This is a story about a woman and a man whom I no longer know.

 

2009, Cambridgeshire 

It’s a milky-skyed February in our village, and the wheat field across the road is fallow with crumbled stubs. All winter the wind and rain have whipped through, battering the kitchen door and sending gobstopper-sized spiders in through the vents. The cat feasts on them, a clutch of incriminating legs dangling from her mouth.

She is my companion as I sit in my office/box room and sign up for a Facebook account because I’m searching for clues about Inna. I’d sent a holiday card to her at her home outside Grenoble, regretting a long period in which I pushed her away. Maybe I could visit her now that I was in Europe too, I thought. I was sure she and Z. would hit it off: two brainy science geeks. And his home village in Hungary is so close to Ukraine: they could speak in Russian and reminisce about Kiev!

But yesterday I got a note from her husband. He wrote back to the return address on the envelope without having opened it: ‘Dear Ryan, I am sorry to inform you that Inna died, January 20, 2008.’ I’m turning this over slowly, like a sharp thing found in the grass. It is kind of him to tell me the date. As if I am, or was, important enough a person to Inna that I should know this precise final fact of her being. A last shred of personal data that distinguishes her in some way. But maybe this thought’s just a shabby grab for validation that I don’t deserve.

I stare at the words a while, as if I can locate another meaning in their loops and lines. There’s a break in Pierre’s handwriting between the ‘i’ and the ‘e’ in ‘died’, so it looks like ‘di ed’. As if it had been a delicate struggle to write this, to give this small, forbidding word shape. I peer at the tiny crater, di ed, as if it is the realm where Inna has gone to, and she’s folded up inside it, an invisible seed of herself.

‘Best wishes,’ Pierre has signed the card.

I read it to Z. You can’t sign a note like that, ‘Best wishes’! he says. Why not? It seems like a kind choice, given Pierre didn’t open my card to see my first name and wasn’t sure who he was writing to.

I’ll never get up the courage to contact him to find out what happened. But forty-year-olds aren’t supposed to die. Inna’s sister had killed herself and her mother had died of ovarian cancer. Between those two, I wonder, is there a better fate? She was known for her black moods. I don’t want to know, but I do want to know. Maybe a trace of her recent life, the part I decided to miss, is visible online.

Google finds a match on Facebook, but to see her profile page I’m required to join. Her page doesn’t have much on it, but there she is, luxe masses of waving dark hair, sleeveless scoop-neck top and belted shorts, hand on hip, Dirty Harry sunglasses. Full, defiant mouth, movie star mole, her head slightly cocked. It’s her all right, the last image of her I’ll ever see except for the snapshots in my dresser drawer. The genius émigré faux-tough girl who once dreamed of driving a Jag with MD plates. That was the persona she took out in public and strolled around in. I wonder if she’s lying underground now, or if she’s ashes. Could she have died in the United States and been buried with her parents? Did Pierre scatter her ashes across the slopes of the Alps? It’s hard to see her there. To me she was a city person. At a Brooklyn cemetery in 1988, I watched her squat down to toss fistfuls of dirt into her father’s grave.

 

*

 

It’s March and I’m still using Z.’s laptop after losing mine to a tea spill. Clumps of daffodils have pushed open along the roadside and the enormous round lilac bush in the front garden is setting tiny green buds. I open up Facebook and I have a message. I feel a twinge of something complicated and unpleasant, but I steer myself toward a generous and benign pity. I am, after all, three thousand miles away from New York, even though my profile says otherwise.

Dear Marian, You look well in the photo. I had trouble finding you at first but then I remembered you went to Fordham. After all these years, I still think about you. I think we were good together. I think when you knew me I was very unhappy at work. But I’m doing well now, and have been successfully investing my money for five years. I hope we can be in touch.  Ralf

This is what I’ll do: write back in a day or two. When I figure out the best wording, so he won’t continue with these thoughts; I’ll be kind, but not too kind. How hard can it be? The person he thinks he remembers exists only in his memory.

I last saw Ralf a few months after he was fired from the publishing company where we worked. In late July of that year I’d returned from a trip to Paris and broken up with him over the phone. How can you be so cruel? he asked. I remember the phone I was calling from: a dark gray square thing with a built-in answering machine, plastic ribs over the speaker. Summer sweat coating the handset. He could say anything, call me any name, and I would feel nothing.

I agreed to meet him for lunch a few times in the next months. I’m not sure why. Maybe to exercise pity or get a glimpse of his pain. Maybe to inoculate myself against it. He’d ride the 6 train down from the Bronx and we’d meet a few blocks from the office because the company had an order specifying how close he could get to the building.

The day after I receive his message, I’m still considering how to word my response. Then I open up Facebook and there’s a new message. He wants me to know he’s got money. Here’s a link to a book review I wrote, his message says. Something tightens in my stomach, but I click the link. It’s an Amazon review of an investment tips book: a semi-coherent rant decrying the author’s bone-headed strategy that ends with a brag about the percentage return Ralf has made on investments in the past five years. So who are you gonna believe? he concludes. Some so-called expert or me?

The person he thinks he remembers may not exist, but I feel the years clattering off me in rings. I go back to Facebook, delete his message, and block all the members I can find with the same name as Ralf’s in the New York City area.

 

*

 

December 1986, the Bronx

All the outcast girls on my floor gather in the hall to decorate a large, unkempt houseplant, courtesy of Anne the English major, as our Christmas tree. Tampax are the signature ornament, freed from their applicators and hung by their strings. Anne recites a version of ‘The Night Before Christmas’ commenting on us nine social pariahs, the residents of Martyrs’ Court C-Plaza, the only students on campus to have single rooms

Suz is a freak by conservative campus standards, a loudmouth deep-voiced punk with ripped clothes who intimidates the boat-shoe crowd. Kelly and her racist, homophobic boyfriend (fudgepacker is one of his signature words) need privacy because they fuck a lot. (Of all the guys I’ve dated, Kelly tells me once, he’s the only one who ever treated me nice.) Pre-med Jenny and her buttoned-up ROTC boyfriend require privacy because he hits her. Dawn is a control freak. I had a junior year of shit roommates, snobbish spawn of stockbrokers and lawyers for heinous corporate clients like Union Carbide post-Bhopal. Inna’s ashamed of her immigrant parents. They visit most weekends, bringing bottles of Diet Coke and dried papaya and poppyseed cake from the Russian groceries off Ocean Parkway. And there are days she won’t speak to anyone beyond a dismissive monosyllable, her face a wall of contempt. We all want to be alone when we want to be alone.

