I have the wasties.
The wasties is what I call it. There are probably about four thousand different names for it but I don't like to pronounce most of them, much less try to understand what they really mean. The wasties is a disease of the soul and you don't have to have a theistic bone in your body to get it. There are those pedantic types who say it's not a disease, it's a "condition." For God's sake! Why bother making such distinctions? When you've got the wasties everything is perfect and nothing matters, sort of like Buddhism-except for those with the wasties there aren't any doctrinal outs. I call the wasties a disease of the soul because it envelops the whole being of a person and is imposed from within. There's nothing you can do about it. A condition is something imposed on you from without, something you can point to-like capitalism. But I have a disease of the soul. I call it the wasties. You can't see it. All you can do is feel the effects.
Lots of people have the wasties. The doctors say it's serious. All you can say to such people-well, there's not much you can say to such people. They've been too thoroughly trained and they're too seriously taken up with looking at cause and effect and tissue and fluid samples. There's a lot to be learned about the wasties. The doctors know this, but are determined not to say too much about anything that can't be trial-tested and backed up by empirical facts-which is to say they think they can find a cure. I appreciate that. There's a lot to be said about the facts. But getting too caught up in them is as crazy as looking for cures to everything. Sure, you want your Boeing engineer to know the facts. Every nut and bolt. And knowing those sorts of facts is what allows us to fly. But when you have the wasties you get a different impression of the world. You don't say things like "if every nut and bolt on this aircraft isn't just right the system will fail." When you have the wasties you don't even begin thinking like that, because it is accepted a priori that all systems are doomed to failure, and trying to make them perfect is as losing a proposition as the construction business in Babel. I would say, rather, "I wish I could never come down." So, while getting your facts right is nice and creates job opportunities, it doesn't mean that planes won't fall out of the sky. Thinking like this makes me horny. That's another thing about the wasties: you think of sex all the time. It's a little frustrating. One of the consequences of the wasties is you don't get to have sex because most people are repelled by you. It's not fear of contagion. They just don't want to get involved. So let's talk about airplanes because there's sex in them. I mean it. Not just in the machines themselves, but the consequences of unnatural flight. A person with the wasties, if he was in an airplane that was going down, would turn to his neighbor-even if that person was a perfect stranger-and kiss her. Just like that. Because my case is fairly advanced, I would take it one step further. I would stand up and shout, "Okay, everybody! Start fucking!" And even though I know it's impossible to have sex in most passenger airplanes because of the seat belts and the tray tables, the idea is that at the moment of extreme mortal peril, every doomed organism within that cold hollow steel machine could be doing what all living organisms are meant to do above all else, i.e., reproduce themselves, even though there is absolutely no point in it and the extinction of the individual is the one and only certainty in all existence. Well, now you have a better idea of how a person with the wasties thinks of sex. That's the beauty of the wasties. You see the perfect beauty in all the despicable ironies of existence. It's a kind of acedia, an evil sadness that weighs you down. And there are no orgasms. That's the one thing I have to say I do miss from time to time. The feeling of release, the uncoiling of the spring of eternity, the discontinuity of being. It's not purely physical. Not at all. I would like nothing more than to go for days and days with a boner, a big honker of a thing. Of course, it's impossible because going outside would land me in jail. People with the wasties are many things, but they are not predatory perverts. They accept the fate of their nature in private. So, no, it's definitely not physical. It's organizational. It's getting everything all lined up that's the problem.
I don't remember when I got hit. Yes. The wasties hits you. POW! Like the flu or that fashion model named Fablio who was riding a roller coaster-surrounded even in that screaming contraption by adoring women-and POW a bird flew right into his face and splattered. Broke his nose! The picture was in the paper and all I can say is, if Fablio isn't well into the wasties now, he will be when he sees that picture of himself with bloody bird goo all over the shocked look on his face. Anyway, it hits you just like that. One day you're walking around doing everything the way you used to-which is to say blindfolded-and the next thing you know you've lost all power of speech and the familiar becomes suddenly alien and what was known becomes unfathomable and what was previously unfathomable seems strangely knowable. You are frozen in your tracks and prevented from speaking by a metastatic new knowledge that has no name. But never mind all that. I'm not asking to be believed. Just telling you what I have to say.
