I started seeing through things, I started seeing through the city. Beneath the heavy brick facades of old urban factories I could see the steel cages, their ancient strength, their ugliness. Old women on the train, I could see right through their skin to the pulpy balloons of soft muscle around their mouths, the tiny veins that lived there, straining like seams. There was a division there, in those things I could suddenly see. The city was teaching me the difference between the things that would last, would stand for years when the world stripped away excess, and the things that would be buried and disappear. In architecture, I saw eternity. In old women, I saw a tightness and a fear. In the set of their mouths, the purse of their lips, I saw that they knew.
I’d run away to this city before, spent years biting my fingernails on brownstone stoops, lighting my cigarettes in the desecrated altars of telephone booths, always harboring a wild, satisfied joy, a secret assurance that I had come to the right place.
I’d return every time to the old rooftops, climbing fire escapes, passing through the bright patch lit and warmed by new people, new families, face I didn’t recognize. I'd think of the old people, the old families, who I’d known and loved in a removed way, the way you love the cat at your corner bodega, never thinking of it except when it slips between your feet, pressing you with unexpected affection. I mourned their disappearance as I passed the windows, thinking sadly that the city had recycled them, painted over them. I was aware in those moments of a guiltless certainty that when I hoisted myself over the roof’s chipped cornice, and saw the skyline and that eternal pale sky that steamed from it, beautiful and low-slung, every light and shadow would nod to me, and I to them. I was sure that my body would form as integral a part of the roofscape as any disused chimney or grimy skylight.
Subway turnstiles were like the press of that bodega cat, a quiet and quick embrace, and the underground tunnels, scarred with filth, were the beads of a well-handled rosary, smooth and easy and predestined. I was never lost, I was always smiling a secret smile.
But this time was different—I’d arrived in a thunderstorm with a trash bag full of my things. It was beaded with rain and gave off a strange subterranean smell, like a potato growing blind little spuds. Mohamed had left sheets on the couch for me, in the room that was mine when I wanted it. There was a postcard tacked to the far wall, a famous Austrian artist’s self-portrait. He’d drawn himself naked, without hands. Besides the handless painter, the couch, and my vegetal trash bag lying swollen on the floor, the room was empty. Mo kept it like that when I was away. He liked to say that there was a girl-shaped hole in his home. I loved that, the idea that the faded old couch held an imprint of my body, a patient ghost of me, that I could settle into, that I could bring to life with the warmth of my hands, the raspy breath of my hair.
But that night, alone in the apartment, feeling carefully in the dark for the me-shaped space carved out of the city, I was afraid. I watched the shadow of the rain on the windowpane speckle the artist’s face and wasted torso with tears that shone, contained and precise, harboring little hearts of light whenever a car drove past. I imagined that I could see through the plaster of the walls to the wooden frame, sloppily dressed with gauzy insulation and rot. I imagined that I could see down through the floors, past the tense, tight embrace of the junky couple who lived in the basement, to the old earth of the city’s foundations, unturned and untilled, sown with lost things.
Mo had been my kite-string, my good luck charm since our dreamy, awkward adolescence. People sometimes asked if we were siblings, recognizing something in the path of our gazes, the arc of our gestures, some twin thing we’d taught each other over many years. He was the sort of person who ate plums with a knife, who shined his shoes, sitting casually with knees spread apart, rubbing away with the rag and carrying on a conversation as though it were a perfectly natural thing, to shine your shoes so that other people might see them. When we’d first run away to the city, we’d arrived hand in hand.
He’d stayed, anchored comfortably by things as mundane as his job at the public library, and as sublime as the way the sun looked laid on the streets in the late afternoon, like oil, swirling murkily with ribbons of subtle color. He was happy, he filled the apartment with small things people had left in the library’s lost and found. A velvet umbrella, a framed Polaroid of a fishing pier, a bottle opener shaped like an Aztec man in a headdress. He grew plants in bottles, like magic. You could see their roots suspended there in perfect clarity, growing imperceptibly, threaded together in circular shapes. It unsettled me a little, how he built a life for himself, how he lived, really lived, and didn't feel the itch and sting of a new idea, a train ticket, a trash bag of books and sweaters rolled together.
