Aaron lived in a small studio apartment with almost no furniture -- just a single round dining table, two chairs, and a mattress on the floor. He said living in simplicity made him more focused, and that it was an aid to meditation. Marie suspected he was stingy: there was no art on the walls, there were no photographs anywhere -- if the worn carpet didn't give off a faintly annoying odor of sweat, the apartment would seemed uninhabited. The ceiling was extremely low, and had the texture of lizard skin. There were two windows, both of which were closed. The air moved slowly: only in response to their breathing.
Marie lay on the mattress on the floor unable to sleep. Partly because of his dry, rattling snore -- which made the mattress vibrate slightly -- but mainly because she wasn't tired.
They had talked about their families over dinner. She had wanted to get to know more about him, so she asked about his family. This was her usual way of getting to know people; if you can get someone to talk candidly about their family, they'll reveal all kinds of intimate things about themselves -- their hopes, their fears, their core values -- even childhood traumas, or broken dreams. Since he didn't have a wife or children or any siblings, he talked about his parents. She too talked about her parents -- because she didn't want him to know she had a husband and a child.
He told her a strange story about his father, which had been told to him by his mother. During his youth his father, Max, had been an extraordinarily brilliant man; he had become an associate professor at an Ivy League school by the time he was twenty-eight; he was a member of MENSA; he had been consulted by his state's congressmen on various issues; he had numerous articles in scholarly journals, and had even been consulted by conrgessmen on issues in his field. But one day his father, still a bachelor though he had wanted to get married for years, realized that people despised him for his talent. Sure, they pretended to envy him, pretended to enjoy his brilliant wit, his ingenious commentaries about everything -- but secretly they just despised him. His intellectual infallibility was oppressive to other people. No one wanted to be around him.
But what could he do? He had been born this way. If he pretended to be stupid, he would be perpetrating a lie. People would entrust more to him, since people tend to feel less threatened by stupid people -- and that would make him guilty of a sort of fraud. Overwhelmed by loneliness and self-pity, Max started sniffing model glue. He wanted to give himself brain damage to reduce his IQ to that of a normal -- of only slightly above-average -- man.
For several weeks he got himself high sniffing model glue, three or four times a day. He actually began to enjoy it; he felt like his psyche was drifting through matter like a disembodied idea, a single complex thought escaped from any particular mind, adrift on directionless waves of matter. And then, one afternoon, he ingested glue fumes for too long, and lost consciousness. It wasn't until two days later that his mailman found him on his back lawn, still unconscious, with the tube of model glue cemented to his fingers.
Max was taken to the hospital, but it was too late: he had suffered severe brain damage. He now had the mental capacity of a three-year-old. He had gone from one extreme to another. Now Max could barely fathom what he had once done for a living; he was totally incapable of grasping the ideas that he had once introduced to the world. He could no longer recognize words. None of his colleagues had ever truly liked him, so no one mourned. In private, many people were pleased to see him destroyed in this bizarre way. Some people smirked: for him to end up like this, he must have really been an idiot to begin with.
But one woman pitied him, and saw in him a pure, elevated -- even if slightly artificial -- simplicity: manhood distilled into a sort of renewed boyhood. She fell in love with him, and they had a child. They named him "Aaron," simply because it sounded good -- no because Aaron, in the Biblical story of Exodus, was the mouthpiece of Moses, who had a speech impediment: Max couldn't expect Aaron to express for him the thoughts that he would have if he hadn't destroyed his mind, because he had no notion any longer what those ideas might have been. After the birth of his child, Max held the baby in his arms -- gently, following his wife's instructions -- and repeated the boy's name over and over, softly: "Aaron, Aaron...Aaron." He smiled with insuppressible joy -- the joy of a child who has just been given the best toy in the world.
Aaron told Marie that he judged his mother to be entirely mediocre; not utterly talentless, but not by any means gifted. Aaron didn't know whether to consider himself the product of a brilliant man and a mediocre woman, or an idiot and a mediocre woman.. He said he found that ambiguity liberating.
