Waking up after being awake all night from sweating under your blankets and out of your blankets and leaning against the wall to cry and cough, with your loose shirt slipping off my shoulders, with too much of the moonlight bouncing off the cold cars in the parking lot below and shining through the cloth of your cheap one-panel curtain to keep me awake. We came home late, after the others had left and I had too much to drink so we pretended you would take me home, but we both knew you were taking me home. As usual, we wanted each other without really wanting each other. On the subway we didn’t talk but I giggled and you stood next to me smiling with your hand in my back pocket because everybody on the subway is a stranger. And we came in and I collapsed onto your bed and you collapsed onto me and I let my mind slip away and let myself want it and not care about anything, not even about how you flirted with the nineteen-year-old girl at the bar all night. My friend, our friend—an innocent. Heart still intact, a small halo glowing over her smile. The chilly night and the heated little room and the sweaty sheets and the smell of naked bodies consume us both and then as suddenly as it starts it ends. You lie on your back, beckon me to sleep on your shoulder, but I roll over and away, prefer to be alone. You sleep.
And I think about him, of course I think about him. I sit up against the moonlit wall with my legs in the hot sheets and I think about him, and I think about the warm October night in the little apartment in Brooklyn, in another set of sweaty sheets, with the little black cat slinking between us, when he turned over to face me in the dark and he looked to me with fear in his eyes like a little kid looking to a mother and he asked me, “How do we know we’re making the right decision?” And my heart broke, and it breaks again when I think about it. How certain I was, and how badly I wanted it to be mutual, painless, easy, obvious. And it was mutual, sort of, but it wasn’t painless, easy, or obvious. It was me, blindly jumping into an abyss. And him, looking at me with confusion sweating out of the pores on his tensed forehead. “I guess so, yeah. I guess so.” And the next morning I sat at the kitchen table and the steam from the teakettle was rising frantically into the air, the pressure furiously pushing it out into the open, and I stared at it billowing in a mad rush to the ceiling while he stared at the floor and tears streamed down his face, endlessly. I didn’t cry.
But now I’m awake at four in the morning, cold and coughing against the wall of a strange bare apartment that has recently become familiar, and now I’m crying. And you’re lying in front of me—you, unavailable but there, just like me—and you’re asleep but you care. Your eyes squint open tiredly, a hand reaches out to my leg. You whisper: “Hey, what’s up. What’s up. Tell me what’s up.” I don’t say anything. I’m sick and cold and coughing and crying, silently and slowly, and you know what’s up. “Come here, get under the blankets, you’ll catch a cold,” you say, and close your eyes. Three nights ago when this happened, I’d apologized. You had sat up and said, “It’s okay, it’s normal. I still miss Her sometimes, too. It takes time.” You’d stared out the window at the cars in the parking lot, or maybe only at the moonlit haze lingering in the delicate spaces between. “A lot of time.”
I think of fighting in the parking lot at the lodge at the Grand Canyon; yelling at each other, drunk, in a friend’s Midtown studio; screaming on the icy front steps after an expensive New Year’s Eve in Saint Paul; throwing my heavy wallet at the wall of our tiny Brooklyn apartment (“I’m afraid of you, you know? You’re scaring me.”); being called a bitch; watching his face transform into hate, meanness; feeling my face transform into hate, meanness. Screaming into a pillow and wanting to punch walls, just like during the divorce when I was nine years old, when I couldn’t understand things the way they were, couldn’t express something I needed to express—overcome by frustration, clutching a plastic rosary from Catholic school in my hand under the sheets, crushing it in my fist: “Why are You letting this happen?”
I think, too, of his warm skin and the way the curly black hair above his ears gets sweaty when he’s worked up about something. I think about our walks together, our talks of ambitions, joking about our future kids, naming them, holding hands, hugging him around the waist, around the neck—his neck always tense, me always needing to know. His soft voice, his corny sense of humor (“I was born in a corn field!”), his naïveté. My naïveté. Eating teriyaki stir-fry together on the cheap IKEA futon that the cat had scratched up and watching reruns of Seinfeld. Talking like we’d always have each other. Always having each other. Promising we’d always have each other, just to keep having something.
I wake up drenched, hot and cold at the same time. Your heavy arm is around me and I lift it off. I splash water on my tired face and comb through my newly short hair with my fingers but it still sticks out in every direction. Back in your bed you open your eyes to see me getting dressed, putting my coat on, my boots. “See you later,” I say. “Yep,” you say. You smile from your pillow, then you go back to sleep. Last night, and many recent nights, you had wanted me. And being wanted is a new feeling to me, something naturally without emotional complication, with no committing or sacrificing required—purity, an honest physicality: the usefulness of needing to be used. But don’t compare, don’t compare, quietly descend the stairs. But they creak loudly and a dog barks viciously in the neighboring apartment, confirming that I exist, that I can be heard.
That this is where I am.
The crisp air outside is a fresh burst of something. It’s Saturday morning and people are out. A woman pushes a baby in a stroller, and shortly after, two laughing kids and a nanny cross my path. Can the people see me? I wonder. Is it obvious? Can they tell that I am wandering, lost? I feel naked, exposed, emanating a strobe-lit cloud of disorientation from my being. Yesterday’s faded makeup. Sunken, tear-dried eyes. I still smell like you, a man whose buried essence of brokenness and need is pungent in the sheen of sex and sweat on my body—and yet, a man who is merely there, who is merely a crutch in need of a crutch himself; but is not an entire life. Can they see that I’ve put a stop to an entire life? A clear and comfortable path firmly closed, and for what reason? I walk forward with effort, like I’ve just lost a limb, and like everybody can see that I’m completely lopsided, that I’m not used to it yet, that I have not yet learned how to carry myself with this new emptiness. And it feels like everybody is staring, and everybody is whispering: How precious, how broken. But nobody looks, and nobody asks, and nobody offers a helping arm. And I want to scream, cry out, hit something: I’m here! But my silent scream falls unheard onto the hard pavement. The air stabs my lungs like cold shards of glass. A tear slips down my cheek. I walk to 110th Street and turn to begin the trek uphill to the subway station, alongside the Cathedral.
The Cathedral is huge, ominous in the mist. Something out of medieval times, taking up an entire block with its awesome power, formidably out of place in the middle of New York City, where everything is tiny and pressed together and explosive. It scares me. Spacious, reaching up to the endless gray sky above. Endless emptiness. It knows me. It feels the imprint of my crushed plastic rosary. I try not to look at it as I walk by the stone retaining walls that support the hill it sits upon. I try to bury the guilt deep in the pit of my stomach—guilt for everything—for him, for you, for myself, for the brokenness of it all, for the lost pieces. Years of guilt. Years of feeling responsible, still feeling responsible for never being good enough, for never knowing, for pretending to know, for hurting myself, for hating myself. I hide it, numb myself. Breathing the fresh air around me, the changing of this season for a colder one, the people carrying coffees and wearing earmuffs—going places—the strollers, the whole day ahead.
Lillie Gardner is a writer and classical pianist currently pursuing her Doctor of Musical Arts degree at UConn. A lover of Lucy van Pelt and Bette Davis, her biggest inspirations in life are bulldogs, fire hydrants, and gin.