No Perfect Words

by

11/05/2003

Stanton, between Ludlow and Orchard, 10002

Neighborhood: Lower East Side

I pointed them out to you just a few weeks before you left. They were a couple–a man and woman–a few years older than us, maybe in their late forties, traipsing along the sidewalk in that odd way they had of walking–taking funny little unbalanced steps, but steps that moved them hastily along nonetheless. Neatly dressed, yet incongruous: the man had on worn jeans and tweed blazer, the woman: a black leather biker jacket over a flowery cotton dress. They appeared clean in a distinctly unhygienic way. Obviously, they had no where to go.

“Junkies,” I guessed.

“Ex-junkies,” you corrected.

There used to be a lot of them–these wandering souls–vacant in mind, present in body alone, as if the drugs they’d stopped taking years ago were still eating away at their brains. Sometimes we’d see people like them slumped on benches in Tompkins Square Park, arguing in the middle of a busy intersection, or panhandling outside the West 4th Street subway station, but now they are an anomaly, sort of like sighting real hippies in tie dye and bell bottoms, standing on a corner of Bleecker Street.

The weather has been unseasonably cold. The branches of the city’s oak and elms whip about, as if they are throwing childish tantrums because they can’t enjoy what’s meant to be spring. A black cloud has been hanging over Stanton Street. It’s dark and misshapen, like a bruise on a fat lady’s thigh. I’m looking out of my window (our window) into the apartment across the street. As usual, the Puerto Rican woman is at her window sill, taking out dollar bills from a metal box and counting them one by one. Maybe she’s planning on running away too.

The fact that you left has proven to me that I can’t predict my future, and that realization has given me a weird disembodied feeling, something like that black cloud, so heavy it can hardly float, yet somehow it’s slowly moving, sticking to its course and creeping off to sea. I’m moving too, but I don’t know where. All I can say is that I’m alive. Each day, I wake up still breathing, but there’s a significant discomfort somewhere in my chest, weighing me down, tugging at my insides, making it impossible for me to forget you.

You said you’d write, but you haven’t yet. You could phone, but I know you won’t. The few thousand dollars that you transferred from our house account into your personal checking tells me that you’ll only come back if that’s what you truly want. You won’t be like the rest of us, who you claim are living with other people because we can’t afford to move out and calling that love. Somehow, you were able to break free.

Did I tell you I saw them again the other day? Marla and George, the junkies–or ex-junkies, depending on what you prefer to believe. They were arguing and walking with their usual intensity. Marla wore low black heels and was stumbling behind George. Her face was contorted and tight, red lipstick smudged across her lips. She looked as if she’d been biting her nails all morning.

George’s graying braid whipped against his denim shirt. He’d stop every few feet, as if out of habit, turn around and wait impatiently for her. They must have been arguing about money. What else could have created so much tension?

You see, people argue but they don’t break up. Couples fight, but no one walks out. We never raised our voices (you probably think that was our problem), and yet here I am, alone on Stanton Street, with you blaming me for a flame that will no longer ignite.

I should have known nearly a year ago when you had your first episode. We were riding the 2 train to 96th Street. Neither of us took the subway much, let alone had a need to go to the Upper West Side. We could find everything right where we lived, or so we said. You usually zipped through the city streets on your black mountain bike. I always liked the way you’d sling your heavy chain over your shoulder before you mounted the bike, as if you were some kind of urban road warrior. But we’d taken the subway that day because it was raining, and it’s never a good idea to bike through midtown on a weekday, with all the jaywalkers, taxi cabs, and kamikaze pigeons. We were going to see your mother who’d just returned from Italy. On the way, we laughed at her for her decadence and the irony of it all, because as she reached the ripe old age of 68, she’d become as whimsical and careless as she’d always chided you for being, before your first articles started to appear in magazines.

The subway car was empty, except for a few damp stragglers. We were in one of the older cars, one that still had the black circles from discarded gum on the floor and a few stray lines of graffiti peeking out from the orange seats. We sat close to each other, even though there were many spots to be had. Our shoulders were touching in a familiar way, the way they’d been touching for almost fifteen years. How was I to know that a few minutes later when the train came to an unscheduled halt, one where the engines were cut and the lights dimmed, you were to gasp, clutch at your chest, jump up, and run toward the doors that would surely never open because we were still in the middle of the tunnel.

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

You looked at me as if you were a mad man who was just about to break out of the asylum. “I have to get off,” you choked.

“But it’s not even our stop.”

I went up and put my hand against the small of your back and followed your gaze into the black tunnel with its pillars, silver rails, giant rats, and men and women who crept down the platform stairs to make the tunnel their home. “Leave me alone. Don’t touch me. I’m gonna suffocate,” you warned.

I examined what you were wearing. Loose fitting jeans, a flannel shirt, and jean jacket. Your usual attire. Not what every 42 year old man wears on a weekday morning, but what men who have the freedom to dress anyway they wish will wear, when they want to look 20 years younger than they really are. I mean, I love the way you wear your clothes. Many of my high school boyfriends wore the same things.

