INTRODUCTION BY LESLIE JAMISON
Nearly a decade ago, in the midst of what seems like another life entirely, I was a graduate student leading a discussion section about modern American poetry. (When the personal trainer I was quasi-dating at the time asked me about my “last big adrenaline rush,” he probably wasn’t expecting me to describe the guest lecture I’d recently given about William Carlos Williams and his obsession with material poverty—but that’s another story.) There were many bright, talented voices in that class—but no one more thoughtful, more simultaneously lively and profound in her thinking, than Clare Sestanovich, whose short stories are now, thrillingly, arriving in the world bearing all her tender, perceptive rigor, fully unfurled.
Five years after that class, I was delighted to get a note from Clare in which she described herself “muddling along as a quasi-writer” (a humble description of her job at the Marshall Project!) She wondered if we could meet up for a chat on a bench in Prospect Park so I could give her some “writerly advice.” Looking back, I’m most struck by the writerly advice she gave me, specifically the way she described loving how writing can summon a certain kind of self-awareness, a “new vision of one’s own multiple selves, and—whether through affinity or by contrast—the endless selves that surround us.”
What a wonderful description of Clare’s own work! In her stories, characters are stumbling, clawing, tripping backwards into new ways of seeing themselves and the undisclosed selves of their fellows. In “Terms of Agreement,” the narrator stands with her arms plunged into a tub of lukewarm water, fishing around for a beer, talking to an evangelical who likes “celestial-feeling” mushrooms and God’s unconditional love, thinking: I want conditions. This narrator imagines “an old woman who can’t bear to part with her Tupperware—flimsy plastic in every imaginable size, because someday it might be just the thing she’s looking for.”
Near the end of the story, the narrator reads a book written by a friend from her past and discovers it full of familiar, thinly-disguised figures: the hockey player’s wife (actually, ex-wife), the disgraced politician’s daughter, “two or three Christians, so it’s a little hard to know who’s who.” The names haven’t been changed, only shuffled.
When I read Clare’s collection, I didn’t see familiar figures looming like ghosts in the mist, but something more like the full-throated arrival of that striking, thoughtful voice I first encountered nearly a decade ago—summoning the same wildly perceptive gaze she brought to Frost and Auden.
Whenever I read Clare’s stories, I feel like I’m hanging out with the absurdity of the world in all its sorrow and glory; its terms not changed, only shuffled. These stories know how we shape ourselves through brief encounters, befuddled recoiling, and endless lonely mulling. Her characters always seem poised at the brink of some great, terrifying, wondrous unraveling.
Speaking of strange forms of haunting, I should tell you that the old woman’s Tupperware does return at the end of this story. It’s so right, so perfect, that I couldn’t even spoil it for you if I tried. You’ll just have to see for yourself.
– Leslie Jamison
Author of Make it Scream, Make it Burn
Yes, My Main Character Is Probably You
“Terms of Agreement” by Clare Sestanovich
There’s a building under construction outside my window, close enough that when it’s finished, there will be nothing but building in my line of sight. Progress has been slow and therefore mesmerizing. One morning, I watched two men assemble half a dozen floors of scaffolding. They were acrobats in metal-lined boots and many types of vests. The scaffolding came down recently, after so many months, and revealed a huge grey wall without a single window. The wall is what I’m looking at now—what I look at nearly all day long.
My first memory of you is sitting at the table in Nicole’s kitchen, writing a story that was going to get you in trouble with your girlfriend. Later, you remembered this—the kitchen, the story, the girlfriend—but you didn’t remember me being there.
I was just stopping by, because spontaneous visits were a kind of proof of loyalty to Nicole, especially when she was lonely—when she was in between girlfriends or in between shows. I don’t think I ever took my coat off. One of the black puffy coats that everyone was wearing at the time, its puffiness and its ubiquity a precious insulation. I was skinnier than I should have been, and I was always cold.
