Tuesday, August 30, 2011

These Days When Darkness Falls Early

Following up yesterday's excerpt from Dead Star Twilight, which highlighted the depth of the divide between my wife at the time and myself in the days following the 9/11 attack, this is a portion of the book that's appeared on the main page before but which never fails to generate a positive response. It deals with the sadness of regret, the grace of forgiveness, and the anguish of loss.

After working almost non-stop since two days after the attack -- and almost immediately following the antagonistic conversation detailed here yesterday -- I agreed to have dinner with my ex-wife, Abby, who was also working in New York City.

She and I hadn't been close in years. And I was still nursing a very fresh wound from having recently been left by Kara.

Once again, beginning this Friday, a new edition of Dead Star Twilight will be available as a pay-what-you-want download -- essentially free if you choose -- on this site.

October, 2001: The Past Isn't Through With Us

"God, you look like shit."

"Thanks, I thought I looked pretty good all things considered."

"You're too fucking thin," Abby says.

She kisses me on the cheek and invites me into her apartment. It's my first actual experience with what New Yorkers have the low-expectations to consider a living space. The entire place is no bigger than a walk-in closet. I make a quick sweep with my eyes, which doesn't take longer than a second or two. It's technically a studio, but somewhere along the line some architectural genius decided to throw in a piece of drywall that only comes about three-quarters of the way across the room, creating a partition which sections off a "bedroom" on the other side. The kitchen is simply a small refrigerator and a mini-stove at one end of the main space, next to the entrance. In the corner is a tiny room holding what I can see is the toilet, but there doesn't appear to be anything else in there.

"What, do you bathe in the sink?" I ask.

Abby's wrapped in a towel, her hair wet -- an affecting sight which I'm trying to ignore -- so I know she cleans herself somehow in this place. She walks back behind the partition into her pretend bedroom.

"The shower's in the closet."

"The shower's in the closet?"

"Don't start with me."

My eyes dart past a window which features a view of what I assume is the building next-door -- a brick facade that can't be more than a few feet away. So much for natural light. Besides her books and some old photographs on the precious little wall-space, there's not much in this small room that I immediately recognize from our time together. Our roller-coaster ride of a relationship.

I glance past the wall with the books and the pictures and into the bedroom, just in time to see Abby drop her towel and bend over to slide into her underwear. Most of her body is hidden by the wall, the edge of which seems to split her in half from top to bottom. I watch the curve of her side; her back and her hips; her naked ass and legs. I look away and try to put it out of my mind. Still, from an aesthetic standpoint, there's no denying that she's the only worthwhile thing to look at in this place. Abby was always all curves, with an adorably cherubic face and curly auburn hair. This still holds true. The fact that she's never been very modest around me is something I can 't decide if I'm thankful for right now.

It dawns on me that it's been an especially overwhelming day for memories.

I want to believe that it's unintentional on my part, but I catch a glimpse of her hooking her bra behind her back as I move my eyes across the room again and onto the TV. A rerun of The X-Files is on, a show which, in addition to cigarettes, is one of Abby's avowed addictions. She emerges from the bedroom a moment later, wearing jeans and pulling a cream-colored sweater over her head. She shakes her damp hair out and bends over, patting it dry with the towel that was wrapped around her just a moment ago.

"You really think I'm too thin?" I say with a smirk.

She and I have talked on the phone a few times since my arrival in New York. She knows what led me here -- the unedited version. We've debated getting together, but this is the first time we've been face-to-face in close to a year.

"Yeah, you don't look much better than you did the last time I saw you."

"I was on drugs then," I say, remembering my last days as skinny and sick addict, before transitioning into bloated and utterly repulsive addict.

"Yes, I know. I knew then."

"No you didn't," I say incredulously.

She stands up straight -- throwing her hair back.

"Yes," she says. "I did."

She brushes past me, which in this place means a tight squeeze past a tiny bistro table that's cluttered with take-out bags. She picks up a hair-dryer perched on the edge of the stove, turns it on and begins running it across her hair.

"You did not," I mumble under my breath as I begin to explore the shoebox Abby calls home.

"I heard that -- and yes I did," I hear her say, over the steady white noise of the dryer.

This is the way it's always been with Abby: Her insisting that she knows me better than I know myself -- me arguing that she doesn't, knowing full-well that she's probably right.

