Something was happening to Maria that had not happened to anyone in several thousand years. Due to an accumulation of narrative hyperreality, of improbable heroic love that was never meant to be thrust upon a real person, she could feel herself turning to salt. It had started with a pain in her chest. Sodium chloride has many uses in the body, including regulating circulatory function. But too much agonizes the heart. She went to the doctor about the escalating hypertension, rare in a healthy young woman. He was alarmed and ordered her to stop eating salt immediately. She did, but it only got worse. She was shaking constantly, and her veins were throbbing with the poisoned blood, but she thought if she could simply take a deep breath and carry on, it would go away.
But one thing that doesn’t like to go away when it’s dismissed is love. That was the agent of her salination, not the wrath of God. You see, when we read about epic love stories, we are not reading documentary accounts of the affairs of real people. We are enjoying a plot device that acts upon fictional characters. It moves the story along and it swells with literary significance. Love is an engine of actions and expressions that the characters carry out in order to teach us things about life, beauty, the human condition, and so on. In reality there is no Orpheus, no Cathy, and there should not be. Fictional characters have the luxury of simple psychological profiles. They have no need of therapy when they are oppressed with debilitating love. No one seriously instructs them to move on when they wait by the shore, year after year, for the lover to return from sea. Perhaps dogs do these sorts of things, but their brief and ardent lives aren’t subject to the same sorts of interrogations we visit upon each other.
Similarly, so that the love theme can move upon them with potency and transparency, they have no coping mechanisms. If they did, we wouldn’t sigh with the half-pleasurable melancholy their beautiful hopelessness gives us. The things we find precious and noble in fictional heroes we’d require interventions for in real life. And that is a good thing, don’t you think? Should complex, flawed people really be wasting away to consumptive elegance on account of each other?
Perhaps my earlier statement needs a bit of revising. Love, even in its situated human form, can act as the wrath of the id-driven pagan gods. Perhaps we should be grateful that we see that terrible divine through a glass darkly only.
Maria, the real human being, found herself embarrassed by an experience of literary love. It began to wear on her body quickly. Yearning, boundless passion filled her terribly bounded body; If she’d had seams, they would have burst. The host would have rejected that strange parasite, and she would have vomited out her heart and felt much better, really. Unfortunately, the real human body cannot cope with something of that force and endurance. It’s a source of intense chronic stress, which may cause a dangerous salt buildup. Usually at this point, the person has something convenient like a nervous breakdown, and goes to the hospital. But the power of the literary divine was working its strange magic on Maria already. Somehow, she perseverated. Somehow, when she could even see the crystalline structure forming on her fingertips (she tried to suck it away–but there was enough verisimilitude left that that didn’t work), she managed to trudge back and forth to the responsibilities of life for a good six months. Of course, this salt formation business quickly transformed from a matter of bafflement to one of shame, so she certainly couldn’t see a doctor any more. She would become a medical curiosity, from which no real knowledge was gained but which would be stupendous enough to lead to a career-making paper nonetheless. Throughout the ordeal, it wasn’t lost on Maria that if those salty fingers could only touch the one she desired and transmit the correct electrical signal to her ever-muddying brain, she would likely be cured. She didn’t know if the already lost nerves and flesh would revert to their previous wholesomeness, but at this point she didn’t care very much.
Of course this was an experience that would shock anyone, but as her mind grew more and more still, she realized that there had been signs she could have noticed had she chosen. Sometimes when she had ridden the bus, she would be jolted into a world not with persons, but with actors playing persons. The dialogue of her fellow passengers, their cunning little movements so richly human and real, seemed suddenly both scripted and brilliantly acted. It was just a bit too good. The blessing of sharing a species with them was just a bit too strong. The difference was almost imperceptible. But Maria knew, or imagined she knew.
Then, she’d notice that she was sitting next to an anxious, fidgety young man. She’d wonder if he was a terrorist or something, then with a certain thrill think that maybe if she half-smiled in a particularly tender way or exhibited some other charmingly authentic behavior, that he’d be moved to mercy and defuse the bomb. She wondered if she might encapsulate in some casual gesture everything that would be worth living for. Now it was getting much harder to roll her eyes, but in her mind she rolled them mightily at that kind of fatuous vanity. It was probably what had gotten her into this mess in the first place.
She rasped across the floor for what she thought must be the final time. Her nerves (such as they were–they weren’t precisely nerves at this point, I suppose) told her that the wood floor was warm and smooth. In fact, most of what she experienced now was very pleasurable. The world was mellow, sweet, and good. The glowing days of late summer dripped by outside the window. There was a lot to lose, most of which she’d paid no heed to when she was crying her eyes out over this boy, this boy. She had thought it hurt too much, but that the pain was a higher level of existence demanding and deserving all of her cognitive resources. Now, at the end, she was sorry things had to be so pleasant. Cruelly enough, the love that had come from a fictional plane and had killed her had mostly departed from her conscious thought. There was still the little orb of pain in the center of her chest that had never stopped pulsing since it set up residence there that fateful day, but that was it.
[Since hope is the last thing to die (it never stops at all), she did experience a brief searing pain at the thought that he might find her here. She figured it made sense to arrange herself into an artful pose, since she was about to become a sculpture. Maybe she could be his Galatea. Maybe he could love her back to life. But probably not; he only created her in the sense that he drove her to that. If he had formed her himself, she would probably look quite a bit different.]
With the last bit of motor impulse and dash of fairly hackneyed irony she could muster, Maria pressed PLAY on the CD player. After a couple of vaguely petulant scratches, “Never Going Back Again” began its jaunty snaps. It was a short song, she knew. Just long enough to give her time force herself into an elegant pose, looking out the window into the shout of loveliness beyond. Just enough time for a little more pleasure and a little more wretched hope before it was all swallowed up in salt.