So many of my stories begin near water. This story involves a college girlfriend; a girl, it would turn out, who had never loved me at all. We were at one of those New England beaches with fragile sand dunes, brittle scrubs of topiary, and cheap parking. My friend D had driven us there, on the loping interstates of Massachusetts, past the abandoned pizza joints, spider-like multiplexes, and heartsore strip clubs. Much later, D and this college girlfriend would be in an on-again, off-again relationship, long after I had moved onto other girls, other climes. But for now, I was sure I was in love. It was still early summer; too early, really, to swim in the Atlantic, the waters frigid and ambitionless. Never mind, we were determined: we would swim and enjoy ourselves and ignore our bluing lips.
My college girlfriend went in first. There were the usual shrieks brought on by the cold, blustering waves, and exclamations like, it’s fucking, fucking freezing! And then she calmed, breaking forth, a deity returning home. When the water had subsumed her hips, she stopped, eyes fixed somewhere beyond the horizon, somewhere I couldn’t see. There was a halogenic cast to it all, irradiating the green of her swimsuit, the roiling blues of the ocean depths. This vision of her — something similar to completeness — was what it was like to be alive, I was sure. Putting a heart back into the cabinetry of the body, and seeing the war-torn muscle contract for the first time. Maybe this was what it was like to be whole.
I have always been haunted by the stories of golems. Typically, golems are ascribed to the vistas of Jewish folklore. The figure of the golem is not the bride of Frankenstein’s monster, but his grandfather. Made in the likeness of the human form from the life-giving clay of the riverbank, a golem is activated by invoking the secret, true name of God, in all of its thirty-six-lettered glory. Though the actual ritual changes depending on the story, the most popular version states that the three-charactered Hebrew word for truth, emet, is carved into the forehead, letting something like a life inhabit its body.
The meaning of the word golem itself translates from Hebrew asunformed or imperfect. A golem itself is never fully human, never imbued with that vapor that we call a soul. It’s an automaton, completely at the will of whoever orders it to complete a task. A golem is usually summoned to act as a protector; in the wrong hands, it can become a monster. Because it lacks a soul, it lacks a conscience. A golem is fatally incomplete.
Erasing the first character in its forehead creates the word met, which means death. In this inevitable case, the golem expires, never really having lived at all. But here is the thing about not being whole: whatever the golem knows, it forgets.
I am a loser of things and of people. One pearl earring of a set my father gave to me at the age of thirteen for my bat-mitzvah, that diode forever consigned to rest in an unremarkable corner of an apartment from an after-prom party. The first friend I ever came out to, due to the egregious timing of doing so at the age of fourteen at a sleepover, of all things. An autographed book on the floor of a movie theater. A girlfriend, as she walked down the narrow hall and out of the door, bag in hand, packed while I was sleeping. Quite often, with these items and people, peels of happiness.
When I displace something, I always flex my fingers, casting about in the dark. A black mantilla folds over my occipital lobes, a woven piece of rage and grief. Perhaps my eyes dilate and tarnish. For a moment, I do not feel whole. I do not feel entirely human.
I was never one to lose my temper often as a child, but when I did, I would bite the little dorsal flat where my thumb segued into my hand. A rough patch formed where my incisors met skin; not entirely a scar, more like one in the making. I would do this to stop myself from lashing out, stuffing my mouth with this angry activity. It wasn’t a violent impulse or dark matter, but the absence of it.
At six, seven, eight, I was aware enough to know that not everyone behaved this way. I made a tacit agreement with my mother, per her suggestion, to put a few droplets of Tabasco sauce on my hand and let them dry before going to school each morning. The acerbic, slow spread of the hot sauce on my tongue was Pavlovian in both theory and practice. For a brief time, it curbed this habit — then again, I cannot recollect anything that set me off, in particular.
Then there was a school trip to the science museum in my home city, an annual visit filled with IMAX movies (how can I see the entire screen at once, when it’s so big?, I used to wonder) and dehydrated astronaut ice cream. That morning, my mother had daubed the hot sauce on my hand like iodine for a needle injection. At the science museum, while waiting in line for an IMAX documentary with my classmates, an eyelash got caught in my eye. I curled my left hand into a fist and used the tonsured skin to try and fish it out. It wasn’t long before the Tabasco began to take, before a sheet of pinpricks blanketed my cornea, and I began to howl. I had to be taken home early. I still bite my hand. Here is what I learned: maybe I cannot be fixed.
