1. For all you women out there, as the song goes (there must be a song that goes like that), this is how it is when you leave us: We wake up at midnight in our mother’s house, in our childhood room, in our childhood bed, and we think to ourselves, What am I doing lying here while, in New York, in my apartment, in my real room, in my adult bed, my wife is leaving me? Then we think that she is probably not alone in that bed. Then we get up.
Our mother’s house is in another state. Massachusetts, let’s say. It’s March or April — or, anyway, mud season, when the orchards are full of peach trees showing first buds — and we have come here for the weekend to give you the space to think things through. Because we don’t want to pressure you. Because we just want you to know that this is how much we love you, that even though you have pried apart the bones of our chest and reached in and clenched a fist around our heart and are squeezing, we don’t want to push you into anything that might make you unhappy. And because you told us that if we didn’t go, you would. I’ll go to a hotel, you said. We thought, Do you know how much a few nights in a hotel in New York will cost? And, because you were our wife and we had lived together for years and you knew about our third nipple and we knew about the hairs you plucked from your eyelids, you could read our mind, and you said, God.
That was Thursday. It’s now Saturday — Sunday, really, because it’s twelve-something AM. Back when it was still Saturday, before we went to bed, we called you.
I love you, we said.
OK, you said. Then, Can we talk later?
Somewhere in the room — or was it out in the street? Or had we imagined it? — there seemed to be a man’s voice.
OK, we said.
No, we can’t believe we said that, either.
When we come downstairs at 1 AM there is something in our eyes that lets our mother know not even to ask. She knows, too, that right now she should not touch us. But the dog doesn’t know this. When we crouch down to zip up our bag, he smears our face with his cold, wet nose. Thank you, we think. We think, Buddy. But when we start to say, Come on, the words shake in our throat. So we just slap the side of our leg and head out to the car, the dog close behind.
Here is what is known:
The roads are clear this time of night, half the gas stations are closed, and the one that’s open has coffee that tastes like pond water, but it doesn’t matter. Oreos are Oreos. There must be three dozen in the box. There is nothing but classic rock on the radio: Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Jethro Tull. We turn the volume up. (How can the dog sleep through it?)
Here is what is guessed at:
It will take four hours to get to Brooklyn. Three and a half if we drive faster than usual. We will drive faster than usual. It will be just before dawn when we arrive.
Here is what is possible:
We will charge up the stairs and jam the key into the lock and open it and burst in; you will be sleeping alone in the bed; you will jerk awake; you will see the need in our eyes and feel our longing, and we will make love in loud and wild ways that we never have before, and everything will be OK.
There will be someone in the bed with you; we will pull him out and beat him bloody and toothless until he flees; then we will turn to you, and you will see the need in our eyes and feel our longing, and we will make love in loud and wild ways that we never have before, and everything will be OK.
Why else would we pull to the side of the Saw Mill Parkway and empty our bladder into the dark tangle of scrub? Why else would the city look so impossibly pristine in the predawn light? Why else would we leave the dog in the car when we get there? Why else would four flights of stairs disappear beneath our feet in the time it takes to draw a breath? Why else wouldn’t we knock? Why else, but for the fact that it has not occurred to us that there is any other way that it could go, would it hit us so hard to see the empty bed?
You should have seen that coming, you will say.
Yes, we’ll say, but not the toothbrush gone, the makeup gone, the note not there; not the failure of the muscles in our legs, of even the bones, even those rock-hard knots of knees, to keep us standing.
Yes, you’ll say, you should have seen it.
And, as usual, you’ll be right.
Is this going to be all about us? you’ll ask.
We’ll look at you then, as if to ask whether you mean “us” as in you and me, or as in us men, and you’ll look at us as if to tell us you mean both.
No, we’ll say, it’s about them.
And we will turn and peer for a moment through the security bars on the window. Out there, the fire escape will be shaking with the footsteps of the women from the next scene, a steady procession climbing the zigzag staircase until they have all passed out of sight and there is just the clanging of their shoes on the rungs above. Then you will see the need in our eyes, you will feel the longing, and you will know that we mean the few women who came before you, and the many who will come after.
