by Sasha Graybosch, recommended by Electric Literature
EDITOR’S NOTE BY Halimah Marcus
In Sasha Graybosch’s “Recovery Period,” a sardonic woman called Greer suffers from a degenerative eye disease. “Eyes going Greer?” her boyfriend Lucien asks, as if she is both the victim and the cause of the disease, a patient zero. Keratoconus, it’s called, causes the cornea to protrude into cone. A Google image search of the condition reveals bulging eyeballs like those of surprised cartoon characters, and it’s fitting somehow to picture Greer that way — disoriented and flabbergasted — when she learns of Lucien’s death:
“Lucien’s exit from Greer’s apartment and then her life was incomprehensible; it disrupted the logic she’d once trusted — a grid had been twisted into additional dimensions. His death curled backwards over his entrance, so that when she reached for the beginning, or the middle, she always came up with the end.”
“Recovery Period” is one of the most extraordinary and sophisticated depictions of grief I have read. The world, viewed through Greery eyes, becomes both a reflection and a projection of her unstable emotional state: “Abruptly the temperature plummeted and a stretch of freezing rain bound the earth’s surface to the sky, one grey layer compressed beneath another. The trees, unable to prepare, suffered.” That kind of resonance between inner and outer worlds is what elevates “Recovery Period” from subtle observation to gobsmacking truth.
But it’s not all straightforward. The story’s pathos is complicated by mysterious postcards that arrive from nowhere, and phone calls that may or may not come from purgatory. Graybosch makes reference to the famous eye slicing in Buñuel’s Le Chien Andalou, and I am reminded of another film that is not for the squeamish: Michael Haneke’s Caché. In it, a couple receives videotapes in the mail of their house, of them sleeping. The film, like this story, never reveals who is behind the missives. Though there are clues, I prefer the interpretation that the videotapes exist independently of a maker, as ontological evidence of their subject. To be watched one must exist, and so when Greer’s mysterious pen pal writes, “Lick your lips as you chop vegetables tonight, lovely lonely lady, and I’ll know it’s a sign,” and inadvertently she does it, the gesture is more than just a communication. It’s a sign that she’s alive.
I could go on, but I’ve already spoiled enough. “Recovery Period” is a tremendous story; why don’t you see for yourself.
Editor-in-Chief, Recommended Reading
Sight-wise, Greer had developed a high tolerance for disturbance. Buildings doubling, streetlights smearing into ribbons, cars in the fore twitching against cars in the back, one pigeon appearing as a flock — fine. She could walk. She could still collect the mail, pick up bagels, get about. She learned to sit in the front at the movies, blink longer, take breaks, take the bus. When the world shook and danced at her windows, and she didn’t feel much like dancing, she could pull the blinds, shut her eyes. And Lucien was beside her in the dark.
It began early in the morning after her thirty-fourth birthday, an occasion she commemorated with an all-night jigsaw puzzle. Greer settled the last piece into place and stood, bleary, ready for bed, and noticed, bleeding from the kitchen light and the microwave clock and the hallway lamp, luminous halos. She rubbed her eyes. Bright cores diffused into ghosts. Lucien stirred on the couch, where he’d been sleeping since midnight. “What is it?” he said.
The troubles with her eyes emerged slowly — a faint stretch at the edges of distant words, the occasional wiggle of movement she mistook for a bug. Her glasses lenses were weak, she assumed. Lack of sleep, she thought. The distortions came and went; she often convinced herself she was getting better. The body had a way of sorting itself out.
At times, though, even the television was too much. “Balls gone bad?” Lucien would say when Greer squinted at a commercial. Or, “Eyes going Greer?” Or, “Greery?”
“Very Greery,” she’d say, the screen glaring into a muddle. They would click the show off, push her glasses back and do things up close that didn’t require looking.
Greer had met Lucien on a blind date arranged by a mutual friend, a self-proclaimed matchmaker named George. Greer knew George through cooking club, and George knew Lucien from an addiction recovery support group. George said he had been jogging with his wife along the river when Lucien surfaced in his mind, and then Greer, one figure folding into another. “It was a moment of inspiration,” he told Greer on the phone.
Greer was skeptical. “You met this guy in rehab?”
“That was years ago. You won’t like him at first, so be prepared for that. But I think you’ll be great together. I see how people can fit. He is the trees and you are the forest. He is the spicy pepper and you are the milk. He’s a piece of smoking meat left to burn in a pot, and you’re like a wet towel, or a lid. But not in a bad way.”
Greer decided not to be offended. “Does he have any other issues I should know about?”
