For a month or two I sent the man a postcard nearly every other week. Picked them off a tall spinning rack near the counter at McNally Jackson. An afterthought, I could argue; cheap and within reach. Blurry snapshots of the city taken from a graffitied train car window (it is rare to see a train car window looking like that in New York anymore, and also I like to think of the parenthetical as a whisper behind a cupped hand, which is sort of what these postcards were like for me, though of course not for the man); a shrunken print of Basquiat’s dinosaur king with his yellow, three-pronged crown; a black and white image of a naked woman on a balcony outside the Chelsea Hotel, long and pale above the rain-soaked street, one hand sweeping her dark hair back so that the elbow eclipses the face and the body is just a body—legs, hip bones, breasts. Any perfect pale body.
That one specifically I remember wanting to keep for myself because it was the last of its kind on the rack and because I was unable not to imagine Leonard Cohen inside, getting head on the unmade bed, unable not to imagine the woman (earlier or later) talking so brave and so sweet. And then there was the languid tilt of her hidden gaze and, though the rain has stopped, the wrought-iron balustrade still slick and reflective. It was all so perfect, the whole thing, that I had to laugh when I saw it because I knew the man would not understand what it meant (what I meant), would not even be pretending that he did not understand, I knew that. But I bought the postcard anyway, like the handful of others, with the intention of mailing it and for a long while after that I could not stop singing the first few lines of Chelsea Hotel #2 under my breath.
Truthfully it is impossible not to be particular in a situation like that, choosing postcards, even from a limited selection, such as the aforementioned picked-through display. An afterthought, I could argue; but I would not even try to argue that. Of course I wanted the man to know something about me, whether that something was authentic or not, wanted to curate a little gallery of power, of irreverence and unavailability—traits this man held over me with his own special kind of ambivalence, that so many men have held over me; traits I have despised and envied and embodied in turn, that I have wielded and also sought out, particularly when the texture of that unavailability is of a thinly veiled tenderness, that I, with my own thinly veiled tenderness, might reveal, might lift.
This is a common enough dynamic (do you not recognize yourself somewhere in this scheme?), but ultimately a lot of work and very tiring. And while, in the last year or so (I was getting older, I was slowing down), I’d begun to feel its potency weakening, like air leaking out of a day-old balloon, it still seemed like it had the potential to soothe. So I clung to it. I took action.
On the back of each postcard I wrote the man’s address (which I knew by heart because I walked there often during that season from Grand Street or Broadway or really anywhere I happened to be), and I don’t know what else. A lyric from something maybe, something graphic and cloying, awful and appropriating. But always borrowed language. Rap lyrics, some Philip Larkin, Bob Dylan. I don’t know. Whatever it was, I thought of the postcards as interruptions in the distance between us, like knots on an invisible fishing line. As you may or may not have guessed by now I never signed my name. I was clever.
Twice I thought I saw the corner of what looked like a postcard poking out from beneath a slim pile of bills on the formica counter in the man’s tiny, cluttered kitchen, beside the wooden jug he’d fashioned to brew Orujo. But if he received them he never told me. He never told me much, not even something like that, like receiving a mysterious postcard—which would have been enough for me, that sort of conversation (a secret; his curiosity, mine). He never asked for my address. He did not know where I lived at all, actually, as far as I can tell. Except that it was in Brooklyn and with my mother. The man was several years older than I was and everything he did or didn’t do expressed to me both fatigue and restlessness, something to do with an awareness of age, I think, age and regret—his slow laugh and lumbering walk, his strong embrace and brisk goodbyes. How he shuddered once when I told him that I had been waiting for him to call. How he’d reach out to tuck a stray piece of hair behind my ear while he listened intently to whatever I said. So while it sounds a certain way, that whole situation with my mother, it was almost definitely working in my favor. It was so easy to pretend to be a child sneaking out at night; transitory, liminal. Youth and impermanence. Irresistible to both of us, I am sure. And I also had extra money for cabs and cocktails and cigarettes and charcuterie, and things like that, even though I was only working as a part-time adjunct. So it all seemed like it was meant to be, really.
(It is strange to be a young teacher, when for so long, so recently, you wandered around a city half drunk, often alone, with heavy eyelids and desire bursting from your veins, from between your legs, from the tips of your fingers, a desire so violent it sometimes felt as though it was the only thing keeping your body upright and moving. And then you are standing in front of a classroom and what’s left is mostly panic—you, trying to be everything else all at once, kind of always a mess, kind of always dehydrated, lips always a little chapped, hair always a little out of place, clothes never quite fitting).
I was practicing a lot of restraint and I was doing alright. I had enough restraint not to give myself away, not to ask, Speaking of (potentially anything or nothing), have you received a postcard...? It was only my dream, after all, to receive mysterious postcards of ironic, erotic fragments from someone hiding their tenderness beneath a thin veil of detachment. I don’t know if it was his dream, but I hoped so.
