I was, at that time in my life, working at a restaurant in Manhattan, which I hated. It paid decent money, which was hard to come by then, and at the least it allowed me to sleep in, or get up early and have the day to myself, and that was worth something. I was a hostess, which means I was hired mostly for my looks. By that, I mean I’m tall, and I had grown my hair quite long, and I wasn’t averse to keeping my shirt partially unbuttoned.
Adam was the one benefit of working at that restaurant; or rather, he was the one thing that mattered about working at that restaurant. There was something at work in me, back then, which I have only recently begun to identify and understand. It took me years before I really felt again, for anybody, what I felt for Adam.
The strange thing about Adam was that right away I needed attention from him. He dropped by the host stand each day when he came in and stood for a moment or two to say hello. He was thin and blond, an inch taller than me, and a year younger. He was a line cook. I was very ambitious, though in a vague way, and at first I thought that Adam lacked ambition. He seemed happy, an idea I’ve never really trusted.
But when he came in, distracted, and didn’t say hello to me in the morning, I was offended. And it wasn’t that I felt like I deserved his attention, it was that I suddenly was afraid that I wasn’t worth his attention. Maybe once a week he would forget to say hello, and I suspected that his lapse merely indicated his disinterest in me altogether; that he was just being polite.
I told him so, once, when a group of us went out for a beer after work on a Saturday night. I did it in a teasing way, of course, as if I didn’t really care. He was embarrassed. He wasn’t skilled, particularly, at navigating situations like this. He was too honest. What a skilled man would have done is flirt back, tease me, draw me out a little. Adam apologized, which mortified me. If I’d really liked him at that point it would have turned me off. As it was, I felt quite tender toward him. Some people are like that. I had this fount of affection for him before I ever knew him well.
By the time I noticed Adam, most of my coworkers knew that I was sleeping with one of the sommeliers, James. Adam must have known about James too, but he never mentioned him. James was my type. He was a good six inches taller than me, and he had hazel eyes and a perfectly ripe tan. He was fastidious. He took me out to dinner at some of the best places in New York. He knew how to make conversation with almost anybody, and he was sarcastic, which I loved. After I got to know Adam, I realized that sarcasm is not the same thing as wit; Adam was socially acute, and he pointed these things out.
With James, all I really had to do was learn a little bit about wine, and then ask him questions. What does oak do? What’s the difference between American oak and French oak? I went to a bookstore and paged through a bunch of wine books and wrote down the major wine varietals. I’m good with information that way. I can remember names and dates and authors and vintages. I paid close attention to what James talked about, and he liked me for it. I even started to know what he meant when he talked about something being full-bodied or lean. Wine is very sensual that way—I mean, the vocabulary is sensual. And James was very good in bed. He was practiced, attentive and just inventive enough. He undressed me once from the bottom up, starting with my shoes and working off my skirt and underwear, and then, when he had me totally naked, he took off my necklace and earrings and all the bobby pins holding my hair up, and only then did he kiss me. Slowly. Stuff like that.
* * *
The other thing about Adam was that I could never quite anticipate him, particularly in terms of reading. He told me once about something he called leserichtung, which is German and means something like “reading direction,” like the way one book leads to another. Adam was all about this idea. He didn’t pick books at random, or have a list, or buy books in advance. He would finish one book and then go to the library and follow his leserichtung, see wherever the book he had just finished would lead him. I had a game I played with myself, which I never told Adam about, where I would try to have the same book as him on the same day. It never worked, of course. He lent me short stories by Chekhov. I stayed up late to read half of it and then, skimming through the titles, reading the beginnings and endings of each story, I thought about Adam and planned out several directions he might take. One was to continue reading Russian authors. Another would be to read contemporaries of Chekhov. Or to move into Chekhov’s plays. I spent the next morning on the internet, making lists. Finally I decided on a collection of stories by some guy named Gogol, and I picked it up from Barnes and Noble on my way to work. It was perfect. I was holding it nonchalantly when he walked past me that day, and he stopped, looked over my shoulder, beaming.
This is great, he said. He was so pleased I thought that I might have nailed it. I love this stuff. Let me know what you think when you’re done.
He’d already read it. He was holding a book by Raymond Carver. Did you like the Chekhov?
Knowing things is easy for me. I could’ve told him the title of every short story in that book and probably all of the characters and what happened when and where. But I actually had no idea whether I liked it or not. It was really good, I said.
