Jennifer Natalya Fink
Think one thought, Ivan Markowitz thought, adjusting the pillow to better suit his long neck. Only one. Ivan's scattered thoughts merged, and a boy stood in their place. A soft-edged image of a golden boy stood tall in Ivan's mind.
At least it's nobody I recognize, he thought as he fell after so many twitchy hours into sleep. The golden boy giggled, but Ivan didn't hear him.
That night, Ivan Markowitz didn't fall in love. He hadn't been trying to fall in love at all lately. In fact, what he'd really been trying to do was something much more difficult: fall asleep. No sooner did Ivan lie down on the soft blue cotton sheets than his mind sat straight up. All day Ivan had felt like a slug was sitting on his brain, and now, when he finally got to lie down and join the slug, his brain hopped right up, jumping from thought to thought.
So Ivan'd decided to try the "think one thought" technique that Dr. Isaacson had recommended. Think one thought. Keep saying it until you fall asleep. Order yourself to think one thought. Let that command become the one thought you think. Ivan felt like an idiot ordering himself around, but he was desperately tired.
And Ivan was so relieved when it finally worked that he didn't give too much thought about the thought, or about that strange boy.
He was still not in love at breakfast the next morning, as he spread apple butter from the local farmer's market over a slice of raisin bread. Good butter; bad bread. It was only later, as he pulled into the parking lot in front of the classics department building, an unclassical brown-shingled split-level, that Ivan flashed again on the golden boy. He was tall. And made entirely of yellow liquid. Gold. A fleck in the shape of a boy. The image rested in front of him, disturbingly vivid. I need to stop using those stupid self-sleep techniques, Ivan thought.
Easing the car into his space, he watched as the boy in his mind turned into a boy in his class. First the face appeared, a blank, smooth, college face attached to the golden body. Jeremy Somebody. He racked his brain for the last name. Jeremy, Jeremy Simpson? No... One of Ivan's best stupid teacher-tricks was to memorize everyone's first name on the first day of class, but he often forgot ever to learn their surnames. Then the body slowly took shape in his head, Jeremy's body, still naked, as Ivan had never seen it. A pale boy, hairless and lean. Feld? No, that's not right. Not Jewish. It's a last name that's also a first name. Simon. Jeremy Simon.
Jeremy Simon stayed right where he was, lodged in Ivan's mind, as Ivan made his way through the ugly, tan, double doors of the Classics building, into the faculty lounge with the orange shag rug, and looked over his notes for class. Already, his mind was racing.
He was, he realized, extraordinarily agitated. Not by the homoeroticism of his fantasy; Ivan wasn't the sort to be alarmed by his or anyone else's homoerotic fantasies. He'd even had sex with another guy once, in a stoned '70s grad-school orgy. Ivan flashed on an unappetizing memory of sucking some guy's stubby cock while ineptly fucking some unlucky girl with buck teeth. Everyone's hair had smelled like smoke. Pump, pump, suck, pump: the rhythm had been all wrong. But that had left Ivan only with a distinct disinterest in "swinging," not any particular revulsion to or fear of homosexuality.
And this was fear, dancing through his arteries, pumping through his heart. Ivan thought about his fear, as if it were a new gadget whose function remained elusive. What was its purpose? It wasn't the inappropriateness of the... fantasy, if that was what it was, that scared him; Ivan knew it wouldn't be the first time that some horny old professor with hairs sprouting out of his nose had a wet dream about a dumb blond fraternity boy.
Love, love, love. Ivan felt it flame up in his stomach, gilding the edges of the image of the boy from his dream, then turning the blurry dream-image into the naked form of Jeremy Simon, who always slumped over himself in class. The image fueled Ivan's stride as he marched into class. It hadn't been a wet dream, either; Ivan suspected that it would take a while for such an idealized image to make its way down into his placid libido. But it would.
Think one thought.
