You are not the man you projected, Nicolas Waltz; you are not the man I protected for so long. I thought I knew you from the stale air gathered between us, your affected ease with a Goethe quote — Oh, why do you draw me, irresistibly, Into all this magnificence? — written in soap on our front window.
Was there ever happiness here, or has it already passed, I asked, and searched for an answer in the notebooks in your cabinetry, in the bottom drawer of your library desk where you hid your gin, your vermouth, beneath a cluster of love letters.
I yield a cluttered picture of you, Nicolas: pushing an oily lawnmower, wearing cheap canvas shoes with muddy white laces, black trousers, and a Patti Smith t-shirt. Your hair was long then. It landed on your shoulders and looked comically abundant when accessorized with your Billy Dee Williams mustache. You cut the grass of our pre-paid burial plots every Friday morning, 10 a.m., before, you claimed, the weekend crowd arrived.
February 12/1968 — Do you prefer Pepsi Generation teenyboppers or Age of Aquarius girls over little sweet me, Nicolas? Don’t answer. I can’t bear to be last on your wishlist. I am more modest than either, but I will last longer than both. I haven’t received your latest letter yet, and I wonder if you meant the things you said to me after Christmas. Nicolas, I’m not sure I’ll be in Chicago this summer. Do you remember my brother Emanuel with the crooked teeth who tried to follow us with his new Polaroid? He kept teasing you about your long hair, but he’s a sweet boy. I think he’s too young and naïve to go to Vietnam. Mama said it might be better for us if we moved out of here and found a small place in the country, maybe in Indiana. We need to get away from the protests and unrest. Please write back soon, Nicolas. I miss you. I know summer is only a few months away, but Holy Jesus, the snow is smashing us right now, blowing straight in off the top of Lake Michigan. I want you to know what’s going on when/if we move. I think it’s more ‘when’ because Mama’s determined to get the ‘F’ out of here before it gets too rough. Please write to me, honey. You know how much I love you (especially since that night at Lake Missaukee).
Love you, my beautiful man.
I’m sure you found cold pleasure in those few calculated feet you tidied: standing vertical, cutting horizontal. You plucked the dandelions and scoured the weeds with an exhaustive oomph as I sat on the tailgate and watched the road beyond the churchyard. Here I will lay when I become calm, you said. And tonight, Aubrey, I will tell you my stories again, and you winked a tired eye and wiped your hands on the sides of your trousers, and we loaded the mower back onto the truck. I was already, frankly, quite tired of those games you incited, which gave neither of us any pleasure.
You preferred to bathe before dinner those evenings, scrub the wear from your arms, sink your neck below the steam. Here I will lay, you said from behind the locked door, boiled alive again.
April 7/1970 — Said Mama: Have you come home again? / No, Mama. I’m here to pick up some clothes. / You stay for supper? / Not this time. Nicolas is expecting me. / Again? / Yes. Again, like yesterday and the day before. / You know, I do not trust him. He will break your heart. / I know, Mama, where’s my blue skirt? The wraparound? / At the laundry. I told you this yesterday. / No, I would have picked it up if you told me. / Maybe you were busy not listening to me. All I hear is Nicolas-this and Nicolas-that. I do not trust him. Emanuel did not like him, did I tell you that? Your own brother. / I know, Mama. What about the denim skirt with the embroidered — oops, never mind, here it is.
An intricate blend of fennel/onions/olive oil rises from her kitchen.
You call me if there is any trouble? / Yes, Mama. What about that beige blouse? Did you iron it for me? / Can you not yell? You know I’m in the kitchen.
Mama, dead now, two years, do you believe in time, Nicolas, because too much of it has passed without your courtesies. I became so urgent to see you after we lost Emanuel. Everything was frantic; all of me was hungry. You laughed, you seduced, you led me to your bed, and my appetite was not close to being satiated. You presumed this to mean I only wanted sex. I did not emerge from a chrysalis, Nicolas, to flourish for your benefit. and I am not unmindful of the desires of men. You have not been shy with your passions but remain ignorant of mine. Unhappily, I predicted this silence of yours, and I feel more naked than unmoored.
2/ Mawry Street
The neighborhood changed, you see. The moon, certainly crowded, does not have the room to be lobbed between rooftops anymore. Girls jump rope in the middle of Mawry Street, singing I’m H-A-P-P-Y, Yes, I’m H-A-P-P-Y. They’re all nine or ten years old, double-dutching, hop-skip-jumping from broken homes, fractured bones, cheating fathers, beaten mothers, but it was always this way since the beginning. Time has no interest in what people desire. I grew up here, you see, before I understood gloom and the ways people doom themselves by wanting things and watching things disappear. Now, the moon is the size and shape of my thumbprint, and all the wonder has passed.
