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Mimnermos: The Brainsex Paintings

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Why not keep moving it's true every epitaph calls out to the passerby but the marks are a trap the mourning is irrelevant I knew a man who dreamed his backside was made of glass and dared not sit down for 7 months

-Anne Carson

 

She was too wounded, Kate thought, putting her pen down for a moment – was absolutely and utterly too wounded to survive. Only hearing the word “tesseract” spoken, even by the voice of a stranger, had struck at her core like a blow.

She let her head come to rest against the cool surface of her lab table, the half-written combination letter and diary entry lying close beside her cheek.

She didn't know what was to be done. She did not know how to put a stop to it.

Things had cascaded irrevocably, gone from a mind-game about folding the cosmos up like laundry played by a pair of brainy young lover-scientists, through the initial excitement of the work, to the rush as funding had begun coming in and the project had been realized, eating up Alex's time and attention as the new baby had absorbed most of hers – and then the word that Hank was lost, Ruth beside her going down as it had hit home that her husband wasn't coming back. Kate had known, then, that Alex was going to next, and there had been nothing left to do. They had spent one night fighting and crying, one night talking and making love, and then she had taken the children back north to their summer home on the eastern seaboard, because it would have done none of them any good to hang around the base waiting.

She'd known, then, that it was entirely possible that no news would ever come.

Around her, months of human time had come and gone, bringing various troubles, duties, small joys. It was as though she had been frozen at the central point, herself the only unmoving thing in a changing world. And years had gone by that way. It worried her that they had not touched her fully. She couldn't bear the idea of change. It seemed right that she should freeze as Alex had left her, so that she would not be strange to him when he returned. But she also knew that the waiting, the stress, had changed her without her consent, made her the kind of woman who waits motionless for the return of her husband, someone very unlike the woman she had been before.

Her family had remained outsiders in the community, and as Alex's absence had extended, apparently indefinitely, the social protection that had been provided to her by their marriage had begun to fade. Kate did not fit in; and she felt herself becoming brittle and armored in reaction, more like the prickly person she'd been as a girl, without the serenity she'd gained through her adult achievements. She hurt terribly. She was keeping the bandages clean, but it didn't seem like the injury would ever heal. Her children were hurting, too. Meg kept picking fights, and the boys were all, in their own ways, retreating into the most expected and middling versions of themselves, the twins with their budding sense of physical prowess, Charles Wallace with his nascent arrogance.

It helped being so close to Louise – her friend lived closer to her now than she ever had since the days when they'd shared a dormitory room as undergraduates, practically her neighbor with only a quarter mile or so between their homes – but the renewed society of her old friend, another regression to an earlier part of her life, was no replacement for Alex's. He had challenged and complemented her better than any other friend she'd ever had. She had tried to continue their research, alone; but her brain had felt as paralyzed as her heart.

She'd had such a turn, the night before, when Charles Wallace's unusual guest had talked of the tesseract. Would all the wonders of the universe turn out to be horrors?

Nevertheless she turned from her abandoned hopeless writing back to the electron microscope, deliberately shaking off her brooding reverie to watch the unfolding patterns of the little lives of the sub-microscopic world a while longer. If all life was interconnected – and she'd seen the proof before her own eyes, more than once – then it didn't matter how far away Alex was. She wasn't alone. Night fell as she continued their work in the lab, and as the first stars came out a great wind came whistling through the chinks in the windowsills. When she went to look out it came rushing coolly in at the door.

She saw Sandy and Dennys standing on the front steps of the house, like her peering out into the night to see what the ruckus was about. Fortinbras, beside them, was barking furiously. A group of people seemed to have fallen together in a heap in the garden. She stepped out.

As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, Kate recognized the plaid of Meg's kilt, Charles Wallace tangled up in it. She'd thought Charles had gone to bed. What was he doing out and about, roughhousing with his sister in the garden bed?

The children began to untangle themselves – both of their faces were pale, and they looked strained and tired to her rapidly assessing eye – and as they sat up she could see that the O'Keefe boy was there, too, wrapped around both of them like a protective starfish.

She had barely begun to grasp that something unexpected was going on when another figure stood, rising up to an adult height from behind the clustered children. His gaunt, beaming face caught the light and Kate's breath at the same time.

Alex's hair and beard were longer than she'd ever seen them, soft brown locks curling down over his shoulders and back like a hippie's, and in the length of the suspended and dream-like moment of silence that ensued, the only thought that came clearly into her mind was that neither Alex nor Meg had their glasses, and he wouldn't be able to see at all.

Even if he could see her, she thought in rushing panic, would he even know her, after so much time?

