In the last semester of her senior year of college, Alicia fell in love with her cultural studies professor. It all started on the first day of class, when – But before we plow through the details of this unfortunate alliance, I would like to apprise the reader of one fact: Alicia knew right off the bat that the professor, Malcolm Wicke, was an asshole. Indeed, upon finishing the story, the reader may very well decide that Alicia forced herself to love Malcolm against her own considerably better instincts. As far as that goes, I agree: she made a mistake. However, this does not mean that she was responsible for all the terrible things that happened to her – or to Malcolm, for that matter – in conjunction with her error. We all know that bizarre and unexplainable events can simply accrue to a life for no reason. Such events teach us nothing, nor do they serve the cause of justice. For my part, I choose to think of Alicia as a person with sterling judgment and exemplary perseverance, who pretty much got the shaft in spite of these qualities. Of course I will leave it for the reader to decide if I’m right.
It all started on the first day of Malcolm Wicke’s class, which was entitled “American Ennui.” Fifteen minutes into his lecture Alicia had sized him up, when, in his strange accent (which Alicia at first thought was Irish), he delivered himself of the following:
“The bland character of the American Midwesterner reflects a state of radical disconnectedness that stems from repression. What is repressed? You might say, sex. You might say, knowledge of Otherness. But most deeply buried in the Midwestern psyche is the utter bleakness of these people’s existence. To live in a cultural and geographic wasteland is soul-destroying, even to those not attuned to the finer intellectual pleasures. The Midwesterner’s solution is to become non-reactive, an inert gas, like argon.”
All her life Alicia had been the sort of person not to let faulty thinking stand. This was one reason that at age 21 she was still very much a virgin. This, plus an unnerving ocular tendency that she had possessed since childhood. When she was under stress, which was naturally heightened whenever she was called upon to correct a fellow human being, her left eye would widen to twice the size of her right. For recipients of her criticism, the discombobulation of her gaze further undermined the otherwise salutary effects of her white-blond hair, heart-shaped face, slender limbs, and pleasing, quizzical mouth. She had been made aware of her problem over the years, notably by her mother, who was a cosmetologist of all things. “You could be as beautiful as your sister,” her mother pointed out, “if you would only calm down. Leave people alone. We’re all flawed, OK? Get over it. Who died and made you queen, anyway?”
After that first class, Alicia went to Malcolm Wicke’s office hours. She stood in the doorway, knees knocking, eye (she was quite sure) doing its thing.
“You’re wrong about us Midwesterners, Professor Wicke,” she quavered. “First of all, who are you to judge us? That is to say, who died and made you king? Secondly, I would mention to you that none of us are in denial. We know exactly how bleak our lives are, oh yes, we do. The so-called blandness that you think you have observed is not denial. It is decency. It is the refusal to impose one’s opinions or one’s overbearing personality on others. We believe in leaving others alone.”
At this point Alicia became aware of the irony of her statements, and she felt her left eye widening beyond its usual enlarged dimensions as a knowing smile slinked across Malcolm’s face. The anxiety drove her on, and she noted that during her three and a half years in college in northern California, she’d observed that Californians were far more dopey and bland than any Midwesterners she knew. Californians grinned and nodded like cartoon dogs when you extended your hand, curved limply in a parody of a handshake, and said, “It is a pleasure to meet you.”
At last Alicia ran out of words and her mouth hung open, dehydrated. Only her knocking knees prevented her from turning and fleeing. Slowly, Malcolm lifted his cowboy-booted feet from his desk. He was attired in what Alicia would soon recognize as his uniform – boots, jeans, black shirt, bolo tie with a thunderbird clip. His wavy hair, just beginning to gray, rested in a loose ponytail atop his left shoulder; his deliberately unfashionable sideburns crawled to mid-jaw. He fastened his eyes onto Alicia’s unbalanced gaze, as his smile erupted into a violent grin.
“You have the most beautiful eyes,” he said.
Later Alicia would wonder if he had been making fun of her. At that moment, however, she was stunned. Her knees stopped knocking. In fact she lost the sensation in her legs altogether. She floated toward his desk and anchored herself by pressing her thigh against its sharp corner.
“I mean it, darling,” Malcolm said.
Darling: this word elicited a little squeak from Alicia’s throat. Who can blame her? She knew it was an affectation, yet no one had ever attached the word to her, not even in jest. It tickled her ear like an exotic caterpillar.
