That night that the piano man and I first slept together was the night we discovered the pleasure of talking aloud about murder. We met during my first month at university; as soon as I saw him I understood the comfort of his gaze and I think it took him a little longer to warm to me but the first time we shared a bed was a night in November that I remember as dry and cool and unusually dark. We were drunk from separate parties. And then there he was, with three songs to listen to and some ideas on the centres of things.
Since I was very small I would imagine men coming into my room at night to kill me. One of the first dreams I can remember was from when I still slept in my parents’ room, it was a blonde room with high ceilings, and my crib was painted with bright orange letters, which I remember from the photographs. A giant appeared, floppy blonde hair and bright orange skin in pastel colours, hovered over my bed.
In these fantasies it is always a man who opens the door to my bedroom, to my bathroom. With a knife or a gun or a bow and arrow. It is these two rooms. The worst scenario is the shooting one, because it would be so fast that I wouldn’t know what had happened. This is also why I avoid elevators.
On the steps leading up to the college library I tell Henry that out of everyone I know, it would make the most sense for me to end up as the murdered one. I’ve asked him to walk with me that spring night to convince me that men are not inherently evil. In my mind, my murder would galvanise my artistic friends into making some interesting work. I know Allegra would make something amazing, a collected work of our correspondences interspersed with her own writing, I guess a regular Joan Didion. When Henry runs for office, he could tell the story of my murder for some anecdote in favour of some hot-topic issue, which wouldn’t really matter to me since I would be murdered.
For George, my murder might just be a story to tell his grandchildren, a hefty biography about an insignificant president balanced on his knee. He will tell you that this president was actually integral to the survival of our nation, which will sound true coming from his mouth. His study is completely wooden and brown, with warm yellow lighting that grandchildren will remember as endearingly old-fashioned. I might have married her, he says. We talked about it once or twice. We were never together, but our marriage would have been a happy one, I think. I would leave her to her books and her suffering and she would maybe make toast in the mornings.
When I think about it this way, it would almost be a service to become murdered.
Henry is thinking. He replies, I always thought Allegra would have the most tragic death, which is true.
I have never really known anyone who is dead, or who is dying. Once my mother had cancer, and for a moment I thought she was dying, and in my horror there was a faint sense of excitement, a relief, that something novel would happen to me finally.
I have been less scared about death than someone deciding to give death to me. I suppose the fact of it being done to me frightens me the most. When pressed on this, it comes down to the matter of fairness; I wonder why this idea of my death as unfair is so much more repulsive than a natural, fair one. I struggle with receiving things.
That night in November, he spoke in his sleep and I waited happily for the morning to come so that we could talk again.
Piano had the talent of making everything seem small but the two of us. We went on long walks in the middle of the winter, arguing about whose coat was warmer, arguing about which girl we knew was dumber. It was him who taught me that things don’t simply happen to people; instead it is those who listen who can construct the happenings.
The listening. With him I hung on every word. He had a laugh that, when you caused it, could sustain you until lunchtime at least. Jesus. Some days we didn’t leave bed until 5pm, and then we would walk to the only deli in our college town for breakfast. I loved him so much that it frightened me that I didn’t love him more, I wondered if this was the threshold of the love that I could hold in my body. The shift was subtle, but one day I looked down at my hands and the world was fair again. He built the world up as fair.
Even now I find I am still learning to listen.
When I was younger I lived alone in the city for a time to see if I could. In my neighbourhood, far uptown, I could hear gunshots most weekends. In that time I was not scared, only interested. In cities like this people die horrible deaths every day, but their significance is reduced by the numbers.
Brooklyn in August I’m led back to the apartment of a man 12 years older than me. I tell him I am a year older than I really am. He tells me he would cut his hair or quit his job if I ask him nicely. When he hunches over the doorknob to open it for us, I am briefly certain I will meet my end there, in that room, in that heat. The certainty calms me down. This is it, I understand, and I stare into the back of my killer fumbling with the keys. Instead we drink in the bathroom, where there is air conditioning, and the next morning I ride the long train home alone. I stretch my legs to fill the space in the subway car.
In fact I have these certainties quite often. Waiting for the subway, I have a certainty that someone will come up behind me at the same moment that the train approaches.
Sometimes I am so certain that these things will happen that I decide to do them myself. This, too, is a certainty. I call these instances the dizziness.
This old man, whose apartment I went back to frequently for a time, was often frustrated with me that I wouldn’t talk about dying with him. I said I would consider it when it was happening to me. It is happening to you, he said.
It’s said that sex and death are the two things that renew life over and over again. What I didn’t know was that death, talking about it with Piano, would lead to sex, would lead to more talking about it. He wanted to know if we eat to live or the other way around and the answer seemed obvious.
