Bare Walls in The Alex Era

  • Jan. 26, 2024, 4:49 a.m.
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  • Public

I’ve been thinking about that trip we took to Brooklyn…It was the last time you looked at me through the tunnel vision of a loving spyglass, drawing me close by focusing in on only me. After that, the lens flipped backward and you were pulling away from me without even leaving the shore.

It was the first time I met your mother in person. Herta Hoechsmann. The perfect name for an angry Czech immigrant. Her blonde-white hair was piled on her head. It was whipped up into a cloud like coiffure, adding inches to her already intimidating stature. I remember the first words out of her tight-rimmed mouth were weighted down, heavy laden with guilt & expectation. She proudly told us how she had walked many blocks to buy this special $4 loaf of European bread for us. Over and over she told us this leading up to dinner, our polite thank yous clearly not bronzed in enough to gratitude to ever satisfy her. I sensed the stiffness of anger settle into your back, your bones. I touched your forearm, gentle with reassurance. At the sight of me touching you, your mother looked grim and turned to me. “You see that picture?” She gestured to an 8×10 of a little chubby boy, raisin-eyed & smiling. “He was 4 there. You know, he never cried as a baby…but at 4, 4, he was pure evil.” I smiled wanly at the awful comment & she invited us to the table. “Sit wherever,” she gestured, dismissively. (Years later, right after our marriage ended, she would use this very moment to illustrate my failure, how she knew I was trash & that it would not work out between us. I apparently sat in the seat she wished to sit in, though she told me to sit anywhere. Even though I had left you, you stood up for me.) She served spaghetti and the bread and drinks. I took one bite of the bread she was so proud of. It was coarse and dark and grainy to chew. I balled it up in my cheek, struggling to swallow, as she looked at me expectantly, “Well? Do you like it? I had to pay $4 for that loaf!” My mouth filled with the taste of dollar bills, the taste of her swollen feet in their clunky shoes tromping heavily to the store. I nodded, smiling around the wad and reached for my glass. Warm tonic water. I looked at you, distress raiding my features. You took a sip from my glass, “Oh Jesus Christ, mom. Did you give her plain warm tonic water? Don’t drink that, Roxy.” I drank it anyway. I wanted her to like me. I wanted her to see I was worth you. She hated me anyway. I wasn’t even worth the loaf of bread she force-fed us for dinner.

Later, we took her keys to get copies made. Then, we escaped down to a bar called the Wicked Monk. We put money in the computerized jukeboxes and filled the bar with PJ Harvey & John Frusciante for an hour. We got drunk & watched Jeopardy on the bar’s tv. I shouted answers to every category, somehow getting every single one right. You and I just kept looking at each other and screaming, all juiced up, every time I got the answers right. Even when responding in question form, I still had all the answers in my loosen drunkenness…something that eluded me later when it came to us. It was unseasonably warm for December, nearly 60 degrees, so we decided to walk home & sober up. On the way home, I drunkenly sang the opening 2 lines of the song from the Charlie Brown Christmas special over and over till you begged me to pick another song. I chose O Tannenbaum, but I only knew the first two lines of that as well. Then I laid down & made snow angels on a snowless sidewalk, as you laughed and exasperatedly tugged at me. Finally, I got up and you held on to my hand and pulled me home to your mother’s rent controlled apartment in Bensonhurst. We fucked our brains out in her guest room. Sex was never easy for us…but it was always amazing when we were somewhere else besides home…Almost like we shed ourselves with our home address. You came inside me. As drunk as I was, I somehow knew even in that moment that we shouldn’t have done it…that there was no need to look further for trouble. It had already found us.

The next morning, your mother refused to come out of her room to talk to us. (In fact, we did not see her again for the length of our week-long stay.) I gently rapped at her door and told her we were going into the city for the day. “Good,” she snapped. During this trip, it became clearer why you had chosen to spend so many years in a drug-addled lullabye, in a dulled unreachable stupor.

We rode the subway into the city, and the sway of the car lulling me to calm on your shoulder. As we got off the subway, I was overcome by the way the city exhaled people in seething waves. You grabbed me a coffee and dragged me through Central Park, as I acted like a badger–head cleaved open by the light, burning my brain. Every picture you took of me, I am mid-snarl…even though I was actually thrilled to be with you there. After the park, we went to the Met. You wanted me to see Dali’s Crucifixion. You loved Dali and had often visited that painting when you lived in the city. On our first date, you had even asked me back to your apartment to look at a book of Dali prints & pointed that one out to me. Once we were in the Met, I was overwhelmed…eyes in a spin, pinwheels of color twirling. I remember I got so close to a painting, dazedly looking at topographical paint textures that a guard had to push me back, much to my embarrassment. Finally, you found the place where the painting should have been. But…it was just wall…with a small mocking tag, pointing out what the negative space should’ve been. We asked a staff member where the painting was and they told me it was being loaned out. I don’t remember everything from that day…but I can still see your face. Your sad, beautiful face…a painting in its own right, framed by your own disappointment over your shitty, rotten luck. I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything. Finally, you just said, “Bunny, let’s go see Joan of Arc…” And off we went to find the LePage painting we both loved so much. You let me approach it first and affectionately watched my amazement from afar, gently chuckling at my wonder, as I sat open mouthed for a few minutes and then looked at you, agog with the grandness of it all. I think you loved me so completely in that moment, standing there surrounded by breathtaking oeuvres of the mentally ill & tortured. I was merely a flower in that damned bouquet.

