Fiction • Garth Greenwell
There are only a few reasons students ask to meet with me outside of school, and even fewer that they refuse to speak of beforehand, so it wasn’t quite with confusion that I waited for G. to appear in front of the McDonald’s at Slaveykov Square. By my American standards he was late, and I passed the time browsing books at the sellers’ stalls stationed outside the city library, beside the large fountain that had been shuddered for years, ever since faulty wiring stopped a man’s heart one spring as he dipped his fingers into the cool waters there. There was no need for such waters now, it was December, though winter hadn’t yet really taken hold; it had been a mild season and the chill that day too was mild, it wasn’t unpleasant to stand for a bit and browse the books on display. From the beginning of the year he had stood out in my attention, my student, at first simply because he was beautiful, and then for the special quality of friendship I detected between him and another boy in my class, the way G. sought him out and the intensity, when he caught him, of the privacy he drew about them. It was familiar to me, that intensity, a story from my own adolescence, as was the basking ambivalence with which I could see it was greeted by the other boy, who invited it and held it off and in no way returned it. I wasn’t entirely at a loss, then, when imagining the subject of our talk, for which there was no secrecy certain or complete enough at school, but still I was curious: he wasn’t a student I was particularly close to, he didn’t stop by my room outside of class, he had never confided in me or, to that point, in any particular way sought me out, and I wondered what crisis was bringing him to me now, feeling a little thrill of election at being so sought, as well as dread at the obligation it might impose.
These contrary feelings battled in a minor way as I stood at the stalls in Slaveykov Square, fending off the booksellers as they tried, sensing my foreignness, to direct me to their piles of battered American paperbacks; and perhaps dread gained the upper hand as G. continued not to appear and I began to wonder if my sacrificed afternoon would go to waste. But then he did appear, standing beside me suddenly, and my dread dissolved at the sight of him. He stood out here, with his just slightly formal clothes, his feathered hair, though in the States he would have been generic enough, an East Coast aspirant prep school kid, maybe not quite the real thing, especially if he smiled too broadly (as he was careful almost never to do) and revealed a lower set of teeth in un-American disarray. He was friendly enough in greeting me, but as always there was something reserved about him, a holding of himself in check, as if he were on the point of pronouncing a judgment he hadn’t quite brought himself yet to make. I recognized it, of course, this holding of oneself to one side, the refuge of a dissenting judgment, but recognition didn’t insulate me from its effect, and always in his presence I had to guard against the competing tugs of eagerness to please him and resentment at being so skeptically weighed.
He asked me where we should go only to dismiss all my proposals, saying he would take me to a favorite place of his own, and then he set off, walking not beside but in front of me, forestalling conversation and as if ready to disavow any association with me at all. I was hardly a newcomer, I had lived in Sofia for two years, but I had remained a kind of dilettante of the city, and soon—though the center is small and we hadn’t gone far from Slaveykov and Graf Ignatiev, the part of it I knew best—I had no idea where we were. My ignorance wasn’t for lack of trying: for months after I arrived, each free morning I came to the center, walking the streets as the city woke up and returning to mark off my route on a map pinned to the wall. And yet those same streets, if I passed them even a short time later, seemed entirely strange to me; nothing remained fixed or came into any relation, and only the stray distinction (an old cornice carving, an oddly painted facade) reminded me I had been that way before. Walking behind G., as always when walking with a native, I had a sense of the city as strangely opening itself up, the monolithic blank concrete of the Soviet-style apartment blocks, which seemed designed at once to repel an attack and to escape notice altogether, giving way somehow to unsuspected courtyards and cafés and paths through overgrown little parks. As we entered these spaces, which were quieter and less traveled than the boulevards, G. slowed his pace, allowing me to draw up beside him, and we walked in a more companionable way, though still without speaking.
