When I met Joel, I was sitting outside my mother’s gallery.
“Who the fuck are you,” he said, and put his arm around me. I had seen him around and knew he didn’t mean it, so I let him talk to me like that. Joel worked for Sasha, my mother. After that, she practically threw me into bed with him. She wanted to know my limits, if I had any. I was almost twenty, had no events, no sexual epiphanies, nothing that led me to anything, and Sasha feared this would lead me to suffer, when I reached the edge of forty, a kind of cynicism that would cause me to grind my teeth.
Maybe he had seen me stuck in front of Sasha’s gallery, carving bowls out of wood, in need of inspiration. I had never felt so misunderstood. I had been spending a lot of time outside the gallery wielding chisels and wondering what was wrong with me. At the time, I had a boyfriend, Davis, who wanted to move in together. Everyone outside the City had already paired off, but I wasn’t psychologically organized like that.
I repeated all this to Joel, who took the bowl I had been working on out of my hands and turned it over. I knew a more practical person would have found it interesting enough, but Joel didn’t remind me of anyone. He had dyed black hair that made him look fourteen and forty-eight at the same time. He believed I was in a real predicament. On the way to his apartment, he explained that people from Saratoga were very traditional; in December, they would present one another with pink peppermint pigs that they would then beat with hammers in a terrific rage. He wondered what Davis planned on doing to me. This played on my mind. So I did what any girl would do, I kept sleeping with Joel. The most obvious things go together. I never cut it off afterwards. It didn’t occur to me I could.
At the time, I had been living in Brooklyn with a roommate, Termite. I don’t remember her real name. She didn’t mind. She liked to ruin my concentration. Sometimes we would spread a worn bed sheet out in our small, shared courtyard and get stoned. Our landlord at the time was an aging expatriate from Cuba, and he would occasionally join us to flirt with Termite over their sexual mutual exclusivity and leathery skin.
In any case, I found it easier to talk to someone about my life whose name I could not remember, and to show she was paying attention, Termite would repeat whatever I said. It was like talking to myself.
“A willingness to settle,” she would say, and I would bolt upright, stopping her each time, thinking, I never said that, and becoming more and more amazed at how stupid I was.
“We all know there comes a point in a relationship when not living together means something,” Termite pointed out one night. She had ambushed me while I was lying in bed with a pillow over my face. “Would it help to think of it as a financial commitment?” She went on about the investment of time and energy. We both knew that in New York one had to specialize in cutting board with inlays and salad servers with enameled copper handles, that sort of thing. What I’m saying is, no one was looking to fill a whole home. We all had apartment situations.
I held my arms over my head to show her I was capable of paying attention even with my eyes closed. I could tell she was by the window, sorting dully through my bowls. My armpits became very sticky. I couldn’t see what she was talking about. “What’s the worst that could happen?” she kept repeating, but I didn’t see that up for questioning. Everything came under a sort of pressure. I felt like I was being hit over the head. I used to get this feeling, as a child, in the wading pool. I couldn’t think. I would feel the circumference growing smaller, the water deepening. My response was total, and I would stand there holding my arms above my head, submerged inside a deep and vaguely lonely place.
The next morning, I couldn’t keep Davis out of my mind. I went looking for signs. At NYU, I requested his dissertation. Part of me was convinced that if I read it, maybe things really would work out. The other part of me stopped at Joel’s, where every now and then the building’s Super, a Vietnam vet who didn’t have legs, liked to ride the elevator up and down like acid reflux. At the elevator I found two men wearing matching tracksuits.
“He’s a real basket case today,” the man on my left said, pointing towards the elevator. I felt I could stand the waiting.
When the elevator finally arrived, the three of us crowded in together hovering over the Super, who really didn’t have any place to go. He wore a cardigan in an official navy and pushed around some buttons. We went to the second, then the eighth, and when the couple got off on the third floor, the Super called out after them, “Whenever you get the idea. I have a giant penis. Yes?” Then the men disappeared around the corner. Super shook his head and went on and on about the pain he had in his non-legs.
He asked me, “Did you hear me howling late at night?”
I looked straight ahead and began planning my wedding to Davis. A wooden cross, a kind of perpetuity against the brightening sky. I did this every time I tried to end things with him. I thought his absence so painful, that I would come too close to the edge of myself and become interested in him all over again. I didn’t know what was wrong with me. It was always like that, at least for a while.
It’s easy for a man to write history, I thought, later, lying in bed. I put Davis’s dissertation down. It was three hundred pages of historical moments and wars that meant nothing to me.
So I tried calling, but he didn’t pick up. This got to me in a superficial way. I wanted him to yell at me from across the Catskills, his voice to dig at the wires. He often spoke to me gruffly, which I liked. It seemed, at last, Davis knew what I meant; he was smart in an urban way even if he lived in one of those subterranean hovels upstate and bathed his cat by zipping it in a garment bag.
