I stayed with Amy in her comically small apartment in Chinatown. I tried some moves on her, sophisticated moves, old moves that used to work. Amy fended me off. Told me she was seeing someone now. Told me she had moved on. “We broke up,” she said. “Don’t you remember?” I was frustrated. Disappointed in myself. Disappointed that my sex moves no longer worked. Confidence? Gone. I was diminished. Felt like I’d walked into a buzzsaw here. Thought there was glory in New York. But, so far, no glory.
I was desperate. Desperate to get what I wanted, what I needed. I wasn’t leaving empty-handed. “Come back with me, Amy,” I said. “I made a mistake. I was a fool. I want to try again,” I said. I acted like this was a big prize for her. As if I was telling her she’d won the Publisher’s Clearing House.
Water fell out of her eyes. “Are you joking?” she asked me. Told me that I had lost my mind, that I should seek professional help.
She put out the lights. She controlled everything in New York—even the lights.
The room was the size of a hotel room closet. I could hear Amy breathing a few feet away from me. She sounded like a baby panda. Couldn’t believe how quickly she fell asleep. She obviously had no conflict in her heart. Not me. I was restless. Unsatisfied. I was running out of time. This was my first night in NYC. Sirens wailed from the street like excited ghosts. I couldn’t calm myself down. Went to the apartment’s minuscule bathroom. Switched on the light. Exhaled into the mirror a few times. Now what? Now what? I whispered. This is the uncomfortable part: I never think about masturbating; usually I’m doing it before I realize that I’m doing it. I was in the middle of lowering my shorts when, through the filthy, little bathroom window, I saw a middle aged woman in in the apartment across the alley. She was Chinese. Her skin was a soft yellow colour, like margarine. She held a towel in her hands. A cotton candy-pink towel. She was crying. She buried her face in the towel as she cried.
Couldn’t masturbate with that woman sitting 10 feet away from me crying into a towel. Pulled up my shorts. Went back to bed. Slept an hour or two at most. I made one last run at Amy in the morning. Did I get down on my knees? Yes, I did. Said things like, “Please! Come with me! I need you, Amy! I can’t live without you, Amy! I really can’t, Amy! I don’t want to go back there without you!” But her answer was the same: No thanks, Scott. Then I got violent. Something I’m not proud of. Turned over a chair, which I didn’t expect to do. She told me to leave after the chair-turnover. She said the words, “GET OUT.” She walked me downstairs, the whole way her arms folded in front of her like the blade of a snowplow. Amy was shouting, really letting me have it. “PLEASE LEAVE, SCOTT, PLEASE GET OUT OF MY LIFE, SCOTT, YOU HAVE DONE ENOUGH DAMAGE, SCOTT.” A few neighbours poked their heads out of their doors as we descended, like rubberneckers at an accident. They wanted to see. They couldn’t help themselves.
Once I was outside, the door clicked shut behind me. I found a payphone on Mott Street. Called my writer friend with the car, the one who had given me the ride to NYC. Made a plan to meet up, to head back to the university together. I didn’t want to go back to the empty apartment at the university! Not without Amy, I didn’t. All those empty rooms. The impossibly high ceilings. The heating bill I couldn’t afford. But what choice did I have? I had to go back. Had to. Being an adult is going places you don’t want to go, doing things you don’t want to do.
I went back. I taught my classes. Wrote. Wrote long poems about the heartbreak I had experienced. I read the poems in workshop.
I can see in your eyes that you are strong now.
Stronger than I am. I live in fear of you.
Like a lost animal in a forest.
Then came the sobs. Totally pathetic. Even though I’d manufactured the entire heartbreak, the other writers tried to comfort me. Even though I’d controlled every aspect of it (except for the grande finale in New York), I presented myself in the poems as a sympathetic narrator. Poor Scott! Truth was that Amy had not left me. I’d made her leave. I’d told her that she had to go. Yet I felt entitled to the sadness.
I imagined myself as Orpheus in the poems. Was trying to get Eurydice out of the underworld (New York). Formula was simple: Me: Orpheus. NYC: the Underworld. An irritated cab driver: Hermes. A growling garbage truck: Cerberus. It was melodramatic. But, man, it was sophisticated, too (or so I thought). Because New York was sophisticated. And Greek mythology was sophisticated. And heartbreak was sophisticated. And tiny apartments on Elizabeth Street where you could see a woman crying into a towel at midnight was sophisticated.
The poems ended the same way: with a confused Amy-Eurydice being returned to NYC/the Underworld, lost forever to Orpheus/me. Rilke writes: And when, abruptly, the god put out his hand to stop her, saying,/with sorrow in his voice: He has turned around—,/she could not understand, and softly answered Who?
I presented myself as this very tragic figure. Very tragic. Even though I was not. Was this the only time I’d be a selfish asshole in a relationship? Was this the only time I’d present myself as a tragic figure? It was not. I’d do it again and again for many years to come.
That’s the end of the story. A few postscripts before we part ways.
Postscript 1: Where is Amy now? No clue. I tried to find her on Facebook a couple times. Googled her, too. Nothing. I wanted to tell her that I’m sorry for what I did to her life in the 90’s. That I was sorry for uprooting her from Chicago the way I did. That I was sorry for being so self involved, so insecure, so restless. Amy was a terrific person. She was gorgeous and smart. She tried her best to be part of my life. I hope she’s doing alright these days.
Postscript 2: The beautiful Communist and I got together the following year. But that’s a story for another time.
Postscript 3: When I got sick in 2014, while I was in rehab in British Columbia, trying to jumpstart my brain, trying to be me again, I remembered Rilke’s Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes. Lines came to me in my adjustable hospital bed. Lines I’d memorized dozens of years ago in that cold kitchen at the university. I hadn’t thought about that poem in decades. Being able to recall those lines was a great comfort to me. Being able to remember the lines made me realize that my brain was going to be OK. What was me—what was my history—after the illness, after the stroke, was still there, still intact.
Far away,/dark before the shining exit-gates,/someone or other stood, whose features were/unrecognizable.
It was there! It thrilled me so much to find it there.
Postscript 4 (and this is the thing that made me remember this entire story): I had a friend back at the university. Really talented writer. Complete neurotic, too. A New Yorker, through and through. The first real New Yorker I ever met.
One day as I was riding in her car back at the university, I told her that I had a fantasy about being the guy at dinner parties who always rose from his chair and recited a poem. I’d say something like, “I have a poem from Wallace Stevens that I’d like to share with everybody tonight…” I had never admitted my fantasy out loud before, not even to myself. “It would make me attractive,” I told myself friend as she drove the car. “It would make me sophisticated and strange. I’d be a hot ticket, for sure. Everyone would want me to come to their dinner parties.”
My friend was quiet. “I’m only going to say this once, so please listen,” my friend said as she drove. “Are you listening? Never do that. Never do that to yourself. Never do that to the people who have invited you to dinner. Are you listening to me, Scott?” We were at a red light. She turned to look at me. “Never, never, never.”
I tried to defend myself. “But it’ll be very charming. People will love it, I’m certain.”
“Please don’t,” my friend said. She somehow smiled and winced at the same time. Then she turned her eyes back to the road. She said it again: “Just don’t.”
Then she hit the gas and we drove on.