I couldn’t tell you what sent me into the city that day. A gathering of things. Of sadness, maybe. It’s always been that way, as if I’d been born to swing between sun and shade. I’ve made peace with it – or tried to. A professor at Columbia (I can still see his little marsupial face, that polka-dot bow tie) would look at me over his half-glasses when I came to his office and ask: ‘Well, and what are we today, Mr Panakoupolis, imbued or embalmed?’
Anyway, I went into town because I’d felt myself swinging toward the embalmed side of things. Ordinary thoughts, dreams, but no less painful for not being original. About my father, wrapping up and not inclined to go gently, about time, mortality, the speed of things . . .
My problem is that like Sir Gawain I love my life too much, and loving anything too much, as the Green Knight explained – particularly ourselves – breeds cowardice. I’ve had moments when I’ve been almost paralyzed by fear, mute, a rabbit in the crosshairs – but there were also times the world began to speak, when everything – the drops in the screen, the smell of cedar drying in the sun, the laughter of kids cracking each other up on the subway – burst into song and I knew, I knew, with absolute, laughing certainty, that death was nothing – a chuckle, a quip, a long stretch and a wink – when I felt, well, imbued.
My father had written to say that what annoyed him most about the whole business of dying was that you couldn’t, as the saying goes, take it with you – not a single goddamn thing – that it would make it so much easier if it was like it used to be before a camping trip when he could just lay out his stuff on the ping-pong table and decide what to bring. He’d take a picture of me if he could figure out how, he said, along with the elf that has sat on his windowsill for eighteen years ever since our daughter gave it to him, its pipe-cleaner legs dangling over the glass. A couple of other things. A small duffel would do it, he said.
I wrote back and told him not to worry about packing because the bag would just sit around getting in the way, unless of course he wanted to speed things up, in which case he could leave it on top of the stairs in the dark. The usual bravado and bullshit – as good a way of dealing with the things you can’t deal with as any.
So I went into town. I don’t think I showed it, but Kate could tell: ‘Go, for God’s sake. Have lunch with Mac, it’ll do you good. Have a drink. Have two.’ I argued – I was fine – but in the end I trudged down the hill and got on the Metro North and sat by the window like a cloud in a coat, staring out at the half-frozen reservoirs and the garbage that shows up every year just in time for Thanksgiving, and things just got uglier until by Yonkers the box springs and the refrigerators and the baby carriages scrolling across the window were chanting it in unison, just for me: ‘It flies, it flies, you too shall die.’
Mac and I spent lunch talking about his knees, which didn’t improve things. He’d been a scared eighteen-year-old from Santo Domingo when he walked into our dormitory room: wiry, balanced, quick as a ferret on the soccer pitch. Now he was running the emergency room at Mt Sinai on bum knees. He was going to get them replaced – an upgrade.
‘A year from now I’ll kick your skinny white ass just like I used to,’ he said.
I told him his memory needed an upgrade too.
‘No incentive,’ he said. ‘Who the hell wanted a good memory?’ He checked his watch. He had the car – could he drop me somewhere?
I’d walk, I said. It was a nice day, and I still had the knees for it.
I was heading down to Riverside, choosing the promenade of Jamaican nannies over the wall of banks that used to be Broadway, when I saw her – or someone who looked like her – and as we passed we glanced up, then looked again, then pivoted like disbelieving bullfighters and stopped.
‘Jesus Christ,’ she said, and touched my cheek: ‘What on earth happened to your hair?’
‘Left,’ I said, ‘didn’t leave a note.’
For just a second I could see her as she’d been – that self-assured mouth, the easy way she moved, as if her body were an open coat she’d thrown on at the last instant – and then she was gone.
‘You look good, Allie,’ I said.
‘Liar.’ That smile – amusement and tenderness – hadn’t changed much. She was still looking at me: ‘Jesus Christ,’ she whispered.
‘I assure you, no,’ I said.
So we found a diner, a booth by the window, and the whole time I just kept thinking how very strange it was for the two of us to be sitting there taking turns reading off the people we’d loved, the things we’d done, the places we’d lived while all the time wanting to shout, ‘Hold on, stop! How the hell did this happen? How did you go out for cigarettes while I picked the clothes off the floor and come back like this? And how on earth did I get to be sixty-fucking four?’