It was in one of these courtyards or little parks that G.’s restaurant was hidden. It was belowground, and as we approached the door that would take us down to it, my attention was caught by a neighboring storefront, an antiquarian shop, its windows crowded with icons—Cyril and Methodius, a beatific Mary, Saint George on horseback hooking the dragon through the mouth—and, on the bottom ledge, with Nazi paraphernalia, watches and billfolds and flasks all stamped with a broken cross. One finds these objects at any antiques shop or outdoor market here, souvenirs for tourists or for young men longing for a time when they might have allied themselves, however disastrously, with some real power in the world. The space we descended into was larger than I had expected, an open room with booths along each side and, in the back, a bar I imagined crowded at night with students from the university. We claimed one of the booths, most of which were empty, and I took a moment to survey the room, which was lit by a line of small windows near the top of one wall, their panes clouded and stained with smoke, so that over everything the light was strangely muted, as if soaked in tea.
G. laid his cigarettes on the table and rested the tips of his fingers on the pack, tapping it lightly but not opening it or taking it up. I realized that he was waiting for my permission, that even though nearly everyone in the restaurant was already smoking, lading the air with it, he wouldn’t join them unless I first gave him my approval. I smiled at him or nodded and he snatched them up, smiling a little back as if in apology for his eagerness, and then the edges of him softened as he took a first long drag. We spoke a little then, pleasantries mostly and then the obligatory questions about college; applications had been sent and it was the long season of waiting, and though we were sick of talking about it, all of us, it was the subject we all returned to. Fine, he said, it’s fine, I’m just waiting, and he said that he had applied mostly in the States, though most students here now look to the EU, where schools are cheaper and where they have a better chance of being allowed to stay. But that conversation was like a cloth already wrung, and soon we were sitting in silence. I brought up poetry then; we had read not long before some poets of the midcentury, and G.’s own poems in response had been a genuine surprise, witty and fluent and vulnerable, revealing a depth he had hinted at but never, until then, quite confirmed. One of them especially had impressed me, a poem full of the everyday, of descriptions of our school and the people who filled it; and also with a sense, plangent and bare, that in the world he described so well there was no place he felt at ease. It seemed like a kind of invitation, and I suspected that my response to it, excited and full of encouragement, had invited in turn this meeting.
He pulled a few pages from his bag and slid them across the table, saying Here, I’ve been working more on these. I was disappointed to see the slightest of the poems he had given me on top, a generic wan hymn to a feminine ideal, full of exaggerated praise and capitalized pronouns. It was the same draft I had seen already, the page full of my corrections and suggestions, advice I feel obliged to give even work irredeemably flawed in its conception, and it was these markings that G. referred to now. You corrected so much, he said, but you didn’t correct the most important mistake. I looked down at the page and then up again, confused; I don’t see it, I said, what did I miss? He leaned across the table then, reaching his arms toward the page so that his upper body rested on the lacquered wood, a peculiarly teenage gesture, I thought, I remembered making it but hadn’t made it for years, and he pressed the pad of a finger to the margin of the page. Here, he said, pointing to a line where the single word She appeared, I made it here and it happens several times, the pronouns are all wrong, and even in his half-prone posture I could see the whole of him was tensed. Ah, I said, looking up at him from the page, I see, and then he leaned quickly back, as if released by something, and as though after his revelation he wanted to reassert some space between us. I leaned back too, granting it, and pushed the pages across to him again, since it was clear that their occasion had passed.