“He’s had to work through some things — haven’t we all,” George said, the last phrase like punctuation, “and he’s a good person. Great listener. Not bad looking. His parents are rich, but you can’t hold that against him. I know you’re not judgmental, or all that excitable — that’s why I thought of you. You’re an open spirit, even if it’s not easy to see at first. I already told him about how calm you were when Cynthia hacked her thumb cutting pineapple. How everyone was falling over themselves and you just wrapped her hand up in a kitchen towel, led her out to get stitches.”
Greer was flattered. She realized George thought of her as some kind of stoic, a protector. She’d never thought of herself that way, as the someone who was good for someone. She suddenly felt curious. Open.
Their first date had begun awkwardly. Lucien invited her to attend an art opening of a close friend, who turned out to be a distant acquaintance with a shaky grasp on Lucien’s name. The woman repeated it back to him with an ellipsis. “Why do I think your name is Mickey?” she said. Greer stuck out her hand but the woman was whisked away before she could introduce herself. Lucien smiled as though this was normal. Greer frowned. She’d been hoping for more evidence that he was an actual person.
They took a turn around the room, Greer following Lucien’s lead. He stood before each piece with his lips slightly pursed, head tilted, absorbed in silent concentration. When he was ready to move on, he nodded and glanced at Greer to confirm that she, too, was satisfied. The art was vulgar and dull, collages of dismembered body parts suspended in astro-photographs of the galaxy, driblets of red paint flecked across the surface. By the third piece, Greer was visualizing herself walking out of the gallery, the sweet joy of bursting from a crowd onto a nighttime street, alone. They moved away from the last piece on the wall and found themselves staring intently at an unplugged television on the ground in the corner. “Oh, wait,” Lucien said. “I don’t think that’s anything.”
They found a spot where they could talk without getting bumped. “What do you think?” Lucien said, tucking his already-tucked hair behind his ears then dropping his hands to his sides.
“Interesting,” Greer said.
“Isn’t it?” Lucien said. He nodded toward a bunch of cadaverous arms parading against the cosmos. “Because this is how it is.”
Greer raised her eyebrows. “How what is? Art?”
“No, everything. We’re down here,” Lucien shuffled his feet against the concrete floor, “but we’re really out there too, in all that chaos and space.” He spoke with his shoulders, his hands. “We’re so small, we can’t even comprehend the size of the universe, or the multi-verse, or the properties of the other dimensions. Life is an insanely miraculous miracle, in the scheme of things, but it’s also a nasty joke.”
Greer glanced around to see if anyone was listening. “Why?”
“Why?” he said, incredulous. “Because we’re just tiny little shits.”
Greer laughed uneasily. She didn’t like to think about outer space. It made her feel claustrophobic and trapped, but also like she could spin off the top of the earth and vanish behind the stars. And he was giving the artist too much credit. “It’s difficult to think about,” Greer said.
He sighed. “I just think it’s really weird.”
Greer’s date-night contacts were drying out. She thought she might tear up from the visual irritation and was horrified he’d mistake it for mutual awe. “I have to go to the bathroom,” she said, and reeled away.
She dabbed at the corners of her eyes with toilet paper and put her hair into a messy bun, which she thought made her less attractive. She needed a drink.
A teenager sitting behind a card table handed Greer two plastic cups of free wine. She watched Lucien through the crowd from the opposite side of the room. His gaze surveyed the figures, glancing off parts and faces. He shrugged off his jacket, held it in one hand, then put it back on. He stepped backwards and bumped into a young woman. Greer watched him stare after the girl mournfully. He was just a baby, this man. A bouncing ball with nowhere to rest.
Lucien spoke first when Greer returned. “No matter how this turns out I’m determined to spend time with you again, maybe a few more times, just to see.”
Greer nodded. Lucien’s eyes fell on the cups, and Greer realized she’d brought a sober person wine. She downed one glass, then the other.
On their next date they ate soup dumplings and a whole fried fish, elbow-to-elbow in a muggy Chinatown restaurant. They sat at a large communal table that a server cleaned with hot tea and a rag between diners. With the chatter and hustle, the bubbling fish tanks and fogged-up windows, Greer felt comfortable and enclosed and warm. No one at the table was paying attention to them. They probably looked like another boring, not-so-young couple.
They didn’t swap personal facts or background, which was fine with Greer. Lucien narrated the story of the graphic novel he’d been working on for five years. Greer recounted a fascinating radio program she’d heard about the virtues of bacteria. They each ate a fish eye and talked about that for a while. There was so much that Greer wanted to say, things she’d noticed and heard that she hadn’t known she wanted to share. Here they were, two people talking. “My friend said this soup will give a woman her period,” Lucien said, pointing to a photo of mushrooms and roots in broth on the menu.
