I am bleary-eyed from lack of sleep, wandering around in a half-daze with fleeting flashes of someone else’s mouth on mine and bizarre lines of poetry flitting through my mind–
A ghost was pulling my hair last night, a ghost/was fetching my breath–
The early bird gets the worm, but no one gives a fuck/about the poor worm coiled like/a length of hose/it’s impossible to tell if he’s even writhing–
As usual, I have no idea what I’m doing. As usual, my heart is leading me around by the nose. As usual, I’m talking too much.
Hank refuses to be anywhere but literally on me, in my lap, on my shoulders; at one point he places himself squarely between my standing legs and coils his arms around my thighs. “Walk, mommy,” he commands, and I don’t even argue, just start trudging toward the back staircase that leads to our little space upstairs. We’re halfway up the stairs before I realize how completely ridiculous this is, how potentially dangerous. Half the time– more than– I just do what he tells me, which is not to say what he asks, because he rarely asks. When I was pregnant, I felt total agency over my own body, over his– I was strong and svelte and healthy as a horse, I taught a full course load until December 17; Hank was born on the 26th. After, though, that sense of agency vamoosed, as my entire life became instantaneously devoted to the six pound two ounce bundle of oddities who stared at me with the two largest, bluest eyes I’d ever seen, demanding all of my attention, all of the time. I’m sure there was a time when Hank couldn’t yet hold up his head, was just a wobbly mass of infancy, but I have no memory of it. In my mind, from day one, he’s just sitting there, staring at me like a Buddha with a newborn rash– mostly silent, punctuated by occasional bellows. Working out who I was, and if he had landed in the right spot. My tits– “small, but finely crafted,” as they were once described by someone I flashed at Mardi Gras — blew up like balloons, as Hank was an insatiable nurser. The morning my milk came in, I awoke like a zombie to an alien, porn-star figure.
Meanwhile, his father got high, and I begged him to tell me he was getting high, to stop, and he refused to acknowledge it, instead behaving in the increasingly erratic and terrifying manner he’d been since Thanksgiving, gaslighting me into some strange middling state– one minute, I thought maybe, just maybe, I was the crazy one; the next, I knew for certain, as I’d known for a long time, now, that he was unstable, possibly (probably) dangerous– there were long disappearances into the bathroom, or out of the house, a strange feigned dependence on me whenever the baby needed me most; hours upon hours of him stalking around the house at night, waking me at 3 am to weep uncontrollably, or berate me about some brand new, logic-less thing; once, he woke me in a rage, insisting I’d installed some kind of high-tech “Spyware” on his laptop:
“Please don’t yell at me when I’m holding Hank,” I said, almost silently, mostly still asleep, mystified. I can barely use a basic operating system. Cyber spying is beyond me. As it was, I already knew everything I needed to know– I was living with a lunatic. I’d fallen in love with a lunatic. Actually, I didn’t know who I’d fallen in love with, as that person no longer bore any resemblance to the giant, unkempt man– he’s six feet six inches tall– who seemed to be talking and walking in circles around our bed in the middle of a frozen January night. And still Hank was mostly silent, staring at me with what began to feel like contempt– what are we still doing here? Get out.
The tattooed neighbor says “You’re really good at explaining things;” his hands grip my shoulders like a drowning person and I think Could I love him? Is this someone I could love, eventually?
Why do I have to think about that word, why do I have to say it? I don’t love him, goes my twittering inner monologue, I love this– this, this, this. This tide of feeling. This tied-up feeling. The reality of who you are is as close as the house I’ve been staring at through the keyhole of the kitchen window my whole life, as distant as the meteors you claim are supposed to be falling from or through the painted ceiling of sky, like some quicksilver, flaming chandelier racing toward us with a warning– Danger. Back off. Everything beautiful finally burns itself out.
I’m waiting for the on-again-off-again-for-fifteen-years-ex at an outdoor table at a local cafe. I feel happy. I feel pretty. The night before, the tattooed neighbor and I wandered aimlessly through the backstreets of Ventnor Heights, talking about this and that, holding hands. Three times, we stopped and kissed. He made a silly joke about “liking the view” as I walked away from him, back home.
