The suffering is just too much. Kevin's eyes darted to the note beside the bed. It was written in a light hand on heavy paper. Is it a card? He picked it up, rubbed it between his fingers. Yes. It was in black ink and the script was hers, flowing lightly the way that it did when she was feeling clear and perhaps even happy.
He put it back on the black lacquered dresser, newly polished for the occasion. It rested before a set of false pink orchids and yellow-white lilies, whose slightly darker apparition appeared beside them in a mirror. Kevin always found it jarring, how strong an allusion these flowers create. He has felt at times that he could see the very water moving up the stems, like blood in a vein. Head cocked to one side, he stared at them for a moment. He saw dust gathered on the plastic lily petals, strings sprouting from the thin silk edges of the orchids.
He forced his eyes to the place he has been avoiding. Andrea. She looked like she was dressed for a wedding, all in white, the cotton bodice laced with ribbons and dotted with eyelet, tiny keyholes to the pink flesh beneath. It was tight on the top and pleated at the waist, ballooning out into a giant pillow of fabric, giving her an illusion of animation, as though she were falling.
Andrea has always had the ability to seem angelic, and she appeared so now: perfectly clean in her new white dress, scented, blonde curls coiffed, little pink lips shining with gloss. One had to look closely to discern the faint whiteness forming in the cracks of the lips, or the extreme pallor of her fingers.
He touched her hair. It was still damp. The viscous hair product clung to his fingers. He looked at them in sharp surprise, as though they were just bitten. He fell to gazing upon her again, rubbing his fingertips together. My god, she really planned this thing, he thought. She bathed carefully, she took time. He searched for more details.
He touched her cool feet. They had the waxen, yellow-white quality of very clean skin. Each ridge on the balls and heels was the same tone. He could smell the light vanilla scent of her lotion. Yes, he sighed, a sensation of something crushing into his chest, she washed and creamed and soothed every inch of herself before she lay down on this bed. She planned it joyfully.
And what is this? A tiny bottle marked poison sat beside the bed, xxx written above the label. He picked it up. Where did she find this thing? He tried to think of where, if ever, he had seen such an object. She must have gone to an antique store or maybe even a theme store for it. He unscrewed the lid. Powder form.
"Dammit!" Kevin roared, hurling the tiny bottle at the wall. It bounced off with a ping and rolled over on the ground. White powder scattered across the carpet. He looked at her again, his eyes burning. Thoughts streamed chaotically through his head. What the fuck is this? A display? A display? She couldn't just take pills from the medicine cabinet and leave them spilled all over the bathroom sink, the empty plastic bottle feebly on its side, for the hapless lover to discover. No. She had to make a poetic little display, with a bottle marked poison, like it was Shakespeare, or Byron, or even Disney for god's sake. Is this a fucking art project? Wake up!
He grabbed hold of her shoulders and began to shake the body violently. The head bobbed loosely on the neck, a slit of white flashing at the bottom of her eyes. Her mouth opened, emitting a slight suction sound. Kevin stopped and staggered back. The heaviness of her body stunned him. He had never known flesh to be so slack, or so cool.
Her body was now awkwardly disheveled. The head was scrunched back into the neck with the shoulders upraised. Kevin was struck by a sudden gravity, an almost superstitious fear combined with pity for her condition. She must have really been suffering, he thought. He quickly tried to amend the desecration of a moment before, reaching beneath her neck to adjust the head back onto the pillow and smoothing her arms down from the shoulders. The mouth hung slightly open. He lifted her chin to close it.
Then he wagged his head, the anger surging back. How could she do this to me? She seemed almost to be smiling, steeped in a dark bliss. He looked at her note again. The suffering is just too much. Yes it is too much, he thought. Especially now.
Kevin threw a sweatshirt on, pulled the hood over his head, and walked out of the apartment. He felt a bit shaky. I know that this is not what I should be doing right now, and I will have to explain it to the police later, but I just need to sort things out here, he reasoned with himself. The key knocked against the lock a few times before he could calm his hand long enough to slide it into the keyhole and turn the latch. It clicked into place. He glanced around the hall furtively, feeling oddly like a criminal. Seeing no one, he moved forward, struggling with a dual impulse to dart back into the apartment, and to flee from it. He was acutely aware of the video camera posted above the front door in the lobby, registering the time as well as the expression on his face as he walked away.