But honesty and cruelty are joined at the lip, as my mother liked to say, so I let it go. What good could it possibly do? Life had run the way it should, had been kind to us both. She was married – the second one took, she said – still close to her kids, still interested in her work. It had been a long time ago. What had been had been. We were someone else now. And then she turned to signal to the waiter and I saw the mole by her throat, still black as the period at the end of a sentence, and felt a small dull stab of recognition.
Standing on the corner saying our awkward goodbyes she gave my tie a quick, proprietary tug, pulled my coat closed, then gave the collar a small pat like a seal on a letter.
‘Was that really us?’ she said.
‘I hope so,’ I said.
She smiled, shook her head. ‘Take care of yourself, Tom.’
She was a few stores down when she turned. ‘Think of me sometime,’ she called, an odd urgency in her voice. ‘Then.’ And she waved and went.
And I did, all the way down to 72nd, then across Sheridan Square past Gray’s Papaya and the corner where the Bagel Nosh used to be, remembering the two of us crashing into each other like continents or cats in heat, supremely self-involved. Christ, the energy we had. She’d catch a ride to the city, disappear into my room; some days, we’d hardly leave my bed. Nobody had had sex before us. We’d discovered it – it was ours alone.
My father met her once, as we were leaving a restaurant. It was on 114th St – windy, restless spring. He’d taken me to lunch at The Symposium, as always, because he liked to talk to the waiters in Greek. I was twenty-four, which would make him fifty. We’d just climbed the stairs up to the street when there she was, under-dressed in that thin blue sweater, hair blowing across her face. She was polite, flustered, charming, and my father said it was nice to meet her and she said it back, then looked at me and said, ‘So – maybe I’ll see you at the library later?’
We’d almost reached the end of the block, my father with that footballer’s stride of his pushing through an invisible crowd, when he smiled and said: ‘Now I know why I can’t reach you on the phone – because you’re always in the library.’ And maybe because I’d seen that blue sweater tangled in my sheets that morning, or because things were just different then, I said, ‘We’re just friends, Dad – really,’ or something like that, and he looked at me and laughed and said, ‘Bullshit. What am I, blind?’ and for just that moment we were closer than we’d ever been in years.
It must have been written all over us – in neon. We couldn’t get enough of each other, we thought we’d been chosen, elect – I’m amazed I found the time to eat. My God how banal we were, and how glorious it was. How I wanted to burn her house down, how I thought about it, played with it, and how she invited it, laughing, saying ‘Go ahead, burn it down, you bastard’ as we walked up Amsterdam in the winter dark, her arm around my waist and her hand buried in my pocket, whispering ‘Is this what you want? Like this? Take it, then, burn it down, do it now.’
For six months we gulped each other down, then broke up, then met again at some graduate-school party from which we escaped, guiltily, after rocking the bathroom sink from the wall, then split up once more and met again a year later. Eventually, I guess, we just outran our moment.
The clock at Grand Central gave me five minutes, and cutting through the crowd, all those intersecting lives, I found my track, my train, a seat by the window. The car lurched, then settled; the platform began to move. I watched the half-lit rooms, like stage sets, going by in the dark – a heat pipe, a ladder, a chair.
By Katonah it had started to snow, the small dark points, busy against the station lights, paling the sky between the hills. I’d wait all week to see her, suffocating like a fire in a closed room, and if it wasn’t love, we didn’t know that then. She’d come down from Manchester. I’d cancel friends, family, everything and we’d be gone, lost, listening to the ping of the steam in the radiators, ignoring the hiss of time running out until Sunday morning when everything would begin to grow dark and miserable with the approach of her leaving and then she’d get in her friend’s car and I’d walk back to my room alone.
I think even then there were times we were surprised by the force of it. Opening the door I’d see her face, her expression, shifting from need and shame to something like relief (already touched by laughter) to a desire so ragged it seemed overrun, overwhelmed, and then I’d watch that same sequence play itself out again, only altered, as in a dream, when she came, her eyes closed, her head turned almost demurely to the side, her tongue resting like some small, soft animal on her lower teeth. I wanted to close some circuit inside her, to feel her trembling in my current, and then, before we knew what had happened, we’d be holding each other by the overpass to the Law School as the doughnut bags and the cigarette butts swirled in little hurricanes around our legs and her friend waited, her long fingers drumming on the wheel.