You will draw back your shoulders and straighten your spine, the way you learned in movement class. You will make your face into the face you use onstage, ready to be shaped into whatever you need it to show but revealing nothing yet, and your voice will be your professional voice, as if your jaw has stiffened to give extra strength to every word. No, you’ll say, this is about you.
But we will not hear this. By then we will have curled up on the floor, pressed our cheekbone to the boards where the soles of your feet once were; we will have called your brother, who does not know where you are; we will have waited by your place of work and met the man you got to fill in for you; we will have held the dog’s head to our chest, given him to a better home, locked up the rest in storage, broken the lease, left the city, driven away into the hills.
2. At curtain rise: New York City, a bar in the East Village. The music is Tom Waits turned down low.
Upstage: a podium. A small lamp on it lights The Author and the book from which he is reading. Before him: a stage full of chairs. They are all arrayed facing upstage, all empty.
Thank you so much for coming. Tonight I’m going to read from . . .
(The sound fades to nothing. He keeps talking, though we cannot hear him.
Lights reveal a bar, stage right. Behind it: CURLY HAIR, a female bartender. In front of it: a row of women, seated.
Another woman, ELBOWS, is standing at the bar, getting a glass of wine. As she brings it across the stage, the light follows her until it reveals a table far downstage, close to the audience. On the table is a plate of cheese and dried fruits.
Four women are sitting there: THE ARTIST, THE PUNK, GREEN EYES, and THE POOL SHARK.)
(sitting down, rolling her eyes)
Can you believe he actually said, “Curled up on the floor”?
(exhaling cigarette smoke with her laugh)
Of course. What I can’t believe is that you bothered to take your fucking toothbrush.
You really didn’t even leave him a note?
How could you not even leave him a note?
Oh, come on. I was twenty-five. I was a baby.
THE POOL SHARK
Hey, I’m twenty-five.
(The four others look at her, look at THE AUTHOR — who is still reading, mute — shake their heads, take a drink.)
You know how old I was the last time he and I fucked? Nineteen. In the morning, you know what I found?
(She takes a piece of dried fruit from the plate.)
A condom. On the rug next to the mattress. Used.
(She pops the fruit in her mouth and chews.)
It wasn’t ours.
THE POOL SHARK
(One of the women by the bar, LA FRANÇAISE, turns.)
(in a thick French accent)
Oh, that was me. From the night before. Sorry! But, the truth? It wasn’t very good.
(his mike suddenly on, reading with passion)
. . . you have pried apart the bones of our chest and reached in and clenched a fist around our heart and . . .
(His mike goes off. He keeps reading, mute.)
He broke up with me in Prospect Park. Took me there so he could do it in public.
Me? I followed him out onto the street. God, I was a wreck, sobbing, shouting after him. This was in midtown, right by the Empire State. So crowded. He was more worried about what everyone would think — strangers — than about me.
(his mike on again, reading with passion)
. . . the failure of the muscles in our legs, of even the bones, even those . . .
(His mike goes off.)
THE POOL SHARK
You know he never even introduced me to his friends? Four months. Not one.
Well, he met mine. He was a dick to them.
What do you have to complain about? You’re the only one who left him.
Hey, I left him. I left him like ten times.
Yeah, but in the end he left you. For me.
(She picks at the dried fruit.)
And I’m the only one who actually had to live with him.
(BABY DOLL, a woman at the bar, turns.)
Hey, I spent four days with him on a camping trip, in a tent, nonstop.
Oh, Jesus, a tent.
No, it was great. Until he dropped me off at the train station and — I don’t know what happened. After that, he didn’t even . . . he totally disappeared.
(his mike on again, reading with passion)
. . . pressed our cheekbone to the boards where the soles of your feet once were.
(Another woman by the bar, RUNNER’S LEGS, turns.)
I came up on the train to visit him, made him a mix tape of my favorite songs.
We will have called your brother, who does not know where you are; we will have . . .
He sat in the car with that smile, that . . .
. . . waited by your place of work and met the man . . .
. . . that judgmental crappiness all over his face.
(no longer reading)
Excuse me. Um, I’m sorry, but I’m trying to read here.
(Another woman by the bar, PEANUT BUTTER, turns.)
I asked him if he wanted me to dance for him. Strip. And he said no.
I’m trying to explore —
What kind of a man says no to that?