I scan her rickety black bookshelves. In the background, Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully are discussing how it is that a character played by Peter Boyle can know so much about a series of murders without having actually committed them. I run my finger across the dust on one shelf; Abby never was much for keeping things spotless. I read off the titles to myself; they're mostly sci-fi paperbacks, with a smattering of Koontz and one or two books on Judaism. After our break-up, Abby jumped neck-deep into her faith in a way she never had before. Seeing the concrete proof of that now just makes me shake my head at the comically obvious implication.

Un-fucking-believable. I drive women to religion.

As I come to the end of the bookshelf, I spot a small picture of the two of us. I recognize it immediately; it was taken years ago on a quiet beach in the middle of nowhere.

There we were. Young. In love. Smiles bright against freshly-tanned skin. A glowing orange sky, kissing the blue ocean horizon in the distance behind us. I instinctively close my eyes and try to remember more of it -- almost willing myself to disappear there, if for no other reason than the fact that at that time I didn't have a care in the world.

The hair-dryer goes quiet and there's just the sound from the TV now.

"It was great to be stupid and innocent, wasn't it?" I hear Abby say.

I don't even bother to turn around with the picture in my hand -- an expression of surprise on my face. Of course she knew what I was looking at. I just smile.

"Yes it was."

I hear the hardwood floor creak under her feet as she takes the few steps needed to cross the room. When I turn around, she's right in front of me. She looks up at me, almost begrudgingly, and places her hand on the side of my face, running it down my cheek.

"Are you okay, Chester?" Her pet name for me.

I exhale.

"Yeah. I am."

I close my eyes and swallow a headful of longing. I'd just about forgotten the overwhelming tenderness of a touch like this. She gives me a smile that perfectly encompasses a thousand emotions at once. This is the way it's always been with Abby.

"Come on -- let's go eat," she says.

The chill of fall has settled over the city. The leaves from the trees that line East 80th Street cascade gently down around Abby and me as we walk toward busy 2nd Avenue. I put my hands in the pockets of my long black coat, one of the recent purchases I made at the direct request of the President of the United States. It's a Friday night, and Manhattan is just beginning to come to life. The pall that's blanketed everything since the attack is starting to lift -- slowly. It's almost as if the massive hole torn in the fuselage of the city -- the one that sucked out so many lives and so much air in seconds -- is finally being filled. People are breathing again, but those breaths are still short and shallow.

Abby's eyes light up like a little girl's as the waitress puts a big plate of colorful raw fish in front of us. Her mouth opens in an adorable, wide smile. She breaks her chopsticks apart and digs in, stopping only to take a sip of sake.

"So what did the queen bitch say to you on the phone this morning that got you so riled up?" she says, her mouth half-full.

"I thought you didn't want to hear about this." I'm absently looking out the window as the Upper East Side crowd floats by.

"I married you -- I'm obviously a sucker for punishment."



"She says I owe her somewhere in the neighborhood of three grand." I pause for a moment. "No wait, I take that back. I say it's somewhere in the neighborhood of three grand because I can't remember the exact figure right now. She of course knows how much it is, down to the penny." I take a swig of my Asahi. "Sent me an itemized list and everything."

"And your take on it?"

I shrug, rolling my eyes upward. Abby smiles and takes another sip of her sake. I continue.

"My take is that I'm still hoping our marriage can be salvaged. She on the other hand is handing me the tab like a waitress who wants to go the hell home."

"Sucks, chief."

Abby's lapse into what anyone else would consider wholly unladylike vernacular makes me chuckle.

"No shit," I say, popping a bite of sashimi into my mouth with the chopsticks. I'm still not eating much these days.

In talk in between chewing. "The fucked-up thing is that she has all of our worldly possessions." I swallow hard. "I mean, she took all the furniture, all the wedding gifts, and of course my heart," I say, only half-jokingly.

"Yeah, well that's worthless."

I don't take the bait, choosing instead to zero-in on the literal meaning of Abby's words.

"Actually, you may have just hit it on the head," I say, drifting off in my own thoughts as I begin to put things together. "Love. Passion. Emotion. It's all insignificant because you can't put a price tag on it. Something's only worthwhile if you can assign a tangible value to it."

"She's that much of a hard-ass?"

"She doesn't see it that way. She sees it as being practical," I say, looking not at Abby, but through her -- to someplace very far away. "She was always more interested in the nice house than in who was living in it with her."

