The Man Who Became Himself

Charles Yu

He was turning into something unspeakable.
    At the office, people avoided the issue.
    David, they would say, how are you? You, they said. To be polite.
    Others noticed but pretended not to. As if they weren’t always staring and whispering and wondering. Assuming it could never happen to them.
    David, for his part, played along, glad to make small talk. He asked about their children, looked at pictures of dogs and cats and trips to Tahoe. David moved his mouth, made the right sounds, gave people what they expected. The men talked about sports, mostly, and the women, if they could help it, usually didn’t talk to him at all.

It had really started a month earlier. Or not.
    Whatever it was, if it was an it, it had started a month earlier.
    If it was more of a lack of an it, then it, or rather not-it, had stopped about a month earlier.
    If it was neither an it nor a lack of an it, but nothing whatsoever, then it had neither started nor stopped a month earlier. Or it had started to stop. Or stopped starting. Or done nothing. It had happened or not happened. Either way, something or nothing. Either way: about a month earlier.
    It or not-it was not any single change or non-change. It or not-it was a lot of changes or non-changes, not all at once and not connected by any pattern or nonpattern. For instance, there was, among other things, the habit David had developed, occurring daily and with increasing frequency, of referring to himself in the third person.
    Everyone wants to know what David’s going to do, he liked to say. Which was true. Everyone did, in fact, want to know what David was going to do. It wasn’t arrogance. David was, without a doubt, arrogant, but it wasn’t just arrogance. Still, it happened often enough that even David started to notice David referring to David as David.
    “I’m so sick of it,” he said one night. This was near the end of the summer, during a late session at work. David was at the whiteboard with a Magic Marker in his hand, pacing around the front of the room. “Everyone is always watching David.” The members of his working group nodded in sympathy. He was their boss. Also, he had large quads and round, hard anterior delts. People were somewhat afraid of him.
    “You know what?” he continued. “I’ll be honest. I don’t know what David’s going to do.” He stopped and leaned over the table for emphasis. Eric from Marketing was nodding like an idiot. David lowered his voice now, to drive the point home. He said, “David doesn’t rush things” and then paused for effect, drawing even more vigorous nodding. “That’s just not who David is.”
    There was also the matter of his detachment from the goings-on of the world. This was both local and global. He hardly watched the news anymore. Names, places, statistics—they could no longer hold his interest. Likewise with the suffering of strangers, with water rights, with tree frog biodiversity. Things that used to matter to him: populist uprisings, malnutrition, the distribution of wealth. Nothing could stir him to care anymore.
    He had once cared.
    Cared deeply and if not deeply, then, at the very least, cared mildly. Cared in an abstract, willing-to-sign-a-petition, NPR-listener way of caring.
    Now the news just came and went, passed right through him. Now all of it seemed so temporary, so specific, so far away.

Just before Labor Day, David and Patricia were having their usual breakfast. They drank a pot of black coffee with heaps of sugar added. They each ate two slices of buttered toast and then split an orange while reading their respective sections of the newspaper. They read in silence. David always took the business page; Patricia browsed obituaries, then cooking.
    The phone rang. David did not look up from the stock quotes. Patricia answered.
    “It’s for you,” she said, handing it over.
    “Hello?” he said.
    “David Howe?” said the woman on the other end.
    And that was it.

