A long meditation on poetry, love, time, pain, and finishing the novel:
April 2010. I’m in Wassenaar, Holland, at one end of the long desk I share with my wife, Elisa. She scored a writer-in-residence fellowship here at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study (NIAS) and managed to coattail me in, so we’ve been spending time at this desk since early February, working every day to push forward on our new novels. We face two five-foot tall windows we’ve had to decorate with yellow Post-its to keep the busy Dutch birds from trying to fly in on us. When we look away from our computer screens, we can see spring slowly arriving: On the ground, brown flowers into green and, above that, the sun heats the steel gray sky until it turns a deep, bright blue.
There are occasional days of rain and cold, but there’s no doubt about spring. I feel far less certain about my new novel. There are other large projects that feel uncertain, too. Elisa and I have been together for five years and we have a fourteen-month-old son, and though we want nothing more than to be good partners and good parents, we sometimes fail. Failing, of course, is to be expected. We simply need, as Beckett says, to fail better. But even that can feel elusive.
The other night we fought and I walked alone to this office in the dark. My plan was to sleep on the office couch and hope the morning would bring some clarity.
A copy of Nick Flynn’s The Ticking Is the Bomb is in my backpack. Reading Nick Flynn has helped me through moments like this before. Crossing paths with him hasn’t hurt, either. I suppose this essay is my way of trying to thank him. I like to believe he’ll understand.
November 2002. Before Elisa, I almost married a poet who is a close friend of Nick Flynn’s. The poet and I re-met at our twentieth high school reunion, outside of Philadelphia. I was thirty-eight, single, and for the last year and a half I’d been living in Albany, New York, where my social life felt barren and hopeless. I didn’t show up at the reunion with a specific plan, but any chance to meet people outside of New York’s lonely capital felt promising. Plus, I got a nice jolt from the idea of meeting someone I’d known as a teenager. Many of my friends had married in their early twenties and over the years I’d watched them develop a kind of intimacy with their partners I feared I’d never have—or wouldn’t discover until my mid-fifties, if I started right away. Maybe if I fell in love with an old classmate, we’d find a shortcut to that intimacy I’d admired from afar.
As I stepped away from the registration desk, one of my best friends (married with three kids) rushed over to tell me about a woman I needed to talk with immediately. “She writes poetry now,” he said. “I told her you actually read that stuff.” The name he mentioned called forth the image of an attractive, quiet girl with a wall of curly brown hair who sat near me in Mrs. Bintner’s English class one year. I never bothered trying to talk with her back then. I was not in her league. In high school, I was too low in the social standings to be in any league at all.
Over by the bar, I discovered that her wall of hair had been trimmed back. She was wearing black boots, tights, and a short skirt. I couldn’t help feeling she was still out of my league, but I sipped my whiskey and reminded myself that it was 2002 and I’d recently signed a two-book deal for a novel and a collection of stories and I had a tenure-track job and stayed in decent shape and wasn’t yet completely bald and had never been married. It wasn’t necessarily hopeless.
We talked about poetry and had a nice conversation about Mark Doty and Provincetown. I learned she and her bee-stung lips lived in New York City these days and I told her I tried to flee Albany for Manhattan as often as I could. We exchanged e-mail addresses before walking off separately to continue our reunioning.
It may or may not have been because of that shared English class twenty years earlier, but we did move toward intimacy with exciting speed. There was a flurry of e-mail followed by a long, winding stroll through the Upper West Side. We wanted to plan another date right away, but winter break was coming and I was heading west to hole up in my uncle and aunt’s cabin north of San Francisco to write. I casually invited the poet to join me for a week or two. Within twenty-four hours she’d shocked us both by purchasing non-refundable tickets. In the same e-mail that contained news of the tickets, she included Jane Kenyon’s poem, “The Suitor,” which she’d spied on the subway. I kept re-reading the final lines:
Suddenly I understand that I am happy.
For months the feeling
has been coming close, stopping
for short visits, like a timid suitor.
