The Size of the Room
A personal reconstruction.
This article first appeared in St. Ann's Review and is reprinted on Longform by permission of the author.
Signs you should go to the emergency room: intense bloating in the abdominal region, followed by a burning sensation that lasts for hours; an intolerance to food or water; finally, a willingness to appear plain silly, pacing through the kitchen between moving boxes with your arms extended, cross-like, around a broom handle. It made you feel better about an hour ago, and now it’s the only thing you can imagine doing. 1:00 AM. 2:30. 3:30. The pain won’t go away. You go through your filing cabinet to see if you still have medical insurance, then wake your fiancée.
That’s the last time you see your home for ten days.
You arrive at the emergency room at Yale-New Haven Hospital and give them your name, address, symptoms, and your insurance card. After an hour they say they’re ready to register you on their computer. With a puzzled look you give them your name, address, symptoms, and your insurance card. You count the seats bolted to the floor, the announcements on the bulletin board, the laps you’ve done around the security desk, arms clasped to your head. By 5:30 you’re on a gurney on the other side of the swinging doors in a corridor across from the nurses’ station, knees pressed to your chest, counting to twenty—something will definitely happen by then, won’t it? You reach twenty and start over. At some point you realize you’re rocking and repeating the same word. Then you forget the word and just rock. Lab coats billow a foot away but don’t slow down as they pass, and you can’t turn to see who’s wearing them. Your vision telescopes. Soon there’s nothing but the crumpled sheet, the scuffed hallway, the opening of a vacuum tube on the wall where they stick vials of blood—your own, finally—to whisk down to a lab in the basement. Funny, you don’t recall giving blood. Guess your memory’s starting to go.
Upstairs a technician coaxes your knees away from your abdomen so she can do an ultrasound. You curl up as soon as she’s done. Then you’re downstairs in a curtained room the size of a gurney, where a surgical resident appears and draws a picture of your liver, bile duct and gallbladder on the bed sheet. “It’s your gallbladder,” he says, circling it with a pen. You hardly hear him. The Demerol’s taking effect, and you can’t believe there’s a crazy man drawing on your sheets. Wow. They’ll never get the stain out.
“This is an unusual case. Patients are usually female, fat, and forty.” You tell him you don’t fit that profile just yet but he should check back in the morning. He smiles. It is morning, 11 AM to be exact. They wheel you up to a room on the sixth floor which, as far as you can tell, has no relation whatsoever to the outside world.
What’s it like staying in a room for ten days? To look out the window once, when your roommate’s curtain is drawn, only to see a ventilation shaft? To get used to the chill of the IV fluid creeping up your arm, the loss of appetite, loss of thirst till you start to relish it after a while? It will seem so alien to you afterward that when you return for blood work you’ll stop by the room again to convince yourself that, yes, it’s actually connected to a corridor and a lobby that take you outside. At the time, the light switch wasn’t just a light switch but the way the nurse signified morning, which meant only that it was time to draw blood, and you adjusted the bed to its “day” position knowing you hadn’t slept. It wasn’t just the periodic in-and-out to check on your roommate, the occasional alarm in a far-off room, the weirdness of trying to sleep in the same position after not moving all day. It was your own body signaling rebellion, twitching every few hours. You couldn’t figure out why it happened, that spasm, the sharp intake of breath, the half-realized suspicion in the dark that maybe—could it be?—you’d stopped breathing? That you’d actually been . . . gone? Impossible. You’re just in a strange room with a clouded mind and an open door with shadows lit by the pale fluorescents outside, all of it a cauldron heating your fears. Still, you find that you’re standing watch over yourself, and though you soon lose track of the days, the moments of your stay remain somewhere jumbled in your mind.
You always hoped for the same nurse for the morning blood draw, the one with the sun-freckled skin, bleached hair and warm smile who told you about sailing the sound off Long Island. The idea of tacking back and forth in a fiberglass shell only to turn around and go back again had always struck you as a waste, and reminiscing about it doubly so, but now you couldn’t get enough of it. The boat was in Guilford. Or maybe she was in Guilford and the boat docked elsewhere. You were foggy on the details. In fact, you never learned her name. But she talked to you as if you weren’t half stupid on drugs and shared something with you that took place outside that involved things like the sun and breeze and escape mixed together, and you soon became grateful for weekend sailors and cheap beer and plans hatched during winter to finally win the such-and-such race at the local marina. Somewhere out there it was August, and a crew was leaning back on plastic chairs under an umbrella, shirts damp, necks red, bodies still holding for a while the memory of water. Who could believe it? Not you—not from bed, anyway—but if you could you would’ve raised a glass to them anyway.
You started marking time by counting your nurse’s shifts. You wept in front of her when you had another setback and wondered if you’d ever leave. As you confessed this you didn’t recognize the crack in your voice, the sound pitched so high and thin. You were naked in front of her in ways you never were in front of yourself, and even now, years later, you can’t imagine that room for long without seeing her pull up a chair after you finally had surgery, writing notes in your chart.
“I’m off for a few days,” she said, smiling. “Hope I don’t see you again.”
Your fiancée parked your beat-up Metro each evening on top of the Air Rights Garage, built over a deserted highway that was supposed to save the city, and kept running into the surgical resident who’d taken charge of your case. He always stopped to update her—emergency ERCP, bile duct plugged with gallstones—terms filtered through a calm demeanor and scrubbed so completely of danger that she never worried as long as he was talking. You saw him each morning on rounds, and his bedside manner seemed both more miraculous and less believable after hearing him bark at the first-year residents in the hallway about your case before approaching you transformed. Your fiancée didn’t see this. She kept repeating how grateful she was to run into him until you joked that the first thing you two had managed to do here was develop crushes on other people, that at age twenty five, with two graduate degrees between you, the same old platitudes were resurfacing and the emotional tug was pulling you under again as if for the first time.
Each evening she pulled up a chair and regaled you with how she and her mom had unpacked more boxes that day in your meandering apartment, which had been cut out of a house in Westville with tilting floors. How the owner, Mr. A, had left his TV long enough to huff upstairs and declare you couldn’t use the washer you’d purchased from the previous tenants—it leaked, he said—only to relent when he saw them snake a pair of hoses from the washer to a bathroom sink on the other side of the kitchen. One crisis down, they’d waited till nightfall to remove a bee’s nest from the window frame in your bedroom, holding their breath and spraying like mad till they were sure the bees would stop emerging, Hitchcock-like, through the air conditioner. It seems the apartment, your second home in two months, was slowly becoming habitable, and you were so grateful for the patter of her words you almost forgot you really didn’t want to be back in the city where you’d grown up.
