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My husband, my home, our dog, my best friend, my mother — who was left to lose? It had all taken place in 16 months, and I suppose it’s better to get it all over with than to have it happen over time, sanding you down little by little.
I picked the building because its ornate surface reminded me of Manhattan’s London Terrace apartments, eight blocks from my old home. It was said that Deborah Harry and Susan Sontag had lived in London Terrace, and I figured local facsimiles of those high-spirited types would be found on its upper floors. But the neighborhood in my new chosen city of Philadelphia was full of a different kind of people, wary of strangers, afraid of crime. My fellow residents put on a hard face whenever you passed them in the hallways. I tried to get a hello back but it usually wasn’t successful. My apartment — and this was a matter of accident — happened to look out over my late best friend Denise’s building. I spent
far too much time alone. To ground myself, I pictured myself jumping repeatedly from the ledge of my 21st-story window. I must have died 12 times a day that year. A whole city of the dead inside me.
When had I last been unafraid?
I was back in Manhattan for the day, on my way to a party at a friend’s apartment in Tribeca. I was thinking up sentences, daydreaming as I usually do when I walk through New York, when I looked up and saw a face. The shock wasn’t simply his smile, which had more than a little swagger and mischief in it. The shock was that I’d seen that face online earlier in the day as I scrolled casually, half asleep, through a hookup site, fantasizing about whom I could possibly meet in New York, though I didn’t intend to pursue such a thing. He’d leapt off the screen with unrestricted wattage, and now here he was with even more, enough to pulverize stone. A current went up my spine, as we kept walking to our respective destinations — his to the north, mine south — looking over our shoulders, stopping, walking, looking over our shoulders again. This transpired over the course of a block. We smiled so much we were practically laughing. When had I last been unafraid?
Until that moment it was as if I hadn’t known what my type was. Now I thought I knew: broad, big chest; shaved head; thick beard; hair curling out the collar of his T-shirt. Wise-guy smile.
At the party, I kept thinking, You should have stopped to talk to him. You’d have a different life if you allowed yourself to be late.
Later that night, back in my new, hard city, I glanced at Facebook. A new message: "I wanted to stop."
I could point to things we had in common. We’d both lost lovers we’d really adored. We’d both grown up in New Jersey, but in different parts of the state. We had mutual friends in multiple worlds, lives in writing: It turned out he had an MFA in fiction. He’d seen me at a reading once, knew I was a writer, knew the titles of my books.
But our real connection? We loved to laugh. How many hours a day did we try to make
each other laugh? It was a facet of our sex, and maybe our best sex: trying to crack each other up. He was always much funnier on the spot than I was, and I loved trying to keep up with him. There was a little competition to this banter, but only the best kind. Sometimes I’d simply surrender: touché. It felt like being pushed down onto the bed and giving in to someone’s mouth, even though most of these exchanges transpired in texts.
It felt a little dangerous, this giving in, especially when I was putting more energy than I knew into taking care of myself. It was all I could do to eat, to teach, to keep getting out of bed each morning.
I was very skinny — 30 pounds lighter than I’d been the year before.
He was 12 years younger than I was, which didn’t seem to matter much. He was still in a lot of ways a boy, and I suppose I was too, especially now that I’d left 16 years of married life behind. Age-wise, we met somewhere in the middle and shared many of the same tastes. I loved the fact his were broad and idiosyncratic, from low culture to high: Laura Nyro to Stravinsky to old cartoons to The Night of the Hunter.
What is a relationship? Six months or sixteen years: It all comes down to a handful of images. To tell a linear story would be to tell a lie. There are always concurrent narratives, and you can’t tell one without canceling the other one out. But images live outside time and causality. They float out there, as in a satellite.
To tell a linear story would be to tell a lie.
