Contact

We’re walking down the middle of a residential street, he and I, talking about some film adaptation of a book we both loved, the movie not so much, and it’s that pepto sky of a Chicagoland dusk. The competing streetlights on either side of us are moving our shadows as we cross them, this way and that, so our shadows keep touching even though we’re not.

We’ve been friends long enough where the discussion of plot can segue into analysis of our respective childhoods, our parents, where we came from and where we think we might be going. We’re both in college still, commuting to the city on weekdays, taking the el together and drifting away on our separate stops before meeting back on the train again after class.

We’ve got the routine down. I get on first, and there’s a few stops before I see him. I watch the circulatory system of the el as it breathes in new passengers and exhales others, the heartburn of the body around it: tunnel flashing in fits and starts from steel on steel. I think of contact. Of contact with him. I blink and it’s gone. I think of the midnight screenings, the Rocky Horror dress-ups on Saturday nights (whatever happened to them?), the couch screenings of cult classics like Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Velvet Goldmine. After those films are over, we don’t bring the plot analysis into self analysis, even though I want to, even though I want to tell my best friend that I think I might be bi.

Then it’s his stop, and he’s asking how my day was, and I’m saying something, agreeing that I’m tired. There’s the intrusive thought that if I don’t tell him now, I’ll never work up the courage again. There’s watching Division come and go, then crossing over and into the light as the train takes us higher. There’s not knowing what to say, looking down instead, at the dirty train floor, where our sloughed-off backpacks are now mingling, touching, converging. He asks if I’ve had a long day and I say yeah.

After that, it’s people watching and listening to one half of phone conversations. Anticipating what the other person might be saying. He pulls out his notebook next to me and starts penning in possible dialogue, hands the pen over for me to continue. I make him laugh with a couple of my lines, and it’s that stifled, don’t-let-them-know-I’m-laughing thing. An intrusive thought, but just a word this time. Cute.

I hand the pen back to him, nod over to a different phone-talker. Far enough away where we can’t hear what she’s saying. What could it be? Our knees graze, my right to his left, every time the train jostles on the tracks, which is often, and I can’t believe I’m getting excited about knees.

He writes the phone-talker’s dialogue, something about a jilted lover, I don’t really take the time to read it like I should, to look for the subtext he’s hidden, because there’s always something else beneath the line with him. Most of the time I’m trying to figure out what he was trying to say without saying. He always leads the verbal dance.

There’s the sway of light as the train takes turns above the city, dust motes hanging in the air between us, and beyond that a transit map that hasn’t been snatched and put up on a dorm room wall just yet. A pre-recorded voice is announcing our stop next, reminding that doors open on the left at said stop. He hands me the pen and asks me what happens next. He’s still got the notebook on his knees, and I lean in close so I can write on it where it is. I think of the possible subtext. All the ways to hint at what’s on this person’s mind, what they want to say but can’t.

But you know what? Sometimes, fuck subtext. Sometimes you just need to come out and say something. I put my pen to his page as the train makes its slow approach to our stop. I scribble something just for him.

