March 5, 2012

The Beast with Two Bad Backs

It was our last night together and we were both on our backs.

David and the girl’s last night is not what they expected

“I’m going to miss you, baby,” said the girl.

I could barely move and when I did it hurt, even with the muscle relaxant that dragged me deep into the bed and enchanted my eyes closed. Cats. This is what a cat is like: springy, sleepy, self-absorbed.

“I’m going to miss you, too, baby” I said. It was my last night with the girl and it would be chaste.

She had sought to assure me after dropping the bomb a month earlier. “I’m not leaving you, David. I’m leaving New York. I hate it here.” Her mind was made up. She was packing everything that she had brought with her only three months earlier and dispatching herself to California, basically to go as far as she could by car, save Canada or Mexico.

“The Empire State Building,” I said. “The Statue of Liberty! Central Park?”

“You never go to any of those places, David. New York is ugly, dark. It’s gray, it’s dirty.” The girl lived in a barren neighborhood that couldn’t decide if it was light industrial or residential. She had no money. New York is a prison without money.

“We have great restaurants? You won’t find better Indian.”

“It’s not enough. Bolo hates New York, too.”

“She does like the chicken wings.”

Bolo. Her dog. There were hardly any trees in her neighborhood. Only square patches of dirt that once were homes for trees invited her down the length of the sidewalks. She lurched toward them pitifully. It was all the nature available. That and the discarded chicken wings she grabbed off the ground and later made her sick. When I walked Bolo I saw how horrible New York looks when your eyes are glued to sidewalks and curbs: the litter, the gloomy cold-gray pavement, the shabbiness, the neglect. It was like this all over New York, but even worse where the girl lived. When you looked up, you saw street signs bleached to illegibility by rain and sun and time. Garbage cans and mailboxes were impossible to find. The neighborhood was forgotten. Like any immigrant’s neighborhood, no family is meant to stay past a generation.

“I like trees,” the girl said. “Hiking in mountains. Space.”

Still, California. So far away. What about Vermont? I had a house there, after all. Couldn’t she park herself in Vermont with her animals for a few months while she figured things out?

“Too cold.”

We spent a melancholy month going to Indian restaurants for the spinach saag. She had friends in northern California. It sounded like paradise to her. I envied her ability to pick up and head somewhere on nothing more than a hope that it was a good idea. This was what had brought her to New York.

“But what about us?” I said.

“The only way things will work out between us is if I leave.”

“So if you stay in New York we’ll break up, but if you go to California we’ll stay together?”

“I don’t like who I am here. I’m stressed. I have no job and no money. We can only really know if we’re meant to be together is if I go away to somewhere I can be more normal.”

“California?”

“Don’t be a twat.”

Before we first met we had sent many emails to each other debating about whether we should meet. She lived in another city then. Coming to New York for a date was a huge risk. And there was the question of where she would spend the night. I disingenuously offered my couch, but since we had never met how could she accept?  On the other hand, we had exchanged so many emails that we already felt bound in a trusting intimacy. We considered the options, of which there were only two: either stay over at my apartment or take a 3am train back to her city four hours away.

Finally, she came to a decision. “Look, if we really like each other, I’m not going to stay over. Something would happen, but it would be too soon for that. But. If it turns out that we’re not interested in each other, I can spend the night at your place because it won’t matter then.”

“So if you like me, you’ll go away, but if you don’t like me you’ll spend the night. That sounds reasonable.”

“Don’t be a twat.”

On the Thursday night before our last weekend (our plan was simple: lots of sex. Wine, too.), I got home from work carrying two slices of pizza for dinner. Before eating I decided to straighten out the living room. A minute later a three-dimensional pain in my lower back zombified me. I couldn’t sit, not until later when I learned how to contort myself to avoid pain. Still hungry, though, I ate my pizza, consuming it without enjoyment while standing up, despairing. Within an hour, the girl had arrived in full Florence Nightingale, clutching pill bottles.

“This is Flexeril — it’s a muscle relaxant. This is Naproxin — it’s an anti-inflammatory.” You see, the girl, too, dealt with back pain. She had even complained about it that week and worried about the stress of a cross-country drive.

“You can’t go to the gym for, like, eight weeks.”

“I’ll get fat.”

“You can whine, but only because you’re crippled.”

I didn’t leave the house for three days, which was what we had planned, except we had planned for debauchery, ordering in, and the usual rock-star-in-hotel-room sensual destruction that we had started when we first met. Instead, I spent those three days mostly on my back, occasionally enjoying the company of the girl’s cat on my stomach. Sex? No. The girl’s back was bothering her, too. Our intimacies were of the cuddle, the held hand, the whispered promise.

“I’m going to miss your big head of hair,” I said. “And your big lips. Most of all, I’m going to miss Bolo.” I like any creature that pays attention to me. I had grown attached to Bolo. She liked to rest her brown head on my shoulder.

“Will you come out and visit me?” she asked.

“Next month.”

“We’ll go hiking.”

“We’ll drink fancy wine.”

The next morning I watched the girl drag her bags down three flights of stairs.

“No, don’t lift anything,” she said.