Illustration by Victoria Ritvo
by Max Ritvo
My only act of violence as a child was one of mutual play. I was friends with Miranda, our housekeeper’s niece, and we were playing pretend Mortal Kombat. We were very conscious of the fact that it was a game. Neither one of us hit the other on any fragile part of the body.
I think I was more comfortable playing Mortal Kombat with a girl, since I knew she’d respect the parameters, too. We stood beneath the basement staircase. Miranda threw freeze rays as I dropped into a drop stance—one leg bent in a squat and the other out straight—and scooted towards her shouting Suzuki! I was careful never to let my scooting leg hit her anywhere over her knee. I mostly slid into her shoe.
I had heard the word Suzuki in a commercial for a powerful looking motorcycle, coated in cobalt paint. It was my only Japanese word. I knew it didn’t mean anything warlike, and I doubted it meant anything at all, but it went with the East Asian aesthetic of the game. Sub Zero wore a shade of blue, just like the motorcycle, in the Mortal Kombat movie. Sub Zero threw freeze-rays like Miranda. The z in the middle of Suzuki reminded me of a man doing a drop kick. And the ki sound at the end sounded like something a warrior would say.
I knew it was inappropriate to shout Suzuki! I felt I should’ve learnt Japanese and had a real Japanese war cry. But everyone knew what I meant. Miranda, the only person who heard me shout Suzuki!, was everyone, and she didn’t speak Japanese anyway. And I never meant to hurt Miranda—it was already pretend in terms of the emotions—so what did it matter what word I used to fake-hurt her?
Violence has been an almost non-existent presence in my mind and body as long as I can remember. When I was a child it was unthinkable to be angry—only brutes were angry. My mother told me I could consume books and movies as adult as I wanted when it came to romance, but violent media was banned in my household until my teens. Sex and love were normal parts of being a human—violence was an aberrant and disgusting thing.
I held onto this conviction even when I was too old to censor. To this day, I’ve never seen a horror movie, though I love Game of Thrones and play a lot of Halo. I was ten when I read my first romance novel, Nerd in Shining Armor, in which a nerd, Jack, is stranded on an island with his beautiful and intelligent co-worker. They fall in love and have lots of emotionally torrid, graphically discrete sex.
I asked for the book at Borders thinking it was a romantic comedy like Serendipity or You’ve Got Mail. My father bought it for me without really looking at what he was buying. And even if he had looked, I think he would’ve been more alarmed by the fact that it’s a book geared toward women than a sexually explicit book. He gave me a Tom Clancy’s Net Force spy novel in sixth grade to write about for a book report, which infuriated my teacher, since it contained a lot of sex.
I didn’t like Tom Clancy’s sex scenes, which were brutal and lonely. The male characters stayed inside of women as they went flaccid, post-orgasm, as a way of saying I love you. This was somehow less challenging for them than using their words. It was baffling and alien.
But I loved the scenes in Nerd in Shining Armor. It is narrated from the female protagonist’s point of view. I can’t remember her name, but I remember that she loves it when Jack holds her nipple in his teeth and moves his jaw back and forth while flicking his tongue over it. This was something I tried out on women when I was a little older, and they loved it, even though from my perspective I looked ridiculous—like a Hungry Hungry Hippo with a blender blade for a tongue.
This book helped me empathize with a woman as she is touched. Whenever I’m with a woman, I imagine what she’s feeling. I feel a ghostly female body grafted on top of mine, and wherever I touch my partner, I get touched back on that spot.
If I’m anxious, and wondering whether or not my partner is enjoying, I imagine a narrator speaking over the sex. I see whether or not the progression of the foreplay and reflexes and fluids and firmnesses would make a good story. I had a lot of torrid chatroom conversations with girls in my teens, and they always complimented my ability to write a good intimate story about the two of us—even though I’d never met them in person.
My therapist told me today it’s healthy that I have revenge fantasies about my ex-girlfriend—who loved Jack’s Nipple Trick—and healthy that I write funny revenge poems about her. He says either you turn anger inward and start to hurt yourself, or you hurt others. Hurting yourself might be a more moral thing to do, but it gives you a very, very rough road in life.
