Lighter than Air


Jennifer Stock

“A commodity appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing. But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing.”

— Karl Marx, Das Kapital


Out of my mother’s collection of opera glasses, I have one pair left. It sits on my desk in Brooklyn. Each barrel is hand-painted with enamel scenes, which mirror one another, but are not the same, like separate frames from a film set on a fantastical slice of the 18th century. On the front, the artist depicts an aristocratic couple in two scenes of music and courtship. On the back, picturesque estates set on a people-less expanse, with vegetation blurring into fields, fields dissolving into sky. The eyepiece is mother-of-pearl, marked “Geo C. Shreve & Co. San Francisco.” Shreve & Co still exists as a small jewelry company, but at the time that the opera glasses were made, in the late 19th century, it was a prominent silversmithing firm.

I almost always look at the back of the opera glasses instead of the front. The man and woman are vaguely ridiculous; he struts about in purple pantaloons, and in the woman’s left-side rendering she is unable to place her hands properly on the guitar. Her fingers splay like limp slugs on the strings—a failure of imagination on the part of the artist, who managed an anatomically correct rendering of the man playing the same instrument on the front right.

But the scenes on the back interest me: twin slivers of countryside fabulously pared down, yet somehow boundless, the tufts of grass and trees like excerpts from a long sheet of toile. The artist, seeking to depict an idealized landscape for a late 19th-century urban consumer, borrowed French pastoral motifs of the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Two buildings, with the trumped-up air of garden follies, dissipate into plumes of grey-violet smoke. Wispy trees blanch into a sky lifted straight out of a Watteau. Its wrap-around bucolic, a limitless landscape of ease, and for what? The artist wanted to allow the owner of the opera glasses a daydream in which all of the industry that created his or her wealth melted away.

I imagine the person who bought these opera glasses in San Francisco, someone who longed for this artificial stance towards nature, someone who demanded fantasy and ornamentation, someone whose problems were, as Benjamin said of Proust’s characters, “those of a satiated society.”


One pair of vintage enamel opera glasses sold on Ebay: $1400.00

One month of standard assisted living in Zionsville, Indiana: $2988.00

One month of dementia unit assisted living in Zionsville, Indiana: $3799.00

One month of assisted living in Glen Cove, Long Island: $5097.00

One month of assisted living in Brooklyn, NY: $3944.00


In the hall leading to the Long Island apartment I choose for you, lithographs of hot air balloons float in gilded frames. They’ve been launched above green carpet with tan scrollwork. Instantly, you mistake the place for a hotel. This misapprehension—that you’re living in a hotel and might exit for the nearest airport soon—is one you will hold for as long as you live here.

All around you, the elderly sit salted away in small rooms. Many try to be kind about the situation. I’ve seen that most people are kind to you, for example, smiling through complicated meltdowns. But at worst, you are gripped so hard (when you refuse to go to lunch, when you refuse to shower, when you refuse because that’s what you are still able to do) that bruises stain your wrists and arms.

In the lobby still lifes radiate against black backgrounds, Dutch imitations in outsized frames. The sofas are plush. Faux ornamental vases and urns decorate corners that could remain vacant. Every detail has been attended to; everywhere someone has been compensating for something. The supposed tastes of middle to upper-middle-class elderly—arts and antiques so washed of context that they sit smiling like Cheshire Cats —have been carefully averaged into a schmear of the unselfconsciously picturesque.

In the dining room, cubes of canned fruit have been splayed in glass goblets. The cognizant ones request fresh fruit, but you don’t. Polite little dumps of rice line your plate.

When Christmas comes you will not want to open your presents.

After a while you are not allowed to walk outside by yourself.

After a while, you stop trying.

*    *    *

On your first day in Brooklyn I find you wandering in the industrial zone of Red Hook. I see you from a distance, walking slowly up Van Brunt Street with uncertain steps, a little overdressed for the mild fall weather—cloaked in a trench coat, steadily making your way past a series of factories. I slump in relief as my boyfriend slows the car and pulls over.

I jump out, calling to you.


I’m sure it’s you; it’s a question only because I’m not sure how to approach the moment. You look like a vagrant; with your rough, handsome face you’re a stand-in for the neighborhood. I observe your well-worn skin, your messy silver hair, your piercing eyes—eyes which now broadcast a misleading degree of clarity.

“Well there you are,” you say, a certain disquiet dissolving from your face.

Not long after I drive you to a gilded cage.


