Two days later you told me I was your boyfriend and we made love to prove it. Leonard's bed was covered in black cat hair and my entire body broke out in hives. My eyes were so swollen I could barely see. Both nostrils were clogged shut; I lay on my back sucking in air while Luther and the other cat, whose name I never learned, sat on the windowsill and stared at me.
"Maybe we should go to your place," you suggested.
"If you want," I said.
You ended up loving my apartment for its view of the Manhattan skyline. "This is so good. I can't wait till it rains. I want to see the Empire State Building in the rain. Or the snow! I can't wait till it snows."
We brought a suitcase full of your clothes to my apartment, and a shopping bag filled with your other necessities. Favorite albums, essential spices, toiletries, refrigerator magnets, an ebony hand mirror that had belonged to your grandmother, a one-armed G.I. Joe doll that five-year-old Leonard had found beneath the Christmas tree.
"I'll go back there every couple of days," you told me, "and check on the cats. I hope they'll be all right without me."
I nodded. "I really hope so."
One night I woke up thirsty and reached for a glass of water on the bedside table. You were awake, your back against the headboard, staring out the window at glittering Manhattan in the distance.
"It's so beautiful, Frankie."
You said nothing else. I drank my water and curled up again to sleep. And then you asked, "Do you know who wrote that letter?"
I opened my eyes. "What letter?"
"The letter I read you, the one about Leonard. About sending the chrysanthemums and stealing the pennies?"
"No, who wrote it?"
You watched the city, your eyes unblinking. "Frank Sinatra."
We were together for nine months, and then we weren't together. One day I was your "cutie" and the next day I was "still your best friend"; it took me awhile to figure out that a cutie is superior to a best friend, that a cutie gets to live with you and make love to you, while a best friend gets sympathetic cheek kisses and long, meaningful hugs.
You packed your suitcase and abandoned the view of Manhattan, returned to Luther and his nameless brother, to Leonard's ashes and Leonard's bed.
"Do you want Moby-Dick back?" I asked, as you folded your sweaters.
"You keep it. Maybe someday you'll teach a class on Melville."
I held the door open for you and you stood in the hallway, suitcase in one hand, shopping bag in the other. "You know I love you, don't you, Frankie?"
"Sure," I said. "It's pretty obvious."
You shook your head sadly and kissed me on the cheek. "Sarcasm does not become you."
"Sorry," I said.
The day after you left me for good my face erupted with the worst case of acne I'd had since high school. I woke up in the morning to the familiar sensation, something ticking in the space between my eyebrows. In the bathroom mirror I saw my fears confirmed. An angry red pimple glared back; that's the way it always starts for me.
The day after you left me was a Sunday. I had nothing to do but sit on my candy-striped sofa and pretend to read. Pretending to read is one of my talents; I'm making a career of it. Eventually I'll earn my doctorate and teach students who pretend to read.
Every few hours I carefully marked my page and went to the bathroom to check the mirror, morbidly fascinated by the progressive ruin of my face. I wondered if my true skin would ever reemerge. Or if this was my true skin, this troubled terrain, and the face of the last ten years a dream of perfect pores.
A tube of prescription ointment lay waiting in the medicine cabinet, but I decided to go without. The treatment never worked, but more than that, I felt this punishment must be just, my own plague of boils.
The things you forgot to pack: a bottle of rum-soaked vanilla beans on the cupboard shelf, an orange toothbrush on the edge of the sink, and a spare pair of keys to your apartment.
I stared at the vanilla beans for a long time. I thought they were the saddest things I'd ever seen, the skinny corpses of a family caught in a house fire, charred beyond recognition. The toothbrush I threw out the window, watched it cartwheel down, watched it lodge in the blooming branches of a dogwood tree. It's still there, that toothbrush, an orange fuck-you finger pointing at me whenever I walk past the tree.
My mind was filled with your stories. And especially with Leonard. God, I loved listening to you talk. We'd stay up late, huddled in our cold bed, a slumber party for two, the arthritic radiator groaning from the corner of the room. And you would tell me stories. Your family was filled with rowdy drunks, cardsharps, bigamists, saxophonists, and lion trainers. All of them insane and all of them in full color. You were the first woman I'd ever met who told family stories that I wanted to hear. I couldn't get enough. And I would feel guilty that I couldn't tell you any beauties in return. The drunks I know are quiet drunks, tight-mouthed and scab-knuckled. They scared me out of my hometown.
But Leonard, Leonard, I can't get him out of my mind. He was the hero of all your greatest tales: half mad, a famous lover of women, still invoked reverentially in certain downtown taverns for heroic benders that lasted three days. I never met the man but I can't get him out of my mind.
When Monday morning came I was still lying on the sofa, my throat and forehead graveled with red pustules, the unread book waiting quietly on my belly. Manhattan loomed pale blue across the river until the sun rose behind me, igniting the eastern-aspect windows. You were over there, on that crowded island, sleeping in Leonard's bed. I narrowed my eyes and rendered all the concrete and steel and glass invisible, disappeared the water towers and television antennae, until all there was to see of the city was column upon column of sleepers, in pajamas, in boxer shorts, in nightgowns, naked. Millions of dreaming New Yorkers, dreaming of faithless husbands and faceless lovers, a sky raining fat girls, dragons nestled in the nave of the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. And you, you dreamed on with them, about heaven knows what, floating twenty stories above the avenue.
Finally I pushed myself off the candy-striped sofa, staggered into the kitchen, and began grinding beans for coffee. When I had a pot brewing I picked up the phone and called Michael. He's always at his office before six in the morning, reading the business sections of newspapers from around the world. He picked up on the first ring and I told him I needed to borrow his car that night so I could attend an MLA conference up at SUNY Binghamton.
"Sounds like a blast," he said. "What's the topic?"
I stared at the blank face of my refrigerator. You had taken all your magnets home with you. "It's a literary conference," I said.
"Right, but there's got to be a topic. Fart Jokes of the Kalahari Bushmen, something like that."
"I wish. This one is Captivity Narratives of the Post-Colonial Americas."
He whistled. "You're going to bring Pocahontas back in the trunk?"
"So it's okay?"
"What happened, you found out about this conference today?"
"My ride fell through. I was going to take a bus but--"
"It's kind of weird that they scheduled the conference for a Tuesday, isn't it?"
"It is," I said. "It's really weird."
"What I don't get--" he began, but I cut him off.
"Here's the thing, Michael. Please don't fuck with me right now."
I sensed him grinning, the Frankfurt morning paper splashed across his desk. "All right," he said. "I'll let the garage guy know you're coming."
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