‘TIL THERE WAS YOU


Jack’s singular discovery was that things are, in fact, as they seem. Keys that get lost, for example, especially those that turn up in what would appear to be in plain sight—on a desktop, a counter, or the middle of a made bed—actually do cease to exist until the instant they are found. Likewise, the sky is, in fact, a bowl placed over the earth—a pale blue bowl, matte-surfaced, lighter near its rim, darker near its crown; or, at night: a sort of colander, randomly punctured by buckshot, light shining through. The sky will, of course, sometimes seem vast and immaterial. Often this is only an illusion, the inevitable consequence of the fact that things (airplanes, birds) really do grow smaller as they move away. But if you are walking across a field one night, and the sky should look to you like nothing so much as the eternity of non-being in which isolate and innumerable instances of being scintillate in varieties of pink, green and brilliant white—well then, you can be reasonably assured that’s exactly what it is.

Most people have difficulty accepting Jack’s discovery until they come to understand that there is nothing fixed or absolute about truth and falsehood, reality and fantasy, good and evil, etc. etc. All such dichotomies are purely a function of human emotion—of fear and desire, especially. When we are content, everything is real and true and good. That’s obvious, isn’t it? You’re canoeing on a lake with the one you love. You’re laughing delightedly at each other’s jokes, trading nibbling kisses that promise much more profound satisfactions when you return to your cabin. The sun is an oblong of radiant orange melting into its rippling reflection. Peepers are peeping, crickets are loosing their nets of song in distant fields—Who but a lunatic would question the authenticity or legitimacy of such a moment?

It is only when we want incompatible things simultaneously, or when our desires smack against our fears that we become obsessed with distinguishing the true from the false, reality from fantasy, evil from good. Think of those countless grinding 4:00 a.m.s that human beings have had to endure in the service of this obsession. Think of all the lives made boring, shameful and bleak by one or another white-knuckled vision of good, and of all the nations and peoples slaughtered because of some truth proclaimed from a mountain top. The beauty of Jack’s discovery is that it reduces such hair-splitting, chest-thumping, soul-starving and savagery to pantomime. But that is not at all to say that Jack’s discovery elevates or purifies human nature in any way. Alas, it does nothing whatsoever to relieve us of the burden of who we actually are.

* * *

This is Jack on the night he made his discovery. You will notice that he is not in possession of the average good looks, intelligence, emotional stability and sense of humor that here-to-fore had been his lot in life. His eyes: bulging, asymmetrical; the larger one vein-laced, scarlet, oozing a yellowish fluid. His mouth: also asymmetrical, more ragged gash than biological organ. Posture: hunched. Shoulders: barely wider than his neck. That sinus-withering pong wafting about him: an emanation of the greasy secretion glossing his nose and lips, streaming down his ribs and thighs.

Jack’s transformation took place over a couple of weeks, and started slowly, with what appeared to be (and was, of course) mild conjunctivitis. He and Grace were lazing in bed one sunny midsummer Sunday, as they had on countless other Sundays over the last seventeen years. She loved to waken in a sun-filled room, so slid from under the covers and went to the window, allowing Jack a moment in which to admire her long and fluent oscillations, her sandy pink, her hazelnut brown, and her gold: here tufty and tarnish-dark, there lanky and flaxen-bright.

Grace was not, in fact, an especially beautiful woman. The various parts of her body didn’t always add up, and then there was her chin: a mere bump along the road between her lower lip and Adam’s apple. Jack knew that Grace was not beautiful and didn’t know it at the same time. In his eyes, she constantly shuttled between out-of-this-world and so-so. The truth is that what most attracted him to her was her capacity to ache. Inside Grace there was a field of sodden ash under a weighty gray sky. The only birds there were harsh-voiced winter birds: crows and jays. But this field was where she felt most herself, and where she could be found walking during almost any idle moment. Often Jack would be right at her side, his chilled, red fingers interlaced with hers, his clothing penetrated by the same dank breeze as hers, his hair mist-pearled and his cheeks stippled with the same tiny, trembling drops. It moved and excited Jack to think that the woman he loved could walk this field and peddle a bike through city traffic simultaneously. Jack found deep poignancy in this fact, minor key harmony, truth as a form of beauty. And now, pulling back the curtains, Grace had just gilded her front half in morning sun—What could be more wonderful!

