles—I was to play our friend Attis from a poem by Catullus—since Rhea wanted to use ancient mythology to critique the gender myths of the present.
The other role I was supposed to play, one of Penelope’s pushy suitors, was cut when the play was shortened by half—all the Homer stuff got cut out—so I had more time to hang out and chat; I’d actually planned to sit in the corner and study, but I’d always enjoyed lolling around with a cup of tea, discussing everything under the sun and moon while my castmates worked on something in the script that I was in no way responsible for, so it didn’t take long before I was spending a lot less time with my nose in a book and fingers on a keyboard, while conversely, the hours I spent with the musicians—among them, Jerome—started to pile up and they amused themselves with stories and party games, some of them music-related—for instance, they’d improvise a quick tune to represent the way someone walked and then you’d have to guess who the song was for—but others more traditional conversation games, like one where you had to describe a fictional character without making any physical gestures and without using any word connected to the fictional work the character was in, and I was very good at that game while Jerome was the master of the promenade game because he generally had a really good feeling for how bodies moved, both as discrete entities and also how they filled and used space.
We were drawn together on the dance floor, our group went to a dance club all together, which I’m usually not big on because I’d rather dance alone or with just a few friends—this was a sign that I’d been sucked into Jerome’s gravitational pull, which I was as yet unaware of—but this time, I didn’t think twice about it, rather followed everyone into the club and out onto the floor and was there longer than everyone else, except for him, until finally, we got separated from everyone else among the dancing strangers, bodies that turned into waves that encircled us in a writhing swell of flesh and fervor, his dance steps becoming my own—more delicate, smoother and slower—until he stood still, looking down and a tiny bit to the left, his hands quivering in time with the music; I was spooned out from within and filled with thunderclouds—I’d moved closer as our dancing slowed and laid a hand on his right hip and then he put his arms around me, pulled me to him, lifted his face to mine and kissed me and the electricity that had been building up under my skin, in my chest and in my throat, streamed out of me and into him.
I probably would have been able to maintain my sanity when it came to him—though there’s no doubt that I would have become smitten all too quickly—had he not told me first thing the next morning that he was in an open relationship but that he wanted to keep sleeping with me, seeing me, and asked if I wanted the same thing; that’s when the weeds of jealousy took root and spread throughout my thoughts, choked my other feelings and desires so that I became obsessed with Jerome, even started to copy the way he dressed and moved—I wanted to have him all to myself, my life began revolving around taking possession of him and his time, everything else became a mere detail, my writing assignments were submitted late and poorly done, class periods passed me by like a herd of cows in the fog—if I even showed up, that is—my relationships with friends got choked by the weeds because my friends were transformed into psychologists who had to listen to me blather on—I have to give it to you: you’re always willing to listen to me ramble—my theatrical pursuits vanished in the uncultivated thicket like everything else that had made me me, and in the end, I was only interested in two things: Jerome, and his lover, Lionel.
Jealousy sowed its seeds wider still in my mind whenever Jerome called me and said that he couldn’t meet up because Lionel needed him; the first time he did it, it was OK—things come up—but the next time he chose Lionel over me, I understood that this was the way my life was going to be, that I would always be second best because Jerome felt that he bore some responsibility for Lionel—any time Jerome’s cell would whistle with a message from Lionel, Jerome’d come running—although in fairness, Jerome could also always rely on Lionel, who felt that ze’d been rescued from the abyss by our mutual lover.
Jerome had met Lionel at the Boulder Public Library as ze would regularly go there to meet hir daughter, who ze’d lost custody of when ze’d transitioned; Jerome found the library an agreeable place to work on his compositions, far away from the distractions of the university campus, and on one occasion he noticed the tense interaction between Lionel and hir former husband, started to keep an eye out for hir and get to know the routine: ze’d wait for hir daughter, chat with her, say good-bye to her—or, when the ex didn’t show, didn’t—how Lionel would crumple when ze’d given up hope of getting to see hir daughter that day, and on one such occasion, Jerome approached Lionel, said he’d often seen hir with hir daughter, and it didn’t take long for their conversation to become quite intimate.