You couldn’t quite believe you’d ended up here, though the explanation was simple enough. Your fiancée had started a one-year clerkship with a federal judge, and you figured you could set up your computer anywhere, fueled by the nearest coffee shop and the occasional temp job and start what you were sure would be an illustrious career as a playwright. After a month you were off to an inauspicious start, still tracing the same path you’d worn as a teenager: lunch at Naples Pizzeria, for example, or Claire’s, a vegetarian eatery on Chapel Street, followed by an afternoon at the Center for British Art. You could lose an hour if you passed an empty storefront on Whitney Avenue that used to sell brownies mixed with chocolate chips, liqueur and coffee grounds—concoctions so delectable you cited them as a teenager as one of the few bona fide Reasons For Living. The store closed before you graduated from high school, you knew that, but in cases like this knowing doesn’t seem to matter, and you stared expectantly through the window each time you passed until people looked at you funny and a younger version of your hand reached into your field of vision toward wax paper.
From there you turned down Audubon Street toward the arts magnet school where you studied acting each afternoon, past two rows of pear trees that smelled like fish when their flowers blossomed each spring, and the benches beneath them where classmates displayed their piercings and smoked and listened to Pink Floyd, past a section of pavement with a stencil, long since worn away, spray painted “Impeach Reagan” years before it was fashionable to say this even in liberal cities. You’d escaped your suburban high school each afternoon to study here with young Socialist Jews, hippy kids with hyphenated names, openly gay teachers, a black weightlifting champion—people you could never have imagined if you’d stayed all day at the Italian-American School For Big Hair and Jewelry that was your high school. Your theatre teachers cast without regard to age, gender, or ethnicity—the weightlifting champ played the lower half of Tiresius in one production—and doing enough shows that way suggested even to your jaded mind that there might be some magic to theatre after all, that the imagination could encompass anything from Lady Macbeth to Ionesco’s rhinoceros, and, if empathy is the ability to project ourselves into the inner life of another, perhaps exercising the mind this way was the very thing that allowed us to appear human to each other.
One afternoon in late spring your teacher had given the word and your class descended on the city like a pack of roving anthropologists assigned to do behavioral research, starting in a small park by an abandoned rail bed and spreading out down Church Street, stalking a few yards behind a banker on his lunch break, for example, and mimicking his gait, or repeating the gestures of two women commiserating over lunch on a park bench by the green, trying to capture the twirl of one woman’s hair, the tilt of her head as she grunted affirmations while the other one punctuated her story of woe by jabbing the air in that certain way with feta cheese stuck to her fork. According to the notes you jotted down the banker’s suit was blue and out of fashion, the lapel wrong, the shoulder pads speckled with dandruff, feet stuffed uncomfortably into wingtips, pants a size too small and turned down around the waist. The idea, as you copied his gait down Church Street a few blocks before he disappeared into the savings bank, was that if you walked around in a suit like that, shoulders rigid, stomach out, back arched, in uncomfortable shoes worn through the sole, within a few minutes your feet would start to hurt, and after a few hours you’d wear the same grimace he had, the same distracted look when you talked that warned people I am absenting myself from present circumstances. If they missed that sign surely they’d notice the hardness of his mouth—now your mouth—the smile that wasn’t a smile, the voice overly measured and hinting I’m not happy to be talking to you. Who knows what would happen if you kept walking that way? If you followed him through the door? Who knows where the resemblance would end or how deep it would go?
After an hour you and a dozen classmates, still rambunctious from being set loose, corralled yourselves and headed back to the old Romanesque synagogue that housed the art school, zigzagging up the cement ADA ramp tacked onto the side of the building and returning to the classroom on the second floor, your notebooks full, minds trying to cling—like weekend sailors gazing back at the Sound—to that brief attempt to embody someone else. The assignment was simple, really, something we all do with varying degrees of success on the playground, though this time you were looking for traits you could build a character around, unconsciously working through the proposition that our physicality and imagination are more interconnected than we think, that an ill-fitting suit is as likely a starting place as any when getting to know someone, and that on some level, as the psychologist William James would have it, maybe we’re happy because we smile instead of the other way around.
The building had risen in your esteem since you’d heard rumors that Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe were married there, and though you didn’t believe in ghosts, some nights after rehearsal when you’d changed back into your clothes you couldn’t resist peeking into the theatre just to be sure, the stained glass covered in blacks, the floor smelling like bare feet, still no glimpse of Marilyn’s ghost, which supposedly rearranged the chairs at night. You were slouching now against a cinderblock wall in a studio behind the theatre, waiting to mimic your banker’s walk, disgruntled by the news that you’d missed another shaving party in the boy’s bathroom the previous night, where dancers came up from their studio and let the boys shave their legs in exchange for shaving theirs. This casual intermingling seemed to come easily to others, but to you the dancers were a double threat: sirens who traveled in packs, bubbling and twittering and smoking and, if you watched them out by the pear trees long enough, busting a petit jeté mid-sentence, their bodies and mouths in parallel conversation yet still somehow looking cool.
Watching them inevitably took you back to the afternoons you were picked up from Little League and driven to a community hall where your sister had dance class, arriving twenty minutes early without fail and, after pleading unsuccessfully to stay in the car, following your mother through one of those heavy institutional doors that latched with a loud click no matter how carefully you closed it, so that the girls and moms turned and stared as if you’d invaded some inner sanctum. You’d stand by the door suddenly not knowing how to stand, till you detached yourself from their gaze and crossed the room, hoping you’d turned invisible though your cleats clicked loudly on the tile and you wore a green jersey emblazoned with “American Powdered Metals,” till you slid into an empty chair and realized you no longer knew how to sit. From there you observed a den of mothers watching their daughters reenact some memory of their childhood, or something they’d longed for but missed, like your mom, who’d dreamt of being pretty and floating across a stage on pointe but never could because of her knee. A cheap tape player, mirror and moveable barre, their imagined younger selves shadowing the girls as they twirled across the floor—you’d interrupted a group meditation on what it meant to be young and pony-tailed and full of promise, and it was hard to recall suddenly how you’d been standing and swinging and spitting and curling your hat so it looked cool just half an hour ago when you were surrounded by boys doing the same. You leaned back with your arms crossed, trying to hide your discomfort, then slunk forward finally to peek at Jenny Ransom, her elbow bent, fingers extending in an arc, bumbling with a purity that looked like grace. With her teacher tapping beats and eyeing her in turn, classmates stealing glances in the mirror when not fixated on their own reflections, and a chorus of mothers clucking in appreciation, you couldn’t figure out—you still can’t—how she could be unconscious of her beauty, or whether, in some odd way, she was beautiful because she was not yet self-conscious.
