“And what does a mirror show you, can you see the grey? Your sadness is quite lovely, but it’s the sadness of a slave.” – A.A. Bondy, “When the Devil’s Loose.”
I drove back from the doctor’s office, the radio so loud I could feel my eardrums warm. I blasted through song after song as I meandered through the downtown streets of Belleville, seeing the rows of small businesses appear before me. I hadn’t explored even half of them, even though I’d lived there almost five years. I half-expected to hear the song, if only because it would put a huge fuck you candle on the black cake of my day. The song wasn’t played often anymore, but the timing would’ve been perfect.
After I landed in Belleville, I struggled to fill the days. Away from the constant energy of the city, the lack of noise seemed like a presence, a huge wet blanket that surrounded every part of town. I walked downtown, my jaw almost dropping at the lack of traffic and availability of parking spaces. The blocks held small galleries, used book stores, and several mom and pop restaurants, like New York did, but everything seemed more spacious, as if someone had taken a less expensive area of Manhattan and vacuumed up some of the squeeze and clutter, allowing every building to sigh and breathe in the Midwestern air. I wandered the streets almost every day, until I noticed the locals outside eying me like I needed an intervention or a hospital visit. I waved, they waved back, a little or a lot, but the question of who I was hung in the air, like the summer humidity or the winter exhales from the cold-weary walkers.
I rolled into a part of downtown that held a few more empty shops than charming boutiques. Somewhere, in one of the buildings, a couple of my favorite bands had made their start, jamming in whatever empty space they could find before making their way to Laclede’s Landing, or the cluster of small, rough bars down by the Mississippi. People didn’t use Belleville to make a start anymore, from what I saw. They either were born and remained, like most, stayed a little while and worked on the Air Force base, like a few, or ended up there not knowing what else to do, like I had.
I’d fled from New York less than a year after the song hit. My songwriting and fiction writing both seemed dead, and everywhere I tried to revive them seemed to only want a rehash of the song, or to use its existence to promote me. I turned down a short story placement because the woman wanted to introduce me as “a songwriter instrumental in the development of…” I explained to them I couldn’t say it, because of the confidentiality agreement, and they balked. In their defense, my further statement of “and hell the fuck no, even if I could,” didn’t win me any brownie points. The song publishers were the worst, thinking I would somehow wring myself like a wet towel and another teen-friendly, nausea-inducing pop ditty would fall out of me like a melodic shitstorm. I never found out who broke the confidentiality agreement, how everyone seemed to know my musical crime, but if I had, I would’ve voted him or her the death penalty in court, criminal case or not.
One Friday night, I wandered into a little bar off Amsterdam and 76th I liked, thirsty for a beer, only to find the place packed full of people spilling onto the sidewalk, karaoke night in full swing. A woman belted out a song that filtered outside, that song by Alanis Morissette where she blows a guy at the movies, the lucky bastard. I went inside, leaned against a pole, and ordered my beer. The woman finished to scattered applause and a lot of indifference. Through the noise, I heard the DJ call the next singer and song, his voice low and muffled through the cheap speakers and microphone. The waitress brought my beer.
Then, everything shifted. My insides flew to the ceiling. My jaw dropped. I felt as if I’d been transported to a parallel universe where nothing made sense, where time didn’t matter, where I could see something I both couldn’t believe, and couldn’t let out of my sight, holding onto it like a prayer. The next singer rose as her table clapped. I watched Mara walk to the stage. I hadn’t seen her in almost two years. She’d changed her hair, cutting it closer to her neckline. Her clothes were the current year’s version of what I remembered—a colorful blouse, a skirt to just above the knee, those high, high heels, and jewelry to complement it all. Her smile stretched, ocean wide, as she shook her head and wagged her finger at the woman sitting next to her.
She didn’t look as beautiful as I’d imagined she would, in those perpetual times I imagined where she’d gone, and how her life was progressing, and of course, how she looked. She looked more beautiful. Her eyes held the same sparkle, her skin seemed to glow a little more under the stage lights, and her new haircut allowed more of her thin, graceful neck to show. As I had every time I’d seen her since we became a couple, I fell in love with her again. She looked happy. She waved to the crowd as she took the stage.
