The Art of Leaving


In a strange yet somehow-exactly-anticipated respect, Jenny’s blog piece last Wednesday—her “Prolonged Performances of Grief,” the fiercely humbling tribute she wrote on losing me to Los Angeles—has made (the thought of, the act of) moving easier. She’s done the grieving, honestly, openly, already.

Her gift—not in the least because it went on for pages, and whoever ever has pages devoted to themselves and their (apparent) virtues—had me in tears, getting up from my spindly computer chair, waltzing into the kitchen to hug her half-sobbing. Editing the piece, in the face of this, felt like a kind of self-indulgent masochism: and so does writing even a word about the piece now. Nothing feels appropriate. Who, honestly, could follow something like that?

But here we are.

One of my favorite novels, Mark Merlis’s An Arrow’s Flight, retells the myth of Alcestis and Admetus in classic Homeric fashion: a story within a story, replete with its own anachronistic similes, colorful deities, and metaphorical significance for the primary narrative’s hero. The situation of this little diversionary tale? Pyrrhus—queer, sissy, go-go dancer turned army recruit, son of the now dead warrior Achilles—is talking to Phoenix, an old fart of a counselor, as they are marched by wind and engine on the ship of Odysseus toward some unclear destiny.

As the ship plugs steadily along towards Lemnos and (perhaps?) Troy, Pyrrhus asks Phoenix about Admetus, an old salt, one of the many of Odysseus’s’ crewmen. This is where Homer would insert the metaphorical significance: that’s what rapsodes do with stories-within-stories.

Simply put, as a young man, Admetus’s number was up—that’s the most important thing about him, as myth would have you believe. His wonderful life, his little fiefdom, his sons, the happy marriage to his dutiful and prepossessing wife: none of it matters beyond the fact that Apollo owes Admetus a favor and manages to trick the Fates (he gets them drunk) into allowing someone else to die in his place. Admetus asks around. No one, not his friends, not even his mother, agree: some are incredulous, does he think his own life more important than theirs? Until she… The mark for the Fates’ existential loophole ends up being his own wife. He grants her her wish to take his place in Hell, almost immediately—securing for himself immortality, watching as the oarsman comes to collect her and escort her to Hades’ depths. At our point in Phoenix's story, Admetus is prepping for her funeral. The text goes:

“During [Alcestis’] sojourn in Hell Admetus was busy, the way we keep survivors busy: getting the notice in the papers, reserving the temple, haggling with the caterers and the florists. All these activities that don’t just distract you from grief but positively affirm the central fact of your situation: you’re not the one who died, you’re still here doing all these things. I’ve seen mourners who were practically giddy, watching themselves with wonder and near-glee as they went through their humdrum duties.”

I’m sad, yes. Of course it’s sad. But if prepping for a move to Los Angeles is anything like prepping for Alcestis’s funeral, then it is impossible to ignore the central fact: it is plain easier to leave. It’s easier to be the one who’s leaving. (That LA is composed of equal parts heat, concrete, abs, and drought, makes it only all the more fitting a stand-in for Hades…)

It’s easier to leave: I’m busy looking for jobs; hitching rides downtown with my friend, Franklin, with boxes and boxes of books and clothes to resell; compiling lists of my needs/wants in a new apartment; figuring out who the fuck will foster my stuff for the month I’m couch-surfing before I can move in with Asaf. I’m busy. Maybe a little frantic. Maybe a little uncomfortable. Maybe a little giddy, too. Ultimately this is way easier than being one of the ones left behind. Like YA author, John Green, puts it in Paper Towns: “It’s so hard to leave—until you leave. And then it’s the easiest goddamned thing in the world.” It’s still its own sort of discomfort: but settling into a new place, with acclimatization on the menu for new landscapes and new people, is one of the more prolonged distractions from leaving that I can think of.

I keep thinking of the poster my 7th grade English Teacher had up on the walls of his classroom—a quote by Albert Einstein. What is right is not always popular and what is popular is not always right.

I keep thinking about my own reticence, even disgust, at a 2013 article by Seth Stevenson for Slate entitled, “Don’t Say Goodbye! Just Ghost,” which my ex-boyfriend, Jason, posted to his Facebook wall, and to which Jason attached his own full-throated support with “I completely agree with this!” The gist? That goodbyes are a “mild bummer” better avoided, so it’s best to leave without saying anything at all. I took my ex to task for voicing his support—don’t worry, we’re still friends—and urged him to embrace the icky, awkward exchanges, the difficult goodbyes. Life happens in those moments. We can’t run away from them.

Except now I have to eat my own words.

Because, let’s face it: it’s easier to leave because it’s less vulnerable. It just is. When you’re leaving, because you’re busy, it’s easier to just abdicate the feeling of your feelings…

In the middle of that Admetus’ scene, in An Arrow’s Flight, when Merlis puts our heroic stand-in (which might as well be us—or, at least, me) at the kitchen counter, a “ravaged platter of cold cuts in his hands,” Alcestis walks back inside. “She came back,” Merlis says, “Came straight from Hell to the house”—the reason assigned by any number of mythic retellings. “Not to taunt or reproach him, probably, but just because she couldn’t think of any place else to go. She was as if jet-lagged, perhaps, able to look only straight ahead, to perform only the most automatic moves…”

Merlis sings on: “There she stood before him – her clothes in tatters, her face bewildered – born again, scarcely more able to focus than at her first birth.”

