There were the months and months of the last of my crew pleading with me to “come home” (his words), and offering me a couch of my own and time to get my “shit together” (his words), the phrase, to my ears, dry, cloggy: constipatory. There was the selling off or giving away of what I had had left, like the indomitable mountain of glassine-wrapped hardcovers; the near funhouse of Día de los Muertos skeletons and skulls; the antique stereoscope and card collection; and the stacks of polycarbonate plates, readable surfaces long unread—better to launch the last, the light against their tracks diffracting into spectrums. And there was, finally, the readying to cart my carcass—my skin a kind of close-fitting remains pouch—back to the infernal city, only to have the abovementioned tell me I could not stay at his place, “after all” (his words), because the junkie who had been living with him had not gone into rehab like she had promised, and that he could not kick her out since she was “depressed and probably suicidal” (his words), and had been abandoned by her family, and that he “couldn’t live with himself if she offed herself” (his words), substituting “himself” with “myself,” and that he was so sorry and hoped I did not hate him and that I could stay with him after she checked into rehab, which would be in a month or so, and was there “anywhere I else could stay in the meantime?” (his words), substituting “you” for “I.”
There was nowhere else, and no one else, either, not really, and whatever was was tenuous. My family was strewn throughout the country—the net result of a military household’s PCS-ing. I would say we had lost touch but it was impossible to pinpoint a time where we were ever in touch, “touch” suggesting a throbbing connection we had never had. And we had even forwent linking on so-called social media, where every profile was a manicured lawn, every photo a plastic pink flamingo, every update a slobbering puppy, each feed another kind of trough. There was the older sister, a coffee impresario somewhere on the Left Coast, who lived in and out of open couplings. There was the younger brother, a shut-in surrounded by screens, cold, bloodless, androidal. There was the longsuffering younger sister languishing in an ashram, meditating and practicing yoga, her whittled-down body desert sun-chapped. And there were the long passed-on parents, who lived on, nevertheless, in different forms, indifferently, however spectrally.
Friends: those who un-estrange you, albeit intermittently. Choice reified, they choose you, but what my friends had also chosen was to uproot themselves, too, to leave the city, one for work, one for space, and the last for love, and they had all somehow found what they were looking for, elusive and illusive as those desireables are. But was the acquisition of one of these enough to make a place a home? Surely you needed a fusion of the three, at the very least. But perhaps my friends had done just that: finally found the missing element, the indivisible substance needed to form the desired compound called home. Or perhaps they were suggesting that if you discovered one such element, that is, if you satisfied your most intense longing, then the others would follow. But what was my most intense longing?
I had reached out to everyone else, that is, everyone I knew who had not left the city, but I had come up with nothing, until Una emailed me, saying I could stay over their “beloved brownstone” (her words), and take care of the “menagerie” (her word), she and her husband would be leaving behind for two weeks to do nothing in “the islands” (her words), annoyingly collapsing complexities, that is, innumerable cultures, languages, histories, geographies, into an undifferentiated whole. I had not known Una long—she was an acquaintance at best—but here she was choosing me, and it felt good, affirming, to be chosen for something, if only as house- and zookeeper.
And so the solitary unmoored himself from the boondocks and soon found himself standing on a familiar platform facing a familiar map and looking at encircled words, which said, “YOU ARE HERE,” the solitary feeling strangely flattened, not two-dimensional but emptied, without substance at all. How could he be there if he was here? He was not there, could not be there, but the map said he was there but here he was, here, standing on a familiar platform facing a familiar map feeling he was misreading it as well as being misread by it, feeling he was neither here nor there, feeling he was something real made increasingly abstract, tapering and tapering until he finally disappeared, which reminded the solitary of the many moments he had trouble with touchless, movement-sensitive machines, like towel dispensers and toilet flushers, automatic lighting and verbal address systems, non-contact toilet switches, each one failing to register his presence, as if remarking on his insubstantiality, the home security alarms failing to go off, marking him the very definition of a false alarm. Where was he then if he was not here? Who was he if he was not here?
* * *
Fear of death is fear of the inevitable, but, and perhaps inevitably, Una was afraid. “You can’t die,” she would say to her children, human and otherwise, and sometimes even to me. “I’m first,” she would say. “First to go,” she would say, as if it were a race she had to win, a race against the world, its grim dimness, a race run backward, though, something like an evacuation, from outside to inside, from presence to memory, from struggle to retreat to surrender.
Una Ballhaus: a hair band singer’s name necessarily expressed with a spit-weathering ess, less a proper noun than an imperative, an expletive. She had two daughters, Samantha and I forget the other’s name, each spindly kid an afterthought, really, their daily caregiving long outsourced to tutors, chefs, trainers. Besides her two girls, there were the cats: Toner, a satiny indoor-outdoor, and something of a miniature panther, considering his powerful prowl; and Grayscale, a skewbald beauty, who knew it, who loved only to be loved, as cats invariably do, each “meow” a deception, their elided en’s obscuring what they were really saying: “Me now! Me now!” Cats, all gloss and pomp: Animalia’s one-percenters. Una had two dogs, too: Ginny and Lenny, a Havanese and Yorkshire Terrier, respectively, toy dogs both, the latter with rat-killing proclivities. “Hello, my darlings!” Una would say, “Mu-ah, mu-ah, mu-ah, and mu-ah!” Rounding out the zoo was Bill Lowes, the husband, whose clothes-horse build made him look like he was always wearing a suit.