But for some reason, as he and Grace both luxuriated in the effects of morning sunlight on her bare skin, Jack’s thoughts drifted back to the previous night, and in particular to something strange she had done with her tongue. At the time, it had seemed surprising and delicious, but now—all at once—it seemed ominously unprecedented, like nothing she could ever have improvised on her own. “My eye feels funny,” he said, as she made her way back to bed. “Itchy,” he said. “Does it look bloodshot?” She crinkled the bridge of her nose and peered at one eye, then the other. “Nope,” she said, and kissed him on a cheekbone.

A few days later, he came home early from work and found her sitting on the floor in a corner of the kitchen, talking on her cell phone, the fingertips of her free hand pressed in a clump against the middle of her forehead. As soon as he entered the room, she snapped her phone shut and smiled at him broadly. “Who was that?” he said. “No one,” she replied, her eyes glittery with tears. In that instant, his shoulders slumped, though not so much that anyone would have noticed, and his conjunctivitis, which had been improving, spread to the other eye.

A day later, while driving Jack to the Commodity Spot, Grace began to talk about a movie she had seen, and seemed, at first, to think he had seen it too. A look of panic crossed her face. “That must have been someone else,” she said. “Some other movie, I mean.” And then she seemed to lose the ability to speak. For a moment, Jack was tempted to ask her what she had been meaning to say about the movie, but he didn’t. And by the time they pulled into the mile-wide parking lot, his lips had gone bloody and one corner of his mouth was slightly higher than the other.

At dinner the following Friday, Jack exclaimed incredulously, “But you’ve always hated Brussels sprouts!”

“No, I don’t. I love them.”

“Human flesh in the form of a tiny cabbage,” he said. “That’s what you always called them.”

“Well, I’ve changed my mind. Can’t I change my mind? Why won’t you let me evolve? Why do you insist that I always stay the same?”

Thence commenced the first hint of Jack’s ocular asymmetricality. Thence the first faint waft of his sinus-withering pong.

Jack actually laughed when Grace told him it was Buddy.

Buddy: his college roommate—befuddled, endearing, loyal and permanently childlike, the perfect fat-guy sidekick to an action movie hero. Buddy actually was a fat guy, but he could sing like Neil Young, and played a mean slap bass. In college, everyone had assumed he was headed for rock stardom, but in the twenty-three years since, he had supported himself, first as a clerk in a vintage record store, and then—once the internet drove the store under—as a receptionist in a vet’s office. Jack too had wanted to be a rock musician, but his hands were too small. “Hold up your hand,” his grandfather, a dentist, had told him one Christmas, then pressed his own hand against Jack’s. “Perfect match!” his grandfather said, and then he said, “You may be a lousy guitarist, but with dinky hands like these, you could be a million dollar dentist!” So Jack went to dental school, and now he owned a duplex loft on Carbolic Avenue, a two-hundred-year-old farmhouse in the Uplands, and a pied-à-terre in Paris. And, of course, he had also met (cracked molar, exposed nerve, eye-stabbing pain) and fallen in love with Grace.

Buddy’s romantic life—or so Jack had heretofore believed—had been confined to his one “great love,” the high school girlfriend who had dumped him for the math genius-sports bookie who, after nearly a quarter-century, still kept her well-supplied with BMWs, designer gowns, Xanax and cocaine. Whenever Buddy mentioned her name, his eyes would go moony, his forehead dark with tortured hope, and he would speak in a breathy, sentimental sing-song. Jack loved Buddy. “What a sweet guy,” he always said. But then he would heave a heavy sigh. He couldn’t help it. And Grace was the same. “Poor Buddy,” she said whenever Buddy’s name came up. Then she’d shake her head and lower her voice: “Poor, poor Buddy.”

