Monday, May 24, 2010

A Short Story about a Long Time Ago

October: At 6 a.m. my wife rolled over in bed and asked, "Are you happy?" By nine that morning our marriage was over. By noon I was lying alone, my echoing sobs having quieted to a low, plaintive wail (with a temporary spike in howling hysteria after calling my folks for emotional support only to hear my dad say to my mom, "I knew their marriage was in trouble! You owe me $20!").

More than anything I wanted to run screaming out of the bedroom, out of the apartment, out of the building until my lungs collapsed and I awoke face down in a new town with a new identity and a new lease on both my life and a sporadically profitable independent film theater. But I couldn't move for two good reasons: 1) I saw no reason why I should get out of bed, ever, and 2) Thanks to a recently renewed rental agreement I was contractually unable to move for the next eight months.

So I remained in the bed we bought with our wedding money, staring blankly at our first apartment as husband and wife. (I thought "first" because I could not yet comprehend the words "last" or "only." As for "our" I couldn't conceive of any other possessive pronoun.) Emotionally crippled but just mentally active to do myself further harm, I tried to imagine how the apartment would look without certain furniture, without her clothes, without everything just as it was for the past five years. I tried and tried but could only see the world as it always had been and felt always should be.

I couldn’t let go of the past. I couldn’t face my future. Legally I couldn’t move on. At that very moment eight months seemed impossible, not because of the length of time but because of what awaited me at the end of that time. In eight months everything in the apartment would be crated, stored, taken or gone. Every sign that I was married would be physically erased. Everything that I considered integral to my life would officially be over. And so at that very moment I came up with a plan so simple, so perfect, that I smiled for the first time in 13 hours.

I would stop time.

November: Time is an unusual construct in that it's both objective and subjective. Tuesday will always follow Monday but for some the hours in between will fly like seconds while to others the seconds will seem to drag for days. So although to friends and family a full month had passed since my wife left, inside my apartment it was still a few minutes before 6 a.m. that October morning.

Thanks to very precise depictions of such geographical locations as the bedroom, kitchen and living room--and the careful mounting of such specimens as photographs, shared purchases and unsorted CDs--the apartment had become a highly detailed diorama of a happily married couple. Yes, with absolutely no effort on my part save for increasing OCD and fending off requests from my ex to pick up her belongings, I’d transformed the place into a comprehensive museum exhibit of a personal epoch. Every dusty shelf, every unwashed fork, every mildewed tile now served as an artifact of a better, brighter time.

Each morning I would wake up and look over a completely controlled environment, secure in the belief that nothing had really changed. Sure, my wife had left but that was only temporary. After all, almost all of her clothes were still here. Her art supplies were still in their cabinets, waiting to be used. The shelves we built together were still standing, holding our books. When she was ready she could come back and we could resume our life as if not a second had passed. As long as I didn't bother her she would return. So happy was I in this very notion that I lied on my couch with a big smile...and stayed there for the next three days.

December: It had been almost two full months since I had left my controlled habitat on my own volition or for longer than a few minutes. All my food purchases were made online through Fresh Direct. All communication was made through texts, emails and social networking sites. Nothing in the apartment had been altered. Even the clock on the wall had stopped. I had become a 21st century Miss Havisham but with a higher probability of prostate cancer and a minor mental breakdown away from renaming my cat "Estrella" and raising her to break the hearts of all future suitors.

With Christmas fast approaching--and knowing how much the holidays mean to me--my ex offered to come over and help me put up our tree. I declined, knowing that any decorating would disturb the purity of the space; any attempt to meet her would scare her off. Plus, I feared she would take the opportunity to grab a few of her things, which in my head was akin to swiping the "Madonna Litta" from the Hermitage. Still, I missed the idea of companionship, the one element of my marriage I was was so far unable to recapture in the apartment.

