YOU ARE NOT PREPARED FOR THIS
I move the fan to the windowsill and it whirs hot air up my bare thighs and over my stomach. I’m airing my body out on the fire escape, researching natural disasters on my phone, trying not to stare at the disappearing sun. The cat drapes himself over my outstretched legs, but he’s already changing his mind about my beach-towel-and-bikini inertia, twitching and moaning toward a cardinal in the leaf-dark trees. We watch this cardinal. We love this cardinal. This cardinal is our only cardinal.
The day is setting on the green and complicated courtyards below—toppled forts in vivid superhero plastics, vacant grills, a weeping cherry tree and a dozen high fences. I think, Look, don’t touch. I want to touch, of course I want to touch, but if I could touch it would be because I possessed; the sun-fried gardens and the kids’ forts, these would need raking and righting. A backyard is a responsibility. A family is a responsibility. A wife, a responsibility.
What do I owe my husband? Why is it important to prevent regret?
Yesterday, waiting for the F train, I overheard a woman ask this question into her headphones: Why is it important to prevent regret? She might have been on the phone, but there’s no way to know.
The problem is I left my apartment. Any “How to Survive a Nuclear Blast” guide will tell you what a mistake that is. After a blast, do not leave your shelter for at least 48 hours. But it’s been longer than 48 hours since my husband left me for a different city, it’s been weeks, and anyway I needed blueberries.
I caught my scent (overripe mango, a greasy underarm potpourri) this afternoon while opening and closing the fridge door, which I only did to cool down, a temporary fix, fanning myself with the door and smelling everything wild about myself I didn’t want to smell. Inside the fridge, I found inedibles: the cold beanbag I hugged to sleep last night, an empty bottle of witch hazel, a shriveled lime, hot sauce my husband had shipped from Mexico fifteen years ago. For the first birthday I spent in love with him, my husband gave me a box of specialty hot sauces. He knew what I wanted back then. Hot sauce never ages, but the preservatives will glue up your insides.
The health-food store I live above closes at 6 p.m. on Sundays, so I stripped and rinsed quickly. When I emerged from the shower, I found my tanktop in the toilet. Right where I’d left it. I used kitchen chopsticks to pinch it out and into the sink, ran cool water through the thin cotton. I didn’t soak it because it would soak with the toilet water, and wasn’t the point of washing it that the fabric be rinsed of the toilet water instead of mixing the toilet water with the soapy water? It reminded me of that sermon for teenagers about how God wants you pure and if you have a little sex God and your future husband will find you disgusting in the same way that, if a raindrop of diarrhea fell into a pitcher of lemonade, the lemonade would become disgusting. What we didn’t know at the time was that plenty of potable water contains a hint of feces. You cannot live your life without drinking feces. Besides, the sugar is the real rot.
New York City’s toilet water is clean enough to drink. This information could prove invaluable following the bomb. A new spat of “You’re Not Prepared for This” articles appeared on my phone’s newsfeed this morning. “You Don’t Know What to Do,” “New Yorkers Are Not Ready,” “You Should Be Cold War Scared.” If I were serious about surviving, I’d be stacking hardcover books on the clear divider that acts as a windshield between my bathroom skylight and the bathroom itself. Without this insert, chunks of snow fall into the bathtub in winter, leaves in fall. I can understand the snow; snow can be heavy and formless. Water is capable of anything. This is not true of leaves. A dead leaf is brittle, yet I’ve found a whole leaf intact in my bathtub. I need to get more serious. I know I’m not serious enough.
I decided this morning that, for the next thirty days, I will not buy anything I do not need, so this trip to the health-food store came of necessity. I intended to stick my face with a hundred thin needles before bed; to roll these needles slowly over my forehead, up, down, crosshatch, like a lint roller over a black sweatshirt. Does this rolling satisfy you? Is this ritual enough to satisfy you? I needed rose toner to disinfect my face. I needed blueberries and whole milk for dinner. My air-conditioner is in hallway storage because I cannot lift it to the window by myself without killing a pedestrian so I also had to go to the store to be in air-conditioning. I am nothing if not a temporary fixer. My husband cannot lift the air-conditioner for me because my husband does not live in our apartment anymore.