In high school, I tried to write a story about a golem. In this story, the narrator brings VHS o the disconsolate nursing home that houses his dementia-wrought grandfather, who is also a Holocaust survivor. One of the tapes the narrator brings is a German silent film called The Golem. An antiques dealer finds the hunking, dormant golem, and somehow brings it back to consciousness. The golem takes a liking to the dealer’s young daughter, and when she spurns his affections, embarks on a murderous rampage. (In reality, outside of my story, this movie is partially lost to time, embalmed in fragments of celluloid that measure no more than 108 meters.)
Grandson and grandfather watch this together as the latter drifts in and out of time. At points, the grandfather imagines that he is inside of the movie: he is the dealer, the golem, or both. At the end, as his grandson watches, he grips the arms of his chair tightly, his knuckles as white as teacup handles. Save me, says the grandfather, save me, but the grandson cannot tell who, indeed, is speaking.
Though I have tried, I cannot find this story. According to the old desktop I wrote it on, it never existed at all.
Recently, it struck me that if I were to see an ex-girlfriend, I would not know how to kiss her. My lips would be stiff with disuse, unfamiliar with the old patterns and symmetries. I would be acting only on basic mechanics, my primeval knowledge of lip quadrants and ratios of softness to pull. But these kisses would be like shadow boxing. Kisses without soul.
Did I expect these girls to somehow save me? An embarrassing admission: once, I did. I wanted redemption, even as they left for other cities, other rooms, other people. This was when I was younger, and thought of loving or liking in clichéd metaphors, the kind that involved fitted jigsaw pieces and banal concepts of yin and yang.
Picture this: me, begging someone to stay, to sleep with me one more time, so that I can remember it in full. My knees folded under me, on top of my mattress, my fingers leaving white prints on my thighs from where I clench and grope to retain the semblance of a hold. I feel empty, I might as well be saying, I do not feel complete. I do not feel like a person. I am looking for a fix. And please. Just please.
But it is not so much the act of leaving that gets me, but the art of it. What I’m frightened of is another piece of my insides being carted off, never to return. What I’m scared of is having nothing left to give.
According to some rabbinic scholars, the biblical Adam, father of mankind, was a golem for the first twelve hours of his life. His soul had yet to impart itself into his body. So for those twelve hours, Adam was inhuman, imperfect.
When I want to see a golem, I only have to look at my own shadow.
The shorelines of my youth were always filled with sand, not dirt or mud. So many beginnings and endings funneled into silt. When my parents’ marriage ended near a riverbank limned with tall grass; on a stunted cliff in San Diego, realizing I was in love with a girl for the first time; on a sand bank in Maine on a Thanksgiving night, as I wondered why I always felt the seasons of disconnect.
This final part also took place on a beach, befitting of circuitry. (Call me a narrative cheapskate, or a pathetic romantic with a dangling hope, someone who believes in beautiful witchcraft.) I was with two friends, M and P. We rested on damp, languid beach towels at Fort Tilden in the Rockaways, a fine meal for impatient horseflies, which we swatted away with the pages of books wrinkled with seawater. We drank warm, caustic beer and Gatorade. It was the first summer in years that I was unattached. There was no one to follow, no one for me to view in the distance.
I think I’m going to go into the water, I told my friends.
So go, said P, his eyes shut, breathing in the summer fumes of the Long Island sound. No one moved.
Yes, I said, I will.
Barefoot, I dodged the serrated ends of broken shells, sand-logged candy wrappers, a forgotten bucket. I wouldn’t swim in that water if you paid me, an old lover once told me, do you know how dirty that water is?But from here, the water was only ordinary, without a single shadow. Before me was only the vague horizon, that imaginary line where sea met sky. All of these barriers, I thought, were only of our making. Something in the dusky hallows of my body began to build and launch. In the water, I kept walking.
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This post originally appeared on Medium.