One night, a couple months ago, I awoke to the strange, indecent sound of water trickling near my head. I was alone. Wellbeing was at her place. A streetlight cast a firefly’s glow through my third-floor window. I realized I’d just been dreaming. Last I remembered, I was standing in a gray-green field on a planet whose gravity pulled with half the force of Earth’s. Something startled me. I galloped like a rabbit in slow motion over gray grass, a slow fading dark, straining my eyes for sense, when my ears were struck suddenly lucid by that ethereal spatter not two feet from where I’d been dreaming.
I rubbed my eyelids, blinked the sleep out of them. As they came to, I saw on the floor near my bed a trembling puddle. A thread of water descended to it from my ceiling fan, which tilted its blade at me like an accusation. Where the fan joined the ceiling, a plastery bulge sagged and moaned, almost too quiet to hear. I traced the puckered terrain and saw in another spot, then another, swollen mounds giving their water in reverse. All over the ceiling, an outbreak of welts like lanced chicken pox dropped splashing threads of water to my floor.
A flood? I’d been holding my breath. I exhaled. An emergency.
I leapt from my bed like a toad. Pulled on some jeans and a v-neck that I’d left limp on the folding chair where I toss what I’ve worn but don’t want to hang up. I cleared the space between sleeping room and kitchen in like two seconds. My phone was on the counter. I checked the time: 3:17 a.m. I called my landlord. No answer. This voicemail box is full. Please try again later. Thank you.
I thought of calling Wellbeing, but stopped myself. I knew she’d be sleeping. What would I even say to her? My apartment is probably flooding. FYI. Why do we want to share everything with people we love? I can handle this alone, I told myself. No need to unload on her.
I took a deep breath and listened to it leave my body. Except for the drips, everything was silent.
I opened the front door and looked out into the hallway. I half expected it to be flooded. Or that the hall itself would have transformed into a forest or the bottom of an ocean. But everything was as it always had been: dim, yellow, a little dingy. It smelled like piss and sweat and cigarette smoke. The other three doors at my end of the building sat sad and mute, their tenants probably asleep behind them. I walked barefoot down the hall to the stairs at the end of it, then went up the spiral stairs to the fourth floor, then back down the hallway.
As I arrived at the door just above mine, I heard from behind it what sounded to me like the rushing of the Colorado River.
Track eight on my Nature Sounds playlist. I play it to sleep or drown out loud conversations I can’t otherwise ignore.
What the fuck is going on?
My knuckles rapid-fired my alarm against the steel door. Bangbangbangbang.
Nobody answered. Water dashing through stone.
I knocked again and waited. Heard only the river.
I thought of that moment in the story of Moses where he comes upon a bush that’s burning but not being consumed by the flames, and the bush tells him take off your shoes for the place where you are standing is holy ground. My bare, pale, ashy feet on that dingy carpet of a higher floor, I stood there for a minute considering which between infinite fire and infinite water would win. The door never opened. But when I got back to my apartment, the trickling had stopped. I took a damp towel and wiped where I saw water had pooled. Then I lay on my mattress on my box spring on the floor and went back to sleep.
The next day, I went to work. I teach poetry part time to a small group of fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds in an after school program at a high school on the far south side. We talk about our feelings and then we write about them. Social emotional learning, the official standards call it, even though that makes no sense. Emotions are inside us; we hide them all the time to engage in the social. The social is about acknowledging all that’s outside yourself. I’ve always felt like the best poems are like acts of possession. They take you over from inside. They feel like they’re coming from your own head. That’s why when people say I wish I wrote that, it’s like they did write it. The poet wrote the invitation, an invitation to the reader’s self, to their own emotions. I suppose that is in a way supremely social. But I doubt that’s what the standards mean when they call it that.
That afternoon we were talking about yearning. We read Neruda’s “No Hay Olvido (Sonata),” once in Spanish and twice in English, each time with a different translation. I wanted them to consider the difference between the way the three versions of the poem ended:
—“y tantas cosas que quiero olvidar.”
—“and legion the things I would give to oblivion.”
—“and so many things I want to forget.”
“The words sound different,” Aaliyah said, her tone blending sarcasm and seriousness, to which I responded, “Absolutely, and what does that do?”
“It changes the way it feels to say it.”
I laughed. “But look at how the meanings of the words are slightly—”
Markell, my snarky whiz-kid, interrupted, “It changes the picture I get in my mind. In Spanish, I see an old abandoned city with dusty streets. And then in English, oblivion to me sounds like a black hole. It’s deep. And forgetting, well, I forget to brush my teeth before bed sometimes—”
“Ugh, you nasty!”
