We had three bedrooms and a garage for the car. We had hardwood floors and a full-size stove, we had an attic to fill with boxes of things we didn’t use. We had a king-size mattress that didn’t squeak, we had kids’ toys in the backyard and a dog that only barked when strangers approached the house. We had security: stable positions in offices that offered paid vacations and 401ks. You had a diamond ring on your finger. I had my weekends free to take hiking trips and car rides with you and the children. You had a black abscess spreading in your brain. We had holidays with visiting family from out of state, winter days bundled warm indoors and summer mornings eating breakfast at the shore. We chopped down our own Christmas tree. Rainy afternoons were for trips to the library. Your quiet breath had a stench of decay, something rotting. I had failed to notice. I had failed to see it in the Poconos, failed to see it in Cape May; failed to notice the rot on Sundays mornings when you wouldn’t get up. I couldn’t notice the rot eating through you, not during our movie nights, not while we got drunk on the porch, not while I felt the cockroaches squirming under my scalp. I didn’t notice the children had been feeding themselves. And I couldn’t notice you losing any weight – it’s not like we were taking our clothes off. And when I noticed you were drinking all my whiskey the solution was more important than the message: we just had to go get more. We just had to keep burning bright buttons into our stomachs, just had to keep ignoring the rot. Kids in bed early, I’ll be late for work in the morning, let’s stay up late – our drinking date – and tell each other stories.
I kept the blackout shades drawn tight, dim room. Dim city sounds through the walls, barely audible. Drowsy yellow light from my bedside lamp — it was a small room, filled with yellow uterine warmth. I had a bed, and a desk, I was very fortunate, I had a mini-fridge and a carpet and a TV. I had a roommate who had disappeared into the city, bingeing, and a rent check I couldn’t afford. The store I worked for was shutting down, a job I didn’t like, so I stayed home. I stayed home and let the lead weight of ending days creep closer unannounced. I bought a bag of pot, a case of beer, ordered fast-food to my door, and masturbated frequently. Everything I could ever want to watch was available for download illegally. I watched sci-fi space travels and sitcoms, teen dramas, found nostalgia in the old colors of cartoons. Shows in which the youth always have a happy ending, where their sets are refreshed for the start of each show: A friend’s basement, or a bar, that they know is always there. The familiar tension in a plot line; episodic impermanence, their great shelter from despair. Retreat into your basement, retreat into your spaceship, no one will hate you tomorrow: your friends will be at MacClaren’s. I made a mistake, then, and peeked out the shades, a willingness to survive. I was surprised to find daylight still in the streets. I sat back down on my bed. What an awkward sensation, to be stationary, when you know the unseen world around you heaves and turns. The walls of my bedroom were paper-thin, I could feel the city’s humid heat drop its weight on my skin. I needed to find another apartment. I needed to find another job. I needed to find the courage to speak with people, to shove my will out at the world. But the days had a way of passing by in the night, no pattern to the way they rolled over. There was nothing stable about the ground, no framework in the sky, nothing I could expect but my own surprise at how quickly my grave could be dug.
The sleepy neighborhood turns slowly with the dawning sun. Morning yellow, sky refreshed; the cool damp rising while bathrobed husbands collect papers and garbage cans. Older mothers out for a run; sleepy drivers dressed for the day creep their cars by, sometimes wave. Younger siblings prepare immense bowls of sugared cereal. Yawns and crotch scratches while family get themselves out of doors. And pretty soon the house is quiet. I turn on the news. I turn the news on loudly to let myself hear it from the back deck. I smoke pot and then a cigarette and then I sit and think about the news, all very vague to make much sense. The neighborhood is still. Brief shouts of kids down the street, maybe on bikes, maybe playing stick-ball. Warmth and certainty, July heat rising round houses that never change. In one hour we will be rolling naked through bedsheets you’ve had since 7th grade. My testicles will dangle freely over floorboards polished weekly by your mother for ten years now and counting. You will bend over the couch your friends slept on in sleepovers thoughout high school. We’ll run around your house naked and safe and laughing, checking the clock every so often, you’ll have me brush your plush stuffed dolls across your breasts and down your stomach, slowly. At 6pm I’ll find myself trapped into having dinner with your family. Or else I’ll leave, and wait for you to text me while I drive the quiet blocks smoking pot and cigarettes. More likely is option 3: to see myself fading quietly into palpable black, punctuated by yellow-light squares, kitchen windows and front-room windows looking in on silent TVs and chapped hands in old dish water. Familiar scenes that drift away. Dated shots of bicycle rides burning away the acetate, and all that’s left behind: Fat slobs molesting kids in basements, the physically deformed acting out the wishes of arrogant bosses and politicians: dormant lives in cupcakes on green lawns in maple shade. I can’t find a chair to sit on; this sensation of floating away. Flight of foot to mountains vast and cities sprawling, the sunlight wishes to crown your hair. Please — will you hold out your hand? Before our funeral leaves a trail of flower petals — please, will you hold out your hand?