He turned left towards the park, walking rapidly with hands buried in his front pockets. He glowered at everything--the brick buildings with dirty, cracked front faces, old cable wires dangling uselessly from windows and fire escapes, the piles of trash on the sidewalk, much of it opened, all stinking vilely, the little mounds of dog shit appearing every six feet or so, followed by long smears of brown where passersby tried to wipe if off their shoes (but invariably failed, trailing it into their homes, the supermarket, the deli, the subway, etc)--and, inhaling a strong thick whiff of fried oil smell (not quite chicken--maybe donuts, biscuits, or both), admitted to himself that he hates it. Hates this dirty, disgusting, cheap neighborhood that he can barely afford. Hates this selfish, smug, loveless city!
Yes, this city has destroyed her, he continued morbidly, descending a set of ancient granite steps--holding his breath instinctively against the pungent odor of urine--and entered Riverside Park. It was a cold, misty Tuesday morning in late autumn; he was nearly alone. He crossed a field of withered, silvery grass. The earth scrunched beneath his feet. It must have frosted already, he thought, surprised at his own ability to register such detail. He stepped onto the paved walkway. A state park vehicle stopped to let him cross; the driver surveyed him through the glass as he squinted and shivered in the wind. It reminded him of something Andrea once said, about how the city is riddled with collisions, and one is never completely alone.
He walked to the very edge of the coastline, where the grass disappeared in a bank of rocks. The silver current of the river flowed over them sideways, splashing and sending up gurgles. Waves from boats clapped intermittently against the shore. A thin mist hovered above the water, just blurring the New Jersey shore opposite. He paused and located the other current--for the river has two--something he does habitually when he comes to this park.
Kevin has always found it appropriate that he live near the river with two currents. It was a potent symbol, one he adopted as his very own. It seemed to ordain his path as difficult, rare, riddled by a subterranean friction, one that is apparent only to the observant eye. He loved to watch the braiding of the two on the water's surface, the intricacy of the tiny, chopped ripples, the strange sense of expansion, almost revelation, that takes place when he locates the exact spot where it changes, like a long sinewy line, and his vision spreads to take in the entire course of the currents, the breadth of the river, and the boats traveling lightly on the surface.
Wind pierced the worn sweatshirt, giving him a chill. Digging his balled hands deeper into the front pockets, Kevin moved up towards the bridge. It was about two miles ahead, at the end of this walkway. The park ran along the highway, partly paved and partly landscaped, its view on the one side offering water and the high banks of the Palisades and on the other fences, parking lots, and blackened buttresses. In the summer the park is thick with people, fishing, barbecuing, playing sports, but now it lay nearly empty, peopled only by a few stray dog walkers, and Kevin.
He inclined his head as he struggled against the wind. Tiny beads of moisture pelted his face. He mulled over the last few months, and, in particular, his last encounter with Andrea.
It was early yesterday evening. They were passing in their usual hurried fashion, he preparing to leave for work as she arrived home from her day job as a receptionist in a law firm. After changing out of her skirt and blouse and into the slip she used as a nightgown, Andrea stood numbly, watching Kevin. She usually took this opportunity to spend time with him, as she was nearly always asleep when he returned.
Kevin was storming around the apartment, cursing, searching for a pair of black polished shoes. He was late for work, which, though not unusual, always infuriated him. He did not have time to polish another pair, and he knew he had one somewhere. "Where the hell did they go?" he muttered, pacing through the single hall and two rooms of their apartment, his eyes fixed with anguished concentration upon the floor. Looking up at one point he met her expression and paused, arrested by the calm, blue set of eyes wavering like pools against the pale sheet of her complexion. "They're here," she said, pointing to the floor beside her. The polish shone faintly on the shoes, like a coin at the bottom of a pond.
"Jesus...why didn't you tell me?" Kevin mumbled irritably, his voice cracking with exasperation. He stooped to pick up the shoes, then stomped down the hall to a chair where he sat, unlaced, and shoved them angrily onto his feet.