I hid myself as best I could behind the support pole and listened to her sing. I couldn’t tell what song she sang, because my ears seemed to ring with church bells. My stomach tumbled like tennis shoes in a dryer. Her voice traveled to me over the bar noise, thin but sweet, as she held court on the tiny stage. Guys whooped and yelled every time she shook her hips a little, and a surge of jealousy ripped through me, heating my face and curling my lip. She was mine. Same as it ever was…even two years of missing her and wondering if she was okay, of being stunned to be in her presence, couldn’t keep the dark, ugly parts of my heart from appearing.
When her song was over, she curtseyed to the crowd, acknowledging their cheers, mostly from the men near the stage, and headed back to the table she shared with a few artistic-looking people. I’m not sure what prompted her, but she stopped before she got to her table, shook her head, and looked right at me. I hoped she’d sensed me as soon as I entered the bar, that our connection, built on past love that crept into every part of us, felt so powerful that she knew I’d watched her sing, but I’m sure it was just random chance that drew her eyes to where I stood, peeking out from behind a small pole like a nervous boy who knows he’s in trouble. Her face traveled from smile to stunned in half a second. Her eyes widened as her hands fell limply to her sides. Her fingers strummed her thighs.
We were the only two people in the bar then, our eyes locked in spite of the milling crowd and the waitresses who needed to get past us. I felt like something had tied us to one another, but had wrapped me until I couldn’t move. I couldn’t even blink for a few seconds as I scanned her, so close after all that time.
She waved to me as a half-smile spread across her lips. My body lurched to motion. I waved back, and started to walk to her. Her eyes widened and darted from side to side. She bit her lip, and then sat down, her back to me. I stood, waiting, but she didn’t turn around again. I thought about singing myself, laughing too loud, dropping a glass—anything to get her attention, short of going to her and tapping her shoulder. I wanted to apologize, to make sure she was okay, to ask her to coffee…anything to erase even the slightest bit of the two years before. Maybe she’d even figure a way to like me again.
I stood there for a few minutes, watching the back of her head bob and weave as she talked to her friends. I stared, wanting my gaze to bore into her, to compel her to walk to me and say hello. I didn’t feel like I could go to her. The breakup had been my doing. My fault. The words of a song floated through my mind. I can’t return to you, you must return to me, that’s the deal. I’m sorry. Did I say I’m sorry? The one who tears things apart can’t walk up, glue in hand, and expect to start mending fissures.
My mind raced through a steeplechase of thoughts and hopes before it ground to a halt. It’s been two years. She’s moved on. If she’d wanted to talk to you, she would’ve come over, stupid. I ordered another beer, unable to accept that she could be twenty feet from me and I couldn’t speak to her. I felt like I’d been thrown over the handlebars of a motorcycle that had skidded from sixty to zero in a second. My palms itched to walk over and touch her hair, to lean down and smell it as I had so many nights.
Through the bar’s open door, I saw a light rain begin to fall, followed quickly by a few grumbles of thunder. I looked back to her, still turned from me like we were on opposite sides of the earth. I thought of Mara and the thunderstorms we shared.
When my jealousy began, but before it became a stab in the midst of every day, we had a fight, one of those awkward times every couple has. She got swamped with a photography show, so we couldn’t see each other as much for a few weeks. I started getting pissed at everything, especially her deepening friendship, and amount of time spent, with Marco. It had been over a week since we’d last made love. I felt alone, unappreciated. She called at six to tell me she’d be at work until late. I said something stupid, go figure. I made a crack about how if she loved me more, she’d be there for me when I was lonely. That she didn’t seem to want me as much. Stupid words, stupid attitude, a lashing out to protect myself against the fear we were growing apart.
I hung up on her and spent the next hour in bed trying to nap, tossing and turning, convinced of how right I’d been. Hell, I would’ve blamed her for my dad’s rheumatism or the economy tanking at that point. I finally fell asleep, probably still muttering at the unfairness. Woman as the root of all evil, that no good woman done me wrong, all that overblown shit that happens when you’ve gotten too little sleep, your emotions are as jagged as freshly broken glass, and have too high a sense of self-righteousness.
