Is there a way to live between the lines, to suspend time? You would remain in Manhattan with your wife and son, I’d stay in Berlin, but there could be a sliver of space we’d inhabit together, a shelf where you’d place the things you still have and I’d place mine between them, like the small objects in tarnished teapots and carved wooden boxes we used to give each other as presents: the dried end of a vine branch tapering to a perfect spiral; a thin slice of sedimentary rock interlaced with transparent hues of violet, perfect haikus in lieu of the more sentimental declarations we shied away from. I still have a collection of bellybutton lint, numerous tiny balls I imagine to be baby blue from a sweater I gave you, a color that matched your eyes. When I check to see, I discover they’re all in shades of gray with the exception of two, which are dark pink.
I remember the blisters on each of your knuckles from stretching canvases for that elderly painter—what was his name?—who was finally, towards the end of his life, having a major exhibition of his work. I remember standing on the sidewalk on Westervelt Avenue after the building almost burned down, the dogs on leashes and the cat on my shoulder, or on yours, and I was suddenly infused with a sense of joy and limitless potential—the joy of sheer survival, no doubt, because I can still see you heating up a can of Campbell’s Mushroom Soup and stirring in pepper and maybe chives and all at once the kitchen filling up with white smoke, it took a moment to understand that the soup and the smoke were entirely unconnected, and we had just enough time to grab the animals and run, a matter of seconds—and I said if we can’t live here anymore, let’s move to Europe. I remember a night you didn’t come home; I stayed up late working on something and cut myself with an X-acto blade and had to go to the hospital for stitches, and when I returned early the next morning you still weren’t there, you hadn’t had a chance to be alarmed by the drips in the sink, by the bloody gauze, I had nearly cut off my thumb by mistake and left behind what looked like a crime scene, the kind of thing we do when we need to externalize something, to make a thing obvious that we already know inside, but you hadn’t had a chance to see it and feel sorry. These were the things we never talked about.
I remember sitting in a bathing suit on a craggy shore in the Peloponnese, turning my head and suddenly seeing you instead of the man beside me, my first real relationship seven years after I’d left. It was as close to a hallucination as I’ve ever experienced.
The first time I came back to New York I walked around the old neighborhood like a Rumpelstiltskin; I stood across the street from that pub—was it Third Avenue?—where you’d rented a studio on the second floor from a man who was a friend, but who’d charged us fifty bucks to drive a few paintings downtown, a man who let us do all the carrying, whose jaw shifted as his expression turned smug and he decided to rob us, but you no longer lived in our apartment and you no longer worked in that studio, you’d packed my things into boxes and taken our cats and moved to the west side, and it was my first experience with returning to a former life and finding the vital parts missing, like being back from the dead and discovering oneself invisible.
What was possible, you ask? In the end, is it only what we choose to do? Would I have stayed, would I have come back if you’d asked me to—back in the time before cell phones and email, Facebook and Twitter, the distance unimaginable by today’s standards and a telephone call to London far too expensive. I still have them somewhere: letters and postcards and a photo of you with a bandaged thumb, an odd parallel, now that I think of it.
These are the objects I choose to put on the shelf today: a baseball you kept in a box of old stuff; a sepia drawing your brother had made. An old Polaroid of a sweet kid with a sideways grin, leaning on the arm of a chair next to a handsome and valiant hound dog named Red, the picture you sent me a duplicate of after I’d come across it in a box of old photographs. And a faded green canvas bag among the tools in my studio, the bag you carried your laundry in even before I knew you.