But now Inna wraps a string of garland around her head like a tiara and mugs for the camera, a cardboard wrapping-paper tube poised before her as a sceptre. Later she and I sit on the floor in my room and drink tequila sunrises, inspired by her unfortunate favorite band, The Eagles. Have another shot of courage. Someone knocks over a glass and a rose blooms on the blond shag rug. Wondering why the right words never come, you just get numb. We need a lot of grenadine and OJ to make it through a few rounds because tequila tastes like socks.

We decide it’s a good idea to climb coatless and shoeless out the ground floor window through the shrubs and onto the stone patio. Martyrs’ Lawn stretches away in a mute obtuse triangle toward either Duane Library or the Fordham Road gate. Our socks soak through fast and our toes sting with cold as we trace a path across the plaza, tossing snow, shrieking at the hits. We bang on the hall door till someone lets us back in.

 

*

 

1991, Weehawken, New Jersey

It’s probably because his pants are too tight that Ralf goes down the hall dressed in his socks, Fruit of the Looms, and my maroon velour bathrobe cinched across the middle, where his stomach pouches forward in a tight little mound. The knobs of his knees poke open the gap when he moves. He’s been gaining weight, and rather than buy new pants his strategy is to alternate wearing the same couple pairs of Dockers to work every day and never wash them.

We’ve taken the bus home to my place across the river after the office Christmas party, where he’s had way more than a few, and he’s shed his clothes in my room, pulled on the robe and fled to the little water closet – a tight space that holds only a toilet, toilet paper dispenser, and a toilet-hugger rug.

My brain feels like it’s slouching toward the ridge above my eyebrows, telling me to go lie down and sleep, but I wait. Or maybe I have to pee, too, or maybe I’m keeping vigilant, because I sit on my bed with the door open, tights peeled off, knees knocking together below my skirt. When Ralf goes through to the ‘bathroom’ proper, where the sink and footed tub are, my roommate Liz passes by the toilet room and find clumps of vomit splattered on the rug, the wall, the toilet seat. She doesn’t pause to think maybe this is not a good idea before she’s raising her voice. You’re disgusting! this is disgusting! it’s disgusting! – disgusting’s the gist of it. That draws Ralf back out to the hall with his dripping hands and puke-rimmed lips and the grandmotherly toddle of a slightly fat short drunk man in a girl’s bathrobe.

It all gets scrambled now. Ralf’s belligerence, his indignity, Liz’s dismissive, graveled tones, her total lack of fear, just judgment, just loathing, just-I-don’t-care building to the crescendo of Ralf’s screams. I don’t have to put up with this shit from a cunt like you! Me hanging back, the word cunt – CUNT! Liz’s broken-glass laugh like a hardened Bette Davis character.

Now we’re in my room. I try to calm Ralf down. I understand that something is broken and it’s never going back. But still I try. Because I want it to go back. It has to go back.

We’re standing in front of the dresser, Ralf in the bathrobe, exposed inverted triangle of chest. His feet still in dark socks like stalks. His eyes pink-rimmed, pupils wide and slow. His voice rising, spraying over me: slur sputter spit stumble.

We’re sitting on the bed, him near the edge, me closer to the wall. Press naked thighs together, itchy wool skirt, tight sweater, cold draft: shiver, almost sober. Ravenous for air. Suck it down while he catalogs all the mistreatments he doesn’t deserve, his voice shredding the air. Breathe breathe. Rib cage up, down. Try to slow down your heart but it won’t. Pounds in your ears. You are just a bunch of parts.

Please please please please. Ignore. Her. Please. Someone needs to shut that bitch up. Shut that bitch up. Shut that bitch. Shut that bitch. Up. Is he going to get up. No stop! Forget –

Comes in close grabs my arms pulls me toward him. To shut that bitch up. Shut her the fuck. Up. Someone should – Shakes. Thrusts. Fall back. Skull, wall, slide, sink, collapse. Eyes on the ceiling faraway. Blink. Bend. Neck forward. Away from corner of windowsill. Be glad you missed it. Roll to side. Wait. Crouch over knees, stand. Cold floor. Don’t look at him. You did something wrong. Didn’t work. Your words were no good. Do not cry. Never cry. White seesaw square of the room. Step away. Step away from the woman who slid down the wall. You watch from somewhere else. Already you are. Pretending. Because: you are not. You are not the kind of woman.

Feet leave the room, take sleep clothes, change in bathroom. Not the. Kind of woman. Wipe up vomit in the water closet. Sink. Let the water run and run. It moves in a circle. Blast it so it will be louder. Wipe the makeup off your eyes with baby oil. Head swollen up at back of skull. This is not you. You are not the.

In the room: him, curled on his side under your blanket. Mouth open, sweat at top of his forehead where skin meets the hair. Crawl up the other side, next to the wall.

In the morning melt three aspirin in a tablespoon of water and feed it to him, as he requests. He gets together the things he has here, as you request. He has to know. Has to know. He is never, he is not coming back here.

Undress for shower. In bathroom mirror a thumbprint on the inside of each arm below your armpits, yellow-green, shaped like spoons. Shiver. You know. You are not. Not the kind of. Woman. Who. Head lump. Throbs. Not the kind of. Woman. Who lets.

 

*

 

I don’t know how to do it without the risk of doing it wrong. I hate doing things wrong. But I want to create a record. I want to say this happened, a man gave me bruises, a contusion, although this seems a fucked-up use of the verb ‘to give’. I’m not sure why I want to do this. Sometimes I’m not sure I do want to. Before writing this essay, I haven’t told anyone. Because I am not the kind of woman who. Lets men hurt her.

 

*

1986, the Bronx

Inna intimidates me sometimes, with her brilliance and immovability, the black moods that come on without warning: contempt can draw her face shut like a gate. At these times if you find her in the bathroom brushing her teeth and staring balefully into the sink, you do not acknowledge her, just take your little plastic basket of soap and towels to the farthest sink possible. She thinks she’s smarter than everybody else and most of us think so, too. All we have on her is superior cultural knowledge: How can she like the Eagles and enjoy watching reruns of Three’s Company (which she calls Three in a Room)?

 

*

 

I go to her room because on Sundays we hang out. It’s past Thanksgiving, almost reading days. We’ve barely spoken all week, only exchanging a few flat his. When I knock the door swings open instantly because she’s – as usual – standing before the full-length mirror on the door’s inside, monitoring her figure. The scale she keeps in a corner bears her footprints like an ancient tablet; she mounts it stripped of every ounce of clothing, even of socks. The claim is she used to be fat, but I figure that means a size ten.

Now she smiles to see me with her big front teeth and does a hair flip like a model on a game show displaying the prizes. She’s not angry anymore but she’s shellacked herself in charm.

