by Greg Jackson
James went by Jim, Jimmy, some people called him Tim as a joke, his ex, Kathleen called him Alexei, for no reason, when she was feeling affectionate, otherwise James, he’d met Frankie at a residency some years before, an artists’ colony, where he was a poet, where she did performance although she focused more on her music now, her band, Felix, an electronic sound, bluesy vocals—she sang—and they were getting older, not yet forty, but they were getting older, it was undeniable. They were getting older, and they were friends. To say lovers would have been too much since they saw each other only infrequently. Repositories for each other's hungers. Ponds ungreased by love. They submerged together and hid for days. Their friendship was moderated by the extravagance. It all existed in a glass orb cut off from the world though transparent at the warped curvature of its boundary. To see each other more often, to be friends who asked that being known came with . . . well, anything, would have shattered it. Vacation, they called it. When Frankie wasn’t in the studio, wasn’t on tour. When the high school where James taught went on break. They bought good liquor, turned their phones off, lowered the blinds.
Were they unhappy? No. Not more than most people. They were artists, so their unhappiness drew on the melancholy of staying open to the possibility of sadness all around them. Maybe it wasn’t a choice. Possibly it was hope. In one sense it was the sadness of having cast their lot in with transcendent things, which flickered into existence and just as soon out. So not sad, but in a state of persistent longing, you could say, for a faintly envisioned world never to come but that shimmered promiscuously in moments alive with beauty or proximate to affection, intimacy, and forgiveness. In a piece years before, Frankie had spent a month embracing strangers in a bed. This took place in a gallery. She studied their bodies, the body’s language as it lay. If they lay long enough, their breathing would slow and the feeling of even touching would dissolve to nothing. Only a few touched her inappropriately. She moved their hands back to her stomach. When at the end of the month she tried to rise she found she couldn’t stand. Her legs buckled beneath her. And she was weeping, she discovered. For a month she had held strangers, they had held her. They had held each other breathing as if a quiet momentous thing were about to happen, and she had felt their desire for something momentous, and her own.
The blinds were drawn in Jim’s apartment. They glowed in the afternoon light a color like unripe melon, luminous. The dust eddied at their blades like a spray of tiny ashes. Vinyl, ashes, the way the sea turned in on itself. Frankie enjoyed the summer heat. How she was already dirty. Dirt was proximity, the sweat in her clothes. Jim sat at his breakfast table smoking: tobacco mixed with weed. She smelled the heaviness of the two against a background of flowers and rot, lavender, pollinating trees. He sat by the window in an undershirt, close enough to peer down through the blinds at the trucks and children and the bright golden effluence of summer in the street. He had set up the liter bottles on the credenza. Thick glossy lemons and limes. A still life, half a joke. The hardwood creaked. He must have swept, she thought. The wind pushed the blinds into the room.
When she told friends she knew a poet they said, I should really read more poetry, by which she understood them to mean they should read any but wouldn’t. She believed people didn’t read poetry because it didn’t lead anywhere and it terrified people to feel time pass doing something that didn’t lead anywhere. James wrote poems about things that led nowhere, only further in, and so in a sense he wrote poems about the terror of being a poet and the experience of reading poetry.
When they had regarded each other in appraisal and silence and delayed gratification of the moment, their smiles at last irrepressible, he rose, slipped by to slide the chain guard in the door—he rarely locked it—held her, and kissed her cheek. They rested like that awhile. She smelled of desert, he thought, of perfume fired by the sun, volatile on hot panels of skin. Her body gave, not fleshy, not firm or thin. A body, that is. He would pour himself into it. In a second, he knew, he would become liquid and mix with it, throw himself at its porousness, softly, until like metal rings in a magic act they trespassed each other. Already it was too much, for already in the initial moment he felt the later moments, when Frankie would shower and dress and strap her bag and—
She left his hand trailing in the air after hers and moved to the table where she relit the spliff. She pulled long drags off it. She looked at him. He looked thin and she remembered how she had thought him unlovable when they first met, not a cruel thought, he was only ugly, but then so decent (he had brought desserts, tea, books of poetry to her cabin), so decent and sound, so fully present when she spoke that she could not see him as ugly. He was not ugly. He was altogether an object of love. No, she didn’t love him. But she wanted to be near him. He was as real as water. Also hopeless, which you could see by his apartment. She could not imagine him buying an article of furniture, certainly not a pillowcase. He had probably inherited these and his towels and certainly his dental floss from an old girlfriend. Not that she was Martha Stewart. Not that he deserved pity.