“I appreciate how much you care about what you’re saying,” Malcolm continued.
This line pissed Alicia off again because he was clearly patronizing her. And yet, through just a minor exercise of the sort of willpower I mentioned at the beginning, she tamped down her annoyance immediately. I suspect it was a misguided generosity of spirit that made her tell herself that she should appreciate the fact that he’d made the effort to patronize her. He was handsome, she told herself, or at least trying to look interesting, and that was a laudable effort when so many of his age and rank had gone greasily to seed.
“Have dinner with me tomorrow night,” he said. They both knew she would.
When she met him at the Black Alligator Café, Alicia discovered that Malcolm, while still commendably intriguing-looking, was shorter than she was, and bow-legged. Apparently sensing that she required an explanation (though who knows why he blurted this out when he did), he told her as soon as they sat down that he was one-quarter Cossack on his mother’s side. He’d been born to ride horses, he said, and wield the shashka, the Cossack sword. However, the circumstances of history had denied him that. Alicia nodded. She could not think of anything that history had denied her explicitly, because she could not think of anything she had wanted so much as to notice it had been denied. All the same, she felt Malcolm’s resentment begin to course through her own veins. (Here again, I would point to Alicia’s generosity. Despite her tendency to criticize others, she was deeply sympathetic to them. Even while berating them for their flaws she could sense how much she was hurting them, to the point that she felt she had somehow become them.)
Malcolm, warming to the subject of his ill-treatment by history, offered her the rest of his story. He was from Manchester, England, the resentful scion of a dairy-truck driver. He had resentfully clawed his way to Cambridge and then, to really hack everyone off – namely his father – he had gone to graduate school in Texas. His dissertation, Drugs in America, had become his first book. He confided that much of his research had been first-hand. “Wonderful stuff,” he whispered loudly to Alicia, “especially the crack.” His second book, Violence in America, set off a bidding war for him among three top-tier universities. Despite the lower salary he had chosen the public one, where he could devote himself to fellow offspring of the working classes. He was now finishing a book on sex. In America.
Malcolm ordered a second bottle of wine. He moved to Alicia’s side of the booth and pulled the green curtain around it closed. He pressed his thigh into hers. The kissing started before she even felt it. Her head hit the wood paneling and a ceramic lampshade behind her fell into the next booth. They had consumed nothing but bread and Burgundy, but already they were leaving; she was in his car, then his bed, where she was fed upon as if by a wild animal. She awoke bruised in milky afternoon sunlight. Wrapped in a sheet, she lay next to Malcolm, reading the first chapter of his manuscript. It was about masochism. Alicia labored over his tormented grammar.
So that was how it began, and pretty much how it went for the next several months. They had sex in semi-public places like movie theaters and Malcolm’s vintage Firebird. Alicia began sitting in the front row in lecture and lifting her shirt up ever so slightly to try to throw Malcolm off. He refused to call on her. She wrote the word “fuck” randomly into her papers and he gave her C’s. She threatened to report him to the dean. He dared her. He gave her an A-minus for the class, and after she graduated she spent nearly every day and night with him. His manuscript was due in August. She edited, she proofed; he took many of her suggestions and promised her a whopping acknowledgement right in the front of the book.
As the reader remembers, Alicia had never really wanted anything before, or even understood what wanting meant. As a result, up until now, she had had no plan for the rest of her life. She had assumed it would involve correcting people and she had vaguely considered teaching, though she did not enjoy the company of those younger and dumber than herself. She had thought about moving back home after graduation and allowing her mother and younger sister (who had just won a modeling contest, with her mother’s cosmetological assistance) to drive her to attempt suicide. After that she would write a memoir of despair and recovery, larded with quotes from the Bible and possibly recipes. But deep down, I have to believe, she was not enamored of this plan. In any case, by summer’s end, the problem of her life’s purpose appeared to be solved. Buzz about Malcolm’s forthcoming book had ignited another bidding war for him. He negotiated ruthlessly among four different schools, fueled by his and Alicia’s daily bouts of sex, alcohol, and revision. Alicia’s skin was raw and she shook from exhaustion, and also from the fear that if he went somewhere new he might not take her along. At last, just before the start of the school year, Malcolm resolved to stay where he was. The university gave him a spectacular raise (entailing the elimination of stipends for a dozen graduate students, among other budgetary concessions) and his own personal secretary. Alicia was to be that secretary.