And so Jack had laughed when Grace told him.

Her face went parrot-red; the skin between her eyebrows suffered tectonic dislocation. “What kind of a response is that!” she said.

“You can’t be serious!” said Jack.

“How did you get to be such a fucking weirdo?” Grace said. “What the fuck did I ever see in you!”
With that, she was gone.

Jack stood staring at the slammed loft door, its echo coming back to him off half an acre of hardwood flooring, industrial detail work (wood-beam ceiling, cast iron staircase), six potted palms, a Jacuzzi, a hulking, twelve-burner stove, four TVs.

Grace had been carrying a suitcase when she slammed the door, and had had her gooseneck lamp clipped under one arm. That lamp had stood at her bedside ever since she was a little girl, in every place she had ever lived—house, dorm, apartment—and had been the solitary furnishing she had brought along when she moved into Jack’s loft.

* * *

A codicil to Jack’s discovery is the principle that all appearances are interconnected and that no seeming can occur in isolation. Thus it is true that, although Jack’s transformation began to accelerate as he stood staring at that door, it might never have gotten so extreme had Grace and Buddy not also begun to change.

Before Grace even reached the bottom of the staircase, she had gained at least a couple of inches in height, and become distinctly modelesque. As she strode out onto Carbolic Avenue, her oscillations attained that degree of grandeur normally reserved for surges at sea or enormous trees in a strong wind. And then there was her chin! What could Jack have been thinking? Could a chin possibly have been more perfectly proportioned? More chuckable? More deserving of tender adoration? How could he ever have brought his mouth to Grace’s without first adorning her chin in butterfly nips and lip caresses?

And Buddy too! How was it Jack had never noticed Buddy’s rock jaw and hawk-like gaze? Far from moony or forlorn, Buddy’s habitual expression was classic nineteenth century-American: upright, self-reliant, ruggedly individualistic. He radiated exactly that fortitude and steadiness of purpose that women found irresistible. How could Jack have been so blind?

These and many other seeming revelations preconditioned Jack’s transformation. And as they crashed sickeningly into his self-esteem, he grew ever more stench-enclouded, gash-mouthed, boogly-eyed and asymmetrical. His complexion flourished with moles. He slumped. His head became indistinguishable from shoulders. His arms bowed and shrank to quasi-vestigial proportions, and so on and so on… until, in the end, he seemed to have been retooled as a toad by a psycho with a machete. Repulsive, in other words. Unlovable—totally. Fated for solitude. No wonder Grace had run from him! Who wouldn’t?

* * *

After an extended session of misery and self-condemnation, Jack fled his loft in quest of the solace of alcohol. But, no sooner had he pushed through the swinging doors of Stripetown Local, than he had to contend with the glances cast his way by the other patrons, even by the regulars, with whom he’d traded weather and sports commentary for decades. Steely glances. Contemptuous. Glances that said, “What makes you think you belong here?”

And, in fact, he didn’t belong. So, again he fled. But it was the same at the next bar. And the next. He fled and he fled and he fled, and eventually found himself down in the Rumination District, at one of those joints whose denizens seem to have accreted onto their barstools out of a miasma born of disappointment, illness and urinal deodorizing tablets, where every light bulb is dust-encrusted and the illumination it sheds at least a hundred years old. But here too: the sideways glances, the mutterings, the contemptuous turnings-away. He took a seat at the bar and, within a minute, the stools on either side of him were vacant. He picked up his glass, moved to a table in the corner, and that whole side of the room went silent. One by one the tables near his were abandoned. Even an ancient drunk, asleep on a ripped vinyl banquet, lifted his head, squinted in affront, and staggered to the far side of the room.