Andrea remained in the hall for a moment, staring dubiously down at the floor, then slowly, silently, walked to the edge of the room like a cat. She continued watching from the doorway, seeming to observe not just him, but their entire surroundings.
The nearly windowless apartment was lit grimily by a single, exposed, overhead bulb. Though Andrea tried constantly to impose mood lighting with a collection of small, attractive lamps, without her around Kevin invariably reverted to flicking on the light with the switch, the crass overhead bulb in an instant erasing the illusion of comfort and coziness she had created.
She let her eyes pass over the imperfections; bumps on the walls from multiple layers of paint over an initially poor plastering job, dark dust over the roughly hewn moldings, plywood showing beneath peeled linoleum. The truth, or one truth, of their reality, became apparent to Andrea; they are living in squalid conditions, the very walls crumbling around them, invaded by noxious gases and smoke as well as a barrage of music, bass thumping seventeen hours out of the day in the apartment above; they eat cheap, low-grade food; they bicker, fight and scrape like a pair of lice to survive and what's more, she is no longer capable of happiness. The depth she had attained was the sum of her own misery, and she felt sunken under the weight of it.
As though another person were living inside of her--a tired and aged double--that misery, once lifting its head, let itself fall a final time. What remained was a kind of watching, a sense that something definite had at last taken place, that the entire course of her life and sufferings had led irrevocably to this conclusion. Once reaching this clarity, the idea of going back, of trying to explain or resolve, felt impossible, like self-suffocation.
Kevin stood from the chair, both shoes laced. He pulled his tie loose from the collar and opened the top button, revealing the delicate scoop of his neck. He ran a hand over his hair, smoothing a thin, dark lock back into place above his high, flawless cheekbones. He looked down, in search of something. Long lashes fluttered over the chocolate brown and milk-white eyes. Andrea admired, for perhaps the last time, his beauty. Picking up a set of keys from the side-table with a loud metallic scramble, Kevin started briskly down the hallway towards the door.
"Aren't you going to say good-bye?" she asked, leaping up from her chair.
"What's that...uh, of course." Kevin responded as he looked over his shoulder. He stopped in the hallway. Andrea walked towards him. They stood together for a moment. She craned her neck all the way back to see him, being at least a foot shorter than he. Her pale, solemn face appeared to glow faintly in the dusky unlit hallway while his darkened, the features growing gaunt and almost anonymous, the shadows like patches of camouflage. A baffled look twitched across his face as he met her stare, her eyes lustrous yet still, like clear wet stones.
They kissed. Andrea held on for what seemed to Kevin an embarrassingly long time. When he pulled back she was still engaged, her eyes closed and head tilted up and to the side. He watched her until she opened her eyes.
"I gotta go baby, I'm late." He said with an apologetic smile, shrugging his high shoulders. "I know," she said, returning the smile. "I just wanted to give you a kiss." She grabbed his face and shook it like one would to a child, or a dog. "One last kiss."
Kevin disengaged. "I'll call you later," he shouted from down the hall as he ran to the front door of the building. The door swung shut with a clap.
Out on the street, he dusted the sleeve of his coat, dove his hands hastily into his pockets and disappeared down the stairs to the subway. He was dressed in the suit required for his position as a night concierge in an upscale midtown hotel, a job he took in hopes of supporting his endeavors as a guitarist in a rock band. He originally thought this position would be ideal, flexible enough to work around his music schedule, giving him days to practice and nights to gig. When he needed a night free he could switch with a co-worker. Until he could quit, anyhow.
But as time wore on he found himself struggling just to hold a band together, to pay for practice space, and to maintain some semblance of sharing a life with Andrea, as their time together was becoming increasingly scarce.
The band played an average of once every two months, to a pathetically small crowd in the same washed up New York nightclub, its tattered posters and photographs of past performers--thin, lanky, men dressed in black leather pants with enormous, shadowy craters for eyes and long frizzy locks of hair draped down across their chests in a kind of violent, wolfish effeminacy--plastered thickly on the walls beginning to feel oddly like artifacts.
Andrea, for her part, was gloomy at these events. She generally stuck to her barstool and spent more time studying the walls and dark corners of the ghostly club than she did focusing on the stage. Although she lent some useful insight about the performance as they rode home, and she liked at times to brag about her "rock-star" boyfriend, at the club itself she often seemed bored. Kevin wondered secretly whether she liked his music at all.
