I had a way of getting broken down by men, unwittingly and incrementally, quietly even, so that no one would know until months after the split. I simply disappeared from public view even though I stood there, often out in the open, under an awning or two, with my hands up near my face, incredulous.
I was in a bath, the water long since cooled, more wrinkle than body, and suddenly it occurred. I am alone. That’s my toothbrush on the sink, my coffee-browned, half-blue bristles. These dogs: my dogs. I have been eating alone, sleeping alone, waiting for someone to turn off the overhead light.
Once during a marathon of some television show that had long since overstayed its welcome and even its goodbye, I went looking for him. Tommy, the tiny one, licked at my beard as one-lighted I drove west over a series of bridges. A man can pass over so much water that he feels wet, out to sea. My blues got bluer, purple even, prosey, so that everything I thought sounded vaguely familiar but oomph-less, like I had learned to talk by watching newspapers blow about a busy street. I couldn’t blink straight.
I pulled into his sister’s driveway. Then I reversed out and parked on the street. Tommy’s tongue searched and searched. I leaned into it.
Carla said he had long since gone.
“Dead?” I asked, a little too hopefully, and was turned away.
“Out of town.”
I couldn’t recall a time he’d been in it. He’d spent the past five years looking in my opinion too closely at locomotives. He’d been within this town, suspended, waiting to be plucked out, a mosquito stuck in amber. I was just one more malignancy that could be removed.
I knocked on Carla’s door again. This time it was the boy, a lean seven if that, embarrassed but not yet old enough to get the empathy right. I said, “Thanks,” and he said, “What for” without a question mark. I asked for an address, a phone number, possibly, even a scent. I said point the way but not too specifically.
“Focus on Friday,” he said.
Some phrases kids don’t so much learn as absorb. I felt in the way but of what I did not know.
I decided to drive by the places we used to frequent, not because I expected to see him but because I wanted evidence, an alibi maybe, that I hadn’t given up. Tommy curled up and tried to sleep. He looked like a loose bundle of twigs that someone in the woods was getting ready to discard.
He used to ask if I cared. “Of course,” I said, “but people care differently.” My father, for instance, could squeeze his face into the tightest sponge of care. He could look like he hadn’t seen water in years. I, on the other hand, hadn’t the vocabulary to care so specifically, so all my apologies came out vague, neutered.
“I’m sorry for saying all that.”
I should hold my tongue. Or maybe someone else should hold it.
He was out there not immediately present. I checked my watch. It was Dora the Explorer thirty. I made many critical yet accurate and even clever comments about this watch when he handed it over, unwrapped, a little scuffed about its plastic face, as a thrift-store birthday present. And yet. And yet here I am with a wrist and a place to put it.
If he were here, I would say: “I was there, ya know, dead-set on getting between your eyes and the horizon.”
My heart was in all the right places at all the wrong times.
I couldn’t get in love and not for want of trying. Meaning I didn’t want to try? I didn’t try to want? Nah. Mary used to say, “You’re trying,” as in “You annoy me,” and though I knew how she meant it, I took it a different way. I always took it a different way and on the rare occasion that I didn’t take it a different way, I certainly took it.
But then I started to venture forth. So much so that I appeared to be leaning.
I was getting all sorts of ancillary yet positive emotional states attached to my person. Several co- workers, including Mary, who together had once described me as “just enough,” now tried to set me up with friends and acquaintances. They could see some green beneath the rubble. I felt like the end of a war.
But I always said no.
“Keeping the lights on.”
I had a sneaking suspicion that venturing forth with a companion would mean not venturing forth, or not always venturing forth—that there would be some waiting, some slowing here and there, some general stagnancy.
When Mary called, then, I didn’t so much answer the phone as lift it cautiously from its natural position and place it near my ear, eager for the chance to set it back down.
“If you stay on track,” he was saying, “you can buy a new car.”
But I didn’t want a new car. I wanted an old car with well-worn vinyl seats and indentations that allude to a leaner, possible me.
“A new car has this smell that says success,” he said. “No one can take that away from you.”
“He” being my boss, Ross, a middle-aged white male with floral neckties and the occasional puzzling Band-Aid placement. Today his ear started bleeding in a meeting. His face thus became a no-eye zone. No one had the authority to tell him. The room grew tense with averting eyes. We kept close watch on the agenda.
“For the smell to really work its magic, though,” he said, “you will need to get as many people as you can—especially women—inside the car. It’s all about the interior.”
Ross winked at me, but sensing that I had been blinking when he winked—I had not been—and that I had missed his gesture—I had not—he winked again. The office HVAC had for weeks been drying my eyes a faint red. I couldn’t help but blink. Ross winked and winked.
This, I thought, could go on all day.
He had children all over the city with women who still appreciated him. Which is difficult, he was told. He drove a Mercedes but in such a way as to imply it was a Nissan. He would not take coffee from one establishment into another establishment. That was a rule.
One woman was his special confidant.
“Clarissa,” he said, “you’re my special confidant.”
He said it as if it were a question. She was busy affixing the boy’s clip-on tie. There was a funeral to be attended. There was an obituary to read—homework.
Clarissa patted the boy’s head through a thick mangle of curly hair, and while this did not comfort the boy, it did comfort her.
I thought I was old, but then I got older, so I guess I was young.
This was when the rain assumed an oppressive position above us and I refused daily to open an umbrella. The result was a permanent wetness. I resembled a puddle that could not get evaporated.
“Did you shower with your suit on?” Cindy asked.
“I’m leaking,” I said.
I didn’t exude much in the way of sentiment, which, according to Cindy, made me look lost, like a boy looking for his mother in a department store.
“I’ll carry an atlas,” I said. “You can call me Shackleton.”
“Didn’t he die at sea?”
I passed out other people’s business cards. Why not? I had a drawer full. People were eager to give me one, two. I collected an enviable variety—glossy and matte, standard or squared, soft or sharp edged, linen and cotton and plastic. The only similarity was in the names and titles: printed with confidence—too much confidence if you ask me.
No one asked me.
Sometimes I passed out two. “If you need me,” I’d say, “call her or call him. They know where to find me.”
In September, I bought a new car because I thought it’d take me places. It never occurred to me that I would have to choose the places. I tried merging onto highways erratically, jerkily, following invisible, arcing paths toward the median. My car beeped. My car jerked us back on track.
I tried buses, but the ticket spoiled the surprise. I tried taxis, too, which is to say I argued with drivers all over town.
“Where to?” one said.
“You don’t need the to,” I said back.
“Where do you want to go?”
“I don’t know. I just want to go.”
Then I asked him for a card.
In late September, the weather cooled and pumpkins started insinuating themselves into conversations and onto porches. I couldn’t recall what my face looked like amongst all the available expressions. I could, however, feel that I wasn’t long for this world. I could feel, too, that I wasn’t short for it. I was size-less for this world.