I went to sleep, but woke when I heard the door open. I heard her heels click on the floor, louder, closer. I looked at the clock. Seven-thirty. She stood in the doorway for a second, almost a silhouette in the dimming light. She was naked by the time she got to the bed, climbed in, put her head on my shoulder and curled against me.
“I had to come home. I’m sorry.” Her voice sounded tiny, two steps too quiet.
She didn’t need to say a word. By the time she finished, I had already moved in for a kiss, then another and another. I rolled on top of her and we made love. I called her name as I plunged, she called mine as she wrapped her arms and legs around me and pulled me closer to her, into her. A few minutes later, as we rocked together slowly, I realized that it had begun to rain. Without even realizing, we matched the rhythm of the steady drops against the window.
After that day, we’d make any excuse to be home together when it rained, especially when there were thunderstorms. At the first rumble, we’d rush to the bed, our clothes trailing across the floor. Once, I came home from work and stripped down in the living room, hatching a plan. I was going to surprise her with a call and an invitation, but she was already there, naked and ready, in our bed.
“I was going to call you!” We said it at the same time and laughed. I leapt into bed beside her, covered her body with mine, and we made love and drank wine and laughed and snoozed and made love some more, all afternoon.
I’d been staring at her for fifteen minutes, at least. The bar started to wind down after karaoke ended. I had a clearer view of her table. A guy next to her looked at me, leaned toward her, and said something as he eyed me, like I was about to measure her for a shallow grave. She shook her head and he turned away from me. I told myself, just a step toward her. Just a step. My feet didn’t move. Just a single word to start to apologize. To explain. Like in the cabin, I had an opportunity to make an effort, no matter how small, to find her again.
Instead, I finished my beer and left, my head on a backwards swivel the whole time. I walked back to our, no my apartment, almost fifty blocks on a muggy night, drenched in sweat, my head still reeling from the sight of her. By the time I climbed three flights of steps, I wasn’t sure where sweat ended and my tears began, because everything felt wet, everything felt like crying. Just a word, a gesture toward her…my cowardice offended me.
For a few days, I lost my mind. I hadn’t removed any of Mara’s memories from the place, keeping it like a shrine to my loneliness and regret. She felt everywhere, from the Asian style pillows that lined the couch to her photographs, which lined the walls, to the few toiletries she’d left that lined the bathroom shelf. I still missed her every fucking day, thought of her every fucking day, hoped every day some unimaginable miracle might bring her to me. R.E.M. summed up my hope. I know it might sound strange, but I believe you’ll be coming back before too long. Another song, years later, put hope in its impotent place. Experience robs me of hope that she’ll ever return.
I lay down on the middle of the living room floor and cried, staring at the patterned ceiling like I might discover some hidden message in its swirls and whorls, some way to find a lifeline back to the nights Mara and I spent together, two bodies in one space. Even after the hard wood made my back a throbbing mess, I lay there and let her wash over me. Touches to wake me in the morning. Her eyes lighting as she saw me approaching her on the sidewalk. The way her hand always slipped into mine as we walked.
I woke up in the middle of the night, still on the hardwood floor, my body sore and stiff. I stumbled to bed, but relief from pain, of all kinds, didn’t live there. Memories flashed. I thought about all of the nights she had slept in the spot I tossed and turned. Her smell had vanished long ago. I hadn’t washed her pillow case, but all it held was cotton and memory.
After we dozed in bed, normally a lull until the next time we made love, Mara talked to me about photography. She said she felt like a god with every image she captured.
“Well, don’t forget us mortals after you’re famous, okay?” I said, as I stroked her thick nest of hair. Even in the dark, I could find the small grey patch that sprung from her temple, like a welcome light entering a dark night.
She rolled until her head rested in that perfect place on my shoulder. I used to call it her home. “You and me, baby. Forever.”