You looked up in the theatre studio to see Jessie impersonating a harried mom feeding coins into a meter and, turning your head, you could see a reflection of the entire acting class in a mirror on the opposite wall, sprawled on the floor as always. You recalled how insulted you’d all been when you completed the first version of this assignment, which was to imitate a classmate, and through a lack of observational skills and body control inevitably exaggerated any trait you found till everyone in the room was offended and not speaking to each other. Why was it so hard to stand like Matthew, who was slumping next to you in ripped jeans? You spent two hours a day together. He slouched. You slouched. Your teacher Peter, with blond curls and Jesus sandals he wouldn’t part with even in winter, had given everyone the assignment a week in advance so you could observe each other on the sly and take notes, and still almost no one could do it. It was a relief to portray adults instead, that odd species that worked and mated and lived out there. They weren’t here to reel in the exaggerations that crept into your characterizations, and you, at least, had it in for them. These were the people, after all, who’d dreamt up absurdities like Mutually Assured Destruction and made you live with the consequences without any say in the matter. Even worse was the realization you kept having, after being suckered for years, that they really had no idea what they were doing.
Most of your interactions with grownups occurred at a congregational church on the other end of Whitney Avenue, a sanitized 50’s version of the Puritan churches on the green, where a group of crusty professors and comfortable suburbanites gathered each Sunday at 10 to express, among other things, their devotion to the color white. The sanctuary was painted a dozen shades of the color, organ pipes tucked behind off-white curtains, the windows’ rippled glass turning the outside into shades of cream and beige, not to mention the half-inch cubes of white bread used for communion, which they popped in their mouths before throwing their heads back in unison to down a shot of grape juice before depositing the glass in custom-made cupholders in the pews. Your sister became hyper dancing in a room full of nine year olds, and sitting in church with a hundred adults had a similar if opposite effect. The energy leached out of you and a monotone crept into everyone’s voice till you mumbled the Lord’s prayer with the same halting cadence each week, so that not pausing for a full second between “Thine is the kingdom—and the power—and the glory” was a sign of open rebellion and suggested, quite frankly, that you didn’t know how to say it.
When some poor soul suggested, to control heating costs, that an off-white fan be installed on the off-white ceiling, the congregation broke their monotone long enough to insinuate in their strident denunciations that how we heat and cool ourselves should be hidden at all times, as if a fan could distract one from contemplating Higher Things. As a compromise a single fan was installed, its blades a few feet wide dangling from a ceiling fifty feet high, with the understanding that it never be on during worship. Since ceiling fans don’t change the temperature of a room—they cool people by creating a wind chill or circulate heat more evenly—this was one of those typical compromises that didn’t make sense: It could only be on when it was useless. This battle over aesthetics was overshadowed by the deacons who, charged with ringing the bell a dozen times each Sunday to signal the end of worship, fell into an epistemological crisis when they realized they couldn’t agree—in a kind of double whammy they also realized they’d never agreed and were unable to resolve the matter by consulting any source—whether a “ring” consists of a ding-dong or a ding. Arguments ensued, sides were taken and fortified until Mrs. Harlan, who spent each meeting in the corner of the sofa gazing down through her reading glasses at her knitting and who was presumed to be wise because she never spoke, finally cut through the gloom with the certainty of her tone and ventured that the committee, when counting correctly, had been ringing the bell a full twenty-four times after each service and she, poor dear, hadn’t been able to express her own position on the matter only because she wasn’t strong enough to pull the bell cord on Sundays when it was her turn.
Scandals like this confirmed to your adolescent mind that adults, while fine in ones and twos, got dumb in each other’s presence. Yet you might not have dismissed them as a group until you heard Mrs. Schmidt discovered a homeless man in the narthex one afternoon asking for food and informed him with some indignation—before threatening to call the police—that they already gave money to a soup kitchen housed as far away as possible down at the other end of Whitney Avenue. After being instructed each Sunday to help the poor you were outraged on his behalf—surely more so than he was himself—and now, with their character sufficiently smeared, it was easy to discount pretty much everything they said after that no matter how sensible it was. You’d take the other side on principle.
While walking back to school after stalking the banker you’d made the slightest association—a church member worked in the same building he entered—which seemed to taint everything about him, so that you ended up creating a caricature of a world you swore you’d never join with a mercilessness that is the domain of teenagers who haven’t yet compromised themselves by living in it. It’s not only hard to observe things, it’s hard to recall them right. In class you found it impossible to watch the others perform and keep the banker’s gait in the back of your mind. It was like counting to yourself while carrying on a conversation with a friend—you end up doing both rather poorly—and by the time you got up your posture had sunk, your shoulders sloped forward, and when you started pacing, pretending to be late for a meeting, distracted, grimacing, banker-like, in the back of your mind a voice was shouting Stop! Wait! You got it all wrong! After observing this man for fifteen minutes, mimicking his gestures, taking notes, disparaging him, trying to empathize with what you thought was his ennui, his image started to dissolve as soon as he was out of sight and you ended up with a mishmash of you and him and clichés about adults and finance and churchgoing thrown in—exactly what you weren’t supposed to do.
The mind is a lousy container sometimes, though to be fair you didn’t have a lot of practice exercising your memory this way. Most of the time your class worked in the other direction, creating physical characters from acts of imagination, writing extended biographies of their lives, improvising scenes not in the plays, or, like the worst rumors you’ve heard about theatre, deciding what kind of animal your character might be and then, when the classroom lights are turned off, how you might interact with the menagerie now inhabiting the room. But you worked on your own most of the time. At the beginning of the year you’d been assigned a monologue from August Strindberg’s A Dream Play, in which the daughter of Indra, god of the heavens, descends to witness people suffering on earth so she can understand their laments. As one of the play’s minor sufferers you rehearsed for hours in a chair, saying the lines with your eyes closed, or in the dark, or wearing sunglasses, trying to picture what it was like to be a blind man imagining the vastness and wetness of the sea, trying to imagine not only being old but having a son and raising him and then losing him on a voyage across some stormy thing out there you’d never seen for yourself. As for your performance, you looked through your closet for clothes that suggested “old” and “blind,” but the tenor of your voice remained that of a fifteen year-old trying to imagine something beyond the limits of his imagination, and the rigid back, the hand incessantly tracing the air in small circles revealed someone not yet comfortable in his own body. So how could you inhabit someone else’s? Even if you succeeded in bringing him to life, your classmates might not have noticed. They were too busy giggling each time you said the word “seamen.”
