--you lose sight of life for being in it. The forest ahead, lurching over the horizon, becomes a mass of upright trunks and dense canopies, suddenly single events formerly composing a whole. It is not a matter of not being able to see it. You do see it. You plan for it, anticipate it, judge its beauty, depth and dangers from well above or far away, while it's distant, before you arrive, become incorporated. Miles from the edge, the wilderness looks small, fits in the palm of your outstretched hand or disappears behind your thumb. Easily mastered or ignored, for now, but always, always getting bigger in the window, tilting your head back as the treetops extend further into the sky. Then, in what seems an instant but in fact took a lifetime, you find yourself overwhelmed and unprepared. Your plans fail. Your courage fails.
Magnificence is lost in the transition--macro to micro, panorama to inset, the all to the every. Life as lived is points, not strokes. Narrative is a product of retrospection. The present is pixels. Pieces. Dots. The wisdom of a later age connects them, reconstructs the forest, creates understanding. But only after you're out. It can't until you're out. Until then, it's a labyrinth of brambles, blocks, and underbrush. It isn't the tranquil copses, the pleasant, shady glens you thought it would be from afar. You don't know at all until you're there, you don't know better until you're past.
That is why I cannot stay...
~Excerpt from his letter, Dated September 19, 1999.
"Looks like rain," I suggested. To the sky, foolishly enough. There was no one else to hear. I pulled down the window--the top part--and stood up on the sill to sniff at the air. Another October storm, crisp with winter waiting behind it, and clear. Not the grim weather of November, not yet. Still warm enough to stick your arm out, cold enough to have to pull it back after a few minutes. A nice cool shower to empty the streets, subdue the traffic. Only rain on the weekend could create silence in New York.
Across from our apartment--my apartment--not the brick wall of sitcoms and city-jokes, but another building, over the street, more or less identical to this one, but with a nicer cornice, more scrollwork and carvings. Theirs didn't come as far out as ours, or didn't look like it did. Easier to feel the rain that way, I thought. I had to stretch, and even so never quite felt the real thing--just the fat drops that collected and dripped off the rooftop, irregular and shocking, nothing like the fine rhythmic needles that came down in the open air. That kind of remove always disappointed me, made me feel cheated. Nonetheless, I always tried, leaned out as far as I could without risking a fall. Only two stories up. But far enough.
The streetlights hadn't come on yet, so the crystalline gray was still uncontaminated by that toxic orange--Manhattan's nighttime color, the sickly pallor that always found a way past the curtains to spoil my cool blue sleep. Sleep is blue, I don't know why. It is. Or it should be. Held up to the outside, my nails stood out in pleasing contrast, long and scarlet red against the muted background, tame in the dimness. Impossible to be tacky in the rain, the world swallows that kind of loudness.
Yes, they're real. Yes, they matched my toes. Yes, I wore sandals specifically so the coordination could be seen, and nevermind that autumn's warmest days waned a month ago. Nevermind who I made the effort for.
Hard not to think of him at times like these. He had better words with which to describe such moments, all moments. These were his favorite. Room for two on this windowsill. I pictured his hand stretched out next to mine, held out in comparison. Bigger, naturally, more definition of vein and sinew, if it was sinew, not ligament or tendon. I always confused them. He would know. The coarse hairs behind his knuckles were darkening. He had fantastic nailbeds, though, large, evenly tapered, the color of a conch shell at the outer edge of its interior. Sometimes he'd let me paint them; hardly ever could he keep still long enough for them to dry.
Couldn't keep still.
The light shifted. Brightened in a pulse with just a shade of yellow, as if the sky had taken one last breath before pouring itself out. Then the rain came. No single slivers, preliminary scouts, but a massive army of slashing cold appearing all at once, assailing the windows, walls and pavement. No thunder yet, no lightning either, but it would come. I got up on my toes--my red toes--to point position, the last remnant of my days as ballerina, the one part of that fantasy I kept. I was always proud of it--still am. I stretched my shoulder, felt the tension all the way down my side and in my elbow, held taut and straight; pushed my palm out, lifted my fingers. The same steps, the same attempt. No change in result.
"Your chest is in the way," he would point out, laughing. "You could get another few inches out there if you weren't such a babe."
True. He spoke the words with mock-oiliness, in a way that was funny, but didn't make you laugh. I am a babe. And my chest was in the way. I have a big chest. Good for me.
I grew restless, standing there. Shifted on my feet, now flat again on the wood, getting slick with the spray that ricocheted into the room. I couldn't see the sky, not properly, totally, couldn't feel the rain. The world was framed by the window, four and a half by three, my thirteen plus square feet of the universe. Not enough. Suddenly, not nearly enough. I clenched my fingers around the top of the window. They were wet and cold, turning white and hard. I slipped a foot off the sill. Getting back down by without help was awkward. My knees, bending, hit the window, threatened my balance. I couldn't turn around in place to jump down, was too short to just lower a leg to the floor. The dismount was a half-hop, half-stumble that took a few running steps to recover. Embarrassing. I swore when my ankle turned on the landing, rubbed it, squeezed it, sat on the edge of the bed and shouted at him, silently, for not being there to help.
The weakness made me angry.
Warm enough to go out? No. Just. Maybe. Whatever. I reached into the closet for a sweatshirt, old, hooded, NYU on the front, much too big, the first thing my hand hit. I wasn't not going to wear it, just because. Fuck that.
Hair pulled back into a single ponytail, I stepped into some sneakers and opened the door. Rain doesn't last long in New York, it passes over way too quickly. I took the stairs two at a time, hit the front door almost at a run.