When the phone rang hours later, I fixated on his soft fingernails and soft hands. But it was Sasha, in-between layovers. One of her artists, in a manic fix, had fled to Spain. In the meantime, would I take care of Benny, her Boston terrier?
“The extradition,” I asked my mother, “how long is that going to take?”
“No one knows. He could be in a bunker for all I care.”
“Okay,” I said, and suddenly tired, began to pack my unfinished bowls, 2 cans of lacquers, and Davis’s dissertation because I needed something to measure the time.
I refused to sleep in Sasha’s apartment. It had deep sinks and rooms that heated evenly. The living room was full of headdresses and masks wanting to speak. Joel called every now and then but I didn’t pick up. Without Davis, I had no desire to see him again. He wasn’t what Sasha would have called a real man, calling me like that, and besides, I was still fixated on Davis’s soft fingernails and soft hands, and how, whenever he answered the phone, it sounded like he was shouting into a deep pit.
It was still early so I took out Davis’s dissertation and went into the closet and fumbled around until I found the good wine. Joel called, and I didn’t pick up. I sat on the couch and tried to read. After a few minutes I gave up. I was buried in the sentences. The sun began to rise. I wondered what else Sasha had hidden away, and got up and went to the closet again. Then I put on a silk robe and stood in the kitchen with a big bottle of Merlot and the windows open.
In the afternoon, I finished lacquering my bowls, collected loose change for the subway, and chased Benny around the apartment, trying to capture him with my handbag. I didn’t like the idea of him sleeping there either and had decided to take him home with me. I figured it would be good for him to see more of the world, even if it were underground. But Benny was like an old man riding the Six; he was asleep by the time we reached our stop.
In my bedroom, Benny curled himself onto the pillows next to my head, and in the early evening, I found him balled at my feet. I liked the idea of a dog circling me. After that, he became a strange moon in a different spot each night, and I would wake him to feed him treats, which he devoured with his delicate little teeth as if they were petit fours.
“No touching, Benny,” I would say to his tiny, hairy face. “Good night.”
During this time, I began to miss Davis a good deal, the same way you miss a season in the thick of another. Sometimes I stood next to the window, wondering if he had plans for the night.
At least Benny and I had our routine: We went to Sasha’s in the morning where I read about the Battle of Saratoga and cried all day. I felt like I would never meet another man as smart as Davis. I imagined him kneeling over the edge of the bed screaming at me in grammatically complex profanity. I didn’t want to become one of those people who fantasized about the past.
At noon Benny and I went for a walk.
“Okay,” I repeated to the trees as if they were falling sideways. “Nothing to see here.” I must have looked very serene. I had drunk all of Sasha’s wine. The whole day was before me. We wrapped around the blocks this way, Benny with his thin legs, grinding his tiny piranha teeth on the uphill. He wasn’t much of a walker, but he would rise to the occasion by pissing in the elevator each time we set off. I had forgotten what it was like to move forward in one direction, from one unnatural point to the next. There was a whole world of that, but not here. New York was different. I held no grudges. Everyone regarded one another with a cold intimacy. For a long time I had used their momentum to keep me going.
I was grateful for Sasha’s apartment. Whenever I wanted to forget something, I would dust the wood shavings off the windowsill, and call a taxi.
On account of my ambling and Benny looking so friendly, people with children stopped us all the time. They would pet him roughly while he licked bird shit off the sidewalk. Eventually I got sick of all the attention and told everyone he had mites in his ears and bought him a leather collar with spikes, a tag with skull and crossbones. I couldn’t understand why so many people hovered over him. The ends of his fur felt like boars brush. When he pooped he did a lousy little dance over his turds like he was touching a hot dish.
In the end I gave up on the dissertation and began performing tests on Benny’s intelligence, to see if he had any. Sometimes they worked. Sometimes he wandered into a corner and strangled out a turd. He had his qualities. I always placed two quantities of food in front of him, food that he liked. For example, a dish with a small bit of tuna fish and, three feet away, the rest of the can. He would watch me, his round, sage-like head bobbing up and down. I never figured out if he could differentiate between the two quantities. Whichever bowl he didn’t pick, I ate. It was a dominance thing. When he went for the smaller dish, I thought, maybe he thinks I’m hungry. I liked him after that, even if I didn’t want him near me.
Sasha had been gone for several weeks now. Her absence felt very natural. I didn’t have a father, not that it would have done me any good. Sasha was bored of men. Whenever she was angry with me, she’d shake my shoulders and say, “Do you know how many unplanned pregnancies it took to reach you?” I don’t know. She wouldn’t have even been a feminist had it not been for the seventies. All that fringe and friendly clothing. But there were a lot of things that came between love and abortion that I knew nothing about.