Image 1: The parking lot of an Olive Garden in Monmouth County, New Jersey. He liked to smoke weed, and I was going along, even though I didn’t think it was necessarily the smartest thing to do by the front door. He loved Olive Garden, as only someone who managed a high-powered Williamsburg restaurant could love Olive Garden. The salty, processed food was practically exotic to someone who barely got outside the city anymore. It was the taste of childhood. We liked the fact that we could share this kind of adventure without feeling judged by the other, and as soon as we stepped up to the host’s station, we cracked up. Our server, a woman in her sixties with long red hair, responded to us instantly, as if we were fellow aliens who had dropped in from the most recently named moon of Neptune. We didn’t yet know we’d reference her name repeatedly in the months ahead, not with sarcasm, but as a kind person who took care of us for one memorable night.
Image 2: The Met, where we step toward Saraceno’s Cloud Country, a climbable plexiglass installation, on the roof. I hadn’t expected the sun to be so blinding when I checked my bag earlier, and it was doing me in now. The plexiglass only refracted it, intensifying the light. It was all I could do to cover my eyes with my hands, but he coaxed me forward. Come on, he said, grabbing me by the hand. I know your eyes hurt, but look! The skyscrapers turned upside down in the glass!
Image 3: A deep blue pool on the outskirts of Key West. He stood on the diving board, chugging his arms, clear drink in hand, revving everybody up. Goofy and sexy at once. One guy went up to talk, and then another. In part it was flattering to be associated with the star attraction of the compound, but I also felt completely on my own, retreating into my book in the lounge while he and the others splashed.
I was probably more excited about the prospect of the hurricane than I should have been. Three months after we’d first started dating, I’d moved 84 miles to Asbury Park, a place I once thought of as Chernobyl-by-the-Sea but was now experiencing a resurgence. I’d felt lifted by my move, and you could feel the relief in the pictures I took from those first months. The colored umbrellas on Bradley Beach, like a postcard of Rimini; the little boat, just beyond the wave break, lighting the dusk with its big beam. I’d managed to turn the old steam plant into an image out of Fellini’s Amarcord and I hadn’t even been trying.
Plus, it was a relief to move one hour closer to New York. I’d pictured him coming down whenever he had a few days off. He loved the beach, he could stay all day in the water if he wanted to, and my house, just three blocks in from the boardwalk, was a much more welcoming place to visit than my old neighborhood in Philadelphia, which always prompted him to say, with comic suspicion, does anybody live here?
Three days before the storm’s approach, the sea was ferocious, boiling. I went outside with two guys at the end of Convention Hall where it hung out over the water, and we stood mesmerized by the waves as a nearby bar’s sound system roared Megadeth. I think the point was that Megadeth sounded as bombastic as the ocean, but the music couldn’t hold a candle.
Once the storm finally arrived, I had everything I needed: flashlight, packaged foods, jugs of water. I started calling my friends as if they too were stepping outside of time, putting their deadlines aside, even though they were in places like D.C. and Austin, far from the emergency. "Don’t you think you should evacuate?" more than one of them said. "Too late now," I said, with an odd bit of pride. And besides, who would want to miss out on such a thing? How would I feel if I were sitting inside some motel, down at the end of some carpeted hall, when life was happening here?
The winds wrenched the house right and left. Trusty house: It was incredible in its ability to take it. At one point I even went out to walk in the wind, toward the beach. The rain pounded my brow. I got as far as a block and felt my chest do something funny against all that force, as if it were about to be used as a sail.
And then the power went out.
It went out with a sigh, as if a large, old animal had been punched. The night sky went darker than any dark I’d ever seen, and I knew the light was going to stay out for a good long time.
When morning came, the house was damp, chilled. I hadn’t thought about the furnace not working. Water still ran through the faucet, but other than that the walls felt sheer, the thinnest membrane. I put on my heaviest winter coat and slugged through town. Fifty-foot trees uprooted, carp in the gutters of Ocean Avenue, a vast cavern torn through the roof of the Great Auditorium.
They put a fence up around the boardwalk — not just any fence, but a three-story-high fence, industrial, chain-link, running from the north end of town to the south. It closed off the water, the horizon line. It made as much sense to seal off the sky. Even if you managed to pull two sections of the fence apart, you’d be risking arrest for doing nothing more than standing on the beach.