Outside the window, the snowy reservoirs looked like puzzle pieces lifted from the woods. I could see us, stepping over the missing cobbles on college walk, my shirt half-open in the winter air, her body pressed into my ribs. That had been us. She’d say something, I’d answer. Where did we go? Did my father remember a girl, a bed, the smell of burnt onions coming from the apartment next door? Did all the moments of our days just disappear over the falls?
‘Bedford Hills – watch your step.’ I could see the snow against the cones of light, sweeping backlit past the station, and I wished it would fall and just keep falling until it buried the roads and muffled our fears and all that was left was all that mattered.
It was in January, I think. That weekend, more than any other, the thought of her leaving seemed impossible. We’d made love that afternoon, and then once more during the night, when I felt her body begin to answer even before she woke and laughed and pulled me on top of her. Later, waking out of a deep, dreamless sleep I looked toward the window and realized the paling light wasn’t dawn but heavy, falling snow. And feeling the heat of her against me, deep in sleep, I whispered to whatever gods there might be to let it fall and just keep falling, to trap her here with me.
It was coming down hard when we woke and lay on the mattress that we’d pulled down on the floor because the bed was too narrow, not wanting to say it out loud, watching it fall. At the Mill Luncheonette the windows were fogged and the floor was wet and the old guys at the back table who were always talking about the ponies were talking about how people had bought up all the soup and toilet paper in Morningside Heights.
Eggs and home fries had never tasted so good. Everybody was complaining, stamping around in their boots, happy. On the gray rubber mat near the door, we could see the waffles of snow from people’s boot soles melting. When the weather report came on, Rene, who was on the grill that morning, switched the spatula to his left and turned up the radio. It could go either way, the weather service was saying – a lot of rain or a whole lot of snow.
When we came back to my room she called her ride. They’d give it till noon, her friend said. Trying not to jinx it, she started to pack, neither of us daring to hope out loud, to think of what an extra day would mean. We could do whatever we wanted. We could ride the Staten Island ferry, hold each other in the wind, walk up through the Village at dusk. We’d go to sleep together, walk to breakfast in the snow, go sledding on cafeteria trays with the kids in Riverside Park.
By eleven, the snow had turned to rain.
And maybe because we’d allowed ourselves to think she might stay, it felt like dying. There was nothing that could be done.
I watched her pack her things. Maybe she could stay a few hours longer, she said – take the train up, or the bus. She could say she was sick. But there was no way out. We didn’t have the money for a ticket, and even if we did, it wouldn’t matter. She had to go. On the street the garbage was coming up through the melting snow. She wouldn’t be able to come down for two weeks. It felt like – it was – forever.
I’d already locked the door behind us when we heard the phone and came back in. I watched her face – the disbelief, the joy so intense she had to close her eyes even as her voice spoke the necessary lies: ‘Oh, I’m so sorry. No, of course. I understand. No, really, it’s no problem – I’m so sorry.’
Her friend’s great-uncle, a heart attack in Queens that morning, her ride couldn’t leave till Tuesday: it seemed, it was, impossible, and then I’d caught her up and we were in each other’s arms and dancing into the furniture – pardoned, disbelieving, ecstatic – but there was more, she said, her ride had to come back for the funeral the next weekend – and even as we fell into bed I remember feeling a surge of perfect, unspeakable gratitude toward this man I’d never met (who I hoped had had a long and wonderful and eventful life), for having the decency to die on that day instead of some other one and thinking, Thank you, thank you, whoever you are, and when I kick off I hope I make just enough trouble so that someone, somewhere, gets some good out of my going.
I got off the train in Brewster, walked up the wet black stairs, the muted whistle following behind. It was snowing hard. Kate would be waiting up. I’d tell her about my day. Late that night, waking in the dark, her ribs hot against my hand, I’d hear the snow whispering something against the gutters, falling like it would never stop.
Photograph © Jonathan Green