With his fortune, Malcolm bought an architecturally significant house on a westward-facing hill overlooking the campus. Its front was all glass and it flashed like a razor blade at sunset. As part of her official duties, Alicia supervised the move. However, Malcolm did not include Alicia in the possessions that he transferred to his new home.
“I need time,” he told her the day after the move was completed. “I need time to sort of, you know, imbue the place with my own selfhood.”
“But you don’t believe in the self as such,” Alicia reminded him, as she stood on his doorstep holding a cake and a bottle of champagne she had just bought at the gourmet supermarket.
“Yes, well, I believe in it situationally,” Malcolm said, his mouth twisting as if he were sucking on something sharp. “That is, there are circumstances when a belief in the self, even if one knows it’s a fiction, is strategically necessary. Er, and this is one of those times.” He took the cake and the champagne and thanked her. “I’ll see you soon,” he said. Then he closed the door on Alicia.
They went one week without fucking. Then two. After spending every day and night with him, Alicia was now reduced to witnessing five-minute irruptions of Malcolm every few days in her office. She found herself becoming desperate, which was at first a rather delicious sensation. During one irruption, for example, she whispered to Malcolm that she wanted him now more than ever. She understood now what he’d meant in his chapter on masochism, about want meaning lack. Wouldn’t he like to close the door for a few minutes and seat himself in her very uncomfortable office chair? Malcolm emitted what sounded like a chuckle and shook his head. He tossed a handful of receipts at her and dashed off to an appointment. Alicia’s eye bulged at his retreating back.
Alicia rented a top-floor studio apartment on a busy, dingy street that she normally would have eschewed. It was the only place she could afford with a view of Malcolm’s house, which by her calculations was 2.6 miles east of hers and 1,120 feet higher. Shutting one eye, then the other, she could make the campus’s sharp, blue-capped clock tower point to the house’s lower left corner, then its right.
Every day after work Alicia watched the house through binoculars. Some days, the sunset-flash of the glass nearly blinding her, she could just make out Malcolm’s yellow Firebird winding its way down the canyon. She reminded herself that many women would have taken one look at that Firebird and thought: asshole. Would have looked at the boots and the ponytail and the bleary eyes (they were bleary though he was still fairly young; he had not entirely given up drugs, much less alcohol) plus the filterless cigarettes and the non-invitation to join him in his beautiful house and thought: giant asshole. But as we know, Alicia had made a conscious decision not to think badly of Malcolm. And yet, really, why did she do that? Yes, she was generous to a fault, but somehow that explanation does not fully satisfy. I sometimes wonder, for instance: was Alicia that desperate for male attention? Did she think Malcolm was her only chance at happiness, even though she was young and potentially beautiful, if she could only get rid of the craziness of her affect? Maybe she hoped to siphon off some of his fame for herself, even though she knew it was of an obscure and even absurd order. It is time to admit that I, who heard this story from one of our department gossips several years ago, do not know. Possibly she simply felt she had made a commitment. By setting about to correct Malcolm that very first day in his office, she had made a commitment – not to him, but to the ideal version of him that flitted from time to time through her mind’s eye. In other words, she pledged herself, as she had done her entire life, to the perfection of humanity. And is that really so terrible?
Every evening, Alicia ate ramen and raw carrots with one hand and held her binoculars with the other, watching Malcolm’s house fade from an orange rectangle to a smear of pink. After dark, if Malcolm was home, the interior of the house appeared in tantalizing clusters of shadow and light, which flickered as if one or more figures were passing among them. But then again, Alicia told herself, those figures could have been outside the house; the binoculars were too weak to tell for certain. Of course this might have meant that Malcolm’s house was being cased by burglars, a circumstance Alicia considered warning him about. However, she could not do so without alerting him to the fact that she herself was watching the house, so she contented herself with the notion that Malcolm had sword-wielding in his blood and could probably defend himself.
Around eleven each night, the light moved upstairs. Malcolm was going to bed earlier these days. His book was finished and he was spent. So Alicia surmised, anyway, her eyes welling with sympathy and confusion. If he was empty she was here to fill him; they both knew that. But he had told her not to call him at home, much less visit.
