My name is Theo Abelson, and I live in a gray middle-class house on a street of gray middle-class houses in central Connecticut, and I’m terrified of death, not so much dying but what comes after, the nothingness, the eternity, not because I’ll feel it all but exactly because I won’t, because I won’t feel anything, because I will never think again about music and how beautiful it is, about the trees and the way they move in the summer wind, about the scent of thyme, or time, as the case may be, because I will never again feel the pain and joy and ugly wonder of life, because there will be nothing and nothing is .
I watch from the couch as Mom puts the fish in the pan. My eyes shut fast and hard, then open again. I have Tourette syndrome, and my tics flare up when I’m feeling stressed or navigating a big transition. They’re flaring up now, not that it has to mean anything, but it probably does, because recently I’ve been thinking a lot about college, about how college means the end of childhood, even the death of childhood, and that scares me almost as much as death itself. I’ve also been thinking a lot about my gayness, which is what I call it, because something about “homosexuality” sounds trite and Reagan-y.
I’m terrified of my gayness, maybe even more than death, not because I can’t accept myself but exactly because I can, because I can and I fear others may not, because I’m 17 and lonely and what if I always am, what if nobody wants me, what if at Yale I walk around campus, masked, a mouthless nobody, and nobody knows that I’m me, and nobody touches me or shows me how to have sex, because I’m terrified, really, not of my gayness but of its implications, of the possibility of being solitary, of being unknown, of knowing nobody, because nobody is .
The cod sizzles in the pan. Mom throws in some preserved lemon and a few sprigs of rosemary, then sits down at the kitchen table and reads about the virus, unconsciously picking her nails. I blink and blink again, then tense my neck and breathe out forcefully.
Mom isn’t French, but she’s a French teacher, and she raised me speaking French, so I’m sort of a French heritage speaker, but also not really, since nobody in my family is French. My French accent is impeccable and I can understand anything, but my vocabulary is limited and I forget simple words when I most need them. Mom tells me I just need to read more in French because Mom seems to think reading solves all problems, but I think I’m probably just stupid, at least with French, because I’m quite smart when it comes to other things, like math.
I think I’m good at math. To be fair, I don’t really know whether I’m good at it, because I’ve never met anyone else good at math, except for Abhinav, but he graduated three years ago and I only talked to him once, in line for the musical, which I believe was “Shrek” that year, or maybe “Fiddler on the Roof,” I can’t remember and it doesn’t matter.
I’m either good at math or just obsessed with it, or I guess both, but more likely one or the other, because I’m usually obsessed only with the things I can’t do, like Portuguese, although I guess you speak Portuguese, you don’t do Portuguese, unless you’re having sex with a Portuguese person, but that’s not what I meant, at least this time.
The house smells like fish. I ask Mom if she wants to play a quick game before dinner. I don’t really want to play a game, but it’s a good way to pass the time. I’m good at math, but I’m also good at procrastinating, unbelievably good, so good that I’ve had projects I want to start for days or months or years that I manage to never start. Right now I’m trying to avoid packing for college, because I want to pack but I also don’t, because I know college will always be better in my head, nebulous, undefined, untouchable.
Mom wants to play a quick game before dinner, or maybe I shouldn’t make that assumption, maybe it’s better just to say that she agrees to play a game, because I proposed the game and even I don’t want to play a game. She comes into the living room and smiles at me with that tired-Mom smile. Mom is tired because she’s teaching French online and because she’s nervous about the virus and because she cooks all the meals and washes all the laundry because I’m lazy and always mean to help her but never do.
Mom is an atheist Ashkenazi Jew who says things like ganza mishpucha and ungapatchka. Yiddish is another language I want to learn because I’m Jewish but all I know is oy vey and ganza mishpucha and ungapatchka and spiel and those sorts of things. Mom has curly poofy gray hair that she’s sad is gray but she doesn’t dye it because sometimes middle-aged women come up to her on the street and tell her she’s so brave.
