The Man Who Was Allergic to Himself
A reality-warping odyssey through the museum of one mind
Two tiny black pyramids.
Like black sugar, but with a faintly glowing core.
Supposedly I’ll be able to taste the light.
But I’m thinking too much.
Steeling myself when I should be trying to relax.
Breathe out. In.
Without letting myself worry, I put the pyramids in my mouth.
They taste like electricity.
I’m leaning over my desk, typing one-handedly.
The keys I’m pecking look like runes embedded in jello.
Already my head is hovering above my body, engines purring; time has the consistency of clear jam, and it is no simple task to keep reality integrated.
Slopping over with stars, the kitchen sink reflects the moon.
I risk the mirror.
Every face I’ll ever have flickers superimposed, the layers of selves shifting so that I wobble between young and old, with my hair spasming and flickering through different colors.
Hours coat my cheeks, minutes glop from my chin, seconds itch at my neckline…
Did I take too much?
No: don’t think that.
Cradling my left forearm in its fleecy cast, I climb up to my loftbed and hump awkwardly beneath the covers. Only my head protrudes from the warm cotton sea.
What did I come up here trying not to think about?
The ceiling’s hung with a zebra-waved cloth that ripples and pulses jellyfishily, the inky black stripes scurrying over smoky white stripes, mesmerizing me with undulations like liquid math.
I’m forgetting something important.
What was I supposed to remember?
The ceiling is distant as a great-great-grandfather. Immensity envelops my tiny form and yet I am gigantic, stretched like a rubber band over thirty years, with my feet in a different era than my head.
And something somewhere is rotten.
It’s hard to explain.
Sometimes randomly the rot recedes and my head floats free, spinning featherwise through sunnier realms.
But mostly my body is a sack of gibbering red goblins laughing fire, with the broken wrist a raw chicken wing folded against my chest, its stiffly limp fingers like thawing frozen shit.
Looks like I’ve fallen into my own trap, again.
No matter which way I turn my thoughts, they darken, wither, and mutate into dreadful crackling forests of mocking laughter too bitter to bear, and all while I’m being sucked to taffy in a neverending spiral into myself.
Me: the white zero of ego: swirling drain all the world empties into.
Whole cities pour through me, and the sun’s stuck in my throat.
Just to stand up I’d have to reverse the entire flow of the universe.
I crawl over and open the window.
The lampstroked night, shaking inkdrops from its shiny black pelt, leans in close to inspect me, exhaling frost that trickles blue and soothing into my lungs.
It’s vast out.
A queenly evergreen wrings her hard hair over the wiry hedge-bones. Beyond her, a stately-eyed brick schoolhouse with white brows of ornamented plasterwork sweats in his own spotlights.
Out there everything is breathing, powering up.
In here it’s all grimy spiders and greasy pans, my mind stabbing itself from all directions, and decaying thoughts hanging above me, drying on strings.
It’s obvious I have to go out.
But… is that really a good idea?
Then I’m hunched in two jackets on a streetcorner just a few meters under the sleeping sky, and there is no going back. This is too important…
Bars surround me.
Within their glass bellies, flesh gargoyles yell and cough and guffaw, gnaw bones or suck on burning roots, breathing in slow watery pink music—squashed hiphop, spiraling funk, itchy jazz.
Past the bars rises a square church tower like a middle finger flipping off the ghostly sky, which has only one enormous cloud-crowd riven with crevices, crazy jigsaw seams offering slim glimpses of a night so black it looks heavy.
Whenever someone draws near, I floor my gaze to conceal my gemstone pupils and corkscrew grin—
And all the flaming, unfurling magnificence of the night fizzles, dumped out.
I just have this feeling that if I am not exceedingly careful and in control, if I don’t plot every second, if I let my guard down and unlock my fists, even for a breath, something terrible and irrevocable will occur.
I sit cross-legged above the canal.
Dangling lanterns ring luminal bells, singing in a language of light.
Upon the black water hangs my graven image, the familiar pale round face melting into itself, staying in one place and yet forever eroding and losing its contours, an enduring frame of reference in a dissolving world.
Or is that the moon?
Yup—just the moon, the pounding and cascading moon, a cataracted eye fizzling and popping against the rippling cheek of the sky, doubled in the water, quadrupled in windows.
I stand up, and my upside-down self streaks off to lead his own adventures.
