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Now I know you and I love you
All day I hear the birds.
In the morning, the streets are silent but I hear the birds. Jenna tells me which bird is which, points out the blue jay, clicks her tongue into a call trilling the same sound. We sit on the floor and lift the screen from our window and peer our heads into the open air. In the emptiness of the noon hour, the blue jays and the robins and the swallows tell us it is spring.
Spring and the flowers unfurl fists the size of newborn hands. Spring and the grass returns in patches. Spring and the windows are cracked and the air is cool and pleasant. Spring and we dream of porches and parks and bare feet and brushing fingers in the twilight. Spring and the streets are vast and lonely and we watch buds by way of our windows.
“I ask myself if this happened to us - to us, who bought oranges at Giro’s and went for walks in the snow,” Natalia Ginzburg writes in an essay called “Winter in Abruzzi.” In exile, she and her husband and children pass the days in unfamiliar countryside, amongst strangers. They long to leave. Only months after they do, her husband dies in a prison in Rome. They could not have known.
At the beginning of this year, I went to a house on the coast and toasted the new decade with tiny bottles of champagne on an empty beach, under a caterwaul of stars, in the brightest darkness. I worked the farmers markets. I traded baguettes for pea shoots and pickles and cheese cut in thick slabs. I took the N and the W to Times Square and 34th Street and transferred uptown, downtown, made my way to markets, to houses of friends I loved. There was time for anything. When I came home from a yoga class, I stopped in at my neighborhood grocery store and brought home a persimmon that I ate at its ripest. I was always sticky and dirty and sweaty. I charted constants: the cafe I bought coffee at on Wednesdays at Union Square; my morning commute to Greenpoint and the delight in watching the light lift as the weeks passed; being crowded alongside other bodies in the subway train and catching everyone’s tilt and waver in my shoulders, limbs reverberating through limbs.
I went to a party for a friend I love where we sliced bread and ate cheese with our fingers, piled our plates with salmon so buttery it barely held its shape on our tongues. We shared glasses of wine, traded sips of tonics. We piled on couches and sprawled into each other. We kissed each others’ faces.
My mother got married last month and I danced with my siblings at the wedding, held grimy hand in grimy hand and let sweat stains pool in my silk suit. I licked my fingers of frosting from the cupcakes and swiped blush on my face, my sisters’ cheeks. Kissed my brother’s foreheads. Held my mother’s hand. That night at home, my sisters and I opened sparkling water cans and forgot whose was whose. My mother was beautiful that night, her happiness, our shared joy. When I said goodnight to my brothers’ I told them I would see them in a few months. My brother sent me home with a drawing I meant to frame.
The last outing I went to in New York City was a showing of Fleabag at BAM, where we passed popcorn down the aisle and filled our palms with kernels. I filled my mouth with candy. There is a hum that human bodies make when they are next to each other and our bodies were warm and the theater was full. Surely, there was time for everything.
I think of those shared cups and holding the people I love, their brilliant bodies, our generous hopes. I think of taking the train towards Queensboro Plaza just as the light set into the subway car and how happiness was the size of a persimmon in my palm.
At night now, I listen to my neighbors call to each other across the street, making sure that they are okay, have the supplies they need. I text my pod, I make inventory. How many cans of beans. Can I have this apple or will I regret it later. Four chips now, so we have leftovers, Jenna says as we eat hummus we’ve eked out over five days. Some moments, life still seems possible—it’s from the birds, mostly. The grass in the backyard. The promise of a garden, of seeds. Then we retreat and I hear my roommates both on the phone in their rooms, all of us illegible in our own hidden lopes of sadness. We retreat, we concave, we return. We send memes about the apocalypse in our group text that we laugh about nervously the next morning, when the light has returned.
But the oranges, the persimmons—inarguable fact of our life and its happening. That it did. That we were there for it, even if we didn’t know then.
We could not know is not the point, nor is fault, nor is shame. On the emergency flight back from Paris last week, Jenna and I drank the small bottles of airplane wine in flight until we were tipsy, and talked about how lucky we felt. That we managed to make it home, that we found out in time, that we were in the air.
I still feel lucky and I still feel shame. All life feels surreal now, an absurd take, the uneven weight of my childhood tales of the end days brought to life in surreal blue. When we got the phone call from our parents that we needed to leave, my hands did not stop shaking until we arrived at the airport, until it set in (oh, remiss, oh ignorance) that life had irrevocably changed. Only then, did we feel that buzz, that fear.
In every airport, we washed our hands and wrists until our fingers split.
My friends, what I mean is, this life is shallow like a plate. It goes no further.
I love you all. Now I know you and I love you, and it doesn’t matter for this life will kill us without knowing us and ruin our beautiful hearts without seeing them, and there is nothing breathing never nothing anything to breathe inside a stone.
I have been thinking about these end lines from Jesse Ball’s short story “A Wooden Taste” since I first read it, years ago, walking home from Queen Anne Book Company and thumbing through Granta as I tiptoed down the hill to my apartment. The day was bright and clear and I had blueberries in my bag. I have been thinking about these end lines constantly this last week, and Ginzburg, and the way knowledge changes how we love yet too often that knowledge is latent, lost.
Now I know you and I love you.
When I first moved to New York City, I dealt with a month-long flea infestation from a prior roommate’s cat that left tiny welts all over my legs. I washed my sheets and all my clothes over and over again, sprayed my room, scrubbed my home, poured diatomaceous earth powder in the cracks of the floorboards. It was disgusting and painful and it felt like it would never end. It took a month and two fumigations before the fleas died, and even now, I have a patchworks of pale scars on my calves from their bites. I had my New York moment early, I joked, I’m good now.
A few weeks ago, my friend Alex and her mom Julie visited and we had a long dinner at Sunday in Brooklyn where I felt improbably happy. I talked about the book I was writing and tried to convince Alex to leave Chicago. We drank an orange wine that matched Alex’s nails and split an icecream swirled with pumpkin. It feels like my life has opened up, I said. It’s amazing how quickly New York has become home. We clinked our near empty glasses and cheered. When we left, we were the second to last table, and the night was cold, and we had missed the L —because of course — but took lyfts home as it was late and we could.
Oh, ordinary instant, oh, irrevocable split. When I call my mother, I picture my family’s faces and do not know when I will see them again. I am waiting on test results for coronavirus and in the meantime, I sleep, I quarantine, I stay in. I make meals of pasta, the buttery Scratchy Husband Pasta that my ex and I used to love, and the tender of this recollection holds me. In everything, we collect and carry our life, load our pockets with these memories that we make stone soup out of. Still, I am being fed. What is there to say that is large enough to peer at fear when each day the night shortens. It seems strange to hear the birds and not be able to join in with their calls. Yet people on balconies in Europe sing across empty spaces. I cannot look at my phone without wanting to call everyone I have ever loved and tell them so.
I know my own personal sadness mirrors the sadness of so many others, that in the moment I am safe and healthy and most of the people I love are safe and healthy. I know fear is unwieldy and lonesome in my chest. I know that nothing is certain save our love for each other, and despite the saccharine taste that seems to leave upon its imprint, it is true. I say it like sweaty palms and sloppy kisses. I say it like the sweat of bodies after sex and the thrill of waking up with another human, friend, lover, stranger. Those moments of tenderness, of sleepy mouths. I say love and the sound is the size of this place: of all our hands reaching, touching and not touching, holding one another through this spring.