* * *

Discovery is the process by which the unnoticed passes through impossibility into obviousness. The final stages of this process generally transpire within split seconds, but the earliest can seem to occur—retrospectively, at least—with geological lassitude, or to be manifestations of such monumental stupidity and incuriousness that the historian of ideas may feel moved to take his subjects by their shoulders and shout into their dull visages: “You stupid, dim-wit fuck-ups! Can’t you see what’s right before your eyes!”

It is important to remember that, at this particular moment of the night, Jack was not able to see what was right before his eyes, because he had not yet been able to lift his head far enough above the welter of assaults, disillusionments, shocking revelations, and the actualization of long-denied home truths to recognize their secret structure and true significance.

It would have been easier for you. Had you been walking beside Jack as he left the bar that night, you would have had the distinct advantage of being able to observe how averagely oblivious passersby morphed into leering mockers at the touch of his eyebeams. You could have watched empty doorways and parked cars become inhabited by deliriously passionate couples the instant Jack glanced their way, and seen how all of the women were heartbreakingly reminiscent of Grace, with one shaking gold and flaxen-bright tresses as she pulled her lover’s mouth to her own, another covering her lover’s face with greedy kisses just as Grace had once covered Jack’s, and yet another—incomprehensible as this may be—rocking back her head and touching the tip of her nose with the tip of her pointy tongue just exactly as Grace had done the first time Jack took her pelvis in both hands and pushed into her.

This was more than Jack could stand.

“Fuck you, Gracie!” he shouted at the oblivious lovers, and then he began to run.
And for a while he was able to lose himself in the running, the sweating, the panting, the burning throat, in the way the night broke down into its constituent parts: Spot-lit bank towers drifting beyond a weed-ruptured parking lot. Lunar moth aflutter in pink streetlight. Beer keg on tailgate and no one in sight. Street led to street led to street—like corridors with their roofs ripped off—and the city altered, unfolded, showed him neighborhoods he’d never known existed—Ardtown, Electrodia, Gap Station—street names he’d never heard of—Cream Row, Kix Alley, Hostage Avenue. Street after street with every window black. Gleaming piles of windshield glass. Speedboat on sidewalk. Vacant bank offices like movie sets for Purgatory. His footfalls slapped back at him off factory facades. His panting went metallic whenever he ran through a tunnel.

But in the end: futility. In the end: no escape. Every song drifting out a bodega doorway, or Dopplerizing behind a passing convertible told a story of lost love, barroom loneliness, that night we danced beneath the stars. Around every corner (no matter that he’d never been there before): the mailbox Grace had leaned against the first time he told her he loved her; the stoop they’d sat on, talking about their childhoods until the sky above the rooftops went rose; the fire hydrant he’d run over the day they’d had their first fight. And always those lovers in their doorways and parked cars. And always those gasps coming down from third floor windows, those high, quavering, elongated cries—they were Grace’s. Always. They had to be.

* * *

And so it was that Jack found himself he-knew-not-where, breathing creosote and motor oil, dangling his feet over dimly radiant shards of plastic and Styrofoam that bobbed on invisible water. Rat talons clickity-clicked over splintered wood. A gunshot was followed by the sound of breaking glass. Then a long silence. A silence so long that sound itself seemed to have been extracted from the realm of possibility. And a new quality came into the darkness, a sort of solidity, as if darkness were no longer an absence of light, but a thing in itself, permanent, implacable, filling the empty spaces between every other thing. The world shrank. The world grew ever more still, ever more incapable of change, like a locked attic room, where the solitary window had been shuttered against the light, and an empty chair sat before an empty table and nothing more significant would ever happen.

