It was always cold in the house I grew up in. I didn’t realize it for years. I wore heavy hooded sweatshirts and socks, always socks, up until it warmed up in May. The water used take forever to get warm, and I’d do anything to avoid washing my hands with a plank of bar soap under the cold water.
The house was too big to heat well. A two-story wall of windows faced out into the backyard, and the winter seemed to creep in through the glass. The family room’s old, scratched leather couch felt like ice. The fireplace was rarely lit, except for special occasions or when my father came home early from work. The draft came down the chimney next to the couch, so I would curl up on one end with a too-small knit blanket and watch hours of tv until my mom sent me upstairs my for bath.
I remember watching an old Bugs Bunny short when he gets into a cauldron of hot water and dips one toe slowly in, and then gently eases the rest of himself into the boiling pot. I sat on the toilet waiting for the water to get so hot I’d burn my toes. Then I’d fold myself into the bath like Bugs Bunny and let the water creep up to my chin. After half an hour, my mom would climb up the stairs and pound on the door, saying I’d run the well dry. I didn’t care. I didn’t really understand what a well was, and even if I did I would have stayed there, my ankles turning pink under the faucet, the room steaming up so the wall paper curled at the edges. Then I dropped a bar of soap in and let the bath turn translucent. I dipped my head under and the water whooshed into my ears, drowning all the sounds but the churn of water flooding in and out of the tub.
After, I wrapped myself in three towels. Always three — one wrapped around my body and tucked under my arms, one spread over my shoulders, and the third swept up so my hair didn’t drip. And then the door would open, and the cold air rushed into the bathroom, and the steam poured out. I’d stay warm for just a few more moments longer until the cold house enveloped me again.
Some people, if they say something enough times, begin to believe it. Not me. The more I repeat myself, the more I see through my own lies. I was never a good liar.
I saw a therapist when I was in college who, after three semesters of unloading my problems on him, told me I was my own worst enemy. He said I was standing in the way of my own happiness, and there was nothing he could do to help me. I obsessed that for years until a friend told me she saw that same therapist and gave her the same speech. He had been a therapist for twenty years. I wonder if he told everyone that. I wonder if you tell enough people something enough times, everyone starts to believe it.
No, standing in the way of my happiness was a group of tourists. They meandered slowly down Columbus Avenue three abreast, gawking at the museum to their left and the menu of the Pizzeria Uno Chicago Grill to their right. A tangled dog walker approached from the cross walk, two aging retrievers pulling in his wake. Across the avenue, the green market vendors wrapped up their unsold produce and organic chicken. The scent of warm, rotting berries mingled with fresh dog shit. That group of tourists stopped in front of the bodega, allowing themselves to be counted by a man with what sounded to me like a German accent. I wove through the roadblock. There must have been at least fifteen, all of them sweating and smiling feebly.
One of them had his shoes off. He leaned against the glass window of the bodega and wiped his brow. His shoes, tied neatly together, dangled on either side of his shoulder.
here was something else my therapist said in college, but I had forgotten it. He didn’t dispense much advice, which was okay. He was in his forties or fifties — it was hard for me to measure middle age when I was barely twenty — and went barefoot in his office. I respected that about him, at least more than I respected the degrees or piles of paperwork I had to fill out before each session. His bare feet was a badge of authenticity that alleviated how clinical and foolish the hour felt. I was depressed, but I was also staring at a grown man’s bunions.
When I asked my friend if he had taken his shoes off during her therapy sessions, she said she didn’t remember.
Wait — I remember when he had said. He told me to stop doing drugs. No, not exactly. He said something like: “Of course you’re depressed. You’re fucking high all the time.” And just like that, I didn’t feel depressed anymore. But I still got high. I got high every single day because I was in college and I was bored and had no idea what to do with myself except smoke pot. I listened to music and drank, too. But mostly I got high on a couch with a rotating cast of roommates, classmates and friends. No one, I had instructed, should ever wear any shoes or socks when they’re smoking with me.
The girls, all together, say something vague and cutting. Something about shoes or the size of their waist. Whether it is said out loud or not, well, that doesn’t matter. It is said over and over and over, repeated so many times it becomes a warm, dull chorus of young discontent. I grip my scotch and soda the way an old woman holds onto her walker. And I let it take me away.
We went to a comedy show. He insisted.
It wasn’t even a normal showing of stand-up circuit comedians. It was worse because it was just joke writers. Most of the jokes were about how they were Jewish or hated themselves or both. People laughed anyway, too much, because they had paid and they had made plans that night to drink watered down cocktails and fucking laugh. They even laughed at the joke set-ups, like they had been so conditioned to the situation that they couldn’t help but flinch laughter. So I drank extra so I would laugh more, like my laughs would soothe him. I drank extra so he would drink extra, too, and maybe he wouldn’t think too much about the news that his grandfather had died that morning.
It might have been the morning, or the night before. He didn’t know, and he didn’t ask. I don’t know why it mattered to me. I guess it doesn’t matter when time stops, if you think about it. When the ride is over you have to get off.
The comedians were terrible. We each had six scotch and sodas and shared an order of greasy fried shrimp. I had the urge to pat them off with a cocktail napkin but I didn’t want to garner the attention of the comedians. I had a panic attack that they would run out of material and angle in on the audience, notice me patting off a basket of fried shrimp and ask what I was doing there, and I would blurt out, “His grandfather just died,” and everyone would laugh and laugh, looking at the joke writer for the punchline.
alone in bed, heavy sleep-soaked breaths, his knee raised up in the sheet like his body is about to set sail. a bed is just a frame for blankets. he is all things we come home for. there are no reasons, no answers flickering along under his rapid eye moves. he is my togetherness, simmering like a stew.
The sun shines harder if that’s possible, from one end of an island to another, brandishing an impossible amount of trees. Puddles smell of sterile name brand Band-Aids and rusting tin foil. I walk slower, but I twisted my ankle and it still aches every morning. Bed sheets like bandages. The subway stairs was an early casualty. The sharp rays of sun the second.
This should be like riding a bike. But it’s really more like diet and exercise. It’s a lifestyle. Blogging is just as tiring, time-consuming and self-indulgent.
I go back and read through old posts and remember that person. Or, I remember the feelings, but not the agony and anxiety and razor-sharp reflexes that led me to the corner of the room. My heart was always in my throat. My lungs were always full of heat and sweat and New York subway air.
Then the goodness came through me and I softened. We all do. Everything unclenches and the edges all blur just enough to look less threatening. It’s a careful assumption, just sweet enough to wrap around all the paper cut needles in the haystacks.