He wouldn’t have said no to me.
I’m trying, here, to explore the nature of heartbreak.
(THE PUNK laughs.)
You’re trying to explain to me —
(THE PUNK laughs harder.)
I’m trying —
Oh, come on. You’ve given us names based on body parts.
Or things you remember from sex.
How misogynistic is that?
(Another woman by the bar, SNARKY, joins in.)
He broke up with me by e-mail. He signed it, “Warmly.”
We’d been on, like, three dates.
(from behind the bar)
I know that look on his face, that I’m-going-to-pretend-I’m-not-judging-you look.
(reading again, trying to shout over her)
We will have held the dog’s head to our chest, given him to a better home . . .
That was the look he gave me when I read him my poetry.
. . . locked up the rest in storage . . .
(CURLY HAIR begins reciting a poem. She is speaking loudly, over THE AUTHOR; she delivers the words aggressively, as if at a poetry slam.)
What you hit on the way home last night . . .
. . . broken the lease . . .
. . . felt like someone’s dog . . .
. . . left the city . . .
. . . but I saw its black wing flapping . . .
. . . driven away into the hills.
3. To this cabin, at the edge of these winter woods, where I hear their voices still, distant and clear as the cries of crows circling above the frozen pasture. On the stereo: Tom Waits’s “Frank’s Wild Years.” I shut it off. On a coffee-stained notebook page: I have been thinking about her again. About her and all of them. There is, I think, as much to be learned from hurting someone as from being hurt.
Sitting here, reading my own black scrawl, the mountain cold returned for the night, it seems to me that the only thing I know for sure I found in the place between doing wrong and having wrong done to me — one hand dipped into the barrel of pain I’ve caused, the other into the barrel of pain that I’ve come through. Last night I lifted my hands and dumped the contents of each into the cast-iron pot on the woodstove and let it boil.
It’s a cheap Chinese stove. The hatch door doesn’t shut all the way; you can glimpse, in a strip below its edge, the fire licking the inside. I pulled up the old maple stump and sat on it and thought back to the first time I’d seen the flame in that crack, a dozen years ago. Back then my girlfriend — the woman I was learning to love, who would become my wife, then my ex-wife, then my girlfriend again and my ex again — sat on the mattress on the floor. The cabin was newly built, the windows had no curtains, the walls were bare. She was naked. So was I. Maybe it was the promise held by the yet-unfurnished home; maybe it was the warmth of the woodstove; maybe it was just the way the taper of her elbows let me glimpse the elegance that went down to her bones. Whatever it was, she was the first woman with whom I’d ever talked of children, picked out baby names, imagined the faces of daughters and sons.
Last night they came to visit: the children I might have had with the women I’m no longer with. I had just lifted the lid from the pot when I heard them stepping down the ladder from the attic. I craned my neck around. There were their small, pajamaed feet: creak, creak, creak on the rungs. Cody — with his mother’s caramel skin, her heart sweeter than any syrup — draped himself over the wood box. Narrow-shouldered Rose slouched into a rocking chair, her thin face a pale sky dappled with the same small freckles that had covered another woman I had been with long ago. There were the twins, Abe and Joe, with their mom’s wide shoulders and hard eyes, their faces already showing enough of her mistrust of the world to scare me. They sat side by side, cross-legged on the floor beside their half-sister Ruby, whose elbows had looked so elegant on my ex-wife.
The pot on the stove rumbled, sighed. I took out the spoon I’d been using to stir and blew on it.
A chorus of kids asked if they could try some. I shook my head, swallowing what I’d scraped off the spoon with my teeth. At the taste, my face must have done something to make them quit asking. Only once I’d put the lid back on the pot did they want to know what was in it.
And, lifting Rose up on one knee and Cody on the other, I tried to tell them about a couple I knew who’d been married for a quarter of a century and still loved each other as much as when they’d met. “And yet,” I said, “the wife lives in a separate home, afraid that the fights they’d have together would hurt too much — while, a mile and a half away, the husband tries to hide how much it hurts him that she has chosen to live apart.”
“But . . . ,” Abe said.
And Joe: “You mean they used to be in love.”