This was part of the reason I still stung to leave sometimes, the age-old ache of a friend choosing a different path. I felt like a highwayman whose companion had decided one day to get a stagecoach of his own, live in town, become a respectable banker. I felt the orientation of the metaphorical sunset shift—I rode off into it, but he moved farther away, he moved forward.
That was part of it, but it wasn’t the whole reason that I left sometimes, for weeks or months. I learned to go away, I learned to speak other languages with a child’s syntax—hopeful and logical. I found another city on the same longitude line, in the other hemisphere, and I stayed there a long time. I bought myself furniture, I grew a spider plant in a bottle, I translated poetry and was paid in cash. My syntax smoothed itself, I dreamt with a new tongue. But in the end I knew I couldn’t stay, it wasn’t my home.
I’d watched other women chase lovers who were pulling away from them. I knew the way they frenetically squirreled away their mania, the way they smiled brightly, stood with exaggerated relaxation, clenched their fingers in their pockets. I knew the poses of forced happiness, forced aloofness, forced serendipity. They manipulated their bodies the way art students manipulate a wooden doll and pencil a human form over it. They shaded in their own flesh, the smudges beneath their own eyes. I understood the nature of their need, but swore I would never live that way, never stay up late warming and rewarming an abandoned dinner, an abandoned home.
But I had never been pulled away from like that, no one had extricated themselves from me stealthily. It was a strictly cultivated piece of my nature—I did not smother people, I did not climb them and cling and erode their brickwork. Rather, people did that to me. Sometimes during sex I felt like a lover was trying to bottle me, trap me beneath a glass and let the air cycle through me and turn to poison.
The southern city I’d run to had pushed me away a little, at first. The way old women on the bus could somehow tell that I didn’t speak their language, the way they stepped around me on the street, not mistrusting but just preemptively exasperated with the way I was—like a child in a power outage, feeling along the walls, wide-eyed but unseeing. It had mislead me with the way its grid melted and warped along the wider avenues and by the river, the way streets curled retroflexively back on themselves, tongues producing sounds I couldn’t parse. But this was all flirtation, all a test. Eventually it began to look for me, even expect me, to be there in it, living. At the cafe on the corner, the old waiter knew what I wanted before I sat down. People stopped asking me to repeat myself, the old women blundered past me, knocking me with their handbags. And when I left, it mourned me. My neighbor watched me draw the spider plant from its bottle and plant it in the courtyard. She rushed down to tell me that she couldn’t stand goodbyes, and when the time came we should just say, “I’ll see you soon,” and nod to each other. And so we did.
Now, though, back in the place that had watched me flower a little, watched me branch and grow tough at the roots, watched me weather seasons, I felt panicked. I began to recognize signs of clinging in myself, signs of desperation. Women crying in over-bright bar bathrooms smiled at me, seeing my red eyes, the same muted mania in my face. I stormed out of these places, these bright places. I ordered another drink, I toasted to dependence on nothing, to the city’s cold love. I laughed with Mo, called these women and these moments ridiculous. But sometimes I could tell that he’d stopped laughing a second before I had, that he’d given the shadows under my eyes a quick glance, trying to gauge if I was sick, spurned.
Sometimes there was no doubt. I got lost in familiar neighborhoods and pretended to myself that I was just walking aimlessly, that I’d meant to be late, to take my time passing under the trees, tripping over the cobblestones. I went looking for old bookstores, old cafes, and they were boarded up, or worse, much changed, and the proprietors didn't recognize me. I went seeking out statues and fountains in the enormous park at the city’s heart, and when I found them, they were uglier than I’d remembered, features blunter, water murkier. The couch in my room was being devoured by its own rusty springs, as though a parasite had laid its eggs inside and its coiled children were coming cruelly into the world. They stabbed at me in the middle of the night. The place that had always fit my body was shifting, warping. My neck was stiff, my arms were scratched. I made old mistakes again, I started to cry in public.
Mo was worried. I felt like I could hear him listening late at night for some clue in the way I was silent on the other side of the wall. In recent years he’d begun to see my impulse to run as unhealthy. He’d begun to think of a real life as one that involved sleeping on a bed, working in a library, reading literary biographies on the weekends, one cigarette a day, listening to conversations on the train, asking the girl at the farmers’ market to dinner, researching doctoral programs in the greater metropolitan area, raw milk and shade-grown coffee, and spending more time on the front page than the crossword. I sobbed that he was outgrowing me. He gently suggested that maybe I was outgrowing myself, that maybe I should seek a professional to unspool my childhood, my mother, my anxiety, draw them out of my brain like ticker tape or rolls of seismograph jitter, and read the secret messages written there.
