I don’t yet know what this is about, or if there’s a master plan, but since I am by nature romantic, I’m willing to believe one exists. I trust something good—ennobling even—will come of this. John Keats said, “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter,” and I’d like to believe that’s true.
When I say, “I’m going to make love to you,” she says, “How?” and I say, “With precision, skill, sweetness, force, mystery, tenacity, and intensity.” “Anything else?” she says. I explain how the range of my tongue will be long, and the range of the rest of me longer. She’s quiet. Then: “Will the windows be open or closed?” “Open,” I say. “I want them closed,” she says. “Fine,” I say, “closed.”
I vow to complete the treehouse, but the manual confuses. Its 222 pages are crammed in a three-ring binder. Its directives and graphs are jammed together, and sometimes the typeface is tiny. I read it at breakfast. She’s in a swivel chair, in a green robe, telling me the toast is burnt. I offer to scrape the too-toasted surface in the trash, but she points out how this will affect the texture, and how the toast, when bitten, will be thin and insubstantial. She writes “Burnt toast” on a list of things I’ve not done right, after “Too many raisins in oatmeal” and “Did not properly fold newspaper.” I let the radio play a song she’s said many times is terrible. Also, the cap on the toothpaste wasn’t secure and when one sheet of toilet paper remained the roll was not replaced, a particularly grievous oversight, in her opinion. All this since 8:00 a.m.
“Can’t you be more practical?” she says, but the truth is I cannot. As a PhD student in English literature, I know nothing of practicality. I’ve been writing my dissertation on the poetry of John Keats for nearly eight years now.
The manual recommends I build as much as possible on the ground. It says to build the floor, walls, and roof separately, then pulley and secure them in the tree. According to the manual, building in the tree is neither speedy nor safe.
I’ve been living in her apartment since I began my dissertation, and I’ll stay until the treehouse is finished or the dissertation is done, whichever comes first. To earn my keep I cook meals, which I serve on white plates, with clean linen, by candlelight. She throws her spoon down and says the soup is too salty. The tofu’s the texture of a rubber band, she says. Afterward, washing up, I accidentally put the blender on the same shelf as the cups.
From my research I know the romantics were misunderstood. They believed in love, felt deeply, and prized personal vision above all else. Upstairs in my study, the letters and poems of Keats give comfort. For instance, “I am certain of nothing but the heart’s affection, and the truth of imagination—What imagination seizes as beauty must be truth.” That quote never fails to cheer me up.
Sometimes I take notes on her beauty. Dusky eyes, skin soft and lambent. On her right cheek a beauty mark, which, she insists, is a mole. Also, the musical thunk of her walk. I jot down ways to maximize her looks: if she wears a backless dress and spaghetti-strap heels, for instance, I’ll wear jeans and a ripped T-shirt. The contrast bathes her in an ever more flattering light.
I decide the treehouse will have turrets, turnstiles, and a long colonnade. Its facade will be painted deep green. Gold spires and weather vanes will glint in its tips, and I’ll stand guard on the outermost perch, gazing out for miles and miles.
Even in domestic tasks I strive to be romantic. In the living room, with the laundry, I separate, pair, and align the socks, roll them from the toe, and gently stretch the lip of one sock over for the perfect sock cocoon. She says to use the method where you fold from the top and let the “foot part” dangle. They take less space in the drawer that way.
Keats said negative capability names the skill, and I quote, “to accept uncertainty and mystery . . . Without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” This passage, in my notes, is circled, starred, highlighted with yellow marker. Negatively capable, one moves forward not knowing why, uncertain but advancing. It’s a paradox, a contradiction of facts, the way truth is beauty. The way a tree cut down for wood to build the treehouse extends the tree in which the treehouse is built.
At night, in the bedroom, she complains it’s too cold. She says, “Shuck off your boxers.” At first she says my cock is too big—six inches is the perfect length for her, she says, but my extra half-inch causes excruciating discomfort. To compensate I insert halfway, and move gently. This does not please her. Later she says something’s shifted, and now my cock is too small and will I be offended if she brings accoutrements to bed? Would I consider getting an extension? I wonder if Keats, in the service of love, would have gotten an extension. Meanwhile I eat meat, do push-ups, and thrust forcefully while grunting. These efforts do not have the intended effect.
