New York City in the winter is a difficult place for a three-year-old. The sidewalks are small, packed with snow and tourists, and slippery with ice. The dangers of the city – busy streets and speeding bikes – seem amplified. I see the hesitation in my son’s steps, his resistance to let go of my hand and run ahead on the sidewalk. But for me, there’s no greater time and place on earth. The winter cold presses the buildings together and narrows the streets, slowing the New York hustle to a crawl. Our bodega on the corner is nearly empty, our favorite café crackles every time the door opens, tourists huddle into doorways trying to unfold wet maps. I’ve never felt more a part of this city, a survivor where others have failed. I hope my son feels the same, that eventually, he lets go of my hand and runs to the corner Christmas tree stand to yell, “this one, this one, it’s huge!”
We’ve stopped in front of a book store on avenue A. He’s only three, but my son makes me laugh,
“I have that story at home” he says, pointing to a low shelf with three bright pink stuffed pigs.
“It’s in my room.” It seems like everything is his and, if it’s not already in his room, he wants it, needs it, and asks for it loudly.
“Dad’’, he looks up at me, squeezing my hand to get my attention, “dad, where are we going?”
“I’m making mom a cake, remember?”
“It’s her birthday” he replies, more to himself than to me.
“No, it’s not her birthday. Sometimes, you can eat cake when it’s not your birthday.”
“I like cake” he replies.
His mom is waiting at home. The cake is not so much a peace offering to her as it is a reminder of my love. Desserts have always been more makeup sex than apology for us. Which is good, seeing as I’ve never really understood real makeup sex. But desserts are easy, everyone loves cake, especially mom. Which is also good because our fight was a bad one, but it’s the last on the subject I think. She wants to move to somewhere safer, somewhere more fit for kids, like Connecticut or New Jersey. I hate the sound of that. It’s too easy, and too obvious.
We are the last of our friends here in the city – that started the whole fight. One by one they’ve bought houses with yards, told us “it’s for the kids”, “they need to be able to throw a ball you know?”. And I do know, at least I know what they are trying to say, the lie they’ve repeated to themselves enough times that they think it’s gospel. But if you ask me, they’ve given in, or up.
“Kids in suburbs are a new thing” I tell my wife, “kids have survived in cities for centuries, maybe millennia before any suburb was created.”
But she’s tired of hearing it. She feels left behind. Our small two bedroom is no longer her castle. But I don’t know when kids became so important. We both love the city, our son doesn’t even know the difference, so why does it matter if he throws a ball in a yard or in a park?
“Dad” my son pulls my hand, “I have that story too” he points to a stuffed cartoon bee, the main character from his favorite picture book. I could recite the story from memory I’ve read it so many times.
“Yes, you do.”
“It’s in my room.”
I laugh again. The way he says it so convincingly really makes it sound like the story exists only in the folded and drawn upon pages of the blue hard cover laying in his bedroom. I like that thought – that a story could be fully imprisoned in a small yellow bedroom on thirteenth street. Which means this bookstore sells a stuffed animal to go along with a story that only my son has ever heard.
I feel that way, I admit, about my own writing sometimes. The words feel so foreign and unfamiliar; like the first time I’ve ever seen them, my mouth finds their edges rough and their sound sharp. It’s like they’re not at all mine – something somebody else could have in his bedroom, all to himself maybe.
But then again, other times the words feel so close and unshakeable, like an itch on the square of my back, or what I imagine it’s like to be a pack-a-day smoker and always taste the dusty ash of the last cigarette on the edge of your tongue. It depends on the day which one it is, or more so which piece of writing. Like the poem I thought about before leaving the house tonight, before coming out to the New York winter to find cake ingredients, that one has always been unshakeable, an itch behind my eyes.