"You seem to be suffering from symptoms of depression," the doctors said early on.
Depression? That's like saying a dead person is merely suffering the consequences of mortality. The wasties makes depression look like a teenage kiss. It doesn't just involve the individual, the wasties involves all of us-and I'm not just talking about the Judeo-Christian Western world but human consciousness itself. There are no therapies and no excuses. Science is powerless. Religion is powerless. There is nothing that can be done-except nothing, and that's the beauty of it. Having the wasties is like being told not to think of the left eye of a camel.
There you have it.
My wife, Gina, found me. She found me from the beginning and she says she will probably keep discovering me anew day after day after day and that's probably bad because it's too late now. Too late for me, that is. I won't speak for Gina except selfishly, which is to say that I'd love it if she decided to become a nun. Gina and I go way back back back and back again. We go back so far there was nothing but forward for us from the beginning. Now forward means a black hole. "Hold on a minute," Gina would say, "just wait right there." She doesn't put much faith in numbers. If our marriage has anything to do with anything, gravitational collapse is as good a way of putting it as, say, qualified non-dualism. Gina is great. Gina is pure. In the days before we had to pass notes, she was as good a listener as I was a talker and afterwards we'd go to bed and fuck each other to sleep.
But I'm getting way behind myself now. Or maybe ahead. I don't know. I seem to be starting where I wanted to finish, in some impossible someplace outside beginnings and endings when I became too contemptible to deserve as loving a partner as my wife, Gina. I have tried to let Gina in on my gratitude, but everything comes out sounding stranded somewhere between Petrarch and Rimbaud. Rimbaud had a fine case of the wasties. Je finis par trouver sacré le désordre de mon esprit,
which translated into English means it was so fine he regarded it as sacred. It's why he quit his poems and went to Africa. Petrarch had the wasties, too; and was the first ever to keep records. He even recorded the day and time he got hit: April 6, 1327, at the first hour. I've tried explaining this again and again and Gina just gets this far-off, misty look in her eyes. She used to stroke my cheek with the back of her index and middle fingers until I began to suspect that she was seeing someone, and I cried and cried and carried on and told her to stop.
I have always loved Gina and will always love her and want nothing more than to continue to love her, except that in truth I no longer deserve her and so I can't. Love is not a prerogative for someone like me. Love, for me, is a recurring nightmare. It's what Goethe meant when he wrote You have shattered the beautiful world with brazen fist. It falls, it is scattered.
In the days before the wasties I would have put it a little differently; but that was then and, like I said, something always gets lost in translation. Gina is like a recurring nightmare, too. When I think of her I think of all the bestial things she might be enjoying with men of another nature, men other than me, who are different from me and who, for all I know, are coming and going from her life like a motorcycle gang bang. Jealousy is not the word for it. I know I've lost her. The word for it is quicksand, the disappearance of the ground underneath your feet. And lest anyone think I'm merely feeling sorry for myself, let me say it is a marvelous thing to experience: to be drawn down into the earth. To become and be undone by your becoming.
I wish I could remember the night Gina and I first met. All I have is a vague memory of laughter. I believe we were laughing because what had been so urgently desired was so suddenly and noisily accomplished. Is that why our relationship was cemented so quickly? Not because we tore into each other but because we laughed afterwards. Orgasm is such a monumental anticlimax. You don't get very far if it's all you do together. You have to laugh, too. And cry and lose your patience and forget what brought you together in the first place because sex is too absurdly quaint a basis for growing old together, nothing more than affection passing between two beings plus the vigorous rubbing of body parts.