“Sit down. You’ll feel better,” I suggested, but you shoved me aside, touching me violently for the first time. Then the train started up again, and minutes later we pulled into the station. When the doors opened, you hit the platform running, and I had to hurry to catch up as you climbed the stairs of the 72nd Street Station where we emerged onto the tiny island across from what was once called Needle Park. Minutes later, we ducked into a dark bar on Amsterdam Avenue that smelled of stale beer and stale smoke.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” you said, your voice quivering as if you’d just watched a tension filled movie that you couldn’t shake from your head. “It was like the walls were coming in on me and I just had to get out of there. I’ve never felt so out of control.”

“I’m glad you weren’t alone.”

You squeezed my fingers tight. “I must be going out of my mind.”

“In this city, it’s an easy thing to do.”

A few weeks ago, I thought I saw George jogging around Tompkins Square Park. Can you believe that? Talk about worlds colliding. I’ve never understood how people can simply wipe out a whole era, but as you know, the East Village used to be a pit, inhabited by drug dealers, homeless people, runaways, and crazies. Now it’s full of sunbathers, stroller pushing moms, dog walkers, and joggers. At seven in the evening, you can see buffed men and women, their limbs stuffed into lycra shorts and body hugging tank tops, running around the low fences that surround the park.

I was coming up Avenue A on my bike, staring at all the hard bodies that had so suddenly sprung up like bright yellow daffodils after a spring rain. They were running for their lives, and I was thinking of how amusing you’d find them, if you were with me, when suddenly, I saw him–George– keeping up a good stride, his braid bouncing between his shoulder blades. An ex-junkie jogging? That was impossible. How had I so thoroughly miscalculated him? Had he transformed his life–lifted himself out of his junkie past to become an avid jogger? And where was Marla? Maybe they weren’t symbiotically connected after all.

Being a few yards behind him, left the chance that it wasn’t George, although few men of a certain age retain their long braid or George’s lanky physique. As I got closer, I noticed small silver hoops glistening from both ears, a detail I didn’t remember about him before. If you’d been with me, we could have argued over this point, and maybe you’d have reminded me that George never wore earrings at all.

A wave of self-doubt swept through my body. If I miss calculated George, who else had I misjudged? Myself? You? You used to claim that I never really understood you. Now for the first time, I began to think that maybe you were right.

If I cycled by slowly, I still wouldn’t be able to turn around and examine him closely. Staring is just not done–not here in New York–and especially not in the East Village, where everyone’s face once had an unhappy story to tell. So I peddled by quickly, wily glancing back in George’s direction, and in that split second I realized that it wasn’t George. The man’s cheeks were fuller, his body round and healthy, the braid really a pony tail tied at both ends. Relieved, I coasted to the corner and quickly sped home.

Your silence is harder to comprehend than the fact that you actually left me. Fifteen years is a long time to wind up with nothing to say. After talking to you everyday for a decade and a half, I no longer have someone to bounce my ideas off of, or help me process the events of the day.

We used to spend so much time together in the apartment, each of us alone in our own world. You sat at your small wooden desk next to our bed. My desk was at the window in the living room where I could stare at the day as it unfolded, while interweaving memories with imaginary events. We’d stay apart for hours, but I was always aware of your existence: the flush of the toilet, a gush of water pouring from the sink, the chicory aroma and intestinal gurgle from the coffee maker. Then silence again. We were both searching for the perfect words, always revising what we wrote, never trusting our first attempt. Sometimes it would take me days to find the phrases to express images and ideas in my head, then once I found them, weeks later when I reread what I’d written, everything sounded so inaccurate and incomplete.

A few weeks before you walked out, I found a note in the garbage. It said: “Stop appropriating my thoughts!” Ha! At first, I thought it was some kind of joke. I assumed you’d written that message to me. Did you think I was a Martian who possessed a long silver probe that could be stuck up a nostril into the brain to remove ideas? Were your thoughts so precious that people hungrily awaited each one?

I know which idea you believe I stole. It was a trivial thought too. Stupid as hell. We weren’t even talking about Dostoevsky or Eliot, Kant or Lacan, Duchamps or Rimbaud. It was Strummer–Joe Strummer. We were with a group of friends, drinking margaritas at El Sombrero, our local Mexican bar. You’d just seen Strummer perform at what was to be his last appearance before his untimely death.

“He had a tight new band,” you told us. “They played everything from reggae to rock. Strummer put so much energy into it. People were bouncing off the walls. A week later, he was dead.”

London Calling was such a perfect document of Britain in the late ‘70’s,” Chuck said. “No one wrote songs like Strummer.”

“I’m lost in the supermarket,” Marcy sang.

“I can no longer shop easily,” I added.

“He was a fucking genius,” you claimed, holding up your glass–a toast to the dead.

Then I said: “He really brought politics to punk.”

Nothing seemed terribly insightful about that statement, but the next morning I woke up and found you sitting on the sofa, chain smoking and watching cartoons on TV. The vibrant primary colors on the screen made me uncomfortable and the characters’ voices screeched in my ear. “Is something wrong?” I asked while lowering the volume on the set.

You sucked on the cigarette as if you were kissing a new lover, then took some time to blow smoke into the air. “Life’s too short for compromises,” you said cryptically.