Every time she said the word my heart jumped. Forever. I knew what it meant, but more than that I knew how I felt. Forever felt like a furnace warm, five foot three, ballerina built woman who looked at me like I was the king of a far off country and who curled into my arms like we’d been built together in a magic workshop.
I couldn’t sleep without her in my arms. Once, I got up in the middle of the night and when I returned to bed, she had twisted herself in the covers. I lay down on top of them, so I wouldn’t disturb her. After a few minutes, she turned and in a voice mixing sleep and a whimper said, “But you’re all the way over there.” I slid over behind her, wrapped my arm over her lithe form, and nuzzled her neck.
“That’s much better,” she said as she drifted back to sleep.
I hauled myself off the floor, my knees creaking as I struggled to stand straight. I found a spot of courage. I reached for my phone and texted a number I hadn’t used in almost two years.
It was nice to see you. Can we get together for coffee? To talk?
My message came back undeliverable. She had moved on in more ways than one.
A few days later, I plotted my escape from New York. I couldn’t risk seeing her again, as just her small smile had turned the days afterward into a ragged depression I couldn’t escape. I lay in bed, minus bathroom breaks, for almost 36 hours, revisiting every triumph and failure we’d shared. I listened all night for a knock on the door, trying to convince myself that she’d somehow track me down and rush to my side. Instead, the only sound in the apartment was the drumming of my hand against the bed frame as I hoped against hope.
My lease expired in a couple of months and had nothing in the city to hold me. I hadn’t worked since I received the settlement, had no friends to miss me, and few enough personal possessions to make the trip, wherever I headed, with a small rental truck. Two days later, I pulled into Belleville, Illinois, a small town I chose for its distance from New York and because one of my favorite bands had started there. If I got lonely for a city, the St. Louis Arch gleamed twenty minutes down the road. If I got lonely for people…no. Doubtful. I’d seen too much of people to worry about that for a while. I rented a house for a year, after that bought a house in a nice, quiet, tree-lined neighborhood, and settled in to work in the yard during the day and drink beer in front of the TV at night.
I didn’t write again, except for grocery and to-do lists. Sometimes, I’d hear music and the words would start to flow, but I’d shut them down before they entrenched in my thoughts. The letter hid in the back of my wallet, an almost daily reminder of a life I didn’t lead any longer. Sometimes I’d go so far as to remove it from my wallet, open a trash can lid, but the letter would seem to hover there in my hand, like it couldn’t fall into the waste, like it couldn’t be killed.
Never unfolded, never read by anyone except me, a few times before I folded it, and Rat, when he’d stolen its words, turning it from heartfelt plea into a dirty piece of graffiti.
In the civil case with Rat, I told my lawyer what my original lyrics had been. He told me they’d need my copy of them, but in the end Rat and the others (at Rat’s urging, I hoped), decided to stipulate that my letter and lyrics existed, as I said. Anything else would’ve been a lie, and I hoped Rat had retained that scrap of goodness. In the end, the pages remained folded and hidden, like an old memory hiding in the back of a bottom drawer I opened on occasion, gathering layers of dust but no distance.
In my house, I sat on the couch, my left ball rolling through my fingers like I had testicular OCD. The doctor’s words hadn’t sunk below the wooden surface I’d been since the end of the appointment, since he started tossing out terms and theories to me like a magician flipping cards at an audience.
Blood test and ultrasound…
Stage I, II, III…
Radical Inguinal Orchiectomy…
“What’s that?” I asked. “Radical?”
“A removal of the affected testicle. But don’t worry. We’re just talking about every possibility at this point. First, the tests. Okay?”
Sweat swarmed my forehead.
At that point, my nuts were basically for hang and show, since Mara had been my last sex partner. Still, I didn’t get a warm, happy feeling thinking about one of them (in a severe case both of them) in a trash can somewhere. As much as my nuts were attached to me, I felt equally attached to them.
I bit my lip so hard it bled.
I looked at my spacious living room and thought of that first apartment in the city, which would’ve fit inside it. A galley kitchen, a crackerbox bedroom, a living room that felt cramped by a couch and a chair, a bathroom that three people could’ve have stood side by side in without shrugging their shoulders.