Greer pointed to another picture of seafood in brown sauce. “My friend said this will give a man the craps.” She poked at grains of rice on her plate.
Lucien laughed. “You make jokes?”
“I guess.” She smiled. Lucien’s hair fell over his ears and a jolt rippled through Greer’s body. She felt giddy. She wanted to touch him. Their dishes were gone and she put her hand over his on the table. They looked at it, then at each other.
Outside the restaurant, two men in wilted suits on the sidewalk were shouting and throwing their arms, pushing each other in the chest. “Those guys are drunk,” Greer said and tugged Lucien’s hand to cross the street. A group of smokers outside a bar saw the men and edged away. One man grabbed the other’s collar, and then they were bent over, grappling. It’s all show, Greer thought, but Lucien was already jogging toward them. “Hey, hey, hey,” he yelled, like he was breaking up a scuffle between cats. He tried to dodge between them, pry them apart with his elbows, but they lashed out blindly: one guy shoved Lucien as the other reeled backwards and socked him in the gut. Lucien groaned and held his stomach, coughed. Oh god, Greer thought. It was all so quick and pathetic. The men broke apart and looked at Lucien doubled over. “Who the hell are you?” one said. “Get the fuck out of here.”
Lucien was angry, winded, his face red. He emitted a series of squeaks.
Greer grabbed his arm, held onto him ineffectually as he caught his breath. Lucien pointed towards one corner so they walked that way. Greer didn’t know what to say; her first impulse was to scold him. Some people feel like everything has to do with them.
“That was stupid,” Lucien said, shaking his head. “I really hope I don’t throw up.”
“Do you do that a lot? Jump into things?”
“It just happens. I should have let those guys burn out on their own.” He looked depressed.
Greer dismissed her urge to criticize. I’m an open spirit, she thought. “I don’t think it was stupid,” she said. “Look, they’re not even fighting anymore.”
Greer and Lucien turned around. It was true. The men were smoking cigarettes, looking at something on one of their phones and laughing.
“Huh,” Lucien said, straightening up. “So I guess that turned out okay.” He put his arm over Greer’s shoulders. They decided to walk in the general direction of Lucien’s apartment — nice night — and see how they felt when they got there.
Dry lightning cracked the distant sky one evening, over a year after their first date, the horizon flashing white, and Greer wondered, while soaping her single dinner plate, if Lucien had ended their relationship. She hadn’t heard from him in a week.
It wasn’t unusual for him to retreat for a few days, but he always made an effort to stay close. A message on her voicemail, a news article in her inbox. Once Greer came home to find him scrubbing her bathtub, half of the apartment cleaned. This time: nothing. She kept waiting for the reason they shouldn’t be together to present itself, but it never did. Maybe Lucien had discovered one. Greer loved Lucien and hated him in a similar proportion to the amount she loved and hated herself.
She recalled the last time she saw him — they had a spat and he’d been angry. He’d recently abandoned his graphic novel, started a new one, then gotten fed up with that one, too. He was tired of being tired all the time. He was sick of living in the city. He’d been upset about a lot of things, for reasons she didn’t understand, and he was offended by her efforts to improve his mood, which he communicated by turning abruptly silent, sullen. His brooding escalated the more she ignored his foul temper and remained nice. She thought they had a sort of understanding, largely founded on her patience with what she considered his erratic, overly-sensitive personality.
Her eyes had been bothering her, her head. She had a migraine and they were bickering about his friend Cole. She’d met a few of Lucien’s friends — an odd assortment of singles who didn’t know each other. Darla: a grim twenty-three year old bartender. Phillip, who had four cats and was pushing seventy. Greer asked Lucien where he’d met these people. “Around,” he’d say. “Why does that matter?”
Cole was different. He was Lucien’s age, a designer, smelled nice, and he knew about comics. After they bumped into him on the street, Greer had suggested that Lucien call Cole, have him and his wife over for dinner. She said he seemed like a good guy.
“I’m not close with him anymore,” Lucien said. “It would be weird.”
“But you have so much in common,” Greer pushed. Lucien told her to drop it. He was being unreasonable and couldn’t see it. “You’re hiding,” she said. “You don’t like reminders of a different life.”
“God, you’re horrible sometimes,” he said.
Greer watched him pace the floor and then pull on his coat from where she sat on the couch, but her glasses were off. She couldn’t see his expression. The migraine grated and clenched, and she almost said nothing because noise, even her own voice, pained her. “You’re leaving?” she whispered.
