I'm here on the beach near the dunes, with my laptop, hoping it'll stay calm so sand won't swirl onto the keyboard. It's the first time I can hear the waves just pounding and the terns just chittering without the frenzy of senses that has forever accompanied me. Going "gently into that good night" is Dylan Thomas's classic metaphor for death. For me, silence and the stillness within mean life. My life began today.
Accurately describing my sensory overlay has always been out of reach. When I was a kid, the best I could do was using Crayola crayon colors, which revealed nothing about gloss, glow or saturation. My noise was far more than extra colors and sounds, extra textures and tastes and smells, extra feelings and sensations beyond feeling.
My parents sensed, from the beginning, that something was wrong. They looked burnt orange or red violet to me when they should've been beige or silver. An enraged beat throbbed underneath when there should have been a gentle whoosh. Their worried voices had the roughness of thick corduroy and the scratchiness of wool. And, in the thesaurus I begged them to buy for me, I couldn't find words for most of the sounds and smells and tastes and sensations that swept over and through me.
My noise didn't grow along with me, but, rather, it was I who grew along with it, as if I were the millstone the noise was dragging along. My internal tumult, my infernal racket, acted like photographic distortion and electromagnetic interference, like deafening, deadening static. It was all disharmonious, discordant and distressing.
When I was eleven, my parents took me to a child psychiatrist. When Dr. Frankel said, "Hi there, Pal" and fake-shook my hand, there was an eruption of goldenrod gray and the sourness of stale urine, the color of pre-storm clouds mixed with mammalian terror.
After the third session, when the doctor ushered my parents into his office - "You wouldn't mind, would you, Pal?" - while I sat in the waiting room steaming and stewing and there was a desperate blackish yellow-orange sound of fingers and toes scratching on a chalkboard, I decided that I'd have keep it all inside.
Keeping it a secret saved me. I often stopped at the public library after school where a librarian helped me navigate through the illnesses and psychiatric diagnoses in the DSM III-R. I stopped approaching her when she began giving me questioning looks. I found that the big blue book had descriptions and criteria that conveyed only some of what I was experiencing. It sounded so ominous. I had made the right decision, in retrospect. I couldn't imagine anything worse than being locked up, Haldol'd and held down, ECT'd and mind-fucked by doctors and wannabes who had their own private agendas, who wouldn't know the difference between a 296.7 and a 309.81 and a 995.83 if it bit them in their collective asses.
There was no place that was safe. At my bar mitzvah, when I stood on the bimah reciting my hafotrah and the prayers, a smoky, burnt sienna aura of envy and anger and Hebraic despair drifted over the congregation. Enveloping this was a seismic tug-of-war between roaring lions and stampeding elephants, a grotesque ballet of blood and gore and finality. I did try to figure it out, but there were times like this when it was just too overwhelming.
The noise generator ran on high the following summer. Uncle Saul and Aunt Esther had invited me to stay with them at their summer cottage. Instead of a savings bond, this was their bar mitzvah gift to me, and, by extension, to my beleaguered parents. Saul and Esther had their way with me in combinations and variations and I, with them. They're dead now, so it doesn't matter, and it didn't matter then, either, because I was a willing, active participant. You might say I was too young to make a decision, but you weren't there. Our transactions were mutual and exquisite. And my noise? It multiplexed and amplified, as if it, too, were coming of age.
High school, summers, college, then graduate school for a masters in journalism. I found that all-absorbing activities - running the quarter-mile track until I dropped, typing until I was exhausted, mastering Hanon and Czerny exercises on the upright - mollified and focused the noise. As my aberrant synesthetic abnormality became more specific and definable, it also became more saturating and resonant. The noise was present in my dreams, though the dream-noise was more diffuse. Worst of all were the rapids and whirlpools of overlap, the hypnopompic and hypnagogic moments when wakefulness turned to sleep and sleep to wakefulness. I often dreaded closing my eyes only to have to reopen them some hours later.
It wasn't all intolerable. Some of the bewildering sensations were welcome friends, like my built-in bullshit detector, blazing crimson and white heat and whistling off key. Some were strangely melodic, prismatic and burnt-sugar sweet-smelling in a smooth jazz Herbie Hancock riff sort of way. But most were villainous, waiting to sneer at me, eager to hoot and holler and stick their exophysical tongues out at me.
There is a cliché, though it's an urban legend, that Eskimos have an unusually large number of unique words for snow because they viewed snow differently from other people. The number of Eskimo words is unbounded only because Eskimo languages are polysynthetic - words are formed from phrases through recursion and noun-incorporation. My own English journalistic and linguistic expertise cannot help me to describe most of my sensations, especially as my multi-sensory output became more sophisticated and intrusive. There are neither words nor phrases for many of the undefinable, incomprehensible sensations that have visited or taken up residence, despite the replacement of my dog-eared Roget's by equally impotent online sources.
But today, as I woke up, I realized my noise had vanished - my internal universe was silent and desolate. I was afraid to open my eyes.
I reached out and felt for Alexandra, who was on her back, softly snoring. I gently placed my hand on her breasts, which had lately become engorged, and then ran my hand onto her distended belly. I felt the thump of a future goalie's kick ... but only the kick.
I rictus-grinned and howled in ecstasy before covering my face with a pillow. Then I started to shake and sob. "What is it, Neal? You okay?" she mumbled, still half asleep.
"Nothing, Allie ... Sorry for waking you ... Sssh, now ... Go back to sleep."
I pray that this will last for more than one day.
Yet now I feel bereft.
Rev 6 / April 24, 2008
and is based on the prompt: an epiphany and its backstory
April, 2008 Copyright © 2008, Lloyd B. Abrams