I’ve spent years worshipping shrinks. I insisted, as a child, that my shrinks be classical Freudian analysts. I thought these were the only true intellectuals. My father self-described as a classical Freudian analyst, and much of my youth was spent listening to him self-describe as the only true intellectual we both knew. (Though, one day, I’d be a true intellectual too.) My therapists have also all been Jewish men over the age of fifty, like my father. Even the Cognitive Behavioral Therapist I agreed to see in college during a nervous breakdown—who hated Freud—was a Jewish man in his sixties. They also have all worn rectangular glasses, like my father’s.
But as much as I love to be seated across from an elderly Jewish man and say You’re so so right! and leave his office feeling like I really finally get it this time, there is one thing my Freudian shrinks have never been able to convince me of—ever: a repressed emotion. They’d make the accusation and I’d protest, sometimes getting a little angry that they weren’t listening. Then they’d smile knowingly and mouth repression!
If one feels the need to let off steam –that’s unavoidably important—even if science says it’s a bad idea. But telling someone let off steam that they don’t even feel is out of touch and graceless. It feels like when my Israeli uncle is sure his pasta choice is better than mine before I’ve had a chance to taste, let alone defend, my pasta—often before the food has even arrived at the table.
Sometimes, for my therapist’s sake, I’ll whip myself into a frenzy (even when just a minute before I was fine) because I decide that I’ve repressed something that I need to release. But that’s contraindicated by cognitive psychology. Everyone knows that the more you rehearse any brain-state, like a state of rage, the easier it is for the circuitry of the brain to pick it back up. Ritualizing the letting off of steam conditions you, like Pavlov’s dog, to be an angrier person. Even if it’s not to impress your shrinks, even if, at some point in the therapist’s office or out in the world, you sincerely and suddenly feel the need to let off steam—you shouldn’t necessarily listen to that feeling. Anger is telling you that a ruminative fantasy about your ex-girlfriend is ice water when it’s a glowing coal. Hate fuels hate.
It’s great not to listen to the need to let off steam, but it’s still important that you feel it. Your heart is not talking gibberish when it says I want to let off steam—it’s using language—it’s taking up metaphor fluently. My Freudian fathers all had the touch for clean metaphors with a few elegant bridges between the Real we were considering and the Imaginary World we were pulling from: Your mother is always looking to buy a blender, but your father is a local appliance store with only two or three models— you’ve rebelled by becoming an expensive Vitamix only stocked at William’s Sonoma that spits back up half the food anyone puts in you.
I love composite metaphors like this; they make me feel like every world is a map for another—that My Family and Corporate Cookery could perfectly account for one another.
As a teen, I was a strict and obnoxious atheist—but passionately loved reading astrology charts. They too, were composite metaphors. I was throwing bridges, like my therapist’s, to a magic continent. I knew the magic continent would never support my weight, but there seemed to be truth in the bridges themselves, or at least deep, deep comfort. It was the presence of meaning. I never took the advice of star charts, or thought they had accurately predicted anything when they happened to align with reality. I never wanted to walk on the bridge—I knew there would only be mist, and then and more mist, until the bridge became my continent, and it’d be a bare bridge with no food vendors. But to stay where I was and watch the bridges bloom, arranged in patterns, sprinkled with a bit of artful chaos—that was to materialize a heaven of earthly mortar.
My favorite bridges to throw have always been between my emotions and the weather. The winters of my heart. The lightning-strikes of my boners. They make me feel like inside of me there is a whole planet, which helps me find myself a little harder to hate.
When many people use these kinds of metaphors, they’re traumatically wooden and bathetic. People who think of quips as things you pull out of a file cabinet should stay away from emotional weather reports (and Turing Tests).
But then I read a phrase like now is the winter of our discontent, or something else that hits the spot, and I remember that these metaphors are perfect as long as you’re fiddling with them to make them original again. And they seem inexhaustibly rich: the body and the sky are the two biggest and most omnipresent templates. When I do get one right, I feel like my emotions are the “super” part of supernatural, and in turn, my emotions are naturalized—they don’t seem as bizarre and alien from the world.
Letting off steam is one of these bridges. Freud, at his most essential, is metaphors about the internal world using the weather. When he talked about Repression and letting off steam, he was talking about a hydrological model for emotions—one in which the soul takes on the features of Hippocrates’ body and is regulated by pulsing, flowing, combating tracts of hot gases and cold liquids. Regulation and change and flux in the internal weather system makes for composite metaphors—like Mom shopping for Blenders. These, as we’ve established, are my favorite things shrinks do.
