Flying—or, not yet in the air but staring impatiently through the keyhole of the Boeing window while the attendant closes the overhead bins during crosscheck—it comes to me: a line from an old diary. The first in a series of entries addressed to Leonardo da Vinci when I was seven, or perhaps eight, when I would have called it a journal—somehow older-sounding, a little more mature:
It’s true; it’s all backwards to them anyhow.
Except that when I wrote the words, I began from the right side of the page. With my left hand, I reversed each letter’s form, aligning them neatly atop the page's faint lines. I moved swiftly towards the center binding—the people’s margin—that place where we learn when we are small to begin.
But it didn’t have to be that way. Da Vinci knew this. His notebooks, now vaulted in climate-controlled libraries, were scrawled in mirror-image cursive. His works bear inscriptions like primitive forms of cipher, Islamic calligraphy, or Samaritan script. The kind of imprints found on ancient tablets and gilded parchment—the Torah, the Koran, the Book of Kells. Maybe this is where my obsession with holy books began, why I thought I might like to write one someday, its pages all beginnings and endings, footnotes and failures, about a girl who played in sprinklers while loving Heraclitus. (Or, rather, rinsed off in hydrants while lusting after da Vinci). Leonardo—
the most clever of them all.
Around this time, just before the divorce, I remember hearing my parents, when they still shared citizenry in love and other illusions, discussing da Vinci’s methods, musing over his madness in the same breath as his genius. And I liked, even then, the conflict in their tone, as much as I may have recognized the same inflection as they addressed my reticent shyness and odd behavior. A tone not extended to my older brother, local superhero, his cape tucked away with the magic set he brought out when he performed card tricks for our friends. He kept secrets like the Great Houdini’s himself or, rather, some Jedi-mind-tricking Karate Kid, who carried the best beat box in the sixth grade, back when such titles seemed important. He has been a master of mirage ever since he began practicing his disappearing acts in high school, stashing his lies, along with the booze and stolen goods, in the trap door of his closet.
Second-born sister, I was the strange and silent sidekick. No stockpile of trophies stowed beneath my bed, though my mattress hid a few miniature jars with an alchemist’s concoction of Old Spice and Barbasol, baking soda and cinnamon, a dash of glitter, my mother’s shampoo—love potions and “pretty brews” I kept safe for later. I took pride in knowing my middle name held the symmetry of a palindrome, that the mirror image of certain words was as heartbreaking as the original. How mood swings with the weight of a boom—a never even palindrome, a pendulum that might near stillness but not quite hang level. Or the hidden pleasure of a word like bid—because what greater stakes might a word contain than appearing, forwards and backwards, exactly the same? Like siblings sharing DNA, how many words grow apart in opposite direction? The way loot is the wild-mannered sister to the ever-skilled, ever-talented brother tool. He—
the most gifted child by far.
Perhaps this is why, while my brother and his friends waged b-boy battles in the yard, high-tops swivel-kicking over our mother’s flowerbeds, I was content to disappear and visit the neighbors. On days when the boy next door had his weekly Greek lesson, I sat listening from the kitchen, trying to record the words I knew on the backside of a grocery list that his mother placed before me while she prepared us coffee in tiny porcelain cups, which contained fortunes and futures that she read from the pattern left in the grounds. I was content, too, to tag along after school on the days when my best friend had Hebrew school, to practice the alphabet—a twenty-two-letter script of consonants—starting with our pencils at the right side of the page. Such order was akin to levity in the otherwise spiraling world. Some nights I would linger on our doorstep and listen for the man downstairs we rarely saw and only sometimes heard, whom I imagined a watchmaker or inventor, a connoisseur of model planes. Something like that: smart and neat and quiet. Or sometimes it was enough to head inside early, prop the TV antenna in order to catch the nightly lotto numbers or Sajak’s Wheel of Fortune (all that luck and puzzle spinning round!), or settle on reruns of Nature, trying to decipher each kingdom, phylum, genus—order!—behind all the static, while searching for pictures like cloud patterns and constellations in the sky.
Not long ago, on a red-eye from New York to Rome, I listened to an old woman sitting in the row behind me, talking about her granddaughter and mathematics—how, although most children favor addition, she’s quite fond of subtraction. This, one of her more “precocious quirks.” I wonder what that means, her fondness for subtraction, and then I have one of those moments when I think, This will find its way into your dreams, like a splinter or a needle prick. And, inevitably, it does. I envy this anonymous girl, profound erasure artist. I wonder what she knows that the rest of us don’t, as she scrapes her knees in the playground with the other kids, maybe fights with a brother or a stepsister? How much will she figure out with her love of deduction, solving for x, as she will?—X, one of few letters appearing one and the same in its reflection. Maybe that’s why cartographers chose x for treasure. Maybe x will always mark the division between her and them, whoever they are, as if a magic mirror revealing the “take away” of childhood.
Of course, finding explanation in scientific terms is easy, just as it is easy to find definition in a dictionary. But where is the meaning in that? Studies show mirror writing is a question of atypical language organization, a product of genetic trait closely associated with left-handedness, ambidexterity, synesthesia, and other oddities that, at the time, made everything seem—different. The pattern of inheritance is not entirely clear, but evidence suggests that the ability is passed through the x-chromosome, regardless of which parent may have carried it. I imagine my parents, non-mirror writers I’ve since confirmed, and the look they must have shared over my encrypted pages as I scribbled away unaware.
Could I have known then of da Vinci’s paranoia? (And was that really, as some historians would have us believe, what made him scrawl in reverse?) Or was this my expression of a girlhood crush? Perhaps, because I was eight, I would have called him my role model, 15th century polymath that he was. How else can I explain how I swooned over a reproduction of The Vitruvian Man that hung in the family room, the figure superimposed in two positions, one inhabiting the circle, the other the square. Love-struck by this canon of proportion, smitten by da Vinci’s precisely rendered sketches, I paged through my parents’ art books, where graphite and conté marked his architectural and anatomical forms: Designs for a flying machine, Study for the head of Leda or Saint Anne,; or the Trivulzio Monument, Study of concave mirrors of differing curvatures; Study of water passing obstacles and falling—
who is the greatest dreamer of them all?
I don’t believe da Vinci’s was a mind wracked by compulsive mistrust but a mind brimming, and at work. For my part, I was no Renaissance child, no budding whiz kid with genius to protect. And had I something stored in the musty scented pages to keep safe surely the black cat silhouette on the cover of my lock-n’-key diary was sufficient vault. Instead, I wrote and read back the words, my eyes skipping right to left along the letterforms, not once consulting a mirror, not daring to seek their reflection. While I craved the encryption, it was the expediency of expression that fed me—my own Nocturne for the Left Hand—free of the smudge that branded my schoolwork for years or the awkward tightness of words smothered by my sleeve. Like a symbolist composition the words carried a clarity, one piece of the puzzle I could control, protect, practice like an instrument, devising my own style where each reversed letter carried a note, soft and tuned, and mine.
Those days I grew weary of magic school buses and fairy tales (even those Brothers Grimm) and traded in fantasy for proportion. The astrological scale I was born under tipping daily just as everything around me seemed to: the landlady who invited me into her kitchen, a palace of warm honey and baklava, could in an instant yell with the wicked breath of ouzo and gin that it was time to go home. The quiet neighbor, as it turns, out was not consumed by time machines or model planes but was something of a huntsman, tinkering with explosives, constructing pipe bombs beneath my bedroom, which was revealed one sunny school day when we came home to police bagging evidence and escorting him away.
who holds the greatest secrets of us all?
Years later I no longer have the diligence to keep a regular journal—and if I did, I would call it a diary—somehow more transparent, as in a little more forthright, perhaps naive. But when daydreaming takes hold, my hand still travels to the right margin of the page, as if propelled by a flying machine toward that familiar reversal. My mirrored shorthand becomes a gliding carpet or a worldly wardrobe, turning a page back in time to visit a girl I once knew, who gazes at me—equal parts longing and disappointment—waiting for some explanation for all the immaculate confusion, all the apples and poisons put before us.
Are my reversals the result of a stubborn nostalgia—a precedent I set out like a tea set, or a trunk of dress-up clothes, and never fully put away? Maybe I’m excited by eccentricity, aroused by the peculiar and the queer, like the man I once slept with who collected palindromes, which could have been a spark between us, until I realized he also collected women. Or how the same boy next door had ten letters and four syllables in his Greek name, which I would write over and over, forwards and backwards in my notebooks, oblivious to the sideways glances from my friends, just as I might have missed the one raised eyebrow my brother and father and mother all exchanged like a secret handshake over the dinner table—this their own special trait—when I said things “out-of-left-field.”
I remember trying to explain how the numbers are colors—Three, like yellow. Four, cool like blue—or how certain words made me itch, gave my body a kind of ache—and seeing the faces at the table turn, as if delighting in a foreign film in which every time the beloved supporting role steps into frame, the subtitles jumble and fade, like an x drawn in the sand, above some long lost chromosome no one ever knew would surface so boldly.
Such digressions (words and their colors, spatial relations, sounds) I learned to keep stored, private, recorded in an almanac of riddle and wonder. And now, I often think, so much worry for such a small girl—everything, all backwards in the quest to belong, everything needing to be counted, codified:
The steps that cut through the hills of our Bronx neighborhood, which I counted as I climbed them, often two at a time, so I might make it to the top with breath left; all the cracks in the sidewalk not to break my mother’s back; the lines intersecting in the asphalt not to snap my own fragile spine. So I might sleep at night without recording my pulse, listening for signs of panic, even the slightest turbulence in what should have been the plucky rhythm and dramatic consistency of a ten-year-old heart, wishing for some real elixir that would put me at ease.
Maybe then I would have spent more time with the other girls, watching the boys play wall ball or stickball, stoopball or war, as we huddled clandestinely by the chain-link fence of the courtyard, confessing our crushes, wondering if we would ever be pretty enough (and who, really, was the greatest belle of our ball?), as we braided each other’s hair and spit-shined our Keds so the soles glared white like snow.
I’m beginning to realize I like subtraction, too. It’s sort of like rolling downhill or wiping dust from a record as it spins and hearing the sound clear. Like cleaning out the kitchen drawer on a Sunday afternoon and seeing what’s inside, how little we actually need: scissors to cut, tape to mend, a flashlight, a spare set of keys so we can be the sleuths and cryptographers, aviators and excavators of our own design, digging backwards until once upon a time there we are again.
And maybe that says something about why I took to charcoal in college after scraping by in mathematics with a final paper on Phi and the Golden Mean, the first draft written in longhand, half in reverse. By next semester I had transferred into life drawing, so I could feel the smooth grain of charcoal against the page, erasing the blocks of black into a gradient of grey and down to the clean page where I outlined the contours, the cheeks and chin of La Pieta, the Mona Lisa, La belle ferronnière—yes, there she is!—her image projected like a fair queen against a curtain.
It’s easy to find beauty in solitude, just as it is easy to find misfortune in loneliness. But where is the reason in that? Where is the margin between the two? I keep thinking how one morning I will get out of bed and things will feel different, that my skin won’t be so porous, won’t wear like a gown I’m still waiting to grow into, that I won’t so easily cringe at the color or texture of things or the sound and shape of the words for those things. Instead, maybe I’ll wake up to a call from my brother and he will no longer be among the list of brilliant strangers. He’ll be shuffling his cards and telling me about the latest trick he’s learned, how it’s all “smoke and mirrors,” as I peel back a newspaper and scan the latest headlines: World reaches unanimous vote on new alphabet. Long lost da Vinci notebook suspected to lie beneath the Trivulzio monument. Miraculous descendant of Heraclitus born to teenage parents in Greece—
what has the world come to, after all?
And then, there will be nothing left to do but marvel at invention: the French press or lamplight, colanders and cutlery, a window screen, the fire escape. Even a low-flying airplane headed east over the Atlantic, crossing invisible longitudes where unhinged imagination enters the time zone of abnormality, where daydreams translate into dysfunction, where from the very beginning we’ve reserved our coach class in the exit row and agreed to come of age over the ocean. Stewards of sadness, we stow away longing as if a stutter or tic we’ve outgrown. It is in the same way that we learn to distrust happily ever after, or odd reclusive neighbors, yet save compassion for the young and the old, though they are no less disillusioned than the lovelorn or the fanatic:
The old veteran who spent days at his window, ogling women’s breasts as they pass and harboring hatred for the Japanese, still asked daily after the girl upstairs, who rewrites lines of nothing but her name, as torn and crumpled paper scatters the floor like snow. The landlady who piled her empty bottles in the trash bin outside must have known that I would count them, again and again, until I was late for school, where I charted on an invisible x–y axis the scale of her sadness, trying to draft a formula for forgetting, to concoct an antidote to grief.
If only I could write in this space forever. If only I could return to the glass coffin where p resembles q, where b becomes d, where U and I remain intact. Except, maybe it’s not the secrecy or order that is saving me anymore, not so much the letters or the words but the uncharted margins, the outdated virtues of common things like quill pens and telegrams and penmanship, like fine stationery and wax seals, which are not in the least necessary but feel elegant and classy—small comforts amid chaos. Like ordering cocktails from tiny bottles in the sky, sipping a macchiato in a quaint café, tossing pennies at Trevi Fountain, posting a letter from the Vatican. Maybe that is what this really is: a letter which holds a mirror to a message that I want to write, seal with a kiss, and send to the strange little girl who loves subtraction, the one I know only through the voice behind my seat, and I would write How brave you are! and ask what she knows about the future, if subtraction is a long road towards solitude, if minus equals loss. The way backwards feels synonymous with the most intimate of codes, the way all of life is an enchanted spell we may never come out from under. Is this—
the fairest truth of all?
Or maybe we’ll go on not knowing any answers, keep trying to reverse ourselves, erase the parts of us that don’t quite fit as the reflection multiplies ad infinitum, a word that itself feels wrought with blue and suggests a bright but thinning air. Preparing for takeoff, I secure my seat belt and tray table, and the flight attendant, wielding an oxygen mask like a tasseled wand, mimes an encrypted messages of safety, procedure, and the commercial flying machine pushes back and takes to the sky.
“A girl who played in sprinklers while loving Heraclitus” is from Jenny Boully’s The Body: An Essay