It’s a poem called “when I knew” or “what love is”. I find that name tacky, but I still can’t decide on a better one after thirteen years. This one is folded in a drawer, unassumingly – far from any manuscript, from any of the books my publishers demand, the deleterious eyes of editors. It’s a good work, I think, one that I wrote after the first real fight with my wife, but she wasn’t wife back then. She hasn’t seen it either, and I won’t put it here, in case one day this story makes it into a collection, or, someone, shuffling through the papers on my desk, stumbles upon this draft. Suffice it to say, I don’t usually find titles of poems to be important, or necessary – but for this one, the title is orienting I think, the word that precedes a definition.
We sit down to watch our favorite tv show. Wednesdays offer little except these few quiet moments. We order Chinese food and relaxation, our knees touch. At this point, after three years of dating, some of the habits that I once scoffed at as lacking effort have found their way into my heart like a slow trickle of water finding the unsealed corners of a mountain. That’s her – a stream of water, clear blue from an unknown source I rarely glimpse. Some days she is a trickle, nearly out of reach, difficult to find, unsatisfyingly restrained. Other days, she is a flood that fills the space around me with panic and awe – leaving the walls wet, the ceiling quenched.
Today she is a trickle, and I am a sponge, or some other thing needing water. She serves us Chinese food on her low glass table in her small Brooklyn apartment where I’ve grown to feel at home. The simple apartment is thoughtfully designed, complex in its simplicity and quite the opposite of my own cluttered, twisting apartment.
I’m on her computer and try to login to watch a show as she serves our food. I see her text messages and I’m enticed to cross some fuzzy line that exists in a rulebook somewhere. But I know I can find an easy laugh by texting my friends from her account so I scroll the messages, skipping the chat I should click but what could it hurt to see a little more? Surely there’s nothing to hide and nothing to be seen.
“Is it working?” she asks.
“Yup.” I mutter, trying to hide the heartbeat rising to my ears. I find what I’m looking for – a chain between her and her ex. I read the messages. Enough messages to know I’ve stumbled upon a dark space, but the door is closed behind me. The messages are too friendly, too flirty, with words like ‘love’ and ‘shouldn’t have’.
I’m acutely aware of every movement in the room, the shifting of the couch pillows next to me, my own body, moving unsubtly from left to right, the heat in my face.
“What is this?” I manage.
I close the laptop and finger my food. Surely, she knows. She wants me to see, she handed me the computer herself, left the messages open. She wanted me to find them, or maybe she’s too careless to delete the messages, an oversight of a poorly attempted cover-up.
“I saw the messages.”
“Listen, I did something I shouldn’t have. I saw your messages, they’re open there, on your computer and I read them. I know I shouldn’t have but I did and I can’t unread them.”
“What messages?” her face is pale and red, she moves unnaturally. She forces a smile that I see right through.
I explain to her that I read the messages with her ex, not all of them, but enough to know I didn’t like it. And true to her style, a style unrefined thirteen years later, she denies it angrily, as if her own voice could plug her ears until the moment has passed. I explain to her that I need to know what the messages are about, that after three years there shouldn’t be secret texts with exes or Wednesday night arguments about trust. But she won’t budge and I storm out. When she begs me to return, I do so on the promise of honesty and reading the entirety of the messages myself.
The week prior, as I visited family, she went to the bar with friends, happening by chance to be the same place as her ex, a man to whom I have no ill will, except the vague understanding that his footprints in my wife’s life end not so long before my own begin. That of course, left me aware of his presence in the unsettling way a warm chair might remind you that there were others who rested their feet before you. But that was natural and, though not welcomed, minimal, given the time and distance since his footprints were significant.
After sufficient liquor she began texting him, ultimately meeting him in a nearby diner. As I read the foreplay and aftermath of that exchange, I felt the tectonic plates of our relationship shift, leaving tremors I still feel today, now, recalling a Wednesday night many years ago.