That wasn’t when it happened, of course. The day of the call was not the day it happened. Also, the day it happened was not the same day he realized it had happened.
    All that had happened that day was that he had remembered that, at some time in the recent past, something had happened. That, on some level, for some indefinite period of time, he had known, he had been aware that this something had happened, although he was not sure what it was exactly that had happened.
    Two words. That was all he had heard her say. After that he had stopped listening. Two words: David Howe.
    She had obtained David’s name from a database of qualified individuals. She wanted to talk to him about an exciting new opportunity, about upside potential and risk-adjusted returns. She was good at her job, and David could not get in a word while she went on and on for ten minutes. Finally, he had hung up on her in midsentence.
    He did not think about the call again until later that night, lying awake in the dark. Patricia was snoring. She made small fluttering noises through her delicate nostrils. A bird outside their second-floor window was trying to mimic her nose calls. Between the chirping creature and his wife’s nose, he could not fall asleep.
    David Howe.
    That’s all she had said. It was just his name.
    Two words. David Howe. It was his name, a question, nothing more.
    But now he could not stop thinking about it, could not stop thinking about that moment, after she’d said it, when he’d held the phone, hands trembling, breath shallow and acidic, his vision suddenly blurry. She had asked for David Howe. She was calling for David Howe, but something had unsettled him, something in her voice, in her tone, the way she had said his name; it had reached deep down and plucked something inside. That morning in the kitchen, he had sensed it, had a feeling, but could not quite put his finger on it, and so he let it go, but now, lying in the gray middle of the night, it had come back to him. Now he could not think about anything but the call; now it was coming to him; now he remembered what had turned his fingers cold and his ears hot.
    She was calling for David Howe, but she was not calling for him.
    She was calling for David, but somehow, in some way, she was not calling for him. He remembered thinking she has the wrong number and wondering why is this woman calling my house, calling my number, talking to me but asking for David? He tossed in bed for hours, got up to smoke cigarettes in the bathroom, held his head under the shower, smoked some more, the whole night back and forth, wondering how it was possible, wondering why she was calling; he wondered and wondered and then he was terrified, and in a flash of cold sweat, he remembered. He realized. He was David Howe.
In the days after, he was shy, afraid of startling Patricia. He wasn’t sure if she knew. If she did not, he wasn’t sure he could explain, and even if he could have figured out how to explain, he was not sure she would understand.
    At work he observed the different ways in which people handled what they said, how people reacted to him. Some people called him David, and some, as noted, preferred the euphemism you to refer to both David and to him. Mostly, though, they ignored it. They talked about what had been on television the night before. People at the office hid their fear well, which he appreciated, considering what they were looking at, all of him just out there in the open like that, for everyone to see.
    At home it was a different story. He thought it, whatever it was, might go away before Patricia found out. He took measures to avoid her, but she made it easy. She woke up in the mornings an hour before him, showered, drank a cup of coffee, and went to work. At night she was usually in bed by the time David got home. They went days with no more than a dozen words exchanged. Three, four days. A week. They barely spoke. The bills got paid. The garbage taken out to the curb. After a while he realized she did not know. She either had not paid enough attention, or he was succeeding in his efforts to conceal it, to conceal himself, the awful truth.
    He thought things could go on like that indefinitely, with him going to work and pretending it had not happened and then coming home and not talking about it with Patricia. And he was not entirely sure that such a state of affairs would be wholly undesirable. At the very least it was better than scaring her.
    Then one day she came home and found David sitting by himself on the couch, devastated. He had the TV remote in one hand, but the television was turned to a test signal. In his other hand he held a glass half full of warm bourbon.
    “I don’t understand how this happened,” he said.
    “How what happened?”
    He thought she was kidding. He said nothing.
    “How what happened?” she repeated.
He realized she was not kidding. Why was he hiding it from her? Eventually, she would have found out. He decided to show her. He pointed at David, at himself, at his self.
    “This,” he said.

The basic facts of his identity were the same as ever. His name was still David Howe. People called him by this name when they were talking to him. Or rather, when they were talking to David. When talking to each other, if they wanted to make reference to the person in the world associated with him, they would say the words David Howe, and everyone would know what they meant.
    As far as he could tell, David was still the same age: forty-seven, soon to be forty-eight.
    David still made the same salary, that certain amount of money transferred every two weeks out of the firm’s account and into the possession of the legal entity known as David Howe. This amount was more than David rightfully deserved, and he knew it. A lot of other people knew it, too.
    David still liked dogs over cats, beer over liquor, and hockey over football. David still cared about people, but only to the extent it made sense to care about them, and no further. These were the basic facts about David Howe, and they did not change.

