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by James Lewelling

      I‘ve been one of those other people, I recalled, crawling in teeny tiny baby steps towards the bed. I cared about this ill friend for quite some time, but then when he became focused in his illness to the point where his person became indistinguishable from his illness, I stopped caring. The caring about this friend in his illness was a distinct and lucid sensation, I recalled. I felt it in my chest, a kind of dull ache. I met him during the bad time in my life in which I frequently even routinely contemplated even considered suicide. In fact, this guy was my only friend during that time. I didn’t know anyone in that new city when I arrived, and I had lost all my friends in the old city by becoming a pain in the ass though I had yet to realize it. In fact, when I arrived at that new city I had no friends at all. But then I met this guy. In fact, he was the very first person I met. We became friends instantly.

      Unfortunately, he had a mental illness, I recalled. He had had it all along but it took me a while to notice it. That was odd because by that point in my life I had become rather adept at discerning mental illness in others. I could see it, generally. It showed up as a kind of tint or shadow. But in the case of this friend, at first, I didn’t notice any tint or shadow. In fact, it took years for me to notice. I think I didn’t notice because for a long time I mistook his mental illness for extreme intelligence. Or rather, I couldn’t see his mental illness due to the glare of his extreme intelligence. This friend was extremely intelligent, but, as it turned out, he wasn’t only extremely intelligent; he was both extremely intelligent and mentally ill. His extreme intelligence was both flattering and attractive. It was attractive because—due to his extreme intelligence—one could talk with this guy for hours on end without getting either bored or annoyed, without, in a word, ever considering him a pain in the ass. In fact, he was very nearly the exact opposite of a pain in the ass. Due to his extreme intelligence, one could talk with him for hours. One could talk with him for days. He never became a pain in the ass. What’s more when talking with him, one felt that one too could never become a pain in the ass. That was extremely flattering. One felt in fact both extremely intelligent and charming. Talking with that guy, I recalled, was like being one of the two most intelligent people in the world. What luck! I recalled thinking when I was talking to this guy. Here we are the two most intelligent people in the world talking together!

      He told me himself right off the bat that he was mentally ill, I recalled. The very first time I spoke with him, he said, I’m mentally ill, but he said it in such a way that I didn’t believe him. That was an extremely intelligent thing to do on his part. If you want to hide your mental illness, you ought to tell everyone right off the bat that you are mentally ill. If you tell people you are mentally ill right off the bat, they are bound to think you could not possibly be mentally ill because if you were mentally ill you wouldn’t know or if you knew, you wouldn’t tell anyone. In any case, it worked on me for a long time. I didn’t see his mental illness for a long time. For a long time, I saw only his extreme intelligence. I looked at this guy during that period and looking at him, thought only, here is my extremely intelligent friend. I never thought, here is my mentally ill friend. It wasn’t in fact until I moved out of that city and no longer saw that guy face to face on a daily basis that I realized he was mentally ill. That in fact, he had been mentally ill all along. I went back to that city to visit, I recalled. In fact, I sought him out. This guy was my friend and even after I had moved away, I went back to that city to visit. I was seeking him out. It was on this visit that I saw it. I saw that my extremely intelligent friend was in fact mentally ill. From that moment forward, I acquired the distinct and lucid sensation of caring about this guy in his mental illness.

      There it was, a dull ache in my chest, I recalled. I felt like I’d been punched there. My extremely intelligent friend is in fact mentally ill just as he said, I kept thinking and this thought felt like a punch in the chest. The dull ache went on for two years. My friend continued to suffer in his mental illness, and I continued to care. For two years I sought my friend out in that city where I used to live. What’s more, I found him every time but every time I found him, I couldn’t help but perceive his mental illness and in perceiving this, I couldn’t help but think, my extremely intelligent friend is mentally ill just as he said, and for two years this thought felt like a punch in the chest. It took me a long time to figure out that my friend was mentally ill, but once I did figure it out, I could see his mental illness as plainly as any other feature of his person. I cared about him then. I cared for a long time. I sought him out for two years and cared for two years but then at some point his mental illness came to obscure every other feature of his person, even his extreme intelligence. At some point during those two years, I sought out my friend and found him but then when I looked into my friend’s face, he wasn’t there anymore. In fact, I found I wasn’t looking into my friend’s face but rather I was looking into this guy’s face, and looking into this guy’s face, I could no longer find the extremely intelligent friend I had known. What’s more, later, not long before I stopped seeking him out, I found myself thinking back to all the moments in which I had looked into this guy’s face, and I found I could no longer be confident that the extremely intelligent friend I had known had ever been there. The dull ache was gone.