And Lucien must have nodded, because his form withdrew; Greer heard his coat zipper, and then the door snapping shut. She had not chased after him because she believed this to be indulgence, and it seemed healthy to resist.
But with a week gone by she missed Lucien, and it was silly to deny herself his company out of principle. She dried her hands, resolved to call him the next day when her phone rang. It was Lucien’s sister Maggie, whom Greer had never met.
After a moment’s hesitation, her words rushed together in a rehearsed string. She informed Greer that Lucien had shot himself in the basement of their parent’s summer home in Connecticut with one of his father’s hunting rifles.
“Are you saying he’s dead? Is that what you’re saying,” Greer said.
“I’m sorry — I’ve had to make so many calls. I don’t know what I’m saying. Lucien is dead. There, I said it.”
Arrangements were being made. Maggie asked who else needed to know, and Greer realized Maggie did not know who she was, that she’d been with Lucien — she was just dialing his recent calls. After she hung up Greer wished she’d asked when, what day, what time. How long had she been thinking of him alive when he wasn’t, when only he knew he wasn’t.
The next few weeks were abnormally warm, stalling the end of the season, until abruptly the temperature plummeted and a stretch of freezing rain bound the earth’s surface to the sky, one grey layer compressed beneath another. The trees, unable to prepare, suffered. Branches sagged under the weight of their leaves — still green and yellow — armored in ice. The inhuman sounds of tree limbs cracking, ice shifting, and the wind whipping the windows woke Greer in the night — she struggled to rest, stay warm. Her vision declined in the dark, the disturbances amplified by artificial light. She left home only when necessary. Distracted, she neglected to add her signature to the resident complaint regarding fallen boughs. It didn’t matter. Without her contribution, the city came and took them away.
Lucien’s exit from Greer’s apartment and then her life was incomprehensible; it disrupted the logic she’d once trusted — a grid had been twisted into additional dimensions. His death curled backwards over his entrance, so that when she reached for the beginning, or the middle, she always came up with the end.
Once when he was draped over her in bed, he had leaned forward with his eyes closed and accidentally kissed his own arm.
Once he walked into the room where she was reading and said with distress in his voice, “I wish I had a different brain.”
Once he took in a cat he found begging on the front stoop. The cat, which he named Andy, was a terror, a yowler, an obsessive licker, but Lucien loved him. Greer recalled the moment when he lifted the window screen to toss out stale bread for the birds and Andy leapt through the opening. He dropped from the bottom of the fire escape to the ground and bolted towards the street. Lucien screamed. The cat ducked his head, scurried to the curb and down into a storm drain, a sight that caused Lucien anguish for weeks.
These were just stories, now, that Greer alone could tell, and they all had the same ending — the man in them was dead.
As time passed, the more she wondered and the less she knew. In her dreams, Lucien was flattened and silent, like flowers pressed between the pages of a heavy book. In one dream he stood before her and offered a gift, a stack of letters, his face innocent and hopeful. But in Greer’s hands, the letters melted at the edges, forming a rubbery, impenetrable binding. By the time she got home, the gift had become a lifeless human hand she couldn’t hold or love or return to its owner, not knowing to whom it belonged. In all of this, Lucien was absent. He simply presented the puzzle and disappeared.
Eventually, Greer cobbled together a new sense of normalcy, a desire to pursue the future, to wake up. She repainted her apartment a cheerful peach, spent time at the park, took a trip to Atlantic City to play the slots. Her screwy vision went through a period of calm, which she mistook as improvement, because one morning it was worse than it had ever been.
Objects were moving out of focus, quivering back and forth to the exact beat of her pulse. Playground equipment wavered in synchrony with the skyscrapers in the distance, a nearby fence, and a panting beagle tied to the fence. Greer was conducting some strange quake of movement that only she could see. The pulse of her blood echoed in her vision.
Even under the covers, through her eyelids, she felt the room tipping in time with her heart. Fingers to wrist, she felt the pace of dizzy.
Greer went to the nearest optometrist, who flipped lenses, blew air, came in close with a light. Though Greer could read a magazine in the waiting room, an article about international hot sauces, during the examination the eye chart on the opposite wall was a furry, boundless blob. The optometrist sent Greer to an ophthalmologist. The ophthalmologist studied Greer for some time, then told her this was very bad, that her left eyeball was a cone, but Greer didn’t believe him. He pinned up a photo of her eye, taken from the side, enlarged and bulging and pointy. “Good lord,” he said. “See that? Now that’s a cone.”