Lionel sent Jerome a friend request on Facebook, they started talking, and before long were regularly meeting at a coffee shop in town, although Lionel lived in a cabin in the woods, far up in the Rockies—hir isolation was both geographical and social—ze’d moved from New York to be close to hir daughter when hir former husband got a computer science position in Boulder, had let hirself be guided by a long-standing desire, moved to a remote house to write, and then four years had passed and ze hadn’t made any close friends, rather lived in hir cabin and took walks through mountain forests in search of the inspiration that ze did actually find, ze’d finished the manuscript of hir novel and was forever rewriting it—I’d managed to covertly send myself a copy from Jerome’s computer when I was visiting him at his office—the novel was about Abelard and Heloise, or more accurately, just Heloise, but in Lionel’s story, Abelard was her creation, a nom de plume she adopted in order to get her writing published, and then her pseudonym took on its own life and stories about its dialectical prowess traveled to every corner of France, then Heloise began dressing up as Abelard and started teaching at a Paris school, but claimed to be taking private lessons with that famous intellectual so as not to arouse suspicion when going in and out of the place where she kept her disguise, but in time, she started to spend more time in her role as Abelard, gradually felt better that way than she did as a noblewoman, until an uncle’s suspicion that something untoward was going on between her and her teacher lead to an innocent bystander being castrated and her being forced to enter a nunnery.
Lionel felt that society, both American society at large and the literary world, was against hir, ze had a master’s degree in creative writing from Brooklyn College but never got to teach anywhere or publish anything, and ze had trouble trusting anyone other than Jerome, who won hir trust by always being frank and forthcoming, describing all his love affairs in great detail—sometimes, Lionel also came down just to hear Jerome practicing his clarinet—but other than hir lover and daughter, Lionel avoided humankind as best ze could, since as far as ze was concerned, society had driven hir into the forest.
I felt like I had to meet hir, to find out who it was that held Jerome captive—my emotions had gotten the better of me—to find a way to free him from his prison, to get him all to myself—a mentality that I’m ashamed of now, a problematic but important part of my life, but I wouldn’t be me without my obsession, or to put it better, I wouldn’t be me without this experience because when Jerome became my role model, I could allow my masculinity to grow like an apple tree next to a crystal-clear spring and become myself; before, I’d taken cues from my father, but it’s from Jerome that I learned how to move and how to be still, how to knot my tie and iron my shirts, how to speak and listen.
In the beginning, Jerome and I didn’t meet very often outside of the theater, but as the fall semester progressed, I started visiting him most days and in the end, I was staying with him every night, except when Lionel was in town or needed him to stay in the forest, but jealousy weighed so heavily upon me that I could only begrudge Lionel and be bitter toward Jerome for leaving me behind so that more and more often, I’d pass by his house when they were together in the hope of seeing them without ever having decided what exactly it was that I planned to do if they actually appeared.
Nothing ever came of these walk-bys, but one day, I saw an email from Lionel to Jerome—I’d snuck a look at it while he was making tea—in which ze suggested that they meet up at a coffee shop called Erhard’s that was pretty far away from downtown and the university; at first, it wasn’t my intention to spy, but my curiosity got the better of me and after Jerome left me by the university building where I was supposed to be going to class, I went to the coffee shop instead—took the next bus after him—and as soon as I arrived, I knew I’d made a mistake: it was a small place, just a bakery, really, with a few tables for customers, in a shopping center where each shop was facing out toward the parking lot such that I couldn’t hide anywhere and so had to stop pretty far away; as far as I could tell, the two of them were sitting at a table with a little girl—probably Lionel’s daughter—and then I walked back in the direction of the university.
It makes my skin crawl now when I think about how asinine my behavior was, but at any rate, I decided to take things even further because when I realized, while snooping through Jerome’s emails on another occasion, that they intended to go up to Lionel’s place in the mountains, I resolved to follow them; I wanted to see them together so I could understand why Jerome preferred Lionel to me—I just had to make arrangements for a car and then also to dress in such a way that Jerome wouldn’t recognize me from a distance.
After asking a few friends if I could borrow their car—I should mention that I invented the unnecessarily complicated excuse that some relatives of mine had a twelve-hour stopover at the Denver airport and I wanted to take them on a quick trip into the Rockies—Cynthia told me I could use her Corolla if I returned it washed and with a full tank of gas; then I went and bought an ugly old sweater and a big wool hat—there was no reason to do more than that, but just to be on the safe side, I grabbed a pair of fake glasses from the props closet, as well as a thermos of tea and a package of cookies from home.