April 2010. At this long desk by these big windows I’m writing a novel that, as far as I can tell, has something to do with fatherhood and something to do with torture. Two of the books I’m reading, hoping they’ll help with the work, are Philip Gourevitch’s Standard Operating Procedure and Nick Flynn’s The Ticking Is the Bomb. Both books are absorbing and disturbing, for different, albeit related, reasons. It’s not until I’m far along in Nick’s book—a harrowing, gorgeous nonfiction exploration of fatherhood and torture—that I discover he’s already read the Gourevitch. This discovery is comforting (I’m on the right track), but also unsettling (I’m trailing after Nick again).
Nick became a father in 2008. I became a father in 2009. Elisa gave birth to our son, Miller, in the bathtub of our Brooklyn apartment. For a long time, there were four of us in the candlelit bathroom: Elisa, myself, a midwife, and a doula. The labor lasted about thirteen hours and even though I was right there I’ll never understand how Elisa did it. But suddenly there were five of us, Miller turning from blue to pink in Elisa’s arms. The midwife and doula helped clean us off and ushered us to bed. They fed us and beamed with us and told us we’d be fine and then they were gone, leaving our new family, the three of us, alone together.
Elisa drifted off into a deep sleep. Miller slept as well, his mouth against her breast, still in rhythm with her, the two of them absolutely stunning and miraculous. Curled up next to them, exhausted, I was also ready for sleep, but I felt a sparkling in my lungs I’d never felt before, like a box of matches slowly lighting up inside me with each breath. When I tried to close my eyes, more matches flared and it was almost blinding. Is this what people mean when they talk about a “third eye” opening? Is this what Nick means when he invokes bewilderment as the way to enter each day? If so, maybe becoming a father means becoming bewildered for the rest of your life.
I don’t know what Nick’s first few months of fatherhood were like, but mine were tough. I remained joyfully bewildered. I also came to feel terribly lost. When Nick speaks of what it means to be lost (as he does powerfully in Some Ether, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, and The Ticking Is the Bomb) he occasionally cites a line from D. W. Winnicott: “It is joy to be hidden, but disaster not to be found.” He shares some lines from Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost, as well: “Losing things is about the familiar falling away, getting lost is about the familiar appearing….”
As those early days blurred into early weeks, I watched my newborn son losing weight; he’d just arrived and already he was disappearing. It felt like a complete disaster. Elisa and I had devoted a lot of time to preparing for the homebirth. As the pregnancy went on, it became increasingly important to both of us to give our child a peaceful, natural entrance into the world. Some combination of superstition, cluelessness, and exhaustion, however, led us to devote surprisingly little time to preparing for the days after the birth. Then we woke up to find Elisa’s breasts engorged and our son unable to nurse effectively. One pediatrician called him, alternately, a “lousy sucker” and a “poor sucker.” Another assured us it was normal for a newborn’s weight to decrease a little, for a little while. Fine, but what constitutes “a little” and “a little while”? More important, how could it be that we did not know how to feed our son? We were failing him from the very beginning.
In stressful moments, I tend to withdraw. Elisa tends to crank up the volume. She wants to jump and shout and I want to sit and think. As Miller lost weight, I silently struggled to figure out what to do, while Elisa detailed everything that was going wrong. Where was our midwife now? Why did every lactation consultant tell us something completely different? Where were our extended families? Why, in the middle of this enormous city, were we so isolated? We’d worked so hard for something natural, but this was not natural—to be so alone, just the two of us and a crying, starving baby. It was barbaric. It was idiotic. It was dangerous. These were not the conditions for a new life. We needed help. We were doomed. We’d always been doomed.
December 2002. Those first days with the poet in my uncle and aunt’s cabin felt magical, at once familiar and thrillingly new. At the same time, it didn’t take me long to feel surprised by how much the poet wanted to talk, how much, it seemed to me, she needed to talk.