Adam also taught me to cook. Or rather, he showed me how he cooked, and I would imitate what he showed me. I was better at this, though, than at anticipating his books. There was a language to it, the cuts and the forms of the vegetable combinations. I had studied French in high school, but I had never learned these things: parisiennes, juliennes, supreme, mirepoix, brunoise. This was information. There were rules to it, down to the quarter inch of the cut. There was richness to this, also, drinking wine that was seven dollars a bottle and eating four different courses that Adam kept jumping up to check on.
At this time I was living in the worst apartment in Brooklyn, next to the tracks where passing trains would shake my bedroom every five minutes. There was nothing nice about this place. There were holes in the floors and cracks in the wall and bad plumbing and cockroaches and mice. The super gave me traps for the mice, but the only thing worse than a live rodent is a dead rodent, and I stopped using the traps after discovering the anxiety of disposing of broken little bodies. I bought groceries at this bodega down the street because the guy that ran the place always recognized me, and there’s something rather lovely about having something familiar in a city like this. But the groceries were awful. The fruit rotted within a day or two. The cheese turned green almost immediately, and the yogurt always seemed to have the seal broken. So when Adam came over with a bag of vegetables from the greenmarket in Manhattan and set to work, I would open the windows and let the rattling of the trains fill the whole place, and we’d smoke and drink wine and suddenly this space which I loved only because it was my own became a space I loved because it was inhabited, because it was lived in. My apartment in those days was the setting for poems and love stories. I cleaned the dishes because he cooked, and he would read to me, walking from end to end of my tiny kitchen with a book or magazine in his hand. He read unromantic things, Sherlock Holmes stories or book reviews.
So Adam’s pursuit of me was unrecognizable for a long time. He never tried to kiss me. At the end of the night he would thank me or give me a brief hug and exit down my narrow staircase without looking back. He had impeccable manners. The first time he came over for dinner, he mailed me a thank-you card the next day, with a stamp and everything. He also bought me a knife, which I thought was weird until I realized how intensely protective cooks are about their knives, and also how expensive they are. In that light it is one of the best presents I’ve ever received.
In the meantime I was seeing James less and less, and mostly when either he or I was drunk. We had one of those peculiar relationships that forbid us from acknowledging each other in public, so that on a night out drinking with the rest of the staff, we treated each other as mere acquaintances and then would meet up down the street to go home together. This made a stark contrast to my relationship with Adam, in which we were openly quite friendly by this time. But it also gave me the sensation of sneaking around with James behind Adam’s back. There was something delicious about this, at first, but then, strangely, it began to feel like a chore.
* * *
One night, out at the bar, Adam and I were drinking a beer and, one by one, the rest of the staff joined us after they closed up the restaurant. The first to arrive was this girl Christine. People like Christine have always been especially irritating to me. Her entire body craved attention. She had a way of cornering me, physically, head bent down and shoulders angled to block my escape, to tell me inane facts about her apartment, or her cell phone that kept breaking. I would pretend to be busy and distracted, shuffling through papers, but I could always feel her, her eyes on my face, begging me to acknowledge her existence. In this way, also, Adam was better than me. He had inexhaustible patience for people like her. He could humor them. So Christine was telling us a story about a bartender friend of hers when James slid into the seat next to Adam, across from me.
He works at this bar down on First Ave, she was saying, and I immediately looked at James for help. Adam wasn’t offering me anything, not a glance of sympathy, a subtle smirk, nothing. James cast his eyes up in contempt and set his mouth around the beer glass.
What’s the name of the bar? Adam asked.
Elysian, she said.
And then something strange happened. I knew what Elysian meant because of all those Greek myths I read in middle school. And Adam knew what it meant because he’s Adam. But what James said was, a lesion? What, like a diseased bit of skin?
I almost laughed, because this was truly witty, as well as cruel. But across the plastic table, looking at James with new appreciation, I suddenly could see that he wasn’t making a joke. He actually didn’t know what the word meant. And Adam caught my eye and he knew in that single moment everything about me. This was a fundamental shift. It was also definitional, in some way, aligning Adam and me with each other and against everyone else.
* * *
Adam and I walked hand in hand down darkened, slick streets. The thing about New York at night is that while it never sleeps, it lulls. The lights in the bars dim, the music turns down, the drunken laughter turns to drunken whispering, as if everyone’s still awake but in secret. And there’s always a moment, one long pause, between the ramblings of late-night wanderers and the roar of morning delivery trucks, when the night changes over into day. It was midsummer, and despite the rain it was warm. We walked for a long time, crossing avenues and slipping up side streets, climbing over fences to cut across parks and stopping to sit on the damp benches.
