Crab Boy – Kit Hodge

Sluggish, almost lifeless eyes. Hair completely straight, halfway to his shoulders. Frail, impish, like a feral, cartoon Patroclus. Features slanting, petulant. Giddy, playing with his fingers.

It happened in a hotel. I think his family had taken him there, but he didn’t know where they were; I don’t remember there being anyone else in that building at all. In a cavernous abandoned room patches of some strange texture, like clouds of lichen or outgrowths of an inauspicious mineral, undulated on every surface. They were hordes of crustaceans, bodies asymmetrical, irregular, as if someone had asked a toddler to assemble a lobster out of a mass of tumors. Every now and then one would fall from the ceiling. In the monotony of those white-walled rooms with no furniture—what kind of a hotel was it?—the desire to become one of those misshapen arthropods pooled up in the furrows of his imagination to ravage him.

It’s the closest I’ve ever come to an image of the person I want, I said.

He furrowed his brows, pursed his lips, wrinkled his nose: all the appurtenances of thought were on display on that capsule-shaped head. It was a familiar expression, since whenever he didn’t know how to respond to something I said he’d set it up between us to conceal what he was doing, like someone locking the door before using the bathroom. He’d been my therapist for half a year already, but I was hoping that on our first date he’d surprise me.

Before he had a chance to unveil whatever he had thought up the waiter arrived. For a moment I was floored—the wayward strands of a sickly combover, like some growth skimmed from an undersea plain, hung down over a face pouting and skeletal. Even the charm of that head couldn’t bring his voice into harmony, though: it flooded my mind with thoughts of sausage-shaped balloons, marijuana, undergraduate theses, and the United States, the United States. I asked for crab.

My therapist said that for some reason he thought I was a vegetarian. I asked him what does that word mean? He frowned, said Oh, I just, yet I added that I was, just that it was a singular day, not only that, a singular dietary choice occasioned by a singular dream. Yet the things in the dream were shaped more like lobsters: only their ungainliness made crab seem more appropriate.

But he knew what I meant. He wrinkled his nose a few more times while playing a scale on the tablecloth. Hemmed in by the well-formed surroundings of that eatery, his eyes, nestled atop the ridges of those cheeks the slope and texture of which called to mind something one might do to a peach’s flesh as they fell away into a grad school dropout’s beard, pupils like sterile apertures in the face of a life-size idol, clicked into place. It was what I paid him for.

He sighed and asked me if I was feeling okay. Maybe his idea was that I’d succumbed to a craving and was feeling guilty, but that wasn’t it at all. Meat was like sex for me: even before the sensation had become awkward and alien, there’d been no attraction. It hadn’t even taken surgery to destroy its allure. Vegetarianism had been like a cherished cyst inflating on the surface of my self-conception: a membrane of intention stretched around a sackful of clear, runny habit. Though, while meat had long since faded into anecdote, eroticism’s penumbra still hung over experience like the shoddy halo of a bashful angel.

I said I was feeling okay because I was always feeling okay. He smiled and we packed up our feelings and put them away. We opened our mouths, and books, movies, dreams, silences, memories, acquaintances came out, sebum pressed from the tissue of collective linguistic practice. I didn’t want to be there. What he wanted I wasn’t sure of; he might go on a date with a patient, but his tendency to disassemble everything would keep him from sinking into the flaccid visions of unity which dribble up from the most gremlinesque recesses of people’s hearts. I think his problem was that he’d rendered himself incapable of motion.

He told me he’d never wanted to become a therapist, actually he’d once been a researcher in ergodic theory, but eventually he’d found it laughable, not the subject but his own engagement with it. When I asked him whether he found his engagement with his current profession laughable he replied of course not, there was nothing else for him to do; it was the profession itself that was laughable, he said, if he’d learned anything from studying ergodic theory it was that if you want to learn anything you have to do it yourself, in the end, you have to have to reconstruct the object for yourself, inside yourself, from your own memories and associations, inclinations—the teacher is just there to help the process along, but in therapy as in the formal sciences it becomes useless after a point, because the other person’s configuration isn’t in alignment with your own.

I couldn’t stand talking about learning. I dug my fingernails into my palms and said I imagined it was possible for people’s configurations to come into alignment.