Even if I don’t believe emotions function like this, I feel the work of the metaphors in my body. I have felt my sorrow be quenched, I have soaked up love, I have even let my hatred be fueled. It’s impossible for me to not think about my emotions, and the way they change, as having the properties of water and fire and earth. Even if I don’t believe, the disbelief isn’t like my one for star charts. Sometimes, despite myself, I have to listen to their demands, I have to listen to the fire of my heart and sponge of my heart.
When I was a teenager I carried around a copy of Will Durant’s Story of Philosophy. This book was given by my grandfather to my grandmother on their third anniversary, and it’s the only thing I own of theirs. I shoved the paperback edition of the book on numerous women as a courting gift or a parting gift in my teens.
Will Durant’s writing indulges how boys like to order and think about their world—there’s an emphasis on battles, science, speeches and manly war-costumes. And he has that therapist’s gift for niftily linking things up and making them seem to explain one another. The loss of this particular fleet means the Athenians lose Alcibiades—and without him, of course the war was lost.
The way Durant handled the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers was to neatly organize them by What They Thought the First Element Was. Then, going philosopher by philosopher, you’d find out How The Rest of the Elements Came To Be. Heraclitus thought the first thing in the world was fire, and Thales thought all came from water, and from there on you were in a bliss of flowcharts and genealogy.
The Greeks had at least one good reason for trying to nail down The First Element—it was for their cosmology. But in my case, it wasn’t going to teach me anything empirical about the world, so it wasn’t A Search for Truth. (Searches for Truth have always been a big theme for me.) And, unlike star-charts, these lies had nothing to do with me. Meaning making should always regard at least truth or me—preferably both. But I was always fascinated to read about Elemental Cosmologies—they always seemed terribly important.
The First Element mattered because it was a question of Who Came First? and it’s always always important for young white American boys to know Who Came First?—even if it’s fiction. The way to win Trivial Pursuit is to know the most things that come first. But beyond the trivial, Elemental Cosmology felt somehow Elevated. Maybe because it came from men I deeply respected (I would’ve told you at the time that it was Heraclitus I respected, but it was really Will Durant and my dad.) These were my peers: Men who yearned for knowledge and found peace in contemplation, and didn’t care about fourteen year old girls at Harvard Westlake who wouldn’t date me because I was too knowledgeable and contemplative. What is the First Element was the same type of question as What is the Best Polity? What is the essence of Beauty? and the things I found substantive at fourteen.
Maybe the Elemental Cosmologies were, for the Greeks, deeply personal—the way my star charts were personal for my little world of friends and enemies with my bellybutton as the omphalos. Maybe the way their imaginations made elements flux and change into one another was an expression of their internal life. Maybe Heraclitus felt a massive, primary fire in his heart cool into earth when it spread to the hands he wrapped around his lover’s cold neck. And Thales felt his stomach as a whirlpool that became a bog when he fed it food.
I have a strange feeling right now, that I’d like very much like to make an Elemental Cosmology. That it’d unlock secrets about me. But I have too much common sense for that project. Threading the metaphor backwards, however, I have firm proof of my emotions, and much evidence that they transmute, like fire, and water, and weather. So, more reasonably, I could try to find out what my first Emotional Element is.
If I could throw this particular group of metaphorical bridges between myself and nature, the bridges would lead to the First Heaven. And if there’s one thing white boys love even more than knowing Who Came First, it’s Being First.
But I’m not even as interested in knowing What Emotion Came First, as I am in making sure a particular emotion didn’t come first. I want to know, in my heart of hearts, that my first Emotional Element is not rage. Deep down, I want human beings to have cores. That’s the fun of the First Element. I want an irreducible nugget. That might be the hardest thing to let go about how Durant taught me to think. (Old historians love an irreducible nugget.) If the nugget were Joy or Charity or Kindness or The Divine, the world would be much less complicated. I don’t think anyone’s nugget can be good. I want it to be, however, forgivable—and Rage is not, ask my mother.
Of course, other people could have different Elemental Cosmologies with a different First Emotional Element. Or, we could admit this is a stupid idea that doesn’t reflect reality. But it might reflect poetry. Art works because there’s a core similarity in the way emotions do their work in us, do their work through us. We can feel it, or we wouldn’t have metaphor. What that similarity is, or how central it is to identity, is an idiotic thing to try to pin down. But maybe this essay could slip through the cracks satisfactorily, like a good simile that’s a bit beyond analyzable.