The first thing he noticed about David was that he noticed David.
    For example, David’s emotions. The basic range of David’s emotions repeated itself in a fairly regular cycle: fear, desire, excitement, boredom, anger, envy. Not always in that order, of course, but between those six feelings, most of David’s waking hours were covered.
    The difference was that now, when David felt something, he could observe it. He could watch the world through David’s current emotional state as through a slide in a projector or a colored filter on a lens.
    If David got angry, he could see the world through David’s anger. Not just the racing thoughts, the murderous impulses. It was not just that he could feel David’s face changing to bright red, David’s pulse quickening. These things were not anger. It was that he knew a moment before David said something what David was going to say. He could see what anger itself looked like, what the world looked like through the pure feeling. He saw how vaporous, unformed rage first cooled and condensed into fluid, volatile thought, how that liquid then crystallized around particles into language, into individual words. He could see how David’s anger was apparent to others long before David was actually angry and long after David thought it had subsided.
    Although he could watch the world as if he were every bit as angry as David, at the same time, if he wanted, he could stop. He could stop seeing the world through David’s anger. Even if David were in the middle of a rant or a tantrum or an intense fit of screaming, he could stop. Doing this did not cause David to stop being angry, nor did it result in any detectable wavering of conviction or decrease in intensity in David’s anger. It was just that David’s feelings were no longer his feelings. Feelings were optional, which is to say, he had no feelings. Not anymore. Not in any real sense. Feelings were an activity, something he could do. They were David’s feelings, but they were not him. He could choose to be angry with David, or he could choose not to. It was as simple as that. He could do the same with happiness or sadness or jealousy. He liked the subtle variations between glee and gladness, envy and bitterness. He liked the kiddie emotions as well as the grownup ones: indignation, ennui, nostalgia. David was predisposed toward a kind of post-adolescent flavor of malaise in which a lot of gazing was done out of the window. He liked this, too. He liked insouciance and cultivated indifference and just plain old detachment. He could feel all of these and more, just as David felt them. Still, when he looked in the mirror, he saw David. The harder he tried to concentrate, the more he saw only David. He had to remember. He was David.
    Another change was in details about the past. They simply did not seem real anymore. Where he had gone to school, where he worked, places he’d been. The things he had purchased, used, consumed, thrown away. All of it seemed to him like a story told over time. But the story was not about him. David was the one who had gone to the private school, who had a job at the big firm, a new car. David was the one who had purchased and assembled a seven thousand dollar stereo system. David had been to Dublin, to Chengmai, to Buenos Aires. He had never been anywhere.
    Sometimes he felt like a young boy whose whole life had been spent upstairs in a small bedroom, a child’s bedroom. All day long he sat at his desk, drawing pictures and staring out the window at the backyard below, where nothing ever happened. He had been doing this for almost half a century when one day another person walked in who looked just like him. This person put his things down and went to another desk and began drawing his own pictures, and he realized that in all those years, his whole life up to that point, he had not been living in that room alone. That there had been another boy in there with him for forty-seven years, sitting on the other side of the room, staring out an opposing window with a different view. The other boy’s view was of the front yard, where everything happened. Out of that window the other boy could watch neighbors and friends chatting, mailmen doing their job, kids playing, strange men driving slowly down the block and then back again. This other person went in and out of the room whenever he felt like it. He went downstairs for dinner every night. He went away to school for a while, then he came back, grown up. This other boy, now a man, had read books, slept with women, smoked pot, married, cheated on his wife; this other boy went to church on Easter and Christmas, and all the while he had never left the room. This other boy was David Howe, and they had lived in that cramped space within feet of each other for their entire lives, breathing the same air, hearing the same sounds, sleeping together under the low ceiling, and they had never spoken, never even noticed one another. It was as if he was in the first person and David Howe was in the third person, and between them was an immense chasm of silence.
    And even though he now knew about David, he was fairly certain that David still had no idea who he was. He did not know if David was even capable of finding out.
    The only time he thought David might have some clue about himself, about his existence, was in David’s dreams.
    In one of these dreams, which was more of a nightmare, David was the captain of a lonely boat. It was a fast, sleek, powerful boat, but it was still lonely. There was no one on it except for David. He stood at the helm in an immaculate captain’s uniform, steering the boat across the field of glittering blue-green water, glassy and endless.
    The nightmare part was that in the dream, the world was completely silent. Not one sound. Not a bird nor a breeze nor any sea life jumping out into the air, not a wave slapping against the boat. The speeding boat just sliced through the ocean without resistance, without any drag or pitch, as if the boat were made of something weightless and the water could do nothing but slide off of its smooth, impervious hull.
    In another of his dreams, David dreamt of a man, a man who was not David. The man lived on a remote island too tiny to be on any map. The entire island was the size of a small house.
    In this dream the man could not remember ever having been off the island. No one had ever visited his little island, and as far as he could tell, no one even knew he existed. The man had nothing to do except think about the boat. The man knew about the boat because once a bottle had floated to his island and inside was a picture of the captain on his boat. The man did not know what to do with it, so he kept it safe, buried in the dry sand, and once a day he dug it up and looked at it.
    In this dream the man survived by catching small fish from his little beach. While he fished he thought about the captain in his boat. The picture when he found it had already been faded and mostly ruined by salt water and the sun, but the man could plainly see that it was a beautiful boat. He wondered about the captain, if they would ever meet.
    All day long the man fished and slept and occasionally swam out a bit into the cove, as if those few steps might get him just that much closer to the boat. At night he closed his eyes and pictured the captain out there in the vast oceans of the world, gliding across the face of the calm, deep water, never stopping.