He said that was obviously true, just that in a therapy session or a lecture alignment is less likely to occur than in most situations. And he joked that he didn’t even have an absolute ground upon which to malign his profession, only a probability.

From the indentations on my palms a satisfaction dispersed, like a flock of tiny, bell-like birds. Or maybe it was only an aftertaste, as if I’d picked the rheum out of my eyes a few seconds before. I asked him where alignment was more likely to occur.

He said if you’re alone you don’t have to worry about alignment.

I asked him whether he thought people were in alignment with themselves.

He said of course not, he thought people were their own misalignment with themselves and others, but their misalignment with themselves was almost always the interesting part.

I said you’re like some bizarro version of Hideaki Anno, but you don’t even do anything except run a mediocre private practice.

He didn’t say anything.

The crab arrived. My therapist had ordered something vegetarian, I can’t even begin to describe it, to appease me. I imagine he’d noted long ago that it was a bad sign for me to contravene my own “principles” off the cuff. Yet nothing felt ominous to me; actually our first date was just like our therapy sessions. Neither of us understood sex. He probably wanted intimacy. Every day I find myself resorting to that word—maybe it seems meaningful because it has four syllables. Doubtless we both wanted it. If I say those four syllables over and over I start thinking of cockroaches gnawing on each other inside some crevice, and of edible body pillows: the perfect material would combine tastelessness and tactile reassurance.

Wherever you go, you can’t get away from eating. My therapist kept pausing when he took a bite—the fork would hover in the air like a mosquito that had been struck but not killed, or even a person who had been hit by a car. It reminded me of hesitating on difficult notes while studying the bassoon—a tiresome, shameful affair. Yet by sucking the cloud-like meat from the crab’s legs I could reverse the process of learning to play a musical instrument, sucking the aberrant tones I had produced back inside myself. If there was nothing in my mouth, form and detail unraveled; perception continued its bleak march uninterrupted. Conversely, at the moment when I lowered my head to the plate and began to crack those legs with my teeth, flakes of shell catching on my chin like confetti, the prototype of a new friend came together in my head: the person from the dream, between his thighs a blossom of shyly scuttling legs and pincers.

When I’d finished wordlessly chomping through all that exoskeleton I went out to the patio. Across the street was a park where people would go and sit on a day like that—I thought maybe something in that scene would be better than what I had, I was dying to see something good. The waiter was staring out at that field too, looking hopelessly vexed. After a while he turned to me and said he’d once wanted to be an oboist but had decided to study comparative literature instead. His eyes were wide open, like those of an animal that’s been stuck with a needle. I asked him why he’d given up the oboe, but he said he hadn’t given up at all, he practiced every day, it was just that becoming a professional would have been too simple, it was just another way of giving in. Giving in to what I asked. He told me you can’t let yourself be pinned down so easily, you have to be a moving target. The paranoid compromise, the trail of his cigarette dragging over the railing, the cusps of those eyes like lost opals, in aggregate it amounted to something sepulchral. I asked him what the point of comparing was; he said there was none, but it could be fun for a while, it feels like at best life is a sequence of scheduled activities. I told him it was idiotic to say that life is anything in particular. Saying that, I felt like a surly, bletted castrate, which was how I normally felt: when I disclosed that feeling he laughed and smiled at me. I was going to ask him what he hoped for, but my therapist came out and opened his mouth; he looked like an adjunct professor about to define the term sigma algebra while on the verge of tears. I said fuck off egghead, life is already over. He started to skulk back inside, but I took his hand and dug my fingernails into his palm—I couldn’t just let things fall apart. His own eyelids lifted, the show began: he said get a life you psycho-thanatic clown. The waiter backed away. Was he comparing us? I said Thanatos is fine with me, you flaccid ghoul. He said I’ve never met anyone as pathetic as you, you’re like a plush version of that creep from Perfect Blue. I was going to lunge at him but the waiter held me back. Is this how it is, I snarled, therapy everywhere—can’t we get out? Violence was unnecessary; I sunk back into my captor’s arms, comparing my own swoon with the motions of the crab matter gliding out from those delightful tubes. When his grip softened I swiveled, kissed him, and latched on like a remora, which is what I usually did.

