September 19, 2006

Evaporated Water

It rains as though it will never stop. It is one of those slow, endless summer rains that does nothing to ease the stifling heat of the day. My clothing sticks to me. The drops feel grey on my skin. They are so small and sparse that I feel foolish opening an umbrella, but an unpleasant little pinprick interrupts the heat just often enough to remind me it is raining.

The smell of evaporating water rises toward me from the pavement. It reminds me, incongruously, of a spa, a sauna. Except that there is no promise of a plunge into a cold pool at the end of it. The very thought of something cool brings such a wave of longing that I physically shake my head to get rid of it, and keep walking.

When I get home, the light on my answering machine is blinking. I play the message as I remove my shoes. And then, I sink silently to the floor, one sandal still on my foot, the other one dangling from my hand. Before the sentence is over, before I’ve even heard the second syllable of my own name, I know tomorrow morning is going to be hell.

I don’t touch the phone. I don’t move from my position on the floor. I don’t take off my other shoe. I know how it works on nights like this. I know the pattern, and when the phone rings ten minutes later, it never occurs to me not to pick up.

Two minutes after that, I am outside again. It is still raining as I make my way across town. I do not remember what train I take, or whether I take a train. I do not recognize the streets I pass. I notice no one. I don’t even know if there are other people on the street. I am like a dog following its own trail, and I only stop when I’ve rung the apartment buzzer.

I step into the building. Inside the elevator, the light is out. I ride six floors up in blackness. I step out onto the landing. The light is out there too, but the window lets in enough of the city lights for me to make my way around. I spot a faint blade of yellow light where a door has been left unlocked for me.

I step into the apartment and shut the door, locking it by rote. My reflection appears in the hall mirror. I notice it with an odd sort of detachment, as though I were watching an intruder entering someone’s home.

I walk past the hall table. Amid the usual jumble of keys, business cards and useless brochures, there is a small, battered lipstick tube, the kind that spends its lifetime rattling around someone’s purse, to be reapplied hastily in the bathroom, after dinner. Or in front of someone’s mirror, after a tryst. For a moment, I consider averting my eyes. But I do not. That would be a concession to outrage, and I have no right to outrage. The laws of love include double jeopardy. I left once, because of lipstick tubes and lipstick stains. I cannot leave again – not without coming back first.

I walk farther into the apartment. As I pass the kitchen, I pause, a little unnerved. Bottles, in various stages of emptiness, litter every available surface. I wonder how many of them were consumed this week. Glasses are piled in the sink, crowded on top of the counters. Some have lipstick marks on them. I refuse to wonder which of them would match the color inside the lipstick tube I saw earlier. I don’t think about who might have used them, or when, or what happened afterward. It doesn’t matter.

I find him in the living room. I always find him in the living room. It’s as though he understands my aversion to the bedroom. I take in the familiar sight of the room – the almost aggressive disorder of it, clothes and papers and opened books scattered everywhere, more half-empty glasses, take-out containers. The ashtray is overflowing and the room smells like stale cigarette smoke.

He is sitting on the floor, his knees pulled up to his chin, his back against the couch, his head buried in his hands. He doesn’t hear me walk in; the stereo is on at nearly full volume. Someone – Hendrix? – is making an electric guitar confess its sins. I touch his shoulder, very lightly, and he jumps and looks up at me. His eyes are the color of rainwater.

“You came back. I didn’t think . . .”

I sit on the edge of the couch. He rests his forehead against my knee. I ignore the instinctive urge to touch him.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I don’t know what I’m doing anymore. It’s all gone to hell, it’s finished, I don’t know what to do. It’s over, and I don’t know what to do.” His voice is sandpaper and crushed glass. The words tumble out of him, like beads scattering from a broken necklace, barely intelligible.

I say nothing. In this moment, there is absolutely nothing to say, nothing that will make a difference. I don’t ask him to tell me what’s happened. I don’t need to. I scan the room until I spot the guitar, tossed carelessly across a sagging armchair in the corner. Good. Once, I’d found it in its case, stuffed in the back of a closet. That had been a bad time.

