I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
This First Proof contains the story “Dorchie.”
The town of Rorschach deep in the Canadian Rockies, was established by Swiss glacier fanatics turned failed gold-panners turned cash-poor landlocked melancholies sometime in the late 1880s. It’s unclear whether the name was imported from the old country or conjured after spelunkers experienced the “roar” and “shock” of nearby Bedroom Falls. Later visitors would associate the name Rorschach with the famous inkblot psych-test. This is, chronologically, impossible. But such a romantic reading has its charms. Generations of tourists have passed through the town with such attachment to this naive theory, in the face of all the contrary evidence, that even longtime residents have come to accept it. Today one of Rorschach’s most popular nightspots is an amoeba-shaped tavern called the Inkblot, with $2 Labatt’s on Wednesdays and a sister outpost on the opposite side of town, cleverly configured as its mirror image.
I love this sort of confusion, the higher amnesia, names grasping and losing meanings over time. When I first got to the Swamp, I asked the nurses about the town’s unusual moniker.
“Something to do with the inkblots—though we don’t use that test here,” said Nurse Ravenna, marvelously dusty from a day picking ginseng in the fields.
“The man who invented the Rorschach test was actually born down the road, and they changed the town’s name in his honor,” explained Nurse Rose, dramatically backlit by the afternoon sun. She was installing a new hi-fi system in the day room.
Nurse Cassia poked her head out from behind the radio set. A few strands of jet-black hair had escaped from their bun. She held a red wire in her left hand, a white one in her right, and an extension cord in her mouth. “Rorschach wasn’t born here, Max,” she said, spitting out the cord. “He lived in town for two winters, working as a mountain guide.”
I loved when she said my name. It sounded like Mex. A smudge on her forehead gave her a mischievous chimney-sweep look. You had the sense that she might break out into song. “They say he was quite the rake,” she added. She turned back to her unruly project. “Why did they used to call a radio a wireless?”
“He got the idea for his test thanks to the long days he spent above the treeline,” said Nurse Melba, Cassia’s no less captivating twin. “The sun left dark spots on his retinas. Every time he blinked they would refresh, float over the landscape, even when the landscape was close at hand. Like the walls of his room—or the curves of his mistress.”
“His name’s engraved on a wooden ski pole, up at the Teahouse of the Seven Winds,” said Nurse Claire, my favorite, always one to steer talk down chaster avenues.
“I hear the pole is nice and long,” Nurse Melba said.
Thus I innocently assumed some connection existed between Rorschach the place and Rorschach the man, until a month later, when the Patient Times, a weekly organ, brought out a special issue on the town’s history. Geological origins, known prehistoric denizens, and current flora and fauna were cataloged; assorted British-Scottish, Native (Ux’ori), and German-Swiss civilizing strands explained. Where the name was concerned, any inkblot link was vigorously erased. I chuckled at the nurses’ wealth of misinformation, before it occurred to me that they’d simply been creating an air of cozy intrigue to welcome me during my first unstable days here at the Swamp. I felt a surge of renewed affection.
The Patient Times also noted that Bedroom, a name given to both a waterfall (which I’d not yet seen) and a mountain (on the south face of which I now resided) looks like bedroom but is in fact a Romanization of an Ux’ori term, correctly pronounced bee-DROOM. In their tongue, it means “boredom.” For it was here that the Ux’ori, a semi-nomadic tribe previously of sunny disposition, discovered the concept of ennui. This revelation is recounted in a very long folk tale, a subtle masterpiece of tedium involving three dogs, a tree with three leaves, and three lakes. The story takes nearly a whole day to tell, and is so unbelievably boring that most listeners forget it within moments of its conclusion—indeed, they tend to forget it as it’s unfolding. Dozens of variants exist, possibly hundreds, but no scholar has been interested enough to collect them.
* * *
By a curious coincidence, “bedroom” is an anagram of “boredom,” something that went unremarked in The Patient Times piece and provided the basis for my first letter to the editor.