What are you most afraid of? he asked. He never let go of my hand.
Drowning, I said. He laughed.
No, like a real fear, not a phobia.
I wanted to say, Yeah, drowning, still. But what I said was, what about you?
He swung our hands, rubbing his thumb across mine. I’m afraid . . . of being stuck somewhere. Like—choosing something and then having debts, and rent to pay, and people to take care of, and always having the feeling that I’m missing out on my real life that’s being lived elsewhere. Not being able to get at it, this real life that I’m supposed to live.
There was a buzzing in my pocket. James, calling me. Every now and then I could say exactly the right thing: So you’re afraid of drowning, too.
Adam hooked his free hand around the nape of my neck.
Look, I said. The sun’s coming up. He looked around.
Yes. He took his hand away. It always does.
We walked to the street corner, to the subway. You’re a strange bird, I told him. It was something my step dad always said to me. My step dad is one of the kindest, most equable men I have ever known, but he always seemed slightly bewildered, as if ending up in his middle age marrying a woman with a teenage daughter had existed outside the realm of possibility and then suddenly happened to him, without his choosing.
There’s very little strange about me, Adam said, and then he kissed me, in a rush as though I might disappear. And then, of all contradictions, it was not I but he who vanished, down the subway stairs and away from the growing light of day.
* * *
The next day was Sunday. I slept very little before I was up and pacing the apartment, nursing a hangover and waiting for something to happen. I have rarely felt that way since, that rising, verging sensation, like the world is about to explain itself to me. I washed my sheets, remade my bed, folded my clothes, swept and organized the opened mail on the kitchen table. I checked my email every half hour. I received only one text message, from James. I lay on my bed and counted the seconds between each passing train. I fell asleep for an hour, and when I woke up I kept counting between trains, wondering about my dreams. There was something distinctly within my grasp that day. I took a shower, smoked a cigarette, opened and closed the windows. Finally, the buzzer rang.
Sex with Adam was a singular experience. I don’t mean just because it only happened once, but also that nothing has ever happened to me, before or since, like it. We were shy and awkward, fumbling. I didn’t have an orgasm, but something else happened. In high school, I took a course in first aid and CPR, to get out of gym class. We knelt on the gray carpet and locked our hands together and pumped on plastic dummies until the little button on their chest clicked. That’s how you knew you were pushing hard enough. And being with Adam was like that, in a way, like something was pushing on my heart until it clicked, each beat a struggle and a triumph, and the voice of the weird health teacher whose name I can’t remember in my ear, saying: That’s right. Do you feel it now?
After, I told him about the dreams I’d been having. All summer I’d woken up from some strange scenario or another, and the last image I saw before the dream ended was a tornado, a tower of dust coming toward me, picking up all the little paraphernalia of my life, old couches and tax returns, and finally arriving at me, where at the moment of entry into the void I would awake. It must have been, I told Adam, the result of an art exhibit he’d dragged me to a few months before, where this Belgian guy chased tornadoes around the north of Mexico with a handheld camera.
You always have to qualify everything, he said. And seeing me frown at him, he added, you don’t like mystery. If it’s large and unknown and inexplicable you always want to know why. It never stands alone.
Sorry, I said. I really was sorry, though I wasn’t sure what for; it just seemed that, for that brief moment, there was something I lacked. Adam brought that out in me, the feeling that I was incomplete. He buried his mouth in my hair and said, don’t apologize. I didn’t mean it like that. And his breathing grew slower and his arms wrapped around me, his long, narrow feet rubbed mine, and the rain outside began to really come down then, in a sort of tantrum. Adam and I were inside, where the sound of the rain drowned out the passing trains.
* * *
He was late for work when we woke up. In an instant the quiet was broken as he pulled on his pants, already on the phone to explain why he was late. I sat up in bed and watched him dress. I didn’t have to go in for several more hours.
I wanted to cook you breakfast, he said, sitting on the bed to tie his shoes. I had such noble plans.
I rested my chin on his shoulder. I don’t care about your noble plans. Which was, of course, a lie. He turned and kissed me, with surprising shyness. He blushed.
I’ve got to go. See you tonight, yeah?