Outside--fucking Greenwich Village, I could still hardly see, everything packed so close together. But better, at least I could feel it now--the cold stung wherever it touched flesh, but I refused to pull my hood up. Chillier than I thought. Not chilly enough to go back. I turned right on Leroy Street, heading for 6th Avenue. Rain, a Sunday afternoon, no hope of a taxi. Didn't want one anyway.
I was in shorts. That was stupid. My legs erupted into gooseflesh, the rain streamed into my shoes because I hadn't put socks on. I felt self-conscious, naked, leered at by the men in passing cars. The guy at the bodega on the corner whistled at me, called something out that got lost in the sizzle of rain on cement--the tone was clear enough. He knew me, I went in there all the time, did he not recognize me? Was I a different person in the mist, just some girl he wouldn't have to face when the sun came out? I had the fleeting sensation of being out of place, farther from home than I could have been, knew myself to be, the surroundings for just one uncomfortable moment became unfamiliar. Alone on the street, unprotected, the look in his eyes, black and small, the way his lip curled over his teeth, it was frightening. I wonder now if I could really have seen that much of him in the moment it took to pass by, why it felt so long when it couldn't have lasted more than a few seconds. Minutes at the time, now...a flash in the rain, lit by a shock of lightning that too may have only been imagined.
The thunder followed fast on the lightning, thumped me hard in the chest, wringing adrenaline into the system. My heart beat to match the storm. I was running full out now, through the almost empty street, heading...north, uptown, through the vertical slabs of wood and stone, monoliths extending back in my direction, towering overhead.
Questions came, demands made of the emptiness and solitude that had no answers, told me only to keep running. Had a year gone by, a whole year, and me alone? Him or me, whose fault was it, mine that he left, his? Better that way or worse, I wondered. My last chance or my latest chance. Would I ever put on that stupid dress again, would I ever want to, wasn't he the one, no, perhaps there is no "one," and why was I looking for myself in his eyes anyway? Weakness, cowardice, fear; he'd found the words in his letter, always found the words, my poet, my liar, who told the truth in the end, or at least another lie to get out. He took away the year before and after him too, took them away and made them nothing, nothing!
A horn blared in my thoughts--no--from the car, a limousine of all things, black, speeding, windshield wipers flailing side-to-side, hopelessly behind. Filthy water leapt in a sheet from the road, I could taste it. Slime ran in streaks down my thighs, spattered but not cleaned away by the continuing rain.
I was not lost, but I was. The West Village, off the grid, no numbers, only names, no sense of up or down-I'd wandered in, my eyes married to the sidewalk, The undercurrent rumbling through it all the same repeated thought, magnified at every corner, every puddle, every time I looked up uncertain where I'd gotten to, unable to see the sky--what happens now? Where do I go? Lost in my own city! How stupid, how foolish, how like a little girl, to need rescuing! I can stand on my toes and cry, I thought, dumb and helpless, waiting for someone who wasn't coming.
With no one but myself to blame.
My knees gave out. I fell, in a controlled collapse, to the ground, sat cross-legged in the rain. No more cars came, no people ventured out. I looked up, way up, tilted my head back until my neck was fully exposed. Water slid over my throat, trickled down my t-shirt, ran all the way down over my abdomen to my underwear. I might as well be soaked, now. Thoroughly soaked, why pretend? Old stories came back to me from middle school, a Ray Bradbury, I think, something about a planet where it never stopped raining, and men, lost on the surface, drowned standing up. Then another, where the sun came out for only one day--and they locked the little girl in the closet.
I tried to laugh. I'd broken out of the closet, but now I would drown. Maybe there were the same story. Maybe I remembered them wrong. Or maybe she did get out, and maybe they figured out where to go, in the end. Your plans fail.
I let my mouth fill with water. It overflowed, spilled down my cheeks. My teeth ached with cold. Your courage fails.
In my eyes, the tops of trees and buildings, lampposts and traffic lights. Windows, awnings, air conditioners, triangles, squares, and circles--dots of black and yellow and green and red and gray, all disconnected, disjointed, incomplete.
I blinked. The water...not just water...in my eyes made everything blurry, blended the colors and shapes. I blinked again, but could not clear my vision. The pieces would not come back together, wouldn't make a normal scene. I had to fight the urge to gulp, felt the back of my throat stretch, the gag reflex. That is why I cannot stay...
The water fountained in a jetspray through my lips. It came back down warm. More poured out when I leaned forward, forced out by my tongue to mix with the dirt around my ankles. I cannot stay. I would not stay. I had to go.
And I went. Past the lights and the signs, beneath great black buildings, through small squares of dying, fading grass, without direction or guidance, without help, without escort, without him.
The rain did not leave the city for hours. It was still there after I had gone. I reached the East River, crossed the Brooklyn Bridge. I kept walking, uphill, my sneakers sloshing with every step, squeezing water up through my toes, making tracks.
Miles away--it felt like miles--I stopped. The rain stopped. No--it just went on without me. It was where I'd left it, hanging over Manhattan, the great cityscape spreading out before me beneath a dark gray sheet, frozen in the air. The whole city at once, New York. From finger to finger, held up at either end, hardly two feet in length.There was the Empire State Building. There was the Chrysler Building. At the other end-the financial district, Wall Street. And there, not quite between them, where I lived. I could not see my street, or my apartment, of course, but I knew where they were. I knew how to get back to them from where I was, made out all the landmarks, plotted the route in my head. Drew an unbroken line from where I started to where I stopped. Connected the dots.
You don't know better until you're out. And then you can go back. The decision he didn't make. The wisdom he didn't posess. I still missed him. I would always miss him. But he said more than he knew. He found better words. Always did.