I park illegally and rush to the Red Hook post office. Inside, a kind of lethargy and acceptance. This is no longer the busiest port in the world. On Yelp the post office has received an average of two stars over the course of 24 reviews. I start looking at Yelp reviews for other Brooklyn post offices and find most targets of vitriol.

Customers sift through unsorted piles of forms. The windows are covered with a thick scrim of dirt, the floors filthy. I shift uncomfortably, recognizing myself in the surroundings—I’m also barely keeping it together. The woman in front of me tries to pick up her package, or her roommate’s package; she doesn’t have the right ID, or maybe it’s that the ID doesn’t have the right address. She is confused, she argues; the line behind her sways impatiently. The postal worker looks remote, his expression locked.

When it’s my turn, I hand over the opera glasses. I imagine them nestled demurely in their cardboard box, cobalt blue, encircled with painted flowers and marble accents. Exquisitely cool, perhaps bored, as out of place in this post office as Alma Mahler would be. The postal worker raises his eyebrows when I name the insurance amount. I freeze with sudden regret, but before I can change my mind they are placed through an interior post office window, out of sight.


I sit by your bedside at your new place. You have been sick and wake intermittently. The content of your dreams and your waking becomes indistinguishable. You jolt up, telling me in a tiny, strained voice how worrisome it is to be in a hot air balloon. We’ll never get this on the ground, you say. I’ve learned to follow along with your stories—try to think what might be comforting to someone stuck in a balloon. Set free, losing touch with the ground, you would think our perspective might improve, but it doesn’t. Adrift, we crouch in a basket below brazen primary colors, lurching in lazy, indeterminate paths. The fields recede in a disorienting haze, and we’re stuck in a sinuous band, the atmosphere claustrophobic. I continue to keep my tone light, for your sake, but we both know this balloon isn’t coming down.


Near the IKEA in Red Hook, there’s a building at which I often stop to look. It seems to offer the most irreconcilable assortment of architectural non-decisions possible in a limited amount of space. It’s made of stone, kind of, but the stone gives way haphazardly to irregular fringes of brick, swathes of concrete blocks, and a segment of opaque glass, from which a red exhaust pipe emerges. Exactly two of the glass blocks have been painted white. Someone has ornamented the metal door with a swollen cat face. A few pipes burst out and then disappear just as suddenly into the building again. The cracks drunkenly eject weeds. There are eight windows, and precisely one has been boarded over with striated wood, while another shuts its eye with a plain grey board. The building warns, “No Dumping.”

The energies of collapse must look innocuous on the smallest level—zillions of shifts and endless readjustments according to a handful of basic forces. Only in aggregate, strings to quarks, quarks to particles, particles to atoms to molecules, to pile-ups, to jumbles, to molder, to tangles, to some or another drosscape. Staring at the building, I think of the Ghirlandaio painting “Old Man with his Grandson,” in which the fixed, earnest gaze of the little boy beams gracefully past the bulbous, disfigured nose of the grandfather. I think of my father’s snarled brain, of structure suspended in the act of dissolution, of wanting to love what is ugly—of being caught, locked in its gaze.


I sold my family’s collection of opera glasses without much forethought, in quiet desperation. My father was having a Lear-sized meltdown. Suburbia left him no wilderness to which to escape, left him rambling down meridians in bleak zones of far-flung sprawl. At one point he stumbled down a creek bank in our neighborhood to hide from the police. His outsized rage and confusion seemed to call for containment. My mother had died; I had no close relatives, little money. I scoured eBay.


Throughout most of my childhood, the opera glasses stayed in a glass cabinet mounted to the wall of our living room. I peered at them, and at myself reflected in the cabinet’s mirrored back panel. Because we lived in suburban Indianapolis, in a sea of Wal-Marts and Olive Gardens, purveyors of the cheap, disposable, and simulated, the opera glasses were my mother’s form of resistance, an insistence on craftsmanship and beauty. For the original owners, the opera glasses launched them closer to the stage, to the sweat and the makeup, to the physiological effort of controlled fluctuation. For us they were a visible testament to things older than K-mart. In a landscape carpeted with commodity architecture, what Saunders so aptly calls the “expedience-formed vistas,” my mother created an oasis, filling our house with books, old postcards, and antiques, covering the outside with old-fashioned roses. Of course, some will insist that my mother’s passion for opera glasses was just a different bourgeois dream, one in which a Steinway B and opera ephemera stood in place of an SUV, or a trampoline.