Do you ever want to leave your house without your keys?
How often do you want to lock yourself out of your home?
What would it feel like to deliberately lock yourself out of your home?
Are you curious?
You are curious.
I group-texted my women to see if they felt this nagging, walk-away curiosity about their home, and they said “kind of” and “sometimes” and I knew: they are real friends who do not feel the same.
I did not text my husband this question about keys.
How to Survive an Avalanche
- To survive an avalanche, the first thing you must do is acknowledge your participation in the avalanche. Avalanche victims often trigger their own avalanches. Anyone who is married knows this.
- First, bound uphill at a diagonal, away from your false step.
- When you cannot escape by running to the left of the rolling snow—and you cannot escape although you’re expected to try—drop a light glove and your heavy pack and hug a tree.
- When the tree rips at the roots, start swimming. Swim through the snow.
- Once buried under the avalanche you’ve created, expand your lungs, breathe a larger cell for yourself. The ground will harden soon. Maybe someone who loves you will spot your glove. It sits lightly atop the snow.
I find two questions in the comments:
Can I outrun an avalanche?
Can I eat my way out of an avalanche?
These questions do not make me laugh like they would on a night when I was not starting avalanches. These are people who do not recognize their limits. I know I have put myself in a bad, ugly position, waiting for my apartment buzzer to buzz or my phone to vibrate. I know about limits.
I met a man at the health-food store. I gave him my home address. I believed, at the time, that I had a good reason. I bought blueberries and whole milk. I will never not need blueberries and whole milk.
I’ve been doing a lot of survival reading lately but not a lot of survival preparation; I’m bound to find the right guide eventually. Tell me what to do, Guide. Guide me.
I am a woman of desires, and one desire is this: I want to be inside my experiences without intruding on these experiences or wrestling for control. I think this is what surrendering my keys would mean. Is this what going to dinner with the man I met at the health-food store would mean, or is this what eating oat-cluster cereal for dinner would mean?
I chose to wear a sports bra to the health-food store. I chose to bring my keys to the health-food store. I chose to walk out of my home with my keys. As of a few hours ago, I chose my keys.
The primary action I take every day is: walk into a shop.
This week my primary actions also included lifting Sarah Miller’s library book from the hold shelf and reading the book for hours in a chair behind the stacks. What do I owe Sarah Miller? Before I left, I rubberbanded her name around the spine and replaced it on the hold shelf. Not my first time with her book. I cannot know if Sarah Miller stopped wanting the book or if she came to retrieve it while I read. Did she accuse the librarians of incompetence? Did she question all publically-funded institutions, her tax dollars at work? It’s this book that got me thinking about Simone Weil again, a philosopher, a liver of her values, a woman who died young enough to live her values.
What is valuable?
I tried to remember what I’d known about Simone Weil a decade ago, as a philosophy minor, and the question she asked about Decreation. I think it was about taking something you created and reducing its borders, threading it into the world and into the earth so that it became like roots communicating through soil. I tried to remember better, but I couldn’t. I listened to a podcast about her. The show’s guest philosophers—men who’d made Simone Weil’s work their life’s work—introduced Weil with her take on Descartes: I want, therefore I am. I don’t think this means to me what it meant to her.
Don’t let me be what I want. Don’t let me be a woman defined by my wants.
I forgot to mention that when I opened the fridge to fan myself I found a dying fly on the bottom shelf. I swept him onto the floor with an open can of cat food, and I fed my cat as the fly trembled.
At the store, a man who reminded me of my husband, a man who moved and looked like a field of wheat, stepped beside me in the vitamin aisle. The obvious difference between my husband and this man is that my husband has never worn a soccer jersey. He studied me as I studied a blue container of collagen powder, milk and blueberries and toner tucked under a bent arm. We looked at each other.