You were sitting at your laptop, drinking straight from a gallon jug of water and tugging nervously at your beard. The story was for a class you were taking in the evenings, taught by a well-known writer. A writer with enviable success, a kind of fame that seemed to befit a different profession: people knew his name and his face, they got sentences from his books tattooed in visible places. There were a few political issues the writer had decided to care about, and when he spoke out about them he was treated, strangely, as an authority. Your girlfriend liked his novels more than you did, and she agreed with his political opinions.
That afternoon, you told me the story wasn’t really fiction.
“Oh,” I said, “one of those,” and in my memory you smiled. You’d changed names, switched a few things around—the usual partial disguise. In the middle of the story, you’d copied and pasted an email from your girlfriend. At first, you’d intended to alter it in little ways, maybe even in meaningful ways. But then you kept writing, and it became impossible to dismantle.
“You can’t improve the truth,” I said, which I meant as another joke. You frowned.
The way I remember it there was silence, the three of us looking off into different vacant spaces. Eventually, Nicole took over. She told us a story about her friend the professional hockey player. All her stories were about her friend the. The hockey player, the speechwriter, the glass blower. (I wondered sometimes how I appeared in these stories, or whether I did, since I wasn’t the anything. I had a nonspecific job, a vague creative ambition, a family that sounded interesting only if I told the right anecdotes.) The hockey player had been married for years, even though he was only twenty-five. He and his wife had known each other since they were kids. They were more in love, Nicole said, than anyone she’d ever met. And yet the wife had never attended a single one of his hockey games. It was a matter of principle. She’d seen a brawl on the ice once and had never gone back. The punching, the yelling, the hands made grotesque in their huge foam gloves. It was even worse when the fight was over. She could feel the satisfaction in the stadium, in the men on the ice and the men in the stands. It was the pleasure of spent energy, like a room after sex. Then the game went on as usual, except she couldn’t stop thinking that on the bottom of every skate was a knife.
The two of you kept talking, eating from a large bowl of popcorn until it was the kernels you were eating. I could hear them crack between your teeth. Nicole went into the kitchen to refill the empty bowl and for a while you looked at your computer screen. There were a few stray pops from the stove. Without looking up, you said, “The story doesn’t really matter.”
It would be read by no more than twelve people, and only because they were required to. Your girlfriend would ask to read it, too, and there was no question that she would recognize her own words. You said she looked for herself in everything you wrote.
“Does she find herself?”
You nodded. “Even when she isn’t there.”
There was a crescendo of popping, faster and louder, and it seemed to me as though we were defying something by sitting still, by thinking and speaking slowly. And then the popping stopped.
“Maybe,” you said, “the thing I’m most afraid of is that she won’t be angry at all.” Nicole appeared with the bowl. You grabbed a handful, then let it go, surprised by the heat. “That she might even be pleased.”
I wanted to say something—the right thing. Instead, I left in my zipped-up coat, my tongue worrying the shard of a popcorn kernel in between my teeth. And it felt good—like the mortifying pain of a period cramp or a sudden spasm in the arch of my foot—that you looked up only briefly, that my departure was unremarkable, that I could be certain there was nothing I had left behind.
I’ve been looking for mailboxes lately, wondering if this is a letter I’ll ever send. In my neighborhood, half of them have been painted green and padlocked. I guess they’re empty, though sometimes I picture a stack of envelopes trapped inside, each one licked shut and Forever-stamped.
I was never a writer the way you and Nicole were. I never took classes or entered contests or learned to like the readings where everyone squinted while they listened, where every plastic cup was filled with half an inch of wine. I never sent out my work, which meant I never had it returned: the package addressed in my own handwriting, a form letter with no signature.
