Rapture of the Deep

By

The day my father died was the day I started falling in love. Love like the wet open love of a newborn. Love outside the body. Love like a metaphor for love. I am trying to understand how that day shook loose all this dangerous insatiable love. I was eighteen, six months from leaving home for good. My father stood at the top of the attic staircase; his body seized and fell and stilled and left behind such stunning grief that for weeks I tottered through the house on autopilot, a pill bottle rattling in my pocket, wide-eyed and gob smacked with love. I hit walls, turned, and shuffled off in the opposite direction until another wall intercepted my path. I was suddenly and irrevocably wracked with love.

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I spent the impetuousness of my twenties in love. In love with a man, sure, but also in love with a woman named Rosie who taught me how to present a bottle of wine like a boss. In love with my elderly landlords, war survivors, who showed me how loud love can be, and how to weave story out of the scraps of love. In love with a small boy I used to nanny, who was happiest with his head on my stomach and his thumb in his mouth. In love with Mara from Italy who wet her pants when she was excited and kissed me on the lips and took me to meet her cousins—brawny, tender boys with whom I also fell in love. I fell in love with professors and baristas and truck drivers and hotel clerks. Once, I fell in love with a customer service representative in Iowa over the phone. I fell in love with Annie Dillard and Raymond Carver and blue paint and my own cunt. I fell in love with trash and wind and trailer parks nestled brightly on the beaches of Florida. I fell in love with Wim Wenders and didn’t leave the house for three days. I fell in love with the blinding kitsch of America and stared full-faced, as if at the sun. I fell in love with other people’s children and the holy mystery of the working miniature. (I think of my father worrying his model sailboats in the evenings, their tiny masts thin as toothpicks, the marvel of their stamp-sized sails catching his breath. Did he imagine himself an inch high, roaming the planks, or instead the benevolent creator, omniscient and good?) I fell for Renaissance art and Belgian beer. For churches and drug addicts and mountains and the sensation of being smacked across the face. I fell so hard for tomato juice one summer I drank until my gums bled. I ate raw kale until it hurt.

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Three months after publishing a book about my father, his life and death, I received an email from a woman who claimed to have had a relationship with him just prior to my birth, shortly before he returned to my mother. I was skeptical until she sent over a photo of a love letter he had written to her in his distinctive slanting script, a cartoon sketch of Snoopy at the top calling out, “I LOVE YOU!” in huge rounded letters, the speech bubble so swollen it capsizes over the edge of the page. He was twenty-five years old. His love is so large all he can manage is a single page-long run-on sentence enumerating the facets of his love, her attributes falling over one another like over-exuberant children, “…articulate, sensitive, loving, just, fair, great in bed, great on the floor, great in the shower,” and on and on and on, as if a love so magnanimous could only be expressed this way—by calling out its name. “There was something burning through him,” she writes in her email, “he was always that person. Maybe he arose from the cradle already disassembling, I don’t know.” The bible says that Adam’s first emotion was wonder. Show my father a computer and his instinct was to take it apart, finger its wires and connections, the delicate ribs of its motherboard, struck with wonder. Could he also dismantle his love at will, break it down to its constituent parts and put it back together again? I watched my father love a dog so hard he trembled when she died. I watched him love so badly he stuck his tongue down the neck of an empty vodka bottle; licked her clean and dry. This brand of love, history proves, is a swift and irreversible undoing. We still suffer for our sins. I once slept with a new friend because her teeth were a marvel of design. I fell through a crack in a frozen lake because I couldn’t stop myself from heaving ice on ice, wondering at the shards of light. I can’t live in the same place for longer than two years because the stasis drives me mad, the possibility of missing out on another shade of living unbearable. I’m afraid I will have a child simply to do it, because my body is capable of making a person and I can’t fathom a lifetime of not experiencing an available experience. I am not paralyzed by choice; I will break this body in its pursuit.

rapture2

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Rapture of the deep, or nitrogen narcosis (also known as the Martini effect), is a condition that afflicts deep-sea divers, an anesthetic effect caused by a shift in gases at high pressure. At first, the effects are harmless—mild euphoria, a sense of “mastery over the environment.” It’s only when the diver goes deeper that the real danger arises—impaired judgment, loss of control and decision-making abilities. The lesson, the metaphor, is clear. Don’t plumb the depths carelessly. Don’t become reckless with love. The thing about metaphors, though, is not just their convenience. They are intrinsic to the way we understand our world. They come from the heavens and they come from the darkest reaches of the sea. They comprise the invisible web of consciousness and art and obsession and love and wonder through which we make our way here on earth.

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What to do with a love so unkempt and insatiable? So undisciplined it doesn’t fit into the confines of a body, an essay, a lifetime? Is this God? Is it madness? Is it, as Stendhal proposes, merely self-generated? Or, as biologists proffer, a symptom of one’s twenties, the decade of finally coming to terms with the inevitable disappointments of living? Jeremy Griffith offers that, “people fall in love in order to abandon themselves to the dream of an ideal state (being one free of the human condition).” I’m drawn to this theory because it suggests that this love is larger than the vessel through which it operates. It reflects my sense that such a love must exist outside the self, able to pass from one body to the next, or get sliced open with a knife. “The world is wilder than that in all directions,” says Annie Dillard, “more dangerous and bitter, more extravagant and bright. We are making hay when we should be making whoopee; we are raising tomatoes when we should be raising Cain, or Lazarus.” No wonder he died young. There isn’t a helmet hard enough for a life so full of love. I just want to know what to do with it, this unquenchable love, and where it goes when we die. Does it enter the ether and adhere itself to the nearest open wound? (I am telling you I felt it, I could scream. I was there.) “Stalk the gaps,” Dillard advises, but here especially I am brought to my knees with love.

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If I am wrong about this love, it will go the way of the flesh. On the eve of my thirties, I covet this decade of love and keep my distance from whatever threatens to steal it away—heartbreak, tedium, the limits of my human mediocrity. I just want to make something useful with it before it disappears, a hammer, say, with which I might build a house large enough to hold it, a brush to lacquer its tender hull. A friend tells me there are a group of nuns living two hours south on the interstate and a half-mile up a mountainside. I am going to visit (I know this about myself). One day I will just jump in my car and go. I need to learn what will happen with all of this love, where it came from and what to make of it.rapture3 There is a giant monastery at the top of the mountain and a garden where they grow food. The nuns make dolls of yarn and dinner from the garden. They sleep in rooms no bigger than a casket. They pray behind bars of iron, ecstatic with love. It seems to me the nuns have found a channel for their love, a safe place to put it, a single name to call in the dark. What is prayer except a means through which we bear our love? I’d find Jesus too if I could. The nuns are always praying. I am told they are praying right now. Their prayer is ritualized, rhythmic, abiding. They do not waver in their prayer; they do not pray with abandon. Their prayer is disciplined, safe. They pray for the living and for our dead. They pray for our very souls. They even pray for you, my friend says, and his earnestness is not lost on me, this beautiful capacity for compassion, and just like that I’m gone, lost in love.

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Rumpus original art by Erech Overaker.


Jessica Hendry Nelson's memoir in essays, If Only You People Could Follow Directions (Counterpoint Press), was selected as a best debut book by the Indies Introduce New Voices program and the January 2014 Indies Next List by the American Booksellers' Association. Her work has been published in The Threepenny Review, The Carolina Quarterly, Crab Orchard Review, PANK, The Rumpus, and elsewhere, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and named a notable essay in Best American Essays, 2012. She lives in Burlington, Vermont, where she co-owns the Renegade Writers' Collective and is the Managing & Nonfiction Editor of Green Mountains Review. More from this author →