Alchemy, by Abraham Elm

As an eminent professor of philosophy I could not allow myself to believe in love at first sight. But as a man—a lowly, irrational, delusional man—I could believe in nothing else. I will try my best to describe her, to put words to perfection, though I know it is a futile task. Language, after all, is the great adulterator, the clumsy tool with which we dismantle the truth. Surely I will not succeed where all previous philosophers and poets have failed. But what else can I do? I am no different from that haunted, haunting man in the most anguished of all love stories: I have only words to play with.

I saw her on a Sunday afternoon at the university bookstore. She was sitting on the floor with her back against a bookshelf, cradling a volume of Romantic poetry between her crisscrossed legs. Her lips twitched as she read; her eyes flicked from page to page, searching, I presumed, for a specific verse she’d seen before. She drew me in at once with her beauty and youth, those two elusive antidotes to my condition, and as my eyes quivered across her body I was enchanted by each newly discovered detail. I’d come to the bookstore seeking that scholarly solace one sometimes finds in the midst of an exquisite sentence, but once aware of her presence I gave up on words altogether. I abandoned my professorial pretensions and reverted to a much simpler state of animal existence, all heartbeat and hot-blooded hunger. Pacing the aisles with my head lowered and hackles raised, I peered at her through the gaps in the shelves and began to entertain an absurd but appreciated fantasy: I was not at the bookstore, but outside of her bedroom, staring through the slats of her shuttered windows. At any moment she would set her book aside, undress, and climb into bed…

“Hookwell!”

With an awkward lurch I knocked a row of books to the floor. I turned and saw Professor Withers, an exceedingly unpleasant colleague of mine, staring down at me.

“Have I interrupted something?” he asked, chuckling in his arrogant way.

“Withers,” I said, “what are you doing here?”

“What were you looking at?” he asked.

“Books,” I replied.

He stared at me suspiciously but did not inquire any further, for he was too eager to share his latest scrap of gossip: “Did you hear about Professor Blandson?” he said. “His wife caught him—”

“I don’t give a damn about Blandson!” I said, drifting away from Withers. I tried to catch another sight of the girl, but the commotion I’d caused had scared her away. I looked through the entire store, avoiding Withers as I wound my way through the labyrinth of shelves, but she was gone, and the afternoon—if not my life—was ruined.

I went to the bookstore every day for the next two weeks, but the girl never returned. The employees at the store grew suspicious of me after the first week; after the second they were downright hostile. I told them that I had a doctorate in philosophy, but this did not have the pacifying effect I expected.

Assuming the girl was a student at the university, I spent the next two weeks exploring every corner of campus, lurking in corridors and classrooms, lingering outside of dormitories, eating all of my meals in the cafeteria, waiting for her to reappear. I pursued her with the impolite persistence of a lonely old lecher, but once again my efforts were in vain.

In an act of extraordinary self-restraint I decided to forget about her and divert my passion towards my work. (I confirmed then what I’d always suspected: mankind’s greatest achievements are nothing more than the prettified perversions of suppressed sexual desire.) With my excess of energy I could accomplish exceptional things. I could finish the essay I’d been working on and begin the book I’d always wanted to write. I could put more effort into my lectures and the private tutoring of my students. Perhaps I could even begin exercising and playing chess, two diversions I’d disregarded since my days as an undergraduate had come to an end.

It seems like a minor miracle in retrospect, but for a while I actually did these things. With a vigor I’d assumed had fled with my youth, I devoted myself to reading, writing, teaching, tutoring, playing chess and tennis, hiking, gardening, and several other harmless hobbies. But no matter how much energy I expended, no matter how many distractions I indulged, the girl remained present at every moment, throbbing deep within me, as patient and persistent as my pulse.

My intentions were entirely noble as I left my house on that mild Friday evening in early spring, dressed in my finest linen suit, whistling a tune I’d learned as a child, oblivious to my impending misfortune. I possessed an improbable optimism, an undeserved confidence, and although I had not yet had a drink, I felt a spiritual excitement similar to the first flutterings of intoxication. My thoughts skipped about to the rhythm of my merry heart, leading me from one rapturous fantasy to another. Despite reality’s insistent objections, I had determined that it was my fate to find the girl. (I had also determined that I could not keep calling her “the girl.” No, I needed to give her a real name, a name befitting her beauty, so I decided, after tortuous deliberation, to call her Amy—short, that is, for Amaranth.)