It’s like my body’s a carcass compared to her twirling grace as we walk past Duane Library and Thebaud and out the iron campus gate. I’ve got at least five inches and sixty pounds on her.

At Pete’s Diner we order omelets and her face reconfigures itself while she pushes the hair out of her eyes and I count the stacks of Equal and sugar sachets in the metal caddy. The vested Pete in his Yosemite Sam mustache strides up and down with his coffee carafe pouring refills and making small talk. In this little theater the awkwardness between us falls away: for the first time since two weeks ago I see her override her defense. Since she told me about her sister.

My half-sister, she was careful to say. Her father was not my father.

It was the D train. Brooklyn. The line they always rode and would have to keep riding, moving over the same tracks. One evening her sister slipped out of the apartment, dressed in her favorite sweater and new boots, while Inna was doing her homework and their parents were on the late shift.

Afterward, her mother kept asking her questions: How did Anika seem that day? Did she eat? Did she talk? What did she say? Did you argue? Why did you always talk back to her? But to Inna the silent question was: Why didn’t you stop her?

She was sitting at her desk and I was on the bed and it was dark out so the overhead light was on and the white cinderblock walls contained us like a box. I knew she loved Anika best, she said, and her life would not be broken without me. I was just the second kid, the one she had to make her new husband happy, so he’d keep taking care of them.

 

*

 

We leave the diner and pick up The Times on Webster Ave and head back to her room and claim our favorite parts: she does the crossword puzzle, in full, and I read the book reviews. Then she moves on to reading one of her doorstopper nineteenth-century novels. I hesitate to leave her and half hope she’ll talk more about her family and life before, but she tunes me out. I pick up the smooth wooden shell of the matryoshka on her dresser, with its fuchsia headscarf and mysterious smile. I slip her top half off and and the top half of the next four little dolls until I get to the one that’s solid, put the others back and set them in a row, where I study them to see how well the details match. Are her eyes still her eyes, the same color and shape? Is the curl of hair that escapes her scarf in the same place on her brow? Or maybe they’re not meant to be five versions of the same self after all, but five different girls.

ROTC Ray’s bullying Jenny next door, telling her she’s shit again and she should be thankful he even looks at her. His words warp the walls and go small again and it’s always where is her voice, only a flash of a sound. We don’t talk about it. We put on 99-X. One of our favorite dorm-dance songs. I wouldn’t lie to you baby, it’s mainly a physical thing. There’s something ’bout the things you do that keeps me satisfied. I know you’re there you square-jaw fuck your inch-thick glasses your pocket protector and ironed shirts and your hands. Do you feel for me the way I feel for you Chaka Khan let me tell you what I wanna do. We can’t turn it up loud enough so we can pretend we don’t know. Everyone knows she will marry him.

 

*

 

1991

Christmas at my parents’ house I bake cookies and drink fuzzy navels. I argue with my sister Catherine about the dog, who drools on the canapés laid out on the coffee table. I defend the dog from her wrath. My father crouches by the tree in his sweater vest and passes around presents. Amy’s there with her husband. When she was about twenty, her boyfriend threw her off his front porch when she showed up at his house and found him with another girl. She’s forty now but some of the family still mention it, when she’s not around. Amy-the-girl-who-was-thrown-off-the-porch will always in a substantial way define her, as far as they’re concerned. It’s one of the gallery of preserved family images, the slide-show selection perpetually cycling around the carousel. She’s grasped by the arms and tossed, she’s crumpled on the grass. They feast on the story from time to time like a quick little snack before resuming regularly scheduled programming. I don’t want to be somebody’s anecdote. I don’t want to be my own anecdote, a perennial loop of me being thrust against a wall.

Because the things that happen, I believe, stay. In my parents’ bedroom the grooves of the blond wood footboard bear dry ribbons of separated blood released by an injured child thirty years before. How can it have been left in place, like a stratum of the fossil record? Perhaps I can imagine how, in grief, it remained. I know whose blood it was and how it got there. My oldest brother had a seizure, or maybe he stumbled and hit his head on the edge on the way down. I wasn’t there. I wasn’t born yet, but I feel like I’ve witnessed it. I was five when my sister was thrown off the porch, a vision etched in memory, although I was home making Play-Doh animals or copying cartoons from the funny pages onto Silly Putty. Things stay. They’re on the books.

In Weehawken, Liz and I flick glances at each other and mutter only the basics: hello, good-bye, here’s the PSE&G bill. Even her cat Gretel dislikes me, and the feeling is mutual. When I came first to see the apartment, I’d lifted the cat to my chest for a cuddle and with one back claw she’d opened my palm and incised a scar like a second life line. Since then I’ve kept out of her way.

 

*

 

He appears at my office at ten o’clock. He shuts the door behind him. Out the window to my left the morning winter sky hangs whitely over the high-rises with their tar paper lawns and rooftop water towers.

He kneels on the floor to the right of my desk chair, raises his eyes, and begins to beg. The skin underneath his eyes is swollen and his eyelashes clump together. His skin seems tinged blue from beneath, like it always does, the smoke blue eyes I’d liked right away, the dark curl of his hair now at the height of my shoulder, the pearly depth of voice. I don’t know how these things all connect. I keep glancing away out the window, saying no, and shaking my head. Smoke trickles up from the high-rise chimneys, the ground twenty-five stories below us. His neck puffs out at the cinch of shirt collar, the rounded joints of his shoulders pressed forward, his hands clasped in a round shape, stomach round under the shirt, eyes round, the ball tip of his nose, the lobes of his ears, the round rings of black hair, rounding flesh of his chest muscles. He is a set of circles dilating.

He pleads.

I’ll do anything. Anything. Please.

Beyond the closed door are the editors and assistants, publicists and book designers, rights managers and secretaries. The man named Marty who brings up the copies from the copy center stacked high on his cart, rubber-banded and separated by slip sheets. Marty frightens me: his thick glasses, loud voice, garbled skin badly deformed by Elephant Man disease. Though it shames me, something always seizes up in my stomach when I see him coming. It could be that Marty will knock at any time, pushing his squeaky rubber cart, dressed sweetly in a cardigan sweater and tie like an overgrown Catholic schoolboy.

It goes for a half an hour or it goes for three minutes. I don’t know.

December rain streaks the window. My forehead itches beneath my hair-sprayed bangs. My glasses get smudged when I push the hair out of my eyes.

Ralf kneels. Behind us are the shelves and surfaces filled with books and towered with manuscripts and proofs. Taxis maybe honk in the street but you can’t hear this far up. I wish there were another noise to focus on instead of the begging voice and my confused thoughts. I am not the.