Dad is also an atheist but is not an Ashkenazi Jew. Dad was raised Catholic and has a migraine, not that the two are related, or maybe they are, but either way Dad is upstairs in the queen bed curled up like a dead cod. Dad teaches English and always tells me that I need to read some James Joyce, which I’ve never done, but I think I know enough about James Joyce, like that he was Irish. Sometimes I feel guilty because I’ve never read James Joyce, but then I think about other things, like Madrid, which is where I want to live when I’m older. It’s easy not to think about James Joyce when you’re thinking about Madrid.
Mom is here in the living room and still has the tired-Mom smile on her face, because it’s only been a second since she came in. I can think about a lot of things in a second, and sometimes I have to remind myself to focus on the real world because it’s easy to wander off in my brain. I spend a lot of time thinking up different plans for my future and imagining different possibilities, which is interesting but also sad, since I can’t live all of those different lives and soon I’m going to have to choose one and I have no idea how. I can’t be a composer and writer and activist and linguist and diplomat and mathematician who speaks French and Spanish and Arabic and Portuguese and Greek and Catalan and Basque and Quechua and lives in Madrid and Barcelona and Paris and New York and Tunis and Buenos Aires. Or maybe I could, but I wouldn’t be very happy.
Mom and I take out our phones and start playing the game neither of us wants to play, which involves building train lines from one assigned city to another assigned city and earning points. There’s a grackle nest outside in the bush filled presumably with baby grackles, which are very loud, and the game has music that’s really twangy and all Western-like, and I’m building trains and listening to the little bird screams and banjo plucks, so naturally I start thinking about other things, like how I don’t make any sense.
I don’t make any sense because I spend hours dreaming about living abroad and learning languages and embracing adventure, and yet the thought of starting college reduces me to a tic-ridden lump. I don’t make any sense because I hate my tics, I want them to disappear more than I want anything else, even money, and yet I’ve spent so much time with Tourette’s that I can’t quite imagine myself without it. I can imagine everything, cities and songs and stories, and yet I can’t imagine a universe in which my eyes don’t twitch. I can imagine a universe in which I have a good nose, or a universe in which I hate music, and yet I can’t imagine a universe in which I blink at regular intervals. In which I’m normal. And to be clear, I really like music, by which I mean I love music, by which I mean I’m absolutely obsessed with music and constantly hear random melodies and harmonies in my head that I have to get out by aggressively improvising at the piano. And I have a really bad nose. So clearly there’s something different about my tics.
Sometimes I try to remember a time when I didn’t have tics, and I can’t. I know they started when I was 8 or 9, but they’ve become so central, so normal, that my most vivid memories all feature Tourettic contortions in one way or another. The first day of middle school, sitting in science class and trying to keep still as a burning desire to jerk my head to the left spread up through my neck. The night before music camp, burying my face in a pillow to stop myself from violently biting my lip. The first day of high school, running to the bathroom after orchestra to let out the furious stream of tics I’d bottled in for 50 minutes. I guess maybe I don’t hate my tics. I hate what they do to me. How they leave me exhausted. How they make my muscles sore and my skin raw. Sometimes the physical effects are so bad that I have to ice my eyes or my neck. Sometimes I get all swollen and puffy. Once a man on the street asked me if I had a black eye and if I needed him to call somebody.
I drag my last two train tracks from Boston to New York and end the game. Mom goes upstairs to check on Dad and I think about the baby grackles, who should really stop screaming if they’re that hungry, to conserve energy, and also because it’s annoying.
Mom and Dad murmur about something, not sensually or anything like that; it’s a mundane murmuring, a murmuring about milk or medicine. Then Mom comes downstairs and fast-walks into the kitchen, because I think she’s forgotten about the cod, and looks in the pan and says some vulgar things, and I think maybe I should go help her, but then this idea pops into my head, and it’s been popping into my head for days, and it’s so pretty, so I just listen to it for a little while, listen to the chords and the harmonies being played on a piano, and I remember the chords and promise I’ll write this piece at some point, soon, I’ll do it soon, maybe now, but no, not now, because then I take out my phone and look up Amharic and start reading about it, because Ethiopia seems like a cool place, I think, and the grackles outside are still making noise, but the banjo music isn’t, which makes sense, since we’re not playing the game, and the hot humid air fades into something cooler and duller as I sit on the green couch in the living room in July.
For dinner we have charred cod.