Further downstream the bridge makes a running jump over the canal and freezes in mid-air, over that goddamned moon bouncing like a puppy’s tongue.
The moon is a cursed coin I trade for coffee, to a sharky clerk who grins too wide.
I look up and away, into myself.
My eyes rearrange themselves again.
Level after level of streets stack themselves teetering, plazas and alleys spiraling around impossibly, with partiers staggering up zigzag stairs at ninety-degree angles to each other. Gargantuan bridges fork off in all directions. A train car with motionless silhouettes floats above an empty parking lot, all thoughts inside frozen into a solid block.
On a concrete ledge I gather a handful of dust whiskery and hostile with micronized glass. From my hand crumble cities, flinging out streetlamps and traffic signs as they sparkle down into the water.
Along the river, the buildings look like fortresses dedicated to various ideologies: there’s a jumble of beer-umbrellaed verandas, a clean crystal helmet for sterile business thoughts, and a dated ultramodern experiment resembling a tumorous potato with blinking eyes.
One building in particular stands out, a collaged chaos of styles that doesn’t quite hang together, all its variously shaped windows loudly lit, and its front doors wide open despite the evil cold and late hour.
Its sign says only THE MUSEUM.
I climb the museum’s stairs, turning to gaze out.
Further down the river, elephantine trees trumpet and stampede.
A rusty Ferris wheel turns, creaking, under the wind’s transparent hand.
Seen from afar, the city districts are englassed by smooth golden sodium domes that resemble the foreheads and cheeks of the skull of no animal.
All over the globe, city-filled skulls direct their questioning gazes into the roomy, sunlit interstellar spaces.
The stars are opening their mouths to answer.
Yeah… I think it’s time to go inside.
There’s no one around, which makes sense once I see what’s hung on the milky walls: oil paintings, in modest wooden frames, of people from my life and landscapes I’ve traveled through—
A sort of greatest hits of my memories.
From afar the details stand out with dazzling clarity, realer than life.
But as I draw near, the images splinter into spiraling thickets that refuse to resolve into any single form, their realism dissolving into noise.
Next is an artifact room with all my lifetime’s major possessions.
Then come interconnected exhibits modeled on my apartments—true-to-life rooms complete with old shirts, pages of my handwriting, and windows on high-quality print-outs of the proper view.
In bluish aquarium light, I wander through galleries of enormous phosphorescent wax dolls with human eyes. One room has all my lovers, another a broad cross-section of ancestors, and a third me at different ages, posed in often embarrassing attitudes.
And here are lucite cages with animals that look and move exactly like my dead pets, and who hop around excitedly and try to speak to me.
I can’t reach them.
Past the cages, a glass elevator with only three buttons: up, down, and possibly a mayday button, bright red and engraved with the screaming face of somebody having a baaaaad trip.
I press the down button.
The elevator descends into a colossal red-lit space with no visible walls.
Below, giant ghosts hustle through each other—everybody from my life, and me a hundred times over.
Except everything’s twisted.
Here I’m always a repulsive sniveling fool.
My family can’t stand me, and my friends mock me behind my back.
Even my pets just scratch and bite and growl.
It’s all so convincing that instantly I can’t imagine anything else.
All my favorite memories—airy, tight gems full of clouds and thumbprints, so alluring they mesmerized—were conceited delusions.
But isn’t it better to perceive the reality?
The truth is an ugly angel.
The elevator plunges through the floor into a hangar-sized replica of my bedroom, with massive versions of the ceiling-spanning zebra-cloth, the deer skull, and all my books.
On the bed, a gargantuan duplicate of me reclines shirtless, soft from sloth and pale as ham; I’m holding up the cast-imprisoned arm and squinting stone-faced at the paralyzed thumb and forefinger, trying to force them to meet.
With the other hand I scratch at my beard, where scaly red paramecium crawl and breed:
The command, inscribed in my DNA, to repair skin that isn’t broken.
Broke-winged, scarlet and peeling, I am slowly boiling in my own inflammation.
The disease coats my insides: it forms scales over my eyes.
My body, inside and out, is the color of hell.
The room below is a colossal replica of an operating theater, with an ensemble of medical personnel clustered around me supine on a table, my eyes open but sedatively deadened, and the silenced arm stretched out and subject to the magic-markerings of a masked man with round spectacles of frosted glass.
Up in the elevator, every muscle I have puckers, and the broken wrist twitches with horrible half-life, like a mind shuddering up out of oblivion.