I took in the apartment: bank of windows overlooking a wraparound terrace, framed No Wave band posters, recherché ceramics, silly throw rugs, and sleek-chic everything. Una had left instructions on a bit of festive wrapping paper on one of the kitchen’s Pietra Cardosa slate countertops: “Hello, you! Toner needs antibiotics twice-a-day. Put the pellet in a pill pocket, pry open his mouth, and force it down. (Grayscale would just eat it! Toner—he’s picky!) Don’t forget to snap on a rubber! On your hand, I mean. Be sure to put warm compresses on his chest wound. There are also pain meds—they’re absorbed through his mouth, so you don’t have to get them into his tummy. Not as important as the antibiotics but it helps him—there’s also an antibiotics cream that goes around, but not on, the puncture wound. Thanks much!”
Ginny, the Havanese, was beside me, cocking her head, begging for a treat, compelling me to say, “Oh, for cute,” immediately chucking a chunky bit to the dog, whose eyes betrayed an almost human sentience, an oxymoron, sure, but, in any case, there was a person inside, perhaps under some kind of spell. Looking at her looking at me, I realized that when a cat looks at you, you are observed, evaluated, and, ultimately dismissed, but when a dog looks at you, you are beheld, honored, loved. Lenny, however, his eyes were assembly-lined animatronic, making it difficult to discern what was meant when he looked at you.
Toner was at the backdoor, his mew more “ow” than “meow.” He was all black save the vet-shaved, badge-shaped bald spot, which revealed an ugly wound. “Oh, life’s not that bad,” I said, imitating Una. “Then again, life’s…a fatal illness.” Before they left, Una demonstrated what needed to be done. Her hands and arms shook, the cause of which I attributed to either the anti-depressants or alcohol withdrawal or both, so I had held the cat, but Una kept missing his mouth, the pill repeatedly dropping to the floor. “With all the pills I pop you’d think I’d have better aim,” she said. So she ended up holding Toner. Readjusting his head with one hand, and reaching to verticalize his throat with the other, I accidentally touched Una’s chest, my hand grasping something more flap than breast. “Keep it there,” she said.
Without Una around, I made easy work of the whole thing, letting Toner go, snapping off the glove, and letting the dogs out, as I did each day the Lowes-Ballhaus family was away. The two weeks at the residence had gone by without much of anything happening, which was both good and bad, good because all the animals were happy, and because I had a place to stay, a base from which I could look for work, but bad because I had not found a job, and because my abovementioned friend was still being cagey about me staying at his place even though the junkie had finally gone into rehab. He “needed time” (his words), time to get his “head straight” (his words), to feel what it was like not to be “a hostage in his own home” (his words), replacing “his” with “my,” and was it possible for me to stay with Una “in the meantime, until things went back to normal again” (his words). So much for do unto others and all that. But could I really blame him? He must have felt empty, felt he had nothing left to give. Who was I to expect anything from him? I should be grateful, since events like these bring definition, that is, shape and meaning, to what was previously thought understood: they demarcate the limits of a relationship beyond which one should not trespass. Why should he be host to my leech?
I would not say the weeks passed quickly, since day merged into day, much like the clouds you see massing slowly but inexorably together on an otherwise clear day with or without worry. I would rise early every morning and feed the animals and give the cat his medicine. Following this, I would fry some eggs, the albumen congealing into porcelain-like rounds, the yolks hardening into jeweled eyes, the whole of which I would plop onto my plate, whereupon I would pop the yolks, allowing the yellow goop to runnel around the plate. I would dip my buttered toast into it, enjoying every bite, washing it all down with coffee, black, the first of many cups I would consume as I gazed at my laptop screen, clicking away, applying for jobs, taking occasional breaks to digitally daydream: lose myself within an immensity of space I could not comprehend—invisible cities? house with many mansions? electronic endoplasmic reticulum?—emerging hours later “snowblind” and depressed. One day, after agonizing over what sign-off I should use in my correspondence with prospective employers, I read a “bookmarked” article about a human bone-filled burial vault that construction workers had found abandoned underneath one of the city’s parks, after the reading of which I searched for ossuaries, whereupon I found and watched a documentary about a famous chapel in a landlocked Central European country, where the bones of up to seventy-thousand people were fashioned into ghastly garlands and chandeliers, shaped into numbers and letters, or simply stacked atop each other to form huge, white mounds: cairns signifying nothing. The film was not subtitled so I could not understand the narration, nevertheless laughing at the tour guide’s jaded voice. I sought more of the director’s work and watched his interpretation of a literary classic, engaged its thematics, of disappearing and reappearing, of diminution and enlargement, of a little girl falling, like I had been, for hours and hours, into and out of rabbit-holes, that is, the art, in my case, of extreme distraction posing as interaction.