At night I dream about the treehouse. I see it high in the boughs: rooms filled with ergonomic furniture, floor tessellated with Turkish carpets. I see the sliding doors, how perfectly they’re hidden by leaves. Beyond are long rooms and halls of endless, byzantine design. Some say a perfect thing must be simple, but that’s not true. It’s the complications that make a thing perfect.
Next morning I undertoast the toast, and she complains about the texture. In the manual I read that puncture wounds at the attachment point cause less tree damage. I learn to allow a two-inch gap around the tree if it passes through the floor, or a three-inch gap if it flexes in the wind. Above all, it is important not to strangle the tree.
“I didn’t tell you to build the treehouse,” she says. I look doubtful. “No?” I say. “No.” I say I thought she did. She looks doubtful. “You’ll see,” I say. “In the treehouse we’ll luxuriate in modern chairs, the windows open.” “Windows closed,” she says. “There’ll be a fire going,” I say, “and I’ll cook something delicious in the kitchen.” She narrows her eyes. “When?” she says. “In the future,” I say. “In the future we’ll be dead,” she says. “I mean the near future,” I say.
Writing a dissertation takes time, I realize, but sometimes the process seems endless. I sit at my desk, pages of notes in a three-ring binder. The ideas are disorganized; the typeface is tiny. I fear the whole project is a tissue of lies. I fear finishing is unrealistic. On these days I despair, and turn to her for comfort. She pours a drink as I explain. “A shadow of great magnitude moves through me,” I say. “Plaintive anthems echo in the yard.” She says, “Try not to suffer so much, okay?”
I try, but the longing is sharp. To love is to suffer! With intuition and emotion, the romantics stumbled forward, past the rational, the practical, and on toward a perfect, ineffable end. I’ve learned this from my research.
Next morning, full of energy, I go to work. I ignore the manual’s recommendation to start on the ground. Instead I work almost out of sight, braced between branches, hammer in hand. My tool belt rattles in the wind. Later she comes outside, holding the binder, and seems annoyed. “It says here there has to be flexibility in the supports,” she says. “In the what?” I say. “The supports.” I climb down and together we study the treehouse. It seemed I’d forgotten the supports. “Still looks pretty good, though,” I say.
In my study I write, “Negative capability is at the heart of Keats’s project.” I think how project is a noun and a verb. One might have a project on which one projects something—hopes or expectations, for example—or maybe two people share a project on which they project different hopes, or maybe it’s two projects on which one projects the expectation that both people are working on the same project and, in the confusion, the two make each other into projects, which then become screens for their respective projections.
I began the treehouse with a generous feeling—she deserved it, I felt, and I’d promised—but it’s different now. She says I’ve gone too far: I’ve spent too long in the tree. To address her complaints I vow to make the treehouse more beautiful than ever.
Everything I cook now is burnt or too salty, she says, especially the casseroles and cakes. When she says, “If you don’t change, I can’t stay,” I say, “Change what?” I’m not holding up my end of things, she says. Her apartment is a mess: dishes in the sink, toast crumbs on the tile. The runners are jammed and we can’t close the windows. Rain gusts in and soaks the carpet. The kitchen radio is dead.
In the revised first chapter of my dissertation, I blame Keats. His instructions are impossible to follow, and once you start, you can’t stop. No one should stumble so dumbly around, dreaming toward truth, but some do.
I’m not sure when she left exactly, last week or last month. I’ve been hard at work on the treehouse, so I didn’t notice. I decorated the bedroom. I papered the walls and set lights in the leaves. Alone in the tree I think to myself how a thing of beauty is a job, I mean, a joy forever; and how its loneliness, I mean, its loveliness, increases, and will never pass into nothingness. One day I’ll stand on the ground gazing up and see her: smiling, waving, suspended in air.