Destiny: a word that transmits little waves in all directions, some of them rapid and shrill, and some of them deeper, pulsing at the very edge of perception. A range of associations from bright and tinsel-like, like costume jewelry, to solemn and ancient. I once fell in love with a man who was mildly oblivious to my existence, who smiled to himself, as though he found me amusing. I was alone at the time, and in my solitude I became carried away by a fantasy that eventually escalated in my imagination. It would be easy to dismiss this love as infatuation, but what is it, really, to believe that one was meant to be together with another? What is it that makes the soul burn with longing, that induces one to inhale, to absorb another person into one’s perception to the point that one sounds like that person, resembles that person? I recall him smiling differently at times, too, coming up from behind me on a bicycle, for instance, pedaling amiably, having clearly enjoyed observing the movement of my gluteus maximus, my gluteus medius on the seat; having allowed that to suggest other activities to his imagination. I also recall his eyes on me at unexpected moments, when there was sometimes a pained expression in them. The Androgyne, two parts of a severed whole longing for each other, longing for completion. When I was very young, a sense of my own destiny would arrive at unexpected moments: walking down Seaview Avenue at the age of thirteen or fourteen, after nightfall, in awe at the terrible infinitude of the pitch-black sky above me, the terrible distances between the stars, listening to my shoes hit the pavement one after the next in a regular rhythm, connected to this Earth by the mere force of gravity and understanding myself to be entirely, irrevocably alone, and that I would always be walking in this way, listening to my own footsteps, with the beautiful, terrible nighttime sky above me twinkling with the ghosts of long-dead stars. An early encounter of the self with the self: a kind of knowledge that was impossible to describe, or convey, or articulate in any way; that had to do with me in the most intimate way.
And V.? What was it like for V.? You grow impatient with me, want me to leave behind the past, but it’s not the past I’m troubled by, no, it’s some kind of potent distillate which permeated me and charted labyrinthine maps in my neural pathways and lined the slippery, bubble-like walls of my cells with its sticky gook. The past can never be left behind, it’s not even passed, its substance has seeped into mine and commingled with it and here I am, thinking I’m making a fresh start and finally letting go and all the while my own invisible homunculus is trapped a million times over, stuck in the oozing muck of everything that has happened to it, in the condensed slime of experience.
Why this capacity for pain? Take a look at V., he’s built to survive; he forgets, deletes entire episodes, leaves people behind like vagabonds on the side of the road hoping to hitch a ride in his streamlined, gleaming life. It’s equipped with all the latest safety features, but even still: hitchhikers present unknown dangers. They can steal from you, abduct you, they can seduce you and then, touching up their lipstick in the rear-view mirror, ask to be let out on the next corner. They can bring peril and disease into your life; they can blackmail you. This was how V. saw me: not as a promise that might have been, a shooting star in the black of night sent to announce its augured miracle, but as a potential threat to his otherwise perfect life, its possible downfall. But disappointment is not a part of V.’s universe; failure, insecurity, fear, doubt: all words that do not apply. Alarmed, and then industrious as ever, his mind paved over whatever connecting lines our encounter might have momentarily redrawn. No room for renewal—not now. He has done everything right, he strides resolutely forwards, has built a life so enviable that even he is almost convinced he’s happy. But then he cracks open the veneer just enough to offer a peek inside, and he will do this again and again: give in to the temptation, recite his troubles like an air-tight case against himself, ask to be shown the way out of the rigid diagram of his life, and what is there to do but believe him, fall through that crack.
And what about you? The cups of Turkish coffee I turned over in their saucers in your mother’s apartment: you search the lines etched into their hardened grinds, examine the squiggles and trembling, dream-like shapes for signs that presage fortune, presage a life together: something more than the disaster and betrayal and loss of love you’ve known until now. A life between cities, between boxes in storage: is it a type of freedom, or has it become its own settled way? What are our chances for anything more than this: a trip to Berlin, to London, maybe Paris—we’ll see. Like me, I fear you are trapped in your own personal quagmire. The blind leap of faith required to let go of the past, the childlike belief to proclaim: these are my limitations, my scars, I will conquer them now as I’ve always known I could, I will take a chance that my future self has already made this decision somewhere in the space-time continuum, already knows what will come to be—can either of us jump that far? We run and holler in joy. We whoop up a racket, resolute as warriors with cardboard and tinfoil swords in hand; we plant ourselves firmly on the peaks of our own little hills. And each of us hindered by responsibility and the far sturdier binds of habit, by a dizzying oscillation between a belief in the beauty and inevitability of happiness and a fear of failure and self-delusion.