I didn’t know what you meant, but let you go on anyway. “Tomorrow we could be dead. Look at Strummer. One minute he’s out walking the dog, the next he’s gone.”

“At least he didn’t suffer.”

“We don’t have a lot of time.”

“I’m not thinking of dying.”

“But maybe you should think about living?”.”

“I am?” living.”

“No, I mean really living?”. What have we been doing all these years? I mean we’ve got this routine and we stick to it like robots. We’ve had the same friends for fifteen years. Each morning I wake up and know exactly what’s going to happen to me. I know who I’ll meet and what they’re gonna say. I miss the unexpected.”

“Our routine is not like the kind of routine other people have. We’re lucky. Neither of us work 9-5. We don’t have kids to feed or put to bed every night. We can act like fucking teenagers if we want.”

“Exactly. Don’t you think there has to be something more?”

“Like what? Kids? A house? Do you want to get a fucking dog?”

You shook your head back and forth, as if clearing out stuffy thoughts. The television was still screeching, and you stared at it, hypnotized, sucking on your goddamn Marlboro. Then you threw off the blanket, marched into our room, pulled on your jeans, and walked out the door. After you left, I went to the kitchen to put on some water for tea. In the garbage I found that note that you must have scribbled then threw away.

Every morning last summer Marla and George walked by our apartment at about 11:30, pushing a clothing rack, like the ones used in the garment district, filled with colorful bathing suits hanging from the rail. Where were they going with all those flourescent bikinis and one pieces?

The temperature was high, and I’d moved a fan into the window to suck out the stale air. Sometimes, when summertime comes and the air is stagnant and ripe, I think about the past tenants who lived here a century before us: what were their struggles, what worries did they have? Did they ever cope with personal unhappiness or were concerned that they weren’t experiencing the unexpected?

Marla and George always walked by so briskly, I hardly had a chance to take a good look at the garments that jiggled back and forth on their rack as they sped along. Maybe they’d been doing piece work for some sweatshop? Perhaps they were involved in an innovative government rehabilitation scheme for recovering addicts?

George smoked cigarettes as he walked. His face looked tan, but leathery and unhealthy, probably from too much nicotine. Marla’s long black hair was tied back into a high ponytail. From a distance, she looked fresh, like a cheerleader who’d just skipped out of the locker room. But when I saw her up close, I noticed that the rouge on her cheeks had been applied in thick red circles and her eyeliner was misshapen and smudged. I tried to imagine them in their subsidized apartment: Marla with her lipsticks, eyeliner, and blush scattered on the dusty dresser top, George with his two pairs of jeans and five shirts hanging in the otherwise empty closet. It was a transitional home. Somewhere they could go to, but couldn’t remain.

You returned in the evening, but I easily read your mind–the message was written in your cobalt eyes, your taut face, your insipid lips. It was over. All love had drained from your being. Although I’d been through many break ups before, I hadn’t experience one in fifteen years, but the feelings of hopelessness, inequity, inexplicability were familiar. How, at one moment, could we have had something fruitful and fulfilling, and the next, you were transferring money, buying airplane tickets, and planning to make a life for yourself somewhere else, without me?

I saw Marla and George yesterday. They were sitting in two big pleather arm chairs in Barnes and Noble on Astor Place–the store you used to take me to to look for your books. I walked by the literary criticism section, glancing quickly at the spines just to see if I could find your name, as if that familiarity would bring you back to me, or at least reassure me that once we’d been together.

In the next room, near the messy children’s section with all the runaway toddlers in their smelly diapers, sat Marla and George. At first I was surprised to see them. With their NA meetings, piece work, and temporary homemaking, I assumed they had little time for reading, and when I looked closer, I saw that books were the farthest thing from their minds. Marla was slumped in her chair, head sunk low against her chest, face slack, eyes closed, a thread of saliva dribbling from her mouth. George sat across the way, watching protectively as the open book on her chest rose and fell with her steady breathing.

A year ago, if I’d been a betting woman, I would have put money down that between Marla and George and you and I, we’d be the couple who’d stay together. After all, weren’t we the educated ones, the creative ones? Didn’t we have an income, non addictive habits, and a somewhat permanent home? I couldn’t have guessed what kind of glue kept those two together, or how weak our own binds were. You were probably right to pack your things and make a clean break, without incrimination, bitterness, or late night discussions. “When love leaves, it leaves for good,” you said.

Now, when you wake up each morning and look out at the new light beyond your window, you might think that I’m the same person you left behind, but that’s not true. Human beings are constantly changing. Each day we’re rewriting our lives, even if it’s in the minutest of ways. I’m still here at my desk writing, searching for those perfect words, examining moments of happiness and sadness, and the stasis in between.

**

This piece is dedicated to Jack Gelber, a playwright, director, and teacher, who for many years worked in the Brooklyn College MFA program. In 1959, his play “The Connection” redefined the boundaries of theater and won three Obie Awards. He was a wonderfully kind, thoughtful, and generous man. Jack died last May of Waldenstrom’s macroglobulinemia, a cancer of the blood.

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