I’m in bed. Mom and Dad are talking about something in the other room and I try to hear what they’re saying but then I realize I really don’t want to hear, because what if they’re talking about condoms or something, I’d rather not know. So I close my eyes and block out the noise and try to stop the voice in my head, which just keeps talking, but after a little while I finally manage to relax, at which point my mind goes quiet and I fall asleep and then
Il fait chaud dans la forêt. Les petites salamandres transpirent au-dessous de sus bouts de bois. Moi, je n’en ai pas. Un bout de madera, je veux dire. Pas une salamandre. Donc je reste au-dessus de tout ça, au-dessus de l’au-dessous.
Midnight. Awake again. A fly on the dresser. The angry glow of the streetlamp cutting through the window and into my eye. (Et il faisait calor. Et il faisait chaud.) I’m too hot and too cold and too alert and too tired. Mom snores in the other room and a cat screams somewhere down the street. Was that a dream? About the salamanders?
I don’t think I’m dreaming now because my tics are back. I think I’m awake. Ten fingers, five on each hand. Sometimes in dreams there are 11. For some reason.
What else can we think about? Climbing a tree in a beautiful meadow with some hot guy who’s also somehow extremely intelligent and remarkably empathetic. Flying to some city that’s off-the-grid enough to be cool and woke but not unstable enough to be dangerous.
Aha! Flying to some city that’s off-the-grid enough to be cool and woke but not unstable enough to be dangerous and finding a hot guy who’s also somehow extremely intelligent and remarkably empathetic and climbing a tree with him in a beautiful meadow just outside the unnamed sort-of-off-the-grid city. Perfect.
My heart rate is pretty high.
G flat major (no fifth), B flat major. Up to D major, down to G flat major (no fifth). B flat major. Repeat. Lower range of piano. Tracing the notes of an augmented triad can feel so haunting, so nostalgic. It reminds me of something from when I was little, something from not now.
At first I thought the third chord would be D flat major, but that was too easy, too predictable. The D natural is just jarring enough. I think I’ve found my progression. Now I need to figure out what happens, because a progression isn’t a piece and a piece isn’t a progression.
Why not, though? Why not write a three-chord piece, a piece with three chords and nothing more? Why isn’t that enough? There’s something to be said for simplicity, bare-bones music, music that is just the outlines.
(summer is coming
the sound of fireworks in the night
families burning meat a motorcycle race)
(Et il faisait chaud. Et il faisait calor.) It’s a short tree, stubby, with lots of branches. Perfect for climbing. Sedges and birds, lots of them. Bobolinks, blackbirds, sparrows, rails, bitterns. Hot guy is shirtless, for some reason. I climb the tree faster than I should be able to and look out over the flat land. Where am I? Botswana, maybe; the land is dotted with elephants. Is that too boring? Too safari-y? Maybe Eritrea?
G flat major (no fifth), B flat major. Up to D major, down to G flat major (no fifth). B flat major. Repeat. Lower range of piano. The fly on the dresser takes off. Buzz buzz buzz. Does it know it’s going to die someday?
(Et il faisait chaud. Et il faisait chaud.)
Come on, come on, go back to sleep. Stop trying to remember your dream. It was just a bunch of words. Salamander, forest, hot, rocks, above, below. Words, schmerds.
These new tics are starting to get on my nerves. Before, sniffing, that I could deal with. But blinking? Blink. Blink. Blink blink. No, hold the lids shut for longer. Until they feel stuck to your eyes. Blinkkkk. Blinkkkk blinkkkk. That’s it.
No, you can’t stop, silly. You have to keep going. Blinkkkk blinkkkk blinkkkk. Ouch. Again.
No, no; think about the guy and the tree. Think about Eritrea. Wouldn’t you much rather blink? No, I want to think about Eritrea. Not your choice. Or why not both? Blinkkkk blinkkkk. Blinkkkk. I’m sitting at the top of the tree and the cool (blinkkkk) winter breeze blows beads of sweat off my (G flat major no (blinkkkk) fifth) forehead, because I’m au-dessus de l’au-dessous, above the stagnant parts, above the salamanders and the (blinkkkk). Would you stop? Blinkkkk blinkkkk. I’m in the tree, remember? In the (blinkkkk) tree. G flat major (no fifth).