The Ghost of Our House

Do you remember the way our shadows collected under the awning as the rain came out of pepto sky? And something like shadow puppetry as we waited for it to stop, boxes tucked under with us but getting wet at the edges? Or what about that night, with Twilight Zone sending gray light into our new place, TV on the ground, but the mattress was there too so it was okay? Or you wanting to christen the bed, the room, all rooms that were now ours, and how I breathed through the panic, yawned through it and said I was tired, maybe tomorrow? Do you remember how I suggested another color for the walls, and the way I stomached your disappointment because that was the color she’d gone with, the woman I was with before you, but I couldn’t tell you that just then? I’m sure you at least remember waking me up that night, telling me I’d been crying in my sleep, and was I okay, would I be okay? I remember being half awake, gathering the blankets under me, and waiting for the pounding to stop in my skull, acrid breath, and wondering if I was breathing underwater–did I ever tell you all that? I keep going back to that sulphur smell in our backyard, the one that wouldn’t wash away no matter how many times I dragged the hose over the lawn, and the way it seemed to have its own ecosystem, the trauma did, and I’d be out watering the lawn at 3 am; I’m sure you remember that? I wrote love letters without the sense of sight, and I hid them where I was sure you’d never find them, scrawled them out backwards so you’d have to hold them up to a mirror just to figure it all out, but I don’t think you ever found any? It’s that time I pulled up one of the floorboards, and I found a pit–withered, too large to be cherry, too small to be avocado, and you smiled a sleepy smile and said we’d turn it into a project before going back to sleep, do you remember that? And then how I spent a week in the attic, brought food and water for the journey and didn’t sleep for five days, and the way I spoke with you through the walls so it seemed like I could be the ghost of our house, and when you cried past the sleep, I tried to wake you with cooing songs? Or the way I floated down through the basement, edging past wires and pipes and nails to get at something like machinery-hum-quiet, and the more I focus on it, the more I realize you can’t see me, can’t really hear me, and I’m stuck here, without you? It’s seeing you come back home, dressed in black, finally putting my pictures away, bagging up my clothes, and wondering: Will you remember me?

The Ones You Don’t

I read a quote recently. It said that a book is a suicide postponed. The person who shared it hadn’t attributed the original author, and I didn’t bother googling it because I didn’t want to remember my brother that way. Because for him, it was the other way around. Because some neat little quote can’t contain all the permutations of mental illness. Because he’s not here anymore, but his half-completed manuscript still is.

I found it on a flash drive in his computer while we were cleaning out his stuff. I’m not a writer, but it didn’t take long to figure out his system. D2, D3, and so on for completed manuscripts. Tracked changes peppering dashes of red. This last one was a D1, and there were no changes. It just abruptly ended at page 150. He didn’t leave any notes, no explanation texts. What happened happened, and he went away. That’s it.

I couldn’t read those pages for months. Past putting him in the ground, past splitting up his belongings like a mis-packed school lunch on a field trip, because none of us wanted his things. We wanted him.

I kept the flash drive. Put it in a lockbox and forgot about it for a few months until one day I came to it fresh, cleaning out my stuff. Ever since his death, I needed my space to be empty and clean. Scrubbed and sterile.

I pull out an old guitar, one of the few things I made a rule to not purge, and I fill the space with sounds instead of things. Our childhood home was filled with mountain ranges of garbage, unwashed clothes, and rotting discards. Our dog would fish out these things, paw at them, and that would give us an excuse to throw stuff out, clean up a little until mom would yell at us to stop again.

So I play something that’s a little progressive. Hard to follow. Hard to play. It’s been a while, so the calluses aren’t there. I play till it hurts, and then I realize what I’m doing. I want to break this thing. I want to break everything that I still own.

I put the flash drive in my computer. It’s past three in the morning when my body starts reading. Whoever’s going over these words then relays them to me as I hover somewhere near the ceiling. And there’s seeing the way he looked in that box they’d put him in at the wake, then putting that away and having some of his story instead, sips of it, then gulps as the sun comes back up and I can’t sleep and this is the last thing he’s left, this is it, there’ll be no more of him beyond what I’m now reading.

I go out into a night that’s like pouring microwaved water onto yourself. I pull a pack of cigarettes out of my pocket. I don’t smoke, but tonight I do, one after the other, until my fingers stink of chemicals and smoke and I feel I might leave what’s in my stomach on the roadway. There’s a wind coming in low, tunneling in past three flats and other vacancies. I go back in and read, come back out and smoke.

I look up story structure, plot, and dialogue. I try to understand what it is that I am going to do. Back when he was still here, people would mention how much we sounded alike, how it was hard to tell us apart on a phone call. So I read up about literary voice. I learn.