I’d made a prison for myself out of all of my old adventures. There was no real place to go to start over, because I’d used them all as safe harbors, and now they were perverted. I had made too many homes, or too few.
The man at the corner bodega spoke the language I’d learned. We greeted each other in the familiar form while he rang up my eggs and dish soap and beer. He was bursting with the words, was so happy to share them with me, but my accent sounded thick, swollen, and I could only answer yes and no and perhaps. He didn’t stop greeting me but eventually he stopped telling me about his son, his customers, his calm and tireless optimism.
It was falling away from, me, that city in the south, that other language. I was shedding it, big scales of memory falling away like flakes of paint. Adjectives like tiny brown leaves and verbs like soft pungent fruit, rotting before they hit the ground, inedible. I overheard people speaking it sometimes, quietly, behind me on a crowded train or floors below me in concrete stairwells. It sounded as though the words were bleeding together, I couldn't discern where one ended and another began. It sounded as though they were being chopped up and pulped, as though in a blender. The sentences sounded sticky, it made my head hurt. I couldn’t understand it. I labored through books I myself had translated months before, pausing to consult the dictionary. The portrait of the handless artist watched over me as I struggled. His ribs and his penis were like blots of blood, smeared wetly, and he held out his arm, monstrously long and bent horribly at the elbow, championing his lack. He scowled or howled at me, lips parted. I felt a terrible compulsion to press my mouth against his, seal off his face, scaled down to the size of a thumbprint, to suffocate him with my hot breath.
Instead, I made loaves of bread, coaxing them to rise from their glass coffins in the gas oven, burning the pads of my fingers on their crusty, uneven spines. I painted the bathroom, ripping scabs of masking tape from the baseboards and dripping Aquarius Blue along the curve of the bathtub. I asked Mo to bring me some cassettes from the library, the kind that taught you a new language by speaking to you slowly and patiently and then lapsing into a moment’s quiet whirring, expecting you to repeat the sounds they’d pronounced so artificially. I asked for a language that bore no resemblance to anything I’d ever heard, a language with a cluttered alphabet that looked like a small city of squat houses lined up neatly in a desert, each letter curled at the bottom to protect against a chilling southern wind.
Mo was happier, more talkative. He stopped looking so closely at the hollowed bases of my eyes. He took me to meet the girl at the farmers’ market. She took my hand and pressed it between her large, cold ones. They felt like leaves of kale. In bars I slipped quickly past the fluorescent-lit bathroom mirrors where clusters of women rubbed their cheeks slowly, ritualistically, with cold water. I found a new way to run away. It meant I showered in the dark with my eyes closed, double blind, breathing in the smell of new paint deeply, measuredly. I bought a reproduction of a famous painting. It was just a square of color that grew alternately richer and fainter. The artist had reportedly instructed viewers to stand less than two feet from the painting while looking at it, in order to forget their individuality and transcend the messy singular scrawl of their souls. I tacked it over the handless artist. When I ran my hand over the deepest patch of color, I could feel the angry corners of the postcard there, but I couldn't see through the new layer. I ignored the city when it coyly revealed its bones to me, I looked away, up at the sky, striving to transcend the messy singular scrawl of my own soul.
I thought sometimes inadvertently of the courtyard garden where I’d planted my spider plant, smoothing the earth like a sheet, like making a bed. I wondered whether it’d been uprooted by violent summer rains, or crushed by the meteor crash of a stray soccer ball. I wondered whether it had grown, whether the roots had lost the curled shape imposed on them by the bottle, whether they had thickened and spread like a palm opening to receive something. I’d shredded a postcard into the hole I’d dug for it, thinking perhaps that it would break down the scraps, turn them to earth. It was a postcard from a friend I’d met on one of my shorter grand tours, someone I’d known for a few weeks. I’d ripped through the bleary seascape on the front, the gummy stamps piled in the top right corner. I’d pressed it into the moist earth, smearing the ink, the clumsily copied foreign symbols that, conjoined, were the names of the street and city where I felt safe, where I had mistakenly begun to feel as though I might be home.