I can’t lose the image – a tense few hours in a bar, followed by a late-night rendezvous into the early morning and countless messages in the days after. My wife assured me that of course nothing happened, that, though she flirted dangerously with an uncrossable line, that’s all she did – flirt with it. I chose to believe her, because the opposite would mean something far harder to swallow, and ultimately, far more impactful to the life we had slowly built together.
But the idea stuck with me. I imagined her entering the bar, wiping the snow from her shoulders, following her friends to the corner booth where she caught the eye of her ex – an eye she had looked at lovingly for many years. He smiled, pleasantly surprised, while she looked away and slid into the booth, brushing her hair from her face, trying not to betray her own, unintentional, upward curling of her lips.
I imagined that she felt the atmosphere thick, and that conversation passed in front of her in a haze. She heard his laugh over the music – she could still pick it out of a crowd even though it had been years since she heard it -but why wouldn’t she, that made sense. They left the bar without speaking, she didn’t have a reason to. Though she did try, walking the long way to the bathroom, hoping maybe she would catch him buying another vodka water, his favorite drink. When she didn’t, and she was sufficiently full of liquor and pizza a few blocks away, she guiltily reached into her pocket, typed his name and sent a simple message. His response was fast of course, and aggressive. I knew as much because I read it. Their exchange was simple and minutes later they were in his car, talking, touching, not so unintentionally.
I’m sure he tried more, she pushed him away forcefully, but not forcefully enough to keep him from trying again. She felt her skin heat, her pulse was in her ears, like a high schooler, sneaking out, doing something on the edge. She hadn’t planned to feel that way, but she loved it.
They drove aimlessly, unaware of the turns they made, the red light that wouldn’t change to green, that it was snowing harder. He talked about his life, but she didn’t really care. She didn’t want to be a part of it really, not in any serious way, but she welcomed the familiarity, asked questions about his family, their old mutual friends. The diner they sat in together was empty. Passerby thought they were lovers, and in a way, they were. She reminds him that they’re not, that she’s happy, that she has a man at home.
That really stuck with me – even to this day. I think about it picking my son up from daycare, or when my wife and I opt to stay in on Saturday rather than go to the jazz bar where we were regulars in our twenties. I think about it when I return to my boxing gym after months off and tell my old teammates that I have a kid at home, that I can’t make night training anymore. I think about it getting cake ingredients at the corner bodega a decade later. It’s stupid, I know. But the idea of her with someone else, in the middle of the night, her heart beating fast, her feet dancing with a line she never thought she’d cross, and me, sitting at home, waiting, that sticks with you.
I told her I was disgusted. The neat, thoughtfully decorated walls of her apartment, felt like the inside of a box – the ceiling was too low for us to stand without hunching, so we didn’t, for hours. She cried and explained herself – poorly. But she was weak and vulnerable and in some ways I understood her. She wanted to remember how it felt to be invincible, even momentarily. I understood that. We were young then, we wanted to remember the raw power of our bodies, to feel bulletproof. I understood that. I felt the same allure, the need to feel on the edge. I couldn’t fault her for that. I had wandered the bars with friends, talked to pretty girls I shouldn’t have, but I always returned home to her, that was the deal wasn’t it? I guess to be fair, she did return home. But it felt different somehow, like she was exploring, testing the waters. That’s not part of the deal. But she did come back. She did come back. That’s worth something.
She didn’t say any of that. In fact, she didn’t say much worthwhile at all that night. She had no explanation, really. But she was sad, vulnerable, and exposed. She couldn’t explain herself, she had nothing to say, she wasn’t yelling. She wasn’t invincible. That’s worth something too, maybe that’s everything, maybe that’s this whole thing.
We made it through that night, and the fights that followed. And while most of them inspired little writing, that first one, on a Wednesday in December, inspired the poem “What love is”. That poem has oriented much of how I view my wife and the years that have followed. A poem, that on some days, I can almost see glowing in the bottom drawer of the armoire where it’s kept. It’s a poem that I feel in the back of my throat. One that I taste on the edges of my tongue even thirteen years later, as I stand in a bodega with our child, deciding between vanilla or chocolate frosting.
