As Fire Bites
For as long as I can remember, whenever I walk around Manhattan, I notice spaces where I could take shelter if I were homeless. The trouble, or the blessing rather, is that I don't have an actual reason for looking. Why should I—an affluent man, feel that way? I own an apartment in the West Village, a house in the Hamptons, a cabin in Vail. In short, save an unlikely revolution, the chances of me actually using one of those spaces—the doorway of St. Mark's Church in the Bowery, or a bridge overpass—are virtually non-existent. And yet, I continue the search undaunted by its futility, dwelling in those nooks during my imaginary cold nights, shaking, like that little girl in the old Anderson tale, striking matches against the wall, hoping that flame turns to fire. What makes those dirty corners smelling of urine, seem so necessary to my existence?
There are certain fears I can always count on. They lurk in the background like old paintings, until one day I catch a glimpse entirely by chance and the colors appear bright again. Earlier tonight, before I left for my trip, Sophie entered the room in a short cotton dress in a nautical pattern of boats and light houses. As I held on to her lovely, bare shoulders, I had a flash back to when we were first dating, a year ago already. It may sound ridiculous, but I used to fear that leaving town, even for a short trip, meant never seeing her again. I used to fear that some calamity might happen, that we'd be lost to each other forever.I tried to focus on her voice; she was asking about my client meeting in Boston. She wasn't paying attention. It bothered me, but I acted blasé. When I reached the airport, I vividly imagined a plane crash. As the ball of fire approached, intent to swallow me in its belly, I wasn't thinking of Sophie, but of a wooden toy boat that I used to own as a kid. It disappeared one day, without a trace.
Soon after I returned from my trip, Sophie said that we needed to see a relationship therapist. This surprised me. But on the other hand, Sophie is the type of person who hires professionals to make our curtains and not because she is fussy about interior design, but because she likes having people around, giving her advice about this or that. Or, perhaps the idea came to her because she was upset about my remark. Yet, it's true- I find it odd that even though I travel the world and Sophie goes nowhere, it is only I who complains of not seeing her enough. Some of the things she says and does lately are strange. Apparently, she has started to volunteer at the Lady of Mercy Hospital, reading to the sick patients, so she's more emotionally occupied now than before. She repeated this in front of the therapist tonight. The therapist was alright, I guess, but said something that threw me for a loop. It seemed to him that my inability to express my feelings was causing me to act possessively towards Sophie. Right then and there, I told both of them that I have often written poetry about Sophie, wanting to document every second we spend together—the way she sleeps, or how I feel when she enters a room. He then suggested something I didn't expect—a poetry course at NYU. To bring you closer, he said.
It was right after the professor asked some introductory questions that Sophie blurted out, in front of everyone, that we were taking the class simply because our relationship therapist suggested it. The students tittered, like she said something witty. I acted like a good sport—smiled and looked around in a friendly way. When the professor requested a reading volunteer, I raised my hand and said that I wanted to read a poem about my girlfriend. The class became frighteningly quiet. I wondered what they thought about me: forty years old, salt-and-pepper hair, suit and tie. I feared my poetry was mawkish, but dismissed my worry as soon as I looked at Sophie. Her blonde hair brushed her dress and every time she moved, I thought of dandelions. I wanted to show the class that we were together, so I glanced at her as I read, realizing that she was staring at the empty courtyard outside. I know for certain the courtyard was empty, because I paused my reading and turned sideways with curiosity. The leaves were falling on an iron fence, where a cable-locked bike was missing its seat. After stumbling on my lines, I started the poem from the beginning. The courtyard's emptiness finally broke my confidence. I abandoned reading the poem and sat down. I found it impossible to listen to anyone else's reading and only paid attention when it was her turn to read. Her poem was about someone named Bernard, a paralyzed man in a wheelchair to whom she reads stories at the hospital. She said that his courage was an inspiration to her. And this: he comforted her like no other.
It's official. I can't stop thinking about Bernard. His white hospital room. Her sitting near his bed, lost in a conversation about the book they finished reading together. Is he verbally gifted? Is he funny? Is his paralysis a temporary or a permanent condition? Today was pure torture. When I saw clients, or went to a business lunch, I only thought of him. When I got home, she wasn't there. I started searching for her journal. It was Sophie who advised me to write down my thoughts. It's the only way to tell secrets, she said. Perhaps that's true for her, but not for me. A journal is like a mute monk whom I tell private stories, but whose judgment I still fear. It has never won me over completely. My most terrifying states of mind still wear a mask. I found her journal on her desk and started reading the beginning pages. She had described our first date enthusiastically, but generically, the same way one might speak of a nice picnic during a sunny day, where nothing exciting happens. In the subsequent pages, she didn't talk about me at all, omitting our relationship entirely. Where was I? But I was also able to find the poem she read in class, the one about Bernard. In the back page, there was a bad drawing of him and his room. I wrote the room number down on a notepad, realizing that my reaction was pathetic.
