Aimless, giddy dread fills me. ‘This is really affecting you on a day-to-day level.’
‘Well, I mean, no, we weren’t that close, it’s just on my mind.’
‘Is it on your mind because you feel that Chris isn’t taking your criticisms of his management style the right way? I’m just clearing my head, going on a walk in the park,’ I say. I walk the track over and over, thinking about my situation. She manages an ‘Oh, that’s cute’ to the button-up. ‘And I want to get a few new things. The context is clear. The intonation is perfect. The sun is shining even though it’s incredibly cold. Her mention of alcohol does make me want to stop by the local winery for a bottle of their finest, but maybe I should take a hawt bawth instead, what do you think, Chancellor? There’s a chunky white substance in the corner of the pillowcase, which I tell myself is laundry detergent (flashing back to middle school, Megan Lambert, tall and beautiful, laughing and turning red, saying that the stain on her cardigan was in fact laundry detergent, not semen, haha, what a joke. This should be fun. My chest clenches and my stomach bottoms out as if to say, ‘Are you sure?’ But I feel sure. ‘Oh, just doing a little house cleaning,’ I say. It fills, and I put it in the hallway outside my apartment, and go back to my bedroom with a new bag. I toss a pair of stained underwear, and think about how I’m going to buy myself an attractive, soft pajama set. Laughing. She makes an immediate mistake, thinking that, again, I will be interested in hearing a story featuring coworkers and family members I do not know. I throw away a pair of brown loafers with holes in the bottoms, almost completely crystalized with sidewalk salt – last year’s winter boots. Fuck you. That’s the kind of stuff I like now. Focus on their strengths. Ah, Madame, I would be if it were now, but so many things can happen between the promenade and m’lady’s bawth, that promises cannot be made, and wishes might be left unfulfilled. I give her one, ask if she wants anything to eat, indicating the salad in a large bowl on the counter. I can barely feel my body moving, trees coming at me, feeling the 3D space, a gray stumpy tree shifting and gliding past me, movie-theater roller coaster, rounding the corner of the track, watching the garages, back porches, dumpsters, wires shift in and out of view. I see a dog in the park. She still wants to talk about whatever friend or family member with whatever drug problem, and I lean forward and say, ‘So you guys were pretty close, so that’s why you’re taking this so hard.’ I put my hand on my chin and furrow my brow. Almost true. I know she did this to me. Working on a project or a problem is something friends do together, to help them bond. ‘Can’t really spend money on restaurants right now but I have some beer I could bring over if you want.’ The true opposite of what I’d planned, almost as if she’s willfully unable to see how nice it might be: the silent, guileless pancakes. ‘So we’re doing okay today?’ she asks, again, the tone in her voice has force, I recognize it as malevolent almost immediately. ‘I can’t really afford clothes right now,’ she says. I wanted her to say yes. I step into the shower and almost faint, an image of taking the day by the throat and bashing its head against the wall floating in my mind. Take it more in stride. We could play cards.’
‘Don’t really like cards and honestly can’t spend money on coffee.’
She launches back into the same old story from the top, and I catch a glint of my laptop on the kitchen counter, calling to me. She raises her eyebrows and nods, stepping over two boxes that I have filled with knickknacks from the living room, and a filthy rolled-up carpet. Some garbage stories about people I don’t know, flaccid pickings at gossip, rote monologue, hollow martyrdom. ‘Drinking? But, I don’t need to feel this way. Fuck you, I think. I take a trash bag into my bedroom and go through my clothes: too small, hole, out of fashion, too bold, too ratty. Almost transcendent. I mean, if you can afford them.’
The night is not going as planned. I’m good.’ I nod and say, ‘Cool,’ and put it back in the fridge uncovered. The feeling of relaxation in my body is so profound as I say this that I almost start laughing. ‘What’s with the bags outside?’ she asks. Everyone taking little digs. She mentions maybe waiting until I get the job offer to buy the clothes, and I say, ‘But you think I should get these?’ She says, ‘Yeah, they’re fine. ‘Well, maybe you want to get your exercise somewhere else, and you can come back to the park when you’re feeling better.’
‘I’m feeling fine, miss,’ I say, ‘but I also don’t want to cause any trouble’. She shows up an hour after her text with four warm beers in her backpack. I don’t know, I feel like it might help.’
‘Sure, why not, if you have the money and you don’t have any student debt or bills, why not?’
I stare at her. She works here.
