I woke on my personal day feeling impersonal. I’d slept long and late, so much I barely recognized the time of day in my bedroom, dust made obvious in the hard light, no job or appointment or interview to rush toward. I needed nothing and was needed nowhere. I almost doubted I was alive. In fists I fingernailed my palms, to make sure I was still in there. Hands above eyes, I watched the skin flush and release the dimples.
I walked to that restaurant in my neighborhood where a bare piece of toast cost seven dollars and came with a marble of hand-churned butter and salt from a far-off sea. It had been years since I’d been there, a place I went with Paul, back when I spent money as if I had everything I’d ever need, as if I were debtless and immortal. The walls were painted this frosty, pale green and the silverware and china felt like art in the mouth. They served omelettes stingy with filling and magnificently complicated fruits—soaked mulberries, candied lemon, papaya crescents, cubes of heirloom melon, a black grape sliced into a bloom. A little dish of it cost sixteen dollars to account for carbon offsets and living wages, which made it more than organic, they said—this fruit salad was ethical. People swore it was the only place in New York where the produce tasted as good as it did in California. Tourists would approach the windows, look in at this diorama of people in expensive clothes, then move on.
Before I lived here the only place I’d ever heard of in New York was the Metropolitan Museum because it was in so many captions in one of my history books. I went there every free day or afternoon I had my freshman year, until I’d been in each room, looked at every piece. I was methodical, reading all the cards, taking notes.
Once a security guard asked me if I was a student and I said I was and he said to study hard and I said I would and I turned a corner, sat down, and wept quietly for five minutes. I wasn’t entirely sure why. I became accustomed to these unexplainable moments, emotional things. It was just a part of living in the world, I told myself, of not having an obvious god.
Maybe spending so much time at the Met had something to do with why the city also seemed like an exhibit, or maybe that’s just what Manhattan is—a bunch of shrines and reenactments. I’d overhear conversations about what this building used to be or who used to live in that place or what it was before it was whatever it was. (It always used to be something better.) Restaurants listed the origin and history of every ingredient they served, archaeology of a salad, a stew. And the people, the characters in the streets, they were always so arranged, layered with clues about who they were and where they were in their history. Leather purses carried hieroglyphic messages about the carrier’s taste and socioeconomic status. The young wore their tribes overtly, with messages on T-shirts, brands or bands. The rich looked out their cab windows the way painted eyes looked out of a frame.
I ordered forty-seven dollars of breakfast with a whole pot of tea because I was going to spend as much of my personal day right here, trying to reenact my history, pretend Paul was here, pretend I was younger and in less debt and in less trouble. Maybe I somehow knew it would be one of the last calm days before my new second job or whatever it was began—that I needed to spend a little time looking back before I could go forward.
I watched the people eating or barely eating, eavesdropping on them as Paul and I used to—that her spring collection was horrendous, embarrassing, and someone else was just going to outsource the whole thing or that he didn’t fucking believe this guy wasn’t checking his phone.
How sad it is that the last face someone makes at you is always the face you remember the most. Some days I felt haunted by Paul’s last face. I’d seen it after we had taken a couple weeks off—his term—which meant that during the time we would have been together, we stayed alone in our respective apartments, doing nothing in particular, because being alone had somehow become more compelling to us than being together. How sad our respective nothings had seemed at first, the cool absence in a bed, the dinners with a book. Then, even sadder, those nothings became preferable. The simplicity of being alone won out over the complexity of being together.
And that last day—a July afternoon, immovable heat—we sat on a park bench and watched a pack of kids shooting each other with water guns, fighting with cool relief. They screamed at and with each other, dizzied themselves with pleasurable aggression, but I felt no aggression and no pleasure. Paul asked me why I wouldn’t open up to him, why I was always so cagey, said he couldn’t help me if I wouldn’t let him, and I said, Why do I need the help? And he said that wasn’t what he meant but I said, It’s what you said, that I need help, and who are you to tell me what I need, to think you’re so necessary. I was spitting these words at him, but I did not recognize my own ferocity, so I stamped it out like embers. It seems to me that we can be the angriest with those we love most—what a curse, what a trick. We sat there in silence for a while until he said, so softly, That’s not what I meant.
It seemed we were always saying things we didn’t quite mean.
I said, I used to miss you when you were out of town, but now I have that feeling when I look at you, when you’re right here.
This was true. I did mean this. He said something about how hard that was to hear or how it hurt or maybe he didn’t say anything and I saw that hard hurt in his eyes, that it came out wordlessly.
What had started all this time off was the morning I’d woken in his apartment, gotten dressed, splashed cold water on my face, brushed my teeth, and hesitated before putting the toothbrush back in the cup beside his. I held still for a moment, then slipped the toothbrush into my pocket, then the cheap moisturizer I’d left in the medicine cabinet, the bobby pins that were collecting rust on a metal shelf, the black hair elastics circling nothing. I went to the living room, found the few books that I’d finished and abandoned months ago, put them in a paper grocery bag, put the bathroom things in there, too. I took the scarf that had lingered since the snowy spring and wrapped it around the good knife I’d brought over to make dinner with because all his were dull and cheap. I went back to his bedroom and noticed he’d rolled over but his eyes were still closed. I removed the few clothes I had in his closet, the underwear, the extra bra, the dress, the other dress. I was shaking. I was afraid I might cry or vomit, that I would wake him. Why did this feel so large? All I was doing was taking what was mine and getting away from him, but I felt somehow as if I were killing someone, myself or him or us. I didn’t know.