Sex is a coordination of subjectivities. It is a remarkable thing to do with so little speaking. In the bedroom they removed each other’s clothes with significant interest. They hadn’t seen each other in months and this charged their bodies with newness, as though it were a stranger consenting to being undressed. This was exciting. It brought forth a hunger. They kissed and let the spit linger in the kiss, pressing their mouths together as though on the far sides were the counterpart to consciousness, perhaps. They touched, licked, sucked, inspected. Ran fingers through vales of hair. Turned and repositioned. They made signal noises and whispered the novelty of each other’s names, laughed at themselves, the helpless confrontation with all they were permitted and the impossibility of its simultaneous performance, the aromas and entries, the reality and pliancy of genitals, the unabashed warm enactments of possession and submission, taking and ceding control, the wordless and desultory harmonies, the limitless feeling bound in careful lust. They had perhaps never said no to each other. They had perhaps never asked anything demanding enough.
How was life, Frankie wanted to know when they were done. They lay there like they were floating in the river of gold that ran down the street just before townhouses opposite would eclipse the sun, the light as thick and warm as the vital chord change in a country ballad, a lament, the hinge heartache swung on.
Life was all right, Jim said. Was it all right? No. He could not find a publisher for his second book of poems. It had been seven years since his first. His first had been a well enough received collection in the style of the New York School, which school he no longer believed in nor trusted. It was glib, he felt, he had been young. People wanted something casual and inviting. He didn’t tell Frankie this. She thought he was a poet, but he taught high school kids English, and they went off to have lives that had nothing to do with poetry. He lay there naked with a beautiful woman, he thought her beautiful, and his fingers had been inside her, and he taught high school students how to write meaningless essays and identify themes. What on earth was a theme? He might as well have taught children to suffocate living creatures. But he told Frankie none of this, and said that he felt, with each passing year, that he was living in a murder mystery in which no one would be killed.
Killed? Frankie said. Who do we want killed? But he didn’t answer. How could he? Didn’t she know? I’m just being stagy, he said, to make it all a joke. How are you? And how was she, how was she? She was good, but how could she tell him that?
Busy was the word she settled on. This was true, but she said it in the tone of an oppressiveness she didn’t feel. These interludes had offered her an escape in the past, a break, but when she said it she realized she had only come this time not to disappoint Jim. Oh, you know, career stuff never ends, she said, but when I manage to stop and look around, I’m pretty happy with what life’s become. And as she said it she was happy, and her happiness worried her because she thought Jim would see it. But I never get to just be, she added quickly. I miss the pure, undivided time. I miss this. Did she?
This was the idea, or part of it, to abandon time as a conceptual framework. Time of course didn’t exist but we were asked constantly to pretend together it did. And what did time look like, feel like, unmeasured, left simply to pass, away from the scrutiny of clocks and watches, phones, the metrics and intrusions? It looked like fluids of changing light. It felt like open space. Jim greatly resented the church bells ringing in the street because they had one message: time is passing…passing! But no, he was time, they were time, not simply immersed in it but it, passing with it, buoyant in its lightsome current.