Those poems we read in class, he said then, I had never seen anything like them, I didn’t know anything like them existed. He meant one of our poets in particular, I thought, Frank O’Hara, the explicitness of whose poems each year shocked, as I intended it to, most of my students here. I had never read anything before, he went on, a story or a poem, that seemed like it was about me, that I could have written it. He didn’t look at me as he said this, looking instead at his hands, both of which were on the table in front of him and in one of which a cigarette had shrunk almost to its nub between two fingers. I felt two things as he spoke, the first a kind of grief I had known before when talking to men here, at their exclusion that was more severe than my own growing up, where fairly early I found books that, if they didn’t quite assure me of an eventual place in the world, at least suggested a certain beauty as assuagement. But in addition to grief there was a kind of satisfaction or pride at having provided (as I thought of it) his escape from exclusion, at having offered some safety, or at least the possibility of safety, and perhaps this was the bigger part of what I felt. I had gathered him up, I thought, and this feeling, which I had had on occasion before but never in this country, where there’s a larger divide between teachers and students and where anyway I was held apart by my foreignness, this feeling was a warmth that filled me up, starting from the central pit of me and then radiating out. It was a kind of craftsman’s pride, I suppose, a satisfaction with the thing I had made: I had worked hard to find the right poems for them, choosing O’Hara for his subject but primarily for his joy, for his freedom from the guardedness and guilt and shame that is so often the tenor of such poems and that would only have reinforced what many of my students already believed about that class of people of which I was a part. This pleasure only deepened as G. continued, after our coffee arrived and we took a moment to resituate ourselves around it. You’re the only person I know who talks about it, who’s so public and who isn’t ashamed, he said; that must be hard here, thank you, and even though he was awkward as he said it it thrilled me. It was a kind of acknowledgment one hardly ever hears, and it reminded me of the sense of mission I could remember feeling when I first started teaching, which had faded so decisively since. And again this had the effect of increasing the distance between us, so that even as I saw he remained agitated, tense and anxious, that he was miserable with something he still had to say, I was myself suffused with an extraordinary pleasure, of which he was less the object or source than the circumstance or occasion, incidental to a self-regarding joy.
It was with this pleasure that I asked whether there was something else, besides the poems we had read, that made him want to talk to me now. I don’t know, he said, I just had to talk to someone, and he twisted his coffee cup slowly in circles as he spoke, the handle passing from one hand to the next. You don’t know what it’s like, he said, speaking my name, at which I felt, just for a moment and at a remove, as it were, as a sort of echo, the shock that had been habitual when my first students called me by my surname. It seemed so alien then, so little connected to the self I had to that point been, though now it seems almost inevitable, the self I have become, perhaps, a diminished self, as it sometimes seems. You don’t know what it’s like, he went on, there’s no one I can talk to, it’s impossible here, and he cataloged for me the sources of comfort unavailable to him, his parents, his friends, the adults at school who, in the States, might be turned to for support; and of course there were no public resources here, no community centers or networks he could seek out. What about online, I said, couldn’t you find people there, and he looked up at me startled. Is that what you think I want, he asked, to meet someone online? I’m not interested in that, he said sharply, and I realized from his tone he had misunderstood me, that he thought I was suggesting an erotic outlet, which is all such sites offer here, when in fact what I had had in mind, as I told him, was something altogether different, forums and chat rooms of which there are so many in America. But he seemed exasperated by this too, making a little motion of dismissal with his hands. What good would that do, he said, I live here, not in America, and it’s impossible to live here. Besides, and here he leaned back from me again, resting his weight on the padded back of our booth, I’ve seen some of those sites, he said, I’ve seen what they talk about, television and pop songs and sex, do you think I have anything to say to them? There’s nothing for me there, he said, that’s not the life I want, that’s not what I want to be. And then, after a pause, Is that what all of them are like, he asked, leaning forward again, is that what it means to be this way? My pleasure faltered at this, both at having said the wrong thing, and more than that, at having found myself under attack, or at least drawn more decisively within the compass of his scorn. He knew nothing about me, about that life there’s little reason for my students to guess at or divine; almost without exception I stop existing for them at the sounding of the bell, even though I’m more open about my life than is customary for my vocation, or for my trade, rather, though maybe it was a vocation once. He knew nothing about me and so nothing about those appetites that so often shame me, both the appetites and my proneness to them; he knew nothing of them, and yet still I felt indicted, so that Of course not, I said much more sharply than I should, and then I clamped down on myself before I could say anything more. He had startled when I spoke, there was a minute drawing of himself back from me, a gathering in of things he had barely begun to show, and immediately I was remorseful for what I had done. I put both of my hands around the cup in front of me, letting myself settle as I pressed my palms against what warmth was left, and then, when I could speak more moderately, What is the life you want, I asked.
