Self Stor­age

The Iowa Review - - CONTENTS - Jen­nifer Stock

One day I sit in a rental car out­side Tuck-it-away Stor­age in Vine­gar Hill, Brook­lyn, and sketch a func­tion on a pa­per nap­kin. I work as a math tu­tor, so I pos­sess that level of nerdi­ness where oc­ca­sion­ally I’ll do math for fun. I’m doo­dling the vol­ume of my fam­ily’s stuff as a func­tion of time to fig­ure out what kind of graph best mod­els our col­lapse. It’s a piece­wise func­tion, with hor­i­zon­tal seg­ments de­scend­ing to­ward the x-axis like un­even steps in an old house. In­ter­mixed, the oc­ca­sional ver­tig­i­nous drop of a de­creas­ing ex­po­nen­tial curve. There’s the long plateau of child­hood, re­plete with bour­geois con­ve­nience: a Tu­dor home with a sep­a­rate li­brary and rose gar­den, a back­yard fringed with woods, for pri­vacy. Sub­ur­ban prop­erty traded for a small house in the coun­try. House traded for a spa­cious as­sisted liv­ing apart­ment, then a tiny as­sisted liv­ing apart­ment. Fi­nally, a cof­fin, urns, and stor­age space. A lit­tle uptick to show how the stor­age space swells, be­comes two, a list­less rise to show my fam­ily’s rem­nants stuffed into the gloom of over­priced New York City stor­age. Look­ing at the nap­kin, I see my graph gives a clean, clin­i­cal air to a di­min­ish­ing cor­ri­dor— proves, QED, the claus­tro­pho­bia of loss. I crum­ple the nap­kin and en­ter the stor­age space, a win­dow­less mono­lith bor­der­ing the Brook­lyn Navy Yard. Tuck-it-away looms ten sto­ries over a Con Ed sub­sta­tion, which sur­rounds it with elec­tric hum­ming, a halo of in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion. Si­t­u­ated within the over­looked hi­ero­glyph­ics that power the city, on an iso­lated stretch of the Brook­lyn water­front, it looks like a ruin, its un­tended walls of con­crete framed by sky. In this mi­croneigh­bor­hood, only two snip­pets of text are vis­i­ble: an enor­mous “Self-stor­age” sign, ren­dered in chip­ping paint on the top sto­ries of the stor­age space, and a bill­board lofted above the sub­sta­tion en­trance gate which reads, with meta­phys­i­cal flour­ish, “0 months with­out a lost time ac­ci­dent.” Through the years, the same at­ten­dant has been sit­ting in the hall­way of Tuck-it-away on a busted of­fice chair, its lin­ing erupt­ing in foam trails which sway as he twists from side to side. I pace past him to my rental, #5A19. The lights are on timers, and more than once, I’ve been plunged into stu­pe­fy­ing dark­ness while ar­rang­ing the boxes I’ve brought to store. The boxes pile high, and after a while, I’m no longer sure what I’m stor­ing, but I bring the things that are left and stack them into high

col­umns. These are my fam­ily’s rem­nants. I squir­rel them away, these last bits and pieces of a life I can no longer bear to look at, but which I also can­not bring my­self to give away.