If I say no, will he go and not come back? He will come back every time he has a set of page proofs or repro or blues. I will have to drop off match prints at his desk and sit across from him in meetings.

I’m sure he will not simply go and not come back. He will beg me again and I will have to see him weeping again, and he will call me at my desk and he will call me at home. I don’t want to always wonder: Is he coming? Will he weep, will he kneel? I don’t want to see this image, I don’t want to see his pounding grief. This grief says it is about me but some part of me knows that it’s not. Something is being transferred onto me, I am becoming responsible for its existence in the world. His sorrow. It is not my sorrow, I don’t have to hold it for him.

But there is also this: No one has begged me before. On his knees. I have always been the one to grovel, to shudder and sob. Here is a flicker of unfamiliar power, to be groveled to instead. To be so desired. A little dictator inside me begins to form conditions: you must go to therapy, you can’t drink when we’re together. I can keep on rewriting this story. I will lay down what I want, and I will get it, and prove I am not the kind of woman who is controlled by a man.

He gets up and leaves, and the air rushes in from the hall, and the sounds of footsteps on carpet, voices, machines. My body releases itself from its clench, and it’s as if everything around me rotates 180 degrees while I remain still. It is not clear to me if I have gained power or if I have lost it. There is proof of it on my body, whatever it is. I haven’t mentioned that to him, though. I am too ashamed. And I don’t think he remembers. Maybe it can now be erased, made not to have happened.

I spend New Year’s Eve with Ralf at his apartment in Coop City, sex on the couch, puffs from his pipe, cherry liqueur, in bed before midnight. His beautiful, tragic cat is ever gloaming in the bedroom dark, camped out on the ironing board, tail twitching. Long cottony gray fur with white feet. Wishing to be elsewhere: even the cat knows Ralf is fucked up.

 

*

 

1987, 1988

In June, Inna and I go to a Sunday Mets game. I keep score and eat baggies full of carrot sticks – I’m on a diet. I stand and flap my body when the wave comes around. She chain-drinks waxy cups of Diet Coke and circles wanted ads in The Times. We’re ‘college grads’! she says. During the seventh-inning stretch I read through the columns for ‘publishing’ and ‘editorial’.

She goes to work in a chem lab at Columbia doing something that involves the death of frogs. I get a job as an editorial assistant, typing and Xeroxing and jumping up when my boss bellows from her office. My father says that I ‘have a position’, and looks as if he may not regret spending forty grand to send me to college. I wear hand-me-down suits from my sister and commute to work with my brother. I learn that the essence of editing is fastening sticky notes to the page and taking them off again. When I get promoted I display a desktop pen stand with my nameplate, Marian A. Ryan.

The following spring comes a letter on yellow legal pad paper, in which my long-distance boyfriend and planned future husband writes that he has ‘finally fallen in love with someone else’. It’s as if he’s achieved his life’s goal. I sob in the kitchen after reading it, I sob upstairs in my room, I sob in the office of a therapist with an orange-striped couch. It’s almost summer but I’m wearing my jean jacket all the time because I’m racked with chills. My sister feeds me half-tablets of valium and my mother tells me I was always her favorite and my father says, It’s a learning experience, and steps outside to mow the lawn.

My new self wakes early, hardly eats, loses twenty pounds, stops menstruating, and daydreams about taking the A train one evening to the George Washington Bridge to let her useless body meet the flat cold water. My body is a stubborn fact that occupies space it does not deserve. A shy, pale psychiatrist has prescribed me tricyclic antidepressants. He strikes me as delicate, and it seems important not to injure him, or my mother, or sisters, or friends. Inna makes a pact with me: each time she ends the life of a frog, she performs a spell to release evil spirits that travel aloft to my ex.

 

*

 

In Between

Inna and Ralf didn’t know each other. They barely knew of each other, but they have become linked by my mistakes. They have become linked because Facebook allowed him to pursue me and allowed me to pursue her. They have become linked by the compassion they did and did not get from me. My decisions to give him too much and her too little, the limits of compassion, the limits of me.

I have a way of keeping relationships in silos. There is my exaggerated need for privacy, overdeveloped by frequent use. A tendency to fear exposure and resist sharing details, a lack of trust toward anyone outside. At the end, the dead relationships stand apart from each other in the empty field, and I walk away to dwell in other relationships where nobody knows what went before. Nobody else knows what goes on inside each private container of love and need. Yet I like to suppose there are hidden connections, like roots that push their way underground and across.

 

*

 

1988

Monday, August. When the phone rings I leave my mother frying hamburgers in the kitchen and seasoning the macaroni salad. The oilcloth is on the dining table, three place settings, three glasses of iced tea. From the gossip bench I can hear my father’s TV channel in the living room set to the local news. Lawnmowers buzz in neighboring yards.

The phone is a square white Western Electric with gray push buttons and a grimy ringed cord running to the receiver. I scrape a thumbnail at the hardened concentric dirt rings while Inna speaks. She calls me before she calls her mother.

I don’t know how to remember this. Soon afterward, I draped a cover over the memory: the precise tone of her voice, the words she used. If she stumbled over them or screamed or slashed out the words. If I heard the swollen sound of mucus in her nose and throat. If she cursed or mentioned a god she didn’t believe in. How she explained that she hadn’t called her mother. I can only remember the shape of the conversation: her shock and her grief, the disjointed pieces of story. Her father mugged, struck, dead.

At the cemetery she wears the same black pinstripe skirt and silver-white blouse she wore for graduation. She drops fists of Brooklyn dirt into his grave.

Inna believed that her father’s death was her fault, because she was the one who had last driven his car, the one he would drive to work that morning, and she’d parked it on a different street.

 

*

 

Autumn, 1990

I’m driving down to visit Inna in DC. She’s working on her PhD. She owns an apartment in a funky building in Dupont Circle called The Cairo. She’s pregnant.

Officially it’s mid-winter but there’s only an occasional fringe of snow on the grass banks along the Turnpike, and the small evergreens tick past, still as spell-cast girls in a fairy tale. Every road sign and rest plaza looks the same but different, alternately sharper or more faded or in the wrong place; they glide past as the radio unribbons its sounds and troopers move in and out of traffic in their brown cruisers. Tune your radio to 1610 AM for special reports from Turnpike Radio. A report of congestion, a suggested alternate route in south Jersey on 695, you let it play over and over. South Jersey is a dun and chartreuse flatland punctuated by water towers and isolated stands of deciduous trees adjacent to the Sunoco stations. You can see it with your eyes shut, but what you can’t see is Inna, pregnant.