I dreaded the family’s return, but there was nothing stopping it, barring some catastrophe. I imagined Una and Bill’s return flight lifting off the tarmac only to plummet back down, exploding on impact, the smell of charred steel, melting plastic, seething jet fuel, and burning bodies filling the air. I imagined their daughters running away to become human shields in so-called holy lands. I imagined Bill cuckqueaning Una and then traveling the world with his inamorata, Una taking a vow of silence and living the rest of her days in her bungalow on the beach, her daughters joining her to live on the island. I imagined Una cuckolding Bill, again, and then traveling the world with her inamorato, Bill taking a vow of silence and living the rest of his days in his bungalow on the beach, his daughters joining him to live on the island. Imagining these things did not necessarily mean I wanted them to happen. I was, however, disgusted with myself, with my lack of gratitude, with where my fears and uncertainties and instabilities took me. To say, by way of explanation, I was unhinged presupposed a door to a structure that wasn’t even there. What I was not addressing was the absence, which gnawed away at me, an absence growing, paradoxically, from other absences, of home, of friends, of family.
I was standing by the backyard window, watching the dogs root around the dirt, when the front door opened. “Brrr! Sure is cold out there!” Bill said, suitcase in one hand, flight-bag hanging from his shoulder. “Nothing like returning to a toasty home full of your loved ones,” he said, entering the house, dropping the luggage in the foyer, immediately bending down, looking around, expecting the frenzied dogs. “Especially after a long walk in the cold,” he said, shaking my hand. It was hot outside, oven hot, and the house was meat-locker cold. Opposites: Bill’s way of being funny. “Where are said loved ones?” he said. “Outside,” I said. He walked toward the liquor cabinet, and poured scotch into a glass, two fingers-full.
Una entered after him, still painfully pale, even after weeks supposedly sunbathing, the only proof of their trip now the umpteen uploaded photos of her, just her legs, of course, pointing toward a cerulean blue ocean and cloudless sky. “He hates me,” Una said, pointing to Bill. “Because I’m fat,” she said, shrugging off Bill’s corporate side-hug. “I used to have great legs,” she said. “No tits—still don’t!—but great legs. Like Robert Palmer’s harem. What’s that video?” “‘Addicted to Love’?” he said, Una frowning, hating the way he would hide his immediate recall by question-marking his own correct answer. “But now I’ve got these,” she said, lifting one of her legs. “Cankles.” “And compression stockings,” she said. “Portmanteau,” he said, seeing my confusion (his words) overlapping hers. “Calves and ankles—Cankles,” he said. “See?” she said. “He thinks I’m a cow.” “Where are the dogs?” he said. “I’m a decrepit,” she said (her words) overlapping his. Seventeen years, and they did not so much finish each other’s sentences as anticipate them, only to immediately obliterate them. Una: wrecked by Big Pharma’s answer to depression—what was the question again? The last year alone she was either going off or starting up or staying on some drug, and she was now down to a low dose of a Prozac-like drug and a large dose of her “dear, dear Klonopin” (her words). “Powerful drugs, man!” she would say. “My shrink,” she would say, “he saved my life!” “Side-effects! Wow!” she would say. More like sideshow. Weird thing is, this comedy with tragic relief is performed by hundreds of millions of people! And the net result? People feeling, at best, somewhat better, some of the time.
“Backyard,” I said, answering Bill. Una walked over to the liquor cabinet, pouring herself some vodka, a glass-full. “What next?” she said. “An economy-class stroke?” “Team pantyhose,” Bill said, lifting up a pant leg, revealing his own knee-high hosiery before opening the backdoor. “Varicose veins and whatnot,” he said. “Sorry,” Una said, “there’s no ‘you’ in team, either.” She sipped from her glass. “So what’s new?” swinging her head toward me, bird-like, one-eying me the way she had when I caught her the day before they left for the Dominic Republic: elbowing over the kitchen counter, rumpussed by the trash guy, quickly gripping his ass cheeks to keep him inside. “Think of me…as…an inflatable doll,” she had said to me. “What about him?” I had asked. Thrusting her head around and up, she had exclaimed, “A man-sized…dildo-oh-oh-oh!”
“What’s new,” she said. “New? Nothing,” I said, hating that question, like always. “Under sun or moon.” “Wow,” she said, pouring vodka into a glass, then gazing blankly away. “Wowzers,” Bill said, shutting the door after having let the dogs back in. “If we’re all God’s children,” Una said, “then I was abused.” With the dogs came a terrible smell. “God damn it!” Una cried. “Fucking dogs!” “They eating cat shit again?” Bill said. “Can’t be,” I said. “See him smiling at me?” she said. “It’s because shit’s on his mind.” Bill was a brain in a vat. “I obscure clouds,” he had answered years ago, after I had asked what he did for a living. I figured it had something to do with digital encryption, legendary psychedelic band’s song reference notwithstanding.
Sickly sweet? No, thickly sick. “Not cat shit,” I said. “This is something else. Something dead.” I coughed from the septic rancidity. “Definitely animal,” she said. “The bird that attacked Toner?” he asked. “More like rat,” she said. “Or squirrel,” I said. “Same difference,” she said. I had always liked that phrase, the paradox of its seeming contradiction.
Moments later, we were outside, “we” meaning Bill and me, flashing our cell-phones in the backyard, kicking around in the bramble, bending over, not so much to see as smell. I found it, a rat, I guessed, the remains of it at any rate, its head, legs, and tail, and much of its stomach, chewed off. Surgical-gloved, I carried it inside, asking Una if she wanted to take a look. “I’ve seen enough death,” she said, cupping her nose and mouth, directing me to toss it into one of the containers outside, where the guy who had blunderbussed her rump would find it. She was on her second vodka now.