When I imagine all the things I’ve written, I imagine them piled up in the kitchen, the mess of an old woman who can’t bear to part with her Tupperware—flimsy plastic in every imaginable size, because someday it might be just the thing she’s looking for. The beginning of a story, the title of an essay. The journals, the text messages with lowercase i’s, the emails signed yours or yrs, the ones I’ve started signing xx because someone British started doing it first, someone who is at once forbidding and kind, one x blown into the ether and the other erected like a shield.
To find the nearest mailbox, I pass the construction workers on a break, sitting in whatever shade they can find, their legs stretched out across the sidewalk. In the morning, when I feel cool and light and younger than I really am, they are already sweating and eating lunch. Their helmets are empty bowls on the sidewalk; the hats underneath are white with their bodies’ salt. They have earned their rest, their sandwiches in Saran Wrap, their huge containers of rice. And then there is nothing interesting in the words I have written and refused to throw out. I want muscles and a big appetite. I want to make a building and leave it outside someone else’s window.
Three days a week, I’m a dog walker. The dog-walking company is owned by my neighbor, Konstantin. His best friends are successful entrepreneurs. Until recently, they all lived together, hatching ideas in the kitchen, vaping and tapping notes on their phones. The friends live in Manhattan now. They have it made, Konstantin says. I suspect this is an exaggeration, but I like the expression. Is there a difference: making it and having it made?
The dog-walking company is Konstantin’s attempt at madeness, and I am in no position not to help. Most of my jobs—odd jobs, they used to be called—involve being alone in front of a computer, sending emails to people I will never meet. I proofread their résumés, correct typos in their letters To Whom It May Concern. A woman who signs every text sincerely pays me to Skype with her daughter—in college, a major she made up—whenever deadlines approach.
There were six or seven dogs at the beginning, but now there are only two. A pair of elderly Labradors in a studio apartment. Roommates, their owner says. They have grizzled white snouts and bad hips. They can hardly squat to take their shits. At least, Konstantin says, they have each other.
More than a year passes between my first memory of you and my second. Your girlfriend was gone by then. The famous writer had incurred the wrath of certain people online, which didn’t stop him from writing books and didn’t stop the tattoo-getters from reading them. The new books were less popular than the old ones, but he’d started dating a celebrity—a real one—and in this way his fame did not diminish.
We were at a party at the end of the summer, in the mosquito-infested backyard of someone Nicole had recently decided she loved. I arrived late, you arrived even later. Paper plates were being swept into a big trash bag, the embers in the grill had turned grey and dusty, and this belatedness seemed like a kind of intimacy. We stood next to a plastic bucket of beers that had once been filled with ice and now was filled with water, which was where we met Nicole’s friend the evangelical. His name was Josiah.
He was the kind of evangelical who likes beer—also mushrooms and salvia; the celestial-feeling stuff, he said— and he plunged his hand into the bucket alongside ours. We stood there, our forearms dripping, while he explained that the reason God’s love is better than everyone else’s is that it’s unconditional. There were, he admitted, human replicas that strove for the same steadfastness. Maternal love, say, and the kind of marital love that actually lasts. But it was only divine love that could really be said to have zero strings attached.
I slapped a mosquito and got blood on my hand. I told Josiah that sounded awful. I told him I wanted conditions—as many, preferably, as I could get.
“Why is being let off the hook a form of love?”
I told him—I didn’t look at you—that I didn’t want to be loved in spite of: my mood swings and my neck pain, my secret arrogance and my secret laziness, my bad dental hygiene and my leftovers molding at the back of the fridge.
Josiah was a little drunk already, and his evangelism made him seem drunker. He scraped the label off his beer bottle a little too vigorously. He rocked back and forth on his heels. He was in the middle of a sentence when a woman came up beside him, tugging on his arm the way a little kid might, saying something excitedly. His whole body came alive with her urgency, as if all this time he had been waiting for someone, maybe anyone, to arrive with that childlike command: come look. The commotion spread through the yard, and gradually all the remaining guests followed them inside.