When the next issue came out, I looked for my peppy little discursus, which I had entitled “Of a Name Involving Unconscious Crosscultural Wordplay. ” (I had signed the letter “Dr. E. Boom,” to take the anagram conceit one step further.) But the editors hadn’t printed it. Perhaps they mistook my tone as mere pomposity, rather than the tongue-in-cheek observation it was. Maybe they didn’t get “Dr. E. Boom.” I have a weakness for ornate jokes that nobody understands and that aren’t technically funny anyway.
The letters page consisted of just two items: a lengthy rejoinder to an opinion piece from the previous issue, regarding dress code for nurses, tersely signed “GRIMSPAN”; and a rejoinder to that rejoinder, “warmly” issued from one “Colonel Aviv (ret.).”
The opinion piece in question had bruited the possibility of nurses wearing a new style of cap, white with red piping, the front edge of which would stop just short of the eyebrows. The designers claimed that this helped decrease fatigue by keeping more blood above, or was it below, a certain latitude in the head. A jaunty illustration had graced the piece, and I could imagine Nurse Ravenna and company looking quite sporty with such modish toppers.
This Grimspan character was not of the same mind. He found the caps not only unattractive but virtue-destroying. He mocked the “inane imaginings” emerging from the “deeply troubled” world of fashion, and launched an attack against the “pseudoscience of physiognomy.” He was one of those writers who have no compunction against repetition of words, and feel that in certain impassioned cases, overuse serves to emphasize a point in a way that subtler constructions fail to do. Thus he used immoral and its cognates no less than 15 times, occasionally deploying it twice in the same sentence. In the last third of his letter, he urged Swamp officials to issue a written reaffirmation of the current, informal cap-free policy, ideally posting it on every floor of the hospital. In truth, he seemed to be opposed to headgear as a genre, and wondered if men and women down through the ages wouldn’t have been better off “with pates uncovered.” It was a question that had not occurred to me previously.
The second letter, less saltily worded, found Grimspan’s objection unwarranted if not hysterical. It diplomatically proposed a week-long trial run of the new hats, to be scheduled perhaps for the early part of winter. This exchange of points of view proved remarkably dull, perhaps a modern-day twist on that old Ux’ori snoozefest with the horses, leaves, and lakes. But the logistics troubled me. How could both letters appear in the same issue? It seemed that Colonel Aviv must have been privy to the contents of the Grimspan’s missive, prior to publication, in order to rebut various points made therein. I smelled scandal. Then the absurd possibility of one writer impersonating two different voices briefly presented itself. None of it mattered. I tried to read a novel that I had found in the day room and, failing that, fell asleep.
Another week, another issue, went by—my letter to the editor did not appear. I didn’t know my heart could be broken so easily. Then one morning Nurse Claire slipped something on my desk. “Fan mail for Dr. E. Boom,” she said, with a sly smile entirely contrary to her nature. The whole of her neck flushed becomingly and she spun on her heel with a dancer’s reflexive éclat.
The doorway doubled with her absence. I felt a surge of renewed affection, as they say.
The envelope was of heavy linen stock, with “Dr. E. Boom/Room 15 A” written in a careful hand. Inside, typed on an oatmeal-colored card, was this message, undated:
Dear Patient Times reader,
Thank you for your letter!
Due to the voluminous amount of mail that we receive, it’s impossible for us to respond personally to all the comments and suggestions our valued readers send us. But do know that we read every piece of mail that lands on our desk, and that we sincerely appreciate your feedback.
Your friends at The Patient Times
It bore no signature. The lower left corner held these initials: HDK/hdk/hdk. It seemed an awful lot of work to put into what sounded like a form response. A closer look revealed that the document was not a photocopy but a personally typed-out message. The letters went deep, and their black smudged readily under a thumb. Somehow the human touch made me feel even more rejected than I had before. An actual person had taken the time to register disapproval of my submission. The wording was pleasant enough, yet offered no specific insights. It seemed the height of passive-aggressive behavior.