“Shut up! I’m just saying, it’s not a big deal.”
I snarked back. “You’re not old enough for it to be a big deal yet.”
We made a list of things we wanted to forget. Then, we spent fifteen minutes free-writing about them. I wrote about the dripping ceiling, trying to imagine it away.
That evening, when I arrived at my own front door, I heard the same Colorado River sound I’d heard the night before. My house keys jolted from my fingers. When I bent down to retrieve them, I bumped my forehead on the door. As I rubbed the sore bone, an apparition sprang into my internal eye: a sea fed by a rocky stream, silver salmon leaping, bending iridescent in a sharp sun’s glimmer, and beneath the slithering salmon, from under the deep, human hands clawing at the air. I gathered my energy, stood, inserted the key, turned and pushed. My apartment was dark and dry. Nothing appeared amiss. But from the bathroom came a rush so loud it re-evoked the stream. I swung open the bathroom door and saw my same old dingy tile, same sad blue shower curtain, same fingered mirror and white porcelain, same humble commode. No water I could see, but the toilet roared. I lifted the seat. It was in a state of perpetual flush.
(Or I was in the flood. Had been taken up in it. Drowned. This was the afterlife—a simulacrum of the apartment I used to rent when alive, the only difference being that in this place, I’d been condemned for all eternity to listen to the sound of the flood swirling in my toilet . . . )
It stayed like this for a week. The ceiling sagged in spots where it had been dripping. The swollen parts dried out like husks of cicadas and dropped a plastery dust to my floor. Peanut-brittle pieces of white caulk cracked as they hit the ground. I checked the pipes. I called the landlord. No response. Corruption’s a way of life. I live in an old building. The pipes are probably lead-infested, but rent’s cheap. I try to keep a low profile. But Wellbeing suggested I write a letter to my landlord demanding they fix it, making clear threats to go to the city if they didn’t do it quickly enough. “I’ve been through it too many times with these people. The only thing they understand is ‘Tenants Rights.’” Her eyes’ stern concern evoked in me the belief that she had some secret knowledge of the motivations behind things, knowledge she wasn’t allowed to speak to. Onyx alien eyes under a brown avid forehead. You listen when she looks at you this way, to her eyes if not to her words. I penned the letter on some printer paper and folded it into the envelope I usually put my rent check in.
Two days later, Wellbeing took the day off from her job at the record store to stay at my place while I went to work with the kids. Our focus for the afternoon: authentic voice. We started with a quote from Miles Davis: “Man, sometimes it takes you a long time to sound like yourself.” And the brainstorm question: If someone stole the words to a poem you wrote but didn’t copyright and had no record of it, and then displayed the poem somewhere, but didn’t credit it to you, how could you prove the words were yours? The goal was to get to a place where we’d talk about what made our work unique to our own experiences. I’d printed some identity poems for them to look at, talk about, use as models for their own. But they were struggling with the question.
I was just about to interrupt the silence that hovered in my classroom when my phone buzzed in my pants pocket. I surveyed the room. Eight black teens ruminating in their notebooks. I pulled my phone out and checked the message:
—landlord came by. they fixed the toilet. weirdest shit ever hahaha
I typed the password to unlock my phone and thumbed:
—what? what happened?
An ellipsis under my word bubble as Wellbeing typed:
—landlord and maintenance guy came by. looked at it a few seconds. maintenance guy went and got a hammer and fixed it.
—just knocked the wall over it and it stopped. [cry laugh emoji x5]
When all you got is a hammer.
“What?” Markell said.
“Nothing,” I said, pocketing my phone again.
“I got an answer.”
“Okay, what is it?”
“You can’t really do it. No matter what you put up, you can’t tell just by looking at the words who’s saying it. It could be me or it could be somebody just like me.”
“Or it could be somebody totally different who just happened to use the same words,” Aja added.
“But when I play Miles Davis,” I said, “I know it’s Miles. When I play a Kanye beat you know it’s Kanye even without me telling you. How?”
“It might be Kanye. Or it might be a kid who just listened to a lot of Kanye. Or it could be somebody who liked all the same stuff Kanye did and made a beat that sounds like the beats he makes.” This from normally quiet, brooding Justice, who accented every few syllables with open palms, as if supplicating.
“So what are you saying,” I asked. “Authenticity isn’t real?”
“What’s real to you is fake to somebody else,” Aja said.
“That’s a bar!” somebody else said.
“Well.” I said. “I’ll be damned.”