One day in December, Malcolm threw a pile of receipts on Alicia’s desk. He did not like receipts, Alicia had come to understand. They embarrassed him, the way they reduced his far-ranging intellectual peregrinations to cash transactions. And it was crass, this monetization; still, Alicia thought as she smoothed the receipts out one by one, it was exchange in its purest sense. At this point she literally hungered for exchange. She savored the crunch of the word in her mouth.
“I was wondering,” she said to Malcolm, “if we could exchange some views on the state of sexuality under late industrial capitalism. I’ve been rereading your manuscript and it seems to me the notion of exchange is itself the crux of the issue. Might we revisit that concept, by which I mean exchange, say at the Alligator this evening?”
There was no mistaking it this time: Malcolm flinched. He gave himself one great shake, from tip to tail, as if he’d been galvanized. He turned and headed for the door, then tossed some words over his shoulder.
“I’m seeing someone. It’s Esmeralda. You know her.”
Then he was off, an appointment with the dean. The boss who was not Alicia’s lover anymore had an appointment with the dean.
Alicia knew Esmeralda. Alicia had helped her. She was a second-year graduate student. Alicia had spent hours on the phone with her the past summer, explaining how to travel from Oakland to Washington, DC on Amtrak. Esmeralda had wanted to see the country on her way to a conference. A lifelong Californian, she did not seem to understand that DC was east of Chicago, so that she would have to pass through one to get to the other. Alicia could have laid into her with all the force of her superior geographical knowledge, but she had refrained. Esmeralda was, unlike Alicia, truly damaged. She’d had some kind of surgery on her palate as a child. Her speech was barely comprehensible; those phone conversations with her had been excruciating. She also had large hips and an inexplicable Prince Valiant haircut. Yet despite all this Esmeralda had felt entitled to drain Alicia’s reserves of patience, Alicia now understood, because Malcolm had told her she was welcome to drain his secretary. They had been seeing each other since before Malcolm’s move to the new house.
Alicia stared at the balled-up receipts on her desk, skittering in the gusts of her breath like frightened hermit crabs. She looked at her computer screen. The same spreadsheet that she had been working on hung there, real and not real, Malcolm’s NY Trip, it said. But the last time she had touched the keys, she had believed Malcolm was still hers. Drinks before dinner $22.20, she had typed lovingly. She had pictured Malcolm and some white-maned French critic discussing the status of God under late industrial capitalism. Her Malcolm had drinks with famous critics all the time, and they with him, and who was more impressed neither could say. Malcolm’s contacts had waltzed in harmony under Alicia’s fingertips as she accounted for their exchanges, exchanges, exchanges. She had nurtured them. But there had been a spider in the nest the whole time. Alicia’s binoculars had not been strong enough, she now realized; they had allowed her too much denial.
Malcolm returned to the office. “I forgot. Here are Esmeralda’s receipts from the conference in Amsterdam,” he said, digging into the breast pocket of his jacket. These receipts were in an envelope, uncrumpled. Off he went, for sure this time, to the dean’s.
Alicia’s shoulders hurt. Her chest felt scooped out as if by a melon-baller. As she shriveled in her uncomfortable chair, the FedEx guy materialized and thunked a box full of copies of Malcolm’s new book on her desk. Mechanically she tore the box open and turned the book, which smelled like the deep purple color of its jacket, to the dedication page. She was not acknowledged. “For E,” it said.
“E?” she squeaked.
But as she said it, the tenderness of that “E” bloomed shyly, like a violet, in Alicia’s throat. Malcolm was tender. In a moment everything became clear. Alicia began to believe that Malcolm had taken Esmeralda under his wing as an act of charity. If this were indeed the case, it was the first pure kindness she’d ever observed from him. There could be no reward, present or future, for Malcolm in this relationship. And so he was capable of self-sacrifice after all. Suddenly everything seemed better than it had ever been. Now, Alicia told herself, she could love Malcolm without embarrassment. He was not an asshole. He was decent. She decided henceforth to love and not merely want (or lack) him. She felt that she now understood the difference. However, it’s my opinion that in this particular matter, she deliberately allowed her gift for discernment to fail her.
Alicia bought a high-powered telescope. Instantly the shapes in Malcolm’s house resolved themselves. A figure that could have been interpreted as single, if surprisingly large, turned into two, huddled on the couch as if cowering in a storm. Malcolm and Esmeralda took turns holding each other, caressing each others’ faces. Why did they require so much comfort, night after night?, Alicia wondered. But two point six miles away, she was comforted too.