I should note that in the Swamp, “passive-aggressive” was a term applied to just about everything, so much so that the phrase “pass-agg” was in common currency, and I’d already discerned a further adumbration, pagg. If a fellow Swamp Thing politely asked to borrow a newspaper, it was deemed pass-agg. If you did not then express your opinion that his request was rather pass-agg, that could be construed as pass-agg by the other party. If a physical therapy appointment had to be canceled because of a power failure, the cancellation was somehow pass-agg—on the part of the doctor, certainly, but possibly also on the part of the Swamp, if not Hydro Canada itself. Doubtless some of us considered it a bit pass-agg when the sun heated up one part of the room, and then, in the normal Copernican course of the day, slid around to bake another wall before diverting its rays elsewhere, thus making everything seem a touch colder than before. Once you locked into that mentality, even weather was pass-agg. Historical weather. Universal trends. The Ice Age. The Big Bang.
Of course, much of what we thought was pass-agg wasn’t really. A good deal of it was just agg-agg. But it was too disturbing to think of the agg without the pass, even if the pass side of the equation was little more than a behavioral Trojan Horse. Get rid of the passiveness, and you’re one step closer to clubbing your fellow man over the head on a regular basis, if not out-and-out cannibalism.
So the editor of The Patient Times was being a bit pass-agg. And so what? I resolved not to think of it anymore. I picked up my book. It was a mostly forgotten novel from the 19-teens, about rich oversexed Danes on an endless pleasure cruise. It was a metaphor for Europe on the brink of war, as well as a lush evocation of a dying way of life. It clocked in at around 750 pages. They knew how to write in volume back then. I was still on chapter three of Part I, “Beginnings”. Jörgen and the rest of them hadn’t left the dock yet. In fact, I was still learning about Jörgen’s childhood, its musty rituals and subtle sorrows, the British governess with the enchanting lisp.
I read for 15 minutes, which I devoted to sussing out who was cousins with whom, who had syphilis, and whether certain names referred to people or brands of fin-de-siècle cognac. I was also trying to remember where exactly Prussia was, or used to be—the boy Jörgen, for reasons not at all clear, dreamt of joining the Prussian army. He had a whole mess of toy soldiers, as well as a little uniform that he was forbidden to wear to church, though he desperately wanted to.
The book went back on the nightstand and I devoted my remaining brain power to thinking about various women. Among those twirling onto the stage of my pre-slumbering mind were not a few of my nurses, a comely forest ranger who had given me directions to the Swamp, and—as the scene went Technicolor, if not 3-D—my ludicrously luscious fiancée, Mercy Pang.
“Mercy,” I said out loud. I could hear the Swamp settle into its foundations, wind whistling through a gap in the pane. This bit of meteorological drama struck me as a bit pass-agg. Then came a thunderclap, which was just agg-agg-agg.
* * *
The whole point is that I’d been laid low with a bout of dizziness right before our engagement was announced. You might have seen it in the society pages, if you’re the sort of person who reads those sorts of pages. They described it as “wonderful … deliriously happy-making, even a little dangerous.”
The engagement, that is, not the dizziness. The dizziness I kept to myself for as long as I could.
To accompany the betrothal blurb, some graphite-spattered mook conjured a three-quarter sketch of Mercy in dazzling décolletage, laughing decadently, punctuating the air with a cigarette holder. I’d never seen her hair that short. I am visible in the background, frowning, with my arm around what appears to be a large Chinese urn. There is an air of unreality to the composition, as though it means to be an allegory—Experience seducing Innocence, or more likely ignoring him.
The disparity between our attitudes can be explained by the fact that the artist, one “Zip Feeble,” cobbled the portrait from two different photos—one a vivacious snapshot from Mercy’s high-flying college days, the other an even more juvenile scene, lifted from my Chitlin Academy yearbook. As regards the latter: in the original, my arm is around a tree, not an urn, and I am being asked by the morose photographer to think about the corporate-sponsored destruction of the environment. Far from contemplating marital bliss or even the fleeting pleasures of chinoiserie, my 17-year-old mind is envisioning deforestation, acid rain, mutant fish gasping on oil-soaked beaches. I am thinking of the world that I am passing down to my children’s children, and indeed my children’s children’s children, as well as their cousins and lesser relations.
