*Italicized sections from Wallace Stevens, “Thirteen Ways of Looking At A Blackbird”
I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.
In the city, I am never lonely. Riding the bus I feel the comfortable heft of the woman next to me, a total stranger, but our bodies touch at every bump. She smells of camphor, of sweaters just out of storage for the cold weather. I catch her nudging off her sturdy pumps and rubbing at a stocking-clad foot. Unlike her I am not tired, nor am I a part of this mass exodus from the workplace. I count this among the things I’m grateful for: having a seat when others are standing, being between jobs and therefore drifting, going against the tide. At these moments the future seems wide open; I could do anything.
We have left the rowhouses and gyro shops of Astoria behind, the bus crawling across the Triborough Bridge at a snail’s pace in rush hour traffic. The fading sun struggles to be seen behind a looming mass of high white clouds drifting in from the west. The prison towers over the bridge, rows and rows of darkened windows surveying the busy road below. From a comparable height I peer down into the taxis from the airport, imagining departures, arrivals. Women sit neatly folded in gray skirts, the men sprawling a generous arm over imitation leather seats, and I imagine them headed toward elegant apartments, midtown high rises, or important meetings.
On the bus I feel anything but alone, my neighbor’s body solid and warm next to mine, her sighs a part of the soundtrack of my trip. There will still be the bustle of Penn Station to navigate, and the fluorescent brightness of the train, filled with commuters. An hour into New Jersey, the train almost empty, I’ll reach my stop, although I don’t think about that now, about driving to an empty house, on the suburban outskirts of an industrial wasteland. I think instead about my car, the heater, the lights, and the songs I will play on the way.
I came all the way to the airport to see my husband off, in the final days that I can still call him by a title indicating possession. I am leaving him, although he is the one who is changing cities. It is not quite by mutual agreement, but he recognizes the need for this final separation, understands that there is no use for him to continue to stay in a marriage where he is not loved as he deserves to be.
The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.
The bus lumbers across 125th Street through Harlem, passing miles of African hair braiding shops, sporting goods stores and fish fry joints. There is more life here, graffiti scrawls on the bricks an assertion of presence, activity. I think of the life that awaits me, how I could move here once I sell the house, hanging my shingle in a newly gentrified Harlem, near the Starbucks and Old Navy franchises. I will embrace the freedom and commotion of the city, denied to me these past few years we lived in New Jersey while Michael completed his education. His dissertation defended with honors, a postdoctoral fellowship in Boston, and I began making excuses– the cold, my attachment to this area, the professional connections I’ve made. I hinted at sacrifices– commuting every day to the city for my job in publishing, narrowly tied to my own ambitions to publish something. That never came, but I did meet my share of the literary world. The most famous were not exactly my clients, but I was responsible for their arrangements when they came to town, from London or Iowa City or wherever it was that they dreamed up the stories that held us all in their orbit, moths swirling around the latest literary luminary, often years younger than the rest of us.
It was easy to get caught up in the dream world of the free books I took home with me at night, to imagine their creators as deities. I was always conscious of the need to remain balanced, to never take the daytime world seriously. This was just a job, an illusion– myself ascending from Penn Station every morning into the flow of wool suits headed off to important careers. The real world, I told myself, was my husband, the quiet of the university community, the dinner parties hosted by neurotic, overgrown children living in a world that consisted of library, home, department. We kept our affluence a secret. This had nothing to do with me but with my husband’s circumstances, thanks to a grandfather who had made a fortune cutting down the country’s forests. Michael didn’t like to talk about it; he was, after all, just as concerned about the alarming scope of American wealth as any good post-Marxist literary critic should be. But still we owned a house in Princeton, where we lived for the past seven years, for better or for worse.
I never took his money for granted, never allowed myself luxuries beyond what I could afford on my own salary. It was important to work, not to fall into the trap my mother always warned me about, of being so indebted to a man that you could never leave him. I had this in the back of my head from the beginning, although like anyone else I went into the marriage assuming it was a permanent arrangement. Now I have come to think of marriage as more fluid, like a current you’re caught in for a while until suddenly you find yourself needing to fight it, to get out and breathe again.
I stay on the bus as it lumbers down Broadway, the streets becoming more affluent, crowded with organic Kosher grocery stores and minimalist Scandinavian furniture shops. For a while the bus idles next to one of these shops, and I glimpse a single mahogany settee covered with zebra fur, alone in a vast hardwood showroom. As the bus travels south, the women grow leaner, their hipbones jutting out of low-slung skirts. Poster children for eating disorders, I tell myself, but still I am envious. I would like to be weightless. The man in front of me has opened the window, and a chill rushes through the bus, the sun almost gone now. I am cold in my black mourning clothes, a skirt and a thin sweater I threw on optimistically this afternoon, seeing the sun outside the window.
