nicholas clemente — martin & hannah (excerpt)
Cracked sidewalks, blown trash, mailbox doors open and banging to and fro on house porches. Two-family wooden, three-family brick. Maybe some families left, but who knows for how long. Lights on at Guy's place but no response from the buzzer. Reaching through the bars, tapping at the window. Guy behind the curtains with a baseball bat, setting it down, moving to open the door.
"Isaac? What are you doing here?"
"I don't know."
Guy staring, hesitating, unsure if he's allowed to have visitors at this hour. Then stepping aside, eager to conceal his hesitation: "Come on. Come in. It's freezing out there."
Apartment all new inside: shining floors, track lighting, granite countertops. Neighborhood crumbling outside, world crumbling beyond, but the apartment renovated to prevent with caryatid fury the total collapse of all. Heather on the couch in front of a TV, the latest in high definition, the on-screen figures glass-eyed and uncanny, puppeted stiffly from without: technology designed to depict new conditions of monstrosity which it itself had helped to bring about.
Greeting Heather briefly, wordlessly, following Guy to the refrigerator: "Topher told me to tell you he thinks you're a shill and a narc."
"A stooge and a fed."
Guy producing two beers, wrestling them free of their plastic webbing: "You can tell Topher I don't give a shit what he thinks. Tell him I don't take life advice from drug dealers and acid casualties."
Cat jumping to the counter, hand height for petting, sniffing fingers for scents of strange cats or familiar cats. Ears perking up at the hiss of air escaping aluminum. Liquid cold and yellow-gold hidden in the damp freshness of the canister: cold beer on cold lips, flat and tasteless. Walking back to the living room, taking a seat on the couch. Heather pausing the program, saying nothing. Guy speaking up:
"Cordelia's been looking for you. She's been texting me all night."
Phone tossed on the coffee table like a folded hand of cards: "Battery's dead."
"I think she's worried about you. Especially with your new shall-we-say line of work."
"I'm sure she has better things to worry about than me right now."
Heather finally coming to life: flipping fragrant brown hair, looking sidelong up and down:
"Do you always get jealous of Cordelia's boyfriends?"
"I don't know. Cordelia's never had a boyfriend before. And I'm not jealous."
"And of course you never get lonely."
"You're too smart for that. You're too manly."
"No. It's not that."
"You don't need love, or attention, or any human affection whatsoever. That's too bourgeois for you."
"No. I'm not acting from a perspective of class warfare. It's just not necessary for the survival of the organism."
Heather scoffing, exasperated already: "So dramatic."
Empty can raised in mock salute: "Scatter my ashes on Ashland Avenue."
"So you don't love her except you've already slept with her before."
"Not as far as you know. I guess Guy's been filling you in on the details."
Guy quick to speak up: "She didn't mean anything by it, Isaac."
"No. Of course not."
Guy smiling broadly, acting natural, soundlessly rattling his empty can: "Get you another?"
Mouth dry, eyes burning, heart throbbing, head pounding. Dawn somewhere very far ahead or very far behind; a warm bed all the way at the other end of the city.
Moving again to the neutral territory of the kitchen. Pressing palms into eye sockets, fighting empty-stomach nausea. Not talking, hardly even drinking. Guy leaning in with concern or curiosity on his face.
"What's up with you, man? You look like shit. Heather didn't even want to let you in."
"She wouldn't want to let me in anyway." Pressing into the eyes again, not to relieve pressure but to obscure the vision. "What time is it?"
Guy stepping aside to check the clock on the stove. Green light blinking: 00:00.
"It's late. Let me give you a ride home."
"I can't crash here?"
"No. We're not in college anymore, Isaac."
"I don't want to go home."
"You should've thought about that before you moved in with Topher."
"I've told you before. I don't know anyone else."
"Then get a girlfriend. What do you want me to tell you."
"It's not that easy."
"Yes it is." Stepping forward, snatching the beer away.
"I'm not done with that."
"Yes you are. Let's go."
Doors auto-locking as the car pulls out, high tech headlights painting the street an icy blue. Vents blowing cold air onto hard leather. No use asking for a cigarette because Guy doesn't even smoke anymore.
"You can't keep living like this, Isaac. I'm not sure if I like it when you show up at my place strung out and incoherent in the middle of the night."
"You mean Heather doesn't."
"You know what I mean."
"I'm not even on anything. I'm clean. I've always been."
"That doesn't mean you're not strung out and incoherent. You look like shit."
"I know. You said that already."
