Twigs and Little Animal Skulls, Pt. 1 / by Robert Stone

How strange we are. How different we are from how we think we are. We fall out of love only to fall in love with a duplicate of what we've left, never understanding that we love what we love and that it doesn't change.

—Sara Majka

Cities I've Never Lived In

You love once, I told you. Even when you love over and over again it is the same once, the same one. And you sent me your recipes—Ezra Pound Cake, Beef Mallarmé—and you wrote: Do you think if you eat one meal, every meal after that is the same meal, just because it too is a meal? And I said some are the same meal.

—Lorrie Moore

Like Life

You should read this.

Lots of people I've known have said this to me about many things—novels, stories, headlines, the articles themselves—and I've sometimes listened to them. Usually I don't think much about it. I either read the thing or I don't.

This was supposed to be a story about a book, about how it has helped to make space for people I have loved to live as ghosts in the dimly lit passageways of my mind, etched and warped in unfamiliar shapes.

I came into the apartment on a winter afternoon and watched the words fall from Anne's mouth onto the ground, her things huddled together around her feet.

I can't do this anymore. I have to leave. To use a metaphor, I didn't leave that apartment for months. What I'm finding is that maybe I still haven't left.

I left the building, bought cereal, other food, ate it in small portions, showed up late or not at all to everything; withered rapidly. I lost something like three pounds as a weekly routine, something automatic and undetected. This is something I pieced together later—I did not watch it happen. This, the weight loss, lasted a few months. It must have been something to see frailty grow out of frailty. It must be strange to see the word grow there, but when I think of it now, the way it makes sense is that my weaknesses found that they only had a place to grow from once a hole had been made. A thing to be filled.

A thing to empty out.

Anne never asked me to read Bluets. I don't know if she has heard of Maggie Nelson, has ever been in love with a color. The year I spent with her was a thousand hues of the same color, shiny and reflected in screaming train windows and puddles dancing under electric-bright streetlights.

When Elle asked, I didn't listen. When Rachel asked, I could not, did not wait to find a copy.

When I finally read Bluets I was in the habit of writing notes to myself in the fronts of books to mark when I began. To mark who was reading. I've now left many inscriptions in the front, but the first, the one that marked when I would read for Rachel, began drawing the fault line for how I would think about Bluets, how I thought I would think about this piece.

A black ink scrawl, it reads: I'm finally reading this book. I opened to a random page & thought of Pessoa.

Disquiet is a prettier word for the state I have lived in at low levels for many years. Fernando Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet is what brought my attention to this word, to the idea that you could try to take your fears and your pain and put them into a container to be made separate from yourself and then kept there. That you could try to write yourself out of a well. Out of yourself.

Writing as himself, Fernando Pessoa prefaces what he will then write as Bernardo Soares, a fictional pseudonym he has adopted to write what he calls "my factless autobiography, my lifeless history." He says, "I am, in large measure, the selfsame prose I write. I unroll myself in sentences and paragraphs, I punctuate myself ... I've made myself into the character of a book, a life one reads. Whatever I feel is felt (against my will) so that I can write that I felt it." My terror in writing here is that in making a jar and writing into it the things I find and have kept in my memory, I will leave myself without a way to break the jar into pieces and turn its contents to dust.

When I read the note again, I opened Disquiet to a random page and thought of myself. 194. A terrible weariness fills the soul of my heart. I feel sad because of whom I never was, and I don't know with what kind of nostalgia I miss him. I fell, with every sunset, against my hopes and certainties.

Bluets is barely a text to me. It is an invocation of multitudes, of the lives I have repeatedly chosen not to live, and, within them, the many lives I was not permitted to live.

I had a dream the night I reread Bluets. In it, I was in a field I had never seen before, folding a paper plane in tall grass with a woman whose face I did not know. She pulled my hair back and I knew she was Rachel, though she had the face of another. When I woke, I couldn't be sure that I hadn't simply forgotten what she looked like, that she hadn't grown into someone else in my mind.

Then I wondered if she hadn't been someone else the entire time I knew her. If the things I loved in her were only refinements or recurrences of things I had loved in Anne. There is an odd thing that happens in the way we build narratives around the events of our lives and then make meaning out of these narratives. The different cycles of our lives are stitched together in kid craft ways that we do not see as threadbare. We didn't know ourselves then, were reaching feebly in the night to strange bathroom walls for light switches so that we would later learn from our shortcomings, be better, see the walls lit less dimly.

We believe that when two people are sewn together, their plumage blending into a single pattern, then cast into the world to walk as ghosts, it is so that space can be made for another. That it was a test run. But we live with these specters.

I understood my dream about Rachel, then, as a sign that my relationship with Bluets was about my relationship with her. I had forgotten, momentarily, that those relationships, like each one I've had in its wake, were mainly about my relationship with Anne.

When I'm asked what I loved best in Anne, I only know how to explain in terms of emotional memory. What I remember of her, what I have measured others I've loved against, is how utterly whole I remember feeling on deserted roads lit beyond her headlights by a waxing moon tucked in part behind a low and scattered cloud ceiling, on the steps of our building, sat propped against the edges of its alcove entryway, cigarette smoke climbing to streetlights and treetops as wheels went drifting by in twos and fours. How electric and alive I felt talking and listening to her. How it broke me to be without her.


She stopped walking and turned to face me underneath the streetlight and, grinning with the right side of her mouth, spoke in a muted tone. "I feel like a great beauty." "Don't." "Don't?" "Say that." "Don't say what." "Great beauty. Things like that." "Like that." "People don't say things like that." "What things do people say?" "Why did we stop walking. Why did you stop?" She turned slightly, bringing the streetlight into view, and looked up at it. As the light hit her face it stole into her eye and her grin grow sinister. I looked down at the sidewalk, away from her feet. After a minute or two she spoke again, her face and body still turned toward the streetlight, her voice brass, loud and laughing. "Let's fight. Let's punch and kick each other and have a fistfight." "A fistfight. Okay." "You don't like the wig." "Have you ever been in a fight?" "You were laughing when you said it looked good. 'Yeah, it looks great,' you said." "I like the color of your real hair. I like the wig." She crossed her arms and started walking rapidly in wide circles, the light hitting her in intervals, the shock of purple the last thing I saw each time she slipped into darkness. She stopped walking and reached into her coat, into a concealed interior pocket in the lining that I had asked about once from across the table in the deep violet glow of a near- empty bar on a different Tuesday or Wednesday night.


Robert Stone lives in Boston, where he studied English lit in grad school, and his Twitter is @robert_stone. He hails from Philly.