Joyland

The Midwest |

Distance

by Debbie Urbanski

edited by Anna Prushinskaya

I first noticed how the world was retreating from me on a morning in early June after it had rained for nearly eight days. Water swamped the streets and clogged the sewers, so the garbage of people’s lives began to appear face down in the gutters. Mostly we saw trash floating by us, but on occasion, a ruined photograph or a children’s plastic toy bobbed in the expansive puddles that collected at the low points of the street. The newscasters on television, believing in a world with balance, irrationally insisted the rain couldn’t continue because we had so much of it. They were wrong, of course. The rain continued. And on the morning of the eighth day of rain, I couldn’t touch Alex anymore.  

That particular morning, garbage trucks idled outside my home, and there were the garbled shouts of garbage men, and glass breaking as if nothing was different. Alex, beside me, was stuck in some troubled dream, his legs jerking back and forth as if he was running. He said he often dreamed of being chased by pleasant beautiful things, like bubbles, or old friends, or swaths of richly embroidered fabrics. When I leaned over to touch his arm, trying to soothe him, I could only feel the bed sheets. I tried again, outstretching my hand slowly toward him, but no matter how hard I pushed, and from what direction, I couldn’t reach him: I couldn’t get past this new distance.

Honestly, this seemed like a game to me at first, and I was relieved to see our relationship transform. We had begun, in the last month, to bore each other. Weekend mornings, we had punctual, efficient sex then we washed the sheets. We ate halved grapefruit and frozen waffles for breakfast. In the evenings, we kissed with our mouths closed and puckered, like our grandparents used to kiss us. There were long pauses over meals where I had begun to imagine conversations with fascinating people who didn’t know how all my stories ended.

Alex didn’t notice anything wrong until we left the apartment and walked toward the lake for a picnic. Though the rain had paused briefly, the trees sputtered leftover water onto our heads. We walked through the puddles, which were too large to step over. Alex reached for my hand but our hands couldn’t connect. He reached out and held nothing.

“What’s going on?” he asked. I carried the picnic basket. He carried a cooler of clinking drinks. We decided to walk with our free hands stretched toward each other, several inches of distance between us. I imagined we held hands, and at that point, imagining seemed almost as good.

The lake was filled with several men floating on inflatable tubes that were like their own private islands. The men laid with their faces turned to the sky. I spread the blanket down on the small rocky beach, and Alex and I tried to make the most of our new condition. We said, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” thinking this was a temporary state. We made up a game to play. We stood up and leaned into each other, and it was as if the air had become solid between us, like there was a wall of air. We could lean and lean and not fall down. Eventually, this grew boring, and we couldn’t think of other games. We sat on the hard beach, watching the water without a wave in it, and I traced the lines that radiated out from my wrists, and Alex traced the lines on his own palm.

We heard thunder and the rain started, at first gently, then angrily, as if it wished to wash us and everything else away. The level of the lake rose gradually. The men in the lake bobbed in the new rain, buoyant and oblivious.

*

It was a summer of rainstorms and thunder and the flooding of small creeks in towns we never heard of. “It’s only water,” Alex was fond of saying. “I don’t know what everybody is so afraid of.” Then we watched the news, where water tore away restaurants, caused bridges to cave, and roads to vanish. The Storms of the Century Are Now, proclaimed one newspaper. But as a scientist in that article explained, “This is the new normal. Get used to it.” Our storage unit in our building’s basement grew musty, then mold grew, slowly and gorgeously, on the edges of our books and on the insides of closed boxes.

Though the distance between us remained, Alex and I tried to carry on our normal lives. We filled our summers with dirt and gardening and sweeping away the debris of storms, and I pretended I had lost nothing. In the evenings, the lights off, we tried to act out scenes of intimacy. Alex took off his own clothes and I took off mine. “Move slower,” he pleaded. We watched each other carefully. We stared at each other’s untouchable bodies. We made proclamations such as, “Intimacy doesn’t need to mean touching someone. Look at us, for instance.” I hoped the things we said were true, but they didn’t feel true. Afterwards, we took turns retreating to the bathroom, where we shut the door, turned on the exhaust fan and masturbated roughly and in private.

“Is it me or you growing distant?” I asked. Alex shrugged. Neither of us wanted to be the cause. If it was Alex’s body acting strangely, I told myself at night, at least I could leave him and find somebody else.

But it wasn’t Alex. Objects retreated haphazardly from me: first Alex’s body, then the drawers that I could no longer open, then my books that I couldn’t hold. Alex cooked dinner every night when I couldn’t grasp the pots anymore. He read to me in the evening from whatever books I wanted and, trying to be kind, he summarized the sex scenes. He made people touch then depart, as if intimacy could be reduced to a five second caress or a look.

“We’ll see this out together,” he said finally. “I’m sorry it had to be you.”

Over dinner I wondered would this be the last time I’d see him, at the kitchen table. The next day, would he appear far enough away to be unrecognizable? Alex insisted I didn’t look any different. I thought he was lying. In the mirror, I noticed a difference. I looked like those girls in the back rows of group photos, the girls who, when the photographer says “Cheese!”, decide to turn their heads, or duck, so you only see a part of them, a suggestion.

We still shared a bed, though it felt like a mile of space existed between us. At night I lay on my back, clutching the sheets, which I still could hold then, listening to the rain against the window. I dreamed I held a rope which I used to strap Alex to a large flat stone, and I kept him there, within my sight. Even when a flock of birds came to peck at his wrists and ankles, I kept him there. In my dream, I could put my hands wherever I wanted on him. I touched the spots where the birds had pecked. I touched the hot flat stone. I shaded as much of his body when I wanted to with large palm fronds, and other times, I turned away from him, because I could.