You’ve been spending time with your mother making decorations for the holidays. Crafting kitsch for the doors and the halls, small moments made-up for the years you lived out-of-state. Progress in your own home is slow. Rent checks are never late but your husband is rarely in for dinner. Your own job seems to be a farce stunted by a bad choice of college degree – how many women can get a decent car in photography? But your life’s love got an early foot in with a 401k; and all his complaints are erased by his claim “this is all only temporary”. Someday comes the break. A baby will be on the way, you’ll have one made by spring and that’s your own secret plan. And at night when the small house is quiet and your thoughts creep down from the walls you can hear those good friends crying all the way back at Ohio State. You can hear the clamor of the bars and the mic beats of the poets and the stars that shined over North High and Third. You remember screaming at him when he left for Santa Fe. He left your heart aching. He quit the job after just a week and came home miserable to you, who forgave him so quickly because the sidewalks outside were still painted in the green of your dreams. Cooking isn’t what your patience were made for. Graphic design isn’t what your head was made for but at least it gives you something to do. And in the mornings in the traffic you can listen to NPR because the music you’re in love with whispers for you to abandon your car. Hand your laptop to a homeless man and empty out the bank. You’re already crying thinking of Mark finding a letter in the pot you won’t have filled with his dinner. He hates it what he does for you. Neck ties and obedience to the man with the bigger desk. Long hours of nicotine-yellow sun on suburban streets. Empty boxes flipping away the blank pages of your calendar’s days. Penned at a desk in a fluorescent alley of cubicles and swarthy smiles. Obsequious pleasantries and the eternal denial that what they’re paying you adds up. A 40-hour work-week indoors and Netflix to reward your stationary labor. Spirits were meant for the open air. You once spent a week straight without a foot inside your own door. The concert hall on State Street and the rooftop restaurant with the sky-line view where Mark first said he loved you. You had to go because a local blog was paying your photos in erratic hours. And at 4am you found Mark awake still waiting for you. Grasping for an emotional hold before the world sent you tumbling: your exhilaration has landed flat. A cold star stays dark with nothing new to burn in your chest. Stalked by old friends who aged quick at dead-end jobs. The same streets you walked as a kid are a ten-minute drive from the house you’re starting your life in. Someday you’ll find your future years painted on your office floor – or that Mark regrets the wedding. You’ll think back about the happy girl, what it meant to view the world without walls. To see the importance in the clouds and the excitement in the daisies painted on the windows of the Vine Street boutiques. To remember the reasons you needed to drive 20 miles over the speed-limit if you wanted to eat a second dinner that week, or what it felt like to cry because you’d spent four sleeplessness nights helping organize a Halloween ball. Someday comes the break – when the muck is too slow a death to stay here waiting 60 years. When you remember that life is movement through the city; that every breath is sweeter when you’re chasing down a dream; that your vibrant heart was meant to beat. Make your mother a memoriam: you love her most when you’re saying goodbye. Gather the movement of your frantic panic and the happiness of an insecure life. Ask Mark if he still loves you, and pack your bags for Ohio State. There’s happiness outside of Jersey.