“Your left eye,” Malcolm said to her one day in late winter. “It’s gigantic.” His hand hovered over Alicia’s desk, about to release another load of receipts.
“Is it?” Alicia whispered.
Malcolm leaned in. She felt his cigarette-breath; she wanted to touch his face, or pull his hair as she had sometimes done that first summer, thrashing in the Firebird’s back seat. Instead she touched her own eyelids, gauging balance. It was bad, she confirmed. From staring into the telescope.
“You should have it looked at,” said Malcolm. “There’s a spot on your iris.” He leaned back and opened his fingers. Receipts tumbled out like rubble.
The ophthalmologist’s breath was antiseptic, as if he gargled with rubbing alcohol. It was cooler than Malcolm’s. The ophthalmologist said, “Melanoma.”
Alone in the examining room, Alicia looked in the mirror for the first time in months and tried to think of something nice to say to her left eye, which had given her such grief all these years. It had to come out. California, Alicia thought, had done this to her. A Midwesterner, she was not created for this sunshine, this sunshine that could not be satisfied with slapping a person relentlessly about the face and head as she walked to work. It followed one indoors, bounced itself off walls and ceilings in search of the pale and vulnerable, demanding that one revel in it even when one did not want to.
Two days later, Alicia lay on the operating table as the nurse patted her inner elbow, coaxing her veins to expose themselves to the needle. In fact it wasn’t just the sun, she thought, squinting into the silver-rimmed lamp that was staring down at her with such vengeance. Malcolm’s house was the real cause. It had collected the sunshine and laser-beamed its poison into her eye through the telescope. She deserved as much, she told herself, for spying on him. As the nurse shoved the needle in, Alicia repented, though she could not think of any listener to whom she should direct her sorrow. Up until now she had had no inkling of any other realm besides the one in which she had lived, breathed, issued corrective harangues, and, most recently, loved. (For the record, I share her skepticism about other worlds – which makes the events in the remainder of the story somewhat mystifying to me. The reader is forewarned that from this point on, we will begin to leave what is strictly called reality behind us.) The anesthesiologist told Alicia to count backwards from a hundred. She was at fifty-seven before she finally went under.
Malcolm sent flowers to the hospital but they were rejected because Alicia was on the cancer ward and flowers could emit spores. She did not learn of them until a month later when she got back to work and saw the receipt on her desk for them. She cried, from both her sighted eye and her glass one. Which was beautiful. It was made by a master craftsman named Duane, with fluttering hands and a whispery voice. In his spare time Duane made exquisite silver-and-glass insects which he sold on the Internet. Though she could not begin to be attracted to Duane in the way that she was to Malcolm, Alicia had instantly felt drawn to him. She could not help thinking he had something world-changing to impart to her. She soon discovered that thing was the eye itself.
First off, the glass eye balanced Alicia’s gaze. Even if she tried she could not open her left eye nearly as wide as before. For that reason alone, Alicia’s glass eye quickly became the most precious thing in her life next to Malcolm. In fact, she came to believe, foolishly or not, that the two were joined in some sort of benevolent union. Yes, she thought, his house had taken her real eye, but it was Malcolm who had discovered her illness, and along with Duane he had brought the wondrous new eye into being. Alicia’s face was now perfect, and knowing this, she felt all her remaining rough edges softening. She was becoming a doll, as benign as she was beautiful. She forgave her mother (in her own mind if not in an actual conversation) for her harsh words: she had been right, after all, about not passing judgment on others. Alicia stopped using the telescope lest it throw off the balance of her eyes in the other direction. Besides, she no longer needed it. She could wait, as she now believed that a new, pure and enduring love between her and Malcolm would unfold as it should, in the fullness of time.
And Malcolm did begin to linger in her office, making small talk, which he had never done before.
“Your new eye is beautiful,” he said one day, leaning in to examine it. Alicia closed her eyes and waited for him to kiss her, but when she opened them he was gone and there were two new receipts on her desk.
“I’m getting married,” Malcolm said in the spring. “Next December, on Christmas Day.”