The sun had begun its long summer bow to evening. They made drinks and climbed to the roof on the rusted fire escape, where they sat on day-warmed tar and watched the brilliancy sift through the city. They talked about the people they were seeing. Frankie had a lover in San Francisco she liked. We fly to see each other once a month or so, she said, something like that. Serious? Jim asked. Maybe, she said, too early to tell. And he felt no possessiveness, as he never had with her, he didn’t know why. Maybe he had simply never invested some part of his identity in her constancy. It was possible sexual jealousy had nothing to do with sex and was just the simple idea of what someone would sacrifice for you, whether people could be trusted at their word. We were petty creatures. He did not feel petty with her.
Grit on the roof dug into their elbows and the undersides of their legs. They leaned against the cornice, shoulders pressed together, and jostled each other as they talked. To the west the buildings shone in a sky like fallout, a deep, unnatural fire dripping through the towers. Windows blazed. The ice in their drinks had melted. Muddled mint like wet clippings clung to the glasses’ sides. And Jim’s romantic life? He did not want to tell her he’d been seeing a former student but she got it out of him with the bourbon. Eight years ago, he said. Stop smiling, she’s a grownup. She’s a grownup, Frankie repeated. Well, no, he admitted. That had been the problem. But it was fun, she said. Very briefly fun, he said. Then a great big drag. And the sex? she asked. Young people can’t fuck, he said, and they didn’t say anything after that because it was simply true.
We do role plays, Frankie said a little later. We? Me and Raf. What sort? Father-daughter stuff. She colored slightly. It’s fun. James said they could do that, and Frankie said all right. He considered it. I don’t feel very paternal with you, though. No, she agreed. No, but she would call him Daddy if he liked. Daddy, oh, Daddy! she said, mostly teasing.
They had sex standing up in the kitchen. Over the sofa. They were in much too much of a hurry to make it to the bedroom. They drank. James held Frankie off the ground, her legs around his waist, fucking, until he got tired. They smoked on the fire escape after. The night rivered around them, collected in a pool, was limitless. In the velveteen dark. Strike that. In the permissive dark. It was wonderful to drink till dawn, to give each other permission, to smoke, to laugh, to touch each other every so often and start again, past the point where they could come. They laughed, they laughed.
When they awoke it was afternoon. James regretted checking, but couldn’t help it. They had sex again, dissipating the hangover a bit. They sat at the table by the windows, the blinds still drawn, listening to the breeze shake through the trees. They drank beer. The languor and alertness, the pleasure, the fatigue, the crisp cold beer at two in the afternoon folded them in a tide of flickering happiness—there, then shadowed, then there again. Frankie suddenly had access to the feeling of being young in the city in spring, long days of moving between apartments and bars and outdoor music venues. A feeling of adventure she found painful to remember it was so great, so full of hope and the beauty of other people. The physical and sexual beauty of their cruelty and availability. But had it felt like this at the time, did it have the thickness it had now, the mediation as though under glass, the sleepy molten quality to the light and the emotion that played through it, or was this only the addition of memory and did we try to recapture what we never could because what we remembered had never been?
They lay in the sun on the roof and passed a rolled cigarette with a dash of weed in it back and forth. The light spilled through their eyelids. When they got too hot they went to the bedroom, draped a dark sheet over the window, and watched movies all afternoon. Sometimes James would slip a hand down Frankie’s stomach and into her underwear, and they would watch a little longer before pausing the movie. Sometimes she would play with him while they watched. Later they put on clothes and played games that asked them to drink and strip. They sat on the floor ten, twelve feet apart and tried to land bottle caps in mugs of beer. Jeanne Dielman played in the background. They fell asleep to Godfrey Reggio. James awoke, early, encased in a brittle pain. The pain felt like weak seams in his bones. It pulsed in his head. He didn’t want to move but forced himself up, took three aspirin with a swig of rum, cut up lemons and limes, squeezed them into glasses, shook salt into the mix, and filled the glasses with cold water. He brought one to Frankie who sat up on the couch where they had fallen asleep. She drank it gladly. He fed her the pills he had clenched in his hand, which she swallowed without asking. They were only aspirin.