I entered Lady of Mercy around 10 this morning. My heart was palpitating. In the lobby, a nurse asked if I needed help. I told her that I was a new volunteer from the reading program. She let me go in, even though I didn't have a book with me. When I entered room number 118, Bernard was napping with his arms folded above his blanket. He was much older than I had expected; must have been in his nineties. It's August, but he wore flannel pajamas in a Christmas pattern—striped candies and tiled roofs. I knew that my jealousy was absurd and yet the more I tried to get hold of it, to make it seem ridiculous, the more it reared his head and made fun of me.When Bernard woke up and saw me towering above him, the chimneys on his sleeves started shaking. He wasn't as courageous as Sophie made him sound in her poem. “Who are you?” he asked in a shaking voice. I felt powerful and empty, like the wind. “Sorry, wrong room,” I said, but didn't move away. I was making him nervous. He started moving both hands in my direction. I laughed. He reminded me of a lobster.
Bernard died tonight. Of course I pretended that I was sorry, but honestly, I rejoiced at the news. Sophie was distressed and kept saying that Bernard had been feeling so much better that last week. Why was she getting so upset for a person she barely knew and already in his nineties? Then she got tired of bemoaning and spent hours painting in her art studio. I find her so desirable when she paints; she looks colorful and content, with dried speckles of paint on her hair and shorts. I can't wait to see her painting; it has been a while since she worked on something new.
Tonight, upon entering her studio, I realize that her easel is empty. “I gave the painting to Martha,” she says to me. “Who the hell is Martha, Sophie?”“A cancer patient. She liked it. Wanted to keep it in her room.”“But I wanted to put that painting up in my office.” “You have four paintings of mine in your office.” She raises four fingers in my direction “Four.”“So, what?” I say. “I wanted a fifth.”
Today one of my clients asked me out for a drink. George is the sort of man who says outrageous things, but does so with disarming honesty. He was contemplating having an affair. He loved his wife, but he was bored. Even though Sophie and I have been living together for a year, I told him, I'm never bored of her. Her impulsive quality keeps me in a state of perpetual curiosity as to what she might do or say next. Occasionally I find her shallow, silly, and her naÃƒÂ¯veté enervating. But I suspect that's only a faÃƒÂ§ade which she surrenders, just as she senses that I'm secure in a certain opinion of her. It seems to me at times that we engage in a psychological chess game, where she is always two steps ahead. At other times I wonder if I'm imposing a diabolical personality on her innocent nature.As I spoke, George listened. He had felt that way about a woman years ago, he then said, a woman who had left him. I laughed at this, but on my way home, I became sure that Sophie was packing her suitcases that very moment. I was relieved to find her in front of the mirror, brushing her hair.
Can we talk about something else, for once, instead of sick strangers?
Tonight, as soon as she left, I searched for her journal. Couldn't find it at first. I looked for it in every drawer and shelf, before trying my luck in the most primitive of all the hiding places—underneath our mattress. Why was she hiding it? How could she know that I had read it? I discovered that new patients had just arrived at the Lady of Mercy. She wanted to know them more intimately, she had written, in order to find the right book to read to them in the last days of their lives. Her attempts at psychological analysis filled me with rage. I dashed to the bathroom, struck a match and set her journal to fire. I lit some lavender incense afterwards. Why was I hoping that she wouldn't notice? How could she not?
Something odd has been happening lately—when Sophie is inside the house, I cannot feel her presence. The clank of the saucer on the marble counter, the leak of the golden faucet, the shuffle of the oak blinds surprise me. It started soon after her silent treatment towards me for “doing something” to her journal. Now, whenever I run into her in the bedroom, or in the living room, my whole body shakes, as if I have intruded on a ghost.
After work, spontaneously, I stopped by a jewelry store and picked up a sterling silver bracelet with a red jasper.
I called her name many times today, but she never answered. Alone, in the living room, I took the silver out of the box and lifted it towards the light. It was then when I heard her footsteps. I turned around and saw her by the window. She looked different. Her face was pale and she appeared nervous, the way a young woman might feel in a dark alley, when she senses that a complete stranger is walking by.I put the bracelet back into my pocket. “Where were you?” I asked her.“I was here,” she said.“You've started to tell me lies, Sophie, haven't you?” I touched her shoulder, but she moved away and looked at my hand with suspicion.
It was that time in the afternoon when everything appears as if behind a red filter—my hands, the daybed, a dress she had forgotten on a chair. The apartment was silent but suddenly I started hearing a low song, a lullaby of sorts. It was clearly Sophie's voice, but I couldn't tell where it was coming from. I checked in the kitchen, bedroom, the library, and couldn't find her. The song persisted in undulating volume, a perfect background to our apartment, which, bathed in a red light, suddenly took on a seductive yet sinister aspect. That's how Odysseus must have felt, I thought, on his way to Ithaca when the sirens tried to tempt him. Yet I got up, put on my jacket, and sailed into the streets. I attempted to escape the crowds, even though what I longed for the most was to talk to someone. It was then when I discovered a new spot, a perfect place to hide, right behind a church, on the corner of MacDougal and Houston. Standing on it, my knees buckled. I leaned back and slid down the wall, realizing that I had forgotten everything at home—my phone, my keys. The only thing still left in my pocket was a matchbox.