The school’s productions were immensely creative. Staging Macbeth and Macduff’s duel on skateboards translated their fight into more familiar terms, but instead of Einfühlung, literally a “feeling into,” which the word “empathy” is based on, you pulled back, seeing how much the Scottish king or a blind man resembled you, assuming on some basic level everyone’s suffering looks the same, that Lady Macbeth or Ionesco’s rhinoceros or a banker or anyone, really, is within reach of a fifteen year-old. Most students didn’t go on to professional theatre, so the program might be considered a success if it got them to expand their imagination and experience other points of view—to the extent anyone can—but defining success that way made the magic you’d glimpsed on stage seem more like a sleight of hand.
Maybe you should’ve played characters your own age or practiced playing yourself. One thing was certain, though: case the city a few times for characters and you start to see theatre everywhere. You never know when a brilliant line or gesture might appear. So when Melissa, a girl whose full bosom was balanced by a flinty sense of ethics that prevented her from attending her prom because there were trailer parks in her town, insisted on having another relationship talk in your driveway one evening, and you found yourself nodding in the affirmative, you weren’t necessarily agreeing you’d call her back more promptly or do whatever she was demanding this time but were thinking My god what a great monologue for a play! As if on cue, she took off her glasses to clean them with a violent huff and rubbed the lens with her shirt cuff so hard it looked like she was grinding the fog away, and you thought What timing! The gesture! Exquisite! Your main concern, after extricating yourself from the conversation, was making it back to your room in time to write it down while it was still vivid in your mind. You started carrying a notebook for moments like this, scraps of paper, even a dollar bill in a pinch to jot down notes for some future creative project, until collecting observations became an end to itself and you had a vivid memory of going places and not quite listening. Thinking of Melissa now conjured up nothing but a few jumbled images: her house behind the green in Branford, her dad a Marxist, her mom a minister, one bringing up Nietzsche’s view at the dinner table that God is dead, the other bringing up Nietzsche’s agonizing death by syphilis, Melissa’s virginity pledge which, as far as you were concerned, never made sense at all.
The summer you moved back to New Haven after graduate school your walks were filled with diversions like these, your mind turning this way from brownies to Strindberg to ex-girlfriends, and you’d look up suddenly midday and have to find your way home. It’s exciting to recognize mundane things, and soon the weeks fell into a pattern: the ecstasy of recognition, which values good and bad equally, soon tarnished as less flattering details came back and made you question what in god’s name you were doing on these daily peregrinations. The food at Claire’s, for instance, was beautiful but bland. It had always been bland, you recalled one afternoon, playing with your salad, so much so that you felt only a conspiracy or collective amnesia among the customers could make the eatery as renowned as it was. The Center for British Art, built with the money and eclectic taste of Paul Mellon, still had inspired bathrooms and uninspired art. Even at the art school, the place you liked most of all, you’d grown so tired of the smell of bare feet and fish trees by senior year, the same tracks from The Wall and Dark Side of the Moon played over and over, the students extinguishing cigarette butts on the bench tops and debating which art students were the most screwed up (the writers, because they were the most eloquently suicidal) that you’d done an independent study your senior spring so you could write a play on your own instead of going downtown each day. You’d finished the few academic courses you had left before noon at the low-slung brick school in town and sped home in a rusty K Car with a passenger door that only opened from the inside, a seat you adjusted by yanking on a jerry-rigged coat hanger, and windshield wipers that didn’t touch the windshield, a technical difficulty you’d solved by purchasing a special spray advertised on TV. (The same substance used on airplane cockpit windows! the voice said.) It made the rain bead and run off the windshield if you drove fast enough which, as it turned out, was usually above the speed limit. It was on these afternoons—quicker when it was raining—that you retreated to the basement apartment you shared with your mother and sister, turned off the dehumidifier you kept stealing from the living room to keep your precious books dry, turned on the clip-on light over your desk, stared at the paper you fed into the typewriter and tried to picture, from that windowless bedroom, how things ought to be. You’d long wonder if that decision senior spring, so inconsequential at the time, was the first step in your retreat from the world.
You could recall how your family ended up in a basement, a case of downward mobility so pedestrian it’s hardly worth recounting, yet as soon as you moved out, after a freak rainstorm filled the stairwell and washed into the basement, the years spent there immediately stopped making sense, as if the term itself had nothing to do with comprehension and more to do with where you happened to reside at the moment. (The body provides its own raison d'être wherever it goes.) How does one get used to living in a basement, anyway? How is it, looking back, that you returned late from rehearsals downtown, parked on a ridge by a white ranch and walked across the lawn, forearm raised to defend yourself against the dogwood, and then wave reflexively as you reached the backyard to trip the automatic light so you could make it down the cement stairs and get your key in the lock before it went out? You’d drop the keys in a basket inside the vestibule and pass your sister’s room, her light still visible under the door or not, you didn’t care. Rumor had it she was a vegan who lived on saltines and peanut butter, and in case you forgot her views on the matter she kept a poster on her door of a monkey with electrodes attached to its skull, sunken eyes, and hands on its cage bars beside an excoriation against animal research. She’d remain a stranger for years in a way only family members can be. At this point your mother was snoring down the hall on a foldout couch abandoned by the previous tenants, surrounded by a fireplace that didn’t work, a piano with a frayed bench that no one played except for a Protestant hymn she plucked out during the moments she had the place to herself, and chalk drawings of you and your sister commissioned by your grandmother when the family still had middle-class pretensions.
It wasn’t legal. Mr. G upstairs had built the apartment for his mentally comprised son to live a more independent existence, but he needed too much help to live there. Mr. G, a butcher, kept a stash of vodka and government surplus cheese in a basement pantry off your living room, and when he came down for whatever he jonesed for that day he dropped your mail off on the kitchen table. You weren’t allowed to get it yourself, have a phone in your name, meet the neighbors, and the configuration of the apartment limited your movements. On nights like this you’d head straight for your room, positioned in the middle of the basement without a window or air vent, sit at the desk in the corner, stare at the wall, and write. Escape—the same theme worked over and over no matter where you started, as if weaving these plot lines together could turn chaos into order. A retarded patient your mother used to care for inspired a story in which he ran away from his group home, stole a boat, and floated down the Connecticut River, Huck Finn-style, to freedom. He drowned along the way—in your play as in life—even though you were rooting for him to make it, and you wondered how you could set characters in motion but not picture the ending you wanted, as if, due to some defect in your imagination you’d actually have to escape yourself before your characters could do the same. The writing, feverish at times, kept you up for hours until, tired by inaction, your body nudged you toward a pull-up bar in the doorway, which you tried to use without making it creak and waking someone before crawling into bed.