We found ourselves along the lakeside at dawn, no sounds but the birds and the gentle words you whispered to me. You wouldn’t come with me to Boulder. Suitcases stuck in the corner of your closet that I’ve been living out of; the thought of crawling in there for another 6 months made my stomach itch with spiders. I wanted to strangle you, for the catharsis, a stress test around your neck to hear you scream because, after all, hurting you hurts me — there is one thing I can feel and I feel it beautifully. The one person I thought I wouldn’t live without has changed her dreams, and fallen asleep without me. We sit in the sod and you open your palm. No hard feelings? I want to throw my shoes in the lake, throw my cellphone and my notebooks and my wallet into the lake. I would rather destroy every last thing, shoulder a single little bag and walk heart-heavy across the plains to Boulder. I don’t want to flee; I want to brood my time in peace. I want solitude — from you and your parents, from my future, and from any responsibility. I never loved you: you put your palm back in your lap and look out at the lake. Did you hear me? No, I didn’t, fuck you. She should never have expected me to stay. I expected me to stay. We made love in the fishing boats off the docks; we drank most nights and slept long days in the hammock behind her aunt’s. We wasted weekends downtown at the cafes. We took off our skin and let each other in, and were always foolish to think I could stay. The beauty of these months we’ve spent, it was always meant to be looked back at, a memory of what was had and what we regret.
I hear echoes in the walls, the rattlings of a voiceless savior. Bills pinned to the pantry, I can only sit here and drink and clear my head enough to think that maybe there’s a way to clean the water from our floors. It’s been pooling here a while, coming up to our shins, late nights home from work up in four hours for the next commute. You come home in the mornings sometimes from a bar and find me sleeping on the couch, curled in sweatshirts under blankets. The crib in the bedroom is quiet, swaying gently, and you feel the child’s forehead just to know he isn’t ice. We’ll have a tax return soon to buy heat and more booze. Anything to stay warm and hear the echoes in the walls.
Dreams tend to ferment in vats of wasting time.
You didn’t see me cry as I drove home from work. You didn’t answer your phone, when all I needed was for you to ask if I was okay; I spent some money for gas and spent the rest on a six-pack, got drunk by myself with the child in his crib and for a moment I forgot there was no larger point to this. Than to let the cold water creep onto the bed, fill the fridge, and the pantry, and the cabinets. But for the kid that cries in the crib, when mommy and daddy are too tired and drunk to get up out of bed.
I swear we’ll never win.
You didn’t get a degree when you had the chance. I never had the chance. Sweat labor’s honest work but it doesn’t feed the house. Nor the bureaucratic mouths, with financial attention – I didn’t tell you I almost punched the clerk at the DMV. There’s another hundred-dollar fee to have our registration reinstated, which we may be able to pay once the water goes down. But it won’t go down. The good graces of the landlord wearing thin, the favors of your parents overdrawn, and a car in the driveway that won’t turn-over, the water won’t go down.
I sit here at night too tired to cry, and drink until I’m crazy enough to think there’s a way we’ll get by; that there’s a reason for us to try.
A voiceless savior rattles in the walls, and the heat vents are filled with just echoes.
Long nights awake in bed, my tired circuitry is sparking with the energy of a jazz band. There is so much to be done in this life, but at 1am there is nowhere to go. Just to sleep. By 6am sunlight is faint, and my eyes are heavy enough to witness unconscious dreams of greatness on the dorm room’s concrete wall. The future on the concrete wall, a vortex of fog and the ghosts of future selves. The projector has been on all along – 8am awake to find myself sleep-screaming in the back of class. In the dream, someone telling me I’d been wrong. And in a few moments when I graduate I’ll be awoken by the screeching of a library desk. 8 hours of class, 6 hours of clearing tables. The kitchen is a cluster-bomb of aluminum line cooks, and the incredulous owner saying I yesterday called to quit my job. From my back on my mattress I had dreamt-up unemployment and I swear the projector had been turned on. The vortex on the wall it swirls; dreams no longer clearly separating from reality. Dizzying clouds of cigarette smoke in the heyday hours of a gentle trip. Today I am the professor of pharmaceuticals. Fog rolls down the basement steps to underground bars where bass-drops come in flavors of neon candy. I’ve been reading more Pynchon lately; Calvin and Hobbes for what might lie awake in the future’s fog. Tomorrow I can be a dentist; I can be a desk clerk. Tomorrow morning I can be quickly falling through the sewer grate, or founding an internet platform. I am going to write novels when I graduate, or I can uncover the next Watergate, or I will be the first to manufacture sheets of graphene. In a few years when I’m well on the road to my dreams, starting my own business and happily getting married, I’ll realize I’m awake in class, and they’re all frozen and watching me. Hope mocks me for being so dead wrong; the concrete wall is a facade, and all of life has passed me by on my back, long days awake in bed on my back. I awake to find myself still asleep in class, and everyone is watching, the vortex on my desk in a puddle of blood, where the pencil has dug a crater into the back of my hand.