II. In the last year of your life, you write in shaky hand­writ­ing in your jour­nal: Death is not our busi­ness –Epicte­tus. When I find this frag­ment, I see the poise of your un­sta­ble hand. I sense your sys­tem reel­ing un­der the pres­sure of im­prob­a­ble sur­vival. I see you fir­ing doc­tors when they tell you how long you can ex­pect to live. I can die per­fectly well on my own, you tell them, I’m hir­ing you to help me fo­cus on liv­ing. I sense you with Epicte­tus’s epi­gram de­fi­antly un­rolling a bril­liant stan­dard. But now you’re dead, and my body spasms with panic at­tacks. I want to ar­gue with you, tell you to put down the god­damn flag, tell you that death is cer­tainly our busi­ness. I look up all of your frag­ments. I stalk your Epicte­tus stump, which leads me to Epi­curean phi­los­o­phy and then fi­nally to Lu­cretius, who riffs on “death is not our busi­ness” in book three of On the Na­ture of Things. I read Lu­cretius and re­al­ize you have led me to a book that will live in my body. You are coach­ing me to ex­am­ine swerve. Lu­cretius is in­ter­ested in clouds, storms, sex, frost, craters, snow, and thirst. He’s ob­sessed with rest­less­ness and change. He sweeps away su­per­sti­tion and re­li­gion with a calm ap­ti­tude rem­i­nis­cent of The Wolf re­mov­ing blood from the car in Pulp Fic­tion. Lu­cretius’s pre­cepts, circa first cen­tury BC: the uni­verse will die, just as we will. There’s no such thing as an af­ter­life. The gods ex­ist, but they don’t give a shit about us. Atoms knock into one an­other by chance. This shouldn’t make us un­easy. If we lose cer­tain sto­ries, the en­crust­ings of myth and re­li­gion, we’ll ap­proach re­al­ity in a ra­tio­nal way. We’ll lose our anx­i­ety; death will not be our busi­ness. In­stead, we’ll ap­pre­ci­ate the thing-ness of things. Lu­cretius is un­sym­pa­thetic about grief; he says my grief for you is ir­ra­tional. Watch­ing things and peo­ple pass along into their next, un­rec­og­niz­able state is no cause for con­cern. All mat­ter needs to be re­cy­cled. Par­ti­cles cease­lessly ac­cu­mu­late and dis­solve in a “con­stant con­fu­sion of in­ter­spaces, cour­ses, in­ter­lace­ments, weights, im­pacts, con­cur­rences, and mo­tions.” Wish­ing for you or my­self or any­one not to die is gorg­ing one­self with life, in­stead of “re­tir­ing from the feast of life like a sat­is­fied guest.” He points out that you are not hurt by your non-be­ing, and to be­come up­set about what doesn’t cause harm is il­log­i­cal. At­tach­ment is in­com­men­su­rate with flux. He coun­sels to get over grief; fo­cus on liv­ing.

I read com­pul­sively, hop­ing that Lu­cretius’s in­sights will make me feel bet­ter about your atomic re­as­sort­ment. But he’s ask­ing me to seek com­fort at the im­pen­e­tra­ble, mi­cro­scopic level of change. Lu­cretius is bril­liant, yet he’s also as­trin­gent. I don’t want to think of you as mat­ter. I can’t turn you into an al­lur­ing list. He’s a well-in­ten­tioned teacher, and I’m noth­ing if not a well-in­ten­tioned stu­dent. Nev­er­the­less, my spir­its strug­gle against con­stric­tion. My mind might just be pre­cisely the “leaky ves­sel” of which he warns, un­will­ing to ac­cept things as they are.

III. Many morn­ings I for­get my dreams, but the im­ages lodge in my body, use­less, in kinks and moods that cast the day like a grayscale anatom­i­cal draw­ing. The skin stretches across my tem­ples like a drum skin; zones of pres­sure drift il­log­i­cally through my back, chest, and stom­ach. I try to un­der­stand my un­pleas­ant sense of ex­ci­ta­tion—the jit­tery, sys­temic un­hinge. I try to un­der­stand why clouds of malaise shift through my limbs, ner­vous, and di­ges­tive sys­tems like an un­re­lent­ing stint of foul weather. Some days I don’t feel up to things. I work as a free­lancer and will my­self through tasks like tu­tor­ing—vault­ing through an­ti­sep­tic math prob­lems like a cham­pion gym­nast, then for­get­ting what day it is and spilling my cof­fee. I eat lunch in the car by my­self be­cause I sense I’m not fit to be seen among the func­tion­ing masses. I swal­low with dif­fi­culty. One day, I visit the stor­age space to find some old pa­per­work. I re­al­ize when I get there that I have no idea which of the boxes I need, so I start open­ing them hap­haz­ardly. In­side one, an am­bigu­ous tan­gle of pas­tel flo­ral cot­ton emerges. A spe­cific musty smell rises. I bury my face in the fab­ric. I re­al­ize the smell is my old house in In­di­ana; these were my par­ents’ sheets. How odd, I think to my­self, seal­ing ev­ery­thing up quickly to leave. It’s only when I ar­rive home, with­out hav­ing had a sec­ond thought about what I saw in the stor­age space, that I rush to the bath­room and be­gin throw­ing up. This will be one of many re­minders after my par­ents die that my body is now in charge and that my mind will only catch up much, much later.