I never felt cramped there, and after Mara and I became a couple I didn’t need more than a couple of square feet of space, if she was inside it. At eighteen, I felt thrilled to greet each new day in a stuffy apartment with sieve-like windows that allowed noise to pour through them, its radiators coughing heat into the rooms. I woe each morning and felt satisfied, like the king of something I couldn’t define.
In the mornings, the sunlight would stream through the living room window and light the futon, always too early. On the street, the morning commuters hailed taxis or rushed to the subway, their cell phone voices struggling to rise above the whirl and squawk of the neighborhood—grocery vendors putting out the morning’s produce, shop owners hosing off the sidewalks, an endless stream of car horns and staccato shouting. I’d pull Mara even tighter to me, the smell of her hair and skin filling my nose and my chest with their perfume. I’d open my eyes to get a first look at her, only to close them as I nuzzled my chin into her shoulder. She would wiggle back into me until we had no space between us, until I could trace both our hips at once with my hand.
“Good morning. Are you ready for the day, love?” she’d usually say, her voice still wrapped within the velvet fog of sleep.
I always felt ready in that apartment. I knew that nothing in the day could derail me, because I had my woman beside me, love inside me, and something almost magical all around me—another day in the world’s greatest city, sights and sounds like a symphony.
After Mara left, I never felt ready for a day again.
Outside my living room, a sudden late spring thunderstorm bent the oak tree’s limbs with a rustling like chattering insects. Through my open patio door, I smelled the musty mix of wet grass and damp concrete. The purple and faintly green sky changed from dry to sideways sheets of rain in seconds. I let the tile around the door dampen with the intruding rain, unable to get off the couch to block out the sounds and smell of the driving storm. I felt like there was a storm inside me, ready to explode my body into black streams of disease and pain.
Dr. Lewis had scheduled my ultrasound and blood tests for Monday, three business days from my Wednesday appointment, since the ultrasound office was closed weekends. I felt a little relieved that he didn’t pale, put his hand over his mouth in horror, and drag me by the ear to the lab, but nothing could relieve the nagging, gnawing fear that bunkered down into my belly, like a soldier in anticipation of a long, bloody battle.
“How long for the results?” I asked.
Three or four days with the weekend, he told me. He had to send the blood tests out to a St. Louis lab, since the doctor’s office was so small, quaint even, that they still kept patient records in manila folders and greeted everyone by name. By the time they got the results back to him…would I be able to breathe again, or be a few days closer to death?
He put his hand on my shoulder. “Try not to worry. Most cases—”
“—are benign. I know.” I sighed. “That long, huh?”
“Go home. Keep yourself busy. No need to call. If there is anything we need to discuss after the test results come back, I will break a leg getting to the phone to let you know.”
“So no news is good news?”
He patted my shoulder a couple of times, almost like he feared I’d break. “In this case, yes. No news means it’s fine.Try not to worry, Aaron.”
Try not to worry. Fuck it all.
Probably benign. Two words which should never go together. Why bother modifying a word like benign, when it’s perfectly fine on its own? Unless you’re using a word like certainly, absolutely, or completely, leave well enough alone. The doctor was talking about a tumor, for Christ’s sake. The conversation came back to me, piece by piece, like one of those movies where the actions stops and starts.
Probably benign. I’m glad we caught this early. When did you first notice?
Dr. Lewis put his hand on my shoulder. The room went cold. Still. I noticed his hand trembled as he patted my shoulder, slowly, with no pressure, as if I were a fragile vase, or a brittle-boned elderly woman. On the wall, I saw a poster with the title “Your Condition and You.” On it, he doctor and the patient smiled at each other.
So, Aaron, exactly when did you feel the lump? Try to be as specific as possible. The more we know now, the better.
I knew when I felt the lump. I remembered when I started to feel the pain. I tried to remember before that time—had I ever noticed anything else? Anything? Who remembers what his balls felt like last year, or even last week, until something goes wrong? Who keeps a journal of their ball-touching activity? There was a ton of stuff rolling around in there, weird things I couldn’t know or name if I tried.
Let’s just have a look.