As the weeks and months passed, he grew more accustomed to being David. Not everything was for the worse. A few pleasures remained. Some were even heightened. He liked to hear music through David’s ears. Rachmaninoff or Mahler. He liked David’s taste in food, his preference for very hot showers. He enjoyed going to the outdoor market on Saturday mornings, especially when it rained, standing under the tarp, hearing the pelting drops, in the middle of all the produce crates, the scent of ripe apples, and the slightly metallic smell of rain rising off of the wet pavement.
    He also began to understand more than David’s emotions. He began to understand belief and doubt in David, faith and knowledge, forgetting and remembering. He learned that David felt plenty of shame and guilt. But David did not feel sorry. David never felt sorry. He was sorry, but David never was.
    In fact, being sorry was the only thing he did that David did not do. He began to suspect that the whole purpose of this, this thing that had happened, his whole purpose, apart from David’s purposes, was to do just that. To be sorry. Not to feel sorry: if one could feel sorry, then David would have been doing it. David liked to feel everything. David was a feeling addict.
    He knew David never felt sorry because, in the past, David never apologized to Patricia, even when he was wrong. Now, when David raised his voice or was quick tempered or inconsiderate with her, he would try to make David apologize. Most of the time David’s mouth would resist, and the words would come out sounding twisted and cruel or callous or insincere. But once in a while, when David was drowsy or not paying attention, he could sneak in and say something without David interfering.
    It often happened on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon when David was lying on the couch, watching television, and Patricia walked through the room, just going about her business, going about her life, not complaining much, not even complaining at what her husband had become, was becoming. He would wait until she was past him, almost out of the room with her back turned, and quickly, softly, almost under his breath, as if exhaling, he would whisper, “I’m sorry . . . for . . . all of . . . this.” She would look confused, not knowing what he meant, but he could tell it touched her.
    Still, in time, David and Patricia drifted further apart. He began to feel that he would never be sure whether she knew or not. Sometimes he was sure she did. Sometimes he was sure she didn’t. How it was possible that the woman who had lived with David for fourteen years could have any trouble at all seeing something so obvious, seeing all that he was becoming or had become or would become, seeing him in all of his grotesque proportion and fleshy solidity, he did not claim to understand. But it made a kind of perverse sense that the person closest to him would be least likely, or perhaps least able, to be shocked.
    Throughout the autumn many nights passed during which neither of them said a word. It seemed to get colder by the hour. Evenings they usually stayed in the same room, in the den with the heat turned up all the way. They ate dinner and then cleaned up together without saying a word. Later, David would read in the corner, an entire magazine cover to cover or, once in a while, an old biography he’d first read in college. Patricia would sit on a dusty old chair they’d bought together as newlyweds and grade her students’ compositions.
    Some evenings, if she finished early, she’d go to the kitchen and pour David a scotch and usually a sip of wine for herself. David would say thank you, and they would sit there silently, drinking a bit, then a bit more.