We stayed where we were, the warm beer in the warm water in between us. In the silence, I cataloged the things I had revealed to you. My dark moods, my dirty teeth. With Josiah, they had been effortless to divulge, as if they were merely evidence in an argument, as if they didn’t really have anything to do with me.
“Quite a character,” I said.
You shook your head, as if trying to shake your hair away from your face, but it was slicked to your forehead with sweat. “I’m afraid one day I’ll use him,” you said, finishing your beer.
“You know, it’ll come up in conversation. Love, or faith. Or maybe it won’t, and I’ll just see a way to fill the silence.”
“For the sake of a story,” I said, and you nodded.
“Would it be so bad?” I asked. “Is he really so sacred?”
You put the empty bottle back in the water, where it bobbed on the surface.
“Maybe not.” If we had been sitting down, our knees might have touched, or our shoulders. Standing up, the distance between us couldn’t be bridged by accident. “Or maybe everyone is?”
And so we vowed that evening not to use Josiah. I haven’t told anyone about him, but I think about him often. I wonder what will happen to him, or what already has. Eventually, he’ll tell someone he loves them no matter what. In sickness and in health. Till death—or, I guess, beyond it. I wonder if together they will have agreed to total devotion, or if they will acknowledge the taut but not unbreakable strings that bind them, the promise they will always be making: to sway with the force of something unseen, to love and also to believe.
When the party was over, we met Nicole on the front steps.
“Oh good,” she said, “you found each other.”
This spoiled something for me, as if she had predicted whatever had transpired between us. Her hair was unbrushed and I remember the strap of her dress slipping down her shoulder. She made a point of always seeming a little undone. She told us that the commotion had been about a bird’s nest wedged in the corner of the kitchen windowsill, twigs poking through the screen and into the rack of drying dishes. Inside the nest were three tiny birds, pink and unfeathered. A consensus had emerged that they were in danger of falling. The sill was narrow, the nest was lopsided. Everyone crowded around the sink, arguing among themselves about what to do, when suddenly a man in the group opened the window and pulled the nest inside. Nicole paused in her telling of the story. Her face fell, she sighed heavily.
“So that’s the end of that,” she said. You and I looked at each other uncertainly, and our puzzlement seemed to exasperate her.
“Everyone knows,” she said, “that a bird won’t come near her babies if they’ve received a human touch.”
There is nothing stopping me from hand-delivering this letter. There were many mornings, years ago, when I walked from your house to mine. It was a long walk—there was a bus I might have taken—but I was trying to postpone my arrival, to let the feeling of being with you languish. Back then, this seemed to me like a necessary condition for being in love: to be immune to, or ignorant of, the waste of time. In fact, that was the last time I experienced it, though I have been in love since, as I hope you have, too. On one of those mornings, the sun burned the part in my hair, and for the rest of the day I was consumed by the image of my scalp, white and unknown, streaked with one perfectly straight pink line.
We fell in love and Nicole fell apart. Is that an unfair way to tell it? It had happened before, we knew that much, even though neither you nor I had been there. She had long since turned it into a story: coming undone. The story was unoriginal, and I was ashamed to realize that I held the generic details against her. Sleeping too much, eating too much, drinking too much. A grey cloud descending.
We were in a movie theater when Nicole called and wouldn’t stop calling. It was October, but already turning cold, and I wore a new coat. Not warm, but elegant. The saddest film of the year, we’d been assured, which was the only kind I ever wanted to watch. I explained the catharsis of this to you—being hollowed out by something that had nothing to do with me. Sounds like a fun date, you said, smiling.
And so I was crying when I ignored Nicole’s first call, and then the second. The third time, we went out into the lobby and I called her back. Everywhere we looked, the faces of famous actors stared out from posters. There were crumbs flattened into the carpet.
At Nicole’s apartment, I went inside and you waited on the sidewalk, as she had instructed. I apologized too many times for this. You had known her so much longer. You’d met her dad, her sister, even one of her second cousins. You were the first one to read her first story. Together, you took mushrooms at the botanical garden, wondering at the alien armor of cacti, the secret language of tree bark. I couldn’t even remember which floor she lived on.
