The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 9, No. 4

The Shared Patio

by Miranda July

Untitled Document

He is in love with me but he doesn't know it. It still counts even though it happened when he was unconscious. It counts doubly because the conscious mind often makes mistakes, falls for the wrong person. But down there in the well, where there is no light and only thousand-year-old water, a man has no reason to make mistakes. God says do it and you do it. Love her, and it is so. He is my neighbor. He is Korean. His name is Vincent Chang. He doesn't do hapkido. When you say the word Korean some people automatically think of Jackie Chan's South Korean hapkido instructor, Grandmaster Jin Pal Kim; I think of Vincent.

What is the most terrifying thing that has ever happened to you? Did it involve a car? Was it on a boat? Did an animal do it? If you answered yes to any of these questions then I am not surprised. Cars crash, boats sink, and animals are just scary. Why not do yourself a favor and stay away from these things.

Vincent has a girlfriend named Helena. She is Greek with blond hair. It's dyed. I was going to be polite and not mention that it's dyed, but I really don't think she cares if anyone knows. In fact, I think she is going for the dyed look, with the roots showing. What if she and I were close friends. What if I borrowed her clothes and she said, That looks better on you, you should keep it. What if she called me in tears, and I had to come over and soothe her in the kitchen, and Vincent tried to come into the kitchen and we said, Stay out, this is girl talk! I saw something like that happen on TV; these two women were talking about some stolen underwear and a man came in and they said, Stay out, this is girl talk! One reason Helena and I would never be close friends is that I am about half as tall as she. People tend to stick to their own size group because it's easier on the neck. Unless they are romantically involved, in which case the size difference is sexy. It means: I am willing to go the distance for you.

If you are sad, ask yourself why you are sad. Then pick up the phone and call someone and tell him or her the answer to the question, Why are you sad? If you don't know anyone, call the operator and tell him or her. Most people don't know that the operator has to listen, it is a law. Also, the postman is not allowed to go inside your house, but you can talk to him on public property for up to four minutes or until he wants to go, whichever comes first.

Vincent was on the shared patio. I'll tell you about this patio. It is shared. If you look at it you will think it is only Helena and Vincent's patio, because it begins at their back door and there is a fence around it. But when I moved in the landlord said that it was the patio for both the downstairs units, A and B. I'm in B. He said, Don't be shy about using it, because you pay just as much rent as they do. What I don't know for sure is if he told Vincent and Helena that it is a shared patio. I have tried to demonstrate ownership by occasionally leaving something over there, like my shoes, or one time I left an Easter flag. I also try to spend exactly the same amount of time on the patio as they do. That way I know that we are each getting our value. Every time I see them out there, I put a little mark on my calendar. Then the next time the patio is empty, I go sit on it. Then I cross off the mark. Sometimes I lag behind and I have to sit out there a lot toward the end of the month, to catch up.

     Vincent was on the shared patio. I'll tell you about Vincent. He is an example of a New Man. You might have read the article about the New Men in True magazine last month. New Men are more in touch with their feelings than even women are, and New Men cry. New Men want to have children, they long to give birth, so sometimes when they are crying it is because they can't; there is nowhere for a baby to come out of. New Men just give and give and give. Vincent is like that. Once I saw him give Helena a massage on the shared patio. This is kind of ironic because it is Vincent who needs the massage. He has a mild form of epilepsy. My landlord told me this when I moved in, as a safety precaution. New Men are often a little frail, and also Vincent's job is Art Director, and that is very New Man. He told me this one day when we were both leaving the building at the same time. He is Art Director of a magazine called Punt. This is an unusual coincidence because I am the Floor Manager of a printer and we sometimes print magazines. We don't print Punt, but we print a magazine with a similar name, Positive. It's actually more like a newsletter; it's for people who are HIV positive.

Are you angry? Punch a pillow. Was it satisfying? Not hardly. These days people are too angry for punching. What you might try is stabbing. Take an old pillow and lay it on the front lawn. Stab it with a big pointy knife. Again and again and again. Stab hard enough for the point of the knife to go into the ground. Stab until the pillow is gone and you are just stabbing the Earth, again and again, as if you want to kill it for continuing to spin, as if you are getting revenge for having to live on this planet, day after day, alone.