He said, “Do you want to keep seeing tremors? Your eyes are defective. At this point, it’s a choice.” He taught her a multi-syllabic word, keratoconus, which she would use to describe her late-stage degenerative eye disease to her employer. A packet explained the high success rate of cornea transplants, especially on a healthy woman with no serious medical history, and encouraged her to go ahead and complete the ordeal with corrective vision surgery on the other eye.
Greer said, “Have you seen that old black and white film where the woman’s eye is sliced? Surrealistly? By a man? It’s really a cow’s eye I think, but there’s a razor.”
The ophthalmologist said, “No.”
She shuddered. “Whose eye will it be?”
“That’s up to God. You’re on a list.” He said, “You’ll need a few weeks off work, time at home to recover, and someone to pick you up after the procedures. Do you have a person?”
“Well,” Greer said. “No. But I’ll work it out.”
At home, the transplant packet flopped open on the counter, glossy and reassuring. The doctor had underlined in a block of text: “The corneal operation is considered to be the most successful of all organ transplant surgeries.” Greer sat by the window with a hand mirror, staring into her eyes. She read, “There is the possibility of loss of sight, loss of the entire eyeball, or possible loss of life, as with any operation.”
Loss of life, she thought. What a lovely way to say it.
A few days before her scheduled surgery, Greer received an anonymous postcard in the mail. The front said Hello from Hollywood in white block letters across a sun wearing sunglasses seated in a director’s chair. Hovering over the chair.
On the back, handwriting she didn’t recognize, mailed from a local PO Box, unsigned. It said: A friendly hello — are you well? I noticed your African violets are in poor shape. Greer flipped it over and back and that was still it. Hollywood? Violets? She thought, who has the energy to be so bizarre?
She waved to Mr. Kovalenko, the abrasive, chain-smoking Ukrainian man — the only neighbor she knew by name because he once helped hack her car from the snow-banked curb with his ice pick. He watched her from the stoop across the street, waved, his yellow dog pissing.
Inside, Greer found a stray thank you card and scribbled a lie: Greer’s life partner would like you to know that she and her plants are fine, but she is completely blind due to keratoconus and cannot read postcards. Stamp.
She organized her things, installed groceries, new rolls of toilet paper, and tended to her monthly bills and plants. She watered the leafy ones in hanging vases and the crowd of herbs and flowers on the windowsill.
Greer looked closely at the plants — one was newly flowered, violets, round purple petals on kneeling stems. Lucien had given the pot to her as seeds and dirt; she’d forgotten about it completely. She turned it, watered.
She went down to the street and squinted up at her kitchen window. At that angle, she could barely make out the windowsill and sprouts of green. No one could see her violets from the sidewalk.
Back inside, she could see many other windows looking into hers. She looked at all of them. She had two; they were several. She saw blinds and curtains in various failures of concealment, junk piled up, televisions flashing. Windows facing windows; pupils looking at pupils looking.
Open spirit. Tiny little shits. Hello from Hollywood.
Hello Hollywood, Greer thought, woozy. Her face felt as if it had been buzzed off pleasantly with a sander. The surgeon spoke like a wizard. She peeped from a hole in a stiff medical sheet covering her face, eyelids held back with a speculum. She’d been reduced to an eye, and the eyes would take their turns.
The procedure lasted maybe an hour but felt to Greer intensely timeless, like a morning dream where everyone is urgent and evil and no one can run fast enough. She didn’t feel anything, or experience it with nerves, but she saw the instruments descending, the top of her eye punctured and peeled away like a slivery pocket. And then she sort of stopped seeing, as if her brain sensed impending trauma and wisely shut things off. She retreated to a corner of her skull, like a wet animal cowering.
It was very strange, this sucking within. Maybe what it felt like was the beginning of dying, and this was important to Greer, that it was a beckoning, not a push.
George helped Greer to the door and handled her keys. George was recently divorced and rattled by it. Greer felt bad asking him for a favor, but he’d wanted to help, especially after what happened with Lucien. She tried to picture George holding her elbow. He had kissed her once many years ago but she had been in the middle of chewing.
She reached out blindly and touched his hair, “Longer?”
“Shorter,” he said. “How long do the patches stay on?”
“A day. Then I rest and heal and try not to look at the stitches.”
“Eye stitches. That’s disgusting,” he said and put a stack of mail in her hand. “Looks like someone you know sends their greetings from Lively Lake Tahoe Nevada. Do you want me to read this postcard to you?”
“Please don’t,” she said. “It can wait.”