At home, the ceiling warped murky and cracked. Parts of it fell to the floor and shattered against wood panels. Wellbeing had opened the windows to blow away the smell of mildew. We sat on the mattress and listened to the silence. It pulled the sun down against the buildings, glazed them honey orange as the orb fell west behind them, blossomed the dark. With the dark rose voices from the street below my window, a busy cul-de-sac of posh restaurants, boutiques, a cigar shop doubling as a bar, and a high-rise hotel—all built within the past year. This city moves fast. Cops on a long break chatted and their voices echoed. Women laughed freely in the street, screaming playfully in the parking lot. A car alarm cycled loudly. Then a series of car horns in rapid succession, followed by one long, irritated drone. Sirens that seemed to come from nowhere moved without direction, returned to nowhere. We sat and the night came. Then we lay in the heat of one another’s bodies and buzzed the dark between us.
“It’s so crazy,” Wellbeing said, giggling. “He just knocked it a couple times and it stopped. All this time you waited and that’s what solved it. Don’t worry, though. I watched closely just in case it happens again.”
She smelled of lavender oil and shea butter. Our eyes locked. I kissed her lips.
“Thank you, love,” I said. “You were right.”
We slipped from our clothes. We lay on our sides, looking. I slipped my arm under her head, pulled her close to me. Her exhalations smelled like fresh bread. She fondled my ear. We kissed. I slid my hand down her warm back, tracing the smooth hills of her spine. It came to rest on her butt, which gave easily in my grasp. She found my member with her other hand. Kissed me as it hardened in her grip. I squeezed the flesh of her hip, fondling the bone, moaned as I moved to touch her. I opened my eyes and she was looking back at me. She bit her lip in affirmation, wrapped her leg around me, and put me inside her. We made love to the sounds of the neighborhood. I moved in her, then I pulled out, went under the covers, ran my tongue along her inner thighs, biting to hear her giggle, then slid my tongue into the full open, savoring the taste, a muted sweet salt, sucking slow the swell my lips found there until her yes breathless yes. Then I moved in her again, this time from behind, her ass in my grip, we moved together. She came and went flat on the mattress. I came in a stream along the ridge of her back.
We lay on our stomachs in the blue-gray dark. I took from the windowsill a halved joint and my black lighter, flicked the flame and drew in the smoke.
I exhaled and let the calls reorganize in my ears. Laughter popped like rocks dropping and tumbling in the street. Sirens whirled, whined like a mournful wind. A car’s horn pealed melodrama. A harmonica wailed. A man shouted “You ever—” but then his voice dropped below a song rising from the patio to the west, out back of the cigar joint:
ha sa fi yah
cre ate love de ziyah
take you hiyah hiyah
to the world
Over and over again. A man crooned “Well!” in a churchpimp twang. Then from the east came voluminous dramatic strings marching to the cadence of a sharp triangle’s trill that erupted in a seismic bass line, and a man with a vivid rich voice declared: “I’m in love wit da co-co!”
I turned over. Wellbeing rested her thin hand on my breastbone. Bird chest.
“How does it feel?” I asked. “Still alive?”
“It would appear so.”
Thump thump. I turned my head. Let my eyes take in her eyes in this antic slowness. Streetlights glowed them twin globes, windows to the soul. His and hers. I hoped she didn’t see what I hid in mine. Drew my mind’s blinds. Or if she could, that she found what she saw was worth the trouble.
“What?” I laugh-asked.
She smiled. Her face blue and ancient. Or was it from the future? Foreign, anyhow.
“Nothing,” she said. “I just like you.”
Flutter. Thump thump. I know she felt it because her hand moved across my chest as though testing bath water.
“I like you too, boo. Ha.”
Here she frowned. Disney princess frown. The vivid rich-voiced man proclaimed “BakingsodaIgotbakingsoda!” fading as the car under my window went on to wherever it was headed.
“What’s wrong?” she said.
Her hand slid from my chest and left frigid air in its wake. A deadbolt in me slid into its socket.
“Why does something have to be wrong?” I said.
“You changed. You’re acting weird.”
“What do you mean?”
Two long flamboyant honks. A loud, improbable, “Hey, baby!” from the street. Theatric laughter. Thump thump pitter pitter. And the air felt thin. I sucked it.
“Are you okay?”
“Why’d you take your hand away?”
“Why’d you take yours away?”
My right hand was at my side. My left gripped and massaged my member. I hadn’t noticed. I gave her my hand. She took it. It was warm for her.
“Is there something you want to tell me?” she asked.
Red windows. “I love you.”
