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K.A. Nielsen

The Real You

Depth of Despair by Adamant with MidJourney AI

You’re not yourself today.

A queerness permeates as you pace the apartment, the walls inching in. You pace with book in hand, reading in snatches, pausing when a sentence hits you sideways, then clip the passage out of the book, lining your scissors carefully along the text. It started with one quote, something for your inner self: Fear no more, says the heart in the body. But of course you feared, there was always fear, so you kept searching for the right words because once found, they would cohere seamlessly, a perfect understanding. Now your apartment is covered in flutters of paper, and you know it looks mad, this collecting and clipping. You tell yourself any minute now, you’ll start piecing these together, reveal the threads of meaning, but instead you pace, read and pace, the shreds quivering around your bare feet.

You drop the book, go to the bathroom, bury your face in your hands, pull your skin down slowly. There is something wrong with your appearance. In the mirror, you look from one eye to the next, but your body ripples away. You trust yourself to be there even when you’re not looking. The trust is unwarranted. Your face is a clay continent. You think you can put your thumb on your nose and push it bonelessly in. You could work your face around like dough. You test this, press your thumb into your nose as your eyes water, shimmering in the periphery. You press harder, urging your thumb in, willing the tears on your cheeks to soften your borders but—

The mail drops through the slot in the door. Automatically, you release yourself and fetch the mail, pausing to peek through the eyehole. The deliverer strides down the hall, not stopping at anyone else’s door. You expect the usual bills and coupons, but there’s only a brochure titled The Real You. You squint through the eyehole again, but the deliverer is gone. The edges of the liver-colored brochure prick. It reads: Think of your body not as your own but as a body you wear. You must groom your body, feed your body, work your body. You are permitted to take brief walks in a body. You are permitted to have sexual intercourse with your body. You are permitted to stress your body. You are permitted to change your body in some ways, to some extents, in some cases. You may ask, ‘Are you a rough draft? How will you edit yourself?’ Test the power of a minor revision: Place this paper between two fingers and draw it through. See the power of a simple cut.

You pause, place the brochure between finger and thumb, and pull it through. When it bleeds, you admire the red, then lick it up. You are intact. Keep revising. Trust that if you dig out the beautiful caves within your selves, the caves shall connect.

You turn the brochure over, slice between your fingers again. A bright thrill. You stare at the fragments covering your apartment, then pick up a scrap: You render alien what is, in fact, literally inalienable. You pull it across your forearm. Across the belly: Where there was once one, there are now two. Or were there always two? You shiver at the scissors, test their weight in your hand, place the tip of your pinky in its beak, hold your breath as the pressure bites, test your editorial control, then with a shudder, the scissors drop to the floor, blades gaping between your bare feet.

You breathe, short gasps, pulse flying.

Before you test the scissors again, you leave. You stride along the sidewalk in the twilight, and only then do you realize you’ve left your apartment without keys, without jacket, without shoes, the sidewalk underfoot still warm from the day, sparkling with broken glass. You try to slow your breath, ease your pulse, but your body reverberates. You walk block after block, turning again and again, until the city becomes a mirrored maze, glass on every side, and it’s only then when you see the reflections of yourself in the opposing buildings that you realize the city is empty. No cars. No people. Just you and your reflections. You hurry from one pool of streetlight to the next, your reflections chasing you, fleeing you. You do not only want to run away from yourself but to be obliterated, to cease to be, to return to dust. Yet still you preserve the power of running, a miracle, running on, your reflections chasing and fleeing, chasing and fleeing, all of you running through infinite mirrors until an eerie glow draws you out of the maze.

Ahead a carnival flashes, carousels spinning, a roller coaster looping in on itself. The place is silent, empty. You study the patterns of lights flashing, rides repeating, round and round. Your cuts tingle.

Something moves in the dark, a person standing near you. And though they’re hidden in shadow, you know them. You know that stance, that fear, that urge to divide yourself into so many splinters of being. They say something to you, say something quickly, abruptly, not quite intelligibly, but something quite private, something concerning yourself. When they turn to the carnival and stride off, their steps a sinister echo, you call out, “What did you say?” but they only keep walking. You cry, “Why won’t you talk?” Without glancing back, they begin to run, so you run, too, growing desperate: “You do have a tongue. So use it!”

They plunge into the maze of lights, swallowed by the cotton candy and teddy bears, lost between the Ferris wheel and placid bumper cars. You wander through the bright silence, but turning the corner, your destination is obvious. The building is decorated with clowns, identical except in proportion, some tall and thin, others short and fat, still others as if their bones had abandoned their bodies. You’re pulled to the House of Mirrors. When you step inside the dark mouth, the silence squeezes tighter, wrapping snug around your neck. You let your eyes adjust to the dim lights, but when you step deeper, your nose slams into something hard. Tears burn. You massage your nose with one hand while reaching ahead with another. The space looks clear, a doorway in the darkness, but it feels slick and cool. A trick of the eye, maybe a sheet of glass separating identical paths, but as you proceed through the building, slowly, hands outstretched, the truth seeps in. Your reflection is gone. In mirror after mirror, you search for it. You see the bends of the glass, know you should see yourself stretched in that one, pulled in the next, yet in mirror after mirror, there’s nothing. No trace of you or your body, so with each fumbling step your heart pumps fear through your veins. You stumble and turn and lose your self in the shaky house, search for exit signs that do not exist, turn and turn until—there you are.