(Y il faisait chaud. Et il faisait calor.)
What is going on with this forest (G flat major no fifth)? Why blinkkk is it
(the fly lands on my arm and I
In the morning my eyes fill with what Mom calls eye goobies. Those yellow crumbs. I guess it makes sense that the more I blink, the more they build up, kind of like how the more you grate a block of cheese, the more cheese you get, kind of, I think. I go into the bathroom and run the water and scrape off my eyes, and it smells like eggs and bacon cooking, which is objectively exciting, I guess, from a nourishment perspective, but right now I’m not hungry, and something about that smell makes me vaguely nauseous, or maybe angry.
Sometimes I try to describe my tics to myself and realize I can’t. Calling them twitches is too easy, and besides, they’re not that, they’re not involuntary or unconscious. I make the choice to tic, but it’s the choice to make that choice that’s involuntary. So maybe Tourette syndrome is like twitches once removed, like Anastasia, who is my first cousin once removed, I think, or maybe my second cousin, because I’ve never understood the difference.
Downstairs I lie on the couch and Mom wraps some ice in a paper towel and puts the paper towel over my eyes. It’s cold. I could have gotten the ice myself, wrapped it up myself, but it’s been a few months since my tics have been this bad and I feel scared and small. Sometimes it’s nice to be cared for like you’re little, like you’re not going off to college, like you’re not close to the death of your childhood. I’m thinking about the fact that last night, before I woke up and thought about the future and death and men and got all nervous, I dreamed in French for the first time, and I’m wondering what that means. There was a little Spanish too, I think, because sometimes I mix them without meaning to, and now I’m realizing that the house still smells like bacon, that fatty metallic smell of burning flesh, and I’m getting queasier, but it’s okay, I manage to calm myself down by thinking about nicer smells, like the smell of the ocean and the smell of a forest after the rain and the smell of gasoline, which some people hate but I love.
There’s this feeling I get sometimes, often when my tics are acting up, and I’m feeling it now. I’ve thought a lot about how to describe the feeling, because I really don’t know how to describe it, but I hate when people use not being able to describe something as a description of the thing, so I need to be able to say something more than nothing.
It’s a feeling deep inside my chest, somewhere in my rib cage, and I often mistake it for nostalgia, but I think it’s actually the opposite, a sort of yearning for something I can’t have, at least not yet. Just like Dad knows when he’s getting a migraine, I can tell when my tics are coming on before they do by tracking the intensity of this feeling. It’s completely incapacitating and deeply horrible and yet somehow wonderful. It’s everything I want to do and everywhere I want to travel and everyone I want to meet smushed into a marble that lodges itself in my lungs. My tics flare up when things change, and when my tics flare up I want things to change. My tics hate change and want change. They tell me to do nothing and then insist that I do everything. Maybe they don’t mean to stop me, maybe they don’t mean to hurt me, maybe they just get so excited when things are changing that they don’t know what to do with themselves. Maybe they just get overwhelmed sometimes.
So the little marble is a reminder that I have a lot of things left to experience and that those things are worth waiting for. But that can be hard to stomach when I’m lying on the green couch in the living room of my mid-sized Connecticut house with an ice pack on my face and this idea in my head, these three chords that keep dancing through the holes in my thoughts, echoing, nagging. G flat major, B flat major, D major.
I’ve always loved music that makes me feel nostalgic, but now I don’t think it’s nostalgia that I feel, it’s this feeling, the rib cage feeling. I have no interest in remembering things. I just want to do new things, different things, things outside of this town and state and country. Sometimes Mom starts talking about what I was like as a baby and I don’t listen, because something about acknowledging that I was once small and slimy scares me. I read stories about dementia that are meant to make me cry and I never cry. Forgetting doesn’t scare me as much as dying, and dying doesn’t scare me as much as not doing things. New things, different things, things outside of this town and state and country. I desperately want to do new things.
But for now I’m on the couch with my eyes closed and I’m smelling the forest after the rain. The smell is one of my favorites, although it’s not much of anything. The marble sits in my lungs and I listen as Mom cleans up the breakfast I didn’t eat.