“They’re forecasting snow,” Michael told me as he waited for me to dress. He surveyed my choice of clothes, his brow furrowed with the intimate concern of a parent who has decided to stop giving orders, only to hint at the grave mistakes the child might be making. The moving van had hauled everything away the day before; Michael would take the furniture and I would sell the house, starting over with nothing but money, clean. Empty save for a lone futon, the house looked either dismal or minimalist, just like the zebra settee, here on the Upper West Side.
A man and a woman
A man and a woman and a blackbird
The marriage, I tell myself now, was doomed, dissolving from the beginning. Unlike most brides, I gained weight before the wedding, enough that on the wedding day, the dress would not zip and I quite literally had to be sewed in. In the full-length mirror of the church dressing room I stared at myself as my aunt attended to the business of hemming me in, while my hovering bridesmaids tried to make me feel better about this last minute snafu. The ribs of the dress pressed tighter and tighter into my body, the tops of my breasts pillowing out like those of an obscene, bosomy maiden on a bottle of German beer. I was thinking of the wedding night, when what we had already done a thousand times before would somehow be made sacrosanct, as wholesome and boring as the whipped potatoes I imagined serving every night for dinner.
Afterward, I did everything possible to prevent convention from creeping into my life. We vacationed in difficult countries, attended art films, and supported living wage protests for the employees of the university. On Fridays Michael often met me in the city, and we would go to some restaurant or bar I’d heard my colleagues talking about. At first it was fun. Marriage, then grad school. Someday, babies, but not until we were firmly in our thirties. And while he worked hard on his dissertation about Wallace Stevens, I navigated the publishing world. I was glamorous, I lost the extra weight, I greeted him at the train station in a Chanel suit while all the other graduate student wives wore khakis.
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
At Penn Station I descend on the escalator, back to the train that will carry me to New Jersey. The train is the same, the escalator the same, unlike that old saying about how you never step into the same river twice. It is the same whether I am in my first year of work, overwhelmed by the immensity of the city that greets me every morning at the top of the escalator, or whether it is years later and I am no longer impressed by anything. The same, as my thoughts begin to turn mutinous, and I am meeting a Famous Novelist for dirty martinis at a hotel bar, where I will be “working late,” where I will be “finishing some things up at the office,” or “handling a difficult client.” I am making a final break with convention; I am derailing the marriage right off its boring old tracks. Then begins the insomnia, the guilt, the obsessive discussions I start at student dinner parties about Engels, about monogamy, about women as property. I cannot stand for Michael to touch me; I hate our Sunday mornings at the bagel shop, and I hate myself. I begin to entertain thoughts of leaving him for the Famous Novelist, who is also saddled with a spouse, deriving literary inspiration from extramarital affairs that last no longer than six months each. With other imagined beauties, I jockey for position in the memory of the Famous Novelist, hoping he will find in me a fragment of something to write about years later, that I will be immortalized, a muse, so to speak.
I am pathetic, prone to crying jags, unable to show proper affection for the husband who has just been granted the status of Doctor. Michael announces we are moving to Boston. I refuse. I launch into tirades about wives trailing along behind their more ambitious husbands. Suddenly no place in the world but the city will satisfy me. He offers to stay, to look for adjunct work close by. I tell him no, I don’t want that, in fact, I want him to go far away from me. He is stunned. But I am more stunned by his resignation, by the fact that he does not put up a fight. He says this is not what he wants, but he respects my decision. I wonder, is it this easy to give up a marriage? As if marriage were as insubstantial as the piece of paper proclaiming its existence. But it dissolves like anything else, into nothing, apparently.
When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.
In the fifteen minutes before my train leaves I buy a candy bar and a magazine to pass the time. The train is brightly lit, with wood paneling and beige seats unchanged since the seventies. The fluorescent lights make this the worst part of the trip, and I am relieved when a commuter takes the seat next to me. On his cell phone he talks warmly to someone about the demands of work, about how he can never wait to get out of the city and back to Jersey, back to her. Beyond the window I can just make out the bleak, swampy flatlands in the darkness. Flipping through the fashion magazine, I try to find articles to distract me from thinking of the airport, of Michael turning around and waving after he passed through the security check, wearing that hangdog expression that proclaims he’s being a good sport even though something profound is weighing him down. I remember the look from when his father died. It is too much to consider that I am now the cause of it.
