I was telling Mark E. some complicated narrative, boggling through a tangle of details of names, intricate relationships, and events (the kind that makes his highly alert and responsive face cloud over), and the whole time I was hearing the heater tapping as it was warming up. In a corner of my thinking, I overheard myself postulating ideas about what kind of heater it was, what it looked like. I had of course looked at the space off to my right countless times, but could not call forth a convincing memory. Was it a radiator, tall and upright or was it the electrical kind low and long along the baseboard, with the metal baleen teeth inside? (And in those millisecond-calculations, I was factoring in the sounds it was making, which was tilting the possibility toward an electric heater, but still, I didn’t know its shape) I realized when I stopped telling my story that my mind had been engaging in this back process all along.
And I sat there, quiet for a moment, having spun out of my story, and then said, finally looking to the right, that I had been developing all these ideas about the heater while I was talking. I thought I’d fill him in on that because he’s always interested in the tiniest, most ostensibly inconsequential indication of whatever is going on at the moment. So we’re both looking right at it and I’m feeling “Okay, it’s settled. It’s a baseboard electric heater.”
And when he asks that question, I feel suddenly completely alive and activated. Presumably the fact that we are both looking at the heater would lay to rest any questions about what it is. But here he is, asking What is it?
It was so exhilarating to have him look right at it and still pose that question. As if my saying, “well it’s, uh, an electrical heating device” would not answer the question, that ultimately, in any attempt to define it, the heater would dissolve under analysis.
What struck me was how instantly I dropped all the conjectural heaters I had dreamed up—there was no sense of “Oh, but I really was convinced it was a radiator and I’m going to persist in thinking it’s a radiator”–I had nothing at stake in that.
It’s not so easy though to release our hold on notions of the self, after so much has been invested in them.