After a while Jack realized that if he reached out his arm he could touch the night sky. And when he did so, he found that the stars were a sort of ash that rubbed off on his fingertips, and that the Milky Way was a trail of cinders mounting toward what he could only conclude was ultimate oblivion—which is to say, toward the only state he was, at that moment, capable of desiring. As he walked along this trail, he found himself passing near the Moon, a yellowish sphere anchored to the sky by a rude assemblage of girders, along the top of which was a narrow wooden catwalk. Jack’s legs still hurt from running. His lungs still burned. He made his way across the catwalk and took a seat on the Moon’s north pole.

The surface of the Moon turned out to be much smoother than he would have thought, and warm, like a globe lamp with a light bulb inside. The horizon was not more than eight feet away. And it was just possible for Jack peer through the fog of the Moon’s yellow radiance, and make out the city, spreading off in every direction like one hundred billion glowing cigarette tips, like a disco ball planet lit by an orange sun, like the Earth’s bright, pulsing heart.

Then something happened.

Something in the winking and wavering of orange lights in black night. Something in all those lights that was an incalculable multiplication of a single light being turned on or off in accordance with the whims, needs and destiny of the individual whose hand was on the switch, or whose foot shifted between break pedal and gas. And something, too, in the way the black night was a dome containing all that was, and in the way the city was reflected in that dome, and in the way the city and its reflection extended endlessly in opposite directions on every side. Something in all of this seemed beautiful and poignant and too-good-to-be true, and, in the end, made Jack wonder how it was possible he could be sitting on the Moon, and how it was that the Moon should be so warm and so smooth, and whether is was safe to be sitting on a glass globe so high in the sky, and whether it was possible for him to get off the Moon before it cracked, which it wasn’t and it did.

* * *

And so it was that Jack made his discovery among a million tumbling Moon-shards. And so it was that likelihood drained from all the facts of his life, and that he understood how nothing that was had, actually, to be. And he was finally able to lift his head above the welter of his misfortune, and recognize the secret structure and true significance of all those sidewalk and barroom glances, that business with Grace’s chin and Buddy’s jaw, with his own toadish deformity, and the mystifying disintegration of his happiness with Grace. And he was able, in fact, to zip back through each page of his memory’s flipbook all the way to his first wince, first cry, first post-uterine surprise.

So many triangulated cogitations. So many unremembered instants coming back in Baroque complexity, amid a countryside of possibilities. So many mysteries shooting straight through revelation and back out in to mystery. How was it possible in the hair-whipping wind, in the constant reorganization of up and down, in the hurtling expansion of the glowing cityscape for one brain to process all this information? The answer was: It wasn’t. And so time had to become more capacious, split seconds had to take on the qualities of hours and days. And, since time is a form of space, its enlargement was a form of slowing down, which meant that when, at last, Jack came to be reunited with the street, he settled as gently as a dust mote reaching the bottom of a light beam.

* * *

The Moon was gone. Jack had destroyed it—scattering it across rooftops, sidewalks and car hoods all over the city. But that was of little consequence, because consequence itself had been degraded by his discovery. Every instant had just been disconnected from every other, and freedom had been injected into the universe. The door to that attic room blew open. Its shutters flew back. Light poured through the window, and people poured through the door. Music was playing. Someone was dancing with the empty chair. The table itself was dancing on its four spindly legs.

Jack rolled onto his hands and knees and stood up, already noticeably less stunted, his mouth less gashlike, his eyes symmetrical again, and no longer oozing. As street opened onto street, as avenues rotated past like the long beams of lighthouses, as he climbed steps, crossed canals, and made his way along endless shadow-strewn sidewalks, he felt something like resolution, something like peace. The songs spilling out of windows and doors and hissy-whispering out of earbuds had lost their capacity to trouble him. He was living in a world where nothing was determined, where every instant of being was a manifestation of faith—and so he had hope.