IV. Lu­cretius’s gloss on “death is not our busi­ness” cen­ters on at­tain­ing what the Epi­cure­ans called ataraxia— a state of not be­ing dis­turbed. When I first en­counter it, ataraxia ar­rests me. “Not be­ing dis­turbed” is a fair de­scrip­tion of how I spent the first twenty years of my life. I was flooded in a con­tin­ual and ir­ra­tional sense that things would turn

out well, a vague spir­i­tual cer­tainty that ev­ery­thing would be all right. But this was not ataraxia; this was com­pla­cency, a com­pla­cency rooted in priv­i­lege, shel­ter, and love. Ataraxia, as Lu­cretius frames it, in­vites a dif­fi­cult cel­e­bra­tion of tran­sience, some­thing you pos­sess not sim­ply when death is a dis­tant idea, but when it’s a dis­turb­ing cer­tainty, lodged in your body. Ataraxia, the way Lu­cretius casts it, is nearly the op­po­site of com­pla­cency—pos­sess­ing all of its calm, but more hard-won.

V. Your fa­ther strug­gles to breathe on a me­chan­i­cal ven­ti­la­tor. It fills then emp­ties his body in a per­pet­ual rhythm of vi­o­lence for a week, un­til he dies. You could have spared him this ma­chine, but you’re alone, and it’s hard to know when to stop. In­stead, you sit by his noisy bed­side and bring him sun­flow­ers, which, with a sud­den burst of en­ergy, he tells you he likes. You calmly hold a towel to the back of your mother’s head to seep up a strange, col­or­less liq­uid like sugar wa­ter leak­ing from an in­ci­sion. At the ER, whose rit­u­als be­come as fa­mil­iar as Mass, you learn that cere­brospinal fluid is es­cap­ing from her head. She will need a brain drain. She must not move. You stay up all night for days to make sure she doesn’t knock it out in her sleep, a com­pli­ca­tion, you’re warned, which could be fa­tal. You dress a fes­ter­ing wound on the spot where your mother’s breast used to be. The wound will never go away, and each day, it leaks and soaks through lay­ers of ban­dages and your mother’s bra. You keep an eye out for a slow-grow­ing stain to darken her shirt, and when it does, you slowly re­move the gauze stuck to the bro­ken-down skin on her chest and re­place the lay­ers of ban­dages one by one, help­ing her change shirts so you can both go out for din­ner.

VI. One day, I visit my fa­ther’s grave in New Jersey. On the way, I lis­ten to a pod­cast about divers who fo­cus on un­der­wa­ter caves. The dives are ex­cep­tion­ally dan­ger­ous, dis­ori­ent­ing. By the time I reach the ceme­tery, one of the divers has per­ished, and I’m left imag­in­ing his body float­ing in the ab­so­lute dark­ness. I sit on the patch where my fa­ther has re­cently been buried. When I was younger, I imag­ined ceme­ter­ies as places of great com­fort, imag­ined I would be the kind of per­son who would love hav­ing a place to “visit” my loved ones. Now I’m merely struck by the strange­ness of pur­chas­ing small parcels of earth in or­der to store and la­bel boxes of bones and ashes. As with most prop­erty own­er­ship, this small bit of land be­longed to a na­tive pop­u­la­tion that had been ex­pa­tri­ated cen­turies ago. What­ever the land’s uses since, it had for the last one hun­dred thirty