Today they were reading good old Plato. Ivan Markowitz didn't like Plato and said as much to the class. This always got a laugh; somehow, everyone thought that if you were a classics professor, you were an automatic Plato fan. Just the term "classics scholar" summoned up a hazy image of a marble Plato with a laurel wreath around his head. Classics professors were easy to identify: doddering champions of big ideas, ionic pillars, and togas without parties. But Ivan didn't like the Greeks, not personally. What he loved was a certain train of Western thought. Thought riding tall in the saddle, driven by its own force, thought before it careened into Christianity. Pure, single-engined thought. The philosophers themselves annoyed Ivan. Such petty, arrogant fuckers, their little personalities standing in the way of their own gorgeous logic.
Plato definitely got in the way. The Republic fairly reeked of Plato's whiny, dogmatic voice. Ivan thought of Plato as one of those rambling old drunks in a bar who shakes his fist for emphasis.
Today Ivan was trying to rescue Plato's Republic from Plato. "Jeremy? What do you think?" he asked out of nowhere. Jeremy wasn't paying attention, at least not to Ivan and Plato. He wasn't the brightest student, but he did have a surprisingly deep voice for a kid with tight blond curls and no apparent facial hair.
"Uh..." His voice growled out the monosyllable.
Ivan thought of μ, the Greek letter w. It always calmed him to think of its u-like shape, its line motioning up and falling down and then up again, imitating the motion of a wave. Imitation: always a good place to start with Plato.
"What does Plato say about the three beds?"
Three beds, like in Goldilocks. The kids usually liked this one: it had cuddly, kinky associations. Bears and beds. But nobody raised a hand except for Harold, who always raised his hand. He was the designated Class Smart Kid, but Ivan was sick of the smart kids, their anxiety-laced voices, that puppyish desire to please. To get it right. "Come on, you guys. You all look like you're still in bed. Plato, three beds, imitation... Anybody?" He looked at Jeremy, who gazed back, blank.
A girl, Marjorie somebody, the Class Smart Girl, stuttered an answer. "Well, Plato says that there are, like, three, um, beds? God's bed, the carpenter's bed, and, um, you know, the painter's bed?"
"Good, good. But who cares? What's the difference between them?" Jeremy was looking sleepy, his eyelids fighting gravity and imitation. Ivan carefully kept his eyes on Marjorie.
"Um, well, God is, like, the original creator, right? He makes the wood, nature and stuff, and the carpenter makes the bed out of the wood, and then the painter makes the bed again, in a way, by, uh, painting it."
As Marjorie talked, Ivan nodded vigorously and wrote on the green chalk board:
His hand felt separated from the rest of his body, a confident colonel unfazed by the enemy.
"Okay. But Marjorie, who cares? That's all kind of obvious, right? What does this have to do with imitation?"
Harold was craning his hand, the "I know, I know" grin breaking out like acne all over his face.
"Harold?" Ivan glanced at Jeremy as he called on Harold.
"Well, God makes the original bed -- the possibility of bed. Man, or the carpenter, makes a copy of that possibility by actualizing it. God could make the original bed without man, but man couldn't make a bed without the raw materials, the wood. The painter, well he just like imitates the copy -- the actual bed. You could have the raw materials and the actual bed without the painting of it. It's not, like, real."
Ivan scrawled "original" under God, "copy" under man, and "imitation" under painter. "Good, Harold." Pet the puppy, and maybe it will calm down. Ivan had never been one of the designated Class Smart Kids in school. He was never a hand-raiser; even in grad school, he'd preferred to listen quietly in class, and to think his own thoughts later, quietly, on paper.
"Oh, oh -- and we know paintings are just imitations because whereas an actual bed is just, like, itself, you can paint that bed from any viewpoint, from lots of angles. Even make it, like, abstract, unrecognizable. So representations are always false. And they, like, confuse people about what's real. Because Plato says that, like, stupid people and children believe what paintings portray, not the objects themselves." Harold had definitely done his homework.
"Well, yeah, Plato is pretty damn sure of himself. So, someone else, what would you say Plato thinks is the hierarchy --" Ivan wrote out the word HIERARCHY on the board in capital letters.
Hierarchy, scrawled in his own legible but messy hand, grimacing back at him. Ivan stared at it and felt weary. What a stupid chalky concept it seemed up there on the board. "-- hierarchy between nature, man-made objects, and representations?" Jeremy had his eyes fully closed now. He was sealed up, mouth shut tight, eyes closed. Only his nose was open.
