She’d woken with a premonition in the middle of the night. This was about a man she’d once loved. Sometimes a premonition arrives after the event it describes. (In that case, would we call it knowledge?)
This man drew a circle around some things and not others. (This is common. Who doesn’t have their own method for delimiting love and exemption?) But he chose the most peculiar rules.
And what do we call that area—that threshold of our affection? Home, she thinks, bending down to pull the damp bundle of clothes from the washing machine. She can’t gather the mass without some sock springing loose and landing on the grimy tiles. For a minute she’s mad.
She heaves the whole load into the giant drum of the dryer. The premonition of the morning was this: she would never be inside that circle of things he was willing to defend.
Often things come to her like this: in the night, sliding through the dark water to arrive on the surface or she is the one moving through a body of darkness.
This man had everything to recommend him. He was a trained physicist turned scientific programmer—but he talked of writing a novel and this was the problem. The problem was he believed he couldn’t do it. A Socratic dialogue, yes. He was capable of moving through an argument or turning over ideas, but he longed, he said, to be able to attach these ideas to character and plot in a naturalistic setting.
Naturalistic, she thought. That’s your problem.
He wanted something like life. Exactly so. This was the line he drew between himself and the world. Like putting something in quotes. She almost felt some fondness toward him. But there was the knowledge of the morning, which had to do with which side of the line she was on. (Is it worth remembering these things?) He used to tell her, You make everything nice. She hadn’t felt like that before or since.
On this damp block, there are trash bags piled on the curb, heavy from the rain last night. On the corner, where they are gutting a house, some kids are jumping on a mattress. In her hand, the mesh laundry bag is limp in her—in my—limp in my hand.
I think it’s better if I tell it this way.
Put it this way: I am the woman. This is my laundry OK?
The apartment where I live is through the wrought iron gate and down the stairs. At night, the clink of the gate lets me know when anyone is going out or coming in. I hear other things like fighting or wailing and once it was a siren outside my window. The sound came into the room through the screen and the red light was searching the wall and it was so close, I thought I was in danger and help, help was coming for me.
And so what does it mean when the siren stops?
At home, the phone is ringing, but I can’t answer it now because I’m trying to think of a word. It comes at the end of a line of poetry. I would have traded places, it starts. I remember reading the poem in a book of short stories, whose author was not the author of the poem.
This is the part that I’m thinking of: I would have traded places with anyone raised on love, but how could anyone raised on love bear this—
I can’t come up with it. What comes to mind instead is a grassy field—the kind of place where a person might have first felt the warm sun and the steady earth.
Someone drew a line around that place.
Sometimes anger is what arrives.
I don’t have time for a phone call now, and I can’t think of a word because there is someone at the door. There’s a woman coming to stay with me—not with me, but the woman I live with. The woman I live with isn’t home right now and so when this woman arrives I am the one inviting her inside.
This woman has flown here from Las Vegas. She paid ten dollars for her flight, she says. There was a driver who drove her here from the airport, she tells me—and what they talked about and how he wouldn’t take a tip. It’s the first time a driver ever turned down a tip!
I give her something to eat and this woman is giving me a lot of information.
You’ve got to change your vibration, she says. Everything is vibrations. She got this from an audio book by a woman who’s a medium for a spirit named Vincent. Vincent dispenses Tony Robbins-type advice. How much money would you like to make next year? Think of a number, the woman is saying. Now double it, she says. See?
Excuse me, I say. I reach for a napkin and descend on the cockroach on the floor behind her. I think, Take that figure you thought of and lop off a fourth because you’re a woman.
This is very interesting, I say.
Does Vincent tell jokes too? I wonder. I had a yoga teacher named Vincent who liked to tell jokes. I can’t think of any of the jokes but some of them involved erectile dysfunction or Judaism.
Excuse me please, I say again. I have to go get my laundry now.
Is this right? Have I left something out? To repeat: There is the man I loved and what he will or won’t include in his idea of a life. There’s this woman in my home. There is the swimming darkness and a word I can’t come up with—is it heat? I know what it feels like. There is representation and there is the thing itself, and I can’t say which is more horrifying, finally: billowing abstraction or needling specificity.
When I return from the laundromat, the woman in my home has opened her luggage on the living room floor and is rifling through her things. She’s pulled out purses, scarves, belts, and a kit that holds who knows what and is starting to arrange her shoes around her. She’s in a hospitality management program, she tells me. I say, A hospitality management program is what?
She tells me what it involves and what she is learning about cost-control methods and food sanitation and safety principles and dining room operations.
Usually I want to put a stop to it, and so the challenge is to keep the line moving. The challenge is to extend the line that is the thought that is the feeling of dangling in space, to let out the tether, not stop up speech. I can’t think of the word.
She asks for some nail polish remover and I get the thing she’s asking for and she sits with her toes spread on the living room floor. Some people know how to get other people to do things for them. I never had that power of persuasion.
The woman on the living room floor is saying that she likes coming here because she just loves meeting new people. Have you ever noticed, she says, the way that travel opens you up? It’s so good, she says, to get out of your habitual patterns. When the woman I live with gets home, she’s hoping they will go out someplace where they can meet some new people. It’s a wonderful way to change your vibration.
I just like the same people. I’ve tried to like new ones but it doesn’t take. I like to do the same thing. I repeat myself. I have no great imagination. This is how I ended up with two guys named Tim. When she laughs, I tell her, Not at the same time.
Repetition does not it turns out mean boredom. You start to discern the little differences, shades of variation within the pattern. The first Tim was gentle, amused, abiding. With the second Tim, I thought it would be the same, but it wasn’t the guys who were the same. I was the one on repeat.
The woman on the living room floor is asking about the woman I live with. She wants to know how her mother is doing and whatever happened with that guy Raul.
I don’t know anything about Raul. I don’t know much about the woman I live with. I know she has a passion for emptying the dish rack. I hear it in the morning and when she goes out or comes in, just behind the clink of the gate.
The other reason she likes coming here is it gives her a break from being a mom. It isn’t that she wants to take a break from her son—she loves her son! He has a real gift for marksmanship, she claims. It’s just her own habit of being a mother—the way someone else’s needs always come first.
If the word doesn’t come to me I’m just going to drop it.
Alone time, she says or time alone was when you could remember those other parts of yourself, and she keeps saying this—parts of the self.
I’m thinking about the man I loved, who had sometimes signaled his need to be alone. This would happen on a Saturday morning while we had our eggs and at other times too. At the time, it made me feel unloved. But if it’s true what she’s saying then maybe it wasn’t me he needed to leave but the person he felt he had to be when we were together. Do you have any children, the woman asks. She is looking at me with something like interest or pity or maybe she feels envy at what she imagines my freedom entails.
Recent reading: “The Queer Art of Failure” by Jack Halberstam, “My 1980s and Other Essays” by Wayne Koestenbaum, and “Love in a Cold Climate” by Nancy Mitford.