“Where’s Daddy?” she said. “Giving the dogs a bath,” I said. “Fuck him,” she said. Then: “He’s a good man.” I was nodding, a bobblehead doll come to life. “Daddy!” she yelled. “Tell him about the winter your father buried a dead deer in a manure pile the ground was so frozen.” “Can’t hear anything,” Bill yelled back. “How, come summer, the dog dug through the thawed-out shit to get to the deer.” “What?” he said. “How you hosed him down dozens of times before you could let him back into the house.” It was hard imagining Bill, a spray-tanned gym rat in an all-Italian cut, slim with peak lapels, Faulknered out in Yoknapatawpha County.
“Hi, Momma.” It was the older of the two daughters. “Lydia!” Una said, lifting her arms. “Happy anniversary!” Lydia said, kissing Una’s forehead. “She was a whoops pregnancy,” Una said to me. “Love you, Momma,” Lydia said. “Actions speak louder than blah,” Una said. “You needed blah to say that,” Lydia said. “Mom, you’re such an asshole,” the younger daughter said, overlapping with her sister’s words, so what Una heard was what she wanted to hear or nothing, which often amounted to the same thing, same difference, in other words. “Sam!” Una said. “Come give us a hug!” Lumbering over, Sam coiled her arms around Una from behind, the pose a Heimlich maneuver diagram. “You give the worst hugs, Sam,” she said. “The fuck’s that smell?” Sam said. “Death,” Una said. “You can’t get rid of that.” Una was going to tell us again about her mother, how much she had loved her, about the dementia, the decay, that people mourned differently, that one person’s “letting go was another’s holding on” (her words), that you “can’t hold grievers to a deadline” (her words), laughing at her joke as if she had just made it up.
Later, looking out the kitchen window, I sprinkled a handful of the cat’s analgesics into a bowl, crushed them with a spoon, poured the powder into a clear glass, ran faucet water into it, watched it fog up. I looked outside again and what shone through the window was not so much energy but something like a sudden pain in your stomach, like the thought that these years were not the middle but something nearer to the end, that you could not say what your middle age was until you died, when you could not say anything anyway. I was not sure if you could overdose on cat pills. I was not sure of anything, so I gulped down the glass, saying, “Bottom’s up!” laughing at the absurdity of the toast, thinking that when you hit rock-bottom at least you knew where you stood.
* * *
There was the city, always around, membranous, murmuring, streets bisecting each other, carving grids, enclosures, ways of being, every building a face to be read, windows eying you and every person you pass, everyone peripatetic, plotting, panicked, everyone on the make, on the move, moving up, moving away, moving toward a better job, a better place, a better lover, each person’s shadow elongating or shortening, everyone eventually disappearing. And there was the solitary making his way through it, scared, scarred, past the dark parks, the watchers in unmarked cars, the dirty dives and bright bodegas, both always open, the slaphappy laugh-tracks, the melancholic noisings near and far.
It was my friend who had left the city for work who had helped secure another place for me to stay. For years, my friend had slogged away at a prestigious architectural firm in the city. She had long grown tired, though, of the cold, corporate “monstrosities,” her word, that is, the skyscraping monoliths she helped realize from their belled caisson foundations to their rooftop antennae and helipads. Living and working, now, several hours away in a midsized town locals called a city, she designed “econabodes” (her coinage), that is, affordable housing units constructed of recycled materials, which were now being built up and down the coast. She said she was happy, “actualized” (her word), a word I took as meaning she could incontestably prove she existed in a particular time and space, a notion I found dubious at best but about which I said nothing. She talked to me about debris, the ironic but evocative beauty of the word, how she worked to sustain that feeling in the homes she designed. I told her how I had been feeling like a walking ruin, which somehow led us to talking about anonymous spaces, like hospital and doctor’s office waiting rooms, hotel and motel lobbies, the artificial welcome of such places, places which, however inviting they may appear, are simply abject object lessons in false comfort and safety. My friend who still kept in contact with some people in the city, said she had spoken to a wannabe activist, who said I was welcome to stay. She warned me that she was not sure about her, that I should “watch my back and all that” (her words). I thanked her and joked that no one had had my back for so long I was all front—an affront.
* * *
It was dark and hot the night I arrived at the friend of a friend’s building, which faced a busy parkway. Gray vapors floated up from the asphalt. Waiting for the friend of a friend to arrive, I watched a nearby traffic light blink uncertainly, the yellow mass of it hanging from its long, horizontal mast-arm, like an illuminated piñata. Digging into my pocket, I found the thing, and by “thing,” I mean something I have found myself always carrying, on my person, something I can’t actually name, but something I’ve kept, in any case, for years. Neither talisman nor amulet, it’s an object, nevertheless, an object not of my affection, but at least my attention, at least whenever I chanced upon it, the object falling into my hand whenever I rummaged the pocket where it sits, a rare enough occasion for me to forget about the object. We love to name names, and by “we,” I mean, those of us who take pleasure in knowing the names of things, naming synonymous, we think, with knowledge, yes, but also with authority and ownership. It’s the pleasure of a person who knows things for what they are, knows not only their form but their function. But what of those other things, things that have no discernible purpose and/or have no name, or which purpose and/or name has been forgotten—things like the thing in my pocket? But we do have names for such things as have no names: doohickey, whatchamacallit, thingamajig, thingamabob, dingus, whatchamacallit, whatnot, whatsit, whatsis. “Thingummy” is especially evocative, suggesting a stickiness to the object, suggesting one cannot let the object go.