“I love you too,” she said, but wasn’t finished, though she snuggled into my chest, her cheeks on my left heartbeat, and pulled my arm around her and warmed the left side of my body. “Okay,” she said. “Let’s just sleep.”
i’m in a car with Wellbeing. It’s parked in a lot. In the backseat a woman, Tourguide, laughs silent. i can see it in the rearview. Wanna play a game she says it’s the nightmare game nightmare like the movie — (masked man screamface in a dark robe leaps in image memory)— all you gotta do is turn the ignition. My hands on the key already i turn to Wellbeing she go blank as braille face doe eyes brilliant child smile ancient lips perfect teeth tongue animalia marked mouth. You’re so weird she giggles turn the ignition. So i do and the masked man reaper is coming —Wellbeing pulls the emergency brake erect, one strong motion up and now there’s a car behind us perpendicular and one on either side —no worry i put the thing in reverse the lady in the backseat two furrowed eyes in the rearview and the long body of the car i reverse into, through, though the brake is up i go—eeeeerrrrrkk—scrape through it—noooo—out to the street so that man won’t find me.
i’m in the big room again alone by the bed the wool floor under my feet cool but i need to pee so i go to the bathroom that’s connected to their big room and the mauve light leers on porcelain tile under my soles toward the big white toilet water rushing silent i go to pee but it wont come out i hold my self and it hangs a bit outside my hand over the mouth of the toilet and i push but nothing come out see its always like this i say to Wellbeing who is not there i push and it comes out like water from a blocked hydrant splashes hot on my hips see its always like this why . . .
Teal yellowed and gave way to a brightness that expanded across the room where we lay covered, me on my back, Wellbeing curled and facing the wall away from me. A breeze through the window cooled the wetness on me, under me. I used to pee in the bed as a boy. But this was different. I pursued my breath. Thump thump. Rolled from the bed like a secret. My bladder tugged at me, burned like the ears of a man who’s being gossiped about. Wellbeing stirred. I scampered naked to the toilet and relieved myself of what was left. A thin stream trickling against a porcelain mouth.
“Is everything alright?” Wellbeing asked me when I was about five feet from the bed.
“Yeah, uh. I just. It’s wet there. I’m sorry.”
“Oh.” She had a serious look. Serious, but gracious. She sat up in bed and pat her hand where I had been lying. “Yeah, it’s wet.” And then, probably because she could read what I was feeling, said “It’s alright.”
I know it’s alright. It is and it isn’t. That’s what I was thinking, but I didn’t say anything, humiliated as I was. She rolled from the bed as I stood in disbelief. “It’s okay, love,” she said. She walked to the bathroom as I lay a towel on the spot. I heard the water running, then stop. She emerged from the bathroom with a rag. Her form shaped the morning light, yellow amber. The rag dripped in her hand. She smiled, and I approached her.
“Hold on,” she said. “I want to play something.”
She pulled my laptop from the chair by my bed and plugged it into the speakers that sit on my floor. She searched something on YouTube and then, as she turned around with a smile, I think now, of true friendship, the music began. Soft drums and electronic keys tap tapping.
“Bitches Brew,” she said.
That was the day the lights went out. The music stopped. For some minutes, I didn’t even know it had stopped. In those minutes, we kept on making love. I was on top, watching myself. Watching her change my color. Slowly on the newly settled air. And it really was that, newly settled, settled so totally it was as if we had broken the plane on which we lay copulating and now found ourselves in an airless free fall. Our flesh resounded with first-time noises, quiet yeses from every opening. Her legs wrapped me warm and I moved, pelvis to pelvis, seeking source in the smiling dark. I slid out, coated. I rolled over onto my back. She mounted, her spine strong and glistening, vaselike torso, soft round terminus of a bottom my hands gripped. She rode me like I was a horse that had never been trained. To a sea in the east on whose banks we’d feed, glad of our freedom from those who wanted us captive. Like that, a free fall dream in the new planelessness we rode like air surrendered to.
We breathed and heard only our own breath, forgetting Miles. Or at least I’d forgotten him. Then I remembered, rolled over to my side to where my laptop sat on the floor. Checked the aux cord. It ran uninterrupted to the speakers, also on the floor. The indicator light was off. The music had suddenly stopped because the speakers had suddenly died. I checked my laptop charger. It was off, too.
“Everything okay?” she asked, fretful.
“My electricity’s out.”
“Oh no. Did you pay the bill?”
“Yeah. I might be a couple months late.” Toothface emoji.
“Oh.” Cat clock eyes.
“Or maybe it’s revenge for the letter.”
“I wish, ” she said, a menacing smile glowing her. “They really don’t want none.”
“Well,” I said. “I’ll pay the bill today. But I’ll need to go somewhere to access the Internet.” There was a café up the street. We'd sometimes go there to pass the time watching people walk by its wall of windows. It would be our workspace for the day.