Jim showered and left to get them food, to give Frankie time alone if she wanted to shower and shit and text her lover if it was that sort of thing. He felt a twinge even stepping into the sun below the sycamores, the trash smell, the beautiful morning, the premonition of her leaving, the patient endurance of reality. The world would still be there waiting at the end of it, unchanged and never the same.
Frankie did shit—why be coy about it? She would have shat with James there, but it was better this way, unselfconscious. She thought about the band’s new album, sitting there. They had just finished recording, and fingers crossed they were done—but already she could tell something was different, a new dimension, a fullness or maturity, as though a flat image had been granted depth and sprung in that instant to life. She showered, thinking about the gulf between the experience of making art and the world’s experience of the art, thinking, Was it possible James did not own shampoo? Yes. Well. She wouldn’t wash her hair. The only thing in the shower was a sliver of soap so thin it bent in her hand. Oh, come on, James, she said to herself, speaking to him tenderly and a little angrily because in some ways he was a child and she wanted to be a child too but she couldn’t be one for as long as James could or in quite the same way. This set a small wave of anxiety rolling through her, fear really, a spasm in her stomach, until she looked at herself in the mirror and put it forcefully out of mind, smiled at herself, deciding that she was very happy and very sad all at once and living the life she had always dreamed of and it was a life of such intense poignancy that at times she could scarcely breathe.
She ate radishes sprinkled with salt, sitting at the table by the window waiting for James. People passed on the street below, holding children’s hands and walking in pairs. She kept expecting to see James, and she felt it would be strange, even embarrassing, to see him out in the world, unaware of being watched. She picked up a notebook of his lying among the papers on his worktable. She brought it over to the table by the window and read: “—August 17. The park at dusk…A quality of green, deep and plush as chenille. Dogs play in naked tracts of puddles the rain has left on the lawn. They wade to their haunches and shake water from themselves. Two men reading on a blanket, lying on their stomachs side by side, possibly in love. Of course it rained, I remember now—the tapping on my windowsill, the impatient spirit trying to secure my attention to tell me no message was coming, not to expect one. Love is a type of reading, side by side. A far-off siren amplifying the peace. Planes crest the southern trees every minute or so on the flight path from oblivion. A pinpoint in pale orange, the color of the fireflies who spark in luminous dells, and the bulbous lamps stringing the walks like polished stones on a necklace. Where the substance of life gathers at too great a concentration and ignites, we say here is nothing but…a firefly, a chemical. And love is a siren in the quiet damp. The buildings facing west relay the parting words of a sunken sun. The woods are empty. Why did no one think to come here but me? And if the fireflies’ blinking has no meaning? No, we will call them spirits in the dark. We will tell the stories of their loneliness, and of their mischief.”
Frankie returned the notebook to the table and took a copy of James’s book off the shelf to read the poem about his mother she loved and the poem about exploring the forest behind his grandparents’ house that went deeper and deeper in and never came out.
When he returned he had bags and bags—of cheese and bread, fruit and nuts, a compote, cucumbers, tomatoes, wine, and a papaya that didn’t look ripe. He had started to think it was a person, he explained. Do you ever see something so ugly that you can’t believe it doesn’t have a soul? I left it, but I kept thinking about it. I kept thinking it was a person, and I was the only one who realized it and I’d left it. So I bought it.
But we can’t eat it if it’s a person. Of course not, he said. But at some point it will rot, she said. He looked at her, annoyed, maybe tired, maybe sad. She considered taking his head and holding it to her chest, stroking his hair, and murmuring gentle nothings. It was in fact what she wanted to do, but she didn’t know where that path led once they went down it. She gave him a quick kiss on the lips. Had she ever told him about Gregor?