"Well, it's pretty obvious," piped up the other smart girl, Betty. "Nature is supreme, then comes the man-made world, then comes art."
"But say you made a representation not of the man-made bed, but of the woods from which the bed came. Or of the idea of God being the creator of the nature from which the wood grew from which the bed was made."
"It's still just a representation," Betty insisted Platonically. She smiled, a little gift of compliance to take the edge off her disagreement. Ivan smiled back. Betty was the best sort of smart girl: a listener, more in love with ideas, with complexity and ambiguity, than with the sound of her own hesitant voice. Why couldn't Ivan just dream about Betty?
"Yes, but it's a representation of God."
Harold shot his hand up, talking even as he waved it in the air. "Oh -- but isn't everything, like, known only through its representation? I mean, take the woods -- we only know them because we see them, right? And, like the painter, we can look at the woods from any angle. We can never, like, be the woods -- it's just a visual image to us. So what's the difference?" Harold really was quite bright; usually they didn't get to that until later in the semester, when they read Deleuze. And Harold had already covered all the loopholes that Ivan had himself planned to introduce in the next class.
Now I'll have to plan something else for Thursday, Ivan reminded himself to think, though really he was thinking only of Jeremy's tongue. Its pink tip was now visible, as Jeremy breathed a light sleep out of his mouth.
Ivan spent the rest of the class breaking down Harold's breathy big ideas into bite-sized chunks that the rest of the class could follow. "I want everyone to come up with their own Bed Theory for next time," he said with a smile, passing out the assignment. "Check out your bed tonight. Is it an original? Or is it a copy? Or is it," he paused dramatically, lowering his voice with shameless staginess, "an imitation? Of what? Why?"
Jeremy rolled his eyes.
"And why, finally, do you think Plato chose the bed to stake all this on?" He gave the class a sly smile.
Everyone giggled back. They're an easy house, Ivan thought. Jeremy put his baseball cap on backwards over his blonde hair, and slunk out of the room with the other boys. Ivan felt a desperate surge of panic run through his system. Come back! But he couldn't think of a legitimate reason to call after him. Don't leave me! Don't ever leave me!
Don't ever leave me!
Ivan was still thinking about the horrible, inevitable possibility of losing the boy when he ate dinner that night, trying to focus on his underlined Symposium as he swallowed a turkey sandwich on sourdough rye. Bad choice. The sourdough overwhelmed the taste of the turkey.
Think one thought, one thought, he said to himself in bed that night, and not that thought.
Ivan thought of suicide. Now there's a thought. He'd often thought of suicide. What philosophy professor doesn't? Bullet through the brain, that's my thought for tonight. He'd decided long ago that the way to go was one clean shot between the eyes. But bullets made Ivan think of guns, which made him anxious, not sleepy. No more thoughts then!
But it was too late. It was 4:30 AM, and at this point, Ivan would have happily shot himself if it would have let him get some sleep, except that would have taken too much planning. They have twenty-four hour waiting periods, triplicate forms to fill, redneck gun dealers with whom you must discuss the relative merits of .45s versus .38s before they hand you the fucking gun...
Ivan had become a classics professor to escape precisely such discussions. Plus, suicide had come to seem like swinging: more fun to read about than to do. So instead, he taught and published and thought and didn't sleep.
Just think one thought.
"Shoot." So strange, to say the word, any word, alone in one's bed at night. Shoot. Shoot, shoot, shoot.
No guns, blood, or triplicate forms necessary; just "shoot." The word "shoot."
A cartoonish bow and arrow formed in Ivan's mind.
Shooting did the trick; he was out cold in minutes, thoughtless, dreamless.
The next morning, Ivan felt rested, free of the boy, clear-headed. Hearty, even. He drove onto campus early, hoping to get to office to work on an article on economies of death in Lacan's reading of Antigone. He already had a draft written; this would be the fun part.
Some trees are great listeners. Take oaks. The ones in front of the Classics building. Old maples, older than the fake-Gothic University buildings that surround them, and this time of year their leaves shine green. The essence of green. Ivan stopped in front of the oaks, and let them listen. The green oaks held him a moment. He blushed, as he realized that he had a full-blown erection, right there, in front of the Classics building.