The friend of a friend finally arrived, immediately hugging me, which startled me, raising the question of when I had last been touched. She handed me keys to the apartment, telling me I would have it all to myself, since she was leaving for a conference, where she would be talking about “the people’s inalienable right to housing” (her words), the weight of the phrase, bearing down on me for reasons of which I wasn’t exactly sure, but there was some measure of disgust, with myself, yes, but also with her, her self-consciously drab clothes, her rehearsed bluster barely hiding the years of privilege: the private schools, the trust fund, the ease with uncertainty borne of having been raised in comfort, where every need was met and every want placated in lieu of being fulfilled, wants, those greedy things, always wanting more. “You’ll have the place to yourself,” she said, “unless Khomeini comes over,” her eyes whirligigging around, on me, on the somber industrial buildings buttressed against the even somberer apartment—well, you could not call them complexes, so say “simplexes.” Khomeini was homeless, she explained, a man who sometimes lived in a van, sometimes in her apartment, sometimes on the street. Released from prison in the early eighties, during the Iran hostage crisis, he had found his “neighbors” regarding his long beard and the t-shirt he wore around his head as solidarity with terrorists, and so they renamed him. “Most people call him Koko,” she said.
The friend of a friend hugged me, again, which unnerved me, again, and in moments I found myself upstairs, in the apartment, sitting on a lumpy mattress, gazing at the scritti-polittied walls, scanning the posters announcing climate marches, reproductive rights rallies, protests against police brutality, which made me think about the cop who had come to my door, years ago, saying he had some news, suggesting I find a seat before he shared said news, me saying I preferred to stand, he insisting I sit, me persisting, saying, no, I preferred to stand, my arms crossing, my legs tightening, my feet pressing into the carpet, my whole body stiffening, the cop breathing in, seemingly sucking the air out of the room, the now cold-because-of-the-wintry-wind-now-blowing-into-it room, the cop taking off his gloves, entering the foyer, closing the door behind him, saying, “Okay, sir,” the sound of the word “sir” somehow gaining weight, a kind of respect I had never received from a cop. Shoulders drooping, he fixed his eyes on me, like two nails pinning me against the wall, as if I were a giant moth. “There’s been an accident,” he said, his face blanching, white as the snow sprinkling off his hat and shoulders. “Your wife, sir, she’s been in an accident.” I nodded, waiting, pushing away Gingrich, our fat French Bulldog, who was pressing against my legs, which felt like they were dissolving, as I thought of my wife, who had left for yoga earlier that night; my wife, who, for years, had been encouraging me to try yoga; who that very night had shared how yoga had “opened things up” for her (her words), how it was continuing to “open up further possibilities toward achieving and sustaining a balance between passion and discipline” (her words), and a kind of “healthy tension between effort and surrender” (her words), a kind of tension she was trying to get me—a man who loved music but who had never learned to play anything other than air guitar—to understand as being similar to the kind necessary to conjure music from a string.
There was something about a “six-lane concrete divided roadway” (his words); about “hazardous conditions” (his words); about “ice and snow” (his words); “snow” a word, which, for me, sounded like what it was, a world of a word evoking vastness, solitude, silence. But I was not alone then. There was the cop, who said something about a sport utility vehicle, which had careered off the road, smashed through a fence, fireballed into a frozen pond, where it smashed through the ice and sank.
A shriek pierced the room, an alien sound I did not realize, at first, was exploding out of my mouth, filling my ears, as my arms and hands flailed out in front of me, hitting the cop flat in his fat face, the cop toppling to the floor, then bouncing up to his feet, one of his hands pushing me away as the other reached for his baton, his own screaming unable to pierce through my own. What my wife had found was possible for her in yoga was a “deeper connection with the earth” (her words); and it was something she had wanted for me, too, that is, to connect, with the ground, the very ground my chest was pressed against, the cop’s knee against my spine, his hands pulling my hands together, handcuffing them. What was it she had said about a man who, using a stone for a pillow, slept and dreamed about an earthbound ladder, which reached up to heaven, angels of God ascending and descending it? The ladder was a “symbol of the human soul” (her words), and the angels were God’s envoys, “pulling the distressed soul up toward a compassionate heaven” (her words). She had said that whenever she surrendered to her breath, blocked out the chatter, allowed her body to find balance, that she felt like angels were going up and down her spine.
Earlier that night, when she had asked me to go to yoga with her yet again, I said, “Love to experience the really real, but I’m having an existential hangover.” She had laughed, as she always did when I was being stupid, unwilling to look at things, to look at myself, instead clinging, in my slipshod way, onto easy and arguably false certainties.
Unable to free herself from the smashed-up car as it sank into the pond’s cold and murky bottom, my wife had drowned, the thought of which tortured me that night as I sat alone in a jail cell, waiting to be seen the next morning by a psychiatrist and then a judge, the latter subsequently dismissing the case against me because of the “mitigating factors regarding the defendant’s mental health” (her words).