Back through Gap Station, Electrodia, Ardtown, back through the hundred new neighborhoods that had been added to his city, back through the Rumination District, back and back until he was seeing Grace again, in every doorway and parked car, down every alley and through every partially opened bedroom blind. And he could never glance away fast enough to avoid that plunging pain, that weakness, that feeling of being so helpless, unwanted and deeply alone. But he kept going because he could not believe that Grace could have turned away from him so suddenly and completely, that however much in love she may have been with Buddy, a part of her would always still be in love with him, a part of her would remember bicycling with him across Italy, how they had woken together in the plangent sunshine of a Nova Scotia dawn, and had looked into each other’s eyes, grinning and sighing; a part of her would still gasp at the memory of the first time he took her pelvis in both hands and pushed into her. And that part, inevitably, at some point or another, would drive her out onto the street so that she could be alone, so that she could think, so that she could find a way to undo the terrible mistake she had made with Buddy.

In the end it happened exactly as Jack had imagined. Grace was leaning her forehead against the window of an Italian restaurant just off Rosenberg Square, the one they had gone to on their third date, the first restaurant they had thought of as “our place.” It was dawn. The restaurant was dark, the chairs upside down on the tables. Grace rolled her head against the glass and looked at Jack with tear-rimmed eyes before he had even called her name. “Oh God!” she said, in equal parts grief and joy. “I can’t believe you’re here!”

* * *

They ate breakfast in a diner amid cabbies and cops. Clattering crockery. The clicks and clinks of knives and forks. Flapjacks drowned in sweet brown syrup. Muffins oozing butter. Bottomless cup of coffee following bottomless cup.

Every now and then, simultaneously, they would stop talking, stop eating. They would grasp hands across the tabletop. “I’m so happy!” one of them would say, and the other one would say, “Me too!” grin warmly and say it again, “Me too!”

After breakfast, they walked along Eloise Avenue and into the park, where they stretched out on a grassy hilltop, kissed, professed their love, kissed again, apologized and forgave each other. “I can’t believe it!” they took turns exclaiming. “I just can’t believe it!” And then they would kiss again, and apologize and forgive each other, over and over.

The city had never looked more beautiful. The buildings mounted into a perfect sky like the crystallized exaltations of angels, platinum sunbeams gleaming off their western flanks, their eastern flanks purple and blue. Clouds coasted over cornices and spires like fantastically white water lilies. Advertising dirigibles drifted like sleeping fish. A gentle breeze shivered the tree leaves, and the trees seemed larger and lusher than they had ever been, and more densely laced with birdsong.

Jack and Grace were also more beautiful than they had ever been, but not movie-star-beautiful. Theirs was the sort of beauty that leaves its possessors free to be sincere, free to seem just exactly the sort of people whose love could be passionate, humble and true. There was no longer anything toadlike about Jack’s mouth, eyes or stature. He was wiry, tousle-headed, good-natured and a well-preserved forty-five. Grace’s mild chinlessness was back, but only as the perfect corrective to her modelesque oscillations and her gold and flax-bright tresses. It was the locus of her vulnerability, the attribute that made her endearing, desirable, real.

But every now and then, even in the midst of their happiest of moments, Jack would feel a tremor of uncertainty, and Grace would give him a funny look. Then he could see the recognitions mounting, one after another. And, gradually, her expression would grow cloudy and still.

“Oh, Jack!” she would say. “I’m so afraid!”

“Hush.” He would put his finger against her lips. “Hush.”

And then he would murmur, “You’re so beautiful.” He would smile and look into her eyes. “I love you,” he would say, kiss her and say it again: “I love you, I love you, I love you.” And she would tell him she loved him too, that she had always loved him, that she always would. And after that, for a while, everything would be fine.

Selected Works

FICTION
Conjunctions: 60, 2013; Best American Short Stories 2014
Conjunctions 55, 2010
POETRY
From Various Journals
ESSAYS
Teachers & Writers Magazine, Nov.-Dec. 2000
HISTORY
Selection from ORPHAN TRAINS: The Story of Charles Loring Brace and the Children He Saved and Failed