    On some cold, bright nights, the moon in the frame of the window, filling the room with light, they would fall asleep like this: David on his left side, Patricia on her right, David’s hand on her hip. On these nights he could wake up an hour or two before dawn, while David was still dreaming of the boats and islands, and listen, as he often did, to Patricia’s nose make those small fluttering noises. He would lie there inside David’s body, feeling its gurgling machinery, the sound of it softly emptying and filling itself with air, just waiting until sunrise. He considered these to be good nights.
    Then there were very good nights when David had worked late or had an extra few drinks, and David’s body was especially tired. Being inside on those nights was like lying submerged in a bathtub filled with maple syrup. Interesting but not entirely pleasant. He could feel David’s fatigue as a kind of viscosity, a massiveness. He knew David wouldn’t be up for hours, and on these very good nights, he could do more than just listen and lie there. On these nights, after waking, he would wait for a few minutes, just to be sure, and then after about a half hour, he would begin.
    He was not entirely sure what he was doing. It was not moving. More like agitating or even resonating. It was his version of shouting, kicking, and flailing. Inside David’s heavy, sleeping mass, he was small, slight, nearly weightless. But through agonizing effort, he could force David’s eyes open while David still slept. Each of David’s eyelids took monumental effort. He strained, he agonized, he clung to every millimeter of progress. Letting David slip backwards into sleep would be defeat. More than defeat. Oblivion. He did not get these chances often and losing one was crushing. He never knew when or if it would ever happen again. He would usually have to force one eye open first, then the other. The second one was always easier. He had no idea how long it actually took. It could have been only a minute or so, but it felt like hours.
    Once he had David’s eyes open, his next task was to use David’s voice box. With practice, he had gotten to the point where he could manage to make small whimpering noises, like a confused animal might make. Patricia noticed him then. He was not sure how David looked and sounded to her. He guessed that what she saw was probably not what he had intended.
    What she saw was not any of his thrashing and flailing inside. All of that only registered as mild pain or discomfort or bewilderment. What she saw was the body of her husband lying there, jaw slack, eyes watery and darting around as if in panic. The first time she saw this, the first time he was able to open David’s eyes and quietly stare at her in the dark, she was so terrified she fell out of bed and onto the hard floor, waking David.
    But with each instance, she became less alarmed. In time she seemed to understand that the person she was looking at was David and was not David, was her husband but was also a stranger.
    They would lie there together, Patricia in her body and him in David’s body, and he would look at her, look right at her without any of David’s knowledge or memory or guilt. He would look at her like he had never seen anything in the world before, like he did not know his own name, her name, anyone’s name. Patricia would sit up in bed and take David’s head in her lap, and they would just look at each other, and for a few minutes, it did not matter what he had become, what had happened, what they could do about it. It did not matter where the boat captain was, where he was headed, where he had been. She was fine not knowing anything about him, and he was fine not knowing anything at all. He was fine just lying there inside that softly slumbering body as she stroked David’s hair saying to him, over and over again, I know, I know, I know, I know, while on the other side of the world, in his silent, gleaming boat, David sailed and sailed around the unending ocean.

Charles Yu lives in Los Angeles. He has published fiction in Alaska Quarterly Review, Harvard Review, 5 Trope, and the Malahat Review.

“The Man Who Became Himself” appears in our Summer 2004 issue.