I didn’t have to wait long because Lionel arrived in hir pickup truck about five minutes after I’d parked a short ways down the street and Jerome came out right away—he usually made me wait—and they drove off and I after them, took the most direct route out of town and up into the Rockies, the sides of which were already in shadow, and I suddenly realized that I had no idea where Lionel lived, nor whether the two of them were going straight to hir house; I’d been so focused on how I’d go about following them that I hadn’t thought through the trip itself, except that I should keep at least one car between us, a tip I’d picked up from crime novels.
Lionel followed the winding road along the bottom of the valley which lay between hills that quickly turned into steep, densely wooded mountains on both sides of the car and every time they disappeared around a curve, I got scared that I’d lose them, although that didn’t happen, and finally, we came to the dam and water reservoir by Nederland, but they kept driving, through the town and up into the mountains with me following in the Corolla, further and further up into the Rockies—it had started to snow—and as the road got increasingly narrow and winding, I lost sight of them behind the dense trees more often, although I invariably caught sight of them again until, all of a sudden, they disappeared.
At first, I kept driving for a while in the hopes I’d find them, but I was quickly persuaded that they’d turned off the road somewhere, so I turned the car around and drove slowly back the way I’d come, trying to scan for back roads leading into the forest and it wasn’t long before I came across one, but when I slowed down to check if I could see some trace of a car, I caught sight of another back road further down and so on and so forth because within the very short distance I’d driven back, there were any number of roads leading into the forest and tire tracks in the new-fallen snow on many of them.
I didn’t want to give up and decided to drive down the back road that had tire tracks that I thought looked the most like they were from a truck—I have no idea now how I thought I could know that—at first, it was going really well, but then the Corolla’s tires started to lose their grip and spin a bit, but I still kept going—I didn’t want to have wasted all that time and energy following them all the way up there just to have them get away from me in the final feet—but then the road ended at an old hunting shack—no car, Jerome and Lionel nowhere to be seen.
I was shocked, nearly burst into tears, got out of the car to check whether maybe the road kept going, but it didn’t, the tire tracks ended—or, more accurately, began—at the shack, and there wasn’t a thing to see through the snow flurries except for the forest all around me, so I turned around and went back the way I’d come, but before long, I came to a spot where the road forked and then drove a ways down a side road, stopped the car, jumped out, made sure that no one had driven down it, got back in the car, backed out onto the main road, and put it into drive, but when I tried to go forward, the tires started spinning and then jerked the car forward onto the shoulder and I couldn’t get it to go backward or forward and when I took out my phone to call for help, I couldn’t get a signal—stuck, no hope of rescue, in the forest—the flurries had become an all-out blizzard, an endless torrent of white flecks that fell on the fir trees, the Corolla, and me.
I didn’t know what I should do in this predicament because I’d learned to drive in the summer in Issaquah and had never needed to think about how I should free a car that’s stuck in the snow, had never gotten the knack, and in New England, where I would have maybe been able to learn it, I never drove—I hardly ever got in a car, hardly ever left the campus grounds because that’s where I felt most comfortable—but now I wished I’d tried to drive in the snow, just so I’d know if I was in a lot of trouble or just an insignificant jam, but I felt entirely forsaken, like my life was maybe even in danger.
The car idled while I sat and thought about what would be the best thing to do, but my initial hunch—you couldn’t call it an informed guess—was that this road was most likely used very little, so I decided the best thing to do would be to walk back out to the main road, particularly because I was afraid that if I waited until morning, the tire tracks would get snowed over and the snow drifts would be more arduous to traverse, and anyway, there was still something left of the day, so I put my coat on over my sweater—which I thanked providence I’d bought—took off the fake glasses, put on the cap and gloves, turned off the Corolla, got out, grabbed the thermos and cookies, started off into the blizzard, and was all at once overcome with worry about Cynthia’s car, although I managed to shake that off because I knew she would be the first to tell me not to worry about a lifeless object, that if I’d died because I didn’t want to abandon her car she’d have chased me into the next world like a hunter stalking its prey.