In the middle of the night with the door closed it was the darkest place, still, you’ve ever been, and only a faint kinesthetic sense you didn’t know you had kept you from bumping into yourself when you turned over. It’s surprising how quickly the eyes adjust to a place like this and then, once established, rebel against change. When you opened your door each morning with a dull headache to a whoosh of semi-fresh air and headed to the bathroom, your eyes were so dilated you showered by nightlight, which seemed so bright you joked you could read a copy of the Times in the shower stall, then you threw on some clothes, grabbed your keys, put a hand in front of your eyes, and ran back up the stairs, preoccupied by your characters’ plight as you drove down Dixwell Avenue toward school, your imagined self trailing behind you, now a banker, now a bell ringer come to set the record straight, now a ballplayer unafraid to slide, and as you spotted a figure floating away down the Quinnipiac River you were not unlike the mothers of those dancers, your private obsessions superimposed on the landscape wherever you looked.
All these things were gone now, the absent brownies, bare feet, Strindberg, the way your mind circled from one to the other as you wondered how you could fit into a city you wanted to leave behind, which had the unintended result of grounding you there even more permanently. And the basic ingredients in life, things you couldn’t imagine living without, in fact the very concept of things like sunlight, thirst, hunger, longing, and time, disappeared by the end of your first day in the hospital. It wasn’t until your fiancée said she was getting a drink, for example, that you suddenly became aware of the word again and realized you couldn’t remember the last time you’d had a drink, or even the urge to drink. As your sense of normal became recalibrated you were no longer sure why anyone would want to—IVs are a more efficient way to get fluids, aren’t they?—and for the next nine days you’d refuse even the ice chips offered for you to suck on.
Late night. A basin. The crinkle of plastic. A nurse your age performed a catheterization—your third, you think—while you mused, half naked, that you used to be attracted to women like her. It’s not just the longing that was gone, or the lack of embarrassment, the entire concept bewildered you as if you were hearing the tale of a stranger’s life. . . . In another life someone like me would’ve wanted someone like her. For all you knew perhaps you’d had a woman like her. In Waterford, wasn’t it, behind a stone wall in autumn with the dark sail of a submarine disappearing into the Sound? You couldn’t have imagined the possibility, not from bed, anyway, because walls and Waterford and the naval base nearby no longer existed. Even walking down Audubon Street thinking of places you used to walk, your mind doubling back on itself, you still internalized what you saw—the flicker of a building, for example, on the retina—which in turn refreshed corresponding images in your memory. Without this continual engagement our ability to picture the most essential things, such as a spouse’s face or concepts like “here” or “there,” can disappear. This is how Oliver Sacks describes John Hull, who lost his vision in middle age and soon couldn’t picture the number 3, or Jacques Lusseyran, the French Resistance fighter who was blinded at eight and forgot people had faces. Something analogous, you suspect, starts to happen during any isolation, and within hours of arriving at the hospital the mental schema you had that maps everything you know to be “out there” was fading.
It was in this reduced state, your mind turned inward and finding its own walls blank, that your fiancée sank into the chair next to you and announced that the insurance left over from graduate school, which was days from expiring, hadn’t approved your stay. “We could do it,” she said, suggesting a quick marriage might solve the problem. “The judge could stop by after lunch and perform the ceremony.” The conversation lurched to halt. You were dimly aware, even now, that you two hadn’t been in sync since you’d left the apartment you shared in Chicago to attend graduate school, though now that you were confined to this room you yearned to see her and were grateful for her tales of the outside, for rubber hoses threaded Rube Goldberg-style across the kitchen—which reminded you among other things that you had a kitchen—and took your mind off your roommate, who would soon be on a suicide watch, or the endoscope they’d just stuck down your throat. It was as if your relationship had been healed by jettisoning its past, and you’d finally found a room for yourselves.
You’d spent the past year in Boston sleeping alone, changing the sheets (or not) when you wanted, facing no one across the breakfast table, or not having breakfast at all—You grabbed a granola bar before hustling down Brighton Avenue each morning to class with your roommate Karen, past shuttered clubs and auto shops, convincing yourselves over the course of a year that one could have a vocation like playwriting that never earned money. Meanwhile the compensation your fiancée received for her summers at a law firm, which seemed grotesque at first, started to feel justified because, basically, everyone she knew was making the same. She planned career moves a year and a half in advance. You couldn’t figure out what to do one hour to the next. It’s not surprising after a year apart that you were heading in opposite directions.
It was more than that, of course. Your fiancée had grown up in one of those New England mill towns whose entrepreneurial energy had exhausted itself midway through the Industrial Revolution. Memories of home inevitably led her back to the Portuguese Holy Ghost festival held each summer in a tent behind the local VFW, the watery sopa that took years to appreciate, the squeaky sound system, the man in a toupee belting how he did it His Way, the accordion and polkas and women dancing in polyester skirts, that odd blurring of traditions the way the immigrants themselves had blended over the generations. The same people attended each year, there the Carreiros, there the Silvas, who lived four generations on a street named after them, there Mr. and Mrs. Tavares who wouldn’t let their daughter attend MIT on a scholarship because, at fifty miles, it was too far away. They ate and drank and smoked and made the inevitable pilgrimage to the hall to gaze at a tiara brought over from Portugal, gossiping about who won or should’ve won festival queen that year and inevitably recounting the story of your fiancée’s grandfather, may God rest his soul, who held off death one summer through shear doggedness until a crowd gathered and he named his granddaughter festival queen before slumping over in his chair.
Despite attending gatherings like this, the Sunday dinners with extended family, the repetition which gives meaning to action, she was intellectually restless growing up and the nursing home where she worked wasn’t very stimulating. She knew little about applying to college (she thought she had to be invited to do so) and applied to Dartmouth only after it courted her based on her SATs. For those who leave a town like this, suspicion grows as you acquire more sophisticated company that you’re faking it or disparaging your past—you may accuse yourself of this after too many drinks—and if by some miracle the change comes easily you’re left with the uneasy sense that identity, so enmeshed in class and the ties we form during childhood, is as easy to discard as a pair of shoes. At college she was alienated by the sense of entitlement she found there, but returned to the Holy Ghost festival with you one summer only to realize she no longer felt at home there, either. Straddling worlds like this can lead to puzzling displays of loyalty. Though you’d asked a college friend to sing Mozart’s setting of the Ave Maria at your wedding, your fiancée forbade it. Although everyone in her family was Catholic, from her current vantage point performing in a foreign language, even Latin, was uppity.