And this is where you found me, Nicolas.
Here is where you found me, seated beside a cracked terracotta pot, bamboo stalks jammed into the soil like pieces of a picket fence, just another cheap porch-ornament my mother discovered at the Salvation Army rummage sale.
November 20/1973 — Remember last spring, Nicolas, when we strolled alongside those row houses of South Langley like young marrieds? You promised me we’d make a home there one day, someday, a place graced with old bricks and stone steps. We heard the lively syncopation of each other’s shoe steps on the sidewalk, and it was that kind of off-rhythm, that peculiar melancholic tempo, you divine when you can’t find your way back home. You bought us Coca-Colas and pizza slices from a place on East 75th just as the sun struck the big plate-glass window of the laundromat. The women inside were all dressed like my mother, in jumper dresses and shirtwaist dresses, and everything worn was in jewel tones, as if they were competing to be Audrey Hepburn. The sun cleaned the tired out of their eyes, and it smoothed the smudges from their dark raspberry lipstick. Those women would never be that lovely again, and that made me see it was just a big mirror revealing different versions of myself in twelve/twenty/thirty years, and Nicolas, you were not a part of any of them. There would be no row house in my future, just another walk-up apartment two blocks away from the nearest washing machine.
Why do I get so sad this time of year, I wonder? I know you’ve been busy, but it seems like we never talk, and Christmas is coming up fast.
Sundays had not changed, you see. The wind still trembled tin can tremolo through the eaves, and the silver maples were stripped raw of their gristle. A frozen lamb’s leg thawed in the sink; pan-fried saganaki lay arranged on the kitchen counter. Trays of Castelvetrano olives were on display in the dining room, graviera cheese in the breezeway between the garage and the living room. It was always the same.
Standing beside the workbench, Uncle Abe and my father argued about Nixon and railroad unions and football. They brushed cigarette ash from the fronts of their sweaters as they talked. Aunt Stephanie deplaned in the kitchen and fussily quadrisected blood oranges for the big salad. Then, irritated, she rearranged the pickle-and-Ritz cracker platter. It was always the same, right down to the argument about the silverware placement.
We had all become sour, hadn’t we, practically distilled to the point of evaporation.
May 19/1974 — Nicolas, if you still, curiously, read my letters:
It was just past nine o’clock, do you remember? I wore my favorite old blouse (the Ahimsa silk, you called it, though it was plainly Naum Brothers Department Store, ragged to the very last button) and those paint-splattered jeans you were so quick to tease me about. I was barefoot and three/parts sex and one/part Christmas gift soap. I stood there and waited for your exposition of us, and you stared at me, naked, preferring silence. I waited for you to etch a demarcation of us on the steamed glass of the bathroom mirror, or my collarbone with a bitter nail if you liked, or in the taste of your vodka pressed upon my mouth if you’d rather, but you did not say. Your silence has revealed you again, Nicolas, as I knew it one day would. And now, you see, I can never again trust anyone I love.
You left, of course, before I could turn away.
You called me, Nicolas, after days of silence, you called me.
“Can I come over?” you asked.
“Where are you?”
[Look, three of the unions have already ratified, and I think Winpisinger needs to….]
“What do you mean? I’m at home.”
“You shouldn’t have called today, Nicolas. You know how my parents are.”
“And how are they?”
[He said the strike against the Union Pacific was illegal, you know….]
“Loud and busy. Today is our family day. Religiously enforced. You know that.”
“Oh. I just thought you’d like to see me.”
“Where have you been all week?”
[Cripes, Abe, that must make you the mayor of, uh, Shinola…]
“What do you mean?”
“I mean: Where have you been all week? You know I still live on Mawry Street? It’s right on your way to the rest of the world.”
“Oh. Sorry. I’ve been busy.”
“Not with me, you haven’t.”
You sighed. “Can I come over or not?”
“No. Not today. Family only, that’s the rule.”
“Your parents are tyrants, you know.”
[Aubrey, are you still on the goddamn phone? Hang up already.]
“Yes, they are. So are you okay?”
“Huh? Oh, yeah. You?”
“Irritated. Bored. See you tomorrow?”
“Hey, you want to get married?”
“Married. Like in a church. The priest, the vows, the husband-and-wife thing. Does any of this sound good?”
[He called it bad-faith bargaining. What part of that don’t you understand, Jorge?]
“Think about it for a while, okay? I’m serious.”
“Yeah, probably. Call me when family time is over.”
“Nicolas Waltz, you are crazy. I’ll call you tonight. Okay?”
“Sounds good. Aubrey, I love you, you know.”
[Aubrey, are you still talking on the phone? What did I tell you?]
I whispered: “I love you, too, Nicolas.”