Mercy laughed when she saw the illustration in the paper. She was always a good sport—nothing upset her. Life was enjoyable, sometimes less so, but overall amounted to not a particularly bad deal. Anger and sorrow existed, but one only needed a bit of patience to get back on track. Without the help of pharmaceuticals, she had dynamited the emotional peaks and filled in the psychic valleys, pitching her tent in the midst of a vast and generally pleasant plain. The poets would have you believe that passion is what makes us human, but that’s just one way of looking at things. I wanted to enter into her serene indifference, which at times seemed as wide as the ocean.
“That Zip,” she said. “I should have known he’d pull a stunt like this.”
“Zip Feeble, phantom penman. He was absolutely crazy for me all through Wyvern,” she said. The name of her college, traditionally known as the Eighth of the Seven Sisters, always brought out a silver spoon cadence to her sentences. It looked like why-vern or wee-vem but came out WAH-vin. “He was the quiet boy at all the mixers, sketchpad at the ready. He’d try to seduce girls by asking them if they’d care to pose in his, what was it, atelier. Quiet but bold. We’d ignore him. I should have known he’d have a will to power. The doodlers always do. Another trick: He would claim to have trouble with his bowtie, requiring a woman’s steady hands.”
“Did you ever—?”
“Certainly not.” But was she talking about manual cravat repair or modeling in the buff? Hopefully both. She looked at the drawing, her hell-for-leather pose. “I know where he got this. Cora Waxcomb—it’s a photo from a sorority rager. We’re supposed to be flappers or something. I wasn’t really drunk. Cora’s a nutter—scratch that. A nutter and a half.”
Though we were engaged, there was still a lot about Mercy I didn’t know. To describe our courtship as whirlwind is accurate, insofar as a tornado that uproots a half-dozen trailer parks and an iron drawbridge is a type of whirlwind. I was smitten from the first time I met the creature known as Mercy Pang—late November, the weekend before Thanksgiving, at the museum’s annual gala for Dorchester’s Syndrome. I remember the trees outside were bare save for a strange amount of sparrows, and in the gloaming the birds gave the branches the illusion of leaves.
Our mothers had known each other as young girls, and had only lately been reacquainted as members of the Dorchester’s Syndrome Foundation Board. My mother’s eldest brother had Dorchester’s, and two of Mercy’s mother’s uncles suffered from it—endured is the preferred term. Back then, you were mocked as a “Dorchie.” What it was, I never knew exactly. As far as I could make out, it was nearly moribund as a classification, blending deficiencies that have since been phased out or become prominent as afflictions of their own: dyslexia, “nerves,” a touch of scoliosis, a sprinkle of hysteria.
And also, and occasionally: dizziness.
There were variations, of course. The important thing was to know that you had it. It was a popular diagnosis at second-tier prep schools and third world nunneries. Some said it was genetic but most had their doubts.
“We don’t know what causes it, but when we do, we’ll know,” said the keynote speaker that evening, an actress whose name escapes me. You would know her if you saw her. Her longtime partner was a prominent Dorchester’s researcher. Her halting, slightly mystical statements were met with generous applause. I’d always heard film stars look smaller in real life, and that seemed true in this case, though distance probably played a role as well.
Fearing that the tables would not sell out, my mother and Mercy’s had made us attend. But they needn’t have worried. A day before the event, a front-page write-up in the Times gave a compelling précis of the silent struggle of those trapped by the syndrome. Requests poured in, and we lowly kinsfolk were asked to give up our seats for the greater good of Dorchesterdom.
Thus Mercy and I were introduced to each other, at the top of the evening, by our maternal units, who quickly dashed off to coo and mingle before the official proceedings began. We took our drinks and wandered to the back of the room, by suits of armor and prehistoric tools, under a threadbare tapestry illustrating some long-forgotten myth of renewal—hedgehogs and brook trout issuing from what looked like a mountaineer’s horn, a gondola piercing a trio of dolphins in mid-jump.