I looked at his face in the pale dawn, sleeping or just still, and I let myself completely feel the pain of missing a person who no longer exists. Not missing a person who has died, not mourning (I had yet to feel actual grief), but the strain of trying to see the person I’d fallen in love with inside the person he had become. Now I know this just comes with love, that there’s no way to avoid seeing a person gradually erased or warped by time, but the first time I realized this with Paul—it felt apocryphal.
But what had really happened? It was still unclear. Was it possible nothing of any significance had ever happened between us and our ending was just the sad process of realizing this? It was too sad to believe that we had just been two people staving off loneliness together. Perhaps I had just ruined it by reading Barthes at the wrong time. (A Lover’s Discourse, Chandra said, was relationship poison.) But no—I had to trust my memory of those easy early days, when words passed between us like water, when we were always quick to laugh, when we had held each other as if we were part of the same body, built to be like this. It seemed, on nights like those, that a whole lifetime of such feelings could be right there, ready to be taken. Hadn’t I woken up some mornings so sure that all my life must have been leading up to this for a reason? And what had happened to those easy days and what had happened to our laughter and what had happened to us? Suddenly, it seemed, they’d been replaced with copies of those people, then copies of those copies, blurry and blurrier still.
Losing Paul to time was far from the worst thing to happen to me, but the feeling doesn’t always match the loss. Sometimes the bigger ones are easier to take, like ocean waves. Smaller, human losses, the ones that carry a sense of fault, a choice, a wrong turn—they haunt, fuse in you, become impossible to remove.
The night before I left Paul’s apartment with all my things we’d gone to a party at his friend’s house, and when he talked to other people, I noticed how his face seemed to go backward in time, how his eyes lit up when we spoke to anyone new and how he smiled in a way that he never smiled at me anymore. And how sad and stupid it was that I believed it would always be that way, that our love wouldn’t dissolve into the ordinary. Believing in exemptions, maybe everyone has to make this mistake once.
I wished that seeing Paul talk to new people at the party that night hadn’t hurt as much as it had. I barely managed to do the small talk—the what-do-you-do, the where-are-you-from, the what-neighborhood, the what-college, the despair of trying to explain oneself. I deflected questions about where I’d been raised. I answered the terrible, terrible question about how Paul and I had met—at a party, at a party like this one—but internally I was obstinate and childish and furious, so furious over not being back there at that time when I met Paul, the original Paul, when all my life had a happy, drugged feeling in it. I had nothing to say to these strangers, whoever or whatever they were.
You know, it was so stupid. Of course people become accustomed to each other. Of course you don’t put on your first-impression face when impressing yourself on someone for the nine-hundredth time. What a child I am.
I miss you to your face, I said to Paul, too quietly, as we were walking back to his apartment after that party, not looking at each other, just hand in hand, walking.
You missed what?
And I said, No.
And he said, What?
And I said, Nothing, never mind.
In the months and years since Paul, I began seeing his features in other people. Someone would walk by with a shoulder span like his or his eyes or his jaw.
There’s Paul’s jaw, I’d think.
Here it comes.
There it is.
There it went.
That was Paul’s jaw.
Several months after I had last seen him it seemed that every third man in the city had Paul’s haircut or glasses, and on a crowded subway car one morning I was surrounded by memory and suddenly incensed—This is mine, I thought senselessly, helplessly. This is my men’s haircut and my glasses on all these strangers’ heads, all those people going places I didn’t know.
When my stop came, I faked lateness and ran.
So I killed an hour of my personal day in that café, with all this nostalgia, which I suppose is what I wanted, was the reason I’d gone there, to borrow the past. Leafy tea dregs were cool in the pot. I paid my check, tipped extravagantly—not because I felt generous or wealthy, but because I wanted to pretend to be. Spending money was a luxury in itself. Having it. Giving it away.
As I was leaving, I saw a woman who, in profile, looked so much like my mother everything in my body told me to sprint, every organ jolting. She was long limbed and underfed, sixty or so, holding a spoon to smack the shell of a boiled egg cradled in a red cup. As I pulled open the glass door, we caught eyes through the frame, though she likely felt nothing, oblivious of how we, two women who were strangers to each other, echoed two women who were estranged from each other. She struck her eleven-dollar egg, scooped the white, and dipped toast points in the molten yellow, thinking nothing of it as I drifted into the city’s ever-moving bodies. But the image of her face turned my stomach in on itself—or perhaps it was all the caffeine and cream, or perhaps I hadn’t been healthy enough to stomach real food. I turned a corner and let out my expensive breakfast churned with acid against a building and sidewalk.