years be­come a sub­urb of grave­stones—a sea of mid­dle-class simil­i­tude ren­dered in gran­ite, Times New Ro­man, and an­gels. I place my hand on the dirt, imag­in­ing the lay­ers un­der­neath, re­al­iz­ing this ceme­tery is a priv­i­leged form of self-stor­age. Lu­cretius points out that mat­ter needs to be re­cy­cled to give way for other life. “Life’s cold stop­page” loosens up ma­te­rial pre­cisely so that it can be re­formed. In his view, mat­ter is shared; our atoms are needed, our par­ti­cles leased. In this light, stor­ing re­mains is a form of re­sis­tance against death’s true pur­pose—one fi­nal, in­sis­tent at­tempt to pre­vent the graph of our beloved atomic struc­tures from ze­ro­ing out. A ceme­tery, then, is at once a mon­u­ment to im­per­ma­nence and a some­what touch­ing de­nial of it.

VII. The psy­chol­o­gist Jonathan Haidt imag­ines the hu­man mind as a rider on the back of an ele­phant. The rider rep­re­sents our con­scious thoughts, what­ever we can trace on the screen of our con­scious­ness. The ele­phant is ev­ery­thing else—our in­tu­itions, our emo­tions, our vis­ceral re­ac­tions. The rider nom­i­nally con­trols the ele­phant, but the ele­phant is far more pow­er­ful. When I en­counter this metaphor for the di­vided mind, I feel my ele­phant kick out in tri­umph and recog­ni­tion. From now on, I’ll get it: I have an out-of-con­trol ele­phant. She is the one that sends the shaky legs, the flick­er­ing pains, the chest pal­pi­ta­tions, the weights un­der my eyes, the un­ease after sun­set, which my hus­band af­fec­tion­ately refers to as my night glooms. My ele­phant wakes me up in the mid­dle of the night, con­vinced the dim light creep­ing in from the hall­way has been cast by an alien cor­ri­dor, caus­ing me to stum­ble out of bed, fran­ti­cally try­ing to get out of the hos­pi­tal. She ex­plains the wash of un­ease, the be­ing that tilts to­ward ver­tig­i­nous. My ele­phant is en­raged by grief. She is in need of re­train­ing and sends me smoke sig­nals, or as Lu­cretius might have put it, signs that my sense of ataraxia has been lost.

VIII. I go to con­sult a Chi­nese medicine prac­ti­tioner who has been lav­ishly rec­om­mended by my in-laws. I de­scribe to him my grief-re­lated ail­ments, in­clud­ing, most press­ingly, a year-long episode of acid re­flux which leaves my mouth per­pet­u­ally with a fuzzy, un­fa­mil­iar taste. After lis­ten­ing im­pas­sively to my litany of woes, the spe­cial­ist shows me a breath­ing ex­er­cise. He asks me to take thirty quick, ex­ag­ger­ated breaths in and out. Then he in­structs me to hold the last breath out for as long as pos­si­ble, and fi­nally in for as long as pos­si­ble. When I try this in his

of­fice, I get a stroked-out feel­ing and start pan­ick­ing; lights flash in front of my closed eyes, and jit­tery feel­ings snake through my body. In alarm, I tell him, It feels like I’m dy­ing. That’s good, he tells me. I pay him his fee and leave with a sense of dis­gust. But the next day, on a whim, I do the ex­er­cise. And then, hav­ing noth­ing to lose, I do it every day. Within a week, the re­flux van­ishes. I keep go­ing. Through the months, the bod­ily sen­sa­tions from the ex­er­cise morph. Ini­tially, there’s a vi­o­lence to low­er­ing down into one’s own body, as though into a grave. The mind gets left be­hind. It’s un­com­fort­able ex­ist­ing in a purely ma­te­rial state, dis­ori­ent­ing, like be­ing lost in a cave. I in­habit my body as a sys­tem, locked in its quiet hums. An ob­scure sense of mo­tion, of in­fin­i­tes­i­mal, whirring ges­tures. Some­times crisp, stac­cato sounds from the out­side world punc­tu­ate the dark­ness. But even­tu­ally, im­ages be­gin sur­fac­ing dur­ing the in­creas­ingly long pe­riod of breath hold­ing at the end of the ex­er­cise, mem­o­ries lost since the mo­ment of per­cep­tion. They now come snaking up ef­fort­lessly from some dark cor­ri­dor of the body and flash with star­tling im­me­di­acy be­fore my closed eyes, like strange fish or an ex­plo­sion of coral found un­ex­pect­edly in pres­sur­ized ocean depths: my fa­ther’s rough hand, the poise of my mother’s body as she stoops over the plants she is wa­ter­ing, a name­less weed threaded through di­a­monds of alu­minum fenc­ing at a for­mer home. Months later, I’ll be in Am­s­ter­dam with a friend, a Columbia- and Nyu-trained sur­geon, who over­hears me do­ing my breath­ing ex­er­cise in our ho­tel room. I told her about it a while ago, but now when I emerge from hold­ing my breath, I find her frown­ing at me. “What?” I ask her, and then, see­ing her ex­pres­sion of dis­be­lief, “It works.” “You sound like you’re dy­ing,” she replies, shrug­ging.