Nicole was lying on a shaggy white rug. Her crying proved that I had never really cried. In her chest was what sounded like a broken motor, revving and wheezing. When she looked up at me, her face was liquid, snot shining on her chin. We lay there on the rug for a while. I said stupid things like breathe, and she nodded, still sputtering. Eventually, when there was quiet, she closed her eyes and gestured toward the next room. She had peed in her bed.
Nicole watched me strip sheets. The urine was a fierce and unexpected yellow.
“I’m always thirsty,” she said. “But I can’t get up.”
The fitted sheet snapped into a heap.
“I just can’t get up.”
The naked mattress was mortifying. Sweat stains and bloodstains and long strands of hair. Grey specks of lint everywhere. I tried to think of something trivial to say, something distracting.
“Is what they say about dust true?” Nicole looked at me blankly. “You know, it’s all just dead skin?”
As soon as the sheets were gone, she lay down again, her face pressed into the pillow without its case. She looked up when my phone rang, and when she saw your name, her body curled in on itself, like a cat, or the kind of bug that can turn into a ball. No, she said. Or maybe she didn’t have to. From the kitchen window, I could see you on the sidewalk, your phone between your ear and your shoulder, blowing into your hands for warmth. When the buzzing in my hand stopped, you looked up, but the lights were off and you couldn’t see me. You stood like that, your face tilted up, as if basking in the streetlamp’s glow, and then you turned and walked away.
Nicole kept detergent in a quart milk container. The man who owned the Laundromat lent me a cap for measuring. I watched the other customers absorbed in their tasks, peeling socks away from shirts, shaking polyester until it let its static go. I tried to follow the same navy blue something as it whirled inside one of the machines, but I lost track of it right away, my blue blurring into all the others.
The day after Thanksgiving, Nicole checked herself into the hospital. She stayed for more than three weeks, until Christmas Eve. In those weeks of waiting, the city turned ugly to me—all its seasonal rituals cold and meaningless. Snow fell overnight and was grey by noon. The subways were crowded with shopping bags, dripping boots and dripping noses. In the morning, Christmas lights were just green plastic wires, strangling every arm of a tree.
We visited twice a week, with clean clothes and snacks. The nurse reminded us of the rules each time: laceless shoes, zipperless coats, no visitors after six, no calls after nine. Half of the time, Nicole declined to see us.
When she checked herself out, Nicole didn’t call you until she was at the airport. That night there were carolers in the park across from my apartment. I could hear you on the phone in the hallway; I could see the candles cupped in their hands. She was flying across the country. She said this as if it were the most normal thing in the world. Home for the holidays.
You refused to be angry.
“You’re allowed—” I said, and you cut me off with one look.
In the morning, we drove north to your parents’ house, at the end of a potholed road, with a view of nothing but trees. Everything went right that trip: four feet of snow and something always in the oven. But you were quiet and distracted—the smoke detector reminded you there were cookies baking—and I surprised myself by filling the space that you had withdrawn from. I was a new audience for traditions that were getting old. I’d never decorated a Christmas tree, couldn’t believe eggnog was really made out of eggs. Everyone was grateful for me, without quite knowing why. Someone’s dog lunged at someone’s niece and I swept her up in my arms, just in time.
When we got back, the day after the first day of the year, Nicole had so much to tell us. She was writing poetry. A TV pilot, too. She was done with doctors. She was dating a curator. She was better. She wanted us to pretend nothing had ever happened.
For months, every time we saw her—we kept seeing her, we kept worrying about her—the first thing she did was tell us about her latest change. She painted her bedroom walls, then her bedroom floor. She lasered the hair in her armpits, pierced her tragus, asked her dentist to remove all her fillings. There were so many people, she told us, carrying mercury in their mouths. I wasn’t sure any of this made her happy—her ear swelled and oozed—but telling us about it did.