From that quiet cabin you can drive out Coleman Valley Road, up into the hills, where the winter landscape is almost lunar, wind blasting over boulders and brown grass and hardscrabble farms. The road is narrow, as if the crew that made it wanted to finish the job quickly so they could move on to greener, kinder terrain. But if you follow the path of those tough-luck laborers long enough, you’ll eventually crest the final hill and start winding your way down to Highway 1, right along the Pacific, just a few miles from Goat Rock Park, where the Russian River flows out into the ocean.
I’d told the poet that my plan was to hole up in the cabin and write, and I meant what I said. Based on a 90-page fragment, I’d signed a contract to turn in a complete novel by a date that already felt far too close; so, for better or worse, I was more motivated than usual. Of course, there was time to take daily walks, drive down to Goat Rock, linger over meals, lounge around in bed watching the sunset give way to a star-filled sky. But I also wanted to work, quietly, for a bunch of hours everyday.
By the second day, the poet had started making phone calls while I worked. She reached out to friends for what she called “minis.” She explained them to me as, essentially, a chance for one person to talk, to say whatever she’s feeling, for five minutes, uninterrupted, with the knowledge that she is being heard. You ease into it gently and exit the same way. There’s no summing up or request for comment. It’s not a discussion.
I come from a pretty stiff-lipped family. A shorthand history: My parents didn’t go to college; right after high school they took jobs they’ve kept their whole lives so my brothers and I could go to college, and they expected the three of us to move the whole family forward, steadily, single-mindedly, without complaint or complex feelings. With my limited frame of reference, the poet’s minis sounded to me like controlled rants, and it was odd to be present across the room while they were taking place. I tried to focus on what was going to happen next in my imaginary world, but I kept wondering about those intense phone calls. Who was she talking to? I wasn’t ready to date someone who was already in a relationship. I understood the minis were simply a form of therapy, or connected somehow to therapy—the poet’s shorthand history: she came from a family of therapists, her parents, her older sister, a brother-in-law, all in the profession—but I couldn’t imagine talking that way to someone I wasn’t in a relationship with. Back then, I couldn’t really imagine talking that way at all.
I wasn’t listening carefully—listening carefully wasn’t my strong suit—but I think several of the mini calls went out to a guy named Nick.
February, 2010. We’ve been in Wassenaar less than three weeks and we’re struggling to settle in. I wander into the new library in the heart of the village and, searching through the small collection of DVDs, I find a copy of Darwin’s Nightmare, a documentary I’ve wanted to see for a while. Nick Flynn has some connection to it—“field poet,” the credits say—and I already have Nick Flynn on the brain, so I pick it up and bike back to our temporary home. I can’t read the description on the case—I have no Dutch—but I think I remember hearing what the film is about: Lake Victoria is being fished empty to feed people outside of Africa while people along its shores and throughout Africa starve. Planes fly into Africa full of weapons and fly back to Europe full of fish.
For the last two years, Elisa and I haven’t lived anywhere for more than a few months at a time. It’s a consequence of good fortune—a semester in Spain on a Fulbright, extended trips with family and friends over summer and winter breaks, her apartment in Brooklyn and my house in Albany—and we’re always seeking opportunities to get on the road. We don’t always do well with transition, however. Our joke: Sometimes we’re a road family, sometimes we’re a road-kill family.
Miller has a stubborn cold he caught on the plane and he’s teething, and Elisa wonders about the wisdom of our having traveled to this flat, gray, cold, wet country. On this particular night, after we put Miller to bed and before we can begin to watch the film, our heat cuts off. Then Miller starts crying and fights going back to sleep. We’re all exhausted. And then Elisa starts crying, too. Somehow, it helps her. It doesn’t help me, though, and such moments push me toward my own dark thoughts. I have a headache and I wonder how I got into a situation where everyone is crying except me and we’re in the goddamn Netherlands where I know no doctors and no heating specialists and I want nothing more than to soothe everyone back to sleep.
I decide it’s probably not the best time for Darwin’s Nightmare.
Eventually, Miller quiets down and when he wakes, early in the morning, I boil water for his oatmeal. I also boil a few pots full of water to pour in the bathtub so Elisa can at least give herself a sponge bath before she has to head off to Amsterdam for a busy day. She is touched and grateful.