Fortunately--by which I mean in the most selfish definition of the word--it was during this time that my best friend's own relationship had collapsed and he was looking for a place to stay. Unlike me, he saw the parting with his girlfriend as a chance for to renew his life and an opportunity for the both of us to meet new people. But since I was thoroughly incapable of leaving my comfort zone--or exiting through the front door--he opted instead to bring the world to me. Soon the place was teeming with strangers and while I not so secretly feared they would inadvertently nudge a chair out of place or use a cup that was no longer meant to be touched, I was happy to be around others again. Of course, by "be around" I mean hide in my bedroom while my new roommate entertained. But I felt I had finally found that perfect balance between control and comfort. My stuffy museum had transformed into a lively gallery, where you couldn't touch the paintings but everyone could enjoy the wine and cheese, and that made me smile.

January: While my friend engaged in an endless series of erotic Tetris configurations with various women on the small couch he now called his bedroom, I actually met someone new. Or, to put it more precisely, someone met me. Unable to venture outside without waking up with a start to find I had been circling the same block for two hours much to the amusement and then alarm of the corner fruit stand guy, all my human contact was conducted online. However, I was doing even that so tentatively that it took me a week before I noticed a woman I'd never met had sent me a MySpace message.

We soon exchanged a quick volley of honest and humorous messages, through which we learned two important facts: 1) We shared a peculiar fascination with the movie Roadhouse and 2) We shared a romantic link in that she had slept with the man my ex was now dating. Believing these such to a matter of instant kismet--and that my dating someone shortly after my wife left an insignificant detail--I asked her out on a date (one of my first prolonged periods out of the apartment in months). Our first night ended back in my old bedroom while my friend entertained what sounded like a mariachi band and half the NYU female freshman class in my living room.

We saw each again shortly after that. Then again. Then again, until due to the lengthy subway ride from her place in Brooklyn to mine in Manhattan she had more or less moved in with me. And so without leaving my place, without changing a thing, I had secured friendship and a relationship. It was as if my museum had become a gallery only to be altered slightly once more into a live historic recreation. And so I looked around the apartment with a smile, thinking, "I feel at peace. I see possibilities...I smell smoke."

Then I turned around to find my halogen lamp had burst into flames and was now burning like an Olympic torch.

February: Over the next few weeks, appliances broke down with alarming regularity. The TV speakers grew fainter and fainter until my friend was forced to provide his own detonation noises while playing Gears of War on Xbox 360. The freezer and the refrigerator alternated days of operation, leaving me to wonder if we'd be dining on melted ice cream or liquid butter that night. And the bathtub began to leak, causing my downstairs neighbor to make repeated visits to explain how the excess water was damaging both her kitchen and her cancer recovery.

Meanwhile, my ex's requests to come get her things understandably took on a more insistent if not demanding tone. At the same time, my new girlfriend understandably began hinting, then suggesting, then requiring I start getting my wife's stuff out of my apartment. She said she was growing tired of living in a pop-up photobook equivalent of my previous relationship. I said that was nonsense as I pushed aside a bridal gown in the closet to get a sweater. She said I acted as if every item from my past had been affixed to its current place with a golden spike from God. I said the long-dried roses from my wedding ceremony still resting prominently on a shelf were but a whimsical interior decorating choice and should not be ascribed any deeper meaning. And so we argued more and more as my friend sat on the couch, making armor-piercing noises while playing Halo 2, and I smiled so tightly my skin snapped when a kitchen cabinet door fell straight into a pile of dirty dishes.

March: In just a few short months I had gone from feeling like I had absolutely no one in my life to feeling like I had far too many people in my living room. My friend and my girlfriend were now at each other's throats for reasons both territorial and claustrophobic. My ex just started showing up unannounced with her new boyfriend and several empty boxes after repeated calls to collect her things had gone unanswered (for fear my talking to her would only annoy her). And my downstairs neighbor was making repeated visits to complain how the level of noise from the sheer number of people in my apartment was preventing her cancer recovery.

