I sold my first piece at twenty, still a junior in college. If anything could’ve ripped through my beautiful ambivalence, tearing it apart seam by seam and sigh by sigh, it was that first sale. Success is so much more difficult to accept that failure or routine. When a punch lands, the rule’s always turn the other cheek. If anything sums up my way of life, it’s that. But what if it isn’t a punch, but a kiss? How does one turn the other cheek when the first is so alive in its moment? Yet my philosophy requires that I do. To be beautifully ambivalent is to accept even the good with the calm of distance. It’s to be detached from success as readily as failure.
When a local editor decided he wanted to publish one of my episodes in his literary journal, I struggled with my feelings. I worked hard to maintain my mood and tone despite success. It became necessary to control my excitement, to accept it but alter it out of fear that it might choose to alter me. Indulging another sweet sigh as it formed in my throat, I took my contributor’s copy, studied it, and whispered to myself, “It’s only a small success, after all.”
That one line became a ritual, and it carried me through my second publication. It even held up under the glorified stress of my first major sale to a national glossy. After each publication, I’d smile, take a deep breath, sigh in repentance, and then repeat the words: “It’s only a small success, after all.” When my friends applauded, my acquaintances clapped me on the back, and my professors noted that they’d seen my work in print, I replied, “It’s only a small success, after all.” As the copies arrived one at a time and my dorm room slowly filled with debris, I whispered those words again and again: “It’s only a small success, after all.”
But it was more of a vertical phrase than a horizontal one. It lifted me up and up with every small victory until I found the one that was better. Then I looked down and shivered as I confessed, “Now that was a great success.” Where do the wings of Icarus melt? It’s at the highest point in the ascent. The altitude of success urges the melting, and then the tug of gravity, the fall. At twenty-two, I sold my first book. I nearly fell. The same editor who’d offered to publish my first excerpt now asked for something more. He wanted me to submit a collection of my excerpts, which I did, and he promptly offered to publish them as a book.
“It’s only a small success, after all,” I said as I accepted the offer, though I’d grown closer to proving that phrase a lie. “But it’s still a small success,” I said as I cashed the meager check. I made myself believe it. It was all I had to tether me to the ground. But when I first held that book in my hands, studying the colorful abstract art on the otherwise black cover and reading the title, Excerpts from a History by Mars Nébuleux, only then did I forget myself, as well as the words I used to express resigned acceptance. I nearly got lost, mesmerized by my reflection in the dark gloss of the cover, reading and rereading the words, laughing drunkenly as I reveled.
But I refused to give up on my philosophy. To relegate the positive as merely a small success, that worked in its time. In this new time, this time of greater success, I required a different mantra for the detachment I loved. Finding it would be a victory.
The problem was where to find the words. I scanned pages of newspapers and magazines. I skimmed the metaphysics of Aristotle and his children: Bacon, Schopenhauer, Leibniz, Sartre. My eyes purchased hours of theology. I meditated in silence, seeking Zen simplicity in elevated consciousness. When that failed, I read the lines on strange and often absurd faces, struggling to learn about grief, love, rage, passion and fear. And I searched inside myself, tracing my own lines, the lines of my personal history, for the words.
I found them hidden in details. I remembered words I hadn’t so much spoken as thought once at the uppermost peak of my experience, the first time my body and a lover’s became one. “And I can die now,” I heard myself say. As soon as I whispered the words, I loved them. It wasn’t that I wanted to die. I was willing merely to accept death if it chose that moment to arrive, and to embrace it. As a statement , it couldn’t be said without a resigned sigh. It meant I’d lived a good life. I’d proven myself. I’d done what I could and done well.
It invited my beautiful ambivalence as I’d hoped. To say it and believe it was to be resigned even to the finality of the void. What else in the life of a man could require so much acceptance, so much faith? I lived on despite the imminence of death. What better time to consider this than when all life felt divine? “And I can die now,” I said after struggling with the pleasure of publishing my book. It quashed the mutiny of happiness inside.