He hunched his shoulders a little, as if to say I don’t know or maybe what does it matter, and then he began talking about something else, or what seemed like something else, so that again I had the feeling of being on the wrong track, of failing to sense or say what I ought. You know those poems you put up in the classroom, he began, mine and the others, and I nodded, of course I did: five student poems, or sections of poems, in a little display on the back wall. For almost a week before they submitted them there had been an extraordinary wind in Sofia, powerful and unceasing, a wind from Africa, people said, which played havoc through the city and left all of us anxious or exalted. It was constant, unignorable, and in each of the poems or sections I posted it made an appearance, in one as a snake, in another as horses pounding a strand, in a third as the sea they galloped by, the pages hanging on the wall together like facets of a compound eye. All but one of the poems you posted were by my closest friends, he said, three of us in one section and the fourth in the other; we hadn’t talked about it at all, it was funny that we wrote about the same thing. Did you know we were so close, he asked, but I didn’t know; I was embarrassed to realize, in fact, that in the weeks since the assignment I had forgotten exactly whose work I had chosen, and as G. spoke that afternoon I would puzzle out only slowly who the figures in his story were. Or maybe it wasn’t funny, he went on, I guess there’s nothing so funny about it, but it was odd, anyway, how we were all drawn to the same thing. They had been friends since they came to the American College, he said then, they met as eighth graders, three boys and one girl, and almost immediately they were inseparable. As he spoke of these friends, I had the sense of a greater intimacy being drawn around us, as though despite my missteps he had decided I was worthy of his confidence, of a profounder or more difficult confidence than he had already shown; or maybe it wasn’t judgment but need that drove him to speak to me as he did, maybe it wasn’t for some virtue of my own but merely for the function I could serve. They were easy with each other in a way he had never been before, he told me, he had never had a place in such a group, he had always held himself apart from others, it was his nature to hold himself apart. I felt lucky, he said, I expected all the time for things to fall apart, for our friendship to burn out the way my friendships have always burned out; I don’t have any friends from before the College, he said, they slip away from me somehow. Or maybe those weren’t the phrases he used, burn out and slip away, maybe I’ve supplied them just now, though I’m fairly certain of the shape of what he said as we sipped our second cups of coffee, as I kept pouring more sugar into mine, packet after packet. But they didn’t slip away, he continued, they stayed. We met at the same place every morning before classes and at the same place again for lunch, after school we went to the bus together, on weekends to the park or the mall. Even in the breaks we were together, we spent winter in the mountains and summer at the sea, our families became friends and we traveled together. They’re not like me, they had lots of friends, they’ve always been popular, but even so we were a special group, I always had my place. I had what I wanted, for the first time I didn’t want anything else, do you understand, and I nodded, I understood him entirely, so that it seemed to me the intimacy he had drawn between us deepened further, becoming a sort of kinship, which with my usual ambivalence I greeted with both welcome and dread.
There were more people in the restaurant now, and G. lowered his voice as the booths around us filled and the air grew thicker with smoke. I was leaning forward to hear him, and it occurred to me that he had brought me here for the double privacy of it, the privacy of the booth and his lowered voice but also the privacy of the language; at any of the brighter cafés on the boulevards we would have heard English, but here no one else was speaking it, we were alone in that way also. I didn’t think of B. as special then, not really, he said, speaking of the boy who was also in my class, whom I had considered G.’s particular friend; we were always together, the four of us, we were all equally friends, but B. and I had always been in the same classes, in eighth and ninth grade, and then the next year they put us in different sections. It shouldn’t have mattered, he said, we were good students, we didn’t talk in class or fool around, and we still had our time together as a group. But it did matter, he said, I couldn’t stand it. I made them switch me, I said that I hated the other students, I said they were mean to me. It wasn’t true but I made my mother believe it, I made her come to the school to complain, and after a few days they put me where I wanted to be. Everything should have been fine then but it wasn’t fine, I knew that it shouldn’t have made me so upset, I couldn’t understand why it had. But that’s not true, he said, shaking his head just slightly, I did understand, at least a little, I knew I felt something I shouldn’t feel.