In the morning, in bed with only my pants on, fragments come back. She says, ‘No, I’m not going to eat that. I walk the concrete path around the park, lined with trees, circling a small baseball field, a basketball court, a defunct community garden. Maybe we could go out for breakfast, play cards, really listen – or better, not have anything to say. ‘Yeah, I was thinking that if I’m going to be committing to a new job that I’m not really that hot on, I should at least enjoy some of the perks.’
‘They offered you the job?’
‘Not yet, but I thought it would be a good idea to get myself in the right headspace to accept the offer when it comes.’ This sounds reasonable to me. I’m like her now. I almost feel like I’m flying, light and easy. We could just exist together. ‘I’m doing well,’ I say, not wanting to stop, feeling myself almost try to walk past her, but her stepping in the way of my path, me pivoting, slowing, reluctant. I’m angry for a second, feeling that it must be a deep lack of imagination that holds Sarah back from fully understanding how wonderful my proposition is, and that I, if I am really in a position of being honest with myself today and every day moving forward, don’t really need to be around people with that kind of stubborn lack of imagination, that inflexibility and unwillingness to let me take control (no one ever wants to do what I want to do, and I’m so permissive, so ‘Oh okay!’ all the time, so ‘Tell me about your day’ all the time, that again and again I end up doing things I don’t want to do: acting the therapist, toeing my limit with alcohol even though I’m visualizing tea, pretending to be grateful at my workplace even though I want to be home). Will you not be there with me to draw it, sir? I go to the park across the street where the high school has its gym classes. ‘I really need a new coat, too, but I’m at such a loss.’
She says the clothes are fine, and then goes on to tell me that I shouldn’t worry about it. I try to interject, to change the subject to something broader that I might be able to participate in, but my attempt is reaching (‘That’s like that one movie’). Nothing really that my ultra-smooth cadence can do to convince her of my innocence in the matter. ‘I’m horrible with clothes,’ I say. I walk for maybe forty minutes in this circle, until a woman in a polo shirt with a whistle approaches me, smiling. Haha). I still have my cross-country shoes from high school, fifteen years old, but lightly worn. She veers to a dark topic, a trauma that her college friend, clearly suicidal, suffered years ago. Little digs. I put on a coat and other necessary winter gear and leave my apartment. I notice a family in the playground behind her.
I visualize myself getting coffee with Sarah tomorrow, really bonding and getting to know each other, breaking out of this two-year pattern of drinking, complaints, and misunderstandings. I start to get nervous. I should pull the trigger on those dresses. I text to see if she wants to get breakfast. As I walk I feel like the scenery is coming at me, rather than me walking through it. I feel that it would not be completely out of the realm of possibility for me to daintily raise my hand and give this park ranger a cupped and not too hard slow-motioned slap across her face. A light snow begins to fall, little pieces of it kissing my cheeks, my lips, sweet lover, in my hair, cooling my anxiety sweat, making the wetness of my socks in these boots with the hole a little more festive. Not thinking about certain things today, no doubt about that! And you feel some connection there, between your cousin’s frustrations and your own?’
‘I mean, now that you mention it.’
‘I think the best thing to do in these situations is to just take things as they come. Assessing my life. Oh, Madame, a hawt bawth would be lovely, but I do on occasion wonder if you’ll be lonely tending to your own bawth. ‘Oh, yes, right,’ I say, remembering that I’m the one who is supposed to leave. ‘Sooo, how are things with you?’ I ask. I tape a pillowcase over my mirror using packing tape from a time in my life when I needed it, when I moved and sent packages. I am looking at clothing I could buy for myself and thinking about making some kind of salad when Sarah texts ‘actually p bored rn can I just come over tonight?’
I try to relax. The last thing I remember doing with a clear head is thinking about pulling the trigger. ‘Can I show you what I’m thinking of getting?’
I recognize that she can’t actually say no, even if that’s what she wants. The son throwing a lackluster snowball, his puffed suit moving unnaturally, his mother watching with tight lips. I see kids playing on the playground in their puffy coats, parents or maybe nannies on the benches watching, talking. I think about offering to buy her coffee, but then I feel like that’s what she was angling for, and I’m not going to do that (be manipulated) anymore, so I let the text hang. I remember that my new clothes arrive on Thursday, and I say, ‘Oh, well that’s nice,’ out loud, to no one. Incurious, flat. I could swoon. I’m not sure if it’s even alcoholic, but it tastes alcoholic, especially in my mouth the next morning. If we were on the phone, with this kind of intonation, this kind of diction, I could get her to give me her checking account number, maybe some health details, depending on context. They go in the bag. Where will I go and what will I do? It’s amazing what a person can get away with when wearing glasses. A pounding in my head like something wants out. ‘What if we just got some coffee somewhere? I think: I really like Sarah’s clothes, that is something I value about her, taking after a suggestion from an article I read online about how to get along with people. Then, like maybe it will make a difference, I point over my shoulder and say, ‘I live right there.’