“Ah, jeez,” I said, rolling my eyes, but I was grinning stupidly. Earlier, as we walked, he said “I don’t know what I’m doing.” He had been dating someone fairly seriously, but they had decided to “cool it.”
“I’m not cheating on anyone, or anything like that,” he says, calmly, and I don’t even know if I should believe him, but I decide that for the moment I don’t especially care, since we’re just walking around.
“We don’t have to do anything,” I say. “We can just hang out and talk about being parents.” To be frank, that was more or less what I’d expected from our first encounter, and was surprised when we hit it off, and spent most of the evening laughing about things I can barely recall, now. I thought he’d be cool and reserved; instead, he was open and goofy, and I liked him more than I anticipated.
He says nothing back, then, “I like you, though, you’re really cool.” We walk for another half block, and then he stops, turns me toward him, and kisses me squarely, assuredly, for the second time that evening, as if to say wordlessly But I want to keep doing things.
The ex arrives, walks up behind me, kisses me on the cheek with gusto. He’s bearded, and handsome, and affable as ever. We laugh and talk for a few minutes, then I’m startled by my phone lighting up with a text from Mr. Tattoos, who I didn’t expect to hear from.
hey girl whats happenin
(“I like it when you call me ‘girl,'” I had told him the night before. “It’s sexy.”
“Because most of the men I hang out with are like, my relatives or they work at the college, and they say things in this consummately professional manner, like, Hello, Emily, I was curious if you’d considered sitting on the committee for professional sustainability, and I’m like, Dude, I don’t know, I just want some cheese fries–“)
From that point on, I’m worthless to the ex. I dawdle over my smoked salmon salad, stopping every three or four minutes to flirt with Mr. Tattoos.
“You talking to the hipster?” he asks me over his grilled artichokes and prosciutto, in his 8 billion dollar sunglasses.
“Yep,” I say, absently. Then whatever he writes makes me grin like a jack-o-lantern, and the ex says, with no hostility, “See, I can’t compete with that.” And he’s right.
The ex Instagrams a picture of me in my ten-year old denim jacket, with the late spring sunlight at my back–
“Send it to me,” I say, and he does, and I immediately send it along to you-know-who, hoping we’ll see one another again that night.
And we do.
We pull up to the abandoned beach on the bay side of the island, which is really no beach at all, just a short, rocky stretch of coast that has always had a seedy feel to it. I used to row back here when I was a kid, wading into the water in my socks, the marsh grass scratching my legs until they bled. There are expensive condominiums on every side, now, and the beach leading into the seemingly still water is scarcely more than a few hundred feet wide. We step outside to smoke. I am amazed at the pleasure I still feel from smoking the occasional cigarette, the way I get a little light-headed, whether from the nicotine or the sneaky, bad-girl, high school feeling, or some combination of both. Who knows? Who cares?
“Isn’t this where they found Kennedy Rios’ clothes?” he asks, nonchalantly.
“I don’t know,” I say. “I know they found his body over by the baseball field. My sisters’ students found it when they were out rowing.” This past winter, a local kid seemed to vanish– he left a party angry, probably drunk or high or both, without his cell phone, and was missing for months. The town was literally covered in posters of his smiling face, with a description that broke my heart every time I read it, which I did practically everyday, all winter long, as it graced every telephone pole in town, and the grocery store, and the gym bulletin board– “He left a party without his coat on January __, the coldest night in the city.” This winter was brutal, the coldest I ever remember. I began to pray he was dead; if he wasn’t, then some other, particularly disturbing fate had probably befallen him. I kept imagining his mother imagining him wandering through Atlantic City, alone, terrified, coatless, believing that if she spoke it aloud, committed it to paper, wished it hard enough, she could reach back and wrap him in his peacoat, or parka, or some picture perfect woolen love that would somehow force him to turn back, to call her, to avoid the salt water– the coldest night in the city.
“My daughter asked what happened to him,” he says.
“What did you tell her?”
“The truth. I always tell her the truth. I said he was dead.”
“What did she say?”