Who’s Gregor? he asked. He dropped two knelling ice cubes in each of two glasses and poured rye over them. Me, she said—or a character. Sometimes I called him Felix. He was a project a bunch of years ago, but I never did anything with it. I’d dress up as this guy, Felix, this slight, weird, delicate outcast. He was like the archetypal outcast, you know. I cut my hair short and dyed it black. I had a theater friend help me with a mustache. We gave me really bad skin. I had these skinny shapeless pants that didn’t go down far enough, glasses. And I’d explore the city as Felix. Ride the subways out to the ends of lines. He had these postures and faces. She twisted herself up the way a tent or map folds cleverly in on itself; her face took on a grimacing smile, a slight asymmetry. Gregor read the free papers, she said. He liked the ads, things he could never afford. He never had more than a few dollars crumpled in his pockets. People gave him the strangest looks—or maybe I just expected strange looks, maybe their looks were normal.
She had started to become Felix, she explained. After a few weeks, she felt a change come over her, and felt this enormous fear. Because I thought: What can I call on? What do I have recourse to? Say I’m scared or in danger. Say I want to die. What could Felix call on? He had nothing. I’d given him nothing. He was invisible, hideous. He had no money. No one cared about him or wondered where he was. I remember waiting on a train platform up above the street. The day was overcast. A few drops of rain had found their way into the wind, like the day was still deciding what it would be. And I thought, I am going to die, I am going to die. And Felix laughed just then, just as panic was seizing me. He laughed in a way I have never laughed and never will. It was the laugh of a dark freedom, horrifying, grotesque. Ha ha ha…It seemed like the air was wicker in the laugh, breaking. It was a laugh that said there was nothing, absolutely nothing, and then filled the nothing.
They ate in silence. There is a point in everything when you realize you are closer to the end than the beginning and you must either start making your way out or else do violence to yourself with each further step. The day turned gray. James cut his foot on something invisible and blood dripped on the apartment floor. He put a wad of paper towel on the cut and tied a T-shirt around his foot to hold it in place. He walked around for the rest of the day in his underwear with the T-shirt tied around his foot. He drank to still the rattling in him. He went down on Frankie with the knot slipping, the bloody towel falling to the floor. He thought it was Felix’s vagina he was licking, and he felt it had to be done, that it was the right thing to do, but he felt nauseated. Stop thinking about Felix, Frankie seemed to say, although it might have been a question—Are you thinking about Felix?—or maybe she just said Felix or moaned, or sang a sad beautiful song that told the story of making drugs in the mountains and having nothing like a normal life.
In the morning James awoke at daybreak feeling not the slightest bit tired. He looked at Frankie’s mouth agape in sleep, the breath drifting into and out of it, and he quietly left the house. The morning was very still. You could hear the odd car a few blocks away and the delivery trucks downshifting on the avenue. The sun hadn’t come up, but the day was light. The moon, about full, rested above the buildings to the south, far too big and much too luminous for the daylight around it.
Jim walked the edge of the park, the broad stone-paved promenade. People were assembling with bicycles. Quite a few people, in colorful skintight Lycra. It amused him—he had stumbled on a small secret. There were so many secrets, the world held so many secrets. And the city was so big and empty right then that it seemed possessed of an incredible bounty. The bikers took their bikes gingerly from their cars. The morning was very quiet. And on the benches beneath the boughs that grew over the walls slept homeless men, sleeping so they touched everything they had. And the birds, the flowers, and the daylight stirred. And the world slept. And the moon was a thing, hovering at its remove in the sky, a true thing.
Jim did not know Frankie’s band would make it, that it would take off soon and for a time she would make a name for herself. There wouldn’t be any more vacations. They would never make the same sense. He would not even know when she played the bandshell he was passing just then, a year later, to a thronging crowd who wanted something—what? Well, something—although he would hear the music that day, from a far corner of the park, and think, How nice, and think, Oh, I should go to one of these concerts one of these days—because I am looking for something too, something that lives in moments and must be drawn from them and never can be, fully. The world was very baggy. There were folds and folds…And no one would ever know everything that had taken place in just one moment of it, no one ever would. James would lose his phone, and later he would read that Frankie’s band was a sensation, a thing, and he would want to congratulate her but that wasn’t how they did things, and he didn’t have her email, strange as that was, and though he could have tracked it down easily, he didn’t.