‘Seems like you’ve been walking around in circles and stumbling a bit for almost the past hour,’ she says. Making some decisions today, no doubt about that! I find it odd that neither of us is leaving and neither of us is talking, and it makes me smile. The liquor store isn’t open yet. ‘I had a long, stressful week at work, and I’m just getting some exercise.’ It sounds completely reasonable to me, as it comes out. We drink all of the beers, and switch to a bottle of cooking sherry that I keep in a cabinet by my spices. Even if all parts of her are screaming no, she can’t actually say no.
Some hours pass. A fourth trash bag of my clothing goes into the hall, to be taken downstairs in the morning when I’m feeling more rested. Sarah pauses to take a drink and say, ‘Ugh, anyway.’
I take my opportunity. I walk aimlessly a while longer, between that space where it would be a gift from the sweet Lord Jesus to run into someone I knew and get some spiced hot cider, and it being the worst because I’m not wearing underwear and didn’t brush my teeth because I was afraid of the taste of the water. She blows breath out of her mouth, puffing up her cheeks either like a monkey, or like someone with deep world-weariness. Sarah talking about her fabled student loans again while I pulled the trigger on some new dresses for my new lifestyle. I would be more than willing to help her cultivate a more professional appearance, if that’s what she wanted.
Photograph © Jerzy Rose ‘Been doing a little bit of drinking today, maybe?’ she asks. She offers me a beer and asks for a cigarette. ‘But whatever,’ I say, ‘I’m not rolling in money now or anything, but all of my clothes are too tight and have holes and stains.’ This she knows, so I don’t know why she’s looking at me like I’m the fucking king of France. I wanted her to want to help me with this. I’m not drinking before she arrives, despite having several nice IPAs on hand from my recent Peapod order, and I have made a mustard vinaigrette to go on a spinach salad that we might share. ‘So I think I’m going to get some new work clothes – and maybe just some new clothes in general.’
‘Oh,’ she says. I imagine her getting a walkie-talkie call about me – the creepy stumbling man/woman – and looking down at me from her window in the field house, and deciding that she was going to just nip it, just come down here and take me out, get ’er done, as they say, and then her hustling down the stairs, body in full motion, a little articulation of the elbows, a little pneumatic pump of the arms. But we’re not on the phone, and the context here is clear: she, in a white thermal under a baby-blue Chicago Parks District polo, a whistle and keycard lanyard, and those noisy kinds of jogging pants, fogged breath coming out of her, a tight, unforgiving braid almost at the crown of her head, and me in my brown men’s overcoat with the lining hanging out the bottom, sweatpants and cheap snow boots – though I would think she might respond to the sweats, find some affinity there – and my hair still clearly uncombed and freezing in parts from my shower even though it’s mostly underneath my dollar-store stocking cap. ‘How we doing today?’ she asks, and I wonder if it’s really that easy to get people to engage with you, if relaxing really is the key to socialization. We sit in momentary silence. ‘I bought these socks a few months ago, they’re really expensive, but I wear them like three times a week.’
I look at her socks and tell her she’s mentioned them before. Feeling myself finally calming down. ‘Stumbling, I’m not sure,’ I say. Oh, no, for sure not. I want to be happy, and I want to nurture my friendships, and I want to be happy to see Sarah, so that’s what I’m going to do. Possibly she thinks I was lying about living nearby, but this is one of those small things that everyone is always encouraging everyone else not to worry about too much – who cares what she thinks of my apartment? A not too unattractive face, when seen in my memory or maybe from afar (though when I see it reflected in windows, the eyes seem exceptionally beady and the jaw stern). I look at my face in the bathroom mirror, sallow and grayish, my teeth browning in the cracks, a kind of a low gum line on the bottom incisors, a kind of chapped, painted look to the lips, actual countable pores on my forehead, divided by a real wrinkle that starts between my once lush and still-masculine brows and tapers out halfway to my scalp. I feel light.
Aimless, giddy dread fills me. ‘This is really affecting you on a day-to-day level.’