      One moment, it was there, and the next, it was absent, I recalled. In its place, there was an emptiness. This emptiness was also distinct and lucid. This guy’s person had dissolved completely behind his illness. My friend had dissolved. He had withdrawn inside the outlines of his illness and dissolved there. I no longer thought of this guy as my friend who suffered from a mental illness. Instead I thought of this guy as this guy who suffered from a mental illness. Actually I thought of him as the mental illness itself. I thought of him that way because at that point the outlines of his person had withdrawn completely within the outlines of his illness. From that instant I no longer cared about this guy in his mental illness, because for me this guy no longer was in his mental illness; he had become the illness itself. We lost touch at that very moment though I communicated with him for a while afterwards more or less out of habit. Not much later, I ceased seeking him out. He had long before ceased seeking me out. That was it.

      One needs people to care, I thought, crawling. One can care oneself for only so long. One can sympathize with oneself in one’s illness for only so long. After a certain point, one can no longer sympathize with oneself. At that point, one needs other people. One needs them to sympathize with one in one’s illness because one can no longer sympathize with oneself. But one would have to be very lucky if by that point there was anyone around to sympathize because as a rule it takes far longer to exhaust one’s sympathy for oneself than it takes to exhaust the sympathy of others. So, as a rule, if one has exhausted one’s sympathy for one’s self, one will be unlikely to procure the sympathy of others because the sympathy of others will already have been exhausted. Nonetheless it is just at that moment that the sympathy of others is most critically required. One can no longer care oneself. One needs others to care. If no one cares…?

      One still goes on, I thought, crawling in teeny tiny baby steps. One has no choice. That guy I knew with the mental illness continued in his mental illness even after I ceased to care. What’s more he continued in his mental illness even after everyone else ceased to care. It simply didn’t matter to him if people cared or not as it wouldn’t have mattered to anyone in his situation. Who cares whether people care or not? After all, one is completely engaged with one’s illness; all other considerations have been pushed to the side. There is peace in such single-mindedness. One needn’t consider anything other than one’s illness. All other considerations get pushed to the side, or rather, all other considerations get pushed forward. Heavy considerations get pushed forward; light considerations get pushed forward. Everything gets pushed forward in front of the time of the illness. What’s more everything hardens. One says to oneself, I’ll deal with all these considerations when this illness is over. And the longer the illness persists, the more considerations get pushed forward and the more they harden. The space of the future fills up with these hardening considerations. Just when one feels that the future cannot hold even one more hardening consideration, it expands to receive it. The future will take everything. The present gets smaller and the future gets larger until the present is just a sliver and the future is a broad swathe filled with hardening considerations of all shapes, sizes, colors and textures. Almost everything is in the future at that point. At that point, the present, one’s illness and one’s concentration within that illness, becomes both infinitely narrow and infinitely dense. Such a situation cannot persist. One can no longer stand in the present so narrow has the present become. At that point, one gets pushed over into the future. One flops over at that point into the future in which all the hardening considerations tower over one like a petrified forest. And the illness persists. What’s more it continues to wear one away. It has already worn one down to a sliver but nonetheless it continues to wear one away. It is in the nature of illness to wear one away. But one is no longer engaged; one has lost focus. One has flopped over into the considerations that one had set aside (actually set in front) for the duration (or so one thought) of one’s illness. One must confront them now and struggle with them now. For example, one must confront and struggle with the fact that other people have long since ceased to care. But one has no resources at that point. One has become worn away to the thinness of paper. One has no strength. One can no longer displace any considerations at all. It’s true there is space for further displacement as the future has become infinitely diffuse, but one nonetheless cannot further displace these considerations because one no longer has the strength. The best one can do is topple them. One flops over into the future and topples the whole lot. Naturally, one is smashed at that point, smashed to smithereens, I thought crawling in teeny tiny baby steps towards the bed.

James Lewelling’s first novel, This Guy, was published in 2005 by Spuyten Duyvil, his second, Tortoise, by Calamari Press in 2008. Over the years, his short fiction has appeared in a variety of literary venues ranging from The Cream City Review to The Stranger to The Evergreen Review to Fence. He has been writing fiction since 1988 while at the same time teaching and working abroad in Morocco (as a Peace Corps volunteer), Turkey and for the last ten years in the U.A.E. At present, he is writing fiction and taking care of his family as a stay at home dad in Abu Dhabi. Sympathy is an excerpt from his third, unpublished, novel “Innocence.”

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