George gone, Greer sat in what she assumed was darkness, identifying objects by touch. She patted the patches over her eyes, drank juice, listened to the radio. Took a painkiller and found her bed. She slept but had no way of knowing if it was enough. She didn’t feel any warm spots of sunlight. She remembered the artwork from that awful exhibit — illuminated limbs lost in the darkness of space. She recalled Lucien hunched over his sketchpad in the corner of the couch, his feet entwined with hers.
Her phone vibrated in the other room. It stopped and started again before she found it. “Hello?” she said. “Isn’t it late?”
“I have no idea.” His voice. “It’s Lucien.”
“Lucien?” she said. “My god.”
There was a ca-chunking sound, a crackle — chink-a-link. “Is this a joke?” Greer said. “What was that?”
“I’m calling from a payphone,” he said.
“A payphone?” It sounded like his voice — the throaty whisper when he was tired. “I didn’t even know payphones still worked. You put in a coin, a quarter?”
“Two,” he said. “Fifty cents just to start. I’ve already put in a dollar. This day is so fucked.”
Greer sat on the floor in something wet. “Day,” she said. “Day! What do you mean? You’ve been gone for almost a year — I went to your funeral. Your little brothers were hysterical. Your father came for your things. He took your guitar.”
“No,” he said. Whistling noises in the background. “That doesn’t seem right. Aren’t we talking right now?”
“Yes, but — ”
“Are you sure you’re alive?”
“Listen, I made some wrong turns and maybe a bad decision and I need help. It’s horrible out here. Cold. I lost my shirt.”
“Lucien,” Greer said, her voice a throb.
“Greer,” Lucien said. “Shit. Out of change.”
The line went dead.
She’d just had an operation; she was medicated. Her perceptions couldn’t be trusted, Greer decided. She slept again, dreamt of nothing, woke, peeled the patches away in late afternoon, and realized she’d waited half of an extra day. Blinking. The roots of her eyelashes raw. She saw the spotted bananas, slashes of sunlight across the floor, dirty streaks on the windows, a golden sheen in her hair, fine granules of salt and dust, the chipped rims of her bowls, her skin’s wrinkles, swipes of cloud.
She went to the window. Each tree had so many leaves and not one was pulsing or blurred or jumping. This is what was always here, she thought.
On a café patio she had coffee and read awnings: Discount Unmentionables, Arepa Kingdom, Sweet Virginia’s Pool Hall. Her newly transplanted eye could have belonged to anyone, but not anyone walking by. Something had happened to the owner of the eye. Something had gone wrong; plans had been ruined. The cornea had seen death descending once and would someday see it again. Greer looked through an optical layer that had witnessed an end she could not know. She read each letter on a sign across the street carefully, grateful, noticing an error for the first time. She read: P, a, y, c, h, e, k, A, d, v, a, n, c, e.
Greer had forgotten about the Lively Lake Tahoe Nevada postcard until one came from Cadillac Mountain Maine, Where Sunbeams First Light Up America, along with her returned thank you note — the PO Box did not exist. She turned over the Lake Tahoe postcard and read: I would like to engage with you. We both have time. Beneath a smiley face was a box, and a sketch of things in the box. Greer rested her eyes.
The sketch was of her kitchen window: the herbs in clay pots, the violets, the kitchen table, an empty bottle of wine she had left out for a few weeks, and then her, Greer, made of sticks and circles, looking into the fridge.
She switched off the lights and crawled to the bedroom, shifted the blinds a crack. There were twelve windows in the building across the street with a viable angle; she detected a flicker of movement on the fourth floor, second window to the left. Also on the third floor, middle.
The Cadillac Mountain card said: Lick your lips as you chop vegetables tonight, lovely lonely lady, and I’ll know it’s a sign.
A sign of what sort? What was this guy thinking? Her phone buzzed on the table.
“I need directions home,” Lucien said. “Quick.”
“I thought my mind made you up,” Greer said. “This morning I saw a little black bird on the curb and it looked at me and puffed up and flew off, and I felt it was you, your soul taking off to somewhere.”
“A little black bird?” he said. “Jesus Christ, Greer. I’m still here, soul intact. I changed my mind. I’m talking to you.”
“But where are you? Can you ask someone?”
“No. No one’s speaking to me. Everyone’s busy and wet. Made of change. And they’re far away, no matter how fast I run. It’s hard to explain. I’m at a payphone by Don Pedro’s restaurant on Seventh Avenue.”
“Don Pedro’s turned into Madeleine Bakery ages ago, and you know how to get here from there. Have you been sending me postcards?”
“What postcards?” he said. “Time.”
She rested her forehead against the table and envisioned herself walking home with Lucien. She had to get everything right; she told him the way.