It doesn’t come easy. I can hear him tell me that it doesn’t go like that. That I’m getting it all wrong. I tell him I’ll smooth it all out in the rewrite. I can almost hear his laughter–the only giveaway that it was him, because our laughter couldn’t be more different. His like he’s laughing for the first time. Like this is a special thing that he can only share with you. My laughter always sounds forced. I don’t know. Maybe it’s just because I know where it’s coming from. You can never truly know the inner workings of another person’s mind.

When he was alive, he’d tell me about how you can always fix things in the rewrite. That the pages you have are better than the ones you don’t. Did he ever hear himself when he said that? Did he ever remember those words in a darkened room, where the only thing making sound was his breath, his lungs trying to keep him alive?

I get past another ten pages. Another chapter. I accumulate words behind me and climb the fire escape at night when my chest is heavy. I smoke these cigarettes that I don’t want. And when I’m too far into this adopted story to stop, I take it with me up to the fire escape. The screen’s glow lights up metal, a bit of brick. It makes them seem like they’re merged. Like they’re together somehow, and always have been. Always will be.

The Place in Which She Lives

The artist is forming a panorama of the place in which she lives. She is stitching together photographs with black thread and filling in the places she cannot access with watercolor, gouache, and oil representations. She pounds pavement all day and most of the night, looking for places she has not yet captured. The people she catalogs as well as the places, and she has no qualms about duplication, so you’ll see the same jogger first here, then there, as if cloned, or else stretched in time along the same road, a stop motion flip book that can’t be flipped but can only be looked at in sequence.

Her husband, the writer, before he died, had encouraged the project. He’d sat and gone over grant opportunities with her, a mess of takeout trash spread out on the floor in front of them like a made-to-order constellation. He helped write the grant with her, and when she got it, he raised a toast of water to her health and good fortune.

She came and showed him drafts all throughout dialysis, through the pained process of not-recovery, and the moments collected in the corners of all the rooms they inhabited, the space like something they hadn’t fully reckoned with until he was dying, until they knew that this place would soon only be hers. He told her to go out, to take pictures, to paint in the gaps that the pictures couldn’t capture, that she’d only get one chance to live out her dream, but what he meant was Don’t Remember Me Like This. He prepared for himself a deep dark cave where he could spend the rest of the time he had been allotted.

She prepared dark teas in the mornings without him. Dark teas and cold breads and birdsong emptied of music–only the untranslated calls for food and mate. The project was becoming a monster.

The place in which she lives includes her neighborhood, her city, and every house and apartment in it, so she spends her days in constant work, always walking, staying in one place just long enough to document it before moving on. She gets home cold, covered in tiny dead bugs, and dehydrated. She’ll put on another of her teas and catalog what she saw that day, try not to see the nights she’d come back and show him what she’d done.

She’s flattened out every dwelling, every place and person into a photographic melange, subtracting a dimension but adding something that never was there and could only be there now because of her. Buildings become exploded diagrams laid out in film and paint, till every square inch is covered in exquisite detail, without concern for scale. Street art is given equal billing to the buildings it’s found on, and every chewed-up and stuck-on piece of gum is captured. Building tops stretch sky that’s been patched together, because everything that means something to you is made up of still smaller things that mean just as much.

She comes back home every night in the quicksand of persistent exhaustion, having spent her entire day out there, returning to a bed that’s been halved, and now she’s remembering to breathe, to properly eat, to keep hydrated, because if his voice is no longer there to remind her, then her voice will have to suffice.

She’ll come back and she’ll spread butter on a piece of bread, and let her breath hitch in her chest, and look out at the far wall of her home, this place in which she lives, where the entire spread of the project is there, so far, even after all this time still a work in progress. The buildings and streets and trees meticulously studied and cataloged, and the people, when they show up, allowed to just be within this space. And there in one of them, only the one, is her husband. He’s sitting on a simple chair on their patio, looking out and down the side of a road that to him will never look like what it right now does to her.