Growing quieter, he buries his face in my kneecaps. I can feel the slightly damp heat behind his eyes and mouth. He wraps his arms tightly, almost convulsively, around my legs, and exhales a great, gusty, shuddering breath. For a moment, he is utterly still. Utterly still, and so vulnerable that I reluctantly reach out to place my hands on his head, my fingers tangling in his hair. And, as though my first autonomous touch were a tacit gesture of consent, he reaches up to grasp my arms, and pulls me down to the floor.

It doesn’t occur to me to resist. I am like a dog following its own trail. My arms go around him, and suddenly, I cannot stop devouring his skin with my hands. I do not know what I am doing, I do not know the moment his shirt leaves his body, nor who has removed it, I do not know how or when I end up on the carpet, its rough nap scraping my shoulder blades. All I know, all I am aware of, is his scent, his taste, his flesh and all its many textures. My blood hammers in my ears. I taste salt, and realize that I am biting his shoulder. The sounds from the stereo penetrate the haze in my mind, the guitar screams a howling crescendo, the drums pound a frantic rhythm, and I am inhaling him over and over, and I cannot stop, I cannot stop, I will not stop.

Afterward, it is very quiet. He gets up for a moment to turn off the lights. We are both more comfortable in the dark. He lights a cigarette, passes it to me. I take a deep, gratifying drag, forgetting that I’d just quit again. Blue smoke curls from our mouths, snakes from our fingers, disappears somewhere near the invisible ceiling. And then, he finally talks.

He talks about how he has not written a song in the last nine weeks and four days, about how the last song he did write was a trite, meaningless ditty that he only performed once before destroying his only copy of it. He talks about his fear that he will never write another song again, at least never another good one. Never one that means anything. He talks about a show he did a few weeks back, how he’d put his heart and soul and essence into every note, every word, and how no one had seemed to notice. And he talks about other shows, bright lights, applause, smiles and handshakes, and meaningful glances from beneath long eyelashes, and his fear, his abject terror, even as he accepts a compliment or a contract, or a particularly enthusiastic female admirer, that this is it, that this is the last time, the last dregs of his allotted portion of success, of recognition, of love. He talks about his insomnia, his feverish nightly attempts to coax a new piece out of himself, and his paralysis when faced with a blank sheet of paper. He talks about the emptiness, and about his desperate attempts to fill it with any and all of the diversions available to him, washing each night’s failure down with an increasingly ineffective dose of oblivion. And then, very quietly, he talks about the ultimate fear – that it really is all over, that this is where he will always stay, performing the same songs for the same bored audience, until they are too bored even to come, and then, he will be no one. And he will never again be accepted, or admired, or loved. Never.

He talks, and I listen. I have heard it all before, so many times. It never gets easier with the knowledge that, every previous time, the misery, the barrenness, the crippling fears had eventually gone away. For him, every time that this happens might be the last time, the real thing, the end.

I don’t say much. I tell him that a two-month cold streak means nothing. I tell him that nothing will change who he is, that nothing could ever rob him of his talent. I remind him that there will always be somebody out there to admire him, to love him, if only for a few hours. He probably doesn’t believe me, but he laughs softly, and I know the worst is over. And then, he hugs me, and he whispers everything I’d forgotten I wanted to hear.

This time, I know exactly what we are doing. It’s slow, almost deliberately slow, and we say nothing. There has not been anything more to say in a long time, and it’s no use. By the end of it, I am weeping into his neck and he rocks me so long and so gently that I fall asleep.

When I wake up, the sky is yellowish-gray outside his window. He is folded around me and I extricate myself to get up. As I dress, he smokes and watches me. I don’t look at him. I refuse to wonder what he is thinking. When I walk out of the room, he doesn’t say anything, he doesn’t try to stop me; he isn’t that cruel.

I walk back through the hallway. I walk past the kitchen without another glance. I am walking past the hallway table when that battered little lipstick tube catches my attention, and, before I can stop myself, I imagine its owner, one of those eager, wide-eyed girls, with swinging hair and frequent, ever-ready laughter, so ready to prove to him that he is everything he has ever wanted to be, so ready to provide that love he craves, if only for an evening. Or maybe even a weekend. Maybe more than a weekend.