At around seven o'clock every morning I'd go into the kitchen where Gina was making coffee and we'd listen to National Public Radio. I used to read the newspapers back in the days when I could read. Now I just listen to the radio. When the radio is on, and sometimes even when it has been switched off, the radio voices swirl around in the atmosphere and mingle with the voices in my head. So just because I can't broadcast for myself, just because my motor is gone, my larynx is frozen, and I'm mute, well, it doesn't mean I'm not here. Does it?
Gina would butter a muffin for herself and for me and ask, "Sleep well?" To which I'd nod. She only asked yes or no questions at breakfast. When something requiring a more complex answer arose-which it very often did-she'd give me one of those looks that comes with no instructions, say "Never mind," and change the subject.
Our apartment was filled with every book and magazine and banged-up piece of furniture we'd ever acquired together. Acquired, I say; but I wish there were another way to describe the effort with which things seemed to accumulate around us. Procreation was definitely not involved, so there was nothing tender or sweet about the acres of stuff we acquired-that any two beings living together can acquire, for that matter. If matrimony and cohabitation can't guarantee happiness, it will at least give you things to shove out of the way at four o'clock in the morning when you're roaming lobster-like through your rooms and trying to fathom how it is that you and all the goddamned stuff managed to get here. In my pre-wasties days I was an English professor, so I had an excuse for all the books, though the having and the reading somehow got confused back there somewhere. They're still with me, though I can't remember if I've read any of them or not. I figure there's gravity enough in ownership, so go ahead ask me anything, anything at all!
"You've got to get out, learn to sign." Those were the words of Dr. Eremita who, referring to my old literary occupation, pointed out my Beckettish captivity-as if making reference to that Irish coxcomb turned Parisian prophet of glumness and antimatter is anything to invoke. I'll bet Beckett loved the Boeing 747. I can see him, tray table on his knees, jowls working through the tough chicken entrée, abandoning himself to the in-flight movie. There's a part in all of us that wants to eat the chicken entrée and watch the movie while, ears cocked, we listen in quiet terror for a stutter in the engines.
Sign language. That's what they call talking with your hands and face. The Plains Indians did it. It makes sense. Of course it does; and one day maybe I will go ahead and learn it. For now, the word suits me just fine. The written word, that is. My
written words, since the reader/writer in me somehow got uncoupled and, write though I am able, I can't read the results and must live off the income from the semiotic blind trust my language has been placed into. At the very least, there's dignity in the way the written word reposes on the page; and it contributes just as well as oration does to the clearing of the seminal ducts (testimonial, from the Latin testis,
which means witness) and prevents the unpleasant buildup of the steroid androgen testosterone (testis
any of the group of naturally occurring steroid alcohols, plus the Greek feminine patronymic-one
), which we all know is how most wars have started and why it's the men who go off and fight them. Believe me, it's all there: balls, alcohol and women.
So I can't talk. But I can still testify,
by God! And that's just fine with Gina. She wants me to write, encourages me with all the infected inflections of a spouse concerned with an invalid's career. Write a book, she says, because in this day and age if you're not doing something to make a name for yourself your spouse considers you a waste of energy and begins to fuck around. Take that book I did write, the one they brought out in paperback which was called a milestone and which guaranteed me a job for life and a gravitas beyond my years. I can't even read, much less pronounce the title-partly out of embarrassment, but mainly because the milestone it represented was passed by and there have been so many intervening milestones that I'd need a global positioning satellite to find it.
"Can you hear me? Can you hear me?" Those were the first words I heard. Gina was standing gravely at my bedside and holding my hand. I could see her from out of the corner of my eye. There were tubes in my nose and everything was exactly as it should be when you've been temporarily rescued from your fate and placed in a purgatory of hope. She pressed a buzzer that summoned the doctors and nurses, who roused me from half-sleep into the full glare of my predicament.
Yes yes yes. I can hear you, I wanted to say. Loud and clear.
But I could not speak.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Wasties by Frederick Reuss. Copyright © 2002 by Frederick Reuss. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.