Only eighteen and already half-way decided on an inevitable course.
September 18/1975 — Nicolas, once more, I am tired:
We preserved ourselves in salt after Emanuel died in An Lộc. I saw the weight of his death in your eyes. In our bed, you rested your hand on my abdomen, near my great scar. I think you were as afraid of that scar as you were of my postponed grief.
Long before morning reached me, you were gone. I thought we would be indelible, but you’re erasing things again. I see the patterns of our lives stretched out on cloth, markings unremarkable, colors washed, edges lost. Did we become two blots of ink that blight the sheets? Are we just a matter of needle and thread, stitched together by a shared loathing of loneliness, regret? There used to be a time when I could explain these things in fiercest shades of red, but, as I said, I am tired, and you have left.
You expect, I think, your body to fail you; it will. It seems you should know this by now. It is the coarse-featured consequence of youth. Some things will invariably sag, and most will presumably fade. Winter will always drag us down and hurt us. We are in open winter now, Nicolas, and the storms do not shrug.
We remained together with only a few regrets and many apologies: hand-delivered I’m-sorry’s, bourbon-and-bitters surrenders, and most of our plaintive words, probably, sincerely remitted.
But you are not the man you projected, Nicolas Waltz; you are not the man I protected for so long.
We, who are wounded, stare outward, not toward any particular object or view, but to things familiar and sound, the un-toppled structures of same: a bowed chain-link fence, perhaps the winter necropolis of a vegetable garden. (My sunflowers persevere, depleted; empty-headed carapaces now, they nod to each other all day — these are what you have left me to love, Nicolas.)
Mourning is for stone-ground grits and warm pita bread, with carob syrup, poured over both. Grief defies the well-lit kitchen and floral curtains and shots of caffè doppio. Nothing can camouflage the ruins; light does not tidy up the smudges.
“I would have told you,” he says.
“Of course. But tell me this: How would that bit of conversation even begin?”
“Not easily, I’m sure.”
“Nicolas, that doesn’t even begin to endear you to me right now.”
“I’m sorry, Aubrey. I don’t know what to say.”
“Of course not, why would you? You’re dead.” The tissue comes away smeared with traces of overnight mascara. “You could have burned those damned letters, you know.”
“I haven’t thought about them for years,” he says.
I was barefoot and three/parts sex and one/part Christmas gift soap.
“Who was she, Nicolas?”
I see the patterns of our lives stretched out on cloth, markings unremarkable.
“She was the past.”
“Some of those letters came after we were married. Well married, I thought.”
“I was trying to pull my heart up a mountain, you know. The weight was too much.”
You know how much I love you (especially since that night at Lake Missaukee). Love you, my beautiful man.
“Nicolas, I don’t know what that means. Did you leave her, or were you going to leave me?”
“Winter is a hard season.”
“You have no idea, pal. All those conversations ago, all those stale, inert discussions, and not a single clue you were climbing a goddamn mountain with her.”
“I should have burned those letters.”
“But you didn’t.”
“I should have.”
June 11/1979 — There are times, Nicolas, when you cause me to think you are like the painter Caravaggio; your violent currents belie the quiet surface. There is darkness known only by your closest. Not that you paint, of course, but you brood and seclude each thought; you do not include me in your grief, but live in the contrasts of chiaroscuro.
Of course, your mood deepens near the anniversary of Emanuel’s death. I may never know why you suffer for him. You never knew him, you never met him, and I doubt I ever painted him in realistic textures. (There it is again, the darkness and light motif that you adore.) Emanuel was full of light, and you are his very contrast. Perhaps this is why you feel the compulsion to leave me.
We will survive this, won’t we, Nicolas? I understand you as much as I can appreciate anyone with such a disposition.
I remain faithful, as always.
She pads across the kitchen linoleum dressed in Adidas sweatpants and his old Patti Smith T-shirt. The image on the shirt has faded to a forty-year wash, but it is still comfortable and soundly made.
The funeral frippery, the Earl Grey and sympathy roses, the stink of peace lilies, and well-wishers’ leftovers, all of it removed by noon. She scrubs the soaped handwriting from the front door window. The Goethe quote — Oh, why do you draw me, irresistibly, Into all this magnificence? — was ridiculous in hindsight. A bit of baked penne casserole for lunch, a spot of Charles Krug Cabernet Sauvignon, and she’ll be ready to rid the walls of Nicolas’ cluttered portraits.“Oh my dears,” she says to her sunflowers. “Was there ever happiness here, or has it already passed?” She sets aside her wine and puts away her dishes. It’s been an odd day, all told, but she feels she should write Nicolas a letter, something to help her decide if he should stay. You are not the man you projected, she writes and then considers all she has left to say.