Vincent was on the shared patio. I was already behind in my patio use, so it made me a little anxious to see him out there, so late in the month. Then I had an idea; I could sit out there with him. There were two reasons I could do this. One: It's a free country, and two: Why not? I put on Bermuda shorts and sunglasses and suntan oil. Even though it was October I still felt summery; I had a summery tableau in mind. In truth though, it was really quite windy out there and I had to run back in for a sweater and a few minutes later I ran back inside for pants. Finally I sat in a lawn chair beside Vincent on the shared patio and watched the suntan oil soak through the fabric of my khakis. He said he always liked the smell of suntan oil. This was a very graceful way of acknowledging my situation. A man with grace, that's the New Man. I asked him how things were going at Punt and he told me a funny story about a typo. Because we are in the same business, he didn't have to explain that typo is short for typographical error. If Helena had come out we would have had to stop using our industry lingo so that she could understand us, but she didn't come out because she was still at work. She's a physician's assistant, which may or may not be the same thing as a nurse.
     I asked Vincent more questions, and his answers became longer and longer until they hit a kind of cruising altitude and I didn't have to ask, he just orated. It was unexpected, like suddenly finding oneself at work on a weekend. What was I doing here? Where was my Roman Holiday? My American in Paris? This was just more of the same, an American in America. I had not labored all week for this. At moments he would pause and squint up at the sky and I would think that he was constructing the perfect question for me, a fantastic question that I would have to rise to the challenge of, drawing from everything I knew about myself and mythology and this black Earth. But he was pausing only to emphasize what he was saying about how the cover design was not actually his fault, and then he finally did ask me something; he asked, Did I think it was his fault, you know, based on everything he had just told me? I looked at the sky, just to see what it felt like. I pretended that I was pausing before telling him about the secret feeling of joy that I hide in my chest, waiting, waiting, waiting for someone to notice that I rise each morning seemingly with nothing to live for, but I do rise, and it is only because of this secret joy, God's love, in my chest. I looked down from the sky and into his eyes and I said, It wasn't your fault. I excused him for the cover and for everything else. For not yet being a New Man. We fell into silence then; he did not ask me any more questions. I was still happy to sit there beside him, but that is only because I have very, very low expectations of most people, and he had now become Most People.
     Then he lurched forward. With a sudden motion he leaned forward at an inhuman angle, and stayed there. It was not the behavior of Most People, nor of New Men; it was perhaps something that an old man would do, an elderly man. I said, Vincent. Vincent. I yelled, Vincent Chang! But he only leaned forward silently, his chest almost to his knees. I kneeled down and looked into his eyes. They were open, but closed like a store that is closed and looks ghostly with all the lights off. With the lights off, I could now see how luminous he had been the moment before, even in his selfishness. And it struck me that maybe True magazine had been wrong. Maybe there are no New Men. Maybe there are only the living and the dead, and all those who are living deserve each other and are equal to each other. I pushed his shoulders back so that he was upright in his chair again. I didn't know anything about epilepsy, but I had imagined more shaking and spasmodic action. I moved his hair out of his face. I put my hand under his nose and felt gentle, even breaths. I pressed my lips against his ear and whispered, again, It's not your fault. Perhaps this was really the only thing I had ever wanted to say to anyone, and be told. I imagined couples at the altar, standing before the priest, declaring It's not your fault to each other, before kissing in the union.
     I pulled my chair up beside him and leaned my head against his shoulder. And although I was genuinely scared about this epileptic seizure that I was in charge of, I slept. Why did I do this dangerous and inappropriate thing? I'd like to think that I didn't do it, that it was in fact done to me. Vincent was slowly sliding his hands up my shirt as we kissed. I tried to remember what kind of breasts I had but they were vague, like faces in dreams. He held them and from the way his hands were curved I knew these breasts were small. Larger breasts would have required a less acute angle. He held them like he had wanted to for a long time, and suddenly I saw things as they really were. He loved me. He was a complex person with layers of percolating emotions, some of them spiritual, some tortured in a more secular way; and he burned for me. This complicated flame of being was mine. I held his hot face and asked him the hard question.
     What about Helena?
     It's okay, because she's in the medical profession. They have to do whatever is the best for health.
     That's right, the Hippocratic Oath.
     She'll be sad, but she won't interfere with us because of the oath.
