Nonfiction

Now, Now


The train is perfect, so like a train. Enough people around that I don’t think too hard about you, but not enough to keep me from curling up over two seats and going to sleep. An oasis on wheels. I doze as the train winds through downtown Montreal and the outlying farmland, waking to hand my passport to a stern robot dressed as a customs official. I snore, probably. You would laugh, not kindly, if you were here. You would imitate the sound. I wake up again at Glens Falls as the conductor stalks up and down the aisles yelling GLENS falls, GLENS falls, this stop GLENS falls! like a cartoon rather than a man. The sun is going down and the sky is golden and the river is steel and I miss you, am roaring away from you.

Although I have not yet arrived, my mother has already begun to worry, calling over and over. Yes, I’ll come to the service on Saturday. Yes, the train’s running late. My brother calls and asks why I promised to go to Easter Vigil when it’s going to be his best friend’s birthday and we should go to Manhattan and get drunk. I don’t really have an answer and don’t want to grope for one. I might say that I’m trying to test your theory that I believe in God. My mouth still tastes like a hangover and I have six new bedbug bites, mostly on my hands, and it’s never you when my phone rings.

When we last saw each other, I was collecting my jewelry from the bedside tables and slipping my dress back over my head. You followed me wordlessly, like a ghost in pajamas. When you lay back down, I avoided your infested bed and you avoided saying you’d call.

I wish you could be here now, yes, even roaring through Saratoga Springs, en route to a week of suburban morass. I wish I didn’t feel, often, like you are spinning out lies, like you’re used to it. I can tell now when you tense up and don’t want me to linger on a particular subject. You are uncomfortable when I try to draw out your timeline, as most people are, but I have come to ask myself if this is because it is not true.

When discussing your arrest, for example, you are vague and dismissive. There was something with hash, hash on the dash, and something with your wife and the dog gone missing and you kicked a police car, or perhaps you kicked her, or the cop, and that was one arrest. Sometimes it seems there were many. My lungs rushed tight and awful when you said She said I hit her and you said it with such bitterness. That was the night when I told you I was afraid of you, sitting much too stoned and much too honest on the kitchen floor.  My face felt watery, mutable, poorly-set. When you pressed I blamed it on the war, and you agreed, and we both fell silent.

One cold winter afternoon not too long after, I asked the ex-marine at my job about it. I barely said the word. War. It is still hard to believe that we are in one, have been in one most of my life. Man we didn’t do shit in Afghanistan, he said, leaning on my desk. We were in one firefight, exactly one. The rest of the time was just standing around on bases. He sucked his teeth dismissively. I thought about how your eyes darkened when I came home from class one day with my mouth running on about brains, methods of slicing and preserving and studying them, and you said I don’t need to hear this. I don’t need to hear this. I know what brains look like. There are differences, I know, between a marine and a soldier, but I don’t know even know when you were there, where the army fits in this single-file march of your years.

The train approaches Poughkeepsie and the ground drops out from under us. I press my nose against the window and watch the cold water slam into the rocks and rapids, watch it raging from perilously high above.

We fought before I left. I started to tell you, my stomach shrinking away from my voice, about beauty. That the only thing I believe in is beauty; that’s why my bedroom door bristles and flaps with poems, why I love your careful hands arranging vegetables when we make salad, why I love―. You cut me off and launched off more accusations, more bombs in the lake. That’s why you go to church? Why you support these people who killed so many people, keep killing them? Do you think the Crusades are over? Beauty lying on the floor looking up at me. I tried. You put your hands in the air as if reaching for something. How can I be dating a religious girl? Your hands swam, groping for an explanation, and pulled me to you, and pushed me away.

If it’s a seven-year ban and you’ve got two left, it happened when you were 23. The year before you got married, I think. You put so much time between now and then, but when I yellow-paged your home number after the fight, there was her voice on the answering machine. Somewhere there is an answering machine with her voice on it, filled to the brim. Every time the beep came and I said Habibi… a brusquely programmed recording told me that my message was too quiet, too long, all wrong. I kept croaking at the phone, playing your happily married voices over and over again, trying at the very least to leave proof that I was there. I was young when you got married, chasing myself in Brooklyn in big headphones, kneeling by the mirror to give myself clumsy haircuts. By the time you divorced I had started smoking and moved to Montreal, the city you were born in and don’t leave―well, can’t leave. The border for you a brick wall, a constant reminder of what the word felony means in English.

We pull into my hometown. The sky is the color of a bruise and the trees are copper paintings, the river a flat glass you could stand at and watch your reflection float away. During the past half-hour it’s built up and intensified; now when the sun hits the inside of the car we are dipped in gold. Sanctified. It is hard for muddy emotions to exist in such a golden place, so I don’t feel anything for you at this moment. I think about the seeds we planted on your windowsill, the green fingers looping out from the black soil, and I smile. Let my love for you be a pea shoot, then, creeping upwards, blind and deaf, indifferent to everything but the sun. I get off the train and within ten minutes I’m hugging my mother and brothers and it’s all idle chatter and red wine and tortilla chips. So be it.

One night my mother knocks. I’m listening to St. Vincent on my bed and she flicks through the clothes spilling out of my backpack. You could wear this, she says, holding up the dress I wore on our first date. I try to imagine wearing it in the candlelit church, try to arrange the words I don’t think I’m going in some acceptable combination. It’s funny, she says, of the song. She sings so beautifully but the words are so…harsh, I don’t know. Is it a break-up song ? I’m looking through the pile for dress pants or something. The album’s called “Marry Me,” Mom.

I call you after two days of waiting. I block my number and lie backwards on the yoga ball they are keeping in my former bedroom and blush and tremble and smile and split at the seams like an old baseball. My guts all over the floor. Your voice shakes and you sway between missing me sweetly, loving me somehow, and yelling, I can’t HEAR you, speak up, speak up. But I’m still in this echoing old house, not wanting to shout JE T’AIME into the cell phone I haven’t used since high school. I can tell you’re not OK, you don’t need to tell me. I know you’re not sleeping without me. I’m just not sure that you’re alone. Just come back, you say, Please, and now I don’t have anything left. I snap the phone closed and put myself to bed on shaky legs.

My mother drives me to the bus, a long way away, and asks me not to leave. I smile and give her a hug and look meaningfully at my overstuffed backpack, the symbol of my set itinerary, the inevitability of my rentrée. She leaves and I wait to be called aboard. The bus is refreshing. I am used to the bus and the bus is used to me. I crave a cigarette in an absent, perfunctory kind of way, like a mother who is vaguely fond of a nagging child. You will be proud of me for not smoking, you will perhaps pick me up and carry me slowly, grandly, to your bedroom.

I put on Marry Me and hear her tight voice strain with…what? With anger. I can hear it now, now that it’s seeping and tiding through my body. She sings about a city full of flames, a little box of ashes going home; she sings like there’s nothing more useful than a Molotov. I listen and my jaw thrusts and tightens, my breath hisses and the muscles in my shoulders clench. An animal growl is rippling through my brain, and we’re nearly at the border now. I am on my way back to you, and the air whistles through the places where I have cracked.

Alice Vam Alice Vam writes poems and stories in Canada on a desk made of old windows. Her work has previously been published in Veg Lit, Pulpit Magazine (not the religious one) and Gut Lit. Alice Vam is a pseudonym. No other facts or names have been changed.