You are on a train now, sleeping, on your way to Vienna. You will spend the week there, then travel on to Berlin. You’ve booked a hotel room for two, in both our names. I will arrive at reception and ask for the key. What is the best way for us to meet? Should I come earlier than you, undress, and slip under the crisp white duvet cover? Or should I sit in a corner with my knees drawn up to my chin?
An email from V. arrived in my inbox last night, and I sat at my desk and gazed at his name in a fog of befuddled senses. A first name, a last name, the mere sight of which made my heart beat faster only a year ago, still familiar, but distant now in a nearly amnesiac way. I see it, recognize it, yet I feel nothing—and at the same time my skin prickles at the fact that I feel nothing; I mistrust it, suspect that this name could all of a sudden act in some unexpected way and catch me by surprise, lash out and sting me when my back is turned. Between his mail and your mail is a message from another friend; I’m glad the two are not touching, that W. has wedged himself in between.
V. wants to know how L. is doing. I thought it was okay to write to you about this, he adds. I’d told him I no longer wished to hear from him, then broke the silence a few months later by asking him for information on behalf of L., a friend who was suffering from a dangerous and unpredictable illness. L. is as powerfully anchored to life as any one of us, yet I still found myself consciously refraining from the concerned looks and philosophical platitudes, the “any one of us could just as easily get hit by a car tomorrow” nonsense people resort to when they can’t wrap their minds around the fact that the person they are talking to has looked oblivion square in the eye and stared it down, determined to live. I stayed up entire nights researching alternative treatment methods, learned the medical names, was able to rattle off the procedural strategies; I held onto them fiercely, like strong, well-secured ropes dangling from the side of a cliff I could hoist the two of us up on, to safety. There was promising research being done in Canada, a generic drug that somehow switches off the aberrant mechanism in the tumor cell that prevents it from destroying itself, as it does when the body is functioning properly. How elegant: somewhere, in a parallel universe, cancer is something that self-destructs by virtue of its own corruption. The idea sounds pre-Biblical; I catch myself wondering, like a child, why all the evil in the world can’t self-destruct by virtue of its own corruption. There must be some way to get her into a clinical trial there. Would the insurance matter if they could see the important work she’s been doing, read her remarkable words? I could charter a Cessna and fly her there myself, through a blizzard if necessary.
But I didn’t write to V. about my ineffectual fantasies: what it felt like all those months to live with a death sentence that was not my own. L. was condemned and I was not—how are two people supposed to negotiate that divide? Like speaking to one another through a glass partition in a prison, or in quarantine, fingertips pressed against two sides of a transparent wall, aligned at the fingertips, but with an unbridgeable gap in between. I’d spoken to L. about V. one afternoon, walking up Tenth Avenue after seeing her exhibition in Chelsea. She knew the feelings one can have for a man incapable of embracing emotion himself in all its intensity and dizzying confusion and basic, unshakable knowledge—but how can you reach a person like that, tell him all the things you see, unravel the puzzle and hand him the key? In the end, you can’t tell him that it’s not the emotion, but the idea of a life he’s been clinging to that is the illusion; that the only thing real beyond the fear and the guilt is the inopportune, irksome fact that he loves you.
L. waited for years for her lover to come back, endured a communication by proxy, learned to read the signs he put out into the world for her, oblique answers in the form of a Facebook post or analogies in articles he published that he knew she’d understand; in this way they kept up a kind of dialogue with one another, a secret language that was strong enough to retain a hold over her, that prevented her from opening herself up to anyone else. But then her illness cast everything in a stark and burning brilliance, and she used this shocking new clarity to separate light from shadow, and her heart became a sacred place again, a place called Miraculous Remission, where one enters in reverent silence and with bowed countenance, where there’s no room for her lover lout, her boorish brute and churlish cad, for the shoes he plodded in with that he’d forgotten to take off and leave at the door every time. I was in a different place, but I didn’t wait for V. to trample in on me again, I could see where it would lead and I ended it, but it led me there anyway, I who have not yet learned to stop in time, who always carries things to conclusion.