This seems like a problematic and unnecessary complication to a personal meditation—to try to make it a universal. It is. But as I’m writing, it strikes me that all of my thoughts and theories about emotions that I’ve ever had, have been designed to explain others or make me feel connected to them. I feel my current desire that The First Element be Not Rage matters much more if it’s for the world. Or, if I’m being honest, it’s to protect angry people in my life. My family is full of angry people. If my family starts where I begin, it will be with the First Spark: Panic. I put panic at the heart of rage because I panic, and I want to be in the center of family’s heart.
Let the first element be Panic, and not Rage. For the Greeks, the family was the pervasive metaphor that governed the seasons, the gods, and blood and bile. So to discover the elements like a Greek, I want to tell stories about Families.
This is the story of how Panic falls in love with her true love, Violence, and they give birth to Rage.
My whole life I have lived with no appetite, a quick-beating heart, and dilated pupils. These are all symptoms of panic, what my father refers to as “the Old Fight and Flight” response. Panic floods the body with a cocktail of adrenaline, cortisol, and epinephrine, causing these symptoms. Your body fizzes with electricity, which is what your thoughts are made of, and you feel your thoughts across your whole body. This is not rage.
I think panic becomes rage when you’re exposed to violence, like electricity that becomes fire when you introduce logs. Your body learns this is what to do with the panic. But I think my mom was being over-protective—my wife watched the Terminator as a child, and isn’t violent at all. It’s not about what you see, it’s about your muscles hurting and being hurt. You have to feel pain, or feel your body harm another to have the epiphany of becoming violent.
Pain releases endorphins to shut off the pain. Physical exertion—say, punching someone in the face—releases them too. If you’re hit, or you hit someone else—it’ll feel good, and you’ll want to revisit it. Even if pain feels good, it feels bad at the same time, so many people move from seeking pain to meting it out—which gives you a similar high without the same trauma. Over time, the sensation of the flooding chemicals, which is panic, takes on a different flavor. There is pleasure in the panic: this is rage.
But the deep pleasure in a cloud of rage isn’t the silver lining of endorphins. Violence means there’s another body in the room—a cause. Unlike panic, which sometimes remains mysterious in its origin, sources, and desires, Rage blessedly always always seems to have a cause. This contributes to rage’s pleasure—there is revenge: we can do something about rage. If endorphins are the silver lining to rage’s cloud, then a lightning bolt vaporizing a person on the ground below is a massive scarf of sparkling gold.
When I write a nasty poem about my ex-girlfriend, I imagine her reading it in her room. I am a ghost in the corner of the room, smiling as I watch her intelligent, beautiful face crumple with remorse. I float through her pupils into her mind’s eye, and finally—she’s let me come home. I’m there, right where I belong, on her bed, after being ignored for so many years. I’m decrepit and cancer-riddled and coughing blood and cursing her name. A narrator is reading my very sad and angry poem in her head. The narrator is the same one who soothed me through so many anxious sex-acts, the one so indebted to Nerd in Shining Armor. And there is nothing my ex can do but feel horrible, since I’m far too weak and pitiful for her to defend herself from.
And I am finally happy—happier than I’ve ever been. And I leave her mind having eaten her dreams, and my ghost floats out her window, and back to my body while she sobs. And I never have to force myself to eat again, because her dreams are nourishing and have fed me for all time. And I never think of her again, because I don’t have to. Because she’s now eternally broken, like me, and there’s no chance for her to change and leave me behind, as she once did. Dante’s damned souls have to live the same physical agony over and over again as their interior monologues bemoan one sin over and over again. I’m like this too. And now, so is my ex-girlfriend. And this is justice.
Sometimes Panic never meets her true love and has no child.
But it’s hard for me to feel this good—rage doesn’t come easily to me. Most of my panic remains panic. If Panic misses her true love, Violence, on the path to life, she cannot give birth to Rage. She cannot remain as she is, or she would light the whole planet on fire starting with the room she was in. If she is to be alone, she must tamp down her passion with a routine of calisthenics.
If you aren’t experienced with violence but panic frequently—either from a predisposition, or from trauma—you will be what my dad calls a “flyer” and not a “fighter.” A blessed, literal-minded few flyers develop healthy addictions to marathon running like my friends Abby and Ngozi. Running releases endorphins, so they seek it out constantly. They call the pleasure in their panic entering The Zone.