Greer lost all sense of schedule and took to the couch. She brewed full pots of coffee at any hour and napped between novels. She kept bumping the bridge of her nose with her fingers, forgetting she no longer wore glasses, and it rained more than it didn’t. She stood at the window, studying the many eyes of the building across the street. She couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to observe her in a sweatshirt, bobbing a tea bag in hot water.
But another postcard came, this one from The Big Easy, penned by the mystery pen pal she assumed was a man. It would pleasure me greatly if you licked your lips, but I’d be happy to just watch you cook, it said.
I bet you would, Greer thought, tossing it aside. She had begun to form a profile of the man, teased it from the tight, blue script and his awkwardly forward tone. She imagined he was shy, slippered, myopic, older but not elderly, distrustful of strangers, sentimental, short, and plagued by a medical ailment, maybe scoliosis or a thyroid condition. Or a peculiar penis. Perhaps he was currently reclining with a broken leg in a cast, watching her through binoculars like a Hitchcock character, or he was lurking behind closed curtains, the victim of an incredible, conspicuous boil. She pictured him ordering groceries online, anxious when the time for delivery neared because he’d have to address another human, impassively listening to his mother on the phone, eating something straight from a tin standing up, talking to his TV as if it cared. At night, he would reassure himself that somewhere, someone was alive who would soon care for him, reproach himself for not seeking her out, then feel tired and forget about it.
Greer felt pity and then discomfort. This person was not unlike herself.
It wasn’t a bad idea, a home-cooked meal. For months she’d eaten without pleasure: take out, canned goods, bananas, toast. It might be to her benefit to take up cooking again.
The grocery store was crowded and smelled of synthetic citrus, but Greer enjoyed browsing each neatly-stocked aisle, reading labels, judging produce, admiring the whole, perfect fish settled on an incline of crushed ice. At home she took down the good pans and found a peppy station on the radio, lined up her stir-fry vegetables in an orderly row. As she chopped, using the bias method from cooking class, Greer felt planted, stable, moving in the same certain, incremental direction as everyone else. The hot oiled wok popped. She gleefully picked up speed with the last carrot, and realized she’d stuck her tongue through her lips — an old habit of concentration. The blinds were open; the lights were on. She spotted herself in the window’s reflection. Great, she thought, seeing her tongue. I’ve gone and communicated.
She leapt to the switch and threw off the lights — across the street: a swish of curtains on the fourth floor, second window from the left. Also, twitches on the third floor, middle.
Later, after cleaning up, her phone.
“You sent me the wrong way,” Lucien said. “Was it left at Fatso’s?”
“No,” Greer said. “Right. I told you right, then just walk east over the bridge.”
“Great,” he said. Whirring sounds, buzzing. “This is totally wrong. I’m in a field of mud and had to dig for a payphone; dogs chased me and took my shoes; there was a war, not between people really, but bloody. Do you know how disgusting monkfish are up close? And it stinks!”
“I don’t know how else to help you,” Greer cried. “Why can’t you just come home?”
“I think you sent me the wrong way.”
“Don’t blame me,” she said. “Like I wanted you out drifting across eternity, shirtless and running from dogs. Calling me until I’m old and dead, too. All I wanted was to stop looking. To hang out with you, and maybe have kids who weren’t funny looking, who could grow up to have jobs and not need drugs to fall asleep. To go on trips together and not fight. That was it!”
“Are you sure you’re not the one who’s dead?”
“Yes, I think so!” Greer shouted. “I’m pretty sure I’m not dead and you definitely are!”
“I’m scared, Greer.” Louder whirrs, sloshy pops.
“Come home,” she said. “Try.”
More cards and instructions flooded Greer’s mailbox, wedged into the side. She kept a stack on the counter and flipped through them like playing cards.
Open your mouth like I’ve placed the most delicious candy on your tongue.
Look outside as if you’re hoping to be rescued.
Discover your bellybutton.
Wear what you’d wear if I was rich, and dance.
Wear what you’d wear if you loved me but I deserted you, and mourn.
Jump-rope, jumping jacks, and push-ups, in that order.
She hadn’t exercised or used her body much since last spring. She called the gym to renew her membership. She gave a thumbs up to the building across the street.
The man became less selective with his American destination postcards. One seemed to be a reused appointment reminder from a veterinarian, the original address demolished with permanent marker.
Face away and sing: head, shoulders, knees, and toes.
Bake yourself a batch of muffins.
Lap at the glass like a salamander.
Wash the dishes in your brightest bikini.
She couldn’t tell if these requests excited him or if he was mocking her. Like teaching a dog a vulgar party trick it can’t understand, then laughing at it for trying. It was easier to sense a man out in person, but even then. Either he was a coward and so was she, or he was brave, and so was she. She couldn’t tell which was which anymore. She shoved the postcards in a drawer.