My son doesn’t understand why we’re eating cake, but he’s excited. Mom will love it, she always does, she will smile and kiss me and lick frosting off her finger, and that’s worth something too. Maybe worth missed boxing class, and no longer being a regular at the jazz club, maybe it’s even worth a home in a suburb somewhere.
“I like the chocolate” my son interrupts.
We’ve been standing in the frosting aisle for a long time and I think he’s worried I’ve changed my mind about making cake. I look down at his bundled-up face, his light eyes that remind me of his mother, his cute nose, the butt chin that I gave him.
“I like the chocolate too.”
I pat his head and grab a tub of chocolate frosting.
“And that’s it. That’s how it ends.”
“That’s how it ends?” Nick sits across from me.
We’re in his house, a beautiful brownstone in downtown Brooklyn that we found together, in our late twenties, and which Nick bought using the inheritance from grandma’s passing. Over the years, I’ve seen Nick slowly transform the run-down walkup, piece by piece, into a now sprawling, beautiful magazine-worthy mansion. We sit in his studio, surrounded by various art pieces he’s working on.
We’re often here. In fact, I find myself in this exact place after I finish any of my own work, and equally often when there is no work at all. Nick is my brother, but he has also been a loyal friend for years – one of the few to remain in the city – and as an artist of the physical mediums, a sculptor, I trust him to understand the complexity of my unfinished work and the tenuous nature of confidence in those early stages of a new piece. On top of that, Nick has never entered into written art, though I’m sure he could, and so his criticisms have always lacked the harsh and dry eye of another writer.
He sips slowly from his coffee and leans back in his large leather chair covered in paint and clay.
“But, that’s not how it actually ended,” he offers.
“No,” I say, looking down at my own coffee.
Of course Nick knows the truth – that this story was, in fact, based more or less on true events, and that when I returned home that cold day, cake ingredients in hand, my son ran room to room looking for his mom, who was not there. I found a note on the table that said she was going to her mom’s house and that she would be back later in the week to collect the rest of her clothes and our son.
That night, over chocolate frosted cake, I explained to my boy that mom was tired, and so she went on vacation to see her own mom, “just like you, when you’re tired, and you want mom to pick you up and bring you to bed.”
He nodded as he stuffed cake into his mouth, pretending to understand. When he fell asleep a few hours later, I carried him into my bed. After which I walked downstairs, to the armoire in our living room. I wanted, I think, to find the poem I wrote in my wife’s apartment thirteen years earlier, or maybe, I just wanted to touch the rough edges of the works I barely remembered, the ones that felt foreign, to see if they were still mine; those writings that existed only in the bottom drawer of my run-down armoire in a small two bedroom on thirteenth street.
But as I entered the living room, I saw the armoire doors open, the hangers and drawers raided, my wife’s affairs gone. I never opened the bottom drawer. I never even came close to the armoire actually. Instead, I sat on the floor across the room and re-read my wife’s too short letter.
Of course, Nick didn’t know all of that. All that he knew was what I told him on the phone the next day, and the aftermath he witnessed the following months – the messy divorce, the custody battle, the sale of our apartment.
Nick sips from his coffee again and maintains eye contact, “The story is fine. It’s beautiful in fact, like all your writing, Will.”
He’s somber, and thinking. He takes another long sip of coffee and continues “It’s a beautiful story with a beautiful ending and it certainly could end right there.
He pauses, and I know he means to find the right words for what to say next.
He sips again from his steaming coffee, “But I thought you always told me, ‘the best stories are always tragedies’?”
I’m not sure what to say to that, so I don’t say anything.
My own coffee feels impossibly cold.
“Haven’t you always believed that?”
I’m not sure what to say.
He puts his mug down, leans forward and continues, this time more gently,
“You do believe that, don’t you?”
Photo by Eric Parks on Unsplash