But the idea of running, actually physically running, doesn’t occur to everyone who panics, especially if you panic indoors, or on a date. Running can seem kind of pointless if you don’t have a lion to run away from. In terms of giving energy an outlet, it’s simply not as engrossing as violence. You might watch T.V. on a treadmill but nobody ever watches T.V. as they beat the crap out of someone. I don’t think marathon runners are ever as happy as people who are angry. At least, running has never transfixed me like my rage has the few times I’ve been angry. Sparks have trouble staying lit out there, all on their own.
It is rare for Panic to be able to cope all on her own. This is the story of Panic when she gives up on exercise and self-regulation. Lacking her one true love to give her everyone’s favorite baby, the baby she wanted, she gives birth instead all on her own to her pure child, Numbness. This is the story of their mutual neglect.
When I panic, I rarely fight or run, and it makes my body look and feel disgusting. Panic hyperstimulates my sense organs—and it’s terrible when all I’m tuning into is me—a panicking person sitting still. Most of my super-vision is spent looking at grimy, enormous pores on my body fill with sweat. My super-taste is spent on my own bile. My super-hearing is dominated by wheezing breath that could always be new lung tumors but is probably just anxiety.
Panicked thoughts are rarely important, but they feel more important than anything in the world. Panic is often triggered by nothing, but a blurry bouquet of unresolved problems in one’s life takes on its weight. My wife panics “about” small problems in the future: whether or not her insurance check was mailed properly nearly made her cry today.
I panic “about” irresolvable moments in the past—was it or was it not ethical to have exaggerated my Jewish identity by using chummy Yiddish with that potential benefactor? If I had couched my cancer less optimistically to my wife when we started dating, could she be living a happier life today?
I feel an immense urgency to solve these problems. Sometimes superstition presents itself to me as a solution, in a way that feels like OCD: Okay, so I have to blow on this solo cup three times and drop it on the floor. If it lands mouth up, I made Andrew uncomfortable by getting everyone to refer to him by his last name in eighth grade—and I ruined his life. If it lands mouth down, I made Andrew feel like he was welcome to be one of the dudes, and it gave him more confidence to make friends.
But panic isn’t psychosis, and I never really convince myself that these panicked solutions are solutions. I don’t even try them out, even as my body urges me to do something, Christ, anything. So instead, I throw up. Then I feel like what’s most important is to rest. And it really is. I know how to solve this problem—I sleep.
When I panic, the problems are urgent. Each one is the most important thing in the world. And the solutions that don’t make any sense are urgent. Each one is the most important thing in the world. But there’s a voice suspended in my mind at all times: a doubt about this urgency—this gut-wrenching, body-motivating urgency. And it keeps my hands in my lap and prevents me from flipping that plastic cup to divine the future. And it says, while I pick at my nails: How can your thoughts be the most important truths in the world—when so many directly contradict one another, and cancel one another out? Look, you’re not moving, you’re not doing anything about it—you must not really care. In the end, you know how you’re going to solve this—you’re going to throw up. And you know that that solution has nothing to do with these problems. These problems you were so certain were the most important things in the world… Over time, the sensation of the flooding chemicals, which is panic, takes on a different flavor—there is numbness in the panic: this is depression. Rage’s sister, panic’s pure child—a third element, a spark turned to ice.
The most destructive thing panic does to the paralyzed person is teach you that your urgency is wrong. Because your urgency is what you feel in your heart. Panic teaches you not to follow your heart. That your heart can’t be trusted. This is the beginning of numbness.
It spreads. Sometimes I will find myself smiling and wonder whether I really need to be smiling. Whether that smile, which feels so urgent, is a superstitious solution to an imagined problem. And then I can turn my smile off—no matter how happy I was a moment ago. Rage needs Panic to feed her or she starves and peters away—but numbness can live on little food, and wanders far from Mother Panic. Numbness will give you its cold appraisal of any vivid moment of mental life, no matter how sacredly, ardently hot your heart is beating for it.
Your whole life your heart has been like a trusted therapist, or an old father, trying to help you. You used to rush to answer his calls, but he seems to be wrong every time, now that your life is a little more complicated. So you stop answering his calls—and when you do, you’re bored by what he says.
And this numbness is what makes me suicidal, not rage. Violence to the self doesn’t come from rage, violence to the self is just self-neglect. Your beloveds will offer you their hearts and plates, and you eat them, but with no nourishment. The violence of leaving yourself out in the cold requires a different heart than the one it takes to light yourself on fire.
