This bridge is one of 21 paper backgrounds Sheila Heti discovered in a 1940s-era paper-doll set for Freudian analysts. On the bridge are three paper dolls chosen at random. Tony, an artist, was asked what he sees when he looks at this scene.

Tony's apartment is undecorated and spare. He owns little, feeling that life is fundamentally unstable. He hasn't had a serious relationship in the half decade since leaving university, though he dates. He is an artist whose canvases are full of nightmarish scenarios: mutilation, murder, the fallout of atomic war. He was training to be a biologist, which was his parents' dream for him, but on the day of his final exams, he simply did not show up. In fact, at many key moments in life, he has suddenly turned in a different direction, never reaching the destination for which he seemed headed. He lives in relative poverty now. His parents divorced when he was 10, at which point Tony immediately began to see his entire life with his family as having been a sham. He claims it is the most defining event of his life: Before that, he remembers having been a confident, stable, and happy boy. Since the divorce, he has felt insecure in the world and mistrustful. As an adult, he is never convinced that the life he is leading is the "right" one, and he doubts his decisions and is wary of any commitments. He is considered very intelligent by the people who know him.

What do you see when you look at this picture, Tony?

This is some sort of... what's it called when a cursed woman who—? I don't know. She [the middle figure] wants what she [the figure on the left] has, which is normalcy and youth and, you know, so she can walk around in society. It kind of looks like this guy has a baseball bat in his hand, but I'm sure it's not a baseball bat. And he—I don't really see him caring or having any relation to the two women. He's just sort of observing. But it's something that this ghoulish woman will never be a part of—his world. No one's really paying attention to her at all. No one really cares about her. She's going her way and there's nothing she can really do to reenter society.

Who, the ghoulish woman?

Yes. Perhaps she was cursed or—it's not simply some actual deformity. It's not like she's a burn victim or anything happened out of an accident. There's something kind of otherworldly about her horribleness. Um, nobody really sees her. But she can't be a part of them anyway.

Why are they on a bridge?

Why are they on a bridge? They're on a bridge because a bridge is part of culture. It's something man-made. It's something of society. It's not actually occurring. And maybe... maybe this is where the woman has to live, on the bridge, in the sense that there's really no one who lives there, there's no one who stays there, so she can.

And the other people? What are they doing on the bridge?

Ah, just on their way. They're just on their way.

Tony's uncertainty about the world and his place in it is clear from his description of the bridge as "something man-made. It's something of society. It's not actually occurring." How can something be at once "something man-made... of society" and yet "not actually occurring"? What does this bridge represent? Perhaps his parents' marriage and his life with them—which he assumed was happy until he learned it was not. His parents' love and their family could not have been real if it ended, it was "not actually occurring... in the sense that there's really no one who lives there, there's no one who stays there." This is now how he feels about the entire world. Therefore he must be a transient creature because the world is a place in which "no one... stays."

His fundamental transience is embodied by the "ghoulish woman" who lives on the bridge. "This is where the woman has to live, on the bridge," he says of himself and her. Perhaps he turns away from opportunities the moment they seem to promise permanence because he is more comfortable on the bridge—a transitional place between realities, neither here nor there. He is neither a biologist nor fully committed to being an artist. While the other people cross the bridge ("They're just on their way") and arrive somewhere new, the bridge is Tony's home.

Though he "has to" live on the bridge, he wants "normalcy and youth" and to "walk around in society" like everyone else—like the younger woman does. But it's hard when the simplest facts are debatable, as we can detect when he decides that the man is carrying a baseball bat, but then in the next breath says, "I'm sure it's not a baseball bat."

In any case, Tony does not make a fuss. "There's nothing [he] can really do to reenter society." It's beyond his capacity, not because of "some actual deformity" (Tony is attractive enough, and takes pride in being neat and clean). His problems aren't about the physical realm ("It's not like she's a burn victim"). They lie in the existential realm: Tony's feeling is of isolation and abandonment ("No one really cares about her").

Consider the man, who, like the "cursed" woman, is also a stand-in for an aspect of Tony's psyche. "He's just sort of observing" the two women, perhaps the way an artist does, while "not caring" and not "having any relation" to them—which also speaks to the cold eye of the artist.

Often the solution to our problems is obvious—yet it's also often where we neglect to look. Tony—like the man, and like all of us—has the solution literally at hand. The man holds a gift. (Tony does not see it, however, preferring to focus on the unreality of the bat.) Tony's "gift" is of course his artistic talent—his paintings. More still: The word "gift" comes from the Proto-Indo-European root ghabh- meaning "to give or receive." Tony needs to give his reality to the world in order to receive it back, in the form of the reactions of the people who encounter his art, thus making his perceptions real, instead of "not actually occurring," invisible to all but himself. He must paint what was "cursed" and present it to the people—present it as the gift it is.

If he can observe not only his own inner life, but real people observing his work—for art is a creation always of the present, even if its subject is often the past—he and the world will cease to be illusory, "ghoulish," and "otherworldly." The "curse" will be broken, and Tony might make a virtue of living on the bridge—which is not a bad place for an artist to be, if he can recognize and use his gift. recommended

Sheila Heti is the author of several hard-to-categorize books, including the novel How Should a Person Be?

Don't miss the rest of this series, including "What Do You See When You Look at This Bedroom?" "What Do You See When You Look at This Attic?" and "What Do You See When You Look at This Square?"