Outside, wind blew trees on the block to bending, blew up against the windows like a wide invisible shoulder, whipped loose some cords that were hanging from the rooftop that slapped against the windows and the brick. Enough light for a shower, so we took one together and slipped into our clothes, a holy quiet holding our words. I imagine we both held conversations in our own heads. What’s real to one person is fake to another, Aja had said, and she was right. But everybody’s wants to convince everybody else they’re real. Or maybe just want to convince themselves. And who was that lady in the dream? I tried to remember her face but couldn’t conjure it up. Could’ve been anybody.
“Wellbeing, I wanted to say I’m sorry. What I did was insensitive, misguided. It’s just—I wasn’t myself.”
“Oh?" she said. "Well, who were you?”
“I mean, I was myself. But I wasn’t my best self.”
Her eyes grew stern with the challenge these words lay on her. “Hm,” she said. “I’m sure everyone’s doing their best.”
“Yeah. I just want to do better every day.” It felt like I had more to say.
Wellbeing and I stood before one another at my front door. Just two people.
“Shall we,” I said.
“We shall,” she said.
I opened the door into a blackness like the inside of a closed mouth, like the bottom of a well. Even the emergency lights were off.
“What the fuck?” I said, louder than what felt natural. Maybe the silence made it seem louder than it was. Wellbeing laughed nervously.
We inched along the wall, brushing one another lightly to get the other's bearings. Inched right. Opened the door. The gray day passed through the skylight and filled the stairwell. We took the spiral down and walked through the lobby, out into the air of the neighborhood where day spread silvery and turbulent, though all that could move moved in the wind. Errant trash tumbled on the street. A bird flew against the wind and went nowhere.
“They do call this town the Windy City,” I said.
“But that has to do with politics, no?”
“Maybe it’s election season for the elements.”
She laughed. I was looking at her when she laughed. I don’t know what to say about how she looked then, except that she was irrevocably beautiful —but everybody always says she’s beautiful, which is true but not enough. She looked, she looks now, wherever she is, total in a way that would never occur to you until you met and sat with and spoke with her. Like her mind and her skin and her eyes and her breath and her heart and her aspirations were all of the same impulse as whatever goads the trees to let their leaves go orange and gold and pale blood red. I was struck then by the memory of something she’d told me early on in our relationship. We’d been walking in Pilsen on a hot day when she’d suddenly stopped and slipped her thin hand from mine and looked at the ground.
“What’s wrong?” I’d asked her.
“I just need to know you’re being straight up with me," her me a cool exhale in which I'd sensed something unseen, but not, I thought then, unseeable. "Are you being straight up with me?”
She’d raised her eyes to mine, appraising me. That’s what it felt like in that moment. Would I be worth it? I wanted to be worth it. I wanted to share everything with her. Why did I want to share everything with her?
“Wellbeing,” I’d said, “What do you want to know?”
In that instant, her eyes dropped. “Nothing,” she’d said. “Nevermind.”
She laughed as we stood in the wind and I felt two simultaneous senses with absolute clarity. The first was that I needed her. I needed her more than I needed my own self, which is absurd to think, but true. Without her there’d be no use for a self. The second was that I could never have her. Perhaps I could have at some point in the past, but that time was long gone. I could never have her, and I should never have her, because she was better than I was. Being with her made me feel that life was primarily ungraspable because we are what it grasps, sometimes kicking, sometimes screaming, sometimes silent, until it lets us go. She laughed and I knew suddenly with absolute certainty that it would be the last time I ever saw that luminous incarnation of her face.
As we headed north on the avenue, the wind barreled into us and we righted ourselves. It blew dust from the street into our faces. It blew from the east, then from the west, then from the north—we trudged against it—then from the south, compelling us forward. Trees along the sidewalks bent and danced as we inched up the avenue, past the cigar shop, nail salon, bookstore, real estate agency. Everywhere was closed and dim. The lights for the whole block were out. We pushed ahead anyway, past the new high-rise luxury condos city developers had built in the carcass of a failed grocery store lot to attract affluent north siders. It all happened so fast. One day somebody got it in their mind they could transform a whole neighborhood, the next the plans were laid, the next a new and improved block shoots up, and all the undesirables go to wherever the undesirables go.
We pushed through the wind and the politics and the realization that cast a shadow on a day when the clouds were too spread out to let much sun through. On the corner, a yellow overturned newspaper stand lay gutted. Campaign posters tumbled through the streets, which were otherwise deserted. Wellbeing clutched me as we moved past even this, turned up the street, crossed at the light, passed under the viaduct. She let go of my hand as we walked through the gas station lot, whose lights were still on, to the doors of the café, which, as the neon sign in the window declared, was open.