I fell back asleep after he left, and when I woke up I was unsettled, guilty. It was still raining. Outside, walking to my train stop, something strange happened. When I first came to New York, on a weekend trip to see my older cousin, I was supposed to meet her somewhere. She had had class and so left me on my own for a few hours, and I got on the subway, with some destination in mind, and wound up so utterly lost that I got off at a random station and went above ground to wander around. It had been raining then, too, and I finally found a street corner where above me rattled and groaned trains along their suspended tracks. I waited for someone to pass by, to ask them directions. I asked a Hasidic woman, trailed by three small children, who shook her head, I’m sorry, I don’t know. I paced that corner for almost half an hour. Finally I followed the tracks above me until I found a station and waited on the Manhattan-bound platform, and from there I made my way back to my cousin. This street corner where I had stood, across the street from a dingy diner and a tire shop, remained in my mind a place apart, disconnected from the world, a corner that could have been in any city, the emblem of being lost. When I moved to New York several years later, I never bothered to locate on a map where I’d been. But as I walked to my stop to go to work that day, I looked up and realized, with sudden clarity, that the corner I had paced years ago was the corner I now lived on, with the tire shop, the diner, the rain. I had doubled back on myself.
There have been other moments like this, in the years that have come and gone since then. I have entered dinner parties and work interviews and have caught a glance of a newspaper headline or the tick of the clock and realized that I have converged on myself and that I do not recognize who I have been. I have been unearthed by a sense of abnormal familiarity. I have felt the need to flee from myself, not knowing which version I should escape, not knowing which double is in pursuit.
So that day when I walked into work, I already felt myself a place apart, a paper cut-out, a flimsy replica. This was the only explanation I could find for what followed.
It was one of those busy nights at the restaurant, where every couple came in shaking like wet dogs, demanding to be seated early. I didn’t even see Adam when I got there because the phone was already ringing like mad. By eight, the early crowd was lingering over coffee, reluctant to go out into the rain, and I had my hands full trying to stall the flow at the front door while the servers reset tables. Finally my manager caught the frantic look in my eye and took charge, his inane, small-toothed smile wildly trying to deflect the sighs of annoyance surrounding him. I left him to it, and looked around the dining room. A table for two had just left, and the busboy was clearing plates across the room.
I took a tray and began to place the dirty glasses on it. The signed credit card receipt I folded in my hand to give to the server; this the moment when my life should have paused, the moment I should regret, the moment I can’t fathom. But right then, it all made perfect sense. The cash tip, about twenty-five dollars, I put in my pocket. It was just an action, not a decision I made. And yet, I must have sought it out, the pettiness, the inconsequence of it to me and the terrible importance of it to anyone else who witnessed it. There is something pleasurable about it still.
So the rest follows as one might expect. I handed the receipt to the server, who eyed me with suspicious dismay, and she whispered to my manager in the corner, who sighed as though something had been confirmed. An hour went by as the restaurant grew less crowded and at last I stood idly at the front door. In this time, I could have faked ignorance, said, oh, I forgot, silly me, here’s your money. But I didn’t. My manager, shrugging awkwardly in his oversized suit, asked to speak with me in the office; I turned out my pockets, and just like that, I was fired.
* * *
That night Adam called, and I listened to my phone ring and lay on my back staring at the ceiling of my bedroom. He left a message: earnest, pathetic, faithful. By the end of the week, he stopped calling. I think he must have come over once, too, but I didn’t answer when the buzzer rang. And a few weeks later I got a job as a receptionist at a law firm, and within a month after that I was sleeping with one of the paralegals. That summer became a forgotten episode, unacknowledged. Seeing an old coworker on the street, I would duck into a café until she had passed. I didn’t want to know her.
But once, only a year ago, I thought that I saw Adam. I was working on a masters’ degree in education and I’d been in half a dozen relationships since I last saw him, one or two of which could be considered quite successful. I was in the mid-Manhattan library, of all places, riding the escalator to the second floor when, from above, rising slowly away from him, I saw him on the first floor, paging through a book, his shoulders stooped under the familiar navy sweatshirt. I couldn’t turn around and run down, and so at the top I careened in desperate circles to find a staircase. I was struck with the fear that he would disappear. I slammed the door open and ran, then took the cement stairs two or three at a time in great, frightened leaps. At the bottom I stopped, shaking, and took a breath to calm myself. I felt like a screen door swinging wildly in a summer thunderstorm. I held myself still, and then pushed the silver bar and swung into the downstairs, walking toward him, smiling, composed. Adam. All I had to do was say his name, and everything, all the rest, would take care of itself.
It wasn’t him. It was a trick of the light, and as I approached, the man transformed into what he was, a stranger. This, then, was the moment of the fall. I was bereft. I left the library without finding whatever it was that I had been looking for; and all this time after, in all my memories of who he was and what he had been to me, it is still that feeling of absurd, despairing flight down the stairs that fills me with shame.
Photo credit: amanda taraska photography