Greer took a bath with the lights off, thinking of Lucien. She pictured him spearing a dumpling with a chopstick, zipping his jeans, hopping and barefoot, and then floating through an empty vacuum of space, singing a lost song. She willed her phone to ring.
The next day she called George, told him about the postcards, the man across the street, but not about Lucien. “What do you think I should do?”
George was making noise, crunching something: ice. “Do you like this neighbor guy?”
“I don’t even have evidence that he’s a guy. I could be misinterpreting the whole thing. He’s very persistent.”
“How? He’s like a short-hand pen pal. You don’t ever see him. All you have to do is stop reading the postcards, problem solved.”
“It’s not that easy. I don’t think he’s just a pervert. He wants to help me.”
George coughed, continued crunching. “I’m just saying, it doesn’t seem healthy, or fair. It’s his choice that he hasn’t knocked on your door.”
“What if he’s bed-ridden?”
“That would be unfortunate, but irrelevant. You should get out more. Try engaging with a person with a face, someone you can be in the same room with.”
“Who did you have in mind?” she scoffed.
“Forget it,” George said. “You’re on your own.”
Greer came down with a cold before the last of her sick days from work were spent. She sneezed viciously and slathered Vicks on her neck. A flurry of postcards arrived:
Place a large pot over medium high heat and coat with olive oil.
Add carrots, potato, celery, onion, garlic, thyme, and bay leaf.
Pour in two quarts of chicken stock (homemade or store bought).
“What the hell?” Greer said. “Am I making soup?”
I care about you.
“I care about you,” Lucien said. “I miss your hand in my pocket, your ugly brown scarf, how the corners of your mouth turned down. It annoyed me then, but I miss it now.”
“I miss you too,” Greer said.
“But to be honest, things aren’t looking good. I’m in a bad way — straits are dire.”
“It’s darker, losing color. I keep getting turned around and the mud is rising. The stars are closing in. I’m losing bone mass at an alarming rate and sometimes I can’t tell if I’m walking or being walked. I search for hours before finding any quarters to call, let alone a payphone.”
“Is it everything,” Greer’s eyes closed, “you thought it would be?”
“I can’t hear you.” Lucien said, voice trailing off. “Wait for me.”
“I have to go back to work soon. I have to make a living and do things, live.”
“I’ll call you back,” he said. “I made it here. I’ll make it back somehow — I swear.”
I care about you and your red, dry nose. I wish I knew more about you.
“They put me in a sort of dormitory, a prison,” Lucien said. “It’s my last call.”
“Is it awful?”
“It was okay before I got a roommate. I’ve never seen his face and when I tried to speak to him he started spinning. He eats pieces of his own skin.”
I want you to enjoy yourself. Take this coupon for a discounted massage. Ask for Brenda — she’s the best.
“He kept spinning and then I realized I was the one spinning, or we both were.”
I want to see you when you can see me, and see you seeing me see you.
“I’ve forgotten what I wanted.”
I’ll be there if you’ll be there tomorrow, on your building’s front stoop.
“I promise I’ll get out of here and meet you at your apartment,” Lucien said, “tomorrow.”
Greer called George. “I’m so tired.”
“Let’s get coffee tomorrow,” he said. “Get you out of there.”
Greer sat on her front stoop, walked around the block, sat again. Deafening thuds from the can factory, like a giant approaching. People, cars, dogs. Greer wasn’t sure who it would be coming to see her, or who she wanted it to be. With her bare eyes she could follow the cracks in the pavement, little weeds sprouting, the words “screw you” swiped through the dust on the back windows of a van. She could make out every detail before her, and yet she couldn’t see in advance what might happen before it did.
She put on her old glasses, distorting the vision of her corrected eyes, and a man rounded the corner at the end of the street. Panic clotted in her chest. Should she go upstairs? Should she lock herself in the bathroom? Would men call her phone and slip her messages under the door, and would she flush them down the toilet forever?
His strides quickened and she couldn’t tell who it was, couldn’t yet see. He blurred into the background like a photograph rubbed with sand, like the moment before a stranger’s face becomes familiar, or when a face, once dear, is forgotten.
A couple on the sidewalk parts to let the man pass. He walks with small, springy steps, his posture upright — she doesn’t know him, she is sure. A part of Greer’s life is over. Her heart is a door slamming shut. And yet the man is walking right to her, his pace slowing as he approaches, as though he knows it will be difficult for both of them, but they would do it, they would try to say, Hello.