The walk went well—the tire tracks showed me the way and I was filled with a growing sense of security, would have even whistled if the snowflakes hadn’t chilled my enthusiasm, but my creaking steps became livelier, and before long, the walk was progressing well and I was certain that I’d reach the road soon, but little by little the tire tracks became more indistinct, slowly but surely it got darker, my self-assurance waned and I started feeling less sure of myself, thought that it would have been good to have you at my side—an Icelander who knew what you were supposed to do in such circumstances.
Darkness fell suddenly, much sooner than I would have hoped—I hadn’t thought about the fact that in the mountains, the sun disappears behind the peaks long before it sets—and soon I couldn’t see anything except what was illuminated when I checked my phone for service—there wasn’t any—I’d grown cold and I suddenly realized that I had no idea how long I’d driven along the trail or how far from the road I’d gone; all my focus had been directed at what lay ahead and any clues that indicated that Jerome and Lionel had gone this way, so I hadn’t checked the clock or the mile markers, but now I understood what kind of danger I was in, and that I had been led there by my own obsession—had allowed myself to be a jealous idiot—and now I might die because of my own stupidity, and so I sat down with my back up against a tree, drew my legs up under my old sweater, scrunched my head down into the collar and shifted a little so that I could have a sip of tea, a nibble of a cookie, while I thought about the fact that I might now die, that in my foolhardiness I’d endangered myself, that I would maybe freeze to death under a tree next to a backwoods trail high up in the Rocky Mountains just because I’d become obsessed with a person I’d never met: my lover’s lover.
I had two choices: I could wrest back control of my life or I could die, either now or later, after I’d made another decision while blinded by my obsession, so I decided to stop loving Jerome, to stop thinking about Lionel—to stop living for other people and start instead living for myself—and so I renounced Jerome, I renounced my love, renounced the power my emotions held over me.
In order to lift my spirits, I imagined that I was Superman, worn out and exhausted after having single-handedly saved the world from invasion, and now recovering from my injuries in a forest not far from the farm where I’d grown up when suddenly, the man who’d raised me as his own came out of the shack and sat down next to me dressed in a flannel shirt, jeans, and green boats—even though I knew very well that he was a ghost, since my enemies had murdered him in cold blood again and again—but still he laid his hand on my shoulder and we reminisced about my childhood, back when everyone thought I was an earthling.
I woke up cold and stiff, my eyes smarting from my contact lenses, wolfed down what was left of the cookies, drank the last drops of tea, and tried to follow the path—which wasn’t actually possible, in that it was now completely invisible—but the illusion of a path kept me walking and before long, I heard the sound of traffic and walked right out onto the road I’d turned off of the day before, waving my arms and ecstatic with happiness; a couple around sixty or so stopped in a Jeep, took me back to Cynthia’s car, hauled it back on the road and as I drove home, I felt like I’d been purified overnight: everything that wasn’t me was gone—nothing was left except for Abel, except for all that I am.
On my way down from the mountains, the thought crossed my mind that people are not one unbroken whole, but rather, the brain is a collection of countless nodes and components in a complex system of cooperation and competition; reason is but one aspect, but in that all my student years went into learning to be a thinker—rational and critical—it’s practically a given that I’d extol logic above all else in my mind; I’ve always had a tendency to look at my body and my self as one, unbroken whole, one person, but I’m not a person—rather a polyphonic democracy of silent impulses because no one agrees with their inner self, because my selves are many and no one thought binds them all together; instead, my mind is a foam that swirls up to the surface of my brain as this system and these components flow together like the Pacific and the Atlantic in the Strait of Magellan.
In their natural state, people simply are what they are, but within a society, they become a tangle of roles, self-images, and life purposes, all in a paradoxical structure that we weave together in a civilization that is reified in cities, temples, writing, and images, and again on the internet where blogs, videos, and Facebook present everyone with their own objectification; everyone acquires an electronic soul that leads an independent life and can survive the death of the body like a ghost that can only be laid to rest by destroying all information, but in any civilization, it’s always a crime to destroy information—only the worst villains set fire to libraries—but I sometimes wished I could erase my own electronic soul and try to find something to fill that void, find eternal life somewhere other than in databases, or, yes, even fling myself out into the void and see what is beyond it.
From Móðurhugur. © Kári Tulinius. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Larissa Kyzer. All rights reserved.