A balding man entering a tavern, nothing unusual, but a bump on top of his left ear caught my attention, reminding me of Forge. Could it have been my enigmatic classmate from decades ago? I kept walking, remembering Forge, a lonely figure who seemed to inhabit his mind but not the rest of his body, speaking to himself, I imagined, in a language no one else would have understood, the bump at the highest point of his ear like a stubby antenna.
I turned around and went back to the tavern, curious to confirm my tentative identification. We had never spoken as classmates but had exchanged a nod or two, Forge not seeking yet not completely indifferent to recognition from others. The mystery of Forge had stayed with me, and I imagined an unnamed affinity as I recalled my distance from my fellow classmates and their interests. I wondered what he would have said if we’d spoken.
I entered the tavern and saw him at an unlit table against a wall. I approached, not knowing what I intended, if I would tell him my name and ask him for his. He looked at me, his right hand on a glass of beer, an air of being lost in thought, and he gestured vaguely at the seat opposite him. I sat, trusting my sense that this man must be Forge.
“All my life I’ve been listening for a voice inside me,” Forge began without prelude of an introduction. “Not the voice I’m speaking with now or the noisy voices that clutter one’s mind, but the voice beneath the other voices.”
A server passed. Forge pointed at his beer and then at me, and the server nodded.
“Only that voice can tell the story inside me,” he continued, “the story beneath the one lived by my body day to day. On the other hand, who is this person who listens for the deeper voice? Am I that agent or do I secretly reside in the deeper voice? What is the true agenda of the listening agent, the person I think of as the nearest approximation of me I can call upon? Do I prevent myself, out of fear and habit, from hearing the deeper voice and in that way suppress its nature?”
Forge then lapsed into gibberish, looking as if he understood perfectly what he was gibbering. Even when I could understand what he said he seemed to be speaking more to himself than to me.
“My life took a turn for the worse when Aria departed,” he said, returning to the English language as the server came with my beer. “We’d been married for over thirty years, and since her departure I’ve been more disoriented than usual. As I shave, which happens occasionally, I find myself staring into the mirror and saying or thinking: “Who are you?” I emphasize each word equally, undecided where the weight of the question should strike hardest. Does the question imply that the image is a different person than the one speaking? What do I expect myself to answer? I can come up with nothing convincing to say, unsure if the speaker is addressing the inner person trapped inside the body or the body itself, which in its lumbering way carries the inner person around. I experience the body as a nagging stranger, always interrupting my thinking process with its needs and discomforts. I could well be asking the body to defend its presence, but what could I imagine it would reply? All the body knows is to crave survival, an instinct that kicks up its head at the slightest provocation or threat. Soon after the divorce became final I stood in the entryway of a bustling restaurant and saw a man standing to my right, staring at me intently. I was taken aback, struck by his rudeness. Was I in disarray? Were my pants unzipped? As I began to speak to him I saw my lips move and only then realized I’d been staring at my own reflection in the mirror. I walked out the door, a mental image of Aria following me, asking me to identify myself, her question a challenge I could not meet.”
He dropped his eyes and briefly paused.
“She must have seen me as a project,” he went on after clearing his throat, “a person she could save from self-inflicted oblivion. Why did she care? Perhaps she saw something redeeming in my quest, but after many years she could not sustain her belief that I was redeemable. Early on, she liked to listen to me talk, but she became weary of my lack of progress. I remained the same person rather than a new and improved version. I implicitly rejected her commitment and partnership, she said, and I could not refute that assertion, having also rejected my partnership with my body. Aria believed strongly in the here and now. ‘We can endure anything for a second,’ she often told me, ‘so we should focus on the present moment.’ She lost patience with my habit of wandering through inner hallways and doorways unrelated to the here and now. I was drifting without a map, she said, and with no intention of creating one. I had disengaged from my body and the tangible world around us, where people suffer from illness, hunger, abuse, war, and their own limitations. I held myself prisoner within my limitations, wallowing in them, she lamented, and the voice I thought I was searching for was not to be found, though perhaps something like it could be created by my mind through continuous effort. It infuriated her that I would not engage in a debate with her on issues so important to me, preferring to sigh and lid my eyes instead of formulating a coherent response. I had no coherent response, she accused me, because I was an incoherent person. She branded me as hopeless and declared, her face turning deep red, that she was leaving me. She had mistakenly believed in me for too long, sympathizing with my illusory journey and hoping I would somehow wake up and find a more fulfilling way to live. I was searching for a disembodied voice that could only tell a boring, lifeless tale inhabited by a void. If I ever reached my destination she hoped I would see it as the cul-de-sac I’d been creeping toward for decades, though she wasn’t prepared to wait another ten or twenty years to see if that would happen. She wished me luck in achieving this paradoxical awakening, practically jumping up and down in her frustration with me, and she closed with this definitive statement: ‘I just can’t take you anymore.’”
He took a moment to catch his breath, his mouth hanging open to take in more air.
