HIS TERRIBLE FEELINGS
Whenever he felt dead to his painting, Theodore went shopping. Not down the street, but out where the grass strips still bubbled and oozed. Ten minutes atop the brownfields and Theodore would feel alive again, he’d need to rush home. His canvasses, once stalled, had nerve, torque, solutions.
But the solutions were slow in coming today. The store assistant in the aisle ahead of him seemed to take notice of him, but not as much as he took notice of her. The woman had colored her hair in three vertical waves: marine blue, fawn beige, porcelain. It seemed to Theodore that if someone of her distinctiveness could work in a place like this, then we might be okay, all of us okay.
“Can I help?” she said.
“Oh, I’m just looking for something to want.” Theodore’s laugh was that of a person who hadn’t had an extended conversation in days. Sometimes he could make people laugh with him when he was in this state, and sometimes? Well, her face turned against itself and she actually drew her head back.
On the shelf beside Theodore sat a tiny cycad, spry and architectural, green-gray leaves, pinked stem. Rooted in sphagnum moss, twisted to the left, a square stone pot. He picked it up.
“I’m guessing I could find the care instructions online?”
“You’re joking.” She smiled, but it was the deadest smile, the smile of someone about to play a trick on him.
“No, I’m really quite serious.”
Something was wrong. Theodore pictured the plant thrown out the window of a speeding car, the animals in the desert gone silent.
“Really,” she said, not as a question.
Was it necessarily a sign of failed character when one could not detect a fake? She, of course, couldn’t have known that Theodore knew a thing or two about plants, that he was in the business of painting plants (their leaves, murderous and magisterial), and loved his own plants with such intensity that he couldn’t entrust their care to anyone else.
If she had known any of this, would that have made her laugh harder?
He kept holding onto the false plant, as if to demonstrate that even a fake wasn’t disposable.
“I feel like a fool right now and I think I hate myself.”
There was that dead smile again, just teeth.
Theodore didn’t hate himself—certainly he did not—and she could not tell a joke from a cherry turnover in the road. But Theodore felt as if he’d woken up at five AM to the roof of his mouth growing fur. To get rid of his feelings, his terrible feelings, he walked. He walked and walked, heartsick that human culture wouldn’t know a party if it hit it in its teeth. It could have been dazzling but no one wanted to go there. Theodore walked past people trying so desperately to have fun that they went about it in all the wrong ways. These were young people, in shorts, with hard legs, muscles for days. They hopped about their driveways, blaring music they couldn’t have liked, all their props bought cheap from some joy store.
By now Theodore’s feet were sore and hot, so much loose sand tossing around inside his shoes. He looked for the nearest half-wall and sat down, not realizing he was but two feet from a chipmunk, up on its hind legs, grasping a pine nut between its paws. How long had Theodore been lonely? There was such precision to the chipmunk’s nibbling, such excellence and contentment. He took up as much space as a teacup. If Theodore stopped looking at the chipmunk, he’d fall through a hole in the earth, and who knew how deep he’d fall, or what existed at the bottom, limestone, marl, or warm mineral spring. The chipmunk wasn’t looking toward Theodore, but toward the brawny man across the street with the uprooted shrub in his arms. The chipmunk looked toward the brawny man as if he were not some predator or the chief executive of his species, but a fantastic contraption that had the capacity to move his arms and legs and neck and feet. The chipmunk took the pine nut from its mouth and appeared to consider putting it on the ground. Seconds went by, and the dead flashed through that space.
They all stood near the ocean as if they were now afraid of the ocean, hanging back, not looking at it directly, holding themselves in at their waists. I imagined they’d driven down from the city for the day, laughter punching the soft air inside the car. I imagined them eating on the beach, dozing on their towels on the beach, maybe slipping a few beers from the blue cooler, and now here they were, making phone calls in voices too quiet to be heard. Out on the shoreline, the search and rescue team trudged through cold water. They wore their yellow uniforms. Their motions lacked urgency, as if they’d practiced them from a guidebook, which is what you do when too many hours have passed and you know you’re not going to find someone.
How many hours had passed before the town opened the beach back up again? The sun was still up, the temperature still ninety-five degrees on our shoulders. I walked across hot sand, burning the soles of my feet and trying not to make a show of it. It would have been wrong to make a show of it: everyone was trying so hard. A woman stepped into the water in a tiny black cocktail dress, glamorous. She pushed the shallows about with her foot, turning the wave over her instep and she looked out until a second woman joined her. They sipped clear drinks. A boat trolled back and forth just beyond the waves. Should I go in too? I looked back at the boy’s friends on the boardwalk. They were in a huddle now. Their bodies folded forward, as if their backs were under too much stress to stand up straight.
I pulled out my phone: Do I go in? I wrote you in a text. I filled you in on all the details: the intensity of the hour, too extreme for noise; the silence of the gulls; the hundred eyes still trained to a single spot.
Baby, stay until they throw you out – submerge – how is it disrespectful? If someone dies on the street, u still gotta walk. Think of it as the Ganges, death, life, laundry, sewage, etc. You are one with it.