As my wife was gripping the wheel, trying to gain control of the car, she had not known that I had been cheating on her. As the car hit the guardrail, the impact forcing the metallic juggernaut to flip over, my wife had not known that I had been cheating on her for months. As the car smashed through the fence of the home of a real estate mogul, she had not known that I had been cheating on her with her best friend. Finally breathing icy water into her lungs, she had not known that I had been thinking of leaving her. Years have passed since my wife drowned in the pond, and nothing has changed for me, which is to say, I am still alone.
One afternoon, halfway through the solitary’s walk between the northern- and southernmost parts of a mist-swathed public park, it begins to rain, causing said solitary to quicken his steps with the idea of getting to his favorite used bookstore relatively dry. At said bookstore, the solitary finds a mint first edition of a favorite writer’s final book: a book of ambulatory fiction, depicting an uncertain narrator’s traversal of uncertain topographies, featuring various kinds of embedding, burial, and blur; the solitary purchasing said book with his remaining store credit. Pulling himself away from the bookstore, the solitary walks toward a local coffee and tea lounge, “Beans and Leaves,” he calls it, even though that is not what it is called, a place where the solitary enjoys an almost epiphany-inducing ginger cookie, eaten in counterpoint with a large and creamy tea. The solitary opens the book, putting it aside to look at the man beside him, who, the solitary thinks, is talking on a phone, but who is, in fact, talking to himself, a strange inversion to back before cellphone ubiquity, the terrifying now where people constantly shovel inanities into handheld machines.
* * *
There are times when you would do anything to counter the puzzling feeling that you might be the wrong piece in the right puzzle or the right piece in the wrong puzzle or the wrong piece in the wrong puzzle.
* * *
There are times when you just want to go up to no one in particular, and say, “Fuck you and the nutsack that held nightmare-you for x amount of time,” even if, and perhaps especially when, the eventual target is your own face.
* * *
I was on my device when the door opened. A bedraggled man burst in saying, “Lucy, I’m home!” the shouted greeting a passable impression of Desi Arnaz. Here was a man in his sixties, gaunt, t-shirt turbaned around his head, bristly beard squirreling down his face.
Entering the living room, he rushed toward me, saying, “Who are you? How come you here? Who sent you?” His hands were moving as fast as his mouth. He was missing a lot of teeth. I told him I was a friend of his friend. “Where she went?” he said. “Boston, for a conference,” I said. “Why you here same time as me? Why you on the phone? Telling somebody about me?” I told him I was a friend of his friend, again, and that I was only crashing at the apartment until I had found work and a place of my own. “Koko, right?” “How you know my name?” he said. “I know who you are. The camera they put inside of me, I see everything,” he said, tapping his chest. “I’m leaving.” And he did, the door’s dry thump punctuating his promise. It is a certain kind of crazy that hears and sees things no one else can see, can hear and see things that cannot be seen. I learned later Koko believed he had been experimented on, back when he was in prison. According to him, they had drugged him, inserted things inside his body, turned him into a kind of transmitter and receiver, of voices, of messages, changed him into a surveillance machine with tremendous scope and range.
Koko returned that night, though, muttering about “motherfucking pigs.” He paced around the kitchen for a while, then came into the living room, where I was pretending to sleep, whereupon he delivered a mini-tirade: “What the hell you want me to do about it? Fucking cops! I’m not talking to you the way you want me to talk. They calling me, saying, ‘Khomeini!’ And I saying, ‘Vaya pal carajo!’ They laughing because they know I don’t give a fuck. So now I speak the way I feel like it, and they take it like a joke. I’m not making a joke. Boom!”
He sat on what looked like an army cot and took off his shoes, the sulfuric smell smarting my face like a slap. He smacked his chest a few times and then laid himself down. In moments, he was snoring.
For the solitary, who had not slept well in years, sleep was nothing more than an idea, a concept, something idealized. Flummoxed, everything aflux in an unfamiliar surround, all his belongings in zippered bags, he missing all the elements of what made a home a home, he would turn and turn and turn, trying not to think, until blankness invariably but undetectably came, only to emerge some hours later feeling as if he had not slept at all.
Koko was already gone by the time I woke up the next morning, but he returned in the evening, asking to borrow twenty dollars, saying he would give it back to me the following day, once he had cashed the social security check that was supposed to have already arrived. Before I took out the money, he offered to “suck me off” (his words), swapping “me” for “you,” of course, and I was surprised when I felt something surge in my pants, a welcome though untested kink, albeit a kink linked somehow to power, reminding me of the night I had seen a mugging in progress, the mugger’s erection mirroring the knife he held threateningly against a man’s stomach. I did nothing then but watch, the thought of it, the not doing anything then, shaming me but whatever it was I was feeling now making me feel there was something like a way out, of my ennui, my fatigue. Strangely, sadly, I was thinking, too, of how the promise of my own social security was mired in doubt, that it would likely be garnished to pay back the predatory student loans I had long since defaulted on. Koko had the money for me the next day. I do not know where he got it from because he was still waiting for his check, but it did not matter to me anyway.