I stood up and went to the window. I knew what lay beyond the City. In one direction I saw there was more land, a nothing before a long night at sea. I turned on the light and the window’s reflection dutifully played back: me with my dark, bushy hair, and Termite, her arms bent like a praying mantis before our broken refrigerator.
When I first moved in, there had been a rosebush in the courtyard below. It would have felt very feudal to watch it grow from where I stood. The apartment was besieged by Baltic aristocrats with space heaters, and it invigorated me to think of all the various units in the building as parts of a low-functioning organism. There were no fire escapes. Our hallways smelled of burnt mangel-wurzel. It was possible for all of us to die together.
My mother called from Barcelona, then Milan or Madrid, all the while asking if Benny was driving me crazy.
“If he is, just take him out back and strangle him,” she would say.
If I saw her on the street, I wouldn’t have recognized her. I didn’t know very much about my mother, except that she had been married once, before I was born, and for its duration lived with maple floors and good television. I always admired her for that. Later, she moved to France and slept with a count and some sort of East German nymphomaniac. Now I wondered if she was ever coming back.
I learned that by breaking things off with Davis, nothing had changed. Night still came, reaching into things. My bowls dried in the kitchen. I didn’t know how to make sense of it.
I had never been to Europe. But now, having suffered through all these declarations of love, I felt my mother and I were similar. That afternoon, I walked around the neighborhood deli, Benny in my handbag nodding dumbly, scratching at a patch of dry skin between my breasts and sounding out the names of the various cheese like they were my foreign lovers: Manchego, Havarti, Camembert, each chunk carved to fit in my hand like a heart.
“What you need is some optimism in your life,” Termite said one afternoon after I had been at Sasha’s. I couldn’t have cared less; she thought yoga was some kind of feminism.
I need to get out of here, I thought. If it weren’t for Termite I would have stayed.
I wondered if Sasha felt the same, when her marriage split, like firewood, down the middle. I imagined moving to France and learning a new language. I figured a language could change who I was, that something essential about my personality would be lost. I looked at my feet, bony and unmoving. All I had were dowels: my apartment, Termite, a broken refrigerator, my poor sense, and not to mention, a stack of empty bowls. For a long time I tried to put these things together. My life contained nothing worth ransoming.
I thought, I want to die outside of this. Then I closed my eyes and tried to look at the big picture, only to notice the picture wasn’t nearly as big as it pretended to be. In other words, I could have kept sleeping with Joel while telling Davis I needed to think things over.
Instead I decided to move out. To see if it could be done, if I was the one to do it.
I called our landlord and told him I needed to pursue all avenues.
“It’s only temporary,” I said, and he put me in touch with an older couple from Queens who were looking to rent their second floor.
That afternoon, I called and asked about the room. The husband said the answer was speaking to me, even if everything felt audible in a way I couldn’t hear it.
“Okay,” I said. I liked the sound of it.
I told him I could pay up front.
“And no dogs,” he said.
“I’ll see to that,” I said.
I couldn’t keep calling taxis to lug around my chisels and gouges around, so the next day, I went to the Lower East Side to buy a suitcase. My money was running out. I put on sunglasses and took the C train with Benny. By the time we reached Canal, it was snowing. The air was cold, which made my lungs feel small and new. In Chinatown, I sunk into a booth and drank a bowl of Pho, then went and looked at some red and blue suitcases. The cases looked like they had been hand-painted with nail polish. I opened one, stuck my handbag inside, and wheeled it along the thin aisles. A man at the counter was weighing a large radish. Next to him, a woman spanked her child. I could live here, I thought.
When Benny started to cry, I opened the suitcase and carried him outside. I sat on the snow-dusted steps reading a magazine from the checkout line. “Pretty hair secrets, the best spring clothes for your body” it said. This magazine knew nothing about me. My problem was that I always had more time than I knew what to do with.
I wheeled my suitcase down Canal until we reached Broadway, where I took Benny out again and let him sort of gambol for a bit in front of a camping store. It was snowing again, blowing around as light as dust. I stared at the storefront while Benny zigzagged in front of a plastic stretch of grassland. The way he kept shifting his feet, I could tell he was cold, so we went inside and napped in one of those screened-in tents. In my dreams, something scratched at my ribs.
A child woke me, his arm in a sling.
“What are you doing by yourself?” he asked, and I marveled at the way we all become adults.
“Buzz off,” I said, my voice still dark with sleep. I picked up my magazine and suitcase and left with Benny.
I didn’t know what to make of my new landlords. The first night, the husband came upstairs. I hadn’t moved all day.
