Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
This piece was originally written for an installment of The Whole in 30 Days, a “timed art” podcast project. The episode itself did not materialize, but I’m happy to share the story itself with you.
After Avery left her, Tamsin became fixated on crossword puzzles.
Avery’s daily subscription to the New York Times had continued to arrive at the door long after Avery herself had chosen to stop passing through it. After the stack had grown five weekdays high, like a cruel and mocking breed of succulent, Tamsin understood that it represented a choice for her, a thin strand of something she could still control within the ruins of their relationship.
She could have chosen spite. She could have retrieved each newspaper as it arrived, marched through the home to the back deck, dropped it into the recycling bin with a satisfying whump. Unopened, unread, undigested. Were Tamsin so taken with her own sense of rage and injustice, she might have simply thrown it into the kitchen trash with the bits of orange peel and cracked eggshells. The world had been unfair to her, and so she could be unfair to the world.
Tamsin chose the opposite. She chose to unwrap the collection of newspapers and lay them out neatly in front of her upon the marble surface of the kitchen block, a space she had barely used since the morning it became clear to her that Avery was not returning. She laid them out carefully, chronologically, left to right, contemplating both the rational and irrational options. She could light them each on fire, inhale the bitter fumes of the ink, ignore the banshee wail of the smoke alarm until the firefighters pushed open the door and pulled her free of at least one of her miseries.
She instead perched on the edge of the stool and began to read the first, inch by inch and word by word. These papers were a component of Avery, a ritual as autonomic as the regulation of Avery’s heartbeat, and Tamsin had hardly ever seen fit to glance past the top of the fold on the front page. She knew that Avery hadn’t read every section of the paper. But Avery read the New York Times to gain a deeper understanding of the world. Tamsin was reading the New York Times to gain a deeper understanding of Avery.
Halfway through the third newspaper Tamsin faltered. The exercise was ridiculous. Tamsin had learned only that she could learn nothing about Avery, not from something so mass produced and widespread. She put the paper down, angry at Avery again for leaving, angry at herself for being angry. Her fists clenched and unclenched, the skin feeling cracked and dry between the fingers, before she finally cried out in frustration and slammed one of her hands onto the stack. It was a dramatic gesture, the sort Tamsin only made when she knew there was nobody around to judge her for it.
When she lifted her palm from the paper, she saw that she had punched the crossword puzzle. Her eye wandered over to number 17-across.
“Mesa,” Tamsin whispered, unconsciously, before looking over to the grid to see that there were indeed four blank spaces available. She hopped off the stool, grabbed a pen from inside a nearby drawer, and wrote the answer in its place.
She spent another hour with the puzzle and the pen. She reviewed the clues that connected to her current word, and the clues that connected to those, playing five to six words ahead to be certain before she committed to them. She finished the puzzle and then went back for those in the first and second newspapers. She solved clue after clue without joy or satisfaction, but without also feeling the crushing defeat that had shrouded her shoulders in the week gone by. The fore of Tamsin’s consciousness refused to acknowledge what the back of her awareness understood: This was wish fulfillment. This was Tamsin finding the means to be careful and deliberate with words in ways she hadn’t known how to do, before the chaos of their miscommunication had shredded the tapestry that had once been her and Avery.
For months after Avery left her, Tamsin found peace in the crossword puzzle, even when she found herself unable to complete one.
After Avery died, in one of those tragic and reckless misadventures that comes from following a new lover past the wisdom of one’s own limits, Tamsin found that she couldn’t even tolerate the sight of a crossword grid. It appeared simple and meaningless to her, an act of no more accomplishment than that of stirring a spoon in a bowl of broth. Words plucked free of context and then tossed on the ground to spoil and rot. What was language, anyway, Tamsin thought to herself from the abyss of her own bedsheets, what was language but random moans and clucks and glottal stops that over time enough people had agreed upon for the sake of corralling the noise into something manageable.
And what was the point of words if she was no longer able to speak them to Avery.
It was Tamsin’s older sister Genevieve who broke clumsily through the bubble, arriving a week after the funeral, a funeral that Tamsin had not been expected to attend and which indeed she did not. Gen had stood outside the door knocking politely in short bursts every 10 seconds, before moving onto pressing the doorbell, and finally giving up and using her own key to walk in, her shoes clacking across the polished hardwood like a rollercoaster car being pulled to the top of its tallest point. Gen sat on the edge of Tamsin’s bed with a glittering gift bag in her hands; gently patted Tamsin’s exposed lower leg.
“Tam,” she said. “I know. I know.”
But Genevieve did not know, could not know, and Tamsin recognized her sympathy for the performative nonsense it was. Genevieve said little, asked even less, and within a half hour she had determined that her familial duties were done.
“I brought you a puzzle book,” Gen had said, right before departing. “I know how much you like puzzles.”
You know nothing, Tamsin did not say to her sister. You don’t know that I’m not interested in crosswords anymore. You barely understood why I liked them in the first place. When Tamsin decided to open the package later, half out of a need to do something besides lie still and half to be satisfied in her assessment of Genevieve, she was both surprised and not surprised to discover that the book was not in fact filled with crosswords, but with deductive reasoning exercises.
