A 9/11 Story About the Arrogance of a Man’s Apathy
“Alexi & Kurt” by Catherine Lacey
AN INTRODUCTION BY JASON DIAMOND
How do you define loneliness? “Like depression, like melancholy or restlessness, it is subject to pathologisation, to being considered a disease,” Olivia Laing wrote about it in The Lonely City. Merriam-Webster defines it as “being without company” and “sad from being alone.” We think we’re connected, we think we have people, but then there are moments when we feel totally isolated.
That’s what Catherine Lacey explores in her fiction: people who feel they’re without company. Her characters could be around thousands of other people or in the middle on an empty apartment, it doesn’t matter — they still feel it. Maybe most importantly, as the reader you do as well.
In her first novel, Nobody Is Ever Missing, Lacey sums up the modern condition of feeling alone in a way few authors can. She captures and distills what it’s like to live and try to survive in a lonely world that grows ever more so with each so-called advance in technology that’s designed to keep us closer. With The Answers, Lacey looks at the absurdity of attempting to pull apart the reasons why we love and feel things for other people.
The book also deals in social commentary, namely with the “gig economy,” and things people will do to get by. You read about it daily: people taking on odd side jobs or setting up GoFundMe accounts to pay for medical bills, to help them simply survive in America. Lacey’s exploration of this phenomenon is a big reason why The Answers is a very important novel for 2017, and will help people 10, 20, 30 years from now better understand this strange moment in our history.
With THE ANSWERS, Lacey looks at the absurdity of attempting to pull apart the reasons why we love and feel things for other people.
Sounds heavy, right? It is, but Lacey makes it all go down easier. She dazzles you, then makes you laugh. And then you get a scene like this one, from the middle of The Answers, and you start to really contemplate the moments in your life that you might have confused for something other than loneliness.
“They didn’t speak much for the rest of the afternoon or night, just listened for a while to the radio that worked, turning it off to have athletic, wordless sex to which they each ascribed a different meaning.”
Lacey is an explorer; she seeks truth through her fiction, and that’s what truly great fiction writers are supposed to do. She explores modern isolation, and she always produces something beautiful even where there should be darkness. If you let her, Catherine Lacey produces revelations with her work.
Author of Searching For John Hughes
A 9/11 Story About the Arrogance of a Man’s Apathy
“Alexi & Kurt”
by Catherine Lacey
Traffic was backed up for blocks, holding his car at a standstill in the neighborhood he used to live in, on his old street. The car rolled slowly past the door that had once been his and he found himself staring at it, waiting for his past self to come walking out. Still painted the same blue, he noticed, nauseated and annoyed by how much time had passed. Fifteen years already? He didn’t want to do the math.
Traffic, the driver said, flicking his eyes at him in the rearview.
Yeah. Kurt rolled down the window, peered up at his old balcony. He could almost see it and began to feel wistful, almost weepy — No. He was being ridiculous. He raised the window, but the memory of his time with Alexi sat like a pill in his throat. They’d had a good run for a few months, hadn’t they? Or had they? Maybe they’d even been in love for a little while or maybe it only seemed that way from a distance. A vague set of images cued up — Alexi across a room at a party they’d gone to, pretending to not be together. He and Alexi sharing a midnight cigarette on his roof — or was it hers? Alexi in the second row of some theater somewhere, staring neutrally at him onstage as he was interviewed for a film festival — though he couldn’t now remember what it had been. Anyway. It had been a good summer, he thought. They’d had a good time.
But then a bomb went off — or at least what sounded like a bomb — a plane crashing into a building a mile away. Alexi had been at her place that morning, a microscopic two-bedroom she shared with another actress in a hazardous walk-up, and when she heard it, she immediately thought of Kurt, became increasingly frantic when he didn’t pick up the phone, then terrified that something had happened, then certain that something had happened because he would have found a way to reach her by now, and her body went wild trying to escape itself — vomiting and achy and collapsing — and she thought of how tragic it was that this, potentially losing him to whatever had happened out there (so many rumors in the street), had finally revealed that their love had a real weight, real roots in her. Against her roommate’s shouts and tears, she walked out into the ash-hazy streets, surrounded by a chorus of sirens as she dashed to his place, arriving coated in ash and sweat at his door, trembling. His first words to her: You should take a shower.
So she did, crying but keeping quiet, not wanting him to worry.
How was it that he seemed so calm? Hadn’t he been worried about her? Hadn’t he been afraid? Or perhaps, she thought, he was swallowing his fear to be steady for her, that his love had manifested not in mania but in solidity, that this was the way they balanced each other. This moment, this horrible moment, had made them see, she thought, how necessary they were for each other. She stood wrapped in a towel, feeling so changed and important.
Kurt gave her a change of clothes, jean shorts and a T-shirt that she’d left at his place that Kurt had put by the door for the last couple weeks, hoping she would take them home. He handled her toxic, dusty clothes with dish gloves, sealing them in plastic bags and disinfecting everything they’d touched.
This is all outside of our control, he said as Alexi clutched on to him, her hair wet, eyes red.
Her outsize emotions bothered him. The few people she knew in the city — her roommate and her two other real friends — had been accounted for. She didn’t know anyone who worked in the Financial District. She hadn’t personally lost anything. This wasn’t her tragedy. She was reacting too much like a certain kind of actress would, taking any opportunity as a chance to perform.