He took a step toward her, his familiar stalking long-legged stride causing her heart to stutter like a wing in her chest. When he reached for her she nearly fell into his embrace, dizzy and drunk on hope unlooked-for, and when his arms came up to encircle her in the old gesture of care and unity, there in the vegetable garden in the middle of the wind-whipped autumn night, she felt her body trembling against his shaking one, felt the stars in the heavens and the cells of their bodies all coming in one instant back into proper alignment.

He said her name against her cheek, and she knew herself again, solid in her body and bones as she had not been for what felt like ages. She knew him; he knew her.

Movement from the children helped to anchor her, reality coming back into alignment around them, the need to get everyone settled for the night a welcome framework of necessity and routine. Kate brought them all in to the warm bright space of the kitchen, her husband and her children and Calvin O'Keefe, Fortinbras darting around everyone's ankles like a joyful and very much in-the-way dervish. As she heated milk and water for cocoa, the children loudly boasted, albeit without much in the way of clarity or organization, about their adventures. Meg complained with gusto about the “horrible planet” she and Charles and Calvin had apparently tessered to – tessered to! – with Calvin chiming in to corroborate details for the disbelieving twins. Charles Wallace was visibly excited to near-bursting to tell his mother about Meg's great acts of heroism, how she'd saved him and saved their father, saved everything. She was beginning to understand that the time had taken much longer in their experiential frame of reference than the brief interval that had passed since her supper earlier that evening.

Alex was much quieter than the children, though Kate noted that he did not refute any of the things they said. Seen in the more revealing light of the kitchen, he looked dazed and run-down.

“I'm – home, now,” he said at last, hoarse but definite, cutting off a renewed outburst from Meg on the evils of the place where the had gone – “I'm home now, thanks to my wonderful clever children, and we are going to get things back to normal around here. Tomorrow –” he paused, catching himself, and then looked over at Kate to ask – “is tomorrow a school day?”

“It is,” she said. “It's going to be Friday. But I think it might be a good day to skip school, as a family, don't you? We were planning on doing some gardening, putting things away for the winter, over the weekend; we might get a start before the weather changes.” She smiled at him, and then at all of them, there together around the table, clustered in the light. In the forty-five minutes that had elapsed in the busy space of the kitchen, she had not let go of his hand for more than a few seconds.

He smiled back, his eyes hazy and unfocused without his glasses to bring them into focus, his grin stretching his thin face wide. “All right,” he said. “Tomorrow, we'll do some gardening, and get things put away before the winter. And I'll still be here the day after that, and all weekend, and the week after.”

“Time for bed,” Charles Wallace said, such decision in his baby voice that the group broke up without further prompting. Calvin O'Keefe shrugged his jacket back on to head homeward on foot through the dark; Sandy offered to walk with him, but Calvin said, “That's all right. The walk back'll be time to clear my head.” He ducked the offending organ, his orange hair covered with a borrowed knit cap, in a shy, aversive gesture, and then glanced over at Meg, who smiled and reached out to touch his hand. Included in the family circle once more, he ventured, “There's a game on Saturday, if you want to come.”

“You playing?” Sandy asked, and Calvin nodded.

“We'll be there,” Meg told him. “Can you find your way yourself? I'd go with you to the end of our property, but –” and she looked back to where Charles Wallace still sat at the table, legs too small to reach the floor.

“That's all right,” Calvin replied. “You read Charles Wallace another bedtime story – you might try Psalms this time, Charles, it's appropriate – and I'll see you Saturday. G'night.”

“Come on, Sandy,” Dennys said. “We'll help Meg get Charles Wallace settled, mother.”

“Thank you,” Kate said as Calvin closed the door behind him. “I'll look in on you all before I go to bed.”

She squeezed Alex's hand tight and then let it go, reaching to gather the children's emptied mugs.

“We won't wait up for it, all the same,” Sandy said. “Talk in the morning, father?”

“Yes,” Alex said.

As she turned to put the mugs in the sink, Kate saw out of the corner of her eye that Alex had pulled Sandy to him in an impulsive hug, and a lump rose in her throat as she realized that her son was every bit as tall as his namesake. The twins had still been a few inches shorter than Alex the last time she'd seen them together.

Quiet settled over the kitchen like a blanket after the children were gone. Alex remained silent, waiting wordless while she finished her night chores; and then she took her husband by the hand, and when he turned voicelessly to look at her through his bared eyes, she led him out, unresisting, up the stairs and down the hall to where their bedroom door stood closed.

Then he pulled her to rest against him with it at his back, clasping her with desperate strength, as though a dam had broken; and he started to speak in a low, harsh, gasping voice. “Kate,” he said, kissing her face, her neck, her throat, “Kate. I'm so sorry, my darling, so sorry” – as though all his words had broken loose in him at once and were pouring out onto the floor at their feet.