"You ever think that maybe she wanted both? I mean, you're easy to love but not exactly a breeze to live with."

"I always thought that was such a cop-out, the whole 'I love you but I can't live with you' thing. Maybe I was wrong."

Abby puts down her chopsticks and looks right at me. "You've been wrong about a lot of things lately," she says -- scolding.

Under the table, I brush my leg lightly against hers.

Her eyes widen. "And you're definitely wrong about that. You're not getting laid."

I smile, feigning shock.

"Oh come on. I just touched your leg for Christ's sake. I didn't mean anything by it."

"I know you."

"You know nothing," I say, still smiling -- focusing my attention on another piece of sashimi.

"I know that you'd better start coming to terms with this."

"And what's this?"

"You're heading for divorce court."

"You say that like you're glad."

She suddenly looks up at me, all humor gone from her face. "I'm sorry you're hurting, Chez, but I won't lie -- of course part of me thinks you deserve this."

"I'd never have the nerve to hold that against you."

"That's because you can't."

"You're right." I nod.

Abby glances down, looking at what's left on the plate. The sudden silence between us is deafening. It seems to go on for several minutes.

"Let's just finish this up and get out of here," she finally says. "I think I want to go home."

In the time since our break-up, we've kept a tenuous friendship -- fraught with the knowledge that moments like this are always lurking just beneath the surface of any interaction. Abby loves me more than any woman ever has, and at least as much as any other human being on the planet. She also has the ability to hold a grudge longer than just about anyone.

"Come on," I say. "Please -- let's change the subject."

She pauses -- years of hurt still registering on her face. She then sits up straight, breathes in deeply, and -- as if through sheer force of will -- seems to visibly exhale the pain and anger. Her auburn curls bounce gently as she does this.

"Okay, fine."

She gathers herself and downs what's left of her sake -- a damn good amount -- in one giant gulp. She practically slams the empty bottle down on the table and wipes her mouth with her napkin.

"I changed my mind," she says. "You are getting laid. Let's get out of here -- I want to fuck."

This is the way it's always been with Abby.

It has been an especially overwhelming day for memories.

I'm walking back to my car now, my coat pulled up tight -- hands in my pockets. It got much colder once the evening gave way to night. November's only about a week away. I close my eyes for a moment and listen to the drone of the city -- the traffic, the people, the trains rumbling beneath my feet. I soak it all in. It's more inebriating than any drug in existence. I'm lightheaded. Maybe it's this high that's killing the need for another high -- the one I sought out for months and months until nothing was left of me.

Sex with Abby was what it's been since our first night together all those years ago, the night that kept us coming back for more: It was primal -- a connection I've never felt with another living soul. It was warm and comfortable. It was wild and passionate. It was Abby. There really isn't any way to do it justice other than to assign it its proper name.

As I reach my car, I take out my keys and get ready to step into the street to the driver's side. I catch a glimpse of myself in the large glass pane of a storefront window.

I stop in my tracks.

I stare for a moment, then approach the reflection -- the reflection I simply don't recognize at all.

My expression is one of absolute disbelief.

Who the hell am I? My God, what the hell am I doing here? A little over two months ago I was in rehab in South Florida. Six months ago I was strung out. My wife, my home, everything I knew and loved is three-thousand miles away. It's all gone. I don't recognize any of this: This place, these clothes, this person. The entire world changed in one day -- and I somehow got a second chance. I'm dying inside, and yet in some ways I've never felt more alive.

I barely remember the drive home through the Manhattan night, through the Lincoln Tunnel and out to the relative emptiness of Jersey. The strange feeling that I can't seem to get my head around -- that this is all some kind of combination dream/nightmare that I'll eventually wake up from -- continues as I walk into the hotel. In fact, I smile at how perfectly the David Lynchian scene suddenly unfolding around me seems to affirm my assessment. As I stroll silently through the lobby, I'm surrounded on all sides by ballroom dancers. They're everywhere you look. Some are practicing various steps. Some are rushing by on tip-toes. Some are anxiously waiting in a line that snakes across the back of the lobby. The men are in tuxes. The women are in fluffy, taffeta skirts. They're all wearing makeup that looks as if it's been put on with a trowel, giving them the eerie appearance of mannequins that have come to life.

Over the top of one of the main ballrooms off to my left is a giant banner that reads: Northern New Jersey Ballroom Dancing Competition Regional Finals.