I leaned into the wall, held back my own hair, stared at the errant beads of vomit on my shoes. I tried to contain myself, to ignore and be ignored in the street. It was what we did here, one of the urban agreements I’d observed, learned, upheld. A hand offered me a tissue and disappeared before I could see where it had come from. How utterly isolated we were and still never alone. As a child I felt lonely but knew He was always up or out there. Then, as a woman in this city, I spent all my public time in a sacred privacy, though sometimes when my eyes briefly darted over a stranger’s eyes I felt a silent flash, a visit from the god in other people.
I spat up the last bit of acrid vomit and felt a fresh push of sweat cool my head. Three decades had turned me into a woman, but girlhood memories still sat in me, steering—I could almost hear the pot rattling on the stove, so many years ago, steam illuminated in a diagonal of afternoon sun.
Mother asked, How long do you let it boil?
I must have been ten, if that, eight or nine or ten. I didn’t know what she was talking about, only that it wasn’t right for her to not know something like that, for her to ask me how to do something in the kitchen.
Do you let it sit for … How long is it?
I was silent for a moment, the most uncomfortable nothing I’d ever known, though it may have only been two seconds. The way children stretch time and the way adults forget that stretch could be one of the saddest differences in the world.
To boil an egg? I asked her.
I’m forgetting everything these days. Her eyes went red and glassy. You’re such a good help around the house. God blessed me with you as my daughter.
She pulled me into her body so I couldn’t see her face.
Thank God. Praise God, she said, soft and low.
She clenched me and it hurt but I was silent. Affection didn’t come with this sort of intensity in the cabin, so I gave her the privacy of her feeling. A couple days before this I had woken in the middle of the night to the sound of the kitchen table skidding across the floor. Then the silence kept me awake—so still—not even crickets or the night wind or the grandfather clock ticking outside my bedroom. Where did the crickets go, that wind, that clock? I heard my parents’ voices and Mother weeping.
In the morning it was clear that something had happened that should not have happened. Too many things were wrong. The stove was cold. She wasn’t there. Wet chicory grounds were spilled in the sink. Even the light seemed strange, as if part of the sky had gone missing.
Merle was sitting at the kitchen table but he was elsewhere, praying or otherwise lost. He didn’t open his eyes when I came into the room. An unconscious frown. Hair askew, shirt cuffs undone, flayed open like animal skin, and when he opened his eyes, I could see the dark fear in them. No child understands how well she knows her parents’ faces, how much they tell her without speaking; that language is writ so deep she could never back away from herself far enough to see it, but she always feels it. It registers in there.
I didn’t ask where Mother was and reacted not at all when she came back as if she’d just been in the garden. I can’t remember if she was gone for a whole day or overnight—all I remember clearly was that afternoon she couldn’t remember how to boil an egg and how hard she held me, as if I were about to float away. (I suppose I was. I suppose she knew.) When I saw those dark bruises on her arms, they explained it, though the bruises weren’t the worst of it. It was that she’d been moved by an instinct deeper than deference that made her leaving and coming back terrible. She’d been moved by something embarrassingly deeper than the sanctity of marriage or her husband’s authority or her fear of God.
Now years have gone and that old idea of God has gone and I’ve also left, left my family, my name, the whole simple way I could have let my life pass.
I keep wondering what, in me, might be constant. I catch myself looking for that remainder, retracing my steps as if in search of lost keys. I am always wondering if there’s something holy between people, a formless thing, something that can’t be bruised.
Your mother is forgetting everything, she said, watching the water roil and ripple. I can’t seem to keep my head straight.
She was shaking. It wasn’t cold. She held the side of my face to her chest and I watched the dust move in the sunlight the way tadpoles move in a creek and years later, in a biology class, a professor told us about a recent study on fetal cells, how some cells from a child in utero seep into the mother’s body and remain decades after a birth—even from aborted children or stillborns or children who grow up and go away. But the study was inconclusive. The researchers weren’t sure if those children cells helped or hurt the mother or if they had some effect that wasn’t particularly helpful or hurtful. Some scientists discovered that these children cells collected around illnesses and tumors, but they couldn’t quite tell what they were doing there, if they served any real function. It just wasn’t clear.
Still, I wondered whether any of my cells were in that bruise and what they might have done in there. Was there anything left of me in my mother? What order, what rules, were there in the world, a body? And why did I still hope for answers that I knew weren’t coming? It could have just been a craving for the kind of certainty I’d been born into—having a user’s manual for life and an unmovable, divine love. But maybe I really did sense something vague and holy in others’ eyes, something sacred in crowds, in a bus of people staring out their windows, watching life. There should be a middle ground between believing in a certain God and believing that some mysterious third substance was between people. Like churches, I thought, there should be a place for people who just weren’t sure. There should be a place for people who see something but won’t dare say what it is. Maybe there’s something, something between people that is more than air and empty space, something holy in that nothing between one face and another.
Sometimes it seems all I have are questions, that I will ask the same ones all my life. I’m not sure if I even want any answers, don’t think I’d have a use for them, but I do know I’d give anything to just be another person—anyone else—for even just a day, an hour. There’s something about that distance I’d do anything to cross.