Her place is strewn with clothes, papers, dropped books, dirty cups and plates, mounds of crumpled tissues spilling from the waste baskets. She’s gone feral and inward in a way I’ve never seen her, not even when her father died. She speaks only in short spells. She switched back to the rhythm method from the pill, and that’s when it happened. She left it all to her boyfriend: when it was safe to have sex since she didn’t want to be on the pill, then agreeing to go on the pill as he wanted but deciding to stop because of mood swings and weight gain, then letting Ming judge again when it was safe to have sex.

Why would you do that? I say, though I’m instantly sorry.

But he was right, she says.

I bring her pizza and get her groceries at Safeway and clean up the kitchen. She stays in taking tea and bites of white bread and lies in bed mostly. When Ming calls, I tell him to come over.

But she told me not to, he says.

I don’t care what she told you. Do you believe her?

The appointment is on Tuesday morning, twelve blocks away. The sidewalks are stuck with wet brown leaves and the air is slashed with rain. She wears a Georgetown sweatshirt and loose jeans and a pea coat. We don’t have an umbrella and during the procedure her hair will be wet and she’ll be very cold. I keep reading the same articles about John Stamos and Kiefer Sutherland and chewing my gum between my front teeth till it falls out into my magazine. In the afternoon Ming shows up at the apartment with a bag of poppyseed bagels we try to feed her but she tells us to get the hell out. We go.

 

*

 

1991

A professor at my grad school believed that fiction and memoir are inherently nostalgic, that we are trying to treasure and protect the things we write about. If that is true, I wonder, why am I writing about this time, about Ralf? One part of the story I fiercely resist telling or even remembering, the simple part where two people meet and have dates and invite each other home and have sex and maybe fall in love and go to movies and cafes and listen to music and start to see each other’s flaws and witness each other’s pain.

I want so much to leave this part out, but narratives don’t like holes. I wish I were writing something more hybrid. I’d solve the problem by throwing in some quizzes, or insert a few GIFs. Then there’s no chance of romanticizing. People in GIFs are always rolling their eyes or giving somebody the finger with their face.

I worry that it’s just too banal. But it’s also as if I feel that any good or ordinary trait of Ralf’s needs to be suppressed. It’s as if I feel he should never be presented as kind or joyful or vulnerable, because in this story, he does bad things – and what kind of villain is that?

 

*

 

Before he hurts me, there’s this:

I get a job in children’s publishing. I’m twenty-five. I flirt with my new co-worker Ralf, who’s twenty-seven. We bond over the New York Mets when he sees the season schedule I have taped over my desk. We meet for a date at the Bronx Zoo: cracked fountains, caged, flea-bit lions and tigers, the dank nocturnal house where the eyes of the lemurs shine flat as coins. We have other dates, without depressed and depressing animals. We go to baseball games and Italian cafes in the Village, we make out on street corners and guys yell, Take her home! We have sex and eat bagels and I stay with him in his narrow bed with a spring sticking up on one side. Somehow I sleep.

Some things I learn about Ralf:

He loves the Mets, not the Yankees, though he’s a Bronx native.

He adores his cat, named Mookie for the Mets first baseman.

He lives in a high-rise on a desolate cul-de-sac in the East Bronx, at the edge of the colossal housing development Coop City, advertised at its 1973 opening as a ‘city within a city’.

His Jewish parents moved here from a South Bronx tenement when Coop City was a sparkling-new idyll and Ralf was small.

He has few friends here.

He practiced guitar for seven hours a day all during college and almost failed.

He owns three guitars and a Marshall amp.

Sometimes he plays Clapton songs for me and sometimes we play together, though I only know a few chords.

He spends all his money on booze, weed, and CDs.

He lives for his booze, weed, and CDs, his guitars and jazz and the blues.

He never takes out his contact lenses and will wear a two-week pair for months.

He has no friends at the office.

His last childhood friend Stu moved to Hawaii and sends Ralf care packages with macadamia nuts.

He says his other friends piss in Mookie’s litterbox when they come over, though he tells them not to.

He has a friend with two businesses: one cleaning the old Venetian blinds most people still have in their Coop City apartments and another selling heroin.

I never meet these people.

It’s all very different to my tidy-lawned, protected suburban mindscape.

He’s estranged from two of his three brothers, including the one who owns Ralf’s apartment.

His parents live a few blocks away, in the same place he grew up.

They are cold to Ralf and we spend an uneasy half hour drinking tea in their kitchen.

One time when they argued, his mother threw a block of frozen spinach at his head.

His eyes.

One of his favorite words is ‘pretentious’. A lot of people are pretentious.

His voice.

Some days when he’s hungover, he goes to the 58th Street library at lunch and sleeps on one of the leather couches.

If it’s Tuesday he will then be late for the production meeting at two o’clock.

He kind of hates his job, shuffling manuscripts to the typesetter, repro to the printers, circulating F&Gs and sample covers.

He always carries a hand-size canister of Binaca for frequent squirts in the back of his throat.

He thinks I might be ‘out of his league’.

He tells me I’m sexy.

He seems to adore me.

He needs me.

 

*

 

1992

After he hurts me, there’s this:

Ralf doesn’t do anything he promised to do when he kneeled in my office. He gets a referral but never goes to his scheduled therapy appointment. You can’t force somebody. I don’t want to be the kind of person who forces people. I don’t love him and I’m not sure how much I like him but I’m attracted to something about his aloneness, his grief. Maybe I draw sustenance from it, I’m his parasite. When we fuck I make it all right for him for a little while. We fuck a lot. His worship makes it all right for me. Power accrues in my body with every fuck. I am his temple, his religion, something strong and screaming in joy. 50-ft Queenie. This is who I am. Not the kind of woman who –

We have to spend nights at his place until I get my own apartment, a third story walk-up on a Union City corner where the bus idles loudly at the stoplight, then lurches on, trailing waves of exhaust. But before the leaves come on the trees in the park across the New York Avenue there’s a view of the shoulders and spire of the Empire State Building. We stay in Union City a lot and ride the bus under the river to work. Sometimes I’m dressed for work when we just have to fuck and I push my skirt up and push my pantyhose down. It’s like a balm, a lucky charm. In the afternoons we meet for cappuccinos across from the office. It’s a suspended form of safety, a rope bridge over a canyon.

Then he gets fired for asking his ex-girlfriend how much she charges for a blow job.

 

*

 

May 1, a hard blue sky above the East River, burned by the hole of the sun. I proofread flap copy and circle flaws on color proofs, call freelancers and request barcodes. Around lunchtime, my boss Susan calls from her office one floor down.