*

On the morning news, a reporter, dressed in a dramatic yellow rain slicker, stood on a plot of land several blocks from the river and said, “I’m standing in a spot that will be underwater in 36 hours.” The reporter recounting stories of what had vanished: buildings, towns, streets, pets, people. There were mentions of rare rescues, though the stations repeated the same footage, as if that was all they had: a single man brought to safety, swinging from a harness attached to a helicopter, his grateful arms stretched up toward someone or something still out of reach.

Alex drove me to his general practitioner. The doctor sat on the far side of the examination room on a hard stool, reference books piled around him, his hands clasped uselessly in his lap. Because he couldn’t touch me, he instructed me how to examine myself. “Put your hand on the left side of your neck and take your pulse. Good. Press down on your abdomen—does that hurt? Good.” He scribbled down notes and wanted to prescribe me drugs but he wasn’t sure which ones.

I told him my fears: I was worried about starving to death. Already food tasted fainter; it seemed to hover above my tongue. I feared a slow death, surrounded by food and water and people I couldn’t reach.

The doctor suggested I try and appreciate what I had right in front of me. He said, “You’re still better off than a lot of people.”

*

Friends visited once or twice before they stopped visiting. They brought self-help books and offered advice such as, “Your attitude is so much a part of getting better. You need to change your attitude.” Most were nervous to enter the living room where I lay on the couch, near the window with the repetitive view of the street. They waited in the doorway. “You’re probably contagious, right?” a friend said. They watched me from across the room. “I’m sure you’re going to a place that’s good,” another friend said, fleeing from our apartment.

My mother preferred not to discuss it. “Do we really need to make this an issue?” she told me over the phone. “Now? In the middle of dinner? Why must you always be different? Everything will be fine. There’s nothing to worry about.” Perhaps my talk of sickness reminded her of my father’s death three years before.

My father took a long time to die. To be exact, he took twelve months, during which time he lay at home in the family room, gradually retreating from us. “Ta-da!” he joked at first, claiming he was the disappearing man, claiming people would buy tickets to watch him vanish. I tried to laugh nervously at his ongoing joke, which he made every day until he noticed he was making my mother cry. Six months into the illness, my mother confided to me, “I wish he would go more quickly. I wish I could say goodbye, and he’d be gone, and then I would put up these beautiful photographs of him. He’s ruining my memories.” She sat in the corner of the family room, the drapes shut, even at noon, and watched him like she was watching something gorgeous disappear around a curve in the road, and all she was left with was the road, a strip of ugly asphalt pointing in two directions, leading there or there, and she didn’t know whether to follow him.

*

Alex suggested we marry before anything else happened, and I agreed, picturing marriage as a thick rough rope that tied us together with knots. I wanted to be stifled by Alex again and suffocated. I missed the times when he lowered himself on top of me, covering me with his body until I almost couldn’t bear it or breathe.

I dressed carefully that morning in white, the only white clothes I owned, a white dress that seemed to flutter inches away from my body, a white ribbon in my hair. “You are stunning,” Alex said, though his voice was only sad and coarse, as if he was going to say that no matter what I wore. We held separate umbrellas as we walked to the courthouse, where a justice of the peace pronounced us husband and wife and then waited for us to kiss, but we shook our heads and tried to look modest. The justice tittered—young love! Young love! What good was the piece of paper that they gave us? I let the paper go. It fluttered to the floor, and when I tried to pick it up again, I couldn’t.

On our wedding night, Alex made me wait in the kitchen for an hour, and when he opened the bedroom door, I saw red flowers thrown violently around the room, some of the petals already torn off the stems. The flowers looked both pretty and broken. If we stepped on the flowers, they crushed under our feet. Tea lights flickered on top the dresser, trying to cast enough light, but they couldn’t. The shadows were thick and large and ridiculed us and our furniture. I turned on music and we danced separately. When Alex lifted up his right arm, I raised my arm too and twirled myself in a circle. What can I say to be kind? Our movements dissatisfied us. Our bodies were ludicrous and needy and obscene. We said such things as, “Love is transcendent.” I kissed the side of my arm like a shy teenager, trying to imagine that I was kissing Alex. I made him repeat my name over and over, so I could imagine my name in his mouth.

In bed, Alex whispered, “What does it feel like?”

I tried to describe it to him. I said it reminded me of puberty, where bodies did these strange things we couldn’t understand, when the body charged ahead of you and waved its arms around, not caring whether or not you were happy, and so you chased after it, becoming nostalgic. “I don't remember puberty,” Alex said. Or, I told him, it was like being in a car moving very fast, past stunning scenery you knew you wouldn’t see again, and all you wanted to do was slow the car down, so you could recognize individual places and see the sort of people who lived in the isolated valleys, but instead the car sped up, so the details became vague and blurred

“It sounds like it could be beautiful, to see the world that way,” Alex said as he fell asleep.

The next morning, I called my mother to tell her I was married.

“It won't last, you know,” she said. “Try and be happy.”

One afternoon, when my father was sick, my mother climbed into the sofa bed where he lay. They didn’t know I was home, but I was home, so when I came into the family room to say hello, I heard the bed moving and creaking. The shapes underneath the sheets froze but I knew what was going on, my mother's panties and bra folded neatly on the end table. I tiptoed out of the room. Those shapes of my parents hadn't appeared human; their bodies had become something else, a new thing, two people blurred into a new and better lasting thing, and I found it very moving, the idea that we can be transformed like that, even for an afternoon.

*

“I’ll be back in a while,” Alex assured me one fall day, his face blurry with distance. He had become my anchor, though a flimsy and tenuous one, and I knew he had grown tired. Whenever he left the room now, I panicked. Infants are supposed to be like that, without faith, thinking when a person moves out of their line