When her sister’s wedding invitation arrived in the mail, Nicole insisted we attend.
“You’ll be my dates,” she said, wrapping one arm around each of our shoulders. The curator was already gone, hardly missed.
The wedding took place at a summer camp. It was the beginning of June and the cabins were empty, but we found a raincoat and a vibrator in the bunk room where the guests slept, which was how everyone started talking about teenage romance. We all wanted to remember it—the special thrill of what we’d called summer love, the hot months in which it had seemed we were sweating away one self, becoming another.
When it was Nicole’s turn, she told the story of kissing a girl for the first time. It had seemed like magic while it was happening.
“Magic,” she repeated. “I know it sounds dramatic.”
But that’s what it was. Late at night, on a dock, when the water and the sky were the same unmoving black. Their lips touched and then their chests—not breasts really, not yet— and Nicole could have sworn she heard the sound of a fish leaping in the air.
And then in the morning the magic was gone. Just like that. The flag on the flagpole was limp, the oatmeal at breakfast was congealed. The girl sought out Nicole’s foot under the table and it wasn’t thrilling; it was clumsy, unbearable. Everywhere she turned, this ordinariness was an accusation. What have you done?
That night there was a dance. Nothing special: acoustic guitars and chaperones. Nicole found the tallest boy and pulled him into the center of the crowd. They kissed under a cheap disco ball. His tongue was muscular and wet. She closed her eyes and her head throbbed with what might have been pain, a vague heat that was easy enough to pretend was desire.
She ignored the girl for the rest of the summer. On the last day, everyone gathered on the hill that led down to the lake, hugging and crying and vowing to stay in touch. Nicole saw the girl looking for her, craning her neck in the crowd.
She let the girl find her. She let their eyes meet for a second, just long enough to be sure that they were dull, desperate eyes, and then Nicole turned away. They never spoke again. A dozen years went by, and then the girl—a woman now, like us—opened a restaurant in Nicole’s neighborhood. Her name appeared in the newspaper, a rave review. The restaurant served food with “feminine energy.” There was a pink sign out front, the name of a goddess in neon script. Nicole told us it was impossible to avoid. Every time she passed by, she crossed the street. Through the window, she saw the waiters’ harried grace, the tables crowded with plates and elbows, the laughter that seemed all the more ecstatic because she couldn’t hear it. Once, Nicole thought she saw the woman— hair pulled back, her hands doing something deftly above a frying pan—and the old shame clenched inside her. She was sweating, or else shivering. Either way, she was trapped, her new self immobilized inside her past self. Like a bug, she said, in amber.
Some of Nicole’s friends insisted she should face her fears. Make a reservation, introduce herself, leave a generous tip. Right the wrongs.
“But I can’t,” she said. “She might never let me forget.” The other wedding guests nodded.
“That’s how I feel about my mother,” one of them said, and the laughing resumed.
I smiled a fake smile because I didn’t believe Nicole. She had told other, more outrageous lies, but their implausibility had never bothered me before: they were good stories. And yet this one seemed invented just for me.
“But it doesn’t have anything to do with you,” you said when I told you.
“Of course it does.” I pictured the amber before it was amber, when it was just sap, dripping or flowing or moving too slow to be seen.
It was a story Nicole knew I would see through. She and I had been to that restaurant one afternoon in the spring. It was raining, the piles of pear blossoms along the sides of the street a soggy beige mass. Inside, the tables were all empty, and the owner served us herself. She was probably in her fifties, the sort of middle-aged woman who didn’t make an effort to seem younger than she was: undyed hair and a plain, leathery face. We drank tea from individual-size pots, and when we left, I said to Nicole, Do you think we’ll grow up like that?