Our mutual friend, that friend, in my case, being a friend of a friend, had emailed me, saying she would not be returning from her conference on the day she had planned and that she would be gone for an additional week, but that I was “still welcome to stay for as long as I needed” (her words). I told Koko, who shrugged, saying, “She’s a good person.” I nodded, grateful for the space she was giving me to work on finding work.
Koko’s appearances, usually occurring way after dark, broke up the monotony of my days. He would always arrive with things given to him or that he had found discarded on the street, some of which he would later peddle on those selfsame streets. He would offer some of these things to me, like various notepads he said people at the church had given to him. I accepted the one with jellyfish drawings gracing the left side of each page. Something about these gelatinous creatures appealed to me, their mushroom-shaped bells and dancing tentacles, moreover their translucency, their almost not-thereness. One afternoon, Koko arrived, sweaty and out of breath, a ten-speed in tow, which he thought I could use to travel to and from work once I had actually secured a job. “You found this?” I said. He laughed, saying, “No chain around it.”
Koko spent a lot of time at church, or, rather, at churches, making daily stops at soup kitchens, food pantries, and clothing bins, but he would also attend services as well, especially funerals, never missing a single one. He arrived one day at the apartment with a collection of laminated memorial tribute or remembrance cards or whatever you call them. He sat down beside me, and looked at each card, scanned both sides, and then handed each one to me. There were the expected Jesuses, Marys, angels, saints, and candles, but flags and bald eagles and teddy bears also appeared. “Life is short,” I said, stupidly, handing the pile of cards back to him. “Compared to what?” he said.
Koko’s social security check finally arrived a few days later, and I subsequently did not see him for several days. Concerned, I went to look for him, checking his van, which was parked several blocks away. There was a couch pressed up against its sidewalk-facing side, a plastic tarp hung from its roof over the couch. Calling his name, I lifted the tarp, but it was empty. I nestled myself inside and waited for him there, the heat and darkness making me sleepy. I dozed off, and woke to the sound of someone shouting. Lumbering out, I saw a man, who said, “Where’s Koko?” I told him I didn’t know but that I was looking for him, too, and he asked me who I was and I told him I was a friend, and that seemed enough for him. “Let him know I came to see him,” he said. “He’ll know who.” I had given up looking for Koko and then, several days later, he popped up at the apartment, as if he were something I had been struggling to remember but only after I had given up the struggle did the thing suddenly come to mind. Koko immediately launched into a story, telling me he had used the money to “smoke some rock” (his words), but that it was his “last hit” (his words). “You my inspiration,” he said. I could not understand why, but that did not matter anyway, either—he was going to kick. He seemed okay, even more talkative than usual, if that were possible, the cascades of words, the convolutions of stories, full of digressions and non sequiturs, something like a force of nature. He told me about the time he had sung with a legendary sonero, how he too had sought a Santería priest’s help to overcome his addictions. The lost days of coke and Courvoisier and prostitutes with a fire-breathing comedian. He talked about his days as a member of the Young Lords. About his father, an Independista, who had left him “for dead” (his words). There were the prison terms, the many times they put him “in the hole” (his words), the times he had “fucked with the CO’s” (his words), like the day he balled up his shit and rolled the “marbles,” his word, underneath his door, waiting until the officers came to taunt him, Koko laughing at their crunching feet, laughing even while they beat him down. I told him about the man who had come looking for him. I told him he did not leave a name. “I know who,” Koko said. He told me it was his brother, and then he walked out again, returning hours later to tell me his sister had died. She had been sick for a long time. “Bad blood,” he said. I asked about the funeral and he said he wouldn’t be going, which surprised me, considering he never seemed to miss one. “Too far,” he said, explaining that she was back home, back in “the jungle” (his words), the rainforest I had heard him talk about from time to time, especially the sunshine and water and the fruits he would pluck from trees, sinking his teeth into them, fruit that did not grow anywhere else.
The next day, I called another of my closest friends, more brother than friend, really. He was living on a mountain, working as a forest ranger. Before finally leaving the city, he had gotten to the point where he felt “asphyxiated” (his word), by everything, all the people, the “nonstopness of everything” (his words). I told him about my lack of luck work-wise. He recommended I use an online portal to meet people. “They have all kinds of things, activities and whatnot, places where you can network,” he said. It was so odd to hear him talking like this, a man doing his best to distance himself from people, well, large masses of them. I took his advice, though, and signed up for a thing called Pecha Kucha, which was “big in Japan” (the event organizers’ words), and when something’s big in Japan, it must be absorbed by our own dissociated states of America, unless it was already a warmed-over, transmogrified version of some flimsy, pop cultural flimflam we had already frisbeed into the global marketplace. Young designers in Tokyo designed the event to meet, network, and showcase their work in a simple format: twenty images in twenty seconds, the twenty-twenty of it having something to do with perception, I thought. In any case, the strict format kept everything concise, moving rapidly—speed-geeking, in other words, or, as I had come to think of it, death by bullet points.