I am not a person in touch with rage, but I have a talent for neglect. When I panic and grow paralyzed, I can only regard myself. That self-regard makes me notice that my self is panic, and panic isn’t to be trusted. If panic isn’t to be trusted, I must neglect it. But I am panic, so I neglect myself.
Neglecting myself takes up all my time—I don’t have any time to take care of anyone else, so they are by default neglected too. I’m too depressed or anxious to notice them. Rage makes me feel guilty—I’m aware of the violence I’m doing. The wonderful thing about neglect is that even at its most violent, it never makes one feel guilty.
My mentor speaks of my great boon; I have the characteristic coldness toward my poems that defines the most ambitious artists. She says I cleave to my excesses for a while, but that I unfailingly come around and do what’s best for the work. The week the poem is fresh, I’d cut my arm off before violating the teensiest snowflake in the sublime blizzard of my art. But if you wait a couple weeks I’ll lop the poem of all its limbs, and suture on the limbs from another poem’s corpse.
She thinks I do this because I really see that it’s in the poem’s best interest. Often it is—but maybe I’m just doing it to bond her to me, or to calm down an agitated friend acting as my editor. The fact is, I don’t care all that much about the poem’s wellbeing after a certain point. A couple weeks later, there is a new poem. And that is the poem I love. There is always a new poem. And, for much of my life, there was always a new woman.
If you had asked me about women as a teenager, I would’ve been very proud of how well I treated them. I never raised my voice to a woman, never insulted her based on her appearance, never attributed any of her shortcomings to her femininity. I was attracted to women of various shapes—predominantly white but certainly not exclusively white—my only overwhelming bias was that she had to be intelligent—an equal partner.
I never mistreated a woman because she was a woman. Some of the best parts of myself I identify as female, and want to love a person who is like the woman I am at my best. I have mistreated predominantly women because I fall in love with women, and falling in love made me horrible when I was a teen.
I am fond of telling a story about my precocious sexuality that goes like this: at fourteen, I met a girl on Espinthebottle.com, a teen dating site that could only exist in the Wild Wild West of the early noughties internet. I spun a blue clip-art bottle and the girl’s picture appeared in a bubble next to five other girls in bubbles, all arranged around the bottle. I clicked her. She was beautiful and her profile said she was interested in philosophy. Via the messaging service, I engaged her in a conversation about Ancient Greece. I gave off an aura of deep competence by parroting Will Durant and faking a knowledge of Ancient Greek. My exposure to the Ancient Greek language was limited to some MIDI song files I had pulled from the Austrian Academy of Sciences website, but this was convincing enough. Our conversation grew deep enough to transition to AOL instant messenger. The girl, let’s call her H, was charming and brilliant, and had a strong sexual appetite and was very liberated. We had cyber sex, and then met up in person. On our second meeting, she gave me my first blowjob in the stairwell of the Sherman Oaks Galleria Mall. She went onto to study Philosophy at a top-notch university, and we stayed in very distant touch over Facebook. I end my recounting of the story by saying, It was awesome.
What I neglect to mention when I tell this story, is that I had told H I loved her, and she told me she loved me too. And I did love her. That’s the only way I can get attracted to anyone.
So now a gap in my story, now that it’s a Love Story, suddenly becomes worth filling in: how did it end? It ended quickly. My family stumbled on some inappropriate correspondence, and I became convinced it’d be impossible to bring H into my life—my real life away from the computer. “Life away from the computer” is perhaps an excuse. Your “real life” as a rich, not-abused, teenager is still your parents’. They provide you with too much pleasure and comfort for you to ever really disequilibriate things—especially if you’re prone to panic. I doubt H would’ve helped me an eighth as much through chemotherapy two years later as my parents did, so I made the right choice. I didn’t quite vanish from H’s life, but it was close to that. In retrospect, H was perhaps inconsolably upset when our relationship ended—for her, it was the death of a love in the world.
And it was, I’m now admitting for the first time, a relationship, and a love. As I cut the relationship off, I could handily remind myself that H and I had only met in person a couple of times—that this is what counted. But the truth is, we poured an incredible amount of time into one another. There were weeks I’d talk to her from dusk till dawn every night. She knew me deeply: my childhood affinity for purple velvet and the verboten gender associations therein, the philosophers I imagined complimenting me in my head, how my mission was to heal the world with humor and by shocking it a little.