“Stop apologizing,” she said, and leaning down bit his lip between her teeth, and then kissed him hard.

She reached back and turned the knob to open the door, putting on the light with one hand as she pushed him through into the softly-illuminated room. He stumbled, falling back to come to rest against the edge of their bed.

But as she made for the buttons at his neck, she was brought up short by the realization that she recognized the faded shirt he was wearing. She'd watched him put it on, years ago, in their bungalow at Cape Canaveral. Had he had no other clothing in the interim? Had it been washed since she'd last laundered it? When – and how – had he last been given the opportunity to clean his person?

She made as if to ask him, but found that no words came gracefully to mind to hold the question she was really trying to ask, which was: how badly are you hurt? So she gave up on asking for a bad lot, instead extrapolating from the available data set to reach an actionable conclusion, ruthlessly pushing past her emotional horror in order to not inflict it on her husband in the moment of his weakness.

Leaving a caress against his bearded cheek, she rose from their bed and went to the master bath, turning on the lights and the hot water in the big flagstone shower before coming back to finish undressing her errant spouse. He seemed to barely be breathing under the light touches of her hands, and she kept her movements slow, not wanting to startle him.

Beneath his clothes, she found the same mixture of strangeness and familiarity that had struck her in his scent. She knew him like she knew her own name, but he was changed, too, thinner, and without the toned muscularity that he'd always maintained in his wiry limbs and lanky body. Stepping away and stripping herself efficiently, she reached again for him to pull him to his feet. He wavered, but did not fall.

Billows of warm steam had begun to issue from the bathroom, and she guided their naked bodies toward the heat of the water. As she steered him in toward the jet, he turned and gave her a startlingly beautiful smile, his mobile expressive mouth twisting with feeling. “Are you going to wash the time away from me?” he asked her.

“I'm going to try,” she answered him. She bit back tears; it was over, and it was no longer time for weeping. Let there instead be an interval of joy, she prayed as she took of her own clothes, fiercely and with fervor. We are owed that much.

She manhandled her husband under the beating spray of the water, followed him into the warm humid liminal sacred womb-space and washed him, washing away the accumulated grime and sweat of, if she'd understood rightly, many distant worlds. He was quiescent under her hands, his head thrown back, grasping blindly at her torso as the hot cascade came down over them both.

She reached up to wash his hair. Her legs interlaced with his, and she leaned him back against the cool tile and buried her face in his neck so that the hot water covered her nose and mouth. She was fiercely conscious of the places where their genitals pressed against one another's bodies, his erection stiff against her thigh, her vulva, damp and sensitive, rubbing up on his leg.

His body was so familiar to her. His scent, the rhythm of his breath: he was the man that was her lover, her partner, the father of her children. But time had also worked to make him a stranger to her again. He was a song that she had used to know by heart, but had begun to forget. She recaptured his mouth in another deep kiss, and the thrum of his pulse was like a drumbeat pounding against her ears.

When she turned the water off at last he came after her into the bedroom, let her wrap him in a robe and towel his over-long hair. “Tomorrow, first thing,” she said, “you're getting a haircut – if I have to do it myself.”

He smiled wryly at her. “Tomorrow,” he said.

“Or the day after,” she said, and the hope was raw in her throat.

“Should we check in on the children?”

“They'll all be asleep now; maybe best keep that for the morning, when you've had some rest, too. We can wake them up tomorrow with breakfast in bed. I wouldn't be surprised if we see Charles later; he's often disturbed by dreams, and usually wanders in here, or climbs up to the attic to bunk in with Meg.”

Sleepy, sated, electrified, she curled up in the big bed again, snuggling in like a child. It was tucked away in a corner, close to a bank of windows that looked out on the dark expanse of the orchard; Kate had slept there alone for three years. Alex hadn't been there for months even before he'd been lost to the tesseract, their life back then centering around his work in Florida. “It's like a dream,” she heard him say, not to her but in a tone of detached observation.

“It is,” she agreed. “If we go to sleep in a dream, will we still be dreaming?”

He laughed lightly. “Only you,” he said, sitting on their bed and drawing her to him so that his face was pressed against her abdomen, his arms encircling her knees, “would start a discussion of dream paradoxes at a time like this.”

“Then leave the paradoxes for now and come do some dreaming.”

Slowly, he lay down beside her, and she heard his breath growing deep and even in the pattern of rest. But when she reached up to turn off the light, his hand shot out to grab her wrist and prevent it. “No, please don't,” he said. “I can't bear it, Katie, I can't bear it.” He sounded unwontedly panicked, and she turned back, her hand on the switch, to look at him: her husband lying on his side of their bed, just as he had for years, the fall of long hair over his face making him angular and elongated; and there was something in the set of his mouth, the stretch of his skin over his cheekbones, that was dire and pained.