He lit a new cigarette now; for some time as he spoke he hadn’t been smoking, but he filled himself up with it again and again I saw him soften, the edges of him go slack, and I wondered how he could bear the long days of classes, when he was obliged to go for hours without. But really everything was fine, he said, we were together all the time, and everything else was easy to ignore. I still had my place with my friends and I still had my friendship with B., I could do without the rest of it. He dated a few girls, so did I, and it didn’t mean much more to him than to me, we were still the same thing to each other, all four of us, and here for the first time he named the third member of the group, the female friend; what he had said about her to that point hadn’t been enough for me to be sure. She was a beautiful girl, smart, kind, one of my favorites in a year when I had few favorites; she was undemanding, by which I mean that she had never been a source of the worry that makes up so much of my occupation, she was a student of whom one could be sure. Everything was fine, he said again, and this year was our big year, we were seniors finally. We had been looking forward to it for so long, the trips we would take, the parties. There was a tradition of these celebrations, I knew, which took place in a set circuit, stations on the way to graduation: one each quarter or so and then a final post-prom bacchanalia at the seaside that lasted, for some of them, until they left for university in the fall. It was a part of the culture I had an aversion to, an indulgence of material pleasures on a scale difficult to imagine in the world from which I came. I was surprised he would be drawn to it, though I could imagine the solace it offered him, the abandon I had sought in other ways.
We had arranged to have a house together for the fall trip, he said, close enough to the others to join the parties at night but far enough away to have the days to ourselves. We were in the mountains, in a little village that’s empty most of the year, there was nothing else for kilometers around. We brought everything with us, alcohol, music, even little lights to hang up in one of the houses so we could dance. There was a deck that wrapped around two sides of our house looking over the mountain, and on the first night we sat there late, talking and drinking. We were remembering our years together, laughing in a way I only ever laughed when I was with them. It was a perfect night, he said, with the long weekend still stretching before them, when have I ever been so happy. There came over his face at this an expression of such longing I had to look away, it was a privacy too rich to be shared. I had been feeling this increasingly as he spoke, this desire to look away, and had resisted it, wanting him to know I was listening, that I was ready to receive whatever he offered; and this was all the more true because he so seldom looked at me, staring instead at the table, at his hands or the cup already empty between them. I wanted to be present when he did look, I wanted him to see my attention, which was my way of catching him, I suppose, or that’s what I wanted it to be, gathering him up and gathering too the burden he bore. But as he continued to speak I found myself failing even at this, I was unable to keep my eyes on his face.
I went to bed before B., he said then, we were sharing a room but he wanted to stay up a bit and I was exhausted. I thought he would wake me up when he came in, that we would talk for a little like we always did, just a few minutes the two of us alone; but I slept through the night, and when I woke his side of the bed was untouched. I was confused at first, he said, I thought maybe he had fallen asleep out on the deck, but it had gotten cold in the night and there was nobody outside. It was early, foggy and quiet, like it only ever is in the mountains. I stood for a little while at the wooden rail, looking down at the village where everything was still. He waited for them in the main room, doing nothing, he said, just waiting until he heard a noise on the upper floor and then the fourth of their party, the final boy, came down. G. called this boy by his name and for the first time I had a clear idea of the group, all of them students I had seen every day, more or less, and yet I had seen so little of what passed between them. I have such a strange perspective on their lives, privileged and impoverished at once; in one sense I see them as no one else sees them, my profession is a kind of long looking, and in another they are entirely opaque to me. He was full of excitement, G. said of this fourth friend, he couldn’t wait to tell me about the night before, how after I went to bed they stayed up drinking, how there was something going on between B. and our other friend, how they began talking to each other as though he weren’t there, until finally he said good night and left them alone. Before he fell asleep, he said, he heard them walk past his door together. Isn’t it great, he said to me, G. said, they’re perfect for each other, and it’s been coming for so long; he couldn’t understand how it hadn’t happened already, it was so obviously what they wanted. And he said all this to me like I knew it already, G. said, like it was so clear it didn’t need to be said. But I didn’t know, I hadn’t seen anything, and as I sat there I felt something I had never felt before, it was like I was falling into something, like water though it wasn’t really like water, it was like a new element, G. said. But surely he didn’t say precisely that, surely this was something I added as I listened; added in solidarity, I’d like to say, but maybe it wasn’t solidarity, maybe it was more like ownership, the sense that the experience he had had was my own, that I had undergone it exactly, so that even as he spoke I found myself falling also, into his story and into that element I too had known, which was lightless and unbreathable, I was trapped in what he told.
