Descant

This couple, then, entered, without their knowing it, an unendurable zone, years in the making. Most nights they came back to their apartment in Greenpoint from their office jobs, though he returned thirty minutes before her. Then they ate, often take-out, and watched TV, often the latest cutting-edge series. It’s not that they didn’t speak, but they weren’t exactly thrilled to hear each other. They created a stagey type of interplay, with a lessening of surprises, so that everything was gists and gestures—the pretense often indicating the expected. Seven years they’d logged, five together, and they moved to Greenpoint just when the cool people left it, bemoaning the fact that their few important friends, who all lived in Brooklyn, rarely made the ponderous trip via the homunculus of the subway, the G.

That summer he waited in dread, but he wasn’t ready to relinquish the life they shared, to believe another human had been made who understood him as well as her, who smelled as sweetly. These were the thirty sweatiest and most beautiful minutes of his day, as he sat quietly, listening to his neighbor’s intricate sound system which registered the thumping music for a videogame he’d been playing for nearly two years. What if she didn’t come home? What if this was finally the day she decided to leave, though most break-ups happened on the weekend due to working people’s greater proximity? What if she died? Why would a thirty-five-year-old have a will?

Masturbating didn’t help him, though the time would have been sufficient to fantasize, mount himself by hand, and yank at his preferred speed. He continued to do what he had done most of the day at work, often when no-one important was looking on—focus on his feed and watch what everyone else was doing with their lives. At least someone had fun. Though even there people had taken to proclaiming their dissatisfactions, at the expense of making fools of themselves. One old depressed friend, who they rarely saw anymore because their depressions made a mad misshapen triangle, had just posted a picture of a door lying on the grass in Prospect Park with the caption: I saw this door on the grass and thought there would be a better, kinder world behind it. I went to open it, but it was locked. Still, he continued to search for something, some testimony, alacrity, even grandeur or scorn. He became envious of people who lived alone.

Nietzsche once groused, If you aren’t attracted to someone’s deficiencies during the courting phase of a relationship, a proper base for the future would be lacking. For the last year, telling each other they were tired beat out I love you by a ratio of four-to-one. They still did things together: Governor’s Island in the summer, a bike ride, an art exhibit, a Scrabble party in Bushwick that happened less and less. The weekends were a special problem they solved by sleeping late and running errands alone, though she mostly preferred the latter course, leaving him little choice. So how did it work at all? They were each attracted to someone with similar interests, who lived in New York ironically, that is tendentiously, and who knew what attenuated meant. Yet they didn’t fall in love with what one another represented so much as they latched onto a means of escape from the lonely weekend hours of seeing couples suck face and those interminable bar nights enduring unhappy, borderline alcoholics who pretended to be charming, to have read deeper meanings into Dostoevsky.

That they were a sort of bookish intellectual couple, with the usual left leanings, was another cog in their disintegration—inhibited being the watchword for a retrograde course in their communication. They quietly read their books and rarely discussed them, an attitude breeding no learning and no desire, except to say they should check out a specific article in the weekend paper. She liked to read the great shorter works of sociology and philosophy, while he enjoyed contemporary non-fiction—books about food, the mind, and social injustice.

She liked to walk and as she walked to work alone she remembered how she used to walk alone almost all the time before she met him. She missed those days, when she freely decided what she would do and for how long—a strange magic she had taken for granted. She had a perpetual duck mouth and large brown glasses often settling low on her nose, making her small blue eyes smaller. She wouldn’t begin conversations with him but just react to what he said, like she played baby to his adult. Inside, things were quite different. We never take pictures together, she reminded herself, as though the wounded side of her brain would have forgotten. Of course you wouldn’t forget, the masochistic side said (she had more than two sides), I’m trying to make you angry so you move on now and don’t break out into violence later. Yes, she said sadly, We don’t take pictures because we don’t want to be reminded of these times, these years, our thirties, when seemingly normal people start to pull it together and realize life can be put in some order, just keep the money flowing. As she read of logic and societal changes atop the widening disappointment of her life, she tried to register the turmoil with a stony face, but a patch of pale skin on her right cheek turned more and more puce, her only tell.

By the afternoon of Saturday or Sunday, when they had usually been away from each other for hours, the draw to be around the familiar, however painful, rose up like a false alarm they nonetheless obeyed out of the annals of the co-dependency they unwittingly shared writing credit. They’d go to the small café near their house because it was small, not many other people could fit inside, let alone see them. The baristas, following the owner’s fashion, often played classical music, giving it a much different ambiance than most places, a kind of liberal library feel, where many patrons read printed material and electronic articles while Bach, Beethoven, and Dvořák graced their ears. On a Sunday in May, he arrived ahead of her and tried to read as a woman and her friend talked loudly, while the child of one ran about and banged its head against the glass door. He gave up giving them judgmental looks after ten minutes, though he’d been reading the same paragraph for five while his mind raced to the moment of his lady joining him and how it would of course be about the same as always. She’d buy her own coffee, even though he offered to get it, and then she’d immediately pull out her book and not pay much mind except for correcting him when he misidentified the composer of the old music they heard.