After your first month in assisted living, they call to tell me that you’ve walked into the parking lot. I remember blinking, disoriented on the other end of the phone, saying, so what? We will have to place him in the locked unit until you return from your trip, the voice said. What’s wrong with walking in the parking lot, I said.

What if I had just let you wander?

I picture, with small satisfaction, a shocked look from the Director of Community Outreach, or any other of your so-called officials at the assisted living facility. That’s right, I said, let him wander.

One time I visit you at a meal, and I notice your acquaintance Joe at the next table. Joe looks at me and starts crying very suddenly, with the primal, direct stare of someone who knows, and yet doesn’t know, that everything has been lost. His napkin remains tidily folded on a bone china plate. I fail to comfort him and come back to your table—you’re stubbornly silent. I try to coax little emblems of happiness out of you, but it doesn’t work. Is the watermelon juice I brought any good? A weak nod.

It’s towards the end of your life, and you tell me, this place is a sinking ship. I realize that as your body caves your mind lifts off, that you are enduring the uncomfortable sensation of becoming heavier and lighter at the same time.

I wish I could ask you, is the cost obscene?


The opera glass collection acted as a portal into a childhood of operas. I like to think they form a partial explanation of myself, of why I wrote a one-act opera in college, of why I have a doctorate in music composition.

My mother brought me to the opera with her for the first time when I was about six, despite her friends’ protestations that she was insane to pay for my ticket. Of these early visits, I remember a glow emanating from the stage. Settling into plush seats, I savored the balance between forward flung light and a reciprocal, encroaching darkness. It’s as though I settled in before a fire for a few hours, comfortable while remote and incomprehensible action flickered across the stage.

On one occasion, my mother explained that there would be a beheading at the end of the opera. So I waited patiently on the outdoor bleachers that had been set up in the gardens at Versailles. The singers far away, I sat in a tunnel of sound. One day this intensity would become important. But at the time I simply endured the onslaught. I was nine and a simulated beheading filled me with sufficient dread to sit still for a few hours.

The audience began to look around uneasily as a light drizzle started. The opera singers were under an overhang, but cables snaked around everywhere. Eventually an apology over the loudspeaker. My mother grabbed my hand and led me away. The opera could not continue. To this day, countless operas later, I have still only seen half of Andre Chenier.


Now that I sold all of the opera glasses, except one pair, I can focus on the way in which the collection dissolved. I transformed it into cosmetically-tinted health care, at places where capital blooms from aestheticizing decay within a corporation’s idea of home. Do a Google image search of “assisted living facility.” Though I am in my early thirties, I have spent a great deal of time in places just like the buildings you see. One thing I’ve learned is that most of the facilities keep caged birds, for the edification of the elderly.


Looking at my remaining pair of opera glasses reminds me of my mother, of the enthusiasms with which she navigated her life. I also feel a sense of kinship with the garden follies painted into their tiny landscapes. They evoke the fantasies of capitalism, that the more capital we have, the larger and more distorted our fantasies can be.


You still recognize me most of the time. Almost every other fact of your life has vanished, leaving spare bits of reality floating around you in a fantastical mist, which you greet with general acceptance and occasional rage. You don’t remember my mother, or that you used to live in Indiana. You still like to look at books; you still love bagels and coffee. Today I’ve brought you a truly delicious bagel—the superiority of bagels in New York City one compensation for having uprooted you.

You regard the bagel dubiously, bringing it to your mouth and lowering it again.

“Is this a 24 hour bagel?”

I stare at you, startled, my defenses low for aberrant conversation. I imagine your neurons crawling over unpromising terrain, snatching at images and forming distorted constructions.

“I got it from a 24-hour deli, if that’s what you mean.”

“Yes, but is it a 24 hour bagel?”

“It’s a freshly toasted bagel, and you should eat it before it gets cold,” I answer briskly, hoping to end the matter, clinging to logic.

“I don’t want to eat it. I need to know if it’s 24 hours.”

I gulp, gazing at you.

“Yes, actually, come to think of it, that is a 24 hour bagel. I got it from a place that only sells 24 hour bagels.”

Satisfied, you start to eat.

“This is delicious,” you tell me. We sit in your small apartment, hovering like motes on the 10th floor. Far below, tiny orange ferries move unsteadily across our frame of vision, on a distant strip of river overwhelmed by sky.

JENNIFER STOCK is at work on an essay collection about the resonance of inherited objects, and these essays have appeared in the Iowa Review, the New England Review, the Georgia Review, Hotel Amerika, and the Normal School.