“What if men lost their ability to empathize, and have women feel for them instead? We probably wouldn’t live in such a different world.” — A friend
It was a tight, fleshy space between the cortex of my brain and the ever-so-receptive skin where I grew it: a heavy sack of radiant matter. It pushed my skull more and more and glowed with a yellow light that grew increasingly aggressive as I dumped all my inexpressible feelings into it. My empathritomy procedure was scheduled two weeks from now.
“It has to be removed in a timely manner,” said Dr Kouchner from the side of his mouth as his eyes rested on the X-ray photos of my bump. I guess he expected me to be alarmed, or to suffocate on a gasp of shock at his announcement, but I was far past being able to express fear anywhere on my body, let alone on my face.
“The success of the surgery cannot be guaranteed,” he added, matter-of-factly.
“I see,” I replied.
He turned toward me and tried to hide his surprise at my calm response under the grey cloak of medical neutrality, but he couldn’t disguise his startledness. He felt pity for his patients, and this pity drew him to a career in empathritis treatment: he could not imagine a worse thing that could happen to a human than to be stripped of the capacity of sentiment for a lifetime. “The only disease worse than cancer,” he thought.
For a moment, he stared into my face, probably hoping to show some empathy. I found his efforts useless.
“Well then, I will see you in two weeks’ time.”
I nodded, grabbed my jacket, and left the building swiftly. Judging by the growing unease in my stomach, it must have been time for lunch. I did not particularly care about the means of satisfying my hunger, since the disease took away all my appetite. There was a cheap dogmeat buffet wagon right by the hospital. I grabbed a large hot dog for the way back.
In the subway, the eyes of the people were all empty and grey. They weren’t looking at anything in particular, and one could see how the rushing air dried their lazy eyeballs. Among them stood armadas of blazing, colorful advertisements, all created, produced and installed to catch our attention and evoke some kind of desire, or any sort of sentiment. ‘Feel’ one of them read, with a supposedly attractive woman offering the services of a dating app, the neon-yellow letters jumping out of the deep red background, matching the color of her bold lips. ‘Be you again’ proposed another one, accompanied by the magnified image of the wide smile of a male; the giant, white teeth surrounded by a neatly trimmed, charcoal-black mustache. These ads did not seem too successful as no-one was looking at them other than a chubby woman sitting next to me who was carrying a few grocery bags home. Her gaze conveyed a mixture of disgust and terror.
As the train pulled into the next station, masses of people filed in. Suddenly, the buzzing murmur of human motion was sharply interrupted by a painful cry. A little girl had tripped in the gap and she was lying on the ground in the midst of the human flow around her. The woman who had been resting her eyes on the ads turned towards the scene and cried out: “Help her! Help her! Someone!” She started towards her, but the crowd moving in the opposite direction inside the train pushed her back, and she tumbled back into her seat. “Help the girl up, please! Someone!” she screamed. Finally, an empty-eyed man reached down towards the floor and pulled the girl up mechanically. He did not look at her. The little girl sobbed quietly and grasped the handle closest to her. Her frail body was in a silent, still shock, like cats when stuck at high places. She looked around quickly and caught the eye of the woman next to me. Waves of sobbing burst out of her, but the woman was too far to reach her. I looked into her face, then turned to look at the woman’s. They were not empty like the others’.
Around a year ago, they ordered the children be displaced to the countryside, permanently. The city was clearly no place for them anymore. As they rounded up entire kindergarten groups and school classes to be taken to hurriedly established new homes far from the city, they referred to studies about how nature was “essential” for a child’s development and how life in the city almost totally deprives them of their necessary connection to the natural environment. Everyone knew it was because of empathritis in men, but, as always, it was easier to blame nature.
My thoughts hung around children as I walked back to my house. An old memory of empathy passed through my mind. I remembered the heaviness in the throat and deep down in the stomach. But it didn’t stay. There was only guilt in its absence. “I was too far from her,” I thought. “They will take her soon anyway.”
As I approached my block, I noticed a dark lump by the front door. As it was lying immobile in the dark alley leading up to the entrance, the radiating neon signs of the supermarket to the right and the shabby pub shed painfully sterile light on the thing, which was the size of a bag full of groceries, or a grown puppy. I walked toward it slowly, sideways, warily, for I feared it could get up from its lying there at any moment. “Stupid,” I thought to myself. “It’s probably just trash.” I squinted to try to identify it, nearing it with silent steps, and when I came near, I felt a blow on the back of my neck.
She hit me from behind, and the blow laid me down on the ground. I hit my head so hard I couldn’t see for a moment. Warm, smooth blood was gushing out of a crack on my forehead. When I lifted the weight of pain from my eyelids, I saw her standing by my side, paralyzed like a rabbit in the light of a vehicle on the road, panting from her frail animal-lungs.