Just after she arrived, the two women with the baby left and he breathed freely, but in a disturbed way, thinking their loudness a CIA-sanctioned torture that would have brought her closer to him through their exchange of pissy looks—yes, they still had that brand of sangfroid. But then, too, the baby would be there, jeering at their agreed upon barrenness with all those messy/cute baby qualities, incapable of being inculcated by their selfish morality. As she stood in the line for her macchiato, he noted the jungle green shirt she wore—a favorite of his, though they’d stopped that talk a few years ago. She appeared even thinner, like she’d donated her hips to charity, and he tugged at his beard, staring angrily at the words in his book. She came back and slid out her pamphlet-sized discourse on belief. He broke open a chocolate bar he’d bought before he came to the café and offered it. She didn’t see it for thirty seconds or pretended not to, though he held it at eye level about four inches from her face. Then, slowly, she took it without looking up from her book. She bit into it, and said, Thank you, while chewing and reading. Maybe this was the moment, he thought. Begin it here. I’ve been doing some thinking… No, that triteness wasn’t worthy of them, no matter how fucked up they were, let them keep some dignity. Or he could say something more parabolic—a story of how they used to be and how it wasn’t feasible anymore. No, even with Mozart on, especially with Mozart on, no. They should confine their mess to the apartment and not contaminate Greenpoint any further. Then, for some minutes, he brightened. He actually liked what they did and how they could sit soundlessly reading next to each other, being with someone who was trusted enough not to require pointless gabbing, and he focused on her, happy and hopeful, until it easily vanished like the lie it was. He again became a dog in want of love or at least a look—acknowledgement. She could have given him that. No, it was all wrong. Trust could mean so little.

She knew when someone looked at her from fifty yards away in a crowded concert. Just do it, he gave you chocolate. No, she cried and the dull baseline pain sharpened and she struggled not to move in co-operation. He must not win. He must think it’s all his fault. Which was certainly not true, but he would continue beating up on himself, he carried that from childhood—she could not hold his hand forever. Why be too big to go to therapy? Start ending the suffering. She’d told him enough. What the hell? She’d not look. But her bookmark, which her thumb kept on the opposing page of the one she read, fell to the ground. Fuck. Now she’d have to pick it up, unless the woman of the couple who’d just sat down next to them would. That woman (who of course wouldn’t let her own boyfriend—cute—sit next to another woman) didn’t. She kept herself turned from her, but also askew from her man—pretzeled and holding an odd energy.

Perturbed, she leaned down to pick up the bookmark, which advertised an out-of-business bookstore in Connecticut she’d enjoyed in her youth. Then she continued reading, curling her lip at the sentence Not to be absolutely certain is, I think, one of the essential things in rationality, and as she continued reading she came to feel, and then to notice, that the couple at the next table, who hadn’t said anything but just sat with their drinks, were now looking at the two of them in a vague way. And she noticed that he, who chewed chocolate, was glancing pityingly across to a bulletin board on the wall which, beneath a sheet detailing  Persian lessons, displayed an ad for the Frick with a painting of a woman whose arch, sidelong glance mocked them all—even a person four hundred years dead could see how unhappy they were. But the other couple, maybe five years younger, continued to dwell as listlessly as before, until the woman suddenly pivoted and spoke to her man. You have no respect for me, she said in an even tone but a voice loud enough to be openly audible. 

As he replied, the speakers projected the slow movement of a symphony.

Oh yeah? See, the thing is I don’t respect liars.

I lied to protect you.

He bristled. To protect yourself—and you were still stupid enough to tell the wrong person and get caught.

Not here, she said, and she gestured.

On the street? So I don’t embarrass you? You started it.

You can’t help embarrassing me, you sad piece of shit. You live for it.

He laughed. Yes, I live for this. He grabbed the back of her neck and jerked her up. Let’s go, Cheri. Something I want to show you, Cheri. She cried feebly and grabbed at the front of his pants, but he brushed her hand away and whispered, fuckyou fuckyou fuckyou, as he propelled her out the door.

They sat stunned. They both glanced at the barista, who unwrinkled her forehead and went back to the dishes. Sick, he slowly wrapped up the uneaten chocolate.

They continued to look at their books, but now they didn’t read. She didn’t want to leave because she didn’t want to see the other couple flailing outside, no doubt marooned and not moving. After ten minutes of silence, he stood, knowing her well enough to know she wanted to go. In a reversal, she waited for him while he put on his coat more slowly, instead of rushing outside as usual. But that would be the last consideration she exercised before leaving the apartment for a friend’s house that night. Don’t go, some voice inside him wanted to cry out, just like in a movie or TV show. They hadn’t finished the fifth season of the show they had simultaneously judged as the fourth-best of all time. There was only one episode left. But he could do that alone. There was some kind of life in TV if everyone watched it.

About the author

Greg Gerke’s fiction and non-fiction has appeared in Tin House, The Kenyon Review Online, Film Quarterly, and others. A book of stories, My Brooklyn Writer Friend, is out from Queens Ferry Press.

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