I remembered the snap of the plastic glove, the fondling, the rolling, the sweat on my forehead in that cold examination room. Then another doctor—some female intern, the second in line to treat my pubic region like it was a wondrous trip to the moon. She examined, rolled, looked at the doctor, rolled some more. I stood there, knowing that it was the absolute unsexiest moment I would ever suffer through in my life. I know that in porno movies, that situation always becomes a moaning, thrusting, orgy of gross entertainment, and the intern was kind of cute…but I couldn’t have achieved erection if the nurse had been a porn star. It’s funny—when she was rolling my nuts like dice, all I could think of was stillness. I didn’t want for her to think I enjoyed it, like some pervert. When Dr. Lewis rolled them, I thought of exactly the same thing. Gay, straight—it doesn’t matter when there’s a testicular exam. You look straight ahead, stand still, and silently pray for the moment when the gloves come off with a snap and everyone’s looking at eye level again.
The doctor and intern worked their magic. He showed her the chart, made some notes and pointed as he mumbled. She nodded and asked, “How specific should you be on the shape the tumor?” I’m sure I turned a few shades whiter.
The doctor shot her a cautionary glance. “Growth, Dr. Fletcher. It’s a growth until we get lab results.”
To me, he said, “Sorry. She’s new. It’s probably nothing.”
After the loose-lipped Dr. Fletcher left the room, he motioned for me to sit on the table again. “Aaron, I’m sorry. It’s too early to speak like that.”
“But…it’s a tumor. She’s right, isn’t she?”
“Try thinking of it as a growth. When people use the word tumor, they usually think of some out of control, black mass that’s eating away at them. A growth is just something that’s not supposed to be there. Which, under normal circumstances, doesn’t require much worry. We’ll do a couple more tests, and we’ll know more.”
“So, this growth…is it…?”
“Nothing yet. Just something to examine and diagnose. Let me find out more before we make a definite diagnosis. Go ahead and get dressed, then we’ll talk more.”
As I shed the paper gown and put on my clothes, I started to think. Probably benign? What’s probably? Fifteen, twenty percent? One percent? A thousandth? Does he even know the odds? Does he spout numbers like a geyser spouts water, hoping that some of the spray is soothing or nourishing, or maybe by some small chance might not drown you?
Dr. Lewis snapped his fingers. “One more thing. Do you have a history of cancer in the immediate family?”
“My mother died of breast cancer when I was fifteen. No one else that I know of.”
“Okay, then.” He clapped me on the back and left the room. I started crying the second the door shut behind him. At that moment, I hated him, although he had done nothing to me but roll my balls and try to keep me from worrying. Panic filled me, a metallic taste in my mouth to go along with the feeling of lead in my stomach. Cancer. The big C, my mother had called it before it took her, gasping and scratching. “The big C’s an ugly bitch,” she told me, “and it doesn’t have a shred of pity or decency. When it comes, you can’t run.”
I had to distract myself, think of anything else but some dark, red-eyed demon growing inside me, ready to devour my cells like a ravenous dog. I wouldn’t know what I faced for days. Two days until the ultrasound. Six days until the results. Days and days to sit and examine my balls like an archaeologist in search of the past, to sit and drink and worry…to stare at the walls and remember my mom’s unwinnable fight, to see myself in her wide, bloodshot eyes as she died in front of me.
Outside, the storm ended, the water’s roar reduced to a trickling from the gutters onto the patio furniture and concrete porch. Faint patches of blue sky appeared among the lead colored clouds. Sunlight peeked through like a shy child. In another life, I would’ve picked up a notebook and scribbled down the images that appeared before me. The tapping scales of water as they smile upon the lawn. Her face in every beam of sun that dances through a cloud.
I didn’t have another life. I had my life, one spent without talking to another human being six out of seven nights, each day stretching out like a road over the horizon. When I arrived in Belleville, my heart still freshly shredded from my encounter with Mara, I dreamed of starting a new life—an unwilling life, pushed on me by my actions, but a different life that might satisfy me. A part time job to keep me busy, doing something I wanted to do. Hell, maybe I’d even work as a cook, serving up hash browns and eggs and bacon, or work in a library. I wanted to learn to paint, or make stained glass. I could volunteer at the art museum in St. Louis, or explore it as I had New York, tracking down every little delicious restaurant and cool place to sit and nurse a beer. Maybe I could regain the old rush, the old adrenaline I’d felt every morning…Mara beside me…I could if I tried. If I made an effort.