It was then, as you two finished graduate school and met up again in New Haven to look for housing, that you met Mr. K, a Polish handyman turned entrepreneur who’d rehabbed a row house on the corner of Saint Johns and Olive. When he showed you his pad on the top floor with its exposed beams, and the first-floor apartment with big windows that hadn’t yet been occupied, you were convinced it was the perfect hip-yet-unpretentious place to start over. The house stood a block from Wooster Square near an Italian pastry shop, coffin maker, and public housing that even someone who likes disruptive modern architecture might find out of place. The area itself had been in flux for decades. Italian Americans who’d escaped to the suburbs a generation ago returned on weekends to connect to some semblance of their past, lining up outside one of the competing pizza parlors and pointing out to their uninterested kids where uncle so-and-so used to live. At the center, Wooster Square seemed untouched and gave the illusion if you looked in the right direction that nothing much had changed since the 1840s when it was laid out. Within a few days of moving in you made a habit of walking there at sunset when St. Michael’s, the yellow church across the street, was set aglow and suffused the park with light, and you’d stand there and marvel at the leaves now translucent, the lamp posts now a better apparition of themselves just by being lit from a different angle.
You walked from there one night to a converted warehouse nearby where Linda, a drama teacher of yours, welcomed both of you to the neighborhood, recounting after dinner with a glass of wine and twinge of Irish fatalism how the colony of New Haven, newly founded and desperate for trade, had built a “great shippe” in the 1640s that sailed for England with its most prominent citizens and valuables, never to be heard from again, and how the colonists the next summer despaired to see it return as a ghost ship emerging from the clouds. Historically the loss was devastating—the colony couldn’t compete with Boston and New Amsterdam afterward and wouldn’t build another trading vessel for a century—but the story also seemed to connect spiritually to the malaise of the city, and you wondered as long as the story was told if success might remove its citizens too far from their image of themselves.
The apartment you returned to that night was a disaster. The paint on the built-in shelves remained tacky and sagged when laden with books. Teens congregated on the stoop drinking from paper bags. You’d heard of break-ins nearby and opened the windows only an inch at night, as far as the plastic stops would allow, which made the July air even stickier, and you set the alarm which tracked movement in the main room and made it such a pain to get to the bathroom that you ended up trying to hold it till morning. The back of the building abutted Grand Avenue, a main thoroughfare, cater corner from a firehouse, and each night with the ceiling fan spinning fast enough to set it rocking you were serenaded by sirens every few hours, till one Friday night after the bars closed you heard screeching tires, bending metal, twinkling glass, then a hoarse wail so urgent it commanded a response. You two lay there horrified, unable to ignore it yet unsure what to do. Run into the main room, disarm the alarm and call 911 or just run into the street and do . . . what? The EMTs at the firehouse surely heard it. The neighborhood wasn’t safe. The wailing stopped while you lay in bed still rationalizing your inaction, and you discovered in the paper the next day you’d heard someone die outside your window.
The second-floor tenants worked the graveyard shift at Amtrak and cooked breakfast as you went to bed, crossing from counter to fridge to table to sink, floorboards creaking overhead, causing your fiancée to grind her teeth and toss fitfully till she sent you upstairs to ask what-in-the-hell was going on, only to discover two men in bathrobes, mugs in hand, an incredulous look on their face, wondering about your sanity. Each poor night’s sleep made the start of her clerkship more fraught. Except for some advice from a previous clerk who overlapped by a few weeks there wasn’t much of a job description except to be excellent at all things, drafting legal opinions but also chauffeuring the judge, babysitting his kid, carting mail from the post office each day after it was x-rayed—he was on the board of a non-profit, so you worked for that too—along with the odd protocols that come with working for someone with secret service protection and for whom questions of status are always being negotiated. (When a judge and senator need to talk, for example, whose secretary defers and makes the call? And who’s put through first and waits, in the inferior position, he thinks, for the other one to pick up? Don’t know? Neither do they, which makes it very complicated.) To understand a place like this you’d have to join the routine long enough for your sense of normal to be recalibrated, so when a co-clerk admits she doesn’t have time to break up with a boyfriend—“Why bother? I don’t go home much anyway”—it actually makes sense.
The judge was the first person you met who went by title alone even when he wasn’t around, and the few times you gathered socially you found yourself arrayed in front of him with everyone else, waiting for him to hand down decisions on baseball or foreign relations or the holiday eggnog. Being subservient inside his chambers made your fiancée more esteemed outside among lawyers her age and thrust her into more rarified company, which drove her further from her image of herself. This was magnified by walking home each night expecting sirens and the sounds of breakfast overhead till she finally threw herself on the bed, kicked the mattress, a fistful of hair in each hand, yelling that she couldn’t do it anymore, that she’d be found out, that she should just go home, while you stood in the doorway and watched her, no Einfühlung, no “feeling into,” no feeling at all.
Around the same time that night your sister turned out the light in a luxury apartment in Kenmore Square she shared with a boyfriend who chose his English name, Jerry, from the cat and mouse cartoon he’d watched as a boy. His parents were professors who fled the Cultural Revolution and remade themselves on Long Island by opening a chain of restaurants and then bringing people over to work in them. They sent for Jerry, their only child, when he was five, and his teeth would always be stained by the lack of dental care he’d received in Hong Kong. In college his mom made him wear a beeper at all times so she could page him, and her refusal to learn English twenty years after emigrating meant he was used as a go-between with everyone from restaurant suppliers to the pool guy. She wanted him to be a doctor, he wanted a degree in biology, and since he could neither disappoint her nor himself he’d come to a standstill, which is how you knew him, putting the beeper in his sock drawer so he couldn’t hear it, then taking it out again, playing Sim City at night for hours with players in time zone after time zone till they dropped off to sleep, then sleeping all day himself. He enrolled in a one-year master’s program but wouldn’t register for classes, subsisting on buckets of KFC all week, then donning a Knicks jersey and trying to work it off—all of it, the anger, the disappointments, the future he wouldn’t face—on the court each weekend. Like anyone who spends time in isolation he developed a routine no one else could understand, in this case with their kitten Tam, spoiling her with a diet of KFC and then tossing her in the freezer and counting to five when she misbehaved. After watching him administer this punishment you’d wonder in later years as she stared nervously out the window whether the occasional fog in winter contributed to her anxiety disorder, or whether she was blessed with having no long-term memory so that her life in Boston appeared, if at all, like the incarnation of a previous self.
