NONFICTION – When the Puzzle Stopped Being a Puzzle by Marie Sabatino


It was The Author Who Shall Remain Nameless. The guy with all those raw and real and all too painfully human stories. The guy who was beloved by NPR and their This American Life series. The guy I was determined to reach out to and know more of in some way. I had emailed The Author Who Shall Remain Nameless to invite him to share work at the Lit Crawl show in Manhattan. No matter that he was essentially nowhere near New York and split his time between Chicago and San Francisco. He got back to me and said that he couldn’t make it that day because he was screening his new film at this festival out in Cleveland. Instead, he told me he’d be in New York on October 15th promoting the release of his latest book that was out in paperback and that he’d love to meet in person.

I guess you could say that’s where it all started. When I first picked up the book from The Author Who Shall Remain Nameless and took in all of its perfectly simple and elegant words, it seemed as if the stories were being told from a best friend or a long-time lover, every word as believable as the sun or the sky. So, as with the many other experiences of passion or adoration or even fascination over the years in my life, the art was always always always where it all began.

I marked the book release party information in my calendar when we first connected nearly two months ago. Now, here it was: October 15th. Only a few days away. But life twisted and turned like an epileptic man with full blown seizures in those long days in between. There was a father, my father, and a newly emerged cancer diagnosis. There was a new guy after nobody new for a long long time, his name was Mitch, who dropped into my life like a cruel and lovely little joke that seemed to scream out at me like from a child’s game, “Ready or nohtttttt, here I commmmeeeee….” There was a mother sleeping with me in my bed, painful as the concrete walk outside, bussing it back and forth from my cramped, little studio on Allen Street to the majestic lobbies and multi-winged waiting-rooms of Memorial Sloane-Kettering on York and 68th Street.

Dad was scheduled to be there at 6am to prep for surgery on that pitch-black Friday morning of October 11th. The doctor called me and my family in from the waiting room nearly eight hours later. She said everything went remarkably well and that my mother, my brother, and I could see my father in about an hour. Our eyes met one another at the same time and you could see that we all began to breathe evenly again, our chests moving in and moving out, reminding us that everything was going to be all right once more. Well, at least, for the moment. This here, and this now.

And that was exactly how Mitch liked to think. Only the here, only the now. Then, when he left and was gone, he seemed to go somewhere far away, a place I wasn’t quite sure I could ever reach. Each one of us would slowly slip back into a world of alarm clocks, and dirty laundry, dozens of emails, and unpaid bills, frozen pizzas, the sounds of sirens in the middle of the night, a forgotten umbrella, and the rain pouring down outside, or sitting alone in agony over a laptop. He would disappear into a world that was not mine, and I would disappear into one that was not his.

Then just when I started to forget about his hands, or his scent, or the way that he called me pretty lady, or that moment of me slipping away somewhere with him, he would call me, and tell me that he needed to see me. That he needed to see me right away. That he was outside my building and needed me to let him inside. No matter what I was doing, or who I was with, whether I was even home or not. He seemed to have this belief that it was all very simple when it came down to him. The answer must always be YES.

The last time he called me without warning was the night I went to hear The Author Who Shall Remain Nameless. I had made plans to meet him after his reading at PowerHouse bookstore out in DUMBO, while my father lay in a hospital bed recovering from the surgery where they cut out six inches of his intestine, one third of his stomach, and a tumor that was the size of a lime. There was an open-bar at PowerHouse that night. Which didn’t ever seem to work out very well for me. You see, I never stopped at one or two drinks when the pour was free and when I need not think about supply or cost. By plastic cup number four, the reading ended and a line formed where The Author Who Shall Remain Nameless began. It seemed to have no end in sight. I waited about ten minutes for the line to get shorter, but instead it grew longer and longer as the night passed. I texted him that my friend needed to leave and we couldn’t wait anymore. Then I added that he could text me later on if he ended up on the Lower East Side. He texted me right back to keep my phone on late.

I asked myself the same question I always asked myself in these situations: What in goddamned hell was I fucking doing now??!

It took me and my friend about 20 minutes to find the F train on York Street in Brooklyn even though it was only two blocks away from the bookstore. She took weird pictures of me screaming and bellowing with laughter at the moon with the Manhattan Bridge as a back-drop. As was often the case on these sorts of nights, I felt fantastically monstrous and glorious all at once. As if I could die tomorrow and would feel that it was a life well-lived, answering only to my whims, every action springing of my own volition, yet at the expense of being, mostly, well—alone.