But Aaron went on to say that when he became an adolescent he began to think the story about his father was entirely made up -- that his father was an idiot from the very beginning, and that his mother lied because she wanted him to have a deeper respect for his father than he would if he thought Max was simply a mentally retarded adult. So once, when he was fifteen, Aaron took the bus to the university library, and after fumbling for quite a while, figured out how to look up authors' names in the on-line card catalog. Punching in the name Max Turnweiler, he called up no less than seven articles -- all in political science journals. His mind buzzing, Aaron raced up the stairs to the third floor, where he unshelved the worn, hard-cover volumes. Some of the articles by Max Turnweiler were published alongside critical responses. The responses were always highly respectful, even if mildly critical. The journals radiated learning and dignity, and Aaron was overwhelmed with pride for his father, who had once been a shining star in this world of erudition and scholarly wisdom. For a brief moment, Aaron smiled a sublime smile.
But then he began to feel profoundly sad about his father. Standing in the isle in the library he began weeping. Aaron realized his father was a completely different person now, and he couldn't shake the sense that he was much, much less of a person.
Despite his father's dissolution, Aaron didn't lose his sense of pride in his father. But when he was twenty-five, during his last semester of collge, he found a flier tacked to a billboard in the political science building. It advertised an upcoming lecture, in honor of a recently-deceased political science scholar, whose name was Max Turnweiler. Aaron felt himself going numb.
His mother had made up the story after all; she had simply done a little research beforehand. She had discovered that someone else had the same first and last names as her husband, and had scripted her wild story around the coincidence.
Aaron told Marie that he was never able to forgive his mother. As for his father, he wondered how important it really was that this man had the intellectual capacity of a three-year-old: In what sense did it matter? It was impossible to have a very serious conversation with Max; he simply couldn't make sense of abstract or complicated thoughts. All he could offer was a purely emotional love. And Aaron realized that somehow that wasn't enough. Maybe it would be enough from a baby brother, but not from a parent. There were degrees of self-consciousness within love itself that Max could not attain, and that left his relationship with Aaron unfulfilled.
Aaron said that eventually, shortly after college, he came to the conclusion that Max was not his father at all. They had no physical features in common, and furthermore he was aware that his mother had had frequent extramarital affairs -- sometimes seeing several different men in a single week. Whenever Aaron brought up the question of why she had stuck with Max, she fell back on her story, and insisted that it was for him, her son; she wanted him to be able to grow up with his father. But Aaron doubted profoundly that Mad was his father, so what were her true reasons for staying with him?
The thing that disturbed Aaron the most was that he felt it was impossible to completely define himself, not knowing who his real father was. Somehow he felt that he could not know himself. He felt that without being able to observe his bloodlines, any conclusions he drew about the origins of his own actions and thoughts were inherently arbitrary.
Marie asked, "Didn't you ever question Max directly?"
"No," Aaron said. "My mother wouldn't allow that. She told me that it would bring back very disturbing memories for him, and that it could plunge him into suicidal depression. She also threatened me in really graphic, awful ways about what would happen if I ever asked him."
Marie paused. "Ways...like what?"
Aaron said nothing for a moment, then told her he didn't want to talk about it. They sat silently for a while, Marie sipping the coffee he had made her, Aaron drinking a tall glass of milk.
"So you? What you about you?" He asked.
She told him stories that she had told lots of other guys -- about how her parents were a perfect couple, and how she always feared she'd never be able to live up to their example (she didn't tell him that in fact, she never could); about how she, the youngest child, was always treated so specially, and how she had used the unequal affection her parents rained on her as a psychological weapon against her siblings...She found herself embellishing these stories, which she had told so many times, to keep herself from getting bored.
They made love with very little segue: they had had their deep conversation; they'd gotten over the hurdle. She found sex with him surprisingly -- and unexplainably -- passionate. He held her in his arms afterwards for quite a while -- his embrace seemed genuinely caring, too desperate to be a routine signal -- and it seemed to legitimize their earlier conversation. But then he fell asleep, fell away from her, and began snoring in an incredibly annoying fashion.
She lay there a long time, unable to sleep. She tried to think what his childhood with the retarded man must have been like, but she couldn't really focus. She got up to get a drink of water, and standing at the sink in the tiny kitchen, she looked over his small studio -- its bare simplicity, its lack of character -- and for a moment watched his body: a series of angular clumps under the grey blanket, emitting a somber racket, remaining almost perfectly still. After a moment she began to feel intensely lonely. She put down the glass and, as quickly as she could, gathered her clothing from the floor, got dressed, and left his apartment.
Smooth as a shadow|
Nothing to be|
White Walled Cell
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