I’d already been standing in the water, and I would have gone in whether you’d said this beautiful thing or not. It would be just like me to turn this page into a lament for the end of us, and to assign too much blame to myself. Somehow I don’t think of that as fair to the drowned boy, and it might not be fair to you, who respected truth. Do you know what I think? I can feel you impersonating someone wiser than you. You were letting me know I’d be all right, when you’d probably decided you were already gone, gone to the friends who loved your laugh, your readiness to be a goofball, a smartass, Mister Hollywood. In my mind I’ve made a little movie of you standing at the end of the pier one night, a little woozy on your feet from smoking too much weed behind the broken-down hotel. We were having the best time and you had to break it. Wouldn’t it be great to walk out into that water and just keep going? You turned to me, still laughing, expecting me to say yes, and I couldn’t get my face to be anything but blank.
What is it like out on the burning sands of Nevada? Is a desert just another sea with plants in it? Laundry, sewage—have you found them there? Is it okay to watch your own body on the screen so much? Do you still like fucking in hotels? The boy’s friends might be quick to say that they’re okay. I’d like to think that’s mostly true, but I wouldn’t believe them if they told me they never woke up to see him, every now and then. It’s you, they say, my man, so happy he’s come back to see them. And then his face dissolves.
THE LONGEST LIFE IN THE WORLD
She told herself it was the restaurants, boarded up with plywood after the storm surge. Or it was the kind of people who lived in town, loud, aggressive people, whose music buzzed her furniture, which prompted her to coin a word so foul and ugly it made her consider punishing herself. She said it was the underlit streets. She said it was the long, long drive to work. She said it was the guys who idled their engines along the curb outside her house, eyes fixed to the neighbors’ second story windows, as if drugs or breasts were to be found up there. She said it was her bowel movements, which had started to have a leafy scent. Or the vegetable taste of the water: she thought that too. She said it was because no one ever talked to her, which was the story of all six towns she’d lived in over these past two years, in the longest two years of her life, in the longest life in the world.
She set the alarm, locked both locks on the front door, walked to the car. Snow coated the ground. The car was a cabin, a cave. The windshield was fogged up from inside. She steered away from the curb, not even bothering to rub the fog with her fist. She turned on the defroster. Air wheezed from a slot on the dashboard–or was that down by her feet? The car crawled through the slush. She stopped approximately ten feet from where she thought the stop sign might be.
She still couldn’t see. She passed the house with the X’s taped over the windows, the bowling alley with the siding torn off. The side windows were clear but straight ahead? She might have been driving through a tidal wave. Her tires skidded. She stopped where she remembered cars parked at an angle, where in better weather, kids hung out on the porches laughing and smoking, hunching into their jackets.
That’s when the police car passed by. She imagined it slowing, hanging back, the cop inside looking to catch someone. Surely he’d think she was up to no good, parked outside a rooming house at four thirty on a winter afternoon, a half hour before dark. She drove forward again. The defroster roared, but the breeze of it did nothing for the car. She cranked the window. The air was so cold. She put more pressure into the accelerator, picking up speed now, just so the police wouldn’t wonder why she was driving so slow.
Somehow she made it to the business district. She wiped her hand over the glass. Again and again she worked the glass while the car crept ahead. She knew there to be parking spaces behind the restaurants. She swerved right, panting. She flexed her foot on the brake. She thought she’d stay put for a while until a wail filled the air. A car alarm? A siren? For her? Well, there was no one else in sight. She needed aspirin, a stick of gum. She backed up again, dizzy now, spent, not even bothering with the charade of looking over her shoulder.
In the sideview, she saw how close she’d been to the lineup of cars. She’d almost torn off six bumpers, or worse, not to mention wrecking her own car, which wasn’t even hers finally, but borrowed from a friend. The late sun shone directly in the center of the street, inside the channel between the stores, glaring off the snow piles, blinding her. The windshield went opaque, golden. There was no hope for her. She braked. Then as if watching someone she wasn’t sure she knew, she threw open the door and started walking.
In Briefest Boyfriend’s place of work, our hug goes on and on. His eyes are so warm. That smolder—is it as much for his fellow barbers as it is for me? How could it not be: he knows they’re watching as he passes the sweater into my hands. Man, how I’ve missed that sweater, the charcoal wool of it, the twelve leather buttons, left behind on a hook as I left his place in a hurry. Two weeks ago, three? The barbers look over their client’s heads. They beam their approval as they lift and snip. No matter that Briefest Boyfriend ended us just as we were getting close: an awkward dinner, a bed with a space left down the middle—that’s for another page. For now we’re in the place transformed, the theater of lust: features getting sharper, the weight of past weeks dropping to the floor, to be swept up and tossed away. They can see the good sex on us. We are all lovable, all of us in this house, and that should be enough to lift the day.
Paul Lisicky is the author of Lawnboy, Famous Builder, The Burning House, and Unbuilt Projects. A recipient of awards from the NEA, Yaddo, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, he teaches in the MFA Program at Rutgers University-Camden. A memoir, The Narrow Door, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in January 2016.