Finally we heard them moving, G. went on, we heard a door closing and steps coming from above, and then they came down the stairs together. They were smiling, sleepy and shy, holding hands like they were nervous about being seen. Our friend whistled at them and laughed, not cruelly but lovingly, clapping his hands, and then they all laughed together, and whatever tension there had been was gone. But I couldn’t laugh with them, not really, I could only pretend to laugh. They had changed somehow, the two of them, they seemed like different people sitting there in chairs they pulled together as close as they could, leaning against each other, like people I didn’t know; and even though I could see B. glancing at me now and again, looking at me for support, maybe, for reassurance, it was impossible, I couldn’t make myself meet his eyes. G. paused for a moment then, lighting another cigarette though the ashtray was already full. It was genuinely busy now, every table was taken, the room was loud with conversation and laughter, and yet G. hadn’t raised his voice as he spoke, so that I had to strain to hear him, leaning forward as best I could. He was silent for a while, dragging on his cigarette, resting perhaps or perhaps reliving what he had to tell. I was grateful for the pause, I was exhausted by listening to him, by the effort of it in that noisy space but also by the obligation it laid on me, the obligation not just to listen but to feel in a way I had grown unaccustomed to feel. I dreaded the taking up of his story again, knowing as he was preparing to speak what he would say, it was such a common story, entirely ordinary, which was the thought by which I had dulled its force when I was young and grieving as G. grieved now. Or rather it wasn’t myself but time that dulled it, it was time that thinned out that element and let me rise from it, turning grief into a story. For G. it wasn’t a story at all, it was the air he breathed, though it was even less like air than water, it was the opposite of air.
Over the next weeks I lost all the pleasure I had ever had in them, he said. B. told me about every moment of it, every feeling, and I hated him while he spoke, I hated his happiness. There was so much to feel, G. said, I had never let myself imagine what I wanted, I had never in all those years fantasized about him, not once; I hardly fantasized about anything, I didn’t want that part of me to exist. But now he was all I could think about, I couldn’t concentrate in my classes—and it was true, I thought, I had noticed it, the abstraction and missed work, the fact that so frequently I found him staring glossily in class and had to call him back from wherever he had gone. Every day I saw something I couldn’t stand, the two of them kissing or holding hands or just together in a way that showed how happy they were together, how complete. Everything I had looked forward to was ruined, he said, the year was ruined, and I was lonely in a way I had never been before, not just alone but incapable of being not alone, do you understand? At this last I looked up at him, having heard the grimace I saw now on his face, a look of such desolation I barely caught myself before I reached for him, wanting to place my hand on his, though I had been teaching long enough to have learned never to touch students, or almost never, even innocent touches can so easily be suspect. And he wouldn’t have welcomed it, I thought, it would have been an intrusion, he wasn’t the type to want it. But maybe I was wrong, maybe it was precisely what he wanted, maybe it was some better or wiser part of me I pressed down. It’s the worst part of teaching, that so often one’s actions either have no force at all or have force beyond all intention, and not only actions but inactions, gestures and words unthought of or restrained, all one might have done and failed to do; and, more than this, that the consequence of all of it, done and undone, ramifies beyond our knowing, through years and silence, we can never really know what we’ve done.