The wedding ceremony was about to begin. We took our seats in the last row, with the guests who had brought their babies or forgotten their ties. The music started. We stood up and sat down as instructed. A velvet bag of rings was passed down the rows, so that it could be warmed by all our hands. I held the bag too long, tracing each ring through the fabric, listening for the slight scrape of metal on metal. You had to take it out of my hands.
Nicole found us after the toasts, her eyes glistening. Her cheeks, too.
“Tears of joy,” she said, with a note of pride. Her dress was darkened with sweat.
“Do those really exist?” I asked.
You glared at me, and Nicole ignored us. She was smiling, tugging us toward the dance floor. I did what she told us to, even though my feet were heavy and my wine spilled and my clothes would need dry cleaning. You danced away from me, spun Nicole’s teenage cousin around and around in circles, her head tipped back, her face frozen with the thrill of almost letting go. When it was all over, when I was lying on the top bunk, imagining that I could feel you staring up from the bottom bunk, then worrying that I couldn’t—feeling, instead, the empty chill of your closed eyes—I said it to myself again and again: it has nothing to do with you.
If I could choose the story of how I found out about Nicole’s book, it would appear for the first time behind the glass of a bookstore’s display window. I would stop in the middle of a bustling sidewalk, like a rock interrupting the stream. Then the book and I would be two objects.
Instead, I found out about it online. It was the middle of the night and all the windows had turned into mirrors. On the website where I bought the book, there was a picture of the cover, a blue background with blocky, old-fashioned letters. When I hovered my cursor over the image, an invitation appeared: see inside! It seemed like a dare, or a taunt, so I didn’t click. I didn’t look for her photo, but I imagined it, her head tilted the way authors’ heads always are, the background blurred into something indistinct but elegant. I turned off all the lights and lay there not sleeping, the laptop faintly humming beside me, waiting for the sun to come up, for the construction workers to arrive.
I read the book twice. First in bed and all at once, and then again in the world, in snatches of pages, not caring where I started or finished. (I remember being interrupted while reading as a child: just let me get to a good place.) I read it on the train and on a bench with the two Labradors breathing damply on my legs. I read it in a park surrounded by a squadron of empty strollers and at another park observed by elderly tai chi practitioners. I let strangers read over my shoulder. I left it, briefly, at the Laundromat, and when I went back and found it on top of the rumbling dryer, the dust jacket was warm with the machine’s heat.
We’re not the only ones in Nicole’s book. The hockey player and the hockey player’s wife, or ex-wife. Half a dozen of her girlfriends: the model, the piano tuner, the disgraced politician’s daughter. Two or three Christians, so it’s a little hard to figure out who’s who. There’s her friend who got me my first real job, who turned out to be sleeping with my first real boss. Nicole’s brother, the one with a farm, and Nicole’s other brother, the one with a car that drives itself. She has not changed names so much as shuffled them. Mine has been reassigned to the nurse at the psychiatric unit, who confiscated Nicole’s notebook and fountain pen and box of a hundred paper clips. She is neither the good nurse nor the bad nurse, so I can’t tell whether to be offended. She disappears after a few pages. Nicole’s father is called Josiah. His own name is given to a teenage patient who slits his wrists: Bob.
You are the only one who remains unchanged. Your name is your name.
For a long time, I wasn’t sure what this made me feel. Your name, over and over again. Your name and your beard, your name and your sneakers, the ones you’ve always worn, your name and your thin gold bracelet, the one you started wearing right before I never saw you again. Your name and the things you said. The things you said to me. The things you said to Nicole you’d said to me.
I considered that I might be angry, and for a while I was sad. But above all I was envious. Not envious that Nicole had known you better. I had long since accepted that the intimacy between you and me would be eclipsed, that love is only ever singular in the details—the popcorn, the bird’s nest—never in intensity, rarely even in longevity. What I am really envious of is that she captured you.
