.

 

Coming Back

Let the taxi-clogged air spread through my lungs, drawn by capillary action into my agnostic soul.

The next morning, Mike whisked the eggs in a steel bowl and I woke up slowly. The smell of vegetarian sausage came from his oven out to my place on the couch. The dog was in the kitchen, rolled up near the stove.

I lay beneath three of Mike's blankets, one an old quilt, one a grayish flannel with moth-holes, and one with a jungle pattern. You wonder where people get things. Parents? Thrift stores? Would he remember their origins, or have they become part of now, history washed out, their stained softness left over for sleeping guests?

I shifted my morning erection back into my boxers and pulled up, neck sore from the bowed seat of the couch.

“Smells good,” I said, yawning it out.

“Omelets.”

“I'll help you in a moment.”

“Not needed.”

“I'll do the dishes.”

“Sure.”

I squeezed my eyes shut and shook out my shoulders, pulled my jeans off the floor, and went into the bathroom. When I came out Mike was about to pour more eggs onto the griddle pan.

“Burn mine a little,” I said.

“Okay.” He poured me a cup of coffee and I sat, the warmth from the mug creeping through the air towards my rough chin.

“So, what's the plan?”

“No real plan,” he said. “Might drive up to French Creek. Might go see a movie.”

“Camping?”

“Not there. Just to walk around.”

“What movie?”

“I don't know. I just think I want to see something.”

“I might be up for that. I want to stick here, maybe, do a little writing, so I might let you do the hill yourself.”

He grunted. There was shifting, rattling, and hissing from the stove. I pulled out plates from his cupboards. The wood was painted brown; the paint flaked to reveal green, and below the green, brown, and below that only pine. I stood silent, looking at the chipped paint.

There are moments when those layers of human action, immediate to the touch, transform things into deep stories, full of truth and hope. Moments when you feel sadness to the bone because you cannot answer simple questions about the materials in your hands: who painted these cupboards before Mike moved in? Who screwed in the ceramic handles? Why these specific colors? Was the painter just married or idly retired? In these moments - and they come sometimes often, sometimes almost never - objects burst into narrative; everything you see, trash and treasure, becomes a way into something else.

This was not one of those moments, because it was Saturday, and I rarely have those thoughts on Saturdays. I feel most like a neglected, brilliant artist right before work on weekdays, but on Friday night the feeling passes, and it doesn't come back until Sunday evening. Then, I realize my great weekend plans for art and self-education have come to naught, that I have watched films with ticking bombs and talking dogs on television, and masturbated while Mike ran to the grocery, but have not written, or read, a single word.

So we ate. The dog got up and sat closer to the table, hoping for scraps. I felt an overpowering blandness, so, to shake things up, I said, “you know, I think I'm going to go back to New York for a while.”

Mike finished chewing his wheat toast. “When do you want to leave?”

“Not right away. I need to line up a place to stay, see about money.”

“We'll miss you around here.”

“I think you've saved my life, a little, letting me stay.”

“Well. You've saved my ass on these jobs, Ray. I couldn't have gotten half as much done.”

“I think maybe I should go towards the middle of next month. Maybe a little after, not sooner. Is that okay?”

“You do what you need to do. Really. We're not up for too much after that, so it won't hurt the business at all. As long as you'll finish the Town Hall with me -”

A restaurant that was getting new ceiling fans and floors. “Of course.”

“And you can change your mind, too, Ray. The couch is open. But I can understand you wanting to go back. It's pretty quiet here.”

“You have a pretty good setup.”

“Yeah, but there's no 8 million people.”

“You've got a hill out your back with a cowfield at the top. This kitchen is the size of most apartments, even if you're doing well. So I don't knock it.”

“What do you want to do when you get back?”

“Get a job, start over. See some friends for a while. Write. I think I put a good head on my shoulders doing this work here. But I should probably keep doing things with computers. Paul helps me, my friend. And one of my old bosses said I could have a job if I wanted; I can always temp, too, do like data entry. But I miss the bright lights.”

“Gets kind of the same around here.”

“It's wonderful, right? But I like getting on the train and there's a Hasidic Jew and three black guys and a white guy in a suit and a guy in a turban, and everyone's ignoring each other. People are real nice here, but every time I go into a Turkey Hill it's a 5 minute conversation before I can get my orange juice.”

“That's David, in the Turkey Hill?”

“Yeah - he's a little--”

“Retarded.”

I smiled. “Yeah.”

“He's my age. Looks like 19, right? Fetal Alcohol. His mom was a drinker.”

“It's too bad. Nice guy.”

“She was in our church when I was a kid. Couldn't sing at all, so she kept pretty quiet, but I remember there'd be some Sundays where she'd either had too much hair of the dog or been out all night and she'd belt out some hymn and it would sound like a monkey dragging a violin across a gravel driveway. Everyone would be so embarrassed, you never saw so many Christans looking so hard at their hymnals. Some would sing louder to cover her up, others would get real quiet. You could see at reception who would go up and talk to her and who would avoid her. My mom was always real polite, always talked to her no matter how much a mess she was. But it's a shame about David. We were pretty hard on him when we were kids, and he's never been anything but a real kind guy.”

“What was her name?”

“Mrs. Pite.”

I made an ambiguous noise. Mike said, “well, I've gotten used to you. It'll be a little sad to see you go.”

“It'll be sad to go,” I said, and as I gulped my coffee, made light brown by rice milk, I knew that I was going back, that the next few weeks would be filled with phone calls and negotiations, as I filled the backs of envelopes with dollar amounts, sub-totals too small to return with any dignity. At 27, I would have to face Margaret as an single, unemployed odd-jobs boy. But I wanted to go. I'd lived in Brooklyn in worse mental and fiscal conditions than those of the moment, and I knew I would be fine, that my shoulders would be straight coming off the commuter line into Penn Station, my eyes aimed ahead, my voice low and even, my passions arbitrated by diet and exercise, and my goals - no longer to be famous, no longer to be forgiven by my lover, no longer to be filled with alcohol or food or hollow sex, but to feel what I touched, from the firm granite of the statues in Prospect Park to the slick curved tang of a wet cunt, to see the sun turning purple off the skyscrapers and the boiling Ftrain beggars spieling for quarters, to be good to those who open their lives in my direction, and to be useful, for my life to have function, to commit myself to other's goals instead of only my own - all these goals are achievable, within a window of time, if I forgive myself my fears and shames and stop trying to stop the world from coming in through my lungs. When I get back I will let myself breathe fully, let the oxygen that pours through the city, over the East River and down 5th Avenue, through Columbia and Harlem and up to the Cloisters, down to Mott St and over to Green Point, over the Gowanus Canal, let the taxi-clogged air spread through my lungs, drawn by capillary action into my agnostic soul.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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