Alicia smiled sweetly. As if, she said to herself, Malcolm would really 1) get married and 2) do it on Christmas. Both acts would be far too bourgeois for a post-post-Marxist theorist like Malcolm, so Alicia decided this was one of the little jokes he’d been peppering into his conversations with her for months now. Jokes about the weather, politicians. Not-always-funny jokes whose sole purpose was to maintain a rapport – thereby easing his path from Esmeralda back to her. On the other hand, Alicia wondered, pressing her fingers on her eyelids out of old habit, might Malcolm finally have achieved a whole new level of irony? But Alicia no longer understood irony. She had been in love for too long.
“To Esmeralda?” Alicia said, to keep Malcolm talking a little longer.
When Malcolm was kidding he usually pressed his lips together and raised his eyebrows with a sort of disturbing impishness. But now his face appeared to Alicia like a folk-art painting, stiff and flat. Still unruffled, she employed a technique her ophthalmologist had taught her to sharpen her depth perception – she began shaking her head.
“So you disapprove,” Malcolm said, with a vulpine scowl that rattled Alicia’s backbone. “I knew it all along.”
Alicia had not disapproved of Malcolm for ages. She could not remember the last time. “I’m only trying to see you better,” she said, trembling.
“We don’t need your Midwestern moralizing,” said Malcolm. He had not said “Midwestern” in so long. “We’ve been living with your disapproval for months, Esme and I, because we’ve felt sorry for you. But take this under advisement, Alicia: get over it. Now.”
I hope the reader will view what Alicia did that evening not as simply foolish (though it was), but as a tribute to her unquenchable thirst to understand human experience. She got the telescope back out of her closet. It astonished her that after all that had happened, she was apparently no closer to knowing love than she had been before she met Malcolm. And she had to know it; she had come too far now to give up. She would study Malcolm and Esme like paramecia on a slide, even if (Alicia vowed) it meant the sacrifice of her remaining eye. Blindness, she knew from a theorist Malcolm revered, led to insight.
She pressed her eye to the telescope. As before, Malcolm and Esmeralda lay on the couch, comforting, being comforted. Against what were they huddling? Alicia asked herself, more urgently this time. She could not believe it was her own disapproval. Since getting her new eye, she had felt more at home in the world than she had ever dreamed possible. Of late she’d had nothing but generous impulses toward the doomed couple. She had felt herself looking on them with beneficence that very morning, as they’d stood there nuzzling while she made their dinner reservations at the Alligator. She’d asked if there was anything else she could do for them, and she’d meant it. So what terrifying thing did they know that she didn’t? Maybe (Alicia began to suspect) it was the reverse. She knew something that could help them. Something good, about the essential rightness of the world as it was. But she did not know how she could tell them.
The next evening, as Malcolm’s house passed through vespers, a plume of smoke appeared from behind it and began to creep forward over its roof. Alicia could not see inside the house because of the reflected sun; it was possible Malcolm was having a fire in the fireplace. But the plume was thick and black, and outside it was an unseasonable seventy-five degrees. Now Alicia faced the dilemma that the reader may remember from an earlier, less dire instance: if she called Malcolm to warn him, he could find out she had been watching his house though her telescope. If she didn’t call, he and Esmeralda would burn to death, perhaps suffocating first but perhaps not. Alicia did in fact hesitate for a moment, but (and if this doesn’t prove it, nothing will) she was woven of the strongest possible moral fiber. So she called him.
She heard Esmeralda mumbling something in the background.
“Black smoke, a big plume,” Alicia shouted. “Please, Malcolm, you have to get out.”
She made up a lie, garbled and incomplete, about how she’d been riding the bus home from a friend’s (a very big lie, I’m sad to say, since she had no friends) and seen smoke from the general area that she remembered his house was in.
Malcolm said, “Don’t you think I would know if my own house was burning? Wouldn’t I smell smoke if there was a huge plume like that? Get a grip on yourself, Alicia.”
Alicia hung up. How could she get a grip on a self that didn’t, according to the cultural theories Malcolm ascribed to, exist? Was this a moment when the self had to be assumed for strategic purposes? She decided to ask him when both were calmer.
She went back to the telescope. The plume was enormous, engulfing the house so that only a tiny corner was still visible. The nearby houses basked in the sun’s weary rays. Only Malcolm’s was affected, and it was about to be swallowed. She called him again.
“Malcolm, I’m not kidding, you have to get out of there. You and Esme. It’s all over the house, the smoke, I can see it right now.”
“You see it? How?”