Conversation ceasing at a red light. Gang of young men stalking through the crosswalk, a few of them peering into the windshield. Light turning green, held breath expelled, conversation unfolding once again.
"I just don't see how you do it."
Guy staring straight ahead, unengaged: "Do what."
"I don't know." Gesturing vaguely at the dash. "This."
"Driving you home?"
"No. Just going to work. Living with Heather. Living like nothing's wrong."
"Is anything wrong?"
"Lots of things."
"I don't know."
Engine humming silently, white lines vanishing beneath and white globes passing overhead. Watching the numbers on the street signs count down to zero and then count up again as the car travels further north.
"Maybe you don't have it all figured out. That's all I'm trying to say."
Guy taking his eyes off the road to show disgust and incredulity: "And you do?"
"Maybe you haven't actually chosen the best life. Maybe you haven't actually chosen anything. Maybe you chose nothing. You ever think of that?"
"Maybe you can walk the rest of the way. Isaac, what the fuck difference does it make?"
"Because I chose nothing too. But I chose this. Do you understand? You chose nothing, but I chose nothing. Not because it's what I want. Because it's less like what I don't want than whatever it is you're doing."
"Whatever it is I'm doing. You mean working. Doing friends favors. Bourgeois stuff like that."
"I don't mean bourgeois in the sense of class warfare."
"Go fuck yourself, Isaac. I don't care what you mean."
Pulling up to the curb, clicking the car into park. Engine ticking, no goodbyes. Not at the apartment yet, but close enough for walking.
Chicago is a city for sleeping. Chicago is a city for secondhand mattresses and yellowed pillowcases and ashtrays on bedspreads miraculously unoverturned. Dry mouths, eye-pressure headaches, time spent searching spotty memory for gaffes or conspicuous gaps. Empty tall cans near the bed, opened and drained after the bars had closed. Cord wrapped tight around the face of the phone to give it charge through the shoddy port. Messages from last night, from this morning: Cordelia, but she can wait. Voices on the other side of the door: Topher and clients, Topher and friends, Topher plotting further schemes and missions. It may be hours until they're gone. But Chicago is a city for waiting.
Expired Tylenol washed down with cloudy tapwater. Cigarettes smoked without relish, the fumes irritating a sore spot on the inside of the lower lip. Jacket slipped over a T-shirt and feet shoved sockless into old Adidas. Down a flight and into the cold – red brick Chicago, overcast and trafficless, sleeping still. Cleansing cold, scouring cold, whistling down the avenues and grating against the skin. Through the pores and into the blood, pushing into the person the sunbright clarity of sky above clouds. Gas station coffee, stale donuts individually wrapped. Broken caution tape fluttering forth from a streetlight: a car had gone airborne in the night, uprooting a mailbox and crashing through the wall of a Polish import/export office. No emergency services present, not even anyone looking on. It's almost noon but the city is sleeping still.
No cable hook up in the apartment, no fancy media console: only a clumsy plastic Toshiba with a tape player built in and a catalog of thrift store VHSes strewn caseless on the floor. Long dark Chicago afternoons of second childhood, colored only by flickering blue electricity, half in and half out of sleep. No prospects, neither any responsibilities: heavy bodily peace, pleasant like an illness: peaceful waking sleep in the somnambulant city. The twilight outside joining the twilight inside and the colors matching perfectly for a fraction of an hour before the window turns solid black behind the glass.
Wet womb warmth of the laundromat, empty fluorescent and humming. Occasional cars outside, cold slipping in through the plate glass window. Sitting nodding in front of a novel, giving up and tucking it into the pocket of an unzipped parka. Spare quarters sorted out on a pizzeria counter across the street. Wanted posters taped next to the register showing blurry stills from an armed robbery in progress. Then the walk home, laundry bag slung over the shoulder, bare hands numbing as they fight to retain their grip.
Empty apartment, dark apartment, messy apartment. Weary already from the invisible labors of the day. The gods challenged Hercules and said do what thou wilt. Figuring out what the work is: that is the shape of the work on Saturday afternoons in Chicago.
Parka wrapped once more around the body, scarf stuffed in place, phone shoved in pocket. Still not much of a charge but it will have to do. Short walk on Chicago Avenue under yellow sulfur light and tree shadow. Pot of drip coffee behind the bar; Cordelia waiting with a cup in front of her. Plain white mugs with chipped lips and long vertical cracks stained permanently brown. Coffee turned gray with milk and set down with the spoon still spinning, scraping along the side until it comes to a halt, a tiny nebula of froth spiraling apart atop the milk.