“What the fuck, Naomi,” I moaned.
“She’s dead,” she whispered. Her teeth were chattering in fear. “She’s dead… Dead, dead, dead!”
She grabbed my shoulders and pulled me up. “Dead!” she screamed in my face.
She took my hand and led me to the lump by the door. It was human flesh. Purple decay stained it, turning black at some spots.
“Our child!” she screamed, before uncontrollable sobbing took over her. As tears ran down the dark-purple circles under her eyes, down her pale, lifeless face, she collapsed next to the baby, like children do in complete agony, her spine losing its composure and her legs helplessly folding under themselves. The sharp pain in my forehead clouded my vision.
I held out my hands to wipe the fresh blood, but it wasn’t that. Bright, yellow light beamed onto my extended hands. It was leaking from my tumor.
I met Naomi before I knew I had it. Her long, unkempt hair kept her from being seen by most people. She was not supposed to be in the city. Like most unmarried, fertile women, she was advised to move down to the countryside to start a life there. That’s where all the healthy men still resided. Naomi did not want a man; she wanted a child for herself, a child raised in the city – running around in the dark alleys and playing in the lush courtyards of her own childhood, munching on sweet, warm challah from the baker on the corner and living on the fifth story at the street-front of the tall house with the creaky floor, where she grew up herself.
One day, she was waiting for me at my door, gazing up at me from behind her large locks.
“I need you,” she said, in a strikingly normal tone.
Before I could ask who she was and what she wanted, I found her undressing in the lazy light of the afternoon on my sofa.
“I want a child,” she said, “and you will help me.”
Naomi was one of the last women in the city. It was no place for anyone who wanted to live, in the true sense of the word, which involves anyone other than themselves. As empathritis spread among men, families disappeared from urban areas, and with them departed the giggle of children, erotic encounters, mourning a lost grandparent, and any form of human relationship. The place was becoming what it had always been heading towards, according to many: a heartless grey pile of concrete, inhabited by the only people who could bear it as a living environment.
Working, ambitious, successful, self-fulfilling, individuals. Men with empathritis.
That afternoon was the last time I felt love. As she touched me, she reached into years of absence; the absence of my mother, my childhood best friend, my fiancée who decided not to marry me.
“This has nothing to do with you.” she declared while dressing up. “I do not love you, nor do I want to be loved by you. I love my unborn child, and that’s it.”
I finally regained my words as I was watching her getting ready to depart.
“Why?” I asked. “What have they done to you?”
She didn’t expect to be asked.
“Just what you all do. Use me to fill some black hole of desire of yours,” she answered as she slipped into her little blue loafers.
Nine months later, I was informed that her baby was born. It was a brief, handwritten letter.
She has arrived — thank you, it read.
I let out a moan. The pain was so sharp that I started forgetting where I was. A blinding light spread around me, leaking out from my tumor like a neatly engineered spotlight in the opening scene of a theatre act. I looked to my right. The poison-green handrail of my doorway disappeared. There was a high-pitched sound. I looked up and I saw no night sky either, just pure light. Everything melted into white light as I dragged my gaze around — everything except for Naomi, collapsed on the tiny, dead body of her baby, embracing it tightly and wailing with the agony of a dying wild mammal.
Suddenly, the pain stopped. Or heightened, and it was like an orgasmic shock ran through my whole body. There was a sweet sensation in my stomach, and I knew it well. I knew it like one knows a long-lost smell from childhood, or the mother’s bloated milky breast.
It was empathy.
No, not the memory of it — I felt it, and I knew it was Naomi’s mourning which evoked it in me. Far from any other pain, this one hurt beautifully; it hurt so that the only ease was to run up to her and wrap her and her cold baby in my arms so tight that slowly the whole world around us did not matter. As we curled into each other, the three of us, the radiating light surrounding us got duller and duller and the shrilling noise faded away. But I did not dare look up.
We did not see how it happened, for what woke us up from our deadly mourning was the smell of pine. Like new-born calves, we rose to standing. A breeze of crisp, fresh air blew into our faces. We were in an endless boreal forest, and the soft moss under our bare feet supported us among the roots of tall, quietly swaying trees.
In a shock of panic, I reached to my forehead — it was smooth, tumorless.
I lifted my gaze, and my eyes met Naomi’s. They shone like mirrors. She smiled, and the curl of my mouth sent a wave of ease through my nervous system. Slowly and carefully, we carried our gaze down to the baby.
She looked back at us, with the bright boreal sun reflecting in her azure irises.
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