Thus the existence of the telescope was revealed, in tears and gulps and apologies. When Alicia finally stopped for breath Malcolm had hung up.
She returned to the telescope and looked through it with her glass eye. She saw the smoke with that eye. Through her right eye the house looked perfectly safe.
Which to believe?
Only a few months ago the solution would have been clear. Return the eye to Duane and demand its immediate repair. She could not remember whether the eye had a warranty but that would not have mattered: she would have told Duane in no uncertain terms that his work was substandard and that she deserved restitution. But again, the sensation came over her that Duane was far from a shoddy craftsman. Through the tiny seed of that eye, he had literally reshaped her entire being. She could not dismiss what she saw (or was) through his eye.
Before Alicia could come to a conclusion, Malcolm was pounding on her apartment door, yelling her name in a creaky wail. He had never visited her before. The fact that he knew where she lived filled Alicia with one of the last feelings of hope she would ever experience.
He was pale and shaking with rage; his bowed legs flexed as if he were ready to spring on her, but his boots remained planted on the concrete walkway.
“You’re fired,” he said.
Alicia shook her head at him, closed one eye, then the other, but nothing changed.
It does give me pleasure, albeit a fleeting one, to say that over the next few weeks, Malcolm’s house held less interest for Alicia. She began to develop another capacity. She pointed her telescope up from the house to the moon, which, viewed through her glass eye, showed her the face of her sister. It was fifty years in the future; Kelly’s cheeks were ravaged by smoking and dieting. She had never wanted to be a model in the first place, Alicia realized, but had been forced into it by their well-meaning but damaged mother. Both had been unloved for many years, but Alicia vowed to love them both from now on. That would be one aspect of her new calling.
She decided to move back home. She no longer planned to attempt suicide; the cancer and her miraculous new eye were enough material for a memoir, and much more. Her world was opening. She was becoming a visionary. Her eye showed her others’ pain etched against the sky. For instance, she now believed it was Malcolm’s and Esme’s combined fear of losing each other that she’d had seen clouding the house that night. It was love, in other words, inside out. Finally she could understand and celebrate what they had, even if it was not to be hers. She decided to tell the story as a kind of parable to her family and to the millions of people who would read her book. She would counsel them – not correct, counsel. There was an enormous difference.
She gave notice to her landlord and held a moving sale. Duane, as was fitting, came all the way from Santa Cruz to buy her telescope. Alicia had called him personally to tell him about it. She knew he would use it to detect beauty in the universe and capture that beauty in his glass eyes and insects.
She handed him the telescope but he set it on the ground, and offered no payment. Instead he lingered in the apartment, fluttering his hands over lampshades and books, until after dark, when all the other scavengers had departed. Alicia began thinking, first idly then avidly, that this man was here for another reason. He had not just imparted wisdom to her in the form of the eye. This man was her destiny. Unlike Malcolm, Duane cared openly, deeply, for beauty. He was a trifle pale, Alicia thought, but so was she, after all. They were both strangers in the land of sunshine.
Duane slipped up to her and laid his translucent fingers on her cheek.
“It’s perfect in you,” he said. “Such a shame.”
“What’s a shame?” said Alicia.
“That I must repossess it.”
Alicia laughed, and backed away so she could shake her head at him. His face was bony, the cheeks hollow and deepening with his grimace. She had been so focused on his hands the only other times she had seen him, she had never noticed that both his eyes were as beautiful as those he made for others. Her experience, as well as one of Malcolm’s favorite theorists, suggested that even if both eyes were glass, Duane could still see – perhaps better than anyone else could. She longed to ask him what he saw, but another issue was more pressing at the moment. He was reaching for her glass eye.
“You can’t repossess my eye,” Alicia said in the gentle voice she had been using almost exclusively for the past several months. She understood why Duane wanted it back. It might have been his best work. But it was hers. “It’s paid for,” she said. The university’s generous health insurance policy had almost made up for her paltry salary, which had forced her to rent such a substandard apartment in order to spy on Malcolm. When she’d been fired, the insurance company had sent her some sort of letter in the same vein as the letters they always sent, which were about nothing and so she’d stopped opening them.
“It’s not paid for,” said Duane.
“But the insurance . . .”
“The claim was delayed,” said Duane. “And now they say you are no longer a policy holder.”
“It’s my eye,” said Alicia, firmly.