Your self stands between three mirrors angled to echo for eternity. Step toward your self, raise your hand as your self raises theirs. Press your own nose, wince through the pain as your self does the same. Look from eye to eye, feel the rage of your own limits, then press your thumb into your self’s nose as your self has their thumb on your face. Gasp when your noses shift under the pressure, soft and easy as clay, fresh divots in your faces. Retract your hand, gulp the muggy air. Don’t question the urge, just thrust your fingers into your self’s gut, feel the clay body shift around your hand, even as your self reaches into your body. The pain thrills. Your gut clenches in accommodation. You murmur, hesitate, resist, but still reach deeper inside until you touch something firm. A tingle sparkles through you. Stretch deeper still, your arm up to the elbow inside your self, and as you stretch, fingertips straining, realize it is your hand you are touching deep within. Gasp and twist, reach and receive, your cheek brushing itself. Whisper in your ear, a singular whisper that grows the very echo of your own. Let the whisper become a moan, a keen, a scream. Reach further, grasp your hand inside your self, your bodies tensing in waves, your ecstatic limits taut, and at the precipice of obliteration, a leap of welcome, yes, come, clench your hands, wrench your selves through.

Author’s Note: This is an experimental piece of fiction which includes quotations and paraphrases from other works. I must humbly credit Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive (2019) for inspiring this intertextual approach. What follows is a complete list of the works cited and the original quotations, which are used verbatim or paraphrased.

Works Cited

Aschkenasy, Nehama. “Women and the Double in Modern Hebrew Literature: Berdichewsky/Agnon, Oz/Yehoshua.” Prooftexts, vol. 8, no. 1, 1988, pp. 113–28. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20689201. Accessed 9 Jun. 2022.

  • “…our heroine is destroyed not by physically killing herself, but by dividing herself into so many splinters of being, that the real Hannah is finally thinned out of existence.” (123)

“Beyond Life and Death.” Twin Peaks. Written by Mark Frost, Harley Peyton, Robert Engels, and David Lynch, directed by David Lynch, ABC, 1991.

  • “Where there was once one, there are now two. Or were there always two?”

Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. The Double: A Petersburg Poem. 1846. Translated by Constance Garnett. Holy Books, 2016. https://www.holybooks.com/wp-content/uploads/The-Double.pdf. Accessed 16 June 2022.

  • “Mr. Golyadkin was killed—killed entirely, in the full sense of the word, and if he still preserved the power of running, it was simply through some sort of miracle….” (44)
  • “Mr. Golyadkin did not want only to run away from himself, but to be obliterated, to cease to be, to return to dust.” (45)
  • “…some one was standing near him, beside him, also leaning on the railing, and—marvellous to relate!—had even said something to him, said something quickly, abruptly, not quite intelligibly, but something quite private, something concerning himself.” (45)
  • “…a sinister echo…” (160)

Gailey, Sarah. The Echo Wife. Tor, 2021.

  • “Had I been a rough draft?” (55)

Kelley, Joyce. “Dr. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde Park Gate: echoes of Robert Louis Stevenson in Mrs. Dalloway.” Virginia Woolf Miscellany, no. 84, Fall 2013, pp. 39+. Gale Literature Resource Center, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A365981359/LitRC?u=uppsala&sid=summon&xid=54cd7b13. Accessed 16 June 2022.

  • “Instead, she thinks of her body not as her own but as a ‘body she wore’…” (embedded quote is from Woolf’s Dalloway)

Kingston, Maxine Hong. The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts. 1975. Vintage International Edition, 1989.

  • “I thought that I could put my thumb on her nose and push it bonelessly in, indent her face. … I could work her face around like dough.” (176)
  • “You do have a tongue. So use it.” (178)
  • “Why won’t you talk?” (180)

Poe, Edgar Allan. “William Wilson.” 1842. PoeStories.com. https://poestories.com/read/williamwilson. Accessed 16 June 2022.

  • “…we were permitted to take brief walks in a body…”
  • “I began to murmur—to hesitate—to resist.”
  • “…and his singular whisper, it grew the very echo of my own.”

Stevenson, Robert Louis. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. E-book. Standard Ebooks. https://standardebooks.org/ebooks/robert-louis-stevenson/the-strange-case-of-dr-jekyll-and-mr-hyde/text/single-page. Accessed 16 June 2022.

  • “There is something wrong with his appearance; something displeasing, something downright detestable.”
  • “…is it the mere radiance of a foul soul that thus transpires through, and transfigures, its clay continent?”
  • “And yet when I looked upon that ugly idol in the glass, I was conscious of no repugnance, rather a leap of welcome. This, too, was myself. It seemed natural and human.”

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1990.

  • “Fear no more, says the heart in the body; fear no more.” (139)

—. The Letters of Virginia Woolf, edited by Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1975-1980.

  • “I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters; I think that gives exactly what I want; humanity, humor, depth. The idea is that the caves shall connect…”

Wong, Sau-ling C. Reading Asian American Literature: From Necessity to Extravagance. Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J, 1993.

  • “…one renders alien what is, in fact, literally inalienable….” (78)


About the writer:
K.A. Nielsen (she/they) is a U.S. writer living in Sweden. Their work has appeared in Milk Candy Review, Janus Literary, Fusion Fragment, The Hunger, Sledgehammer Lit, voidspace, the Bullshit Lit Anthology, and elsewhere.

Image: Depth of Despair by Adamant with MidJourney AI. A digital image generated with the command “depth of despair.” By 2023.  By free license.

OJAL Art Incorporated, publishing since 2017 as OPEN: Journal of Arts & Letters (O:JA&L) and its imprint Buttonhook Press, is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation supporting writers and artists worldwide.

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