There are five boats in the harbor, one said.
The boats are black, white, red, blue, and green.
They belong to Todd, Mary, Steven, George, and Elizabeth.
They are docked in spaces A, B, C, D, and E.
Todd’s boat is neither red nor black.
George’s boat is two spaces away from Mary’s.
So on and so forth. Nearly trancelike, nearly in spite of herself, Tamsin found a sharpened golf pencil in the drawer of her nightstand and engaged with the conundrum on the page in front of her, filled in the gaps of the narrative based on the clues given her. As the full image of the fictitious harbor began to take shape, it led her to unasked questions. Why did Steven choose to paint his boat green? Were Todd and Elizabeth good neighbors? How often does Mary take her boat out into the ocean, and what does she dream as she stares up at the stars, before she heads below deck to finish the bottle of Cabernet and write in her journal, and then allow the caress of the waves to put her to sleep?
Still not fully capable of engaging with the trauma of her own reality, Tamsin felt comfortable piecing together the details offered in each puzzle instead. Rather than treat each individual logic puzzle as its own isolated entity, she chose to regard the book as a complete chronicle of a singular world; imagined that Henry, the lawyer in the blue necktie on page 14, had once stopped to buy lemonade at little Nora’s booth on Maple Avenue on page 77.
Gradually, as she strolled through the book her sister had given her, Tamsin also found the will to take footsteps in her own home, to walk outside of the door and breathe new air. She went back to work a day earlier than the period her employer had granted her for bereavement. She purchased other books of the same kind and considered them future volumes of an unfolding saga, began filling the margins next to her solutions with notes and maps that connected people to situations larger than had ever been intended by the puzzle makers.
Soon the world she had created was no longer large enough for her, and Tamsin focused her lens again on the details of her everyday. She looked at the cars parked on the street and reverse engineered who on her block might be the owners, where they might live, what they might be having for lunch that day and who they sat next to while they ate it. Tamsin went to weddings and ignored the speeches of the bridesmaids and groomsmen, dismissed the cocktail-infused advances of lonely second cousins to join them on the dance floor and flail through a 1950s pop song. Tamsin grabbed a stack of napkins from a passing hor’s d’oeuvres tray and borrowed a pen from the bartender, then casually determined throughout dinner how each guest had been placed and what they had ordered for their meals. She observed body language and distance, watching as certain stories emerged in passive aggression and others in knowing glances.
Whether her deductions were accurate was not the point. What began from an appreciation of logic had either evolved or deteriorated into a compulsion to know time, space, and life from a very high perch, from every angle imaginable. Tamsin began reviewing vast swaths of photos from the probes, space telescopes, and mathematical projections of the galaxy, began attempting to understand how planets and asteroids had come to dance around each other or collide, why stars came into being where they did. She was not stretching for omniscience, precisely, as much as she was trying to convince herself that omniscience, if it existed, had a purpose.
After Avery’s letter arrived, Tamsin stopped believing that logic was at work in the universe at all.
The letter was delivered by hand, by Avery’s father, a tall cornstalk of a man with horn-rimmed spectacles and an untamed mess of white hair, a man who had been friendly with Tamsin throughout her relationship with Avery but who had very rarely known how to hold a conversation with her. He had called up to her office from the front desk but had requested she come downstairs, as if concerned that entering her domain was tantamount to being caught in a gravity well, that he might never escape her. She met him outside the front doors, at the fountain, its floor speckled copper with wish-endowed pennies left behind by children out for midday walks with their nannies.
“Hello, Tamsin,” Avery’s father said.
“Uh, I. There was a box. Sorry. Let me start over. Hello. Tamsin. We were cleaning out the, uh, the last of our daughter’s, uh, the last of Avery’s things. And there was a, there was this. It’s a letter, I think? It’s addressed to you, anyway. And we, that is, I thought maybe you should, I don’t know what’s in it. We didn’t look at it, we wouldn’t have done that to you. Or her. Anyway. Here it, uh, here it is.”
He handed her the envelope, shuffled his feet for a few moments. He didn’t know how to ask if Tamsin might read it in front of him, out loud, or at least share the contents with him as soon as she was finished reading it to herself. Tamsin, for her part, was not feeling generous. If Avery’s father was unwilling to extend the bridge, Tamsin saw no reason to offer the architecture. He cleared his throat, nodded politely, stuck his hands in his pants pockets and spun away.
It took a force of will not to close the door to her office, open the letter, and be useless for the rest of the afternoon, lost on the long road back to the moment she and Avery had first met, leaning against the chain link fence of a dog park, watching a mini pinscher yapping eagerly at an oblivious mastiff. The present held more value for her than the past now, the details she could manage more worth than the carved bas relief of memory.
Tamsin made a singular evening ritual of it. Drew the curtains, took a bath, reclined on her couch in a red cotton robe. At last, after a minute of juggling the envelope back and forth between her fingers, Tamsin opened it, and the letter spoke to her in whatever diluted recollection of Avery’s voice remained inside of her.
Tam, the letter said.
It’s a little after two in the morning. You’re asleep, on your side, with a moonbeam across your shoulders. Am I this beautiful when I’m asleep? Is anyone as beautiful as you are when you first awaken?