The office is closing early, she says. There’s rioting around town.

Susan says everything in the same flat butterscotch tone. Like when I was on the job a couple of months and she came around distributing a sheaf of blue memos, dropped one in my in-box, and murmured, Robert Maxwell is missing at sea, the same way you’d say, I like your new shoes. It turned out Robert Maxwell had been embezzling from the company pension fund. It turned out he’d killed himself by stepping off his yacht.

Rioting where?

All over, she says.

In Times Square?

I would imagine.

I don’t ask where she got this information. It’s just come down from above.

I call Ralf down on 19, but get no answer. I stop by his desk. Nobody’s around. I take the train downtown to get the PATH from Chelsea to Hoboken, a bus from there to the Union City post office. Usually I catch a bus from the Port Authority, but that would mean going through Times Square, site of the purported riot.

At home I put on the TV. Los Angeles is still on fire. Whole blocks have become piles of broken glass and smoking concrete hulls where strip malls used to be. The local news shows a few small demonstrations scattered around Manhattan, speakers with bullhorns, cops on horseback. Times Square resembles itself on any given day. The street preachers cause more disturbance.

Ralf calls a few hours later. So I know why he wasn’t in the office. He was summoned down to HR and sent home as soon as he got in. There was an old incident, of him following his ex around on her lunch hour. He had been warned not to talk to her, to stay away. Uh-huh, I say. From the daybed I watch the pigeons on the fire escape, bobbing their heads and sidestepping each other. The city bus groans past in a spume of exhaust that rises up toward my open windows, the same color as the birds.

He claims he did not accost her in the elevator bank. He claims he didn’t say the thing she says he said. But whenever he mentions it in the next few months, he sounds amused. Talk about blow jobs was always a big thing in production. The one woman who worked there boasted she was a blow job queen. One day Ralf asked Jeff if he remembered his last blow job. Yeah, Jeff said, it was this morning, and Ralf said, How did it taste?

Now he tells me what HR says, that he asked his ex-girlfriend about the price of a blow job because he thinks it’s hilarious. He could leave out this detail and I’d never know. He tells me because he’s proud, even if he can’t claim credit.

But I think I know how it was: he followed his ex around the streets when they broke up. That just seems sad and desperate, as break ups are. Maybe he asked her how much she charged for a blow job but it was a stupid joke. He’s not dangerous, he’s arrogant and self-satisfied. He can’t be dangerous, because he’s with me. And I am not the kind of woman.

 

*

 

On the evening news, they show footage of the four thousand National Guard troops who arrived today in Los Angeles. They show Rodney King’s press conference from the afternoon, where he asks, Can we all get along? Later I speak to my mother on the phone. She voices her opinion that maybe Rodney King did something that night to merit being struck more than fifty times by the cops while he lay on his side in the street, being kicked in the head. To make it stop, my incipient hatred of my own mother, I hang up on her.

 

*

 

I start keeping a half-gallon carton of Tropicana in the fridge to fix myself screwdrivers in the morning before catching the bus to the city. Just enough to feel the muscles unclench around my shoulders and chest, enough to feel calm and contained. It helps shut down thought on the way down the stairs, the eight blocks to the bus stop, gliding underneath the river and watching for the words in the middle of the tunnel where New Jersey gives way to New York. I always hope the tunnel does not implode and drown us all with our briefcases in an NJ Transit bus.

Nobody talks about Ralf’s getting fired. He was in production, several floors down and separated by the internal class system from the children’s book editors and designers. The loops of gossip don’t much overlap. It was possible to obscure the fact that we’d been dating. Only my closest friend among the copy editors knows about us. She doesn’t know he hurt me or is a raging drunk. Now I lie and tell her he quit.

Ralf finds a lawyer who does labor cases. He’s been refused unemployment by the company since he was fired with cause. The process will take a couple of months; until then he applies for welfare. I’m not sure why this is the thing that starts to bother me. Maybe because it shows he has no one? It’s all been fine until now. I tell myself I am strong, I give second chances, I am reasonable. I got past the blitzed-out rage, the scene with my roommate, the bruises on my biceps, the lump on the back of my skull. It all passes. I tell myself I will try everything I can, and I haven’t tried everything yet. When I stopped going to Mass at seventeen, I told my father I wasn’t getting anything out of it. Well, he said, that depends on what you put into it.

I’m going to put into this until I have nothing left. I can try to put something into this. He thinks I’m so good and kind. It makes me want to be good and kind.

 

*

 

I drive to see Inna in DC. We hang out on the roof deck of her building in the damp pewter light of pre-spring, tracking the inert Washington Monument and the wet-barked, near-naked trees like giant pussy willows in Rock Creek Park. She talks about the guy she loves, but she doesn’t say loves, in France, the physicist, who’s called her only once since last summer. I don’t say much about Ralf.

Some girls back in C-Plaza called guys like that ‘wife beaters’. Like when somebody mentioned what went on in Jenny’s room between her and her boyfriend.

She’s an idiot, Inna would say. Since she had another friend called Jenny, she called them Jenny-Normal (Jenny-N) and Jenny-Idiot (Jenny-Id).

Guy’s a wife beater, Kelly said.

She’s bringing it on herself, Julianna said. She lets him do it.

Maybe it’s like, you know, play? Suz said.

NO, it’s not, Inna said.

Guy’s a wife beater, Kelly said, shaking her head. Proud of her guy the bigoted douchebag because he never hit her.

You can not be a wife beater and still treat a woman like shit.

But I don’t think Ralf’s like that. He’s not a wife beater. Wife beaters do it on purpose, they do it week in and week out. To Ralf I’m his temple. He would never choose to put those bruises there. I would never offer myself up like Jenny-Id. Because. I know who I am. Who I am not. I’m not the kind of woman.

 

*

 

Mostly we cook and drink wine and fuck at my place and listen to music and play his guitars and fuck at his place. And I like to fuck him, though I never call it fucking him, only much later do I think of it that way. It’s a thing I can do that will be a success. I like to fuck him on his couch or in his kitchen, in his narrow, exposed spring-ridden bed, or bleeding in his bathtub. Maybe I’m trying to overpower him, I fuck him so much, more than I will ever fuck someone again. Even more than people I love or desperately want to love me back.

Nights on my own I drink bottles of plonk Zinfandel at my desk/dining table and eat arroz con pollo from my favourite cafetería. In my bedroom there’s a window on an air shaft that also opens onto the neighbors’ bathroom. Whenever they use it after dark the light shines in like a visitation. The guy sings his heart out every night in the shower, Cuban ballads. His voice is good, really, passionate and sweet. I don’t know much Spanish but the best songs are the saddest ones. I catch a few words. No pretendo . . . no soy nada
. . . sabor a mí, he sings through the frosted glass window.