This name: how it branded itself on my mind in such a way that any name beginning with the same two initials made me look twice, any pair of words beginning with the initials leaped out at me from the page. And now, an automatism that is already fading: how quickly it happens, just when you think you’re lost forever. I think of him, someone on whose account I nearly went mad, and draw a blank, like a form of amnesia. Perhaps the mind is protecting itself from the memory, which I feel quivering just beyond that skin-thin, unbridgeable divide.
On a whim, I sent you a recipe for cauliflower and fennel in a coconut curry sauce; you diligently shopped for the ingredients and prepared a perfect meal. Tonight it was turnip and green beans, grated carrot and chicken with turmeric over which your mother voiced her enthusiastic approval. I am not trying to win her over, but she is under the mistaken impression that these recipes are for her, and so she is slowly beginning to like me.
I wake up early; there are so many things I still need to understand. We’ve been playing the game of where-were-you-when: where was I when you were in Athens? In Saudi Arabia? In Paris? When you returned to New York, I was checking coats uptown, waiting to hear whether or not I would be moving to Berlin to do graduate work, waiting to hear my fate. It’s not impossible that you had lunch there one day, a small midtown restaurant for the martini lunch crowd consisting almost exclusively of men in suits. They’d arrive in a bluster of back-patting joviality and hand over their coats, which had cost them the equivalent of six months’ rent on my railroad apartment; they’d inquire after the book I was reading, and sometimes, rarely, there would be a glint of recognition in someone’s eye, something beyond a patronizing expression of approval or amused surprise that a young thing like me could be tackling the likes of Dostoyevsky—some sign of recognition, of yearning.
I used to freeze in that booth because it was next to the outside entrance, separated from the restaurant by a swinging door. After my shift was over, I was allowed to come inside and eat a meal. I remember a waitress there, a woman several years older than myself; she had been an aspiring actress, like all the girls who worked there, but then she’d gotten pregnant and had the child, a little girl, strange that I’ve forgotten their names, but I still remember visiting them somewhere in an apartment tower on the upper West Side, still remember the tiny bed with the frilly pink bedspread and my friend explaining that she’d changed, saw everything differently now that she had someone to take care of. She’d found new meaning in life, no longer needed to chase after the next role, and she pitied the girls at the restaurant checking their make-up every fifteen minutes and striking poses for the customers in the hopes of making an impression on a director or producer. While I could sympathize, I wasn’t ready to give up yet; I was just starting out, I had places to go, languages to learn, paintings to paint. The other waitresses treated her like an outsider, although she wasn’t yet thirty. Weeks turn into years / how quick they pass / and all the stars that never were / are parking cars and pumping gas: when I hear this song I think of her. Time was a currency in this business, and you had to be quick: auditions and dance lessons and photo sessions for promotion shots, it all cost money, and more than once I saw them run after a departing group of men too drunk to remember to leave a tip. Was there something wrong with the service, the worried girls would inquire tactfully, waiting for the men’s glazed eyes to focus in realization. And when they did, it wasn’t embarrassment they revealed, but a kind of fatherly indulgence: of course, of course, they’d say as they pulled out their wallets, there you are, Sweetheart, this is for you, and they’d press a crisp bill in her hand and close her fingers over it and hover several inches too close with both hands clasped over hers, and she would smile brightly, hoping it was a twenty.
I’d always found the act of accepting cash—of holding out your hand to have someone else place money in it—to be unbearably vulgar. I imagine myself standing in that coat check booth, with a little basket of dollar bills resting on a shelf below the dividing wall. I imagine you coming in with someone, in the middle of a conversation, perhaps; I imagine myself slipping a bookmark into a dog-eared paperback and taking your coats. There is no way for us to recognize each other, our trajectories are still too far apart, yet we will smile and then, for a moment, our eyes will lock, and all at once there will be that invisible tunnel between us that shuts everything else out, and the person accompanying you will hold the door open and chuckle, because he will think you’re flirting with the coat check girl, but it won’t be flirting, it will be something else entirely: it will be the look of someone who understands in some distant part of his disembodied consciousness that he is looking into the eyes of a woman whom, twenty-nine years and countless appointments and disappointments later, he is destined to meet again.