As I said, it was a mild evening in early spring, the kind of evening that makes one forget the incessant ugliness of existence. While I walked into town I sensed a harmony in all things; I felt as though nature had at last aligned itself with the contours of my soul. I dismissed whatever wisdom I’d amassed with age and readily embraced that profusely self-important demeanor otherwise reserved for children and saints. My presence on this shabby earth of ours assumed a cosmic significance. I would find Amy, my unfading flower, for the simple reason that my doing so was meant to be. In fact, I would not have to find her at all—she would come to me of her own accord. I would simply stroll into the nearest café, order a glass of champagne, and wait for her to flutter through the door.

Well, one glass of champagne led to several more, and soon I was trembling with the tipsy triumph of a boy who has sneaked a sip of his father’s favorite whiskey. Had I not been a distinguished professor at the local university, I might have run through the streets screaming Amy’s name and confessing my love. But instead I composed myself and walked to another café, this one a bit livelier, a bit more conducive to my desires. It was filled with young and pretty people, and though I didn’t see Amy among them, I thought she might arrive at any moment. I ordered a martini and took a seat by the window.

An hour later I was still alone. Although I did my best to combat an encroaching sense of hopelessness, my spirits eventually fell. Never in my life had I felt so lonely. I didn’t need Amy anymore, I just needed another human being—someone to acknowledge my increasingly inconsequential existence. I looked around and noticed a former student of mine sitting at a table across the café. It seemed appropriate to say hello, so I finished what was left of my third martini and rose to my feet. Suddenly the café grew loud and overcrowded. I feared that I would not be able to make it to the table where my student sat, that in my effort to cross the room I would stumble or faint or simply evaporate out of existence. But the very drunkenness that gave rise to these fears also ensured that they were short-lived. A moment later I was practically dancing on the tips of my toes, weaving gracefully through the tangle of tables until I reached the one that interested me.

“Hello,” I said, bowing slightly as I held out my hand to my former student. She didn’t respond, so I offered her a rather lavish introduction: “I am William R. Hookwell, professor of philosophy, author of several highly cited papers on metaphysics and aesthetics, recipient of the Dean’s Medal for Intellectual Achievement, and—”

“I’m sorry,” she said, “but why are you telling me this?”

“I’m introducing myself, dear.”

“Yes, but why?

“Don’t you recognize me?”

“No.”

At this point one of the people sitting beside her decided to join our conversation: “Listen, Mr. Hookwell—”

Professor Hookwell!”

He shrugged his shoulders and made a dismissive remark about academia. I imagined myself strangling him with the ostentatious tie that hung around his neck, but I subdued this desire and replied to him in the calm, patient voice I often used with my least intelligent students: “I was speaking to your friend here, not to you. Your opinion is of no importance to me.”

He stood up and shouted something insulting about my age and my appearance. I turned to the girl and invited her to join me at a quieter café down the street. She refused, so I flung a few insults in farewell and walked away.

After this disaster I required another drink. I hurried to the nearest bar and ordered a glass of whiskey, the first scent of which sent me spiraling through my memories to the days I’d spent as a student and aspiring poet. I lived in the attic of a Victorian mansion and stayed up late into the night, hunched over a notebook, a pen in one hand and a glass of whiskey in the other. It was all for show, of course: I had no poetic sensibility and I hated the taste of whiskey. Fortunately, this particular fancy did not last long. I accepted my monotonous disposition and decided to devote my life to attaining in respectability what I would always lack in creativity—in other words, I became a professor.

As I sat at the bar, forlornly sipping my whiskey, I wondered if it had been a stupid decision. Perhaps I should have become a lawyer or an accountant instead. Or perhaps I should have devoted myself to something more practical, such as carpentry or plumbing. I’d lived most of my life inside of my head, suppressing my emotions while indulging in intellectualism, the most superior of all inferiority complexes. And what had my efforts amounted to? What had I achieved as a professor of philosophy? I’d spent years studying the works of Plato, Spinoza, Kant, and Schopenhauer; I’d written rigorous treatises on metaphysics and aesthetics; yet there I was, sitting alone in a seedy bar, my sanity unraveling because I could not comprehend the simple fact of a beautiful girl.