I could write again. Not a song, but a story. A poem. A novel. About her, about us and our time together. Ideas flashed in front of me, real enough to reach out and grab. I saw her face, imprinted on my brain, a memory that teased as well as tormented. Her face as she waved goodbye to me. With a crash, the dream of capturing her on a page disappeared, replaced with the knowledge that I didn’t know where to begin, that I’d never write down those thousand moments that were too precious to share. Even if I could start her story, I knew I’d abandon it like a dead car on the highway. A song had it right. The world is kinder to the kind that won’t look back. They are the chosen few, among us now, unbowed somehow.
As the days and weeks and months passed, I burrowed into my rented house, then burrowed below ground, almost hibernating in the house I bought, content to let the world flow around me from the comfort of my four bedrooms and two and a half baths, my oversized garage, my convertible in that garage, my yard backing up to a wheat field, and the huge lump of money spread between my investment accounts. I’d wake in the morning already tired of the day I knew yawned before me. TV, a few house chores, a few beers with dinner. More TV. Falling asleep in my recliner, more often than not. If I felt chipper, maybe I’d wander down to Murphy’s Bar in the evening and watch the game there, munching peanuts as I ordered another draft and nodded to a few people who knew me by shape and preferred barstool, but rarely by name or situation. Dr. Lewis stopped in there, on occasion, and he’d say hi as we watched the Cardinals, together but apart. Most days, I thought it was five PM at noon, the days seeming to stretch like taffy in the litany of boredom and me gazing longingly into the past, hoping that by recalling all of the adventures of the years in New York, I’d be able to find some way to move forward.
I never worked, never volunteered, never learned to paint, although I’d promise myself I’d do those things a few times a week. I’ll get my head together. I’ll make a new start. I can’t long and hurt for her like this forever. All lies I told myself to relieve the crushing feeling in my chest, or the headaches that seemed to spring from nowhere.
I had no desire to forget or move on from Mara, from the life I’d treasured from the second we got off the dirty pickup truck in front of our apartment until the day I quit believing she was true to me, was mine. I couldn’t make myself stumble into the future days, so I quit. I retired. Not just from work, but from life, every day a struggle against a sadness that hung over me, vulture ready to devour me if I stopped being wary of it. When I dreamed at night, I dreamed of New York. I dreamed of Mara. Even then, most of those managed to morph into nightmares that left me panting and sweaty at three in the morning.
All kinds of dreams ended when I woke, especially the ones that were supposed to carry me through the day as my eyes scanned the horizon for whatever hopes I could almost muster. I thought of Rat’s last text to me, which had been on an almost constant loop in my brain since I received it. Aren’t you ready for this to be over? Yes. Every day, in a hundred little ways, and one big one—the memories that wouldn’t let me have any peace.
(Mini New York City tourist rant)
The fucking tourists and Times Square. It’s like the area was a giant nipple filled with the mythical milk of the gods, and the influx of Americans couldn’t wait for their turn to suckle at its holy tap. In my opinion, when you visit an area, you at least try to assimilate a bit, not remain the same slack-jawed asswipe you were in Des Moines, or Dallas, or wherever the hell you uprooted yourself from for the privilege of walking the glorious, electric streets of Manhattan. No one in New York City should EVER say the world “Golly!” unless he or she is seriously mocking something, or someone.
When the news showed pictures of the area, or one of the morning shows did outside shots, I’d always see fanny pack wearing, pointing, wide-eyed people sporting the famous I Love NY t-shirt with the red heart. Here’s a clue…you don’t need a t-shirt, because we knew you were there, right there with us, because we had to answer your insistent questions about how to get to Ruby Tuesday (gotta love that fucking football sized salad bar!), where the guy playing Mickey Mouse worked (I say rodent problems should be dealt with promptly, with poison), and how many more blocks was it to your precious, generic Comfort Inn (at five times the price of “back home.”).