In spite of the tragic events that have populated this hotel with a rotating cast of Red Cross workers, media members and volunteers, it didn't take long for things to return to relative normal around the Crowne Plaza, North Jersey. That means a steady stream of conventions, conferences and reunions swinging through here each weekend. Sometimes, like tonight, the effect is just surreal. Occasionally, though, a convergence of mismatched events is flat-out hilarious. Last weekend the place was packed with an AARP conference, a Girl Scout Jamboree and dozens of fans of a death metal band that had apparently chosen to stay here for two weekend gigs in the city. I couldn't get the image out of my head of little girls and pensioners -- straggling behind from their groups -- being pounced on and dragged quickly and quietly into the death metal kids' rooms, all while the hotel staff received constant reports of guests mysteriously disappearing.

I give Arben a smirk and a nod of solidarity as I walk past the front desk. He returns a look of exhausted frustration.

A few minutes later -- after a ride up in the elevator with three couples, each doing slight variations on the Scott Hastings and Tina Sparkle theme -- I'm safely tucked away in my room. I'm stretched out on the couch, a small glass of bottled water from the mini-bar, on ice, on the coffee table next to me. The curtains are open and the only light in the room is coming from the electrified skyline of Manhattan across the river, outside my floor-to-ceiling window. I close my eyes and take long, deep breaths.

It's winter.

Light snow falls from tumid, leaden clouds rolling across the gun-metal gray sky above.

It consumes sound, so that the distant moan of this ghostly city is barely audible. It feels as if I'm the only living soul for miles.

I'm walking along one of the paths deep in the heart of Central Park. Above me the wind slips easily through the naked skeletons of the trees. The branches brushing against each other make the only sound that breaks the perpetual quiet.

My hands are in my pockets and my long black coat is pulled up tight around my shoulders, the collar turned up, steeling me against the chill. I can feel the bottom of the coat blowing gently against the backs of my thighs.

The path in front of me appears hazy through the rolling soft gauze of my own breath.

I don't know why I'm here.

I leave the path, pushing myself through the snow gathered on the ground and up a slight hill. As I come to its crest, I'm face to face with a world of white -- a clearing covered with snow.

There in the center of it is a child -- a little girl. Her back is to me, but I can hear her high-pitched laughter. She reaches down, scoops up a handful of snow and throws it into the air, screaming in delight.

She's all alone.

I walk toward her, hesitantly. I don't understand what she's doing here by herself. I don't understand any of this.

Her laughter is so beautiful.

Her back is still to me. All I can see is her little pink coat. There's white fur around the hood. It matches her white mittens.

I get closer.

She continues playing. Laughing. There's innocence -- joyous abandon -- like I haven't known in years.

She's just a few feet away from me now.

I lean in, confused, and finally speak.

"What are you doing here, honey?"

She turns around and looks at me, removing her hood.

It's her.

I remember the pictures I once saw of her as a child.

This little girl is Kara.

I take a step back, the fear and confusion on my face giving way to tears that pool almost immediately. I drop to my knees, quietly sobbing. The world feels as if it's crashing down around me.

I understand.

She smiles at me. "Why are you crying?" she says sweetly.

I can barely get the words out. "Because I was supposed to take care of you. I wasn't supposed to fail you," I say through sobs.

She examines me with pity in her eyes. She takes two steps forward and wraps her small arms around me, holding me. I rest my head on her shoulder. I can't stop crying.

"I'm so sorry, Kara," I cry. "I'm so sorry."

"It's okay."

I put my arms around her and hold her tightly.

"It's okay," she repeats.

The darkness of the room comes into wet focus. I wake up crying. I clutch my own chest with both hands, holding myself with as much strength as I can -- curling up into a tight ball on the couch.

This is the way it is.

All the distractions -- the chaos, the tragedy, the drudgery, the drama, the exhilaration -- disappear when you find yourself alone at the end of the day.

That's when you're left with nothing but yourself.

With the truth.

With the pain.

With the inescapable emptiness.

I can't stop sobbing.

Oh God, I miss you so much.

I love you and I miss you so much.


trish said...

This is one of my favorite things of yours. Just sayin'.

Jester said...

Every time I read this, it makes me more glad that I married my Abby, who is the Irish twin of yours.

Though we were smart enough to wait until we were both in our late 20s... ;-) Had our 15th wedding anniversary a couple of months ago.