I knew that it was going to be temporary: You could live almost anywhere if it was going to be temporary, especially if there was a gleam on the other side. I said no to the places that were too roomy, too ugly, too severe. I believed that by moving my chairs and bed into two white rooms I’d be inoculating myself against personality. It turns out it is impossible to escape personality, even when the floors beneath you are cold enough to numb your feet. In the apartment above me the man sang the songs of his youth — Cinnamon Girl, Landslide — accompanying himself on a badly amped guitar. His boot steps, his throat clearing, the taps of his razor against the bathroom sink — the essence of him resounded into my space as if there was nothing between us. Occasionally, when he was talking on the phone, he used the word faggot in a tone that implied he’d never had any truck with one. Outside, on the parking lot, a mother used the word fuck against her two boys. Two cars away, a young woman drove the approximately 200 feet to the dumpster, tossed in a dark garbage bag, and drove back to her parking space. This happened twice a day. As for the BDSM enthusiast whose bedroom window looked right into mine? Although he referred to himself online as a top, his eyes showed betrayal every time I backed out of his invitations to dinner. I pictured my wrists in restraints and tried to be excited by the opera of it, but it only felt redundant. That didn’t mean I wasn’t obsessed with the possibility of hurting his feelings.
These were the days and nights of Candlewood. I took delight in making stark declarations to myself in a cold, scientific tone. Once, in a different life, I used to live on an acre of land in East Hampton. Once, not yet two years ago, I lived in a Manhattan brownstone, with a fireplace, a closet stuffed with clothes I didn’t wear, and a fire escape studded with pots of climbing ivy. I had a lover. I had a dog. I imagined I sounded like Djuna Barnes, the time that she tried to buy jewelry at Bloomingdales and was told her account was in arrears. Did you realize that I used to know T.S. Eliot? she said to the dumbfounded clerk, who didn’t know T.S. Eliot from a wad of chewing gum on the sidewalk. Real estate didn’t matter to me, I wrote in my notebook, which might have been another way of saying I didn’t want a next life, didn’t want to put down roots, didn’t want to leave a trace, didn’t want to lose another piece of myself.
Some people carve X’s into the skin behind their knees after a breakup. Some curse at random strangers, or fall in love with escorts or junkies or petty criminals, people as far as possible from the loved ones they’d left. In the scriptures it says that Jesus spent forty days and nights in the desert. We are expected to believe that he was tested by hunger, that he resisted the temptation to turn stone into bread, that he strode back into Jerusalem leaner, wiser, more faithful.
At the beginning of December, it snowed. A blizzard, and no food in the cabinets. I stumped through the drifts to the next town over, crossing the intersection where my mother’s twin was hit by a drunken driver. Some guys outside a bar threw loose snow at me. They laughed, a laugh that suggested they didn’t think I’d be offended by it. I didn’t even know if I was, so I walked a little faster. By the time I made it to the drug store, I was too winded to remember my phone number when the cashier asked for it. It took me three times to get it right, and when I landed on the correct digit, the laugh that came out of my mouth was so grateful it was hard not to confuse it with weeping.
Lord, I don’t mean to turn this into a prayer. And forgive me if I am being too grand about myself. You know better than anyone that I’m not talking about making a wrong turn. This was much worse than taking a wrong turn — I almost kept going, almost didn’t come back. No one told you you had to walk out into the desert, but you knew it was time to step away. You studied cactus, you kept company with scorpions and spiders. The days were dusty, too long. You must have grown tired of hearing the noise of your sandals against the sand — and I don’t even believe the devil ever appeared to you. You would have given anything to him if you’d felt that estranged, that unknown to yourself. Trust me. What was it that took you to the other side? What was it in you that said, enough, it is time to move on?