I arrived after the presentations, when everyone was liquoring up. I walked over to the bar, where a man offered to buy me a drink, inexplicably striking up a conversation about ill-conceived prequels to what was already a terribly contrived space opera. I was aroused, though, by the interest he was taking in me. Several drinks in, I pointed toward the bathroom, excusing myself, the man saying, “Get in there you big, furry oaf,” quoting from one of the movies, “I don’t care what you smell!” You can hyper-sexualize just about anything, but what to say about the movie’s giant ovum floating in space and the spermatozoa-like spacecraft attempting to penetrate it? But it was not this image I thought about as I unzipped my pants, reaching for my already stiffened cock. Instead, a brown and hairy mass filled my mind, thick swathes of hair, with a startling variation of color, from black to brown, from orange to blonde, long, course outer guard hairs beneath which a thin tangle of strands formed an underwool, a tundra mammoth’s coat, wet after thawing out from its icy, millennia-long enclosure, an atavistic terror emergent from the symbolic order, that thrashed about howling, as I came into the enameled bowl, the toilet, an absolute marvel of physics, an exemplar of the siphon effect, using water to push water to pull water, where gravity, not pressural change, creates the siphoning suck, that familiar and comforting gurgle and gasp, milky strands spiraling down with the flush toward the black hole, an echo, perhaps, of the famed resistance fighters penetrating that dark orb of empire.
* * *
I returned to my friend of a friend’s apartment and found Koko there, who yelled out to me from the bathroom, saying he was sick. He spent most of the night there, shitting away his insides. “Die, motherfucker!” he said, referring to himself. He came out periodically, wearing a t-shirt on his head and a ragged towel around his waist, the latter of which was dotted with brown spots. “Death is coming out my ass,” he said, and I believed him. His asthma seemed worse, too, and he kept smacking his chest, pacing around the apartment. “Die, motherfucker!” He was a thin man, but he looked even thinner now. He had once shown me a photo identification card, taken at a correction facility. He was a different man in those days, a big man, with quarterback shoulders, refrigerator chest. “They call me ‘Flaco,’” he had said. “As a joke, now it true, Monstruo.” I liked when he called me that, for wasn’t I a skyscraping gargoyle come to life?
The next morning, I accompanied Koko around the neighborhood, aimlessly at first, or at least it seemed so to me. He would joke around with street vendors, catcall women, pet dogs, remembering everyone’s name, often asking them all kinds of questions, about this one who was sick, about that one who had enlisted or was “locked up” (his words). He did not seem to have any regard for time, and hardly cared about our ultimate end, the local food pantry. We had made it there just as it was about to close, the attendants teasing Koko, as if he were an old family member, a forgetful uncle or grandfather. We filled up a couple of garbage bags with bundles of spaghetti, boxes of corn flakes with raisins, sacks of long grain rice, and an assortment of cans: corn, tuna, and green pigeon peas. “We eat good tonight, Monstruo!” he said, grinning his almost-toothless grin.
Returning to the apartment, I thought about how the journey back from an unfamiliar place always feels shorter than the trip toward it. I did not know what to do with this thought, but something about it seemed meaningful, conclusive.
Koko and I put all the food away, saving a few ingredients for a meal. I had been eating a lot of packaged crap lately, so it felt good to be making something healthy, wholesome for ourselves. Koko proved to be an expert in the kitchen. When I had remarked on it, he said he had learned to cook “in the jail.” “You learn quick with those mothers,” he said. “Bad food and you fucked.”
Michael Jackson died earlier that day, and it hurt to think of him, about his body as free market capitalism’s sex machine, of his entire life as petri dish of radical alterity. Koko kept singing, “Why, why? Tell me that it’s human nature,” forgetting the rest of the line, substituting it with “La, la, la, la, la, la, la, la.” I am not sure why he chose that song from Jackson’s seemingly innumerable billboard wonders. He sang it over and over, to the point where I did not hear it any more, the loopiness of the looped line leaving me with nothing but a feeling I could not name, a feeling tinctured with loss and loneliness, with wretched expiry.
Koko had me chop up some plantains, directing me to put the chunks in a pan filled with olive oil, to remove them once they had cooked a little, smash them in a small wooden press, and then put the flattened disks back into the oil until they turned gold. He had already finished making the saffroned rice mixed with green pigeon peas: arroz con gandules, a Puerto Rican delicacy, the rich smell of which filled the entire apartment. It was a warm smell, the smell of home, a temporary home, yes, but maybe home was always temporary, maybe home was not simply a container, something you lived inside and left behind, but something as transitory as an aroma roaming around an apartment, as fragile and mutable as a bunch of ideas hovering around you, as muddy as a mixed metaphor, something you make and remake and makes and remakes you all the time.
We sat on the floor and ate the rice and beans and drank the cloudy beers Koko had gotten somehow, ignoring the “floaties”—phlegm-like globs, of protein, maybe—rising and falling in the bottles. My friend, the only one I had in the city, talked and talked, and as a siren outside rose and fell and tapered off into nothing I momentarily forgot what I had been worrying about and would likely worry about tomorrow.
I wanted to say something, something important, but maybe silence was enough, maybe this silence was simply a packing together of pauses between the words I wanted to say but could neither find nor assemble into any kind of order even if I could find them. Sometimes it feels like you have been entrusted with beauty, ruins, truths, lies, mysteries, horrors, required to hide them away, absorb them into your body until they are ready to be vomited up, your blood and guts smeared all over the necessary mess. But this is not what I wanted to say.
Words appeared on my subsidized mobile: the abovementioned last of my crew, asking if I had finally “landed on my feet” (his words). No, I had not—I was flying.