Yes, I was disappointed. But really he had never promised me anything, not with words, and it seems to me that’s what promises are made of. What any expectation is made of. A slew of hand-me-down sounds that either fit or don’t fit, or sort of fit, sometimes. Sounds that transform the speaker into a specific someone, a someone exposed, an admission of self. And besides, I never felt alone when we were fucking. Never sad. I felt admired and required. I was impressive; in the dark he let me know this. And so my needs were met because those were my needs.
More than disappointing, there was something fascinating about the man’s duality—the intensity of his presence when we were together, and the permeating spaciousness of his absence when we were apart, a spaciousness I could inhabit. The airy quality of it. Like a footprint in tall grass.
I remember reading what Lacan thought about verbal language (I had borrowed a book on love and philosophy from the university library and was carrying it around with me at the time), how when we open our mouths to speak to a lover it is out of want, out of lack or desire. Verbal language, he said, is what makes humans romantic above all other beings on Earth. Without language there can be no articulated desire. Which also means there is nothing quite like human disappointment.
On weekday mornings when I left the man’s apartment I was always tired but very alert, aware of how beautiful and color-saturated everyone looked in their rain boots, waiting for the Manhattan-bound train across the steamy platform at 7th Avenue. Everyone going somewhere they were required, going somewhere for someone else. Earbuds inside their ears, fingers splitting open the spines of new books, each body adorned with its chosen things: red scarves, orange beanies, frosty pink eyeglasses, gold barrettes, sets of silver bangles. Just the thought of those sorts of things sort of kills me, makes me weak—standing in front of a mirror, a closet, placing and discarding bits of fabric and metal and plastic from our little collections to make ourselves feel good or safe or seen or hidden.
I know that if I was able to have a superpower, I would want the power to stare at anyone for as long as I liked without them caring. Not necessarily without them knowing, just without them caring. The reason I want this superpower is because everyone is trying to say something and I want to figure out what that something is. There are so many mysteries that cannot be solved on Youtube. Women’s eyebrows, for one thing, which are nearly impossible to believe in, by which I mean their asymmetrical beauty, unless you’re able to see them up close and in person, unless you’ve had the time and space to look. The best thing, I think, is when you are speeding through the tunnel on the Q train and there is an N train speeding through the tunnel on the parallel track, and both trains dip in and out of synced speed, swaying to Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers (which is what I kept hearing that fall when I saw trains do this), and for a moment one train seems to move backwards, and you can look into the lit car across the tracks and straight into someone’s face, because there is nothing they can do about it and you will never see them again.
Barthes mocked the idea of erogenous zones, how foolish to think there could be such an attainable port of seduction, a stretch of land so easily mapped and navigated. Rather, he wrote, It is intermittence...which is erotic; the intermittence of skin flashing between two articles of clothing (trousers and sweater), between two edges (the open-necked shirt, the glove and the sleeve); it is this flash itself which seduces, or rather: the staging of an appearance-as-disappearance. How does one begin to map that?
It was difficult to sleep next to the man at all, being overstimulated by so many things. The hugeness of his body, the warm pheromones rising off his skin, the sweet and sour stink of my own dried saliva on his fingers. The whining anxiety I felt in my teeth, my jaw, knowing that as soon as I woke and left there was no guarantee that I would see him again. Allen Street was loud and the window was left open because the old radiators got so hot at night. We stayed up late, electric, smoking the cigarettes I bought, waking up near dawn from whatever thick, inconsistent rest we’d fallen into, to fuck again. Perched on his lap I watched my shadow twisting softly on his walls while I blew smoke out into the night. And when pallid light rose around the edges of the city I’d press silently against his back until my arms went numb, peeking over his shoulders, my ears ringing with liquor, to watch the resident flock of pigeons swoop in and out of the eaves beyond the open window.
(Pigeons mate for life, you know. They learn one dance and perform it over and over for the same partner. Isn’t that romantic?)
Things I have witnessed alone through a window while tucked beside a sleeping body: pigeons; silent lightning; the last flakes of a snowstorm, the first; porch lights turned off and on; and once, in Hong Kong, a woman in a bathrobe watering potted plants on a rooftop with a lit cigarette between her lips. How it might have felt like a mutual witnessing, when really I was the only one there.
There was silver beneath the birds’ wings and together their bodies formed a wide metallic brush stroke, a shimmering wall, when they flipped in the air. Back and forth, in and out. Bright, dark, bright, dark, against the overcast November sky. Quickly, quickly, and many times over. What were they doing? So lovely and of their own mind, attending to a sensical function that to me was a mystery. I thought of myself—both sensical and not. The sudden silver swath made the pigeons momentarily unfamiliar and exotic, a different kind of bird altogether. A bird of interest. And while I watched the measured dance I must have made the mistake of thinking more about language, about words, the mistake of wishing that the man was someone who wanted to know what I thought about things such as pigeons changing color in the air. Yes, before I left his room I had a lot of thoughts, I could not help it. I’d imagine his breathing was slowing to match mine, try to sync my breath for a few seconds before crawling out the end of the bed to find my clothes, my coat. I worried about waking him. I never wanted to. It was a way to care for him as if I was someone who got to care for him. It was a way to protect myself from disappointment.