Jerry’s parents had a plan, always a year or two away, to ship him back to the mainland to get a wife. He was vague about this with your sister, and vague about your sister to his parents, trying to hide the fact that they lived together—a cat and mouse game played over five years—till he started punishing her for the situation he’d created. His mom called so often he wouldn’t let your sister answer the phone. Now he started complimenting her by saying “That’s very Chinese of you” or “That’s very white of you” when she did something he disliked. He insisted if they had kids they’d never date white people, though their mom was white herself. It was a situation not unlike living in a basement without a phone in your name, replicated in a luxury tower with a view of Fenway, and like it, as soon as she moved out it stopped making sense. She didn’t plan to leave. She just showed up for work each day at a home for brain damaged adults and ran studies on addiction for a psychologist, which led her to apply to graduate school—only, it so happened, in other cities—insisting both to herself and Jerry that his suspicions were unwarranted. She didn’t know it at the time but freeing her body freed her mind, and within months of moving to another city and waking up alone she could imagine life without him.
Your mother, too, had been dating someone, a chemist named Joe, a few years before that when you and she broke down one night on a deserted highway in Connecticut. You’d hiked across an ice sheet to the nearest exit (she with her bum knee) to a motel filled with oddballs gathering for a flea market convention and called AAA from a pay phone outside. After jumping up and down for an hour in the cold—the proprietor, an eccentric bat, had bolted the office door when she saw you—a guy showed up in a beat-up rig with no name on it and swung back onto the highway to retrieve the car with you, your mom, and his lady friend squished into the cab. Who knows where he took you after that. The roads narrowed, tree branches slapped the truck. Convinced he was going to stop in an empty field and slit your throat, you pulled a Bic pen out of your back pocket and worked off the cap thinking, with a paranoia that seemed rational at the time, that in a pinch you could stab him in the eye and make your escape. Meanwhile your mother, reacting with the same sense of dread, decided to shorten your pain by throwing her arms around you and putting her head on your shoulder, which, if touching in retrospect, would nonetheless have spoiled your aim.
The garage, long closed for the night, sat at a deserted intersection, and you ended up across the street in a Store 24 for eight hours on a milk crate the cashier finally dragged out for you. Your mother, as always, refused to sit. You were grateful when the Sunday papers arrived so you could order the sections and keep your mind off the fact that at no point in this misadventure was she willing to call Joe for a ride home even though they’d been dating for over a year and he lived less than an hour away, and you’d mentioned, at times heatedly, gesturing at the phone outside as you tried to think of friends who still lived in the area, that this was something you’d do for an acquaintance. When she called the next morning, figuring he’d be up by then, you promised you’d never have a relationship where you hesitated to make a demand, till years later you found yourself pacing around the kitchen of your Westville apartment the night you broke your lease and moved from Wooster Square, your arms extended, cross-like, around a broom handle, wondering long after you knew you were in trouble whether your fiancée would mind driving you to the Emergency Room or whether you should call a cab instead.
For your sister it wasn’t just the physical distance that allowed her to escape but the sense, after starting graduate school in Philadelphia, that she could look back at her former self and realize I didn’t like who I was when I was with him. Though we’re seldom aware of it, our bodies synchronize with the bodies around us, till one begins to wonder if the concept of free will means associating with people you don’t mind copying. (This is why we hang out with people who agree with us. They give us back to ourselves.) As you looked into your bedroom that night in Wooster Square, curious whether your fiancée could calm herself, you recalled the apartment you shared in Chicago over a bodega, and the milk truck that idled on Saturday mornings and sprinkled exhaust on the window sill, and the bed that sagged no matter how you shored it up so that when you gained weight she made you sleep on the edge so she didn’t roll toward you. Mostly, though, you saw the few nights she flung herself on it, hands clawing her hair, while you wrapped yourself around her and worked her hands free, spilling clichés till she calmed down. You can stop. That wouldn’t be bad . . . Break it down into parts. It’s more manageable that way. Though you could see now these episodes weren’t just the product of a college thesis or law school, like you’d hoped, but might never change, it didn’t occur to you to leave. You’d started dating in college and had never lived alone and couldn’t picture in some frighteningly literal way who’d make all those decisions. Where does one live, for example, when one can live anywhere? Though we can act on anything we can imagine, we imagine the future in terms of the past, often ending up with a variation on what’s already in front of us. You’d never been to Seattle, and in some ways it held the allure of the impossible: on the coast yet surrounded by mountains, inexpensive yet culturally alive with a growing number of theatres, which in itself was a reason to go. But the truth is, if you’d packed your bags that night and found yourself alone, you’d have gone, basically, because you heard a lot of other people were going, too.
You don’t remember when your third roommate arrived in the hospital room. For a while he was just a rustle of sheets, a raspy tenor, but from his muttering you pieced together what was going on: He didn’t like sleeping on his back, so he pulled out his IV and rolled over, then after the IV needle stabbed him beneath the sheets a while he wet himself and groped for the call button. The resident, a wisp in aqua and clogs, on her feet for the second night in a row, kept reinserting his IV, he kept pulling it out, and they continued this dance for what seemed like hours while you stared at the ceiling, not busy, obviously, but still irritated at having your stupor interrupted.
Dead of night. A group marched in and talked in insistent tones as they held him down. What was it they kept repeating? It seemed the oxygen level had fallen in his blood and they were pushing a syringe directly into his heart –
You never found a way to capture the sound of that scream, though it convinced you finally that there’s no dignity in suffering. As he whimpered the rest of the night and shook the bed railing your body started to shudder at times along with his, as if empathy weren’t a byproduct of those imaginative leaps you’d experienced in theatre but of physical proximity itself. Like the voice you heard outside your apartment, his anguish grew so urgent it commanded a response, but you knew nothing, could do nothing, couldn’t imagine what you’d do if you could get out of bed, so you pressed the call button when his mumbling grew into a wail, knowing even as you did it, with the nurse’s station three feet from the door, that it didn’t make a difference.
The next morning you saw the old man for the first time, slouching in a chair, playing with fruit cocktail long marinated in the can, huffing, irascible, waiting for his discharge papers, and now that he was more than a just sound in the dark you immediately disliked him. He finished breakfast and lunch before his wife appeared, then yanked the IV out of his arm and shuffled off—“Where’s my shoe!? Where’re my papers!?”—to see what was going on. His wife must’ve heard him, though, because she soon led him back by the arm, the resident, still on duty, close behind.
“How was he last night?” his wife asked, packing his overnight bag.
“Wonderful,” the resident lied.
His wife smiled, relieved. She’d take him home, sit him in his favorite chair, cook a homecoming meal, something familiar that evoked another time, then let him putter around unaware that he’d reduced himself to a blubbering mess in less than an hour. You’d witnessed an experience he was being encouraged to forget, if he hadn’t already. Shouldn’t he know he’s a danger to himself, or at least know how fragile his routine is? That one can be unpacking the kitchen one moment and pacing with a broom handle the next, unable to imagine a moment without pain? Then again, why take the illusion of control away? Maybe it’s better to pretend it’s a dream, better to wonder what those pock marks are and blame some careless, unseen nurse than realize it’s where you kept impaling yourself on an IV needle. And so, in a way, a lie gives you back to yourself.
