PROLOGUE – The Neutral Room
I am in a bar in Brooklyn listening as two men, my friends, discuss whether or not my life is worth living. Jay is to my left and Colin to my right. Colin, an ethical philosopher trained in my same doctoral program, argues a vision for a better society, one where a body like mine would not exist. The men debate this theory, speaking through me. This is common, both the argument and the way I’m forgotten in it.
The window in front of me frames scenes from the street. Groups of people, unified in exuberant movement, pass by like rowers on a river, propelling themselves swiftly into their Friday night. I wish for one person to stop and meet my gaze, wave me up from my seat and out to the sidewalk, inviting me to follow them into a more fun future. None do.
I don’t want to be with these men, at this bar, anymore. I think to fake a phone call, to fill my vacant face with false concern, then walk out, slip into the stream of people, disappear. I am not so far from home. I imagine myself already there, leaning to kiss the forehead of my sleeping son, collapsing in my own bed, drawing my hand across my husband’s shoulders. But habit and exhaustion limit me. I am humiliated again.
To speak up, against Colin, would require an energy I don’t have and don’t want to access, not now, not tonight, not after I’ve taught classes all day at school, made dinner at home, read the same book—Cars Go Vroom!— four times to my five- year- old, brushed my teeth, fixed my hair, put on my favorite dress.
It is early May. A month of April rain filtered the atmosphere and the scent of clean spring air, acidic and sweet, reaches me through the bar’s open window. I want to enjoy this warm evening, and I want to think a little less. Simple pleasure is inaccessible to me now, but I know I can have something like it if I stay quiet, let the men talk. I can sit through their conversation from a remove. It won’t last forever. So, I seal myself up, I become a statue, I lean against the wall, am bordered by neon light; I try on, keep on, a fixed expression; I leave the scene and become a surface only. The men bicker over the issue of my unfortunate birth. I search for anger and find only numbness.
I center myself in The Neutral Room, a separated space inside my mind I constructed when I was very young as a method for dissociating from physical pain. There are no doors or windows in the neutral room, nothing but white walls, and on the walls, one at a time, gray numbers flash . . .
1 2 3 4, 5 6 7 8, 1 2 3 4, 5 6 7 8
. . . and I count them until everything else fades and I’m lost in a void that nullifies, dulls what needs dulling, and from there the world blurs and the bar is both darker and louder, blunting Colin’s face and voice, and his words reach me weakly, then dissolve, subsumed below the shriek and grind of bar and street noise, which whirrs on and on, black sound blackening the lasting night.
Get pulled in by the book:
'GORGEOUS, VIVIDLY ALIVE' NEW YORK TIMES
'BOLD, HONEST AND SUPERBLY WELL-WRITTEN' ANDRÉ ACIMAN, AUTHOR OF CALL ME BY YOUR NAME
'GRACEFUL AND SOUL-BARING' MELANIE REID, THE TIMES
'WHAT A GIFT . . . HAS THE RIGOR AND PRECISION OF JOAN DIDION AND MAGGIE NELSON AND A FORTHRIGHT HUMOR AND NAKED TRUTH ALL OF ITS OWN.' SARAH RUHL, AUTHOR OF SMILE
I am in a bar in Brooklyn listening to two men, my friends, discuss whether or not my life was worth living.
So begins Chloé Cooper Jones's bold account of moving through the world in a body that looks different than most. Born with a rare congenital condition called sacral agenesis, she must contend not only with her own physical pain, but the emotional discomfort of others.
It is only when she unexpectedly becomes a mother that she confronts the demand to live life fully, propelling her on a journey across the globe, reclaiming the spaces she'd been denied, and denied herself.
From Roman sculptures to a Beyoncé concert, from a tennis tournament to the Cambodian Killing Fields, Jones interrogates the myths of beauty with spiky intelligence, aesthetic philosophy, love and humor, inviting us to find a new way of seeing.