From then on, whenever elation grew too large, I heard the words humming in my thoughts and felt them forming on my lips and tongue. “And I can die now,” I said after every perfect joy. “I’ve lived well, and no moment could be better than this to punctuate the end.” Laughing earnestly with a seeming lack of control, I’d say, “And I can die now. What else have I got that entitles me to go beyond this laugh?” Then, occasionally, in the arms of a lover after time well spent making ideal love, I’d exhale that familiar sigh and casually recite the words in the context from which they first were formed: “And I can die now, at peace and fully realized.”
There were many successes. But only small ones. I kept myself as beautifully ambivalent as the ant scouting concrete, willing to taste whatever crumb or apple core comes first. I wrote about my lovers only by the secret names I gave them: My glass capsule, My frayed paper mask, My hyacinth, My discourteous prophet, My maddening spiral of dust. The names scattered from left to right, built a time line my history followed: My unwilling invocation, My brimstone burn and sulfur smell, My coarse gasp of laughter. The excerpts some called poems kept coming, as did hour after hour and day after day. But one thing was missing, one character whose absence left the history unbalanced, leaning. I found him just before the next book went to press. Almost by accident, I stumbled into him in the darkness, tripping drunkenly over a loose shoelace or the leg of a chair. We fell together, his hands holding me up. And there he was staring back at me through eyes as violet and inviting as mine. “Thank you,” I said. “That’s kind.”
He accepted my gratitude with mute words, his pale lips rippling in the dark. I could tell right away my beautiful ambivalence had him, too. The snowy waves of his tattered hair, the numb intensity of lines on his otherwise smooth face, the mysterious bleakness carefully matched by joy—all the elements defined him as a monument to his own history. Clearly he recognized me, too. Fellow travelers always nod when passing on the way.
Unblinking, we stood palm to palm and eye to eye, testing the intensity of night with quiet. We spent forever in that void before I spoke again. “I know you,” I said, “but I don’t know you. You’re something more than what I comprehend.”
His lips moved in meditative silence, casting off some secret mantra for a kindred spirit.
“What do you believe?” I asked. I felt an overwhelming compulsion to explore the depths of this young man, to break through his facade and test his philosophy. How deep did the beautiful ambivalence go? To what extent did he own the world and to what extent did the world own him? I watched carefully, waiting for his reply. None came. “Tell me what you believe.”
Slowly like a fragment of seedhead fluttering toward the ground, his lower lip trembled, distracting my eyes with a shadow of his breath. But he had no voice to speak with. All he could do was mouth the words and listen as I observed and read them aloud. He spoke of a world free from illusions, anchored by detachment. He permitted no self-deceptions, preferring the experiment in self-reflection. Ah, that easy way, that sweet nectar always flowing, he insisted that only by tasting it one could merge with the Divine, devouring it to be fulfilled.
“Do you look for meaning?” I said.
He laughed maniacally after another lengthy silence. His grin grew evil and deformed—an infection spreading to my lips. With a dégagé tilt of his head and a mouth’s casual movement, he explained he had no need of searching for meaning. All he had to do was breathe it in like cold air on a frigid November morning, then get his fill and breathe it out warmed over. Meaning exists everywhere, he told me. It lingers in every rock, every window, every face.
“That’s what it means to be open,” I heard myself whisper, reciting the words I saw him speak without making a sound. “That’s my philosophy. That’s the way of creature and creator alike. That, my closest friend, is who I am.”
I thought I heard a beautifully ambivalent sigh escape, but I soon realized this effect came from me. It gave me release in a breath. Leaning in, still palm to palm and now forehead to forehead, our bodies merged into one oblique shape, a symmetrical form in darkness. “I have only this moment,” I heard myself say, not sure if they were his words or mine. “We know so little, but we share one real truth. There’s nothing before and nothing after now.”
I kissed him. Or he kissed me. Or we kissed each other, our lips pressed together in a cold, glassy embrace. It was a moment like any other, no more or less profound.
Ace Boggess is author of one book of poems, The Beautiful Girl Whose Wish Was Not Fulfilled (www.circlemagazine.com/beautifulgirl). His writing has appeared in Harvard Review, Notre Dame Review, Poetry East, Atlanta Review, Florida Review, Southeast Review and SNReview.
Copyright 2004, Ace Boggess. This work is protected under the U.S. copyright laws. It may not be reproduced, reprinted, reused, or altered without the expressed written permission of the author.