I have never been especially interested in writing stories like Nicole’s, but I’ve tried it here and there, plucking people and things out of life and putting them down on the page. For the most part, it isn’t too hard. It’s a kind of guilty pleasure, to see how efficiently one person can take shape: the slope of a nose, the shriek of a laugh, the joke they won’t stop telling, the boyfriend they bring everywhere. But with you it’s impossible. Hundreds of times I have tried to write what you look like, to remember exactly the words you said, and because it isn’t perfect it’s all wrong. I have sat for hours thinking of what name to give you instead of your real name—your name is common, anything would do, nothing would—and never once did it occur to me to simply keep it the same.
Was the book a success? I never checked, though not because I wasn’t curious. That kind of envy is so much smaller, so much less frightening.
We broke up a few weeks after the wedding. Nicole had been admitted to an important writing program, and we went to the celebrations in her honor—too many of them, everyone eager to make her good fortune official, to prove that whatever had come before it was an aberration, a wheel briefly skidding off the road. We rode the subway to the last party in silence. There was a stroller in the aisle in front of you, and the baby kept trying to meet your gaze—a coy, precocious smile. You didn’t notice, so I elbowed you, but it was too late. The baby had looked away. The party was at a bar with a fireplace. The summer was in full swing, and the logs were untouched and somehow ominous. Nicole’s sister was there—married, pregnant, though we didn’t know it then—and Nicole leaned in to her, bickering pleasantly over the bill. Someone grabbed it out of their hands, insisting.
You and I walked home, even though it was a long walk. You said you couldn’t bear to go back underground. Did we already know what was happening? We took the bridge, but we didn’t stop in the middle, halfway between the islands, above the loud cars and the dark water, because that would have been too symbolic. We said goodbye on the other side, in a park where the trash cans overflowed and the trees were heavy with leaves. We kissed and apologized and clutched futilely at each other’s clothes. I didn’t tell you that Nicole and I had found ourselves in the restaurant bathroom, looking at each other in the unclean mirror, that she said how sorry she was that you hadn’t been admitted to the program. How much you deserved it, how sure she was that one day it would all work out for you.
I didn’t ask why you hadn’t told me. I watched you walk away and let myself imagine that you were resisting the urge to turn around.
I never saw you again, although I bumped into Nicole a few times before she left the city. We always said we’d get coffee, and I’m surprised that I can’t remember if we ever actually did.
In the middle of the book, Nicole and I stand side by side at bathroom sinks. I know it’s me, although my name is the name of a girl I met once or twice, at a dinner party or someone’s birthday in the park. Nicole doesn’t speak. The only sound is the automatic soap, the hand dryer that won’t stop drying. I have avoided her eyes all night, but now, in the mirror, I look.
I can remember the smell of the hospital—like an airplane, plus dry-erase markers—and the sound of the nurses’ sneakers on the just-mopped linoleum. I can remember the worn-white spines of detective novels in what was called the library, which was just a few bookshelves. I can remember the sticky cartons of juice and packages of shortbread cookies. I can remember the afternoon I brought a five-pound bag of sunflower seeds, because the brand’s motto was: Eat. Spit. Be happy. I can remember that Nicole was helpless, and I was not enough help.
In everything I’ve written, you are only ever there in pieces, or in flashes. (Am I putting you there or finding you there?) The softness of your voice, the softness of your hair. The time we stole a peach from the bins in front of the supermarket, just because we’d always been tempted. The only time you cried. You cried and cried; you lay on the floor and I lay on your back and our bodies heaved up and down until, little by little, they didn’t.
I imagine one day I’ll read Nicole’s book again. By then, I won’t know where you live and won’t have a way of finding out. Even if I did: will mailboxes still exist? By then, I’ll be remembering remembering. Two characters will stand in front of a mirror in silence, and I—a person who does not yet exist, a person I have yet to invent—will wonder anew at all that is left unsaid.
Anew. It’s a small form of alchemy. It’s worth waiting for. Like building a building, like finding God, like getting old and stacking Tupperware and wishing for your life, at last, to be contained.