With a hiss Duane was on her. One hand, with astonishingly long fingers, encircled Alicia’s throat while the other prowled toward her left eye socket. She pushed at him but every time she touched him he seemed to dissolve and reappear from another angle. The hand on her throat tightened. His fingers dug and her glass eye slid out as smoothly as a drop of dew from a leaf. She collapsed.
“I’m sorry,” Duane said, “but I’m a small businessman.”
While Alicia lay on the floor of the apartment that would be someone else’s in less than a week, she did not think she was going to die. It did not seem that Duane had injured her seriously, though her neck was a trifle sore. She expected to lie there for awhile and then get up, eat her ramen, and the next day head for home. On Amtrak, she had decided. She’d see the country, as Esme had, perhaps counseling its inhabitants along her way. But as she lay there she began to realize she didn’t want to do that. She wanted something else – not just the eye, not just Malcolm, not just her sister and mother but some sun-splashed combination of all of them and everything else in the world that was still opening before her even as it receded. She could not articulate this thing she wanted for the life of her. As she thought and thought, she discovered that she could not lift her head, and that she hadn’t been breathing for some time.
It’s true that I know very little about Malcolm’s side of the story, but the following scenario seems highly plausible to me. In any case, if Malcolm did get what he deserved, this ending would be it.
The morning after Duane killed Alicia, Esmeralda called off the wedding. Malcolm’s biggest fear had come true. He had thought Esmeralda had shared his terror of their being separated, but in fact she had begun to fear the opposite – being stuck with him for the rest of her life. He was not sure he wanted his own life to go on. There was no one like Esme, he thought, trying to stuff his strangely swollen foot into a cowboy boot. He loved Esme’s rich body, the complex workarounds of her speech. And she had loved him too; he’d been sure of it. There was no other word for what they had felt for each other. And yet she was leaving him for a physicist ten years older than he was.
Still in his morning stupor, Malcolm wandered the halls of the department. He noticed one of the grad students approaching. Though she’d never taken a class from him she’d always smiled at him. Her name was Petra or Carol or something. Without realizing it, he drifted toward her. She clutched her books to her chest and scooted away. His fly was open, he saw later. This brought to mind Alicia, who would have made him aware of the problem, discreetly but sharply. He wondered what would become of her. Firing her had been for the best, he decided. She was smart; she had better things in store for her. She could go to grad school, though not here.
“One hell of a strange bird,” he muttered, shaking his head as he wandered past her office door once again. Alicia had excited and scared him. It dawned on Malcolm that he had always had trouble telling the difference between these two sensations. It dawned on him that he should seek counseling. To remind himself, he taped a note to the computer in his secretary’s empty office. (So, it seems, he did intend to better himself, though not at any tremendous personal cost, and only so that he himself could stop feeling like crap. Nevertheless, he wanted to make an attempt. We can at least give him that.)
Late that night, Malcolm awoke with a weight on his chest. He was not a healthy man, the reader will recollect, and was well on his way to a stroke at age 45 that would permanently hobble his right leg and slow his speech to a tentative crawl. However, the weight this time was not an overtaxed heart, but the ghost of his secretary. As always she looked pretty but a bit scary, more so because she was now transparent. Also her left eye was shut, which made him think, at first, that she was winking at him. That was a new one, he mused. Alicia had been many things, but never a joker.
“I’m sorry to bother you, Malcolm,” she said. “I know it’s late, but I think you owe me an eye. I’ve been mulling it over and I keep coming to the same conclusion. You owe me an eye. I don’t even like to consider it in terms of owing; it’s so crass, and I’ve never been one to insist on these types of exchanges, as you know. Nevertheless, it’s only fair. So I’m just going to reach out here, and take it, OK? Just one. It won’t hurt. Just give me a second, and it will all be over.”
Malcolm screamed and threw her off, but in a few minutes she was back, prattling on with the same polite insistence. This went on every night for months, and then years, to the point where he got used to her and missed her when she was late. She remained with him after his stroke, his only visitor. She was gentle, even bland in her affect. Sometimes they talked for hours about American culture before she started in about the eye, and he had to throw her off. Soon enough she’d be back, smiling sweetly and reaching for his eye yet again. Even Malcolm could agree that in this, at least, she was an exemplary character: she knew what she wanted. And unlike so many young women these days, she had all the patience in the world.