I finished my whiskey in one angry swallow and waited for its effects to release me from my sullen introspection. I stood up suddenly, knocking my chair to the floor. I reached my arm out to an imaginary Amy and invited her to join me in a dance. “My flower,” I said. “My love.” I bowed to her, embraced her, raised her hand above her head and guided her through a graceful pirouette. The room tilted and twirled. I laughed, and my Amy joined me; I sang, and she did the same.

But then her imaginary laugh became an angry shout: “Get out of here you old fool!” Someone pushed me across the room and tossed me outside. I tripped on the curb and fell into the street.

How quickly I’d descended from comfort to chaos. Just a little while earlier I’d been safe inside the tranquil realm of a renowned university, surrounded by books, quietly pondering the finer points of existence. Now I was lying on a filthy street, my face smeared with sweat, my linen suit stained, my mind soaked in sordid desire. What an odd little creature I’d become: rendered vile by my knowledge of beauty, filled with hatred from my desperate need for love. I despised the students in the bar who had treated me with such contempt; I despised myself and the unfulfilling life I’d chosen; I despised Amy, my precious, perfect Amy, for slipping into my world to enchant me and then slipping away before I could catch her. She had allowed me a glimpse of her beauty not to please me, but to torture me—to remind me of my ugliness. Yes, I would always be one of the ugly ones, desperately seeking the beauty I was born without.

It occurred to me then that I’d spent my life engaged in a spiritual sort of alchemy, a foolish attempt to transform my basest cravings into noble ambitions. I’d fought stubbornly against myself, stifling every honest impulse, repressing and perverting my true nature until it was no longer recognizable. I’d endeavored to distinguish myself from the masses by achieving some kind of sophistication unknown to anyone else. But in the end I stumbled over the most common of obstacles, and the elaborate fantasies that had sustained me for so long were reduced to the simple need for love, in however coarse a form I might find it.

Until that point in my life I had failed to find a woman willing to entertain my desires. But alas, I had earned an ironic fate, and my downfall was to come not from failure but from success. As I lay in the street a young woman approached me and helped me to my feet. She took my hand, pressed her lips to my ear, promised me something I cannot repeat, and led me to her apartment. We did various things that I don’t remember but I suppose I enjoyed, and in the morning she demanded that I pay her an exorbitant fee.

“I don’t understand,” I said, refusing to acknowledge the obvious implication of her demand.

She smiled at me impatiently, as though I had told a joke she’d heard one too many times before.

“Are you a—”

“Of course I am!” she said. “Why else would we be here together?”

Her words induced a horrible sickness within me, a sickness of self-hatred and suicidal longing. I closed my eyes and tried to will myself out of existence. I began to tremble and weep, but the woman felt no pity: first she scolded me, then she searched through my pockets for money. I rushed out of her apartment and tumbled down the stairs. She followed after me, but I can’t quite remember what happened next. There was blood on my face; there were screams and sirens and finally silence. I awoke in a hospital; I awoke in a jail. I was stripped of my professorship and forbidden from returning to the university. My picture appeared in the local papers; my name became known. At last I had distinguished myself from the masses.

I spent the next few weeks wandering through the city. I had no job, no home, no reason to live. My prolonged attempt at refinement had ended in disgrace. I was angry at first, but soon I grew calm with the realization that my fate had been unavoidable. After all, I am merely a man: I am meant to endure, not to overcome.

These days the wise words of Lucretius often echo through my head: A tree cannot exist in the air, nor clouds in the sea, nor fish in the fields, just as blood cannot flow through wood nor sap through stones. There is a proper place for all things.

All troubles arise from incongruity. Peace comes from knowing one’s place.

 


Abraham Elm works as a writer and bookseller in Seattle, Washington. His stories have appeared in The Monarch Review, Untoward Magazine, The Minetta Review, and The Cigale Literary Magazine.

 

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