“She asked if he was a glow-in-the-dark ghost. You know. Like Vetruvius in the Lego movie.”
This whole encounter has seemed haunted, backlit by the various girls and women I’ve been throughout my life– the first night we hung out, I said “Are you gonna kiss me?” which I later recalled was an echo, exactly what I’d said to my very first love, on a dock by the bay. Close my eyes, and it’s the spring of 1997, and I’m kissing Dave, having just somehow or other mustered up the moxy to ask him to the prom (he dumped me, and I took someone else– a model, actually, who appeared that same year in the pages of Mademoiselle, and everyone oooooh’d and ahhhhh’d, but I didn’t give a fuck, because he wasn’t Dave, and Dave was all I wanted for the better part of the next year or so) and decked out in Vintage Levis and shell-top Adidas with green stripes, my chestnut hair dyed a harsh black, my lips painted in– and being stripped of– Revlon’s “Virtual Violet” lipstick. Back in my car, the tattooed neighbor and I are having a very nice time; so much so, that I stop him again. I’m breathless, and sweaty.
“Breathe,” he says.
“Okay,” I say. “That was– I mean, I’m not used to, ah– you did that with considerable efficacy.”
“Do you usually have a hard time?” he asks, curiously.
“No,” I say. “I’m in my 30s. I’m getting pretty good at this.”
“Cool. Because I feel like Superman right now,” he says with zero guile, and I start to laugh hysterically. And then we move to the back seat: odd angles: his hand beneath the crook of my knee, my thigh, my back arched into a bow, the windows fogging; by the time we get out to smoke another cigarette, he strips his shirt off from sweating, and I rest my forehead against his chest, letting the salt air cool us both.
After we part ways, and I wander upstairs, and soothe Hank back to sleep, he texts me about the meteor shower:
some kids snuck out at night to fuck girls or get high. i snuck out to watch space rocks burn in the sky…
and my heart breaks a little bit. Or melts. Go slow with this one, maneater, my friend and fellow poet told me just last week, when I mentioned I might have a thing for my neighbor. Earlier in the night, for reasons I still cannot articulate, sitting across from him in the backyard, talking about what felt like everything important in our lives, I suddenly began to cry. It was horrifying. It came from nowhere. It came from everywhere.
“Oh god,” I said. “I think I’m gonna cry.”
“No! Don’t cry!” he almost shrieked in genuine alarm– suddenly a dad. “Arms up!” he said. “I don’t know why I just said that, but anyway– arms up!” I laughed, and put my arms half in the air, like Hank does when he’s coughing, seized by what feels like a foreign body racking his own, rather than his own body trying to expel something it’s held onto for too long. He jumped up and sat next to me on the chaise lounge, wrapping me tightly in his lanky arms, pulling me back against the chair with him. I held on for dear life for just a moment, then sat up. Was it because it moved me to hear him talk about his daughter, in a way I’d certainly never heard Will talk about Hank? In a way I know for certain Will will never talk about Hank? I just wanted us to be a family, so badly, I’d said, earlier, and he’d nodded vehemently– Oh, yeah, definitely. Was it that here was a person who’d been through the same shitty thing I had? I don’t even know what you look like in the day, I’d texted him, earlier, but now, I held his face in the palms of my hands and saw– from the nose up– there was his daughter’s beautiful eyes and brow. Oh me, I’d told him two nights previous, in the car, I fall in love with everyone for an hour. It’s great. And probably true. I didn’t want my modelicious prom date because he wasn’t Dave, who was all I wanted, but the truth is, what I wanted that year, and all the years after, and now, probably, still, was not Dave, but that feeling, the one Dave produced in me for the first time: I am coming out of myself and into yours, and whoever I am, whoever I pretend to be in the daylight is gone. All day, Saturday, Hank in tow, I catch little glimpses of myself, and think Is that the woman who only last night spoke to you in the voice of a lover, let your fingers move inside of her, standing up, pulling you to her, abandoning language?
She is as distant as a meteor streaking across the sky, but she looks as close– she holds her son’s hair to her lips, and breathes to keep from weeping–