Worse yet was the way the tourists managed to lose sight of the fact that they were surrounded by people, even though the sound and smell and sight of them couldn’t be ignored. Need to take a picture of a giant McDonalds sign? Just stop right in the fucking middle of a human-drenched sidewalk, like the concrete had grown teeth and latched onto your ankle, freezing you in place. Never mind the twenty people behind you who have to stop short. I heard a guy, three cameras noosing his neck, tell his wife, “That guy blocked my shot,” as she stood posed next to Spiderman. Guess what, dumbass? The world is blocking your shot. Pay some attention around you. When Mara (or sometimes I) took pictures, we never did it in an area where we were in danger of trampling, like poachers in a wounded elephant’s path.
Too many people wanted to bring their home base attitudes and comforts with them, as if the act of transporting themselves to New York created a culture shock that could only be soothed by the familiar. If you want to clothes shop, is a t-shirt from the American Eagle in Times Square BETTER than the one in the mall up the road as you, back in Cleveland? No, it isn’t. It’s the same cotton blend piece of fabric, only even more ridiculously priced. Traveling is supposed to open your mind, not cause it to try to recreate what you know. Expand, don’t substitute. Do you like Olive Garden’s salad? Then you’ll love the one at the family owned restaurant a couple of minutes away, where the aged balsamic vinegar dressing makes your mouth explode with bliss.
Two months after we arrived, Mara and I started working at an Italian restaurant three blocks from the main Times Square abominations, as hosts. Sometimes, we had to wade through Times Square to get there. At least once a week, someone came into the restaurant and asked how to get to Applebee’s or T.G.I. Friday’s. I need to repeat that. Someone came into our restaurant…opened the door and…physically entered the place…so he or she could ask us how to get to another restaurant, one which employed twenty-year old cooks who couldn’t tell their asiago from their elbow macaroni. Couldn’t they smell the five cheese baked ziti with daily made marinara and shaved garlic? Didn’t the amazing waft of the vegetarian eggplant parmigiana soak into their noses, its layers invading their souls? No. Not recognizable. Why take the chance on something new, just because you were in one of the culinary capitals of the universe?
Ask me how to eat somewhere not putting food on my table? You get attitude. Ask me our specials as you sniff the air, and I’ll tell you which wine will transform it from epic song to stunning symphony.
I’d stare at the intruders, hoping they weren’t from my hometown, my faith in humanity seeping out of me and puddling on the floor. Half the time, they’d turn and leave before I said anything. I’m sure my frowning eyebrows and forehead lines flashed like a caution light. When I would speak, I made sure to bite the inside of my lip. “It’s over in the main part of Times Square. Turn right and keep walking til you see all the people taking pictures. You can’t miss it. And if you’d like homemade food, keep us in mind, okay?” Sometimes I’d give them wrong directions, if it had been a grumpy type day, like the time an older lady brought a to go box from Olive Garden, containing some abortion involving sausage, shrimp, beef, and enough blotchy white sauce to last a desperate Italian with no taste buds a week, hoping to eat it while her friend ordered plain spaghetti and bread sticks from us. I sent them…away.
Mara was kinder, as with all things. “Ruby Tuesday is three blocks right, but the wait time is going to be around two hours, minimum. If you’d like, I can show you our menu and specials. We have a wonderful linguine today, with capers, garlic and lemon.”
I heard this response once. “Yeah, but I know I like the burger at Ruby Tuesday’s, honey.” Then, I shit you not, the bald sweaty bastard put a quarter in the coat check tip jar. Mara smiled. I plotted his doom, something involving a hanging noose made of braided bucatini.
You want to change an area? Fine. Go crazy. But remember, sometimes bad character is better than no character, or fake character. And there are fewer people dressed in superhero costumes on the street in an area with bad character, trying to hustle a buck from your Aunt Lily and Uncle Fred, who are on their way to the delicious wonders of all you can eat riblets.
(end of mini New York City tourist rant)