What do you know about yourself? What do you put your bone-confidence in?
The man pointed at me. Baby birthday party, he said. Weren’t you at Nadine and Joan’s the other weekend, for the birthday? I’m Michael. Have you tried that before?
He touched my collagen with his fingertips. I thought I felt him through the collagen, his fingers stroking my wrist. My spine lit up like it was made of something the human body does not contain, like flashlights, fluorescence, ice cubes. I don’t often meet men I feel through containers.
No, but I wonder, I said.
It’s good for the joints.
I’ve read that.
An interesting mix you’ve got there. He pointed at my folded arm, the milk and toner.
I’m here for the air-conditioning.
You don’t have air-conditioning? In this heat?
It’s in storage. I can’t lift it. I knew I’d said too much.
Air-conditioning is a necessity, he said.
What I remember best about Simon Weil: Attention is love. You love what you listen to. You love what you put your eyes on. You love what you smell, what you throw your arms around, what you fly to.
The last time I cooked for my husband, a couple of nights before his flight, I made him eggs over easy with rye sourdough. We liked breakfast for dinner; it felt like breaking the rules, like being college roommates again. A mosquito zipped past my ear and I couldn’t box him quickly enough and he vanished as my eyes followed him.
Oh no, I said.
Not a nighttime mosquito, he said.
The nighttime mosquito strikes again, I said, which is something we say on mornings when I wake up with an ankle ringed with bites. You have sweet blood, my husband will say. They want your sweet sweet blood. I’d said the thing about the nighttime mosquito too early, though, before the morning bites; my husband smiled at me, but he didn’t say the thing about my sweet blood.
He brought up an article he’d read about insect-borne illness. According to a recent study by the CDC, such illnesses had tripled in the last decade.
Does that count underreporting in the past? I asked him. Yes, he said.
Does that count misdiagnoses in the past? Yes.
Does that count underreporting today? Yes.
I began making myself a large gin and tonic in a wine glass by sprinkling juniper berries into the empty glass bottom, shaving in lime peel. My husband wanted to tell me about a plane crash in the mountains. In every modern aircraft there’s an orange flight recorder tucked away in the cockpit, capturing audio throughout the flight. The recovered audio for this plane crash revealed a pilot who died arguing with the existence of the mountain before crashing into it. Except this wasn’t a story about a specific plane crashing into a cursed mountain. It happens more than you think, my husband said. Every alarm goes off in that cockpit, the seat shakes, but the brain’s not expecting a mountain, and the brain cannot understand a mountain, and the brain cannot move a mountain.
That was the most unorthodox way I’ve ever seen of making a gin and tonic, my husband said.
I was listening! I said, adding more tonic, more gin, more tonic, another sprinkle of hard juniper berries.
Then we read together in bed. I didn’t say: a mountain, a mountain, I see a mountain. I cleared a spot for my gin and tonic on the bedside shelf, curled up so that my husband’s thigh was my pillow, and I read. I read whatever. Getting up to wash my face, I kicked my empty wine glass off the shelf. The glass plunked onto my pillow but didn’t break.
Shit, I said.
Are you okay? my husband asked in a thick voice that told me he’d been sleeping while I read on his thigh. Why hadn’t I felt him twitching into sleeping? When had I stopped noticing? If I made any noise while he slept, my husband would wake up to ask me if I was okay.
It’s twilight on the fire escape when I text my friend with the same first name as me about my decision to go without buying for the month of June. The mosquitos are out. A bumblebee hums overhead but keeps her distance. She’s interested in the roof tar.
Jessica: Oh god why did you do that
Me: COMPULSION WAS THE WORD I WAS LOOKING FOR
all I could think of was compunction
What happened was I bought a very soft simple black sweatshirt yesterday and then I got home and wondered
Why this sweatshirt now? IT’S HOT.