The magazine does not distract me. Instead I peer outside, although with the darkness there is even less to look at. Half the passengers are on the phone, making their mundane plans in loud, important voices. An Indian family has turned the seats around for an impromptu picnic, steam rising up from metal dishes emanating the scent of cardamom and lentils. Mother, father, and three children dig in happily while a fourth, a boy of about eight years old, complains that he just wants Burger King. For a while I watch them, content to be a voyeur in other people’s lives. If I could ride public transportation all day I might never have to live my own life. But at Edison the family packs up the metal tins and leaves the train.
The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.
My stop is almost the final one, and the train has emptied out. Going into the city was worse, with me staring sullenly out the window, eager to be finished with the task ahead, and Michael proofreading the final drafts of an essay he was submitting to a journal that nobody read. I felt compelled to comment on this, knowing it would hurt him, wanting to reveal myself as mean-spirited and cruel, so that later, when he thought about me, he might remember only the bad things. It would be easier for him, then, to deal with the loss of me; at the very least it would destroy whatever inaccurate, sentimental pictures he held of his wife.
“Why,” I said, “do you lavish so much care on something that no one is going to read?”
He kept working, making meticulous little marks in the margin of the essay, which was, not surprisingly, about the focus of his entire adult life, the poetry of Wallace Stevens. Michael had won prizes, fellowships, grants; at his dissertation defense, the English department had called his work “brilliant” and “groundbreaking.” Breaking what ground, I wondered. He had read Stevens’ poetry to me at the beginning of our relationship, and at the time I found it romantic. The poems were vague and mysterious and seemingly nonsensical, and it always surprised me that Michael understood them so well.
“I mean,” I continued, “what’s the point?”
He removed his glasses and sighed, a gesture I could imagine him using with particularly troublesome students. Our dynamic had always been like this, me asking the contentious questions, Michael readying a patient answer. I did not deserve this.
“What’s the point of anything?” he shrugged. “Does work only have value if it’s seen by a lot of people?”
“Or if it’s of redeeming social value, I guess,” I said.
“Well, I’ll be teaching. Is that redemptive enough?”
“Sure.” I waved my hand dismissively. “Don’t listen to me. It’s not like I do anything worthwhile with my life.”
“You shouldn’t put yourself down,” he said. “It’s not your fault the publishers were downsizing.” I shook my head. He knew nothing.
“I just wish I had your consistency. All these years, you’ve worked on the same thing and it doesn’t bore you.”
“I always find something new every time I look,” he answered.
We were talking almost like old friends. But we weren’t old friends; we had been together for the decade since college and now that era had ended. Soon I would put him on a plane and he would disappear into the air, and I had destroyed everything single-handedly, just because I’d wanted to.
It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.
“Have a good evening,” the train conductor says as I exit the train. “Be careful, there’s been some increment weather.” I almost laugh at the misuse of “inclement,” but I stop myself. Michael, with his love of words, would have been delighted.
Cold pierces my skin, the sweater I am wearing torturously inadequate. The asphalt is slippery with patches of ice. Only about fifteen other people are exiting here, all rushing separately in their heavy coats to their cars. I sprint to my car, parked at the farthest reaches of the parking lot. After fumbling for my keys I am inside, the heater is on, the radio blasting, the engine sufficiently warmed up. From here it is only a short drive. At home I have my own books, a television, yesterday’s Chinese take-out in the refrigerator. I have the Famous Novelist, immortalized in his jacket photo, the sturdy hard cover. I have objects instead of people, but for now that will have to do.
The sky hangs low and heavy, starless, covered with clouds. The clouds have won out. I drive along poorly-lit roads, and finally down the curving lane leading to our Victorian house, framed by the black skeletons of winter trees. Outside, the metallic jingle of my keys fills the silence like music. Then something cold and unseen brushes against my face. Ominous images occur to me– a ghost, a blackbird’s wing. I shake them off, commanding my mind to be blank.
I open the door. But I can’t make myself cross the threshold; I’m not ready to confront the emptiness of the house, the hollow sound of my heels clicking against the bare hardwood floors. Instead I turn on the porch light and stand there for a few minutes longer, gazing at the bare yard, at the single lamppost and the darkness beyond. I own this, I tell myself. I am master of all I see. Here in the suburbs there is absence where there should be presence, not like in the city, where everybody exists in relation to someone else. Here it is possible not to exist at all.
Something white settles on my sweater, disappearing almost instantly. The cold seeps in. I watch, shivering, as the sky begins to swirl with light. A fuzzy halo of snow circles the lamppost and I turn to go inside.