G. was silent for a moment, keeping his eyes on the table, so that he neither saw me see his distress nor caught my own confusion. When I told him, he went on, it was by accident, almost, I told him all at once and without a plan. We were alone for the first time in weeks, out of the city a little, at a house my parents keep up Vitosha. I knew the area he meant, I thought as he spoke, a band of exclusive neighborhoods built up the side of the mountain, each year climbing further up; it was just a half hour’s drive from Sofia but it was like a different world, with its own climate free of the congestion and noise and heavy air of the center. This was just a few weeks ago, he said, we had gone up on a Friday for a quick trip, we were coming back after the one night. But we planned to spend the whole day there, and it was still morning, and it had been a wonderful night. He was quiet for some time, and then, What was I thinking, he said, speaking to himself more than to me; it was like a change of temperature, a shift of weather that fixed in me more deeply my disquiet. G. had waved the waitress away when she approached our table, the cups in front of us were empty and cold, and this left me with nothing to do with my hands. G. had his cigarettes but I was propless, and I was suddenly conscious of it, feeling that I should make some gesture of comfort or encouragement to my student who was in obvious distress, though I wasn’t sure how much encouragement I wanted to give. I had heard enough of his story, I wanted to leave the restaurant and the thick air that made my eyes ache and my throat, I wanted him to stop talking, I wanted to go home.
I don’t know, G. said, answering his own question, I wanted it to end, I guess, I didn’t want to go back to the same misery; or maybe it was something else, maybe I did have some hope, not that he would feel what I felt but that he would receive it, that he would let me give it to him somehow. If I could just kiss him, he said, his voice stripped now and small, if I could kiss him just once, that would be enough, I wouldn’t want anything more. I looked hard at him then, wondering if he meant what he said, if really he was new enough to appetite to believe it. I don’t think so, I said, speaking for the first time since he had started his story, my voice sounding raw to me, I don’t think that’s how it works; it was a ridiculous thing to say, as I knew even as I said it. Whatever, G. said, still not looking up, it doesn’t matter, he didn’t give me the chance to try. I told him that I loved him but he didn’t understand me, or he pretended not to understand, I had to explain it, and once I started speaking I couldn’t stop, after being silent so long I spoke too much, and when I saw him pulling away from me I spoke more. But I could see it didn’t matter what I said, I just made things worse by talking, from the first word I wrecked everything between us. He wasn’t cruel with me, he was gentle, he was even kind, but he didn’t pretend we could go on as we had. We would stop being friends, he said, he said he was sorry; he didn’t want me to suffer, and this was the quickest way to end suffering, and anyway he couldn’t be comfortable with me now. I was crying then, G. said, I don’t think he had ever seen me cry before, I couldn’t stop. Why did you tell me, he said, I’ve lost something too, you’ve taken something from me too. And I had, I realized, I had ruined so much, for him and for me both, I was wrong to tell him, I was absolutely wrong. I started feeling then the regret that I still feel, G. said, along with everything else now I’m so sorry for what I said. But there’s nothing I can do, I have to live with it, like I have to live with everything else I feel. He paused then for a moment, and then, But what if I can’t bear it, he said, looking up at me, finally catching my eye, so that though at first I thought the question was rhetorical I realized it was genuine, that I needed to have something to say. I remembered the certainty I had had, hours before, of my own competence, the pleasure I had taken in the solace I could give, and I wished I could have some measure of it back, that it would ease the sense I had now of helplessness and loss, though loss of what I wasn’t precisely sure, an idea of myself, I suppose, which shouldn’t have been so precious to me but was.