Once, he texted me in the afternoon. This was rare. I tried to open the text slowly, to savor it like a letter, which is impossible. There were several text bubbles. Inside them he explained he had been stuck underground for an hour because someone had jumped in front of a train. He was annoyed because he was late to work, but he also felt terrible about being annoyed. It was selfish, he said, because, I mean, well fuck, someone wanted to die. My face lit up. Finally, I thought. I stood still on the sidewalk and rewrote my response over and over. How to show him I understood? To sound smart, but not too smart, to show gratitude but also hide my excitement, to keep him talking. In the end I waited an acceptable amount of time before responding with something brief. It’s weird when we’re forced to face all our humanness at once, I might have said.
At some point that fall my mother brought home a piece of art she had bought on the street, a blue Japanese-style watercolor painted on yellowing silk. I must have been cooking dinner for us when my mother came in, wiping her boots on the mat by the door, lifting multiple bags from her shoulders. I must have wiped my hands on a dish towel as she unveiled her new treasure. She held the painting up in front of us and we both stared. It really was a very beautiful painting; narrow and lean, slight. Staggered conifers on a mountain slope, a steeply flowing river that wound like a ribbon down the center, a smattering of hillside huts. She had a story about the purchase because she has a story about every purchase. She kept saying how the boy on the street selling the painting (who had not actually made the painting, though we never wondered aloud about how or why he had the painting in his possession) reminded her of my brother, if my brother had gone wrong. I knew what she meant when she said this; she was talking about drugs and money and what that can do to boys’ faces. But it was a strange thing for her to say because at times we actually had worried about my brother, that he might go wrong, like my mother said, though it wasn’t necessarily drugs or money we were worried about. It was more the fear that we would just lose him, that he would disappear, because for so long he was so quiet. Now I don’t know why we ever worried. As a boy he was the kind of quiet that kept him from becoming a silent man.
Between the boundary of the painted landscape and the edge of the wooden frame was an interval of what appeared to be nothing at all. Smooth, blank. But the longer I looked the more I saw that it wasn’t nothing. That the empty silk glowed with absence, with a sort of negative light. A presence all its own. I remember reaching out to touch it.
What is the word I am searching for? Rounder than distance, less ominous than void. Muddier than gap, but softer than chasm. Sloppier than in between, more defined than space. It sung to me. How easy and familiar it felt to long for something like that. The harder I looked the longer I wanted to.
Barthes again: But isn’t desire the same, whether the object is present or absent? Isn’t the object always absent? — This isn’t the same languor: there are two words: Pothos, desire for the absent being, and Himeros, the more burning desire for the present being.
The next morning I went for a run in the park. It was bright and cold, the wind made my ears ache. I went slow, avoiding icy patches and hopping lightly between mounds of slush. When I got back to my mother’s apartment I took the postcard of the naked woman at the Chelsea Hotel from my desk drawer and addressed it accordingly. A real estate license, a weekend restaurant job. Expensive white sneakers that someone else had picked out for him. The soft promise of a beer gut. A rust-colored mustache. A lingering accent from a European childhood that sounded more like an American with a cold than anything else; the way it held his own name, Alex. Which I wrote above the address, where it’s supposed to go.
I can’t tell you what else was written on the postcard because I don’t remember. A last attempt? A bitter goodbye? A joke? I showered and dressed and put on my coat, walked to the blue box on the corner, and dropped the woman inside. She must have arrived unharmed, mostly intact, as most postcards do, perhaps passing through the processing plant on 9th Avenue, hastily scanned and shuffled and sorted on a series of conveyor belts, slapped with a barcode, tossed by machines into the properly labeled bin. She may have reached him a few days later (a little dehydrated, lips a little chapped) her elbow, jostled in transit, falling away to reveal, for a moment, her face.
For more information about this piece, see this issue's legend.
Nina Boutsikaris' nonfiction has appeared in Fourth Genre, Third Coast, Redivider, The Los Angeles Review, Hobart, Brevity, and elsewhere. Her debut book, I'm Trying to Tell You I'm Sorry, is due out in May 2019 from Black Lawrence Press.
I was sitting in the grass at about these coordinates the first time I tripped. I was with the first boy I ever loved. He fed me the mushroom caps with spoonfuls of peanut butter. As the sun set, the universe began to tilt—tree branches breathing, rose hip bushes buzzing, the bay waves tinkling like tiny wind chimes, coaxing pebbles back into the sea. From the front yard we watched the empty beach house where I had been a child so many summers shudder and sigh, an orange glow pulsing from the windows like living organs. I could smell the dust in the throw rugs, the salty quilts, the out of tune piano.