And Admetus, whose own death was impossibly averted by his wife’s near-thoughtless offer to take his place? “The words out of her lips before she fully understands them, and his near-instantaneous assent”? “Their interchange briefer than their marriage vows.” According to Merlis, Admetus looks on her as:

“…the embodiment of all we have to push aside to make room for ourselves to breathe, everything that must perish so that we can stumble forward. He saw what a futile and vacuous thing it was he had asked for, life... She had turned herself into a platter of meat, like the charred tidbits we offer to the gods, and he had eaten.”

Admetus leaves her. He simply takes the plate and walks out. The saddest bit of irony, no doubt something the original Greeks would have loved if indeed it were true—is a tattoo, A-l-c-e-s-t-i-s, emblazoned across Admetus’s pectorals for time and all eternity, and precisely the thing that causes our Pyrrhus, the story’s real hero, to ask about this meaningful diversion in the first place.

So what is the lesson? In Homer, these myths-within-myths always have an attached lesson: some warning or other, usually intended to reveal to the hero his faults. I think it’s that chasing something you’re not supposed to have—for Admetus this is immortality—means getting it might just come at the cost of everything else good in your life and character. That the better path, acceptance, might have to be taken later, anyway—but only after you’ve lost who you are and everything else good. That even getting back what was good might turn out to be unbearable and gaining back what was right about you then is impossible now. Some decisions irrevocably change us.

In the end, I have to be honest about a few things: because frankly Jenny left a few of them out. Chiefly, I believe, to spare me.

One, I was a coward when I left San Francisco and moved to Portland: a layoff and abject fear about both being out of school for the first time basically ever and paying off $80,000 in student loan debt left me utterly bereft. I ran. Not because I wanted to be here, or because I was running toward something, but because someone (a good friend) offered me an out.

Two, I have hated Portland—sometimes unreservedly, mostly casually—with the kind of hatred I reserve for Boyd K Packer, the Internet’s obsession with protecting itself from spoilers, and the 2012 sci-fi movie, “Looper”: all things that seriously need to get over themselves. And while some of my distaste is rooted in actual justifiable social evil, much of it is me being a self-righteous prat who merely hates his day job. Occasionally my hatred is so strong that it overpowers all the undeniable good that Portland has done to me: a love and process and favor in photography that I never thought I’d possess; the reality of Backwords; prized new relationships; and deepened ones, like Jenny’s.

Third, half of the reason I chose Los Angeles are the people I have there already: Asaf, Miriam, Stosh, Zach, Drew, Emma. Apart from the other half of reason, I’m choosing to move somewhere for people—ewww. This seems eerily similar to the justifications I made for my last big move, an irony no more lost on me than the fact that I’m once again moving without a job lined up—something I swore I’d never do again.

There’s a moment in Phoenix’s telling—as he’s trying to imagine himself into the place of Admetus and can’t, or simply won’t, doesn’t want to know “about that part of me, the deepest animal part, that knows only one imperative: save yourself.” Where they’re both just waiting for the oarsman: Admetus and his wife, Pyrrhus listening, us listening, in the midst of the unnerving quiet after something horrible has happened but you have yet to pick up the phone and tell anyone. Admetus is sitting on the sofa:

“Not getting up, surely not going to kiss her goodbye, having at least enough foresight to know that the taste of that kiss would never go away… [And Alcestis] having uttered the vows that would dissolve their marriage, she wondered chiefly how she would get through the remaining seconds or minutes of it. Seeing, now, that she had been married all along to death.”

What’s strange, even a little frightening, is I can imagine myself into Admetus here: I am tempted by many easier prospects. To tell myself falsehoods about just how fabulous is the life awaiting me in Los Angeles: everything inside me wanting to believe it’ll be different. To believe that moving will somehow fix my problems, financial or careerist. To fuck my feelings. To stave off grief. To skip the onslaught of presumably heartfelt goodbyes. To omit the gathering—everyone seems to ask me when it is—of acquaintances, ex-lovers, friends, food assembled under the headline, Bon Voyage, Matty!

It takes Pyrrhus till nearly the final pages of An Arrow’s Flight to figure out the lesson for him in Phoenix’s story: maybe it’s that Admetus never ought to have said “yes” to so selfless an offer, or maybe it’s that Admetus ought to have stayed with Alcestis when from Hell she was spontaneously returned; maybe it’s that all this dead and gone, acceptance is still the only true response to fate. For his part, Pyrrhus ends up rejecting the prophecy: he discovers a third choice between saving himself and screwing over the people he loves. (You’ll have to read the novel yourself to find out how…)

As for me, I have three weeks left. I refuse to ghost. I refuse to fuck my feelings. If there’s grieving to be done, I’ll try and do it. Because Einstein is right: just because something is easy, doesn’t mean it is right. There is life in these last few weeks, bigger and more important than the logistics of moving or what awaits me when I get to LA: I'm gonna choose to accept it.

Stay Backwords!

Matthew D. Kulisch

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