I hadn’t heard from him for days. Power had been restored, but I hadn’t had an urge to reach out. I suppose I was testing something. Why did I always have to be the one to say good morning? Who knew when that had started, and why was I supplying the energy to keep it going?
When he did phone to ask how I was, I admitted I’d been pretty depressed. I tried to keep the need out of my voice; I wasn’t asking for acknowledgement or sympathy. I just liked the freedom to say it aloud, but I kept it casual as if I were telling him I had blueberries for dessert.
“Let me call you back,” he said in a rougher voice than usual. He didn’t sound pleased.
Who knows what was going on with him that day? How many past due bills were assembled on his desk? Was the L train still not running? Could he still not get to work? And what about that batty landlord? Was she still walking into his room with her top off?
When he called me back he said depression was an illness of the privileged, along with a few other things I was unable to take in. I’d never heard anything like that in my life. I didn’t want to hate him.
The silence after that felt wide and stunning, a sea we could jump into together.
The silence after that felt wide and stunning, a sea we could jump into together.
I imagined taking his hand.
Rather than yell, I talked about the rest of my day, the tasks I had to attend to. Books to read, student manuscripts that asked for circles and checks and other symbols. The casual friendliness of my voice probably sounded like murder to him.
I had voided him; he felt it. I wasn’t going to see him again. The devotion must have been gone from my voice and I was just another person who was going to walk away after he’d said too much. I doubt he’d expected that of me. Maybe he thought I’d shudder and flinch, as if my shoulders were hooked into strings.
Then I went into a deep chamber for months, maybe more. One night I was driving down Route 35, a highway empty of cars after 10 p.m., yelling words that didn’t make sense to me. I kept yelling words until they fell out of natural order.
I suppose I could have started this piece by saying this is a piece about voiding someone. It seemed to me more important to get him, us, on the page. To say relationship, especially when I have written entire books about the loss of other relationships. It seems like that’s all I write about these days, these people, these places I’ve lost.
And yet some people come back to say hello, and if not to stick around, then only to suggest they’re findable, reachable. Maybe that isn’t so unusual these days, when we’re all so easy to capture online.
One night, half asleep, I was scrolling from site to site in bed. NPR, SF Gate, YouTube, Redtube… And that face, the brawny intensity of it. Earlier in our time together he’d talked casually about doing porn. Maybe he’d find his way toward it someday, but he mentioned it like he was interested in taking a trip to Canada, and here he is, looking like he’d been a resident of British Columbia all his life. I watch him pushing, leaning in, doing his work as in a dream. I sort of wish he were having more fun at it, but I am not exactly an uninvolved witness. If only he knew how to make use of the sexiest thing about him, which is that smile, always about to erupt into mischief: class clown. But porn isn’t the country for the smiling.
Months later, I come across a website for people dealing with loss. Most of the posts are composed in the well-meaning turns and tropes of grief language, but then I find a voice much stranger than that, more genuine, honest, wounded. Can you tell where this is leading? Him again, in another guise, writing about the partner he’d lost 14 years prior. He writes with deepest affection for this partner, the trips they’d taken, the apartment they shared, the poetry they read together: Cummings, Auden, and Yeats. I read every paragraph two, three times. Then I read the whole thing backwards. I am at home in his sentiments. I know exactly what he means when he talks about his body mourning. And yet I’m stumped by his announcement he hasn’t dated since this partner’s death. Oh, there had been men, he says, but no one ever held him tightly enough. Hookups with cuddle benefits. It’s almost stunning, this sweet erasure, to find out there was never any story between us to lose.
Paul Lisicky is the author of five books: Lawnboy, Famous Builder, The Burning House, Unbuilt Projects, and The Narrow Door, forthcoming from Graywolf Press in January 2016. His work has appeared in Conjunctions, Denver Quarterly, Ecotone, Fence, The Offing, Ploughshares, Tin House, The Rumpus, Unstuck, and in many other magazines and anthologies. His awards include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the James Michener/Copernicus Society, the Corporation of Yaddo, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, where he was twice a Fellow.
To learn more about The Narrow Door, click here.