They didn’t speak much for the rest of the afternoon or night, just listened for a while to a radio that worked, turning it off to have athletic, wordless sex to which they each ascribed a different meaning.
Weeks later, when she asked him what he had been thinking of that day, she was unnerved (then upset, then repulsed) by what he said. It wasn’t Alexi’s safety or his safety or even his friends’ safety (and did he even have any friends?) and wasn’t even the staggering heaps of human life wasted only blocks from his luxury west SoHo loft. No. He confessed to Alexi that he thought of how the funding for The Walk would probably fall through now — and, yes, Kurt said, he realized she might think this was shallow or detached, and he realized that he wasn’t experiencing the attack in the emotionally penetrable way that she was, not that there was anything wrong with that, per se, but there really sort of was, if you thought about it, but listen, he told her as she began to sob, will you just fucking listen to what I’m saying for once instead of obsessing over your own emotional reality? Huh? For once? Can you do that for me?
The way his beautiful face went hard — eyes molted with his young-man beliefs — this would be the image Alexi kept with her long after she left him. Maybe his heart had atrophied after being so publicly beloved, and maybe that’s why he seemed unmoved by the shrines to the lost, the faded, photocopied portraits of the dead on every street corner — Have you seen this person? — a city of unashamed eye contact, millions of people now reverent with each other, seeing the holy in each other, and this man, this little monster, was worried about his fucking production schedule.
Everyone out there right now, he said, all the volunteers and firefighters and everyone having their big come-to-Jesus, everyone crying over this admittedly truly horrible and terrifying thing — listen — no, listen!
She tamped down her tears to hear the exact ways in which he was terrible.
You may think you’re crying because all those people died and it’s tragic, but you’re still crying for yourself. You’re crying because you know it could have been you. You’re crying because life is not special and everyone dies and the complexity of your “self” is still going to vanish someday and there’s no such thing as justice.
Her tears had stopped.
No one can cry for someone else.
She examined his face as if he were an object.
I’m not prone to ecstatic displays of emotion to get attention, but I still feel things. I just organize that experience in a different way. I process it logically.
It saddened her that this was the man she had chosen to sleep with for a whole summer into autumn, a man so stingy with himself that he refused to witness another’s pain.
When I realized what had happened, I thought, one, human life is temporary; and two, the only way I can cope with this fact is making something that outlives me; and three, the film I have been developing for the last three years is probably going to get delayed yet again if there are problems with funding; and four, yes, I could be so much as a pile of dust tomorrow and that’s sad; and five, the only way that I can deal with that fact is by working, that I could make something bigger than me, something that has an effect on other people.
She felt nauseous as she considered the many ounces of him that she had sucked into her body. What was he really made of? Do you understand what I’m saying? Or do you just want to think I’m a bad guy because I don’t cry the way you do?
(She remembered him sipping a goblet of red wine in his living room the night of the attacks, after they’d had what she thought was emotionally potent sex. He was enjoying the most expensive bottle he had, alone, because Alexi was on a diet for a role, so he sat in the living room reading a novel — a fucking novel! — while she stayed in bed, the dust on the windows filtering the light all gauzy, her head swimming in the sincere enormity of the present, distantly wondering why he had gotten out of bed without explanation, why he didn’t answer when she asked where he was going, why he wasn’t in bed with her, warm at her side.)
I’m a different fucking person from you. I see the world differently, I process emotion differently. And there’s nothing wrong with that. You just need to grow up and accept it.
(He had returned to bed that night with lips edged and breath heavy with Cabernet, and though Alexi’s face was swollen red and salt-gritty from tears flowing, drying, and flowing again, he made no move to comfort her, just turned out the light and was snoring in minutes.)
I don’t need to become more like you. Hell, you probably need to be less like the sort of person you are.
That was the last thing he ever said to her. He had trouble getting to sleep after she left mid-argument, and not because his call had gone straight to voice mail and not because she had tried to make him feel coldhearted, and not because he missed her, because he didn’t, because he enjoyed being alone, really enjoyed it, and he didn’t lie awake that night for two hours because of the World Trade Center, and when he later woke up crying, he knew it wasn’t sadness for life lost or the victims’ families or the bravery of people who risked their own insignificant lives for the insignificant lives of others. No. He must have just been crying for himself. Simple anxiety. He crossed his arms, felt his biceps, his chest, his belly, moved his hands down to his thighs. He was here. He didn’t need to cry for himself. He didn’t need to cry at all, he thought, and he stopped, fell asleep, slept until noon.
The traffic had finally loosened but Kurt hadn’t noticed, had been completely folded into this memory. The car was crossing the bridge when he opened his eyes, night-black river below, people walking along the lamplit waterfront in pairs, staring at each other or at the skyline, all of it so much more fragile than it seemed, everyone on the edge of oblivion, as usual. He watched the bridge beams rush by outside the window and thought about something he read once about some tiny muscles in the human face that send signals to other brains while bypassing a person’s awareness, skipping the eyes, going straight to their core. An unknown sonar, some language none realized they were speaking, an honest whisper. He wondered what his face may have said to her.