I spent less and less time in the apartment now, going for long walks that still let me see the same corner fruit stand guy several times in the period of an hour. Each time I would pass my building and look up at my window two thoughts would pop in my head: 1) I can't go back in there and 2) I can never leave there.

April: By now not only had I lost almost complete control of my apartment, but also any hold on time itself. Despite all my plans--despite my sheer will--six months had still managed to pass somehow, taking everything with it.

Just as quickly as they had entered my life, everyone had left. Tired of arguing with me and having to live in my ex's shadow, my girlfriend moved to her own place in search of enough space for our relationship to work. Tired of arguing with my girlfriend and having to supply sound effects for Quake 4, my friend moved in with another buddy in search of surround-sound. Tired of me, my ex removed everything of hers from the apartment in search of closure. And just tired, my downstairs neighbor moved to have me evicted from the building, filing a complaint stating that my actions were having a severely detrimental effect on her cancer recovery.

And so I lied awake in the bed, staring blankly at a now almost empty apartment. More than anything I wanted to walk out of the bedroom, out of the apartment, out of the building and keep walking until I awoke somewhere new. But I couldn't move for two good reasons: 1) I hadn't started looking for a new apartment and 2) I hadn't packed yet.

May: Space is an unusual construct in that no matter how small your apartment is it never takes less than 1400 boxes to pack it. Every day I'd go out looking for a new place to live. Every night I'd come to an increasingly empty apartment with more and more boxes, tape and paper plates (having mistakenly packed my dishes and utensils in the very first box I sealed). This continued until all that was left was an Aero mattress and an air conditioning unit that would eventually fall out the window into an empty alleyway.

On my last day I went downstairs to drop off my keys when I bumped into my neighbor. It was the first time I'd seen her since she failed to get me evicted.

"I told you I'd get you kicked out of the building," she said.
"Actually, I'm leaving on my own accord."
"You shouldn't have tried to fight me," she replied, ignoring what I had just said. "People take cancer very seriously."
"Listen, I apologize if this is rude but, well, what kind of cancer is it?"
"There was a mole on my shoulder," she said. "I had it removed six years ago."
"And?"
"And I've been recovering from cancer ever since."
I looked at her for a few seconds before leaving my keys with the doorman and walking out the building.

June: At 5 a.m. I woke up in bed to find the morning light casting a heavenly glow on mounds of collapsed cardboard and popped bubble wrap. The first items packed, my dishes were also the last items unpacked--thanks to a hurried box labeling system that differentiated "stuff" from "things"--causing me to continue eating off of paper plates for an unseemly length of time until my parents came by and took me out to dinner.

Sometimes while unpacking I'd look around my new home, imagining where the Klippan, Expedit, Benno and various other IKEA furniture would go, and I'd smile. It's considerably smaller than my old place but it comes with a private /backyard, just perfect for parties (and on the ground floor, so as not to disturb neighbors). Sometimes I just sit outside with a book or laptop and lose all concept of time.

Most things remain in storage to this day, complete with a small box containing my wedding DVD, some photos and a few party favors from the reception. Maybe one day I'll reopen it. Maybe not. It's nice to hold on to, but it feels even better to let go.

6 comments:

katie said...

jesus h. christ. Why you don't make a comic about THIS stuff I'll never know.

JaffeBlog said...

A great piece, Ces. You did a great job bringing your humor without hiding behind it.

Jodi said...

Wonderfully written. I used to be terrified of those "are you happy?" conversations. I wonder why it is I would start them. :)

Roto13 said...

You're a stronger man than I. If my husband left me I'd probably curl up into a little ball until my mom drove across the country to collect me and bring me back with her.

I'd like to know why your wife left, but maybe that's not an appropriate conversation from a random stranger.

Sara Benincasa said...

I recall the wedding dress, but I don't think I ever noticed the bouquet. Also, you forgot to mention how your downstairs neighbor complained that your cats walked too loudly on the floor.

geezer said...

Sweet Jehova! Well done, lad! Vroom!! Vroom
! Rat-tat-tat-at kaboom!