Other people have gone through this, I began, finding it difficult to speak, though that seemed impossible when it happened to me, it seemed unprecedented, unrepeatable. I remember how alone I felt, how locked in my feeling. But other people have felt it, they bear it and have borne it, and they emerge from it, they aren’t trapped in it forever. These feelings, I said lamely, all of them, they will get easier, they will stop being the only thing you feel, they’ll fade and make room for other feelings. And then, in time, you’ll look at them from far away, almost entirely without pain, as if they were felt by someone else, or felt in a dream. That’s what it’s like, I said, thinking I had struck on something, it’s precisely like waking from a dream, and like a self in a dream the self that feels this will be incomprehensible to you, and the intensity you feel now will be like a puzzle you can’t solve, a puzzle it finally isn’t worth your while to solve. I was speaking of myself, of course, of my own experience with love, with overwhelming love that had made me at times such a stranger to myself. But I could see this failing even as I spoke, I could see him recoiling from me, looking at me with an expression first of surprise and then of dismay, and then of something like revulsion. I don’t want to feel it less, he said, I don’t want it to stop, I don’t want it to seem like it wasn’t real. It would all be for nothing if that happened, he said, I don’t want it to be a dream, I want it to be real, all of it. And who else could I love, he asked, his voice softening, we grew up together, in the same country, with the same language, we became adults together; who could I meet wherever I go next who could know me like that, who could love me as much as he could love me, who could I love as much? What life could I want except for that life, he said, reminding me of the question I had asked so long before, he hadn’t forgotten it, his whole recitation had been an answer, what other life than that could I bear?
He raised his hand then, signaling for the waitress and signaling too that our talk was over, that he had exhausted all hope of my helpfulness; and I was both relieved and exasperated by this, and exasperated too by what he had said. But this is a story you’re telling yourself, I said, a story you’ve made that will make you unhappy. There’s nothing inevitable about it, it’s a choice you’ve made, you can choose a different story. But he was already gone, though he was still with me at the table; he was taking out his wallet to pay the check, which I covered with my hand as the waitress laid it down. I’ve got it, I said, and he thanked me, for the coffee and for the talk, as he said. He stood up and put on his coat while I was still counting out bills, and though he stood there willing to wait for me, he was visibly relieved when I let him go, saying I would wait for my change. I watched him as he left, walking hunched over just slightly, carrying away the despair he held on to so tightly, and I told myself he would grow out from under it, that he would go to university and discover a new life in England or America, new freedoms and possibilities, a greater scope for love, and with it room in himself for other feelings. The pain he felt now would become a story he told to others, I thought, an occasion for new intimacy, and of course he couldn’t believe this, still on the other side of it; of course it seemed impossible, I told myself, of course I had failed to make him see it.
I thought this as I walked into the street, breathing with relief the fresher air and setting off in what I hoped was the direction of the cathedral, from which I was sure I could find my way home. As I walked I remembered other times I had felt impatience or exasperation with my students’ private lives, or with those parts of them they showed me, with their outsized passions and griefs uncut by any perspective, and I felt this even as I realized that the perspective they lacked couldn’t be willed, that it was experiential, coming only and inevitably with time. He would be all right, I thought again, comforting myself by thinking it, though I thought too that he wasn’t altogether mistaken in what he had said, his sense that there would be loss in loving another, that the perspective that limited his grief would also limit his love, which, having taken the measure of its bounds, he could never again imagine as boundless. And I had thought this before, too, how much we lose in gaining this truer vision of ourselves, the vision I had urged upon my student, the vision it was my obligation to urge, though it carried us away from our finest dreams of ourselves, from the grandeur of novels and poems that it was also my obligation to impart. How much smaller I have become, I said to myself, the accustomed thought coming with an unaccustomed pang, through this process less of accrual than of erosion, an erosion necessary to survival perhaps and perhaps still to be regretted, a withering away of myself to a bearable size. I emerged from these thoughts to find that already I had wound myself into a maze of little streets, the walls on either side too high to glimpse the gold dome of my landmark, and I began to walk more quickly, spurred by the unease that always claims me when I lose track of where I am.
Garth Greenwell is an Arts Fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His first novel, What Belongs to You, is forthcoming in September from Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
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