But something ain’t right.
Why are the surgeons and nurses wearing full-face masks of white latex?
Only their eyes are exposed, with white pupils and black irises that grow and shrink dramatically in reaction to the red radiance pouring off my face.
While a nurse manipulates a round black vacuum to suck away the excess red light, the round-spectacled surgeon dawdles with his prolonged fingers over a tray of nightmarish tools till he reaches a rusty boxcutter.
He strokes its blade lovingly.
Then he snatches it up and starts hacking at my arm with rough jerks and impatient grunts, as if it were a parcel from his home planet.
My arm flowers open meatily and sticks out a tongue of bone.
The bone he deftly tugs out and replaces with a hard-plastic tube.
The tube noses up into my armpit, its wet nostril snuffling deep into my chest.
Into the tube’s other end, the surgeon tweezes finger-sized, sterile-looking white insects.
Just as the elevator sinks into the floor, I see my eviscerated arm flap down limply from the table, and its innards look like urban infrastructure, with layers of earth and concrete, cables and pipes.
The room below contains a shot of the accident, the bike slipping sideways, my terrified face frozen over the pavement, the left arm flung out ahead of my body at a steep angle to the concrete.
I don’t look for long.
The exhibits continue backward through my life. Some rooms have entire streets from Berlin, others only have massive close-up of my face reacting, the elevator sliding down my own cliff-size cheek.
In the time before the accident I wasn’t happy either.
In one room my own enormous skull, cross-sectioned, shows the brain as an eye glancing around frantically. In another my replica astrally projects himself over his own shoulder to rant advice and hiss insults.
Again and again I smack myself in the face and curse.
I write and erase, write and erase.
The paper rips.
Then we reach my twenties, and the omniprescent figure of my wife.
Sometimes she is three times my size, clutching her head and babbling as I hold her and calmly talk. More often she’s tiny, and my imperious replicas treat her with cold contempt.
She’s swollen to fill the entire room and I’m fighting for air in a corner.
Or she’s curled up on the bed, I have a face like a meat grinder and I’m chewing up her hands.
Side by side without body heat, we look in different directions, our faces like tins someone tried and failed to open.
But as we pass backward through cities, apartments, jobs, we begin to thaw, to draw together. Our sleeping forms migrate toward each other. We sketch on the same piece of paper. The sun flies up like a tossed orange while we lie embracing in sleep. Here I am singing one of our favorite songs to her in my ungodly, merciless voice. Holding hands we talk while cities rise and fall on all sides. Letters flap through the air between us.
I hold her face. I whisper to her. I brush her hair back tenderly behind her ears.
Finally there are dozens of rooms dedicated to the first two weeks of our real relationship, her just out of the hospital, barely making it over the border, half-dead on my doorstep on the mountain.
Our hundred-hour conversation in each other’s arms.
For the first time in all the scenes, the essential redness fades from my skin, the muscles unclench, and here, at the beginning, it really does look as if I might escape my own inflamed unhappiness, down into a hidden internal corridor, into the describable light of an entirely new way of being.
She’s standing by her suitcases, dressed in all black, and so young.
Then she’s gone, and I’m folded back into my own private flames, scratching obsessively, washing dishes in fry restaurants and at night filling notebooks with hilariously bad bullshit, in public thumping my rubber chest and rambling loudly, bullying my friends with books I hadn’t actually read.
Scenes of university and school take over. My enormous form slumps at a schooldesk over a hidden book, taking up most of the room, so that only the elbows and arms of other students half-emerge from the distant walls.
Quickly shrinking back through the years, squirming under varying bowl cuts and hair colors, I don’t essentially change, always refusing to listen and responding with the insolence of supreme contempt.
Nothing that bad ever happens, yet I’m always miserable.
All the way back in kindergarten, I hide with head in hands for two days straight, crying, refusing to talk or interact, having re-invented non-violent resistance in the hopes of getting out of being educated.
I’d raged when I found out about school.
Why force me out of my privacy to spend time around kids who would only make fun of me, learning shit I didn’t care about?
I’d show them. I’d never give in.
I’d always hold myself apart.
Those feelings never left.
I clutched them tightly.
School was a prison.
Work prison after prison.
And then would come the final prison.
The blank and endless one.
Four years old, I watch my mother double-check all the windows, having moved to the boondocks because of her obsessive fear of child abduction, only to find herself single, broke, with three young children, amid yokels who regarded her accent with suspicion.