In June, Ralf catches me a kitten from the litter of strays in a friend’s backyard. I stand at the bottom of the cellar steps while he creeps up and approaches a paper plate smeared with cat food and surrounded by gray kittens. Then all the kittens are gone except one and he grabs her. She spins and hisses and I yell for him to put her back, but he folds her gently against his chest and carries her upstairs. At my apartment she hides for two weeks behind the toilet, till one evening she trots out and begins to reel around the place, doing kitten somersaults around the rungs between chair legs. Both Ralf and I fall in love with her, but it’s not much to hold on to.

I start looking for ways to avoid him. I pick a fight when I find a drawer full of porn mags in his bedroom. What do you want from me? he shouts. Do you want me to tell you I love you? No, I don’t.

I drive home, Cross-Bronx to the bridge, wheels on pavement, and the past year replays itself in distorted frames like microfilm clattering between pins. I think he loves me in whatever way he can, some wholly irrelevant way. Why do I care about his Playboys and Hustlers? The key fucked-up person here is me.

 

*

 

Inna finishes her PhD months before her twenty-fifth birthday. I’m still twenty-six. When I look in the mirror I don’t see the same face I saw a year ago. There’s something that wasn’t there before, a different pull to the muscles. Is my eyelid drooping? Or maybe something’s been subtracted. What is the fundamental action of experience on the body? Is it more accurate to say that it adds or takes away?

I never tell Inna the Ralf stuff: the drinking, the night he hurt me, harassing his ex, all his crazy shit. Because to her I am not a person who dates a guy who does crazy shit. I’m the kind of person who helps her out, I’m the one she confides in and leans on. I don’t want her to know I’m really like Jenny-Idiot.

 

*

 

Turns out she does what she does when she does it. I don’t.

Every possibility is scrutinized for months before I make up my mind. Maybe years. Every decision might be a mistake, so I tend to undo them just in case. Like with Ralf.

She’s getting married.

I wonder, how can she trust a man, know a man, love a man, surrender herself to a man, just like that?

His name is Pierre, the physicist, and he’s visiting for the semester from his university in Grenoble. She met him once a year ago when he was in DC to meet with her professor. Now, after he visits her twice up in Rochester, where she’s doing her postdoc, they decide to marry. She calls to tell me.

It’s no use trying to talk her out of it, maybe slow her down. She does what she does when she does it. That’s it. She’s abandoning me. Pierre will take my place. Already, in two weekends, he has. Her voice with that syrup of ease. She’s ceding her life to a man – just like that? She plans to move to Grenoble and give up her career because he has a lifetime appointment. She just finished her goddamn PhD, her favorite thing to brag about.

Do they know each other, though?

We know enough, she says.

She’s soaring up someplace on the trade winds and I’m sitting in a third-floor walk-up with shitty industrial carpet and two air shafts listening to the neighbors belting out love songs in the shower, the sounds of their fucking through the cheap walls. No soy nada. I am nothing.

It took me seven months to end it with Ralf after he put his hands on me, but she can decide in the space of two weeks to be with this guy Pierre forever, drop her goals for him, leave the country. She’s always said she’d never even visit France; it was anti-Semitic. Can she be making sense? I remind her of that, uselessly.

We were supposed to be strong together, self-guided, independent, assured. In her voice I can hear she still is. She believes she is, so she must be, right? I don’t know what that makes me.

 

*

 

2000, Virginia 

Third year in grad school, my legs get slow and heavy. Stairs become an irritating acquaintance I long to avoid. When I climb three flights to the English department with the chair, my hips are leaden and I have to stop a few times, ashamed, blaming it on my loaded backpack. Getting up from the futon and out of my car are quandaries for which I devise special hacks: place your forearm here to push, torque your body up like this. At a friend’s house I find myself marooned on the toilet when my legs don’t want to lift me.

A neurologist checks me over in his office and says I should see him at the neuromuscular clinic at a big DC hospital. He’s tall and stoop-shouldered, superficially pleasant, a German, which I interpret to mean he possesses superior knowledge as the product of serious and superior schooling.

At the clinic I perch at the edge of a papered exam table talking with the geneticist. She laughs quickly and has a Philly accent, and hair and glasses like Velma on Scooby-Doo. I tell her the family history of my disease, which is, basically: none.

When the door opens, it’s not the graceful tall German man with the clipboard, it’s a woman I haven’t seen before. She has the regal presence of a soap-opera grand dame straight out of Oakdale or Springfield, a cross between Phoebe Wallingford and Lisa Hughes lipsticked, foundationed, a frosted sheath of hair. She escorts a coed group of white-coated med students, beckoning them on with her chin. She’ll be examining me first, she says, before Dr K., and can I describe why I’m here for her and the students?

She and her small herd take me by surprise. I answer her questions, but curtly. She tries for kindliness and concern but I feel like an exhibit. Before now, I just thought I was weak, not weird, not a freak. Half to me, half to the students, she issues observations. I’m a textbook example, she says, I have the ‘typical look,’ my long narrow face with its crooked smile, of a particular neuromuscular disease . . .

My face.

Once I know what’s wrong with me, she adds, gracious, I can get on with my life. The students nod and shift their feet and fiddle in the pockets of their lab coats.

I hate to bust your bubble, I tell the Grande Dame, but this is not my life. The geneticist in her little round glasses laughs, and I’m so grateful to her, before the Grand Dame commences asking about my family history, my childhood, adulthood, siblinghood, lifehood, the multiple failures of my body. The German already knows these things, and he’s my doctor. I’m confused. But I’m trained to cooperate, trained to obey, trained to go along, so I answer. Humiliation seeps into me like a stain. What does my face look like? How could I have thought I was normal, or at least normal enough?

I hate the Grande Dame for implying that this is my life. It feels like presumption, aggression, insult. Yet she throws it out casually. Someday I’ll see she wasn’t really wrong, I’ll come to know my life cannot be constructed in any other way but with this disease.

Finally the stoop-shouldered Dr K. arrives, another day at the office. He ticks off possible diagnoses: spinal muscular atrophy, mitochondrial myopathy. At home I look them up. Effects of mitochondrial myopathy may include stroke-like episodes and dementia. Late-onset SMA seems milder: twitching, tremor.

In July a slice of tissue is take from my left biceps, a piece of muscle the size of a pencil eraser, and sent off to the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology to be sectioned and stained and arranged tidily on slides, to become part of the great archival cabinet of medical research.