Other girls there besides Cordelia: out with their friends, reading by themselves. One older couple doing a crossword, everyone else dateless. All the men they know drink too much and do too little, work part time and without benefits at warehouses and mail rooms and coffee shops. All the other men know other girls or go to other bars or live on other planets. Chicago women aging gently out of young adulthood: Cordelias all, growing wiser and kinder with time, given up on romance and given now to doting upon animals and other people's children.
"Where were you yesterday?"
"Around. My phone was dead."
"I'd prefer it if you didn't disappear on me like that."
"Don't take it so personally. I'm not trying to disappear from you specifically."
"Just disappear in general."
Reaching over, chummily patting her thigh. "You know me so well, Cordelia."
Fingers drummed against the bar, lukewarm coffee gulped down before it gets too cold. Wind coming in the door, icy air mixing with the smell of spilled beer and chemical cleanliness. Mugs taken, cans opened. Cordelia sipping with prim catlike prudence from her Special Export.
"Paolo's coming over later. I want you to meet him."
"I'm busy later."
"No you're not."
"I might be. And I don't want to meet Paolo anyway."
Cordelia exasperated in a calm and practiced way, having had plenty of practice: "But why, Isaac. Why."
"Because what does it have to do with me."
"It makes me happy. Don't you want me to be happy, Isaac?"
"You lie." Cordelia singing softly to herself, smiling softly to herself: "You lie, you lie, you lie, you lie."
"I saw Ravi last night. He hangs out with Topher's crowd now."
Cordelia spinning her damp napkin with one finger. "Does he."
"You want to know who he was talking about?"
"How did you know?"
"Because I know everything, Isaac." Taking a satisfied sip of her beer, pinkie up. "And because it's the only thing he ever talked about."
Head thrown back to empty the can, picking up Cordelia's beer to gauge its weight, signaling the bartender for one more.
"I still think about her sometimes."
Cordelia feigning boredom, using two fingers to stretch the fibers of her napkin. "I don't think you ever loved Hannah. And I certainly don't think you love her now."
"How do you know?"
Cordelia exasperated and preparing to explain: calm, practiced, setting her drink down and wiping her hands of condensation and smoothing her cardigan in her lap.
"Because love is not something you do all by yourself. Love is not about thinking about someone else and getting even deeper inside your own head. I may not be an expert, but I know that much. Love is about going outside of yourself."
"But I don't know how to do that."
"Yes. I am aware, Isaac."
Can finished, crushed, left standing on the table. Cordelia still sipping delicately and formally from hers.
"Have I told you about Julia."
"No. Guy did."
"I guess you and Guy are good buddies again."
"He told me one time when you invited me to hang out with you two. Don't start." Running her thumbnail along her napkin, tearing the first layer of tissue open where she hits a patch of moisture. "So why don't you tell me about Julia."
"She reminds me of Hannah."
"How so? Because she's also an abstraction you've invented for yourself?"
"Because there's something about her. Because she means something more than what she just is. I don't know how to say it."
"Well, I can't help you. Because I don't know what you're saying either." Propping her cheek in her hand and with the other razoring the napkin up, down, sideways. "Maybe you can discuss it with Julia if she's so pretty."
"Nobody's prettier than you, Cordelia."
Cordelia studiously failing to react to this: mouth flat and closed, blinking pattern regular, face betraying nothing. Brushing her palms clean, shedding a flurry of paper snowflakes over the bar: "I should go. I have to get dinner started."
"Don't go. I don't want to have to go to work."
"I'm still not sure exactly what you do, but I'm pretty sure it doesn't count as work."
"I'm sick of it. I want to quit."
"But what else is there?"
"There's a whole world out there, Isaac. Believe it or not."
Cordelia pulling on hat, scarf, jacket, in the same motion leaving money on the bar.
"Let me pay for mine."
"No. Forget it."
A hug that lasts longer than it should. Breaths held and with tenderness expelled. In Chicago girls smell like the cold when you get close to them; refrigerated city air layered thick in their clothes and hair, and only under this a hint of perfume and everything else.
"You're not taking care of yourself."
"I know. I don't need you to tell me that."
"Call me later tonight. Just to let me know you're okay."
"Okay. How late is later?"
"I guess we'll see."
"You're sure you won't be busy?"
Cordelia squeezing harder, from anger and from affection. "I guess we'll see, Isaac."
NICHOLAS CLEMENTE is a writer living in New York City. CV at nicholasclemente.wordpress.com. MARTIN & HANNAH is his first novel.