But the relationship was easy to end, because, at that time in my life, love was separate from the world. That’s not to say it wasn’t time-consuming—I spent more time on it than anything else in my life. Some inconveniences are extremely convenient—like staying up late all night to talk to someone, or scrambling to listen to every song by a musician they mention off-handedly so you can paint images in their mind. These things are convenient because pleasure makes difficult things easy. Some difficult self-sacrifices light up the face of another and make him or her engrossingly beautiful—a site of intense pleasure.
In the way panic makes us ugly, gratitude makes us beautiful—it blushes our cheeks, and widens and moistens our eyes until they glitter. Gratitude is extremely sexy. I don’t specifically mean the gratitude of a damsel. I find the way non-attached Buddhist gratitude expresses itself on a face, or mutual gratitude, or gratitude from male damsels like my father, and my own gratitude, all just as erotic.
How much better it feels, if you always panic and must suffer anyway like me, to spend that panic tuned into a partner glowing with love than to spend it gazing at your own disgusting body. How much more wonderful to see my wife’s grateful smile when I close the blinds and tuck her in, than to lay in bed while she closes them, and contemplate my failing body and sinister cough.
Loving someone over the Internet, and doing it passionately and poetically is as rewarding as seeing gratitude in someone’s eyes. It’s like writing an essay that types back at you that’s so beautiful after every paragraph you write. And an essay is coming back for you to respond to, and write back that’s so beautiful too. Your love seems to coax the essay into being one attentive and insightful remark at a time. I co-wrote many philosophy papers with my best friend Shon in Google Docs during college. I’d write that’s so beautiful beneath his prize paragraphs, so he could feel one of the feelings that made me happiest in my life.
Shared gratitude, with H, and with others who followed, seemed to be a thing beyond reproach. Of course it was what I should be doing. It was also a thing beyond time, beyond the world. My partners never met my friends or family, and I never met theirs, and we didn’t really talk about any of them. For me, a relationship consisted of a series of pathologic marathons of attentiveness. It was easy to raze the past of any earlier love, and promise limitless futures because the relationship space was a ritual space, like a church or stage—a space where through prayers of gratitude, we left the world behind. It never occurred to me that love had to hold bearing on the world my parents were in, or that I ate lunch or dinner in. It never occurred to me that love was secular.
It wasn’t until I terminated my first long term relationship with a woman, whom I’d lived with many years that I had a nervous breakdown. I’d fall asleep and wake up seeing her face torn with loneliness and sadness and anger. This person was no different than prior loves in terms of the prayer of loving—but gradually, as time wore on, she began to occupy the world that washes sheets and floats hypotheses on what caused the diarrhea. When I broke up with her, I was confronted with an impoverishment of the Earth I live in, which is much harder than simply being sealed off from Heaven. It only takes two creative people on AIM to make a new Heaven—but you only have one earth in this life. Maybe that’s why Adam and Eve don’t just have to leave Paradise, but their relationship to Earth itself has to change—all the animals nasty and the thorns prickly—if they’re truly going to be punished.
H, please accept an apology. I want you to know that now I understand that people don’t go away when you stop thinking of them. I want you to know that you exist for me in ways you didn’t when I knew everything about you. I’m sorry, very inadequately sorry.
I turned myself in for playing Mortal Kombat with Miranda. I knew I wasn’t supposed to be playing violent games—I was a yellow belt at Champion’s Martial Arts. Champion’s is a West Los Angeles martial arts studio where affluent children learn from the people behind Hollywood’s greatest Martial Arts films. We at Champion’s swear an oath of non-violence.
I told my mother that I had played a violent game, and she gave me the answer I expected: We need to take you to Mr. Cooke, this is pretty serious—he’s probably going to kick you out of Champion’s. It was the most catastrophically anxious I’d ever felt.
But I wasn’t anxious about being kicked out of Karate, I was anxious about Mr. Cooke. I didn’t want to disappoint him. I didn’t want to make him think I thought he was teaching me violence, when he had devoted his life to a peaceful art. People thought Martial Arts was about hurting people, Mr. Cooke constantly told us, and they were wrong. In retrospect, he was probably saying this to weed out any violent children, but at the time I just thought Mr. Cooke faced overwhelming prejudice from other adults. I thought they thought of him as a violent man, and he seemed to me to be one of the gentlest people on earth. I didn’t want Mr. Cooke to think I bought into a stereotype, and like I was neglecting to understand him as a person. I didn’t want him to think I thought all martial artists were violent.