“I kept asking myself if she was right, and I felt her absence more than I’d felt her presence for some time. For months, all I could hear inside myself were yearnings for her to return, and I felt like a perishable mass breaking apart. Despite my yearnings, I have not changed. I sometimes head to the woods and sit under a tree, trying to release myself. I sit there for hours with my eyes closed, feeling bugs on my skin and hearing the footfalls of small animals rustling leaves nearby. I accept the surrounding and inner noise and at the same time let it drift away. Aria had given me hints of her discontent for years. I seemed less and less real to her, she complained. I was not a flesh-and-blood person, she said to me more than once, and she facetiously remarked that I might one day disappear into myself and she alone would notice I’d gone. She said she couldn’t imagine me ever climbing a fence, a comment that seemed to have profound meaning to her. I did not tell her that when I was young I climbed many fences and was no better for it now. The thing I loved most about Aria, going a long way back, was her distinctive voice. Her life came through in her sound, all the way up from the innermost part of her. But, slowly, her voice diminished in resonance, and living with me, I cannot doubt, gradually did that to her. I fell out of love with her voice while holding myself responsible for damaging it. Maybe now that we lead separate lives her voice can regain its former sound. A fundamental difference between us was and remains that she believes she knows who she is and that her life embodies her identity. I view identifying myself as an ongoing endeavor and regard the everyday life of the body as symptomatic of the person. As I saw it, the person she thought of as herself was a shallow and narrow version of her, and as she saw it, the voice I listened for was a delusion and, therefore, nowhere to be heard.”
Forge lapsed into gibberish again, his facial expression the same as it had been. Then suddenly he stopped, his mouth moving as if chewing the shape of an idea.
“Possibly breaking apart is something I need to free me,” he resumed, “to sever my ties with old patterns. This everyday language we use shapes and controls us if we let it, tying us to the tangible world. With a great singer’s voice it’s not the words that make the voice great. It’s what’s in the voice, and tone is not a strong enough word for this quality. The voice is brought forth by the body but could be a portal to something beyond the physical world. A listener may well wonder why I should keep talking if I distrust everyday language. Most of the thoughts I’ve given air to have burdened me for a long time, and no one I’ve encountered has been interested enough to listen to them. In my early years with Aria, my mind labored to emerge from the muck of twisted feelings and rationales, and she was tolerant of my course until she reached her limit. She later turned a deaf ear whenever I commenced verbally rambling, as she put it, labeling my efforts and accounts of them as vain pursuits. Perhaps I needed a relative stranger with no specific intent to uncork the bottled-up feelings that have been struggling to emerge, especially since losing Aria. Not to imply I’ve achieved notable clarity, far from it, but an urge to vent has been satisfied. And another purpose has been served. Ever since I can remember I have seen myself as being at a loss, my waywardness and inability to clearly express my longing branding me in my own mind as dubious. Rather than thinking of myself as at a loss I can now see myself as breaking apart from the tangible world. What will be left when this process of breaking apart is complete? An orifice attempting to speak? Will I then hear the sound, possibly a chant whose depths would ring familiar to monks, expressing an harmonic awareness that will put me at rest? I thank you for your attention and hope you can trust that it has not been without purpose. I cannot say why, but your face seemed known to me at once, and I hope your endurance implies a kindred spirit.”
His eyes took me in, though his face was oddly blank. I had questions and wondered if he had answers or would care to indulge me in a conversation, but I could not think clearly before visiting the restroom. I motioned toward it, my voice having trouble rising from my throat. He seemed to understand.
When I came back I found our table empty and wiped clean, our bill paid. I rushed out the door and saw no sign of him anywhere about.
In the days ahead I came to believe that Forge’s words had stirred a neglected part of me. I checked at the tavern, hoping to see him at a table, and whenever I went out I looked for him.
Reading the paper one morning I ran across an article about a program at the art museum. A line at the bottom said: “For more information, contact Aria Forge.” I phoned the museum and was put through to her.
“Are you Eb?” she asked when I told her I was an acquaintance of Forge’s.
“How could you know that?”
“He sent me a note to let me know he’d be away and I shouldn’t worry about him. He said he ran into you, and your name came to him several days later. Talking to you gave him some direction, he said, but I’ve heard similar claims from him before. This time he wants to leave the life he knows behind, to break himself apart and go somewhere where he’ll be internally naked. His note said he won’t be back till he hears what he’s listening for, and if he doesn’t he won’t come back.”
“Do you know where he is?”
“To him, it wouldn’t make sense to tell me.”
“He mentioned chanting monks.”
“He loves referring to chanting monks, but he has no religious beliefs. His two best qualities, in my opinion, are that he knows he doesn’t know much and he doesn’t want to be a follower. The idea of being part of any kind of flock makes him squirm. The noise of beating wings, as he puts it, would distract his hearing. You make sense of what he’s getting at with the beating wings, if you care to. Another thing he doesn’t want is anyone following him. If you think he’s somehow turned you inside out and spoken to a deeper Eb he would advise you against being mesmerized by him. I’d agree with that advice, and you may already know he has doubts about where he’s headed. I would say that where he’s headed doesn’t exist, making it impossible for anyone to get there. If you think you learned something from him, be satisfied and move on with your life. I’ve moved on, and I feel much more internally naked than when I was with him. You cannot live in accord with the world if you follow his example.”
“If you hear from him, will you let me know?”
“I’d rather not. He could be contagious.”
I gave her my email anyway and imagined her pretending to write it down.
“Don’t listen to him,” she said and with those words ended the call.
I muttered to her and pictured her muttering to herself, annoyed by memories of Forge.
I continue to hear their voices, neither silencing the other, and through their words the question lingers, when I look in the mirror and even in my sleep: “Who are you?” I listen quietly for an answer, still struggling to understand who is asking and who is being asked the question.