So on that Tuesday evening of October at 10:30pm as my fingers were furiously texting back The Author Who Shall Remain Nameless, Mitch called me. I immediately dropped the phone, as if the person calling on the other end would sense that I was up to no lousy good. I knew that I could remain motionless, continue to ignore the ringing, the chance of maybe something worthwhile, instead of waiting for the wanderer passing through town, and passing through my life, in the middle of the night. I hadn’t pressed send yet, it wasn’t too late.

I experienced a brief sense of shock when I found myself not doing the thing I was prone to doing: I said no to the fleeting, and the unknown. And said yes to possibility.

I slid my finger across the screen to answer his call. When I first heard Mitch’s voice, I wanted to tell him that I’d been keeping things from him, that I’d had far too many secrets, that I was a stupid, filthy, lying woman, but, instead, I said: “Yeah—yes, come over.”

I texted The Author Who Shall Remain Nameless that I wasn’t going to be able to have a late night. I never heard back from him after that. And judging by the never-ending line leading up to him at the bookstore, there was no doubt that he’d already wandered into someone else’s life.

When Mitch got to my apartment, I was part terribly excited, part insanely terrified. I wanted to tell him all the good news. I didn’t know where to begin so I just started from the beginning….. about the contact with The Author Who Shall Remain Nameless two months ago, and the plans to meet tonight, the texting back and forth, and then finally not hitting send, the answering of the call, and of course, all this—us, here, and now.

And the whole time I was sitting there waiting for that ridiculous smile that lovers liked to make to one another, I noticed his face, his eyes, and his mouth… they all seemed to be saying something else. Whatever the exact opposite of that ridiculous smile would be, in fact. No, no, no—not sadness, nor regret, nor even disappointment, really. It was…… the stupid look of puzzlement. Was that even a word? Well, hell. I suppose if it wasn’t, his face made it so now.

I asked Mitch why he was being so quiet.

And that was when the puzzle stopped being a puzzle.

Uhmm, wow. Well I’m glad that you’re being honest with me about all this,” was how he started things. Then he paused. And I knew that the pause and the use of words like “glad” and “honest” was never a sign of any good to come.

Then, perhaps, out of a need to appear warm and genuine, he took one of my hands into his own. And went on: “Listen, I don’t want to tell you what to do. If you wanna be with this guy, you should be with this guy.”

I slid my hand out of his. “So then what the hell are we doing? Why are we even here?”

“We’re just getting to know each other, aren’t we?”

I didn’t say anything.

“What are you feeling,” he asked me. I hated that fucking question. I thought it was something that only teachers and therapists asked. And I was certainly in no mood to be anyone’s dumb, little student or helpless patient.

“Clarity,” was the only thing I could think to say back.

“That’s not a feeling,” he reminded me.

“That’s how I’m feeling,” I told him. “That’s all I’m feeling right now. Clarity.

He put his hand on my face. “What do you want? What is it that you want from us?” he asked me. And, for a second, I thought that he meant it. That he really wanted to know.

“I want you to leave,” came out of my mouth, before my mind had any say in the matter.

And then his hand stopped putting itself on my face.

He got up and grabbed his jacket and threw it on. Made lots of noise while he did this, the way men liked to do when they were pissed off about something. You know, the moving fast, and moving hard. Bumping into furniture. That sort of thing. His movement became more deliberate. He was just a few seconds away from the door. And his forehead was pointing like a gun into the ground. I wanted him to scream, and to kick, and to do some harm because, for me, doing nothing was more horrible, was always far, far worse.

“Don’t leave,” I said to him from the bed. I leaned up and grabbed the edge of his fingers and pulled him toward me.

He fell into the bed with me, then he fell inside of me. And fell into me some more.

My phone vibrated. Then it lit up too, like a flickering star that you can sort of see and take

in for a brief moment, but then gets lost in the dizzying, New York City sky.

Mitch rolled off of me, but there was still the crushing weight of the minutes and the hours and the passing night. He flung his arms around my shoulders and buried his face in my neck. I wound my arms tightly around his back and his chest, felt his heart hammering into mine, all the while knowing the only thing that I was really holding on to…. was the last time.


Marie Sabatino has been writing stories since she was a little girl. She has been telling stories all over New York City for the last ten years at venues like the Lit Crawl in Brooklyn and Manhattan, The National Arts Club, Word Bookstore, Galapagos Art Space, KGB Bar, Cornelia Street Café, Happy Ending Lounge and the Brooklyn Book Festival. She has also been a feature at venues in London and Dublin. You can find her work in publications like Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, Word Riot, Fluence Magazine and Freerange Nonfiction, among other places. Her most recent story was published in the Mondays are Murder series from Akashic Books.

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