Asphodel

25. April 2019

It was an insufficiently-gloomy morning in the sunniest autumn yet experienced by Alice B., a student who lived in an overpriced dorm, which, however, was inexplicably a good deal compared to renting a room. Having finally made it to the bustling metropolis, which was empty, having just finished calling her mother, she reflected on how much more free she felt here than at home, with a healthy distance from relatives (not her parents, of course) who still thought she was a man. And yet, despite all that, despite living in what was assuredly the cultural capital of the country with an unparalleled reputation for tolerance, and indeed despite the steps she took daily to assert her womanhood, it seemed not to be enough. How many people still, without the clear malicious intent in abundance online and off, referred to her as a man? She could not simply fulfill their mistakes by becoming a parody of femininity, so obviously a woman that none could deny it and yet a betrayal of her self, but neither could she keep on assenting, simply to avoid confrontation: another betrayal of the self. What was one to do? Her mother assured her to wait, that people would eventually come around, but how could that be? Would it not be more likely that, once they realized she was not a man, that they would shun her as a freak, a pervert, a transvestite and autogynephile? Even hearing their supposed support for her sort in general didn’t seem convincing; she worried it was a sort of general political support, or perhaps an individual support for all but her in particular. Should she simply throw in the towel and move back, suppress her feelings and hope for an early death? The image of the woman artist of the avant-garde, maintaining a secure detachment from the world and its concerns, not needing to worry about image, never seemed so close, and yet so far.

She shifted in her seat and began to work, thinking that these worries were totally insignificant, that she was making a mountain out of a molehill and would simply have to live with this discomfort. Those dreams, after all, were self-centered and completely out of reach: they were mere fantasies, and if she wanted to get anywhere near them she had to work her way through. To hold on to them seemed the height of irresponsibility and immaturity, something completely inconsistent with the altogether precarious position of life in this era. After all, what had she hitherto accomplished? Nothing: and one could not trade on potential and dreams, but only on achievements. She was lucky, she thought, to even be here: just six months before, living on her own in the great metropolis seemed an unthinkable dream.

As she walked home that evening, she regretted her feeble attempt to assert her womanhood through a modest application of makeup, for the hostile gaze of the city was fixed upon her. Every eye seemed another question: “what are you?” “why are you here?” She did not look forward to returning home to her roommates (another set of eyes, even if a kinder and more familiar one), with whom she made a point of avoiding interaction, for each approach seemed in vain. Meanwhile, the news seemed to bring horror each day: a new threat, and also a new indictment of her inaction. She knew it was an illusion of youth, yet she could not help but envy some of the women she came across: complete self-confidence, proven talent, an understanding of how to live as a self-sufficient urban dweller, plenty of friends and always some event to attend.

Alice had but one friend in the city, and she worried that she overwhelmed her friend with her worries and complaints. It would only be a matter of time, she thought, before things became too much and for the well-being of both, the two would slowly split. Her mother had told her not to worry: that she would make new friends if she made sure to look, yet this seemed impossible. Whenever she was in the department among classmates she felt like a fraud, and she didn’t know where else to look. It’s not as if she could simply approach someone at a café and ask to be their friend: such absurdities were no longer possible, and would only reinforce her isolation. It would be an opportunity for her to be revealed as a demanding, nosy, impolite, and oblivious person, completely insensitive to the lives of others.

At the same time, she was in the prime of her life. How could one waste one’s twenties alone, living such a staid and boring life in such a metropolis? Unlike her roommates, she was completely in the dark about parties, but her previous attempt to enjoy them had completely failed; hours of inescapable earache staring at her shoes. Yet she had nothing but contempt for the attempt to defang such events: either give them fully, or not at all. A bland, safe version of counterculture like the one surrounding her seemed, if anything, even more alienating.

Some people she had encountered online had diagnosed this isolation as part of the cruelty of the city, and urged a departure from its decadence back to the organic rootedness of the rural, wholesome and separated from the prejudices of society, but this came across as a reactionary myth. Not only was she completely uninterested in agriculture, she recognized it as a life of unending, back-breaking toil, which she was utterly unprepared for. She could not adjust to the homogeneity of rural life, especially its ethnic and cultural homogeneity. To go along with that proposal would be to isolate herself further, becoming a perfect target for abuse. Worse still, it would be to turn one’s back on one’s ambitions, to throw away all that was invested in achieving them, to be unable to provide for one’s parents when they approach old age.

It was another unreasonably sunny day when the topic returned in full force to her thought. How could she wallow in this self-pity? It would be meaningless if it were not realized in action. Despite all this rumination, she had still conceived herself as a person wronged, as a gifted, special person, a tall poppy. It was not enough to simply note that this self-conception was shameful; it had to change, too. She had to embrace the truth of being a mediocre soul, an impostor, completely unworthy of residence in the city. Her presence in the city was a pestilence, one of the many woes that transformed them into mediocre places. She must, as an outsider, banish herself to the asphodel fields; she deserved nothing better than its flat sepia-toned nothingness, its annihilation of memory and self. Only then could nature return to equilibrium; once she did this, all who had the misfortune of knowing her would be freed of their burden.

She knew what was necessary, and so walked down in an even march to the bridge almost automatically, as if her will were irrelevant. Like a robot, she climbed the railing and looked down at the polluted river, before bending and diving. She hoped to leave no traces.