IX. I come to Lu­cretius be­cause I want to un­der­stand some­thing about col­lapse. Ul­ti­mately, he can’t tell me what tiny swerves in­side my body give ev­ery­day re­al­ity a dis­ori­ent­ing, sour tint, as if liv­ing after the ab­sence of my fam­ily is a night­mare from which I might never wake up. But what he does do is arm me with some pa­tience to­ward my way­ward body, in what I in­creas­ingly think of as my ob­so­les­cence train­ing.

X. One day I ar­rive at the stor­age space with a few last pieces to store after the sale of my par­ents’ house in In­di­ana. Among other things, the day’s agenda in­cludes find­ing space for two large lawn or­na­ments, a hippo and a dragon. The hippo is about two feet long and nearly a foot

wide. Its ce­ment belly spreads out dense and smooth; glass eyes lend it a rather sur­pris­ing ex­pres­sion of acu­ity. The dragon waves and curves through four feet of sharp edges—whiskers, horns, flash­ing tongue, and back scales, all of which could func­tion as knives with vary­ing de­grees of lethal­ity. As with all gar­den fol­lies, the hippo and dragon rep­re­sent par­tic­u­larly will­ful ar­range­ments of mat­ter. My mother pur­chases them at some point in her post-brain-surgery years. They look odd in our small back­yard, but be­cause of her can­cer, I de­fend her right to fan­tas­ti­cal ges­ture. I don’t, how­ever, con­sider how prob­lem­atic the fol­lies are un­til after both of my par­ents die, and I in­herit them. Then it sud­denly dawns on me that they are too big and dan­ger­ous to put in the trash. In an un­char­ac­ter­is­tic bid against di­ver­sity, my lo­cal com­mu­nity gar­den in Brook­lyn po­litely de­clines to house them. And they don’t fit in my new apart­ment, al­ready crammed with the other things I in­her­ited. With res­ig­na­tion, I de­cide to store them. I hoist them with dif­fi­culty onto a large cart and wait at the freight el­e­va­tor for the at­ten­dant to come pick me up. As the doors open, his eyes lock on the fol­lies. There’s a long, in­tense pause, dur­ing which time I be­gin to pre­pare a few re­marks in de­fense of the hippo and the dragon. They’re in­de­struc­tible, I imag­ine my­self say­ing eagerly. They’re not just flam­boy­ant, but tough—an­ti­dotes to the sim­per­ing com­pla­cency of gar­den gnomes. While so much of what I love has proved eas­ily dis­solv­able, eas­ily lost, these two prom­ise to ac­com­pany me through life ex­cept in the case of a nat­u­ral dis­as­ter. But when he even­tu­ally re­turns his gaze to mine, it is merely to ask if he can help with the cart. When we reach my space, the dragon needs to be stored ver­ti­cally, and with dif­fi­culty, the at­ten­dant helps me ro­tate the dragon onto its head, gin­gerly avoid­ing its scales. He sta­bi­lizes the dragon, pants slightly, and fi­nally caves. What in the hell are these? he asks. They’re lawn or­na­ments, I tell him, and my mom kinda liked them. He raises his eye­brows and nods, and we swing the door to my stor­age space shut, lock­ing ev­ery­thing in­side.

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