As I confessed to him, I tearfully, exhaustively went over every kick and shove but I didn’t mention to Mr. Cooke, who is half Japanese, that I shouted Suzuki! over and over again. It didn’t seem central. I also didn’t tell him the specific play-violent game was a pretend version of Mortal Kombat. Mortal Kombat, the blockbuster videogame-to-movie franchise of the 90’s. Mortal Kombat that Mr. Cooke—Keith Cooke Hirabayashi as he’s credited—starred in, first as Reptile and then in the sequels as Sub Zero—who, as you’ll remember, threw freeze rays and was costumed in the brilliant blue of the Suzuki Motorcycle. I was very worried about stereotyping Mr. Cooke as a violent man, but it didn’t even register that I was turning him into an Orientalist video game character.
People say to me about my cancer I can’t imagine. They tell me I function really well with it. That I can read a doctor letter saying “Likely continued pulmonary progression without available rational therapy will limit M. Ritvo’s survival to less than 6 months” and, just a few hours later, be reading a thinkpiece on Syria and perseverating on my hospital room pizza slice being watery. I think they think cancer is just not on my mind. But it’s always on my mind—as a queasy undercurrent. Everything I do for others, and even for myself—the conversations I have and the personal hygiene I keep—is performed in half-autopilot as I simultaneously abide with poisons and terror. Many times through the day I hear a beep that reminds me of hospitals and my mind floods with fear. I collapse internally, but my feet get me to the other side of the room to sit down in a chair, and my mouths says I’m fine, and means it.
Every once in a while, late at night, I realize I am the only one. I am the only one dying of cancer. All around me those people aren’t just going through the motions of their lives the way I do—they are living them. The things I half-interact with are their whole contents. They acknowledge my cancer when I do, then they forget about it. They think about cancer for maybe a few minutes a day, and I think about it all day, every day. The only people who think about cancer nearly as much as I do are my wife and my parents. And even when they think about it—they don’t think of themselves as it.
These moments are unbelievable—they make the world feel unreal by virtue of making it clear how unbearably real it is, and how unreal you are.
Maybe this loneliness and fear is related to the feelings of someone being systemically oppressed. It’s easy for me to share H’s pain with you, and feel like I really understood her. I can’t for a second pretend to imagine how Mr. Cooke would’ve felt had he known a student who routinely told him I love you played a yellow-face game of karate chops and shouting the name of a Japanese motorcycle set in a problematic fictional universe Mr. Cooke starred in to pay the bills. I interact with political violence every day and try to do my part to be on the side of right, but if you ask me to imagine what it’s like to be systemically oppressed I can only say I can’t imagine.
I don’t know how many people I’ve hurt in my life without meaning to. But I always have one of two apologies. I’ve gone through my life armed with I couldn’t have imagined or I didn’t mean it. I couldn’t have imagined how Mr. Cooke felt about Suzuki! and I still can’t imagine. The kicks I threw at Miranda were pretend, I didn’t mean them. Perhaps my conscious life can be excused by I didn’t mean it—and for everything else, there is I can’t imagine.
I don’t mean things because I panic, so most of what I do is unintentional. And from a lack of imaginative empathy. And I can’t imagine most things, in part, because my imagination is numb, drunk on trauma and cancer.
I am not a malicious person; I’m not a violent person. I am not a rageful person. If I’ve ever hurt you, don’t think of me, think of what has taken up residence inside of me—the mother and daughter, the first of electricity, the second of ice.
And no one I love is malicious in the core. No person can be blamed in their core, it is never the poor mother’s fault. It is the daughter’s fault, the child who took the spark and ran with it, and became fire.
About the Author:
Max Ritvo is a poet living in Manhattan. He was awarded a 2014 Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship for his chapbook, AEONS. His poetry has also appeared in Boston Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and as a Poem-a-Day for Poets.org. He is a poetry editor at Parnassus: Poetry in Review and a teaching fellow at Columbia University.
Max’s prose and interviews have appeared in Parnassus, Huffington Post, Boston Review, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. He is a sketch comic in the NYC-based troupe His Majesty, the Baby. Follow him on twitter @Maxritvo.