“No.” I shook my head and tried again: How I’d once known another couple, married even longer. How, for a short while, in their more than fifty years together, the woman had taken a lover behind her husband’s back. How when husband and wife had died —
Ruby gasped. At the death? At the adultery? On my thighs Cody and Rose sat still with worry. How could I continue then? How could I explain that, though I’d been told the husband never knew, I hoped he had; that I liked to think they’d lived through such a thing and still, when it had come time to die, gone almost together, each unwilling to continue on without the other?
On the stove the pot began to smoke. Lifting Cody off one knee, Rose off the other, I stood, picked up the pot, brought it to the kitchen. When I came back, I had a can of peaches: sliced, in heavy syrup.
I reached in with my sooty fingers and pulled out a bright yellow crescent. “Here,” I said to Cody. “Here,” to Ruby. “Here,” to Joseph and Abraham and Rose. And I handed them the peaches, emptying the can, looking from one pair of eyes to the next, trying to show them with my own how much I loved them.
4. At the time I wrote those words, I hadn’t heard another voice in days, hadn’t seen a soul in weeks, hadn’t made love in half a year. The bed up in the attic waited for me with its cold sheets. The ladder too: silent. If there was any creaking in that cabin deep in those hills, it must have been the wind, the shutters, my chair. I sat there, thinking of what I should have said: How beautiful it is that we hurt the ones we love, and are hurt by them — badly, irreparably — and still try to struggle through. How beautiful that the heart can be so squeezed and yet want to warm the fingers clamped around it.
That night, alone with my whiskey and peaches and wool blanket wrapped close against the draft, I didn’t know if I’d ever feel that grip again. But now, three years later, three thousand miles away, I’m writing from a different cabin in different hills, just below the snow line of the Sierras, where I’ve come to live with a woman who’s giving me that chance. A woman whom I tried to let go of and found I couldn’t. Who scares me with how hard I want to hold on. She has a spine that’s slightly skewed, as if hugged by a world that feels the same way I do about her; she has skin that smells of these strange mountains; she has a daughter, nine years old and as real as the shaking of the ladder when she climbs down from the loft on the morning of her birthday, as real as her morning breath and her hug — as real, too, as her father coming to her party this afternoon.
My lover’s ex: At first, when I visited, she kept me hidden at the cabin, afraid he’d see me; she didn’t want to cause him any additional pain. I understood. I’d always half expected that, when I finally met him, he’d haul off and slug me. But here he is, arriving at his daughter’s party, simply holding out his hand.
“Nice to meet you,” he says, though I know, for him, it isn’t.
And I want to tell him that if he tries to throw a punch, I’ll let him get a good one in. I want to tell him that after my ex left me, I dreamed of going down to the pizza place where I thought her new lover worked, fantasized about the sound of kneecaps snapping. And even though I know my girlfriend and her ex were already on the way out when she met me, that she was always straight with him, I wonder: Has he ever woken at midnight and thought, What am I doing lying here while my wife is leaving me? I want to ask how far he got: Did he drop his daughter off at some friend’s place? Did he drive to the airport? Get on a plane? Land in my city? Stand outside my apartment, thinking that the key to his lost life lay inside? Tear up the stairs, need in his eyes? I want to say that I know now how wrong I was when I wrote about being hurt and hurting someone teaching us equally as much. The truth is, there is far less to be learned from breaking others than from being broken. As is right. He, I, we, you deserve at least that.
One by one the children take swings at the piñata: a bright, smiling sun that my lover’s ex’s new lover has filled with treats. I stand back, out of the way, and watch as he raises and lowers the rope, eliciting laughter from his daughter and her friends. Still, the happiest I see him all afternoon is when the kids plead for him to put an end to the game, take up the stick, spill the candy. And, blindfold over his eyes, his whole face focused on whatever he sees in that dark, he rears back and smashes the stick straight through the smiling sun, cleaves its skull in two.
Down comes a rain of glittering sweets. Into it tumbles an avalanche of nine-year-old girls. They fall over each other, scrambling and shouting. And we watch, the adults, ex-somethings all, hearing the same song in our hearts: for all you children out there (there must be a song that goes like that), this is how it is when you grow up. But we stay silent — at least we’ve learned that much — listening to the whoops and shrieks flying out across the valley, the echoes that the hills send back.