I woke up from a dream in which I left you. I walked out of our door without so much as a suitcase, and I walked down the street, and you were yelling after me, but I couldn’t understand the words, and I didn’t need to understand the words, I just needed to understand that you were shouting at me and that I wasn’t turning around or turning back to listen. I walked into a tunnel, that underpass that’s maybe a mile away, and then I woke up crying. I looked over and you were still there. I couldn’t understand why you weren’t awake as well, why you weren’t looking at me with tears in your own eyes, why you hadn’t had the same dream I just had from your own perspective. It’s not reasonable, Tam. I know it’s not reasonable. But I couldn’t get back to sleep all the same.
When I was younger, Tam, I wrote suicide notes. I recognize now that these were experiments. I never had any plans to follow through. I wanted to know what it felt like to write a suicide note, is all.
So I’m up at two in the morning and I’m writing you a letter in which I leave you. I’m writing you this letter that imagines I could ever stop loving you, loving the feel of you, loving the way your voice says my name. I’m writing a letter in which I tell you that this can’t continue. I’m writing a letter that tells you whatever we had is over.
I’m writing this letter and I’m imagining what you do after I leave. I see you sliding down the wall next to our bedroom but I don’t see you weeping. I see you going to our library and reorganizing every book on the shelves. I see you thinking about calling me but you don’t do it, and now I’m imagining myself having left you waiting for you to call me and ask me to come back, and I’m imagining you forgive me for leaving and I forgive you for whatever made me think I had to leave. I’m imagining us so much stronger for the ordeal I put us through and even as I write the words I know I could never do it.
I could never do it, Tamsin. I love you.
And when this letter is finished I will walk outside with a lighter and a cigarette, and I will burn this letter, and have my cigarette, then I will swallow too much mouthwash and spray myself with deodorant and crawl back into bed next to you. And you will never know. If you ask me about my dreams tomorrow I will tell you I don’t remember them.
Good night. I love you.
The electric shocks of the words she reads jars Tamsin into present tense. Nothing in the letter she reads twice again makes any sense. The letter should not be here in her hands, the letter should be flecks of ash falling to the earth and flying away on the wind. The letter should not say what it says, should not speak falsehoods with such heartbreaking sincerity. Tamsin, unconsciously, begins trying to piece back together the events of a witching hour she never witnessed.
She sees Avery putting down the pen, holding the letter in her hands, the pages still crisp and unfolded. She sees Avery hesitate long enough to change her mind. This letter is not doing what Avery thinks it should be doing, it is not dispelling a catastrophe to come. It is acting as herald. And Avery cannot bring herself to destroy it, cannot shoot the messenger when she herself is the messenger.
Avery puts the letter inside an envelope. She places it someplace where Tamsin will not look. Perhaps inside one of their books in the library. Perhaps inside the most recent issue of the New York Times. Avery places the letter in the New York Times, next to the crossword, and promises herself that she will dispose of both immediately in the morning.
Avery oversleeps. She leaps out of bed, showers quickly, changes quickly, charges out the door. She is halfway to work when she remembers the letter in the newspaper. She frets that Tamsin will open the newspaper; Tamsin, who never opens the newspaper but what if today is the day she decides to try something new with her morning and what if of all days to open the newspaper this is the day. But Avery frets also that Tamsin will not find it, that she will simply toss the newspaper into the recycling, without ever understanding the significance of the act. Avery must be the one to dispose of it. This much is clear.
Avery takes a spontaneous half day. She spends the train ride so nervous that she is unable to tell if the car is shaking or she is. She walks in the door of their home and is overjoyed to see the newspaper still there, undisturbed from how she last saw it, and she pulls the envelope from within its pages. Avery is alone at home with a letter she wishes she hadn’t written and which she still finds herself unable to dispose of.
Gradually, it dawns on Avery. Perhaps the next hour, perhaps the next day, the next week, the next month, but it dawns on her that she will not be disposing of the letter. Gradually she realizes that the pebble she kicked absently off the top of a mountain has become a landslide she can no longer control.
On her couch, in her robe, with the letter still perched between her fingers, Tamsin imagines Avery deciding that she needs to leave. Tamsin’s imagination catches up with her recollection.
Avery is saying very little.
Avery is walking out the door.
Avery is not coming back.
Avery is never coming back.
Avery is distant, then Avery is dead, and then Avery’s words are trapped in a letter Tamsin never knew she had written.
Tamsin puts the letter on the coffee table. She sees herself waking in the morning and tearing the letter to shreds. She sees herself taking the individual shreds and placing them carefully on the kitchen block. She sees herself hiding the shreds as bookmarks in the library, to be ignored until she has forgotten which books she put them in. Tamsin sees herself in 20 years going to her bookshelves and picking out a book, and sees the shred of this letter falling out of it, and on that day Tamsin will try to recall why she arranged this part of her life to be rediscovered in this way.
Perhaps she will be able to put it back together.
Perhaps she will not.
Perhaps it will no longer matter, one way or the other. The arrangement will be what it is, and then it will be what it was, and the life that existed around it will be for somebody else to solve.