“Of course,” she said, and moved back into his embrace, still in the pool of lamplight. She could feel his body shuddering convulsively, and she slid a securing hand up over his chest. “Do you want to tell me?” she asked him.

Long minutes of silence passed before he spoke. Then he said, “Do you know, I saw a great deal less of the planet where I was stranded than the children managed to, even though I was there for a much longer period of time. I was captured almost immediately as soon as the tesser was complete. When the children found me, I had been left alone in my prison by my captors for a long, long time.”

“It was dark, where I was kept – where Meg found me. I discovered later that the structure was transparent, like a column of glass – but when I was inside of it, I could see nothing, not light, not color, no distinction in the grey emptiness of the world of my enclosure.”

He stopped, swallowed. She ran a caressing hand down the bristling side of his bearded face.

“I've never known such darkness, Katie, not even under absolute conditions in a lab. The worst was when I woke from sleep; it was so hard to tell if I was sleeping or waking, and sometimes I would guess it wrong. I think I was going mad – I'd begun dissociating, I was doing it on purpose, imagining that I was in the meadow with you and Charles, the way we used to spend hours outside when he was a baby, or doing strings of numbers with Meg; I would watch the twins have whole games of tackle ball, there in my mind, watch your experiments through the aperture of your microscope; watch the planets as they turned, the stars as they slowly moved out from the center of the exploding universe...”

She brought his hand to her mouth and kissed it, near where the wedding ring rested against the bony knuckle of the fourth finger. “So we'll run up the electric bill for a while,” she said as she tucked herself close. “That's not a problem, it's not as if we can't afford it.”

He laughed, and it was familiar and genuine. “I love you,” he said, and then, more roughly, added, “I've always liked being able to see you in bed.”

If she had responded in kind, she could have had him hard inside her within five minutes, and she knew that he would stay up all night to make love to her if she bade him do. But his dear blue eyes were haunted and tired, and instead she followed an impulse to de-escalate, gently teasing him: “If you want to sleep, you should stop nuzzling me like that, dearest. Also may I note – if you're going to shave the beard off, I hope you'll spend some time alone with me first.”

He laughed louder at that, pulling her closer, and she felt dizzy again with just how much she loved him. “I thought I might leave it, go for a sort of 'old-man-of-the-universe' look.”

“A trim, at least,” she insisted, reaching up to wrap a long lock of his hair around her palm and fingers.

They lay together for a moment of silence. “I missed you,” she said. “I don't need you to apologize to me, but God, Alex, I've missed you so much. Tomorrow – all I want to do is to drag you off to the lab and let you fuck me on the workbench until I've come three or four times, and show you what I've been working on, and never let you out again – but the children have missed you, too, and I know I need to play nice and take turns.”

Not responding to her determined levity, he shuddered again in her arms. “You're sure they're all right?” he asked her raggedly. “I let such terrible things happen to Charles, Kate, if you knew I don't know if you could forgive me, he was almost lost to us all forever and I did nothing – I didn't think Meg would ever forgive me, and she would have been right –”

But she cut off the flow of his increasingly frantic self-recrimination. “Stop. It sounds to me like they were brave, and you were brave, and I am so happy that you've come back to me and I can't quite bear to think about the risk of losing you all that I was running under all night tonight without even knowing it, but it doesn't matter, because no one was lost. Charles Wallace is strong enough to come through trouble with his character intact – and Meg would forgive you anything. She loves you unconditionally, every bit as much as I do, and Charles, and the twins.”

Beside her, Alex was starting to relax fully at last; she could feel it, his long body surrendering to the warmth and softness of their bed, their embrace, there in the protected safety of their own home, the home that was defined and anchored by the love they shared.

Still, Kate thought, she would make sure to talk to Charles Wallace, and to Meg, in the morning; her intuition told her that they were both intact, even strengthened, but she also perceived that whatever they had experienced had been an ordeal, and some checking-over was warranted.

Alex mumbled, nearing sleep, “When did Calvin O'Keefe start coming around? He's a bright boy, good heart, and he obviously thinks the world of Meg. I like him.”

Kate said, “He's quite a new addition – he only showed up a few days ago. He's in need of some care and feeding, I think. He doesn't seem to get enough attention at home.”

“He deserves it,” Alex said. “I'll have to have a talk with him soon, see what I can do for him. We owe that boy a great deal, Katie.”

She let her eyes drift closed, still bathed in the golden glow of the bedside light, the feeling of Alex's breath at her back helping to slow the rhythm of her mind, slipping her back into the curving, turning arc of the universe with a sigh, a caress, a shudder. “I know we do,” she said.