Jessica: J this sounds like a sweatshirt you needed
I’ve found a way to wear my sweatshirt to the library every day; the right sleeve is pilling on the inside seam, where it rubs against my body, worn down by contact, by attention.
Bumblebees lust after the juicy black roof tar, this is my suspicion, but when I search my phone for “bees tar roof,” I find that bees are attracted to fruit juice, fallen apples, flowers, nectar, the normal stuff. I also find an article entitled “Texas Man Killed by Africanized Bees While Working on Tractor.”
On my walk after the health-food store, I stopped to inhale a voluminous pink rose poking its head out of a garden fence. A big, unfolded rose with the kind of power that makes you to step back, then step forward, smell again. What do you smell like? I said. You know what you smell like. I inhaled deeply many times, so many times I yawned. Are you lonely out here? A teenager and a small child with a mop-top approached. I stopped talking to the flower. I knew how all this sucking in appeared: excessive, unseemly, licentious. I decided the kid wouldn’t consider licentiousness a reason for smelling a rose four times, but walked away from the flower anyway. I found the rose smelled most of spicy orange peel.
How can one count, or take into account, everything everyone’s not reporting or underreporting? I will not move inside because of a mosquito and a bee. My cat watches the bee, raises a paw, and his tail flips.
I wanted to show my husband the rose, my husband who now lives in Phoenix, so I took a photo.
I texted him. I attached the rose.
Me: Do you like my flower?
He would not call it “living”; he would call it “working,” but we are both making choices with our words.
An hour ago, I took a towel out onto the fire escape. I stretched out on the towel and researched apocalyptic scenarios and tried not to watch the grapefruit sun inch behind the brownstones. My husband hasn’t texted me back about the rose. I don’t know what I’m expecting.
Some questions I wish I’d asked my husband over dinner: Have you seen that video of the jumping peacock spider, dancing sideways as he transforms himself into a totem pole to intimidate his enemies and attract a mate; and can you imagine all the world’s underground art, the hundreds of buried Picassos and Pissaros, in their temperature-controlled basements, attics, Rent-a-Lots, shining without attention like cardboard-covered sunsets; and did you know that those peacock spiders clap and vibrate and dance to attract a female and that, if the male persists despite female indifference, she will attempt to kill and feed off the jumping male? Who are you dancing for when you are not dancing for me?
I am a good dancer.
I can still see the cardinal. He hops down a wooden crossbeam on a pergola two yards down and the cat extends himself past the wrought iron bars of our fire escape cage, two paws balanced on a thin overhang. He’s moaning. He wants me to put him inside because he can’t trust himself. The cardinal flies and swoops, landing close on what used to be a bushy trellis and is now an empty trellis. I wait and watch the bird before moving inside for my binoculars. I wait and watch because I know that once I’ve lifted the binoculars to my face, even if I raise them slowly, in that act of raising, my red bird will fly away and I will not see where.
I go for my binoculars and crawl back out onto the fire escape, but the cardinal is gone. The cat is also gone. The cat is gone. The cat is gone. He’s gone.
I stand up. I call him. I do not want to look at the courtyard three stories below.
After a blast, they say, do not leave, do not make any sudden moves. But what about weeks after the blast? When am I allowed to move again? I stand on the fire escape and I call for the cat but I do not look down and I do not turn around. I acknowledge my heart against my ribs. I acknowledge the mountain. I acknowledge the rose. I acknowledge the apartment buzzer buzzing. I acknowledge my phone vibrating. What would my husband say? Would he call me a rose? Would he tell me again about my sweet blood?
Jennifer Blackman‘s fiction has appeared with McSweeney’s, Tin House, and Epiphany. A graduate of New York University’s MFA program and a former teacher, she spends her days obsessing over grammar as a copy editor at The New Yorker. Jennifer lives in Washington Heights with her husband and bloodthirsty cat.