A stone rolled beneath his heel, nearly twisting his ankle. He looked up at the bridge. One of the two giant pillars was covered in scaffolding and tarps, a sight that seems ragged in the day yet magnificent at night. While one side is dark--the massive, rectangular box opaque against the murky yellow and orange of the light-polluted sky, the other is dazzlingly light, a glittering geometry in blue.
A gust of wind blew across the river. He felt certain now that Andrea knew precisely what she was doing for a long time before last night. It all fit into place; the abstraction of her manner, the tiny projects she completed in the last few weeks, her queer narrations. She had been sifting through old letters, discarding much of it, arranging her journals in chronological order. He realized now that she was trying to tell him things, certain details (somewhat tediously he thought at the time) about her life, relaying memories that she was the sole keeper of.
He started to piece them together. Yes, there was a trajectory! She started with seeing the star in plain daylight, looming above a wave as she swam at the beach in a spectral solitude, inexplicably left alone as a small child. It had stayed for some moments then disappeared as the water rose around her. Then she had predicted, eerily, the day her grandmother would pass away. And the time she was forced to use a gun on a man in the house--a man who had threatened her--disarming him with a single shot to the hand, later confessing that she would probably never be more powerful than in that moment.
From the beginning of her life Andrea felt connected to a spiritual source, unusually so, endowed with a degree of power that was outstanding. She felt she could see things other people couldn't, that she had a level of perception that was extraordinary. But in recent years she had felt estranged from that connection, and that estrangement itself was a horror for her. She hungered for the full connection again, as though it were home, and she had been traveling for a very long time.
But last night was the culmination, Kevin thought, a hand rising to clutch his forehead in anguish. He felt suddenly, squirmingly, maddeningly small, as though he were under the scrutiny of a greater power. He likened himself to a citizen from an ancient myth, tested all along without his knowledge. An image of Mount Olympus soared through his mind, misty, transparent, as though it were made of soft glass, a set of Gods looking down ruthlessly, their eyes flashing like lightening. How stupidly he had behaved! Wasting his time being aggravated over shoes and money, wasting his talent, his youth, even his looks in a dark hotel lobby, drinking Scotch smuggled in from the bar, living what now seemed to be a tangled, sordid dream. He suddenly felt addicted; the longer he spends inside the dream, the more difficult it becomes to extricate himself; the more he chases it, the further the dream moves from him. A rock star. How did he think he was going to pull that off?
Kevin walked on. He noticed that he had walked the entire way to the bridge. He had come a long way without realizing it.
He stood beneath the bridge for a long time, listening to the impassive roar of vehicles above, watching massive black and red freighters inch along the river in relative soundlessness, standing in a shower of fine black soot as it fell, imperceptibly, upon him.
He reflected upon Andrea's parting note. The suffering is just too much. The words circled him, echoing, pounding, sinking deeper, crashing over him like waves.
Something terrible occurred to him; she had dreams too. She wanted to write poetry. That was their dream! She would write and he would make music. But she always felt like she was failing. Now she can never fulfill those dreams. They die with her, unrealized, like bitter seeds cast in the dust.
A small but strong voice spoke from within him. It was a different voice from the ones that ricochet around in his brain, causing fear and distress. This voice seemed to well, to rise up. It said: I can still do it. In fact, I must.
Kevin walked slowly back towards the apartment. He felt a new sense of resolution, and everything he saw confirmed that feeling. The wind was at his back, pushing him onwards down the path. The sun emerged momentarily from between the clouds, casting a seductive, almost summery glow over the water. He was warmer, able to unclench his hands from his front pockets and dangle them at his sides.
He was even able to compose a little music in his head. He slapped a hand on his thigh to the tempo, listening intently. It began with a few stray sounds, taps, like a pair of hard-soled shoes on a wooden dance floor, then opened into a bass drum beat. The singer cut in, fifteen seconds later, "My girl! In the bed..."
A smile spread irresistibly across his face. He started to laugh, then punch at the sky in victory. He had his first hit. He was certain of it.