And then, I can’t help it, I snatch the grubby little object, shoving it almost viciously into my own purse. Let her come back and look for it. Let her think he threw it out. Let her know she isn’t the only one, that no amount of left-behind flotsam will change that. As I let myself out of the apartment and step carefully into the pitch-black elevator, I know what I have just let myself do, I know what this means, and I know what the consequences will be, but it is too late to stop.

I walk out of the building. I know exactly where I am and which train I will take to get back home. I become aware of a pounding headache, of my body’s stiffness from sleeping on the floor, of the rug burns on my back. I realize that I must still be wearing last night’s makeup and it occurs to me to wonder what I look like.

It is no longer raining, but it is still stiflingly hot. Here and there, the air shimmers like a mirage, and that sauna-like smell mixes with exhaust fumes and the odor of street sweat. My headache gets worse.

It is rush hour. There are people everywhere, brushing past me every second, and I wonder whether they can tell what I have just done. Whether they can tell that these are last night’s clothes. Whether the stink of bad judgment rises off me like steam from the pavement.

I peer into the faces of passersby, feeling incipient paranoia. They remain set, scowling and implacable. No one even looks at me; they all stare either straight ahead or at their feet. And then, I see a glimpse of myself in a store window, looking exactly like everyone else, tense, surly, and tired already, at only eight-thirty in the morning. I wonder how many of the people around me are making their way back from their own mistakes.

I step into the subway, and the heat slams me like a wall. I wait for the train, surrounded by people who seem to have no idea I exist. At this moment, it is strangely comforting to feel invisible. I reach into my purse and pull out the filched tube. Carefully, I remove the top and twist the lipstick all the way out. It is such an ordinary color, a universally flattering berry shade. I probably have something like it in my own makeup bag. I stare at it as an amputee might stare at his new stump, curious, disgusted, masochistic. I imagine again the owner of this plain little thing. Her lips, her hands, the distended fish-mouth she must pull while applying it. I imagine the moment she might have used it, standing in front of his mirror, her hair probably still tousled after . . . My face twists into a grimace, and I hurl the lipstick onto the tracks, watching it smash into a shapeless blob against a rail. I toss the cap after it and smile grimly. A woman glances at me out of the corner of her eye, but quickly looks away. I am still invisible, but it doesn’t matter anymore. I feel myself beginning to crumple, and am grateful when the train comes and I am able to find a seat and put my head into my hands.

I make my way back to my own apartment, feeling every step. I unlock the door and see the phone on the floor, where I’d left it last night, so long ago. I fight the sudden desire to sink to the floor again, just as I had last night. I remove my shoes, one by one. I realize the machine light is still blinking, and I feel myself beginning to shake.

I step into my kitchen. It is neat and orderly, and, as I put on a pot of water for tea, I compare it with the one I saw last night. I remember a time when my kitchen was cluttered, when I came home to mess and music, and my eyes begin to burn.

Today, and only today, I will allow myself the luxury of succumbing to my misery. I will replay his messages on my machine over and over, I will masochistically remember every second of last night and this morning, and I will let myself cry over him – again. And at the end of it all, as I greet the next morning surrounded by a pile of sodden tissues, I will swear that this is it, that this is the last time.

Tomorrow, I know, I will feel better. I will be glad that my apartment is arranged just the way I like it. I will savor the absence of strange female voices on the phone. I will appreciate the silence. I will remember why I ended it, why I decided I couldn’t do it anymore. I will remember how much better my life has been. And I will begin to feel human again. In a week, I will be ready to see my friends without facing their questions about why I am so quiet and pale, and in two weeks, I may even be ready to accept a date and make another honest try at a new life, at convincing myself to move forward. And maybe I actually will convince myself for a while, and I will almost forget about this awful morning – until the next time I come home to a blinking machine light and hear his jagged, faltering voice asking me to come over. And I will go, as I always go, because, no matter what happens between us, I am as lonely as he is, and I need him as much as he needs me.

The kettle whistles sharply, reminding me that the water has boiled. The steam shoots from its narrow spout, and it smells exactly like the sidewalks last night. For some reason, that pushes me over the edge, and as I dissolve, all I can smell is evaporated water.

Summer 2006, Union Square.

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