Then my father appears.
It’s an outdoor scene with fake sunlight.
My mother is crying on the steps.
His pick-up is filled with boxes.
Dad’s crouching and talking to me.
He manages to sound both sweet and enraged.
He’s telling me I’m man of the house now.
That I have to be tough, and never let anyone get the better of me.
I’m red-nosed and crying. I don’t understand what’s happening.
Dad’s telling me it’s okay to cry in front of him—
But that if I’m ever weak in front of others, they’d make fun of me, and I’d be everyone’s dog.
I wish I could be around, he says, to teach you how to fight.
After that the scenes grow indistinct.
The people deform into bobbleheads with caricatured expressions, then blotches of color blaring nonsense.
The elevator finally halts in reddish darkness.
Far below, half-obscured, is a sort of hilly, bulbous landscape.
Rocking gently, the landscape slowly drifts up through dark currents, gradually resolving into an enormous fetus with eyeballs like white orbs wrapped in cloth, its umbilical cord noosed around its neck…
The elevator doors don’t open. Pressing the down button does nothing, and the scream-embossed button makes me uneasy.
There’s no way to go but back up.
The return trip is much quicker.
The elevator rockets up through thirty years, through the hellish hangar of spectral anti-people, the ground level, and past, bursting into a vast, airy room, prodigiously sunlit, with sweeping cloud formations under a stone roof.
Here all the people from my life have been transfigured into mystical, prismatic versions, like my life cast in 3D stained-glass windows.
But I only get a brief, aching glance before the elevator passes through the ceiling and divides into thousands of elevators, then millions, then billions, with my mind splitting along with it into a billion minds as the branching elevators pass through all the possible lives I could lead, weaving a massive braid of realities like the myriad-stranded DNA of a higher-dimensional self.
One by one the separate elevators with their separate selves hurtle into black, until the only one left follows my last self alive in a timeline where I contract a terminal illness and volunteer for experiments that transfer my consciousness into a computer.
This self survives thousands of years and ends up venturing into deep space, outfitted as a sort of sentient spaceship, and heading toward an alien beacon repeating an incomprehensible message.
For millions of years I journey through dusty emptiness.
Only a few galaxies from the beacon, I’m ambushed by a swirling metal being that emerges from the sun.
The elevator door opens on the museum roof.
All the galaxy, a half-stirred sauce of diamonds, spirals around me.
The moon is huge, as big as an eye peering in a jar at an ant.
To either side Mars and Venus are red and green apples of discord, so bright their brightness is a noise.
Far below glint the dwarfy lights of the city, like fire in mud.
But the roof isn’t empty.
There’s a strange one-story construction that looks cut out from a larger building, with its wires and pipes neatly sliced.
It has a single tall window.
I soft-shoe over and peer in.
Inside is my kitchen.
There’s a double of me slouched with crossed arms at my desk, sullenly staring at an empty page.
But he’s not quite me.
In fact, he’s not even human.
He’s a glass-skulled lizardman with an itchy purple brain.
Suddenly he shifts and meets my gaze.
He has bitter red evil eyes.
I’m already backing away in horror.
I sprint into the elevator and jam the down button. Nothing happens.
Holding my breath, weirdly nervous, I hit the screaming red mayday button.
Behind me a disembodied door blasts open.
My lizard double appears, brandishing the only sharp knife I own—a toothy breadknife.
He hisses what sounds like a question.
I put up both hands in surrender and start apologizing, stepping out toward him.
The elevator door snicks closed behind me.
He screams something garbled and begins advancing on me.
With every step he takes, I take one back.
Why am I like this?
Why do I always do this to myself?
Behind me, a 100,000-foot drop to earth.
In front of me, my reptile self jabbering and flourishing a breadknife, bent on murdering me.
But I’ve never seen anyone so feverish, so angry and confused.
He looks like he’s about to cry. Even the knife tip is trembling.
So I take a deep breath. I relax my face, my throat, my shoulders.
I open my eyes wide and show him my palms.
“It’s okay,” I say gently, and take a step forward.
He shrieks and waves the knife, but doesn’t move.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” I whisper.
Already more human, he stares bewildered at me. The knife tip drifts down.
“You don’t have to be afraid.”
I watch my face twist off his body, shake loose from its roots, and billow skyward on a cauliflower of steam.
My face falls up, fluttering ribbons, a jellyfish flying to nirvana.