The report comes back ‘consistent with dystrophy’. I have a lot of questions. Dr K. sends me photocopied pages, a chapter in a book, by way of answering them. Judging by the pathology report and the pages from his book, it seems that fat and connective tissue have worked their way into the muscle tissue, cell membranes have been damaged, cell nuclei are twisted out of place like belly buttons slid around from belly to back, not where they’re supposed to be. The empty gutterscapes of the slides illumine the words in my pathology report. One image toward the chapter’s end shows a woman’s biceps tissue in late-stage disease: cross-sectioned necrotic muscle fiber, a cluster of hollow tubes scattered with obsolete nuclei in formless constellations, a backwash of debris.

 

*

 

Summer Saturday. The sweetgum tree in the yard beside my bedroom window is heavy with glossy hand-sized leaves. The gray cat sleeps curled on the bed, back against the slope of my pillow, as I sit at the desk by the window and hold the phone to my ear while Inna talks and I hardly hear her. The meeting that was supposed to be the year before in Paris didn’t happen and I’d let her go without protest, maybe she wanted to slip away from her old life, and I was of her old life.

But she’s apologizing, explaining, her mother ill, her mother dying, her mother dead. Too depressed, she says, and the inside of depression is someplace I’ve lived before and am dropping slowly into now like the embrace of a favourite old chair. From the soft depths of its cushions I am not appeased. In our past life, I was the first person she’d call and now I was the last, a year and a half later. I don’t believe her apology, I won’t accept it, from the snug confines of my easy chair, where I fancy nobody really cares about me. I decide to let her go off to her distant life but first I will pave over her pain with my own, I will exact a final gift from her. I historicize and I taxonomize my body’s problems. I pour it all forth, because in my easy chair brain I know it: we will never speak again.

There are a few more Christmases where her cards arrive. The coil and round of her letters, a transmigrated Cyrillic, make me think of something I used to love, like a yellow dress with a lace collar I wore when I was five, like the matryoshka doll she kept on her dorm windowsill, closed up tight with all the other dolls inside it.

 

*

 

Berlin

I move to Berlin with Z. in the early spring of 2010. Clothes, TV, computers, cat stuffed into a Passat wagon, we pass through the Chunnel, through Calais, past Dunkirk and Eindhoven, go sluicing between the wind-turbine fields of north Germany in a swirl of fat wet snowflakes. It’s fairy-tale weather much of the way, snow and mist, though the Saturday afternoon we arrive in Berlin the neighborhood feels sluggish and still under a sky the color of old undershirts. But soon the magic occurs that sweeps the city from April through mid-July: the trees blossom and blossom in turn – chestnuts first and linden last – draping the grimmest of blocks in a sweet blanket of scent.

I set up my home office in the back bedroom, overlooking our building’s tiny Hof, the community yard for bins and shed and bicycles. It’s not an inspiring view but it’s quiet and south-facing and softened by the branches of a quince tree overhanging the wall between our yard and the next. While I work the gray cat sleeps atop a stack of unpacked boxes I keep next to the desk, de facto furniture. She can still jump, not so high as she used to. I can still walk, not as fast as I used to. I’m on my third country of neurologists, but my disease still lacks a proper name.

One day I join Twitter. Soon, I have a follower named Ralf, whose avatar is an illustration of a wad of cash that to my eye seems menacing, a tight stack ruffled in my face. I block him but I’m unnerved. He can’t reach me, he’d have a hard time finding my address, it would be preposterous to think he’d get on a plane to Germany. What am I afraid of?

 

*

 

By the start of 2015 the cat has grown debilitated, the taker of at least half a dozen medicines, pills, liquids, powders, pastes. In the language of the public health reports I edit, she has several co-morbidities: kidney disease, poor circulation to the brain (causing mini-strokes), high blood pressure (potential for a brain bleed leading to blindness or death), an inability to absorb the nutrients in her food (diarrhea, vomiting). Her muscles are so depleted that the vertebrae stand out on her back like the teeth of a comb, her right hind leg drags, her entire underside is a raft of knots and the fur on her sides is flat and dull. She still wants to eat (a lot), she still loves being brushed, still sleeps beside my pillow at night, still begs to be lifted to the bathroom sink to drink from the faucet, but we know it won’t be long.

Z. has grown devoted to her, getting up at all hours to feed her (we give her whatever she wants, whenever she wants it), developing a system for medicine admin, prompting me to brush her when she parks herself on the bed, waiting, for my attention. When she wants petting at her spot in the sink, he stands there half an hour, holding his book with one hand and stroking the cat with the other. One evening I find him there washing shit off her hind paws. He’s wearing his work shirt and a pair of fire-engine red briefs, the color of little kids’ wagons, and I know how much I love him for loving her.

As the cat declines, my muscles are getting weaker and my life feels like it’s shrinking. I see less of the city I love because it’s tiring to get out much. I can’t work anything like a normal schedule, and every day is different depending on how much fatigue I have. I walk more and more slowly. My feet swell and I don’t really know why. Sometimes I wear compression stockings, a premature old lady, and pray my ankles and calves won’t look small baseball bats. I get a stick to take with me when I go out. I keep straws in the house because it’s a struggle to lift any but the lightest glass or a mug. Sometimes Z. washes my hair because holding my arms up, even with the help of the shower wall to lean on, can exhaust me. There is no name for my disease but it has fused to my life. It is my DNA, after all, the most basic material of which I’m made. I can’t say this is not my life.

 

*

 

One winter night the cat’s curled up under the clothes-drying rack in the corner of my office, below the drafty window. In the spring she will turn twenty-three. She weighs under five pounds despite devouring three pouches of food a day.

It’s January 20, the anniversary of Inna’s death, and I decide to search online once more for anything I can find. It’s mostly scientific papers she co-authored, p-chem stuff miles over my head. There’s the Social Security Death Index. I enter her name in the search box. Did they know she died, since she’d been living overseas? Yes, they did. Date of event, it reads on her SSDI page, January 20, 2008.

Then I find it, a PDF of an old newsletter from the chemistry department where she did her PhD, which includes a paragraph in a section called With Condolences, summarizing her life and career, how she mastered English, mastered French, earned her doctorate at the age of twenty-four. And the second-to-last sentence: She died after a courageous battle with cancer.

There’s nothing left of her to find but the snapshots in my dresser drawer. They shift among the jumble of scissors, playing cards, an unused lanyard, passports, tubes of lotion, a curled stack of US currency. It’s jammed full of things I need and things I don’t but never seem to get rid of. Inside me too lies a space where I keep the things I never told her.

 

Author’s note: Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

 

Photograph © Bradley Davis