2003. Albany is two and half hours north of New York City, if you travel by Amtrak and Amtrak runs on time, and seven hours east of San Francisco, if you travel by plane and get lucky with your connections. I wish I lived in New York City. Before moving to Albany, I lived in San Francisco, my favorite city in the world so far. I’d prefer Albany, California (just outside Berkeley) to Albany, New York, but writers and academics often have to take the jobs they get. The poet can occasionally see the considerable charm of Albany, NY, but like me she prefers New York City. Unlike me, she lives in New York City and has lived there for fifteen years. Before long, our sweet-spontaneous-cross-country-rendezvous relationship runs into the reality of Albany. I’m not likely to get a tenure-track job in New York City (or, alas, San Francisco), and I’d be unlikely to get tenure at Albany if I were commuting from NYC, so for the next few years at least, I’ll be living most of my life in Albany.
The poet wants to find a way to accept that. Friends would help. One day a friend of hers who is, also, to some degree, an ex—the details are unclear to me: she says they quickly realized it wouldn’t work between them, but doesn’t say how quickly, or what occasioned the realization, and I don’t push it—comes to visit. His name is Nick Flynn and he’s traveling with his current girlfriend, a playwright he met in Italy. I give them a tour of my neighborhood with its blocks of 1880s brownstones and the Fredrick Law Olmsted-inspired Washington Park. I tell them if they have a few beers and squint they’ll almost be able to imagine themselves in Brooklyn. After a while, we wander away from the brownstones to Empire Plaza, the fascist-inflected, concrete Brasilia imposed upon the city center by Nelson Rockefeller. We walk over to the performance space called “The Egg,” an ovoid building made of poured concrete that seems to float just above the Plaza like a flying saucer forever struggling to lift off. I’m happy to watch the poet enjoying this Albany afternoon. As we stroll around the city, she stays close to Nick while I talk with the playwright.
2000. Before the poet, I planned a wedding. The invitations proclaimed it would take place on September 9, 2000, in Truro, Massachusetts. (I had a month to swim in a pond in Truro, writes Nick, describing a rare halcyon moment in his life.) I had a few busy days driving around Truro, meeting with a rabbi, setting a menu, picking the spot high on a hill with a view of the ocean where we would speak our vows.
I’d met my fiancée on a blind date while I was in the writing program at Boston University. She was a cardiologist working at the VA hospital, living with her parents, putting her life back together after a divorce. A few minutes before I rushed out to meet her for our second date, I received a phone call from Eavan Boland at Stanford University telling me I’d been awarded a Stegner Fellowship. I applied for Stegners the way I went on blind dates: It was something I felt I should do, but I always assumed it wouldn’t work out. Now I would be moving to my dream city (San Francisco) to study at my dream university (Stanford) with my dream teacher (Tobias Wolff).
And the second date was fantastic. By our calculations, it went on for a while, since we spent every night together for the next month. (I do, apparently, have a tendency to move from intense solitude to instant relationship.) Our third date lasted even longer, and in middle of it she asked when we should start talking about marriage. Before long we were living together in the Bay Area. She took a job at a different VA hospital and I commuted back and forth to Stanford. Soon after we arrived, a doctor visiting from Hilo, Hawaii approached the cardiologist about joining his practice. Would I consider moving to Hawaii, she wanted to know? It was an absurd question and I laughed at the prospect of yet another dream coming true.
We decided to spend the summer in Hilo so she could make sure she’d like working there. We sent out our wedding invitations and joked with friends that our weeks on the Big Island would be our practice honeymoon.
Then the run of good fortune ended. We learned that her mother, a breast cancer survivor, now had pancreatic cancer, and there would be no surviving that. Though I like to think of myself as relatively sensitive and compassionate, I was my parents’ son; and up until then I’d been lucky enough never to have someone close to me die. I’m not proud of how I handled this tragic news. I stayed willfully ignorant, trying to convince both of us that her mother might survive for years. I cut short conversations about what was happening, suggesting that her mother would want us to go on with our lives, not wallow in self-pity. I worked hard to write my pages every day.