Is healing a kind of forgetting? You’d be home tomorrow on your 26th birthday, and on your first walk through the neighborhood in Westville you’d see a woman with an armful of mail bounce up a stair toward her front door—a small hop on the balls of her foot, that’s it—and you’d purse your lips, unable to fathom how she did it. Then one day you’d catch your reflection in a mirror as you changed at a local gym and realize you can no longer imagine what it’s like to laugh or turn or breathe or shift in bed with cut abdominal muscles. Sure, it was hard, you could describe in some general way, but you can no longer grasp how you’d planned movements like getting out of bed inch by excruciating inch. Somehow, though, you drove downtown juggling the clutch, brake and gas in a rhythm that was suddenly familiar, parked at the racquet club across from the abandoned highway, bending your torso to grab your gym bag, and rushed into the locker room where you caught your reflection in the mirror. If driving a car seemed normal, suddenly, your body did not. You stood there and traced your incision like a map, the three laparoscopic cuts an inch long stuck in orbit around a thick diagonal line created when the surgeon had changed his mind and gone in old-style. You pressed the skin between the scar and navel but didn’t feel a thing—the nerves were severed—and you wondered, upon closer inspection, if the slight pucker at the top meant a medical student was practicing that day.
You don’t know this yet, but in a few years you’d hear that a childhood friend named Kent had died. You’d been close in junior high, but deciding to attend the arts school downtown each afternoon pulled you apart till it stopped occurring to you to call him. After hearing the news he appeared to you unbidden for weeks the way you’d always known him, moppish hair, a stained front tooth and quick smile that always revealed it, the kind of voice destined to crack well into high school, a lanky body that would reach six feet but never feel at home with itself so that when he lashed out he only put himself in jeopardy. You used to bike each summer to the tennis courts behind the elementary school you’d attended, hauling a jug of instant tea with ice cubes that retained the stale smell of your freezer. He showed up in Docksiders and an Izod and was soon smashing the ball as hard as he could, inside the line or out, it didn’t matter, and occasionally when he missed a shot chucking his racquet or ball over the fence so you spent the better part of an hour in the brush. It was fine, really. You were teenagers, a little fucked up, and playing was really an excuse to grouse about the things you thought had made you that way.
You hadn’t talked to Kent for years—if you’d never seen him again you wouldn’t have been surprised—yet when you heard he’d been dead for over a year you felt a sense of vertigo, as if the world you imagined, that mental construct that filled the landscape you walked through and contained all the people you’d ever known, hadn’t matched the world you lived in. When you heard the news you thought, as you always do, that somehow you should have known. You tried to find out some details without much success: he’d made his way to California and lived in his car for a while till he fell, or jumped, off a cliff. You’re pretty sure you’d never know why. A messy divorce, whiffs of trouble—you’d understood him growing up not because you’d known a few details about his life but because you spent time together on summer afternoons and fell into a rhythm. Now, with nothing left to do, you tried to imagine what it might have been like that night. His car, ripped vinyl, perhaps, or a leaky sun roof, an automatic window opener that didn’t work, something an irregularly employed person could afford. A cliff. Scrub brush you spliced in to make it seem more real. A beer can discarded by the back tire or spilling out the door. The music, something loud and alternative, or slow and forlorn, something he turned to by habit and didn’t even hear as he sat on the hood or stood and leaned out and saw . . . what? You were distracted the next few weeks, his image hovering but out of focus, till you recalled how he’d snuck out of his house during hurricane Gloria to see if the wind could return his serve. You started imagining him that way: a hand grabbing his Wilson racquet in the breezeway, the slam of a storm door, a glimpse of his windbreaker as he ran toward school. It came close to capturing all the possibilities of his existence, the playful energy, the potential for self destruction, and every time you mentioned him you pictured him there and recounted the story he’d told you till he came to live somewhere on that court, lunging, windswept, caught between a curse and a grin.
If the cliché is true that the dead live on within us through these imaginative reconstructions, it might also be true that we can live on within ourselves. If, instead of shrinking to the size of the room, we kept all our experiences in mind at once the way Zoltan Torey, who went blind at 21, keeps all places in his—the entire visual world recalled, updated and fit together in a kind of “controlled dream,” according to Oliver Sacks, so that he can do daring feats like scare his neighbors by changing his roof gutters at night. For most of us the challenge is less dramatic than knowing where a roof ends without seeing it. Your sister, for example, looks at her cat Tam by the window, then at her new husband who’s not new anymore, wondering if she ever lived in an apartment near Fenway and picked up her phone only after you yelled into the answering machine; or you, driving past the hospital where you forgot there was an outside, or the ranch where you lived in a basement, or the five years you lived with a woman you thought would be your wife, convinced, despite evidence to the contrary, that if you could just remember enough you could fit the pieces together.
As the old man left the hospital room with his wife you leaned on an IV pole and began a lap around the nurse’s station. The medical students, the nurse, the attending surgeon who operated on you—did one of them pass just now? You realized, turning your head, that you had no idea what they looked like. Tomorrow you’d be back in the kitchen of your Westville apartment, the broom now in the broom closet, the washer with its coil of hoses, everything ordered in a way you don’t recognize. You’d gaze at the glossy blue walls and stuccoed ceiling, slapped on with such thick, careless strokes that it looked like it was always on the verge of melting, till you felt like you were standing inside a birthday cake. Your fiancée cooked a homecoming meal of pork chops and vegetables, the kind of dinner you ate in Chicago when you were just out of college, only to start a fire because the previous tenants left a puddle of grease in the broiler. You called 911 as she doused the flame and joked half-heartedly with the firefighters when they arrived, then climbed a circular staircase padded with pink carpet that the cats jumped on like some Brobdingnagian plaything to your bedroom on the top floor, where you’d try to get used to the bed you’d sit on each day next to a pile of unread magazines when you weren’t exercising. In the darkness you caught the faint outline of the room for the first time without boxes and tried not to flinch as your fiancée turned over. As your eyes fell on her sleeping form you wondered if she was the same person who walked you down the hall and washed you after surgery—with love, you thought—or whether those people were already slipping away.
It was then, in the dark of that first night, that you could still remember what it was like to push the IV pole down the hall to a window, when you looked out at New Haven for the first time in nine days and realized something so vividly you swore you’d never forget. What was it again? You looked out at the condemned buildings and torn pavement of the city you tried to leave behind, then down at your hospital gown, and reached out to touch the glass.