Inside his office, he found himself daydreaming about the boy again instead of deconstructing Antigone's double death. Golden, made of yellow liquid gold, water-gold, yet with fully-defined features: the unmistakable insolent face of Jeremy Simon. He isn't even really handsome, Ivan thought with disgust, but the disgust didn't cancel out the desire, oh no. And it was love, a hard nut of love, that thrummed in Ivan's chest, and he damn well knew it.
What the hell, I'll just do it, Ivan thought, putting away Antigone and replacing her with a fresh legal pad of yellow lined paper. Go for it, Ivan; write it all out, every smutty thought, hey what the hell, write a porno, featuring your hot and steamy sex with Jeremy Simon and his below-average intellect. Get it out of your system. It'll give us something besides your father's failures to chew on with Dr. Isaacson next session, at least.
Ivan poised pen to paper, like one of his smarter students, ready to work.
He wrote "Jeremy Simon" and stopped.
Ivan was so aroused now that he knew exactly what was going to happen next.
Wiping up in the men's room, Ivan felt better and worse. Better, because of the sexual release, of course. Worse, because, because... he dried his hands, and checked his watch... because it's time for class, and I didn't do shit on Antigone.
Ivan read that night. Nothing difficult; just a bit of Antigone, and the rest of the bed business in Plato. Great Books, my great escape, he thought as he tucked himself in to bed. Maybe I just need to start dating again. Or maybe I'm gay, and this is what they mean by "coming out." But most gay guys Ivan knew were interested in real relationships with other men, not sex with sullen kids.
It wasn't sex with Jeremy Simon that Ivan wanted, anyway. Well then, what do I want? Maybe this is what happens when you forget to date. Dating sounded a bit like death to Ivan's ear. Dating was over; he just didn't have the drive any more. If an interesting woman happened into his life again, like Susan had three years ago, that was fine; if not, Ivan was content to jerk off to dirty novels (he hated visual pornography; only words worked for him, the coarser the better) and think and teach and try to sleep. He thought of Susan's purple undershirts, worn tight beneath her clothing in lieu of a bra, and felt a momentary twinge, but it was just nostalgia. No regrets there, Ivan thought, his mind lurching away from Susan back to
Think one thought. He thought of the words Jeremy Simon, but also of Jeremy Simon moping in class, and the golden liquid boy, and the green of the oaks in front of the Classics building.
Think one thought. Purple and gold and kissing Jeremy and Plato and kissing Susan and --
I don't have to sleep, he thought belligerently. And I can think all the goddamn thoughts I like.
Ivan went into the kitchen, got some popcorn, put it in the microwave, and let his thoughts wander. By the time the three popcorn minutes were up, he wasn't hungry anymore, if he ever had been. He threw the whole bag away, enjoying the wastefulness of it, and lay on his couch in the dining room.
Ivan fell asleep, and dreamed in Greek. Ivan ordered grilled cheese in a diner, and struggling to think of the modern Greek word for "grilled" as the waitress (not Greek-looking, but American white trashy with bleached hair and a thick waist), impatiently tapped her pencil against the counter. Cooked? fried? burned? No, that's not right. The golden boy laughed, imitating Ivan's muddled Greek. He scratched his head and smiled, like Ivan did as he struggled for the right word. And then the boy was just Jeremy Simon, sullen and ungolden. Jeremy Simon, glaring at him. Jeremy Simon leaving the diner, backing out of the room without turning, like a gunfighter in a spaghetti western. Jeremy Simon, looking bored, slumping his shoulders like he did in class...and Ivan was in English again, and moving toward morning.
The boy stood in the diner's doorway, watching Ivan awaken. Mr. Markowitz is tired, he thought. Poor bastard. He should sleep more. When he saw Ivan's grey eyes were completely open, he ran backwards, out the door, to catch the early morning Aegean waves.
Fully awake, Ivan Markowitz smiled, and forgot about Jeremy Simon, and kept forgetting about Jeremy Simon, even when he called on him later that morning in class.