Later that week, I remember we went and bought wine at a liquor store. We asked the man behind the counter to open it. He told us that it was illegal for him to do. You looked at him and softly said, “Please. It’s my girl’s first time in the city.” He smiled & acquiesced, asking us not to tell anyone. We promised and scooted out the door, giddy with the possibilities of our night. We then realized we had nowhere to go, but we didn’t want to go home…so we went to the New York Public library, ascending the spiral staircase till we arrived at the children’s section. We pulled a couple books off the shelves, pretending to read about Joe DiMaggio & Eleanor Roosevelt, as we passed the bottle back and forth under the table. Abraham Lincoln glared at us from a shelf. Mark Twain merely smiled conspiratorially. The library began to spin & the librarians did an off kilter waltz around the periphery of our drunken field of vision. Finally, it was time for them to close, we were ushered out onto the streets again. I tried to take a picture of us in the stairwell, but my shaky hands undid our features. Still, even blurred, you can tell we were pleased with ourselves…We headed to Washington City Square arch and drank underneath it on a bench. Your arm was around me, I folded like origami under your chin. The tree was lit under the arch. Due to our inebriation, the Christmas lights smudged light into the surrounding sky around the tree, unbearably beautiful with radioactive glow. I wanted to remain suspended in the amber of that moment…but we finished the bottle & drunkenly shuffled towards your mother’s, stopping at a Burger King on the way & stealing a couple cardboard crowns meant for children. As we walked, we wore our crowns, held hands & I can’t remember for sure, but I swear we skipped. Weightless with happiness, we were the King & Queen of Brooklyn and we were madly in love.

At the end of the week, I didn’t want to go home, to all the problems we had that were just waiting for us to return…but we had to. You returned to your heroin & I, to my drink. I was still living in my parent’s moldy basement, secretly purging in a wastebasket that I shamefully emptied daily. Your mom sent a hateful letter to your apartment accusing us of being abusive while at her place. We were both broke. A few weeks and a few positive pregnancy tests later, we had new problems to contend with the old ones. I swaddled those little pink plus signs in my underwear, hiding any evidence of a new life deep in the bottom of my drawer.

When I called to tell you, you refused to tell me whether or not you wanted me to keep it. You told me to just make the decision by myself, that you would support me either way. I waited for you to tell me you wanted me, wanted our baby. I pictured our baby’s face, made lists of possible names we might call it…For a while, I thought I was going to have the baby, but in the end, you retreated to your drugs & I decided against it, against us. I thought you were in agreement because you called and set up the appointment. You went with me, swearing at the protesters who approached me. You paced the waiting room while they vacuumed our mess out of me. I was under conscious sedation but I vaguely remember asking, wildly, to see the baby when the procedure was completed. No one answered me. When I got off the table to redress, I turned around to see a poppy blossom of blood blooming on the white, crinkly paper…and I was so drugged up, I didn’t feel anything. You took me out the backdoor to the car to avoid the rabid Christians and drove me back to your apartment. I curled up on your bed & cried inconsolably. You left me for hours to score drugs & I hated you for it. At the time, it was hard to recognize your hurt because you shot it up your veins. We never talked about what I’d done. We didn’t have to. I knew I had made the right decision for me, but the wrong decision for us.

Finally, the day I bought my wedding dress, it all came back up. You bullied me all night. To deal with the abuse, I got wasted and had a mouth like battery acid. We fought. You told me I was belligerent when I was drunk. I told you that if you didn’t want to go through with the wedding you should just tell me. You blurted out that you hadn’t felt the same about me since I had killed our baby, that my decision had changed how you saw me. You didn’t want to have sex with me anymore. Drunk as I was, I still remember this moment…In response, I laid down on the kitchen floor and sobbed, telling you it was too late to tell me this, that you should have told me you wanted the baby before I killed it. You tried to get me up, but I was too drunk. “Bunny, come on, I’m sorry. Get up. Come to bed.” I told you I just wanted to be dead…You finally gave up and left me there.

We went through with the wedding, but we had sex less and less. I prayed to get pregnant again …but it never happened. Even worse, I knew I was no longer the girl who knew all the answers in Jeopardy or fit safely under your chin or deserved even a stolen paper crown…I loved you dearly…still do …but, after the abortion, I can’t forget how any time you looked at me, I knew that, to you, I was a bare wall where a Dali should be. Please forgive me, Alex, because even after all these years, I still can’t forgive myself.

(From the OD archives… Written in 2018)


Last updated January 27, 2024


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