My therapist just stood there crumpling up his face, like a student whose brain had been fried by some trick integral. It was good; I had to be inaccessible to someone. Yet, when the waiter and I slid apart like a pair of magnets drained of polarity, the patient-therapist relationship no longer mattered either: in the park a young man was playing a cor anglais. I wiped the chitin and butter from my face and pulled my jacket together to hide the stains around my breasts, squat cones which might have seemed like consolation prizes for someone who’d relinquished the cone of positive operators on Hilbert space. I climbed over the fence and started to walk, thinking that the soft squawks of that young man might be the first signs of “real life.”

The details of the waiter’s face unraveled. I hadn’t discovered what he was going to compare. But it didn’t matter, everything was in order—hard to imagine an escape from literature’s cornucopia. Good thing, to use words correctly: even if life is already over, we can still tiptoe toward a more comprehensive fioritura. I’d pay for the crab during the next session—had he finished his food? It was the first time I’d gone to a restaurant in weeks. Usually I would eat a loaf of bread while lying in bed staring at the ceiling. When I told my therapist about it, he asked me whether it was an erotic experience. In fact it wasn’t an experience at all, only a procedure; I was worried, though, that he was going to write a story in which eating an entire loaf of bread while lying in bed staring at the ceiling was an erotic experience, since as a failed ergodic theorist who had purposely gone over to the “human side,” what was he left with but fiction? It was fine for him to write, but I knew he’d make everything into a mendacious “erotic constellation,” gluing together the pain of the bread tearing at my stomach and the images which sometimes came to me of an angelic lover who would repeatedly stab me in the belly with a metal stake, when those thrusts weren’t bursts of impulse but postcards from a personal utopia, a limpid world of parthenogenetic cockroaches and body pillows made of meal-replacement gel. The crab had been delicious, like half-congealed nectar, so why had we been the only customers? Of course he would drag me into a tomb.

There were more people in the park; I thought I might be going the right way.

Sluggish, almost lifeless eyes. He stopped playing when he saw me, but he didn’t seem frightened. Next to us the sun’s last rays were caught in a cluster of trees which resembled tube worms. Everything was cold and flat; why were there people there? At the end of a shadow which trailed off over the grass, he sat looking up at me, his legs tucked under him. The sheet music was covered with text that must have been scrawled with a dull pencil, a few phrases legible: “not them again,” “cartilage of Europe,” “lightning squeezed out.” In his lap was the instrument, his hand, nails a chipped, searing orange, draped over it. Inside the case was a tooth.

I asked him how long he’d been playing.

He said he’d begun a few minutes before.

I didn’t know what to do. We looked at each other and avoided looking at each other for a few seconds. People were talking in the distance, but what was there to say?

Hair completely straight, halfway to his shoulders. He sprang up and grabbed my hand, saying Please, let’s die together, I can’t wait until next weekend as he dug his nails into my palm. I tried to pull away but he was stronger than me. My body started to shake, and I wanted to scream, a dull scream like that of an infant which screams because it has nothing better to do. My eyes closed. When I opened them he was back on the ground, crying, mumbling I’m sorry, I’m sorry. A few flecks of orange nail polish floated in the blood on my left palm. I crouched down to look at him: I knew he hadn’t emerged from nothingness, he was just a passerby my dreams had caught in their sieve, just as much of a resident of our city as I.

I asked What does that mean?

He stared off across the park, toward the storefronts groping upward like teeth from a receding gumline. Frail, impish, like a feral, cartoon Patroclus. I sat down beside him and pressed my bleeding hand against my breast, wondering what the resulting mixture of shell, butter and blood would taste like: I remembered that when my breasts had first emerged I’d always been touching them in parks. That soreness was also singular—it seemed appropriate for it to absorb the pain in my hand into itself.

I asked Who is right, here?

He looked at the sun. Features slanting, petulant. He’d stopped crying, but the skin around his eyes looked like it had been injected with cherry preserves. What would that face look like covered in clown makeup?

I asked What are you doing after this?

He said I just went to the dentist’s, I don’t know.

Fuck, I said, do you want to get something to eat?

Giddy, playing with his fingers.