It’s simply too weird to describe your fiancée and pretend at any objectivity, so let me simply note that in the five minutes before my mother and her mother paired us off, I saw two men, hailing from opposite quadrants, bump into each other with considerable violence as they gazed a moment too long at Mercy’s statuesque form. I saw older gents smile instinctively as they passed her, unconsciously patting their stomachs to assess the severity of their girth—lust to despair in two seconds flat. I saw glad-handing younger chaps introduce themselves and wither for lack of words, their bungled performances no doubt to come under harsh self-review later that night on the cab ride home.
If experience is any guide, I should have stammered or grown silent. But impressed with a misplaced sense of duty—to be polite and not let my mother, and hers, down—and fortified with champagne, I became if not charming, then at least not entirely dull. Anecdotes came to the lips, complete with droll asides. Drinks were fetched in tandem, so as not to break the line of conversation. We started with water because she said everything began in water. This made a lot of sense. I told her I had been dreaming of water a lot of late, which was more or less true. I’d actually been dreaming of rain: of giving a long, intricate lecture in the middle of a field, while a violent storm moved toward me; of eating an apple, with each bite somehow producing monsoons on the other side of the world.
“I never tell anyone my dreams,” I said. “I took a creative writing class in college, and the teacher put a moratorium on dream sequences. She said it was a cheap way of illustrating psychology. I suppose she knew what she was talking about. Jemima Partridge. She wrote Unwelcome Advances. Anyway, I took her proscription to mean that only the dreamer is interested in his dreams. But I think this is untrue. All dreams are fascinating, even boring ones.”
I thought Mercy would share a dream. Instead she said, “I just bought a new bed.”
“Ohhh,” I said.
“I don’t know what I was thinking. It’s absolutely enormous. It’s like a prop for the story of the princess and the pea. Not that I’m the princess. More that I feel as small as the pea.”
“Try sleeping on top of the mattress, rather than beneath it. That’s how we do it in this country.”
I don’t know if she laughed—she punched me, though, hard enough that I noticed a blue crescent decorating my shoulder later that evening. “Nothing else fits in the room,” she said. “It’s the biggest bed in the world. It didn’t look so ridiculous at the store. It was one of three dozen, in a night-blue rotunda. All the couples were totally relaxed, walking in slow motion. Counterclockwise. I was alone.”
“Ohhh,” I said.
“Everyone was just flopping onto beds and laughing, and the little Christmas-tree lights in the ceiling made it look like the stars were out. I don’t see how the bed is going to fit. It’s too late to exchange it. You have to see it to believe it.”
“Get a bigger room. Knock down some walls.”
“There are building restrictions.”
“Buy a summer home.”
“I already have one.”
I was kidding, but Mercy wasn’t. She did not share my chronic employment woes. She had been on the fast track since kindergarten. She had a medical degree and a business degree and was second-in-command at a shiny new health-care facility called The Hollow. In her opinion, Dorchester’s Syndrome was still overdiagnosed—she didn’t believe it existed outside the minds of its few and wealthy sufferers.
“Don’t tell my mother,” she said. “Or yours.”
The food was served and the microphone ramblings commenced. We stood with our paper plates atop the vitrines, our food warmed by the small cones of light illuminating the arrowheads and pottery shards. We were in a cavernous room with hundreds of strangers plus our moms but we paid them no attention. We were miles away, surrounded by ancient loot. When we kissed it was for longer than we imagined. It ended when my elbow went through the glass protecting the weaponry. There was a soft pop as the top snapped, a sound only we could hear. The alarm, a rising whoop more suitable for sporting events, brought hands over ears and summoned the local precinct. The sprinklers kicked in for good measure. Mercy took my hand as the water came down, and we ran along the dark margin of the room, groping the walls until we found a door that opened.
Ed Park is a founding editor of The Believer and the former editor of the Voice Literary Supplement. His first novel, Personal Days, was published by Random House in 2008.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee