Dear Mr. Kaphar,


I can’t make up my mind
I really can’t
They say they’re taking me to probate court tomorrow so the judge will let them inject me
Forced meds are the trump card in the game we play here
So I have to do this now
I have to
Even if it means you might think I’m crazy at first

I’ve decided I’m sending both letters
I know my rehab person says I write better when I’m stable
But not this time
Because the me who wrote that letter is just not me
The least I can do is introduce you to the best me I know
And that’s this one

Not the one who supposedly is more “stable” but can barely speak coherently
Not the one who can’t stop drooling all over himself because of all these damn drugs
These medications they keep saying are good for me
They say the stuff makes me better
But if that’s true then why is this me the one that’s actually better
Why does this me feel better
I think better
I do better
Most importantly, I be better
And I mean that the way it sounds
Even if it does sound crazy

The one thing I have learned from the family documents I inherited is this
The art of being is harder than the art of doing
But it’s also more worthwhile

So anyway this Ishmael Vesper is the real one
The one they don’t want writing “crazy” letters to anybody on the outside
And yes the one who fell apart at the Yale Art Gallery a couple years ago
It was just after I got sick of California—
No, I mean sick in California—
And moved back to New York
Maybe it was luck
Maybe it was God
Maybe it was fate
Maybe it was my grandfather’s dead hand steering me home
Or dead Auntie Maria somehow guiding me with her vacant eyes

I don’t know what attribution to make
But somehow I found out about your exhibition at that gallery
So one weekend I took the train up to New Haven for the day
Well it was supposed to be just for the day
And look what’s happened since

No it’s not your fault
None of it’s your fault Mr. Kaphar
Well none of it except the part that almost killed me

The drugged me would remember the name of the painting that did me in
All this me remembers is that the painting nearly devoured me
One minute I’m standing in a white room with a bunch of people
All lost in our own little worlds
And yes I was more lost than I was letting on
But like the rest of them I was just looking for a pleasant but momentary distraction
And maybe that’s what angered the God or gods

I’m just standing there being real intellectual and artsy about it all
Then the painting I’m looking at reaches out and takes hold of me
Like the day the Indian Ocean woke up and decided to claim several thousand souls

I realize now that it was a trap
The lure was well placed
Just around a corner so I couldn’t see it coming
Maybe it called to me
I can’t say for sure now
But once I was in front of it I felt so alone
Not in a bad sense
But I was alone in the gallery
Alone with that painting

The man was darker than most Blacks I had met
He was dressed in a smoky or perhaps purplish blue morning coat
The coat was the formal double-breasted kind and one of his lace-framed hands was hidden
I think it was the right hand that was thrust into the breast of his coat
It was less of a Napoleonic gesture and more like he was searching for something

But it was the near smirk on his face that distracted me the most
He seemed to be on the verge of smiling but wouldn’t look me in the eye
I could have sworn he was suppressing the urge to laugh at me
So I returned the favor by refusing to take him seriously in that get-up
I told myself he looked like someone attending a 17th century costume party
To tell you the truth it’s not that there was something inauthentic about him
It’s more that I wasn’t convinced that he himself was real
Like those people who take part in Civil War re-enactments
And the way he leered at me made me look down at my own clothes just to make sure I was still me
For a moment I felt like he – cheerfully – and I – unwillingly –  together were creative anachronisms

Our wordless debate didn’t last very long
Maybe just a few seconds as we looked each other up and down
Even so I was reluctantly drawn to the oceanic pools of color in his coat
But I didn’t have much time to dwell on him because the image beside him lunged at me
It was too late by the time I realized the Black man was simply baiting me for the predator beside him

The wraith-like figure struck me as being clearly feminine
She was almost mummified in seemingly haphazard strokes of thick white oil
There was something terrifying and macabre about her
Like the shallow graves my platoon stumbled upon at dusk that rainy day on the outskirts of Dak Son
Probably the work of locals who had tried to pay their respects to their massacred neighbors

I remember the way the downpour had loosened the soil that barely submerged the scorched bodies
The rotting dead seemed to rise provocatively out of the clinging lingerie of mud
Were they being coy or were they poised to embrace us as we stepped over their exposed flesh

These memories compounded the disorientation I already felt
The woman had been there all along
She had remained silent and concealed until I was completely distracted
With my guard down she was able to accost me from the periphery
I was completely unprepared for the plunge into whiteness
The riptide hidden just under calm waters
Her presence hadn’t mattered to me until it was too late for me to take it all in at my own pace
So when she finally revealed herself it was on her terms not mine
And that was my undoing

The relative calm and intrigue of the Black-and-blue man suddenly gave way to a smothering veil
The sheen on the surface of the image must have been playing tricks on my eyes
For a moment I couldn’t tell whether the face beneath the veil was hers or my own
I tried to focus on what seemed to be her eyes but again I lost my bearings
Were those my own eyes reflected back at me
Was this my shrouded face looking back at me

I knew then that the Black man in blue was holding back his laughter
And unlike him I could no longer contain myself
The wild and guttural sounds rising in my throat were more terror than amusement
Although I must admit that I did find the situation rather humorous
I don’t remember whether I was laughing or crying as she pulled me into the undertow
I just remember stumbling forward with arms out-stretched
They tell me I was screaming but I only remember closing my eyes and beginning to dream

I remember now
It had only been weeks since I had shipped myself back to the East Coast
It had only been days since I had last checked on the boxes I had left in storage here all these years
It had only been hours since I had arrived in New England proper
I was now only miles from the town where dead Auntie Maria had once spent a year of her life
How had I forgotten that her residence had been a small room on a psychiatric ward

I now know that her ward was in a building not far from mine here at Connecticut Valley Hospital

Perhaps none of this comes to you as a surprise given the other letter in your possession
But I would like to go a step further if I may

So please bear with me

Mr. Kaphar I strongly suspect that you are already connected to my family in some way

People here don’t understand why I stopped taking the medications
All I know is that I had to let myself  decompensate in order to be able to tell you how I really feel
And why it matters so much to me that you acquaint yourself with my family history
And why it matters so much to me that you be the one to retell and reframe that story

If you do take me up on this offer I expect you to treasure my family’s documents as I do
They are my last tangible connection to a history that likely will die with me
More importantly those documents contain not only the inspiration but the blueprints for this project

I’m giving my Legal Advocate both of the letters to mail and I trust you will read them both
Incidentally please direct all correspondence to my advocate for the next four to five weeks
That’s probably how long it will take for me to regain my privileges on this unit
I will tolerate the meds for as long as I need to until the next time “this me” needs to contact you

By the way please disregard this letter if it makes me sound crazier than you would like

I take that back
Disregard the other letter
A worse impostor wrote it