Still, we flew to Hilo. Our second day there, she came home to the outrageous house we’d rented and told me she needed to cancel the wedding and she wanted me to leave. I apologized for all that I’d done wrong. I pleaded for us to get counseling, begged her to use the word postpone instead of cancel, promised to learn to be a better, more caring partner. But she was adamant and certain, as doctors can be. So much for our practice honeymoon.
The last time I saw the cardiologist—at least I had my heart broken by a professional became a favorite joke—was when we drove around the Big Island to pick up the box of cancellation notes we’d had printed, then spent an hour or two addressing envelopes. Then I was at the airport, going up the escalator, looking down to watch her turn her back and walk outside to the car. Not long after that, she invited a guy I knew to fly over for a visit. It turned out that sometimes, when I wasn’t home, they talked on the phone for hours. Less than a year later, while the cardiologist’s mother was still alive, they married.
Throughout The Ticking Is the Bomb, Nick refers to the two women he is in love with, and the book, in part, chronicles how he chose one and not the other. To re-word Winnicott: It is joy to be chosen, but disaster to be un-chosen.
April 2010. I don’t know why our fourteen-month-old loves clocks, but it’s been going on for a while. He points his finger when he sees one on the wall, finds them immediately on the pages of his favorite books, tugs at the leather band on my wrist. “Tick-tock,” he says. “Tick-tock.”
He’s a chubby, breast-fed boy (eventually we found a fantastic lactation consultant) who also loves birds and trucks and dogs and apples and peek-a-boo. Breakfast time remains guy time, and when I try to wipe his mouth with a dishtowel, he takes it from me and covers his face, giggling beneath the towel as I call for him. Has anyone seen Miller? It’s still dark out, sunrise an hour or two away. He’ll hide again and again, laughing louder each time he reveals himself. I’ll stay at the table, finding him, for as long as he wants. No disasters permitted here.
His name comes from my mother’s mother, Mildred, another tough, tight-lipped ancestor, but Elisa and I also like the association with those writer Millers, Arthur and Henry. We decide not to worry about the beer and the Miller-time jokes bound to come his way.
When we looked up the standard origin of the name, we found that it’s Old English and that it refers to a mill worker, a grinder of grain. I like that, too, since it fits with how I aspire to exist in the world: work hard, persevere, be useful, stay steady and true.
I’ve read some Beckett, but not yet Endgame, from which Nick takes his epigraph for The Ticking Is the Bomb: “Grain upon grain, one by one, and one day, suddenly, there’s a heap, a little heap, the impossible heap.”
2004. I’m entering year three on the job at SUNY Albany, and who knows if it will last? I need to publish a book and then another book to get tenure and I’m still revising my first novel. I’ve lived forty years without tenure, so clearly I can survive not having it. The same could be said of having children, something I’ve been thinking about more than usual since my recent break-up with the poet, who seemed like my last best chance.
A few months after the break-up, Nick visits our campus to give a reading. Another Bullshit Night in Suck City has just been published. Due to some bizarre scheduling, Chuck Palahniuk is visiting campus the same day. I’m teaching a large upper-level undergraduate course on contemporary literature and a large introduction to creative writing workshop. In both classes I assign Nick’s poetry collection, Some Ether, as well as excerpts from Another Bullshit Night. I’ve been on college campuses most of my adult life, attended hundreds of readings, and I’ve never seen students more excited about a writer than these students are about Palahniuk. They own his books and can’t wait to see him in person. Maybe I should engage this interest of theirs, embrace this odd pedagogical opportunity, but with the shocking Abu Ghraib images still in the headlines and with torture the hot new narrative device on 24, Lost, Battlestar Galactica, and other shows, I have no desire to examine Palahniuk’s obsessive exploration of violence. I assign nothing of his to my students and do my best to compel them to attend Nick’s event. He’s given a small room with lousy ventilation and an afternoon time slot. Palahniuk gets the evening slot and one of the largest rooms on campus.