One night, the first cold night of the season, the magnificent suspension bridge that split the city collapsed. I was in the bodega, on my hands and knees, trying to draw the cat out from behind the canned chickpeas. I imagined later that there had been some kind of tremor in the linoleum tile, some sound in my head like the snapping of a thick steel cable. I stood behind the counter with the owner and his son, watching the news on the television he kept balanced on the radiator. Over and over we watched the bridge, named for the neighborhood that anchored it, ripple and ripple like something alive, almost graceful, lithe, like a ribbon. Over and over we watched it ripple gracefully and lithely, like a ribbon, and then fall with a completely different type of motion, large chunks breaking from the bottom in sheets. Rather than whipping itself into the water like a live snake, it just disappeared, square by square. The two great arches buckled, and slid apart, as though they were being decapitated. Cars fell like raindrops into the water. Tiny circular waves rose around each one and sealed themselves over it. A train fell with the piece of bridge beneath it, not alone in the air but still supported, still on the tracks, perhaps. The television didn't show it hitting the water, but it seemed as though it might have slipping in car by car, little ducklings following one another.
I tried hard to remember what train Mo took home from the library, whether or not it crossed the bridge. I could see in my memory the glowing letter it wore on its face, but something was wrong with it, it was warped somehow, or moving, and I couldn't put a name to it.
The mayor came on and started to speak slowly and emphatically. He spoke in the language I’d known my whole life. I couldn’t understand a word. His voice was familiar, parodied often on late-night TV, but the sounds were unintelligible. I watched his mouth, trying to read the words there, but it looked like the handless artist’s mouth, inscrutable and dark.
I asked the bodega owner to tell me what the mayor was saying, in the other language, the language I’d forgotten. The words fell out easily, and I heard them as I'd heard them before, after months in the south. Meaning first, and then the sound, peripheral, just clothing they were wearing over their naked significance. The bodega man and his son looked at me. “He says to pray.”
I prayed. I prayed that other people had taken Mo's place in the river. I prayed that he was still sorting microfiche at the library, that he’d met the girl from the farmers’ market for dinner, that he was holding her hand in a restaurant. I prayed to go back in time, to go meet him at the library, to take the train home together, and if the bridge shuddered beneath us, to feel it at the same time. I prayed to be where he was, in his subterranean office or between him and the girl from the farmers’ market on a date, quietly ripping bread at some table meant for two people.
The bridge looked like the city’s innards, like that secret underbelly, scaly and dizzying. I saw in it the collapsing library, great marble columns peeling like fruit. I saw in it the collapsing tenements, story after story sliding off of the one beneath it, fire-escapes detaching themselves and folding neatly like accordion bellows. I couldn’t discern between the footage on the television and the images in my own mind. I couldn’t tell if the city was ending or if I was only predicting it. I’d had nightmares like this, flames and rubble, millions of people streaming through the underwater tunnels to the next state, hollow-eyed like torture victims, carrying their children.
Outside, everything was still standing. The sky was pale, not like morning but like rain. It made the architecture look harsh and eternal, each brick and doorway sharp, as though outlined in black, as though inked on vellum. I walked home slowly, pausing to lean my forehead against the cool glass of the darkened hair salon. I saw my reflection leaning up to me, I saw her eyes, I saw that she had been crying.
I sat on the stoop. The sky changed slowly into a breathy, smoky blue that seemed to be coming from directly above me, as though the sun were not just below the horizon but hurtling through space like a comet toward daylight, falling through time from somewhere above in the suffocating galactic heavens.
I sat on the stoop, and imagined or prayed that in a moment Mo would open the door behind me and say that he had been worried sick. The silence sounded exactly like the moment before the lock slid back. I waited. I sat on the stoop and watched the corner, imagining or praying that at any moment Mo would turn onto the street. I could picture his stride perfectly, the way his shoulders would be slumped in casual exhaustion, the way his shoes would reflect the pre-dawn. The stillness looked exactly like the moment before a figure turns the corner. I waited. Time felt like a story I’d read before, a long time ago. In a moment he would open the door. In a moment he would turn the corner. Then we would go inside, to the place that was our home, to the place where we lived together.
Susannah Maltz was born and raised in West Philadelphia. She likes to write, but not about herself. She lives in Brooklyn, studies linguistics, and spends a lot of time overcooking simple foods and eating her mistakes.