An afternoon at the Guggenheim. I walk all the way to the top, considering all of the artists’ history neglected as the curators of the exhibit intended me to, and then I feel stupid for falling for the museum’s narrative to begin with.
Once I reach the final rung of the spiral staircase I look down. The floor looks so inviting, so white and clean, people line the sides of the circular building, there is a place down there just for me, my hands start to sweat. There is a neatness to this. My own will, written in my notebook months before, is throbbing. I am mostly asleep but I remember this. All my muscles tense, I look down, I look straight ahead. I think of the janitors and step away from the railing.
The dizziness is a reminder of the unbearable beauty of the world. After I leave Piano, I take a walk on our path another time, early in the morning. I feel that burning cold. I have never walked there alone; all the woman friends I have have warned me against it. The leaves are so bursting and green and everything is so big and delightful and I can hardly stand to blink. I beat my fists upon a root. I start to run.
It became much worse in the summer. I fell into a job in the district attorney’s office in the same district where I lived. The murders, all the files deemed too violent for public release, became my daily work. I became too afraid to bathe if no one else was home. The man who slashed the medical student’s throat in the library, the one who knocked on the door for a glass of water and drowned a pregnant woman and her two children in a bubble bath one after the other, they were all there with me when I woke up in the night, afraid of the lamp I had left on in the corner of my bedroom.
The same summer, disaster rolled off of me. My sister was hospitalized for a week. A friend my age became very sick, a thing I didn’t think possible. Piano stopped calling; everybody stopped calling. Every night I touched all the corners of my twin sized bed. Over and over I recited a line from a film I had watched for a class months before— “women are always alone”, and it didn’t necessarily bother me. I was too tired to answer any messages, so tired. But it felt like the same kind of tired you had after a day in the sun, a pleasant, detached weariness. My life unrolled in front of me as a story, I could not (or didn’t care to) pick up the fragments.
A woman with muslin wrapped around her knuckles asks me to read the book to her on the train. All of a sudden I can read aloud with fluency (typically I am not a good reader) and we are suspended in a moment of listening that feels like recognition until I get off the train and she follows me home.
On the last day of summer, the chief homicide detective told me that the moment she stepped over the body of a 4-year old girl to reach the body of her mother in a house full of death, she knew that anyone was capable of doing anything.
I asked her if she ever got scared. This was the question tugging on the back of my neck for the entire time I worked in that office. Glancing into the offices, I looked at each person and wondered if they were afraid. She paused and looked up.
On the bus home from New York one day in January a friend turned to me with the story of a man who was decapitated on a Greyhound bus in Canada. We trade these things, all of us, back and forth like they are nothing. My fingers were so cold that day in Port Authority. The coldness, the same fiery cold. The stories stack up, and interrupt one another, and all at once they lose meaning. How to comprehend this. The bodies become words.
Elliott, a new friend from university, and I sat in his car, waiting for the beach to open. I told him about my job, how I had been poring over the footage of a murder trial from 15 years ago in the town over. A teenager, the hired help, had killed a baby by shaking him. I just worry that I could do that so easily, I told him. Like it’s so easy to get frustrated by kids and it’s just one second and you kill it. He looked at me sideways and laughed, and I felt a sinking feeling pulling at me, somewhere behind my ribcage. He asks me if I even want to have children. When he pauses after my reply, I brace myself. Obviously I don’t know what it’s like to give birth, or to be a woman, he says. But I just don’t think I would ever do that.
When I was young and I couldn’t sleep I would often go on walks. Opening the green screen door carefully, I let myself out in my pyjamas and boots and looped around my neighbourhood, the chapel on the corner, the house where my friend from grade school lived. In my backyard, I would lie down on the grass and feel the blades tickle my back.
We laid together the morning I left. He was going abroad for the next year, as college students do, and I knew this but it just felt like words and space. The orange bedspread the same colour as the inside of my eyelids, the sun on the picture frames in the window sill. The night before we had also laid together, after the party on a stranger’s lawn. Biology could not contain us, is what we said. That is all it takes: the listening deafens, the certainty comes undone.
To speak this plainly reduces, but I must make myself clear: I am so afraid all of the time. The fear gives way to the sadness. The narrative to this eludes me. The bodies become words, the cold takes over. I am not listening closely. The words line the empty space. I don’t have the answers that I want. I fear.
Now I think about all the people who have finished their lives like this, lying on their backs at night. All the people on their backs in the grass, feeling the itch of the blades, feeling the weak pulsing in their chest, feeling the surprise of blood. Feeling their hands, their eyes in their heads. How wonderful and strange it is to lie like this. How wonderful the sky tonight.