“Have you seen a mule sitting on its ass before?” he asked. He was like that, always speaking in riddles I left unanswered. The wife, an old Japanese woman, was more understanding. She would fix a drink or sip from a cup of marrow broth and take my hand. She said the only thing a man was good for was writing his name in snow. At least, that’s what I thought she said. She was quiet with the insinuating eyes of a long-suffering horse. This frightened me. In the evenings she made a small pot of brown tea that tasted like twigs. I spent a couple of weeks that way, staring at my milk crate furniture, believing I was either burdened or exiled or both. At night, I lay awake with the lights on, my suitcase by the bed, the night coming at me like a dark magnet. In the morning I marveled over the blank world of possibility. I wondered if I would ever go back home.
Once or twice, Termite called. She never learned to mind her own business. I hadn’t slept in days. I kept drinking the tea, the alcohol, whatever was siphoned upstairs. My suitcase sat untouched in a wallpapered corner.
“What do I do with Benny?” Termite asked.
“Feed him?” I said. I had forgotten about him. “Take him on walks. Walks are good.”
Sometimes I turned my head to the window and went on about Davis while Termite tried to change the conversation.
“Did you know,” she said once, “that blood travels at the rate of three to four miles an hour?”
I hung up.
I knew if I kept this up I would become one of those old women in Queens, fearful of another long winter and sitting on the front steps, possessions scattered all around, defeated by my own uncomprehending breath.
I thought about this as I went into the attic swinging a bottle of bourbon and carrying some rope. I wanted to drink before the facts, to make room for the possibility of some vengeful singing.
There were a lot of things I didn’t want in my life. My problem was how to get rid of everything all at once. Which was why I had moved, why Sasha had gone to Europe. But the world is a series of dark holes, full of mothers, and now more than ever, this seemed to possess me.
That morning, the husband had appeared in my doorway with the newspaper.
“There’s you,” he said, pointing the roll at me. “And here’s yesterday’s news.”
“What does that mean?” I asked, suddenly tired.
“Your mother,” he said, waving his other arm in the air. “She’s back. She said, ‘We’re having a party.’”
“You don’t sound anything like her,” I said, taking the newspaper. I looked at the date. It was almost May.
By the time I reached the attic landing, my rope was unceremoniously tangled. Even my own death would not come willingly. What a troupe, I thought, swigging another mouthful of bourbon, and sitting down, I began to untangle the cord.
All around me were cobwebs. Here were lines of thought. Strings connecting one memory to another. All I had to do was put my finger on one and follow it. I knew that something obvious became braided rope, thick enough for multiple people to hold onto and tug back and forth. I pushed the strands around my head and they became my hair. Everything was hot and airless. There wasn’t any beam, but when I stood up, there was.
After it happened, I couldn’t think. I still had the rope around my neck. Ahead was a plain, white sky. Everything was suspended like that. As if I could just move from my body into the air. It felt awful to be alive. In the end, I didn’t know if I wanted to be a person anymore. Then something easy cut through me and I slept. Sasha rang and woke me up.
“Where are you?” she asked. “It’s almost seven. When you get here, just know that the buzzer is broken.” I looked around and put a hand to my forehead. Somehow I had willed myself to go on, and in the process forgotten about the party.
Where I had struck the beam, a sticky welt had formed.
My mother called Benny to her, and I remembered, one evening, not long after her departure, that I had made my way back to Brooklyn with Benny, and how, sometime in the night, the electricity had gone out. From my bed, we looked out the window. Our street, gone. Out of the darkness, the world became suddenly porous, taking on a different light. Voices grabbed at the molding. Termite and I tumbled out into the hallway where the neighbors were speaking incantations. Someone took my hand and I sensed we were drifting through walls. Inside, I searched for a pit. But everything went into my eyes and didn’t come back out. It was a puzzle. Termite must have gotten ahold of a small flashlight because she began to wave it around like a forgotten survivor, repeating, “The devil is airborne.” I had to laugh. I saw an arm there, an ankle. We were blind men touching an elephant, trying to learn what we couldn’t see, about ourselves, about each other. We were no longer entire bodies moving through the dark. The atmosphere was charged and it had an invigorating effect on Benny, who grabbed the front end of the flashlight, and with it in his mouth, took off, the light illuminating his square, compact body. Termite shrieked. I don’t think I will ever recover from that.
Something strange was in my head. I heard my mother breathing on the other end. I thought, this could be a simple beginning to something.
“Tell me who I am,” I said, feeling around in the dark.
“I don’t know. Who are you?”
“I’m figuring it out,” I said, and meant it. I laid the phone down and began to fumble out of the rope. Then I clung and slid and clung and slid down the ladder. In the bathroom, I turned on the faucet and washed my face. I would never walk into that clean light.
Mari Christmas is a Japanese and American writer. Her work has appeared in FENCE, Black Warrior Review, New Ohio Review, Juked, and elsewhere. She received the Black Warrior Review Fiction Prize in 2013, and fellowships from Surel’s Place and the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center. She teaches and writes from southeastern Idaho.