I am Nick’s host for the day. I’m nervous, in part because I don’t like playing host—delivering the introduction, directing the post-reading Q&A, making sure everything runs on time. At such moments, I’d almost always rather be alone in a cabin somewhere. But I’m also nervous because I don’t know if Nick has done any recent minis with the poet. Ours wasn’t the most amiable break-up. Yet more shorthand: I traveled to China for a few weeks and we were going to use my time away to think. So I thought. And decided we should split up. She thought and decided we should live our lives together and when I returned from my trip I didn’t see any point in meeting up to talk more about our different conclusions. For better or worse, I wanted to talk less, not more. I wanted to believe that I’d learned a lot from my heartbreak with the cardiologist. I wanted to believe that I’d moved from one extreme to another—from a woman who kept everything hidden to a woman who didn’t want anything ever to be hidden. I told myself I needed to find a woman somewhere in the middle.
So there’s one poet in the room (Nick), another poet not in the room (our shared ex), and Palahniuk getting ready in a room nearby. After Nick’s electric, inspiring reading, it’s my duty to drag him to Palahniuk’s pre-event dinner. We arrive late, perch at the edge of the table, and talk quietly about how creepy the guy seems. Meanwhile, Palahniuk entertains the small group of administrators and professors, boasting about how many people faint at his readings; sometimes they faint during the reading itself, other times they lose consciousness when he tosses ghoulish plastic severed limbs into the crowd during his Q&A. He hopes to watch a few more go down tonight. Nick and I scarf our food and bolt.
Back on campus, 45 minutes before the reading, Palahniuk’s room is at capacity and a line of revved-up students snakes around the building. Most of these students have never attended a reading before and most of them will be turned away. The ones who know me ask if I can get them a seat. I’d gladly give them my seat if could, but I don’t tell them that. I try not to be cynical. I shake my head, apologize.
It’s my job to go in and at least make an appearance. Nick comes along because he’s supposed to meet someone inside. It’s a madhouse, packed, and I imagine anyone remotely claustrophobic might faint before Palahniuk even takes the stage. I show Nick to one of the reserved seats and then excuse myself because I see a friend of mine, the poor guy I somehow convinced to introduce Palahniuk, sweating near the front of the room. I want to wish him luck. When I return to Nick, I find a young woman sitting as close to him as she can get.
Soon after the reading begins, Nick whispers that he’s taking off. I follow him and the young woman, escorting them back outside, trying to be a good host. Normally I would offer to take them out for a nightcap or coffee and dessert, something to close out the visit, but they seem to have other plans. I linger in front of the building for a while, watching them walk away. Nick and I had spent a bunch of nice hours together, more or less just the two of us, but neither of us had mentioned the poet. By the time I peer back inside, Palahniuk is slinging those fake bloody limbs into the cheering crowd. I call it a night and head for home.
May 2010. I don’t know Nick Flynn well—I barely know him at all. I haven’t seen him since that visit to Albany, though I hope to arrange another visit around the new book. This fall I’ll be back at SUNY Albany, where I’ve been tenured for a few years now. I’m happy to say that the poet and I have been in touch. She’s met Elisa and Miller a few times. In fact, despite all her talk about the perils of leaving Manhattan, she now lives upstate, in a town just south of Albany. The second time she met Elisa, I wasn’t there. They ran into each other at a reading in Brooklyn and the poet reacted strangely. Elisa didn’t understand what was going on. Later, the poet explained she’d mistaken Elisa for Nick’s Italian playwright. They both have dark hair.
I don’t know Nick well, but somehow our lives have crossed and I don’t think it’s only in my head. I could keep detailing more tangential connections—his friends that are my friends; our shared interest in Evan Connell and others; the way we both wrote the books our fathers could not write—but I don’t know what these tenuous connections prove.