     Will you move your things over to my apartment?
     No, I have to keep living with Helena because of our vows.
     Your vows? What about the oath?
     It'll be okay. All that is nothing compared to our thing.
     Did you ever really love her?
     Not really, no.
     But me?
     Even though I have no pizzazz?
     What are you talking about, you perfect thing.
     You can see that I'm perfect?
     It's in each thing that you do. I watch you when you hang your bottom over the side of the bathtub to wash it before bed.
     You can see me do this?
     Every night.
     It's just in case.
     I know. But no one will ever enter you in your sleep.
     How can you promise that?
     Because I'm watching you.
     I thought I would have to wait until I died for this.
     From now on I am yours.
     No matter what? Even when you are with Helena and I am just the short woman in Apartment B, are you still mine then?
     Yes, it is a fact between us, even if we never speak of it again.
     I can't believe this is really happening.
     And then Helena was there, shaking us both awake. But Vincent kept sleeping, and I wondered if he was dead and if so, had he said the things in the dream before or after he passed away, and which one was more authentic. Also, was I a criminal and would Helena have me arrested for having no human decency or common sense? I looked up at her; she was a swarm of action in her physician's assistant clothes. All the motion made me dizzy; I shut my eyes again and was about to re-enter the dream when Helena yelled, When did the seizure start? And, Why the fuck were you sleeping? But she was checking his vital signs with professional flourish and the next time she looked at me I knew I would not have to answer these questions because I had somehow become her assistant, the physician's assistant's assistant. She told me to run into their apartment for a plastic bag that would be on top of the refrigerator. I ran inside gratefully and shut the door behind me.
     Their apartment was very quiet. I tiptoed across the living room to the kitchen and pressed my face against the freezer, breathing in the complex smells of their life. They had pictures of children on their refrigerator. They had friends, and these friends had given birth to more friends. I had never seen anything as intimate as the pictures of these children. I wanted to reach up and grab the plastic bag from the top of the refrigerator, but I also wanted to look at each child. One was named Trevor and he was having a birthday party that Saturday. Please come! the invitation said. We'll have a whale of a time! and there was a picture of a whale. It was a real whale, a photograph of a real whale. I looked into its tiny wise eye and wondered where that eye was now. Was it alive and swimming, or had it died long ago, or was it dying right that second? When a whale dies it falls down through the ocean slowly, over the course of a day. Everyone sees it fall, like a giant statue, like a building, but slowly, slowly, slowly. I focused all of my attention into the eye; I tried to reach down inside of it, toward the real whale, the dying whale, and I whispered, It's not your fault.
     Then Helena slammed through the back door. She briefly pressed her breasts against my back as she reached over me to grab the bag and then ran back outside. I turned and watched her through the window. She was giving Vincent a shot. Vincent was waking up. She was kissing Vincent and he was rubbing his neck. I wondered what he remembered. Did he remember cupping my breasts? Did he remember that he didn't love Helena? She was sitting on his lap now, and now she had her arms wrapped around his head. They did not look up when I walked past them.

The interesting thing about Positive is that it never mentions HIV. If it weren't for the advertisements––Retrovir, Sustiva, Viramune––you would think it was a magazine about staying positive, as in upbeat. For this reason it is my favorite magazine. All the other ones build you up just to knock you down again, but the editors at Positive understand that you have already been knocked down, again and again, and at this point you really don't need to fail a quiz called "Are You So Sexy, or Just So-So?" Positive prints lists of ways to feel better, kind of like Hints from Heloise. They seem easy to write, but that's the illusion of all good advice. Common sense and the truth should feel authorless, writ by time itself. It is actually really hard to write something that will make a terminally ill person feel better. And Positive has rules, you can't just lift your guidance from the Bible or a book about Zen; they want original material. So far none of my submissions have gotten in, but I'm getting closer.

Do you have doubts about life? Are you unsure if it is really worth the trouble? Look at the sky: that is for you. Look at each person's face as you pass them on the street: those faces are for you. And the street itself, and the ground under the street, and the ball of fire underneath the ground: all these things are for you. They are as much for you as they are for other people. Remember this when you wake up in the morning and think you have nothing. Stand up and face the east. Now praise the sky and praise the light within each person under the sky. It's okay to be unsure. But praise, praise, praise. 

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