I should be working on my damn novel, at this very moment! I’m well aware—maybe even too aware—that our time at this long desk is limited and that it might be years before we’re gifted again (if ever) with such an extraordinary opportunity to write, in such a peaceful place, free from the responsibilities of teaching. Of course, that’s how I felt during that Stegner year, too, when I had no time to comfort the cardiologist. My mind still moves in the same way, I suppose, though I hope I’m more conscious of that movement than I once was.
I hardly know Nick at all, and yet I’m spending day after day here trying to figure out why knowing him this way means so much to me at this moment. When I search for the words to describe the experience of reading The Ticking Is the Bomb, and re-reading his earlier books, I recall a few lines from Walt Whitman, the very first poet I cared about. He once described “the process of reading” as “not a half-sleep, but, in the highest sense,
“an exercise, a gymnast’s struggle… the reader is to do something for himself, must be on the alert, must himself or herself construct indeed the poem, argument, history, metaphysical essay—the text furnishing the hints, the clue, the start or frame-work. Not the book needs so much to be the complete thing, but the reader of the book does.”
Maybe it’s that simple: After reading and re-reading Nick, after struggling to make sense of how his work touches me, I feel more like a “complete thing.”
Like Nick, I can’t help wondering if I could be a better son, if I have it in me to be a good father. Nick’s life is not my life, despite the crisscrossing connections, but his questions help me recognize my own questions, which strikes me as a good way to describe one of the things we seek from books, from reading, and from the people we love. Who can truly take good enough care of his parents? Who is truly prepared to be a parent? How do we stay connected in love here in this deeply flawed world? These are also Elisa’s questions, and it remains an incredible thrill to seek answers together. It’s no surprise that she’s now hooked on Nick’s books, too.
During our fight, Elisa was upset because she wanted us to talk more; she wanted to feel closer to me. I genuinely strive to talk more and I want nothing more than to be close to her—and though I try my best I was still, apparently, failing, which made me feel hopeless. It was a lousy night and I wouldn’t want to go through it again. But as I made the long, cold walk to that office with its long desk, I figured I should at least learn from what was happening. Elisa was hoping to break through some of my protective layers, to get past some of the ways I’ve sequestered myself for years.
By the time I reached the office, I was ready to try apologizing, ready to say again that I want, always, to be a better partner. Still, I gave myself more time to think and calm down. I sat on the threadbare couch and re-read the end of The Ticking Is the Bomb. I read some lines near the end so often that I wound up writing myself into them:
“That Elisa and I keep figuring it out—to be together, to be with our son, that it’s all a daily practice—this is the only miracle. It’s so simple—sometimes we just need to be held….”
An hour later, I called home. We both apologized. I headed back outside. The temperature had dropped a few degrees, but as I walked toward our house, I was warm.
The next day, in the office, while our distinguished colleagues up and down the hall prepared for lunch, the two of us drew the curtains across the enormous windows. We locked the door, stripped off our clothes, and quietly made love on the threadbare red couch that, fortunately, I hadn’t had to sleep on the night before.
June 2010. After finishing The Ticking Is the Bomb again, I make a note to myself to read Beckett’s Endgame soon. In the meantime, as I struggle to finish this essay, or appreciation, or whatever the hell it is, I look up the Beckett quote I kept centered on my bulletin board a few years ago as I was finishing my first book, a novel about fathers and sons.
“Hand in hand with equal plod they go. In the free hands—no. Free empty hands. Backs turned both bowed with equal plod they go. The child hand raised to reach the holding hand. Hold the old holding hand. Hold and be held. Plod on and never recede. Slowly with never a pause plod on and never recede. Backs turned. Both bowed. Joined by held holding hands. Plod on as one. One shade. Another shade.”
One shade, another shade—both, I like to think, seeking light.
I’m eager to get back to work on my new novel, but that can wait until tomorrow. Right now there are a few things I want to talk over with my beautiful wife. And I think Miller has found another picture of a clock in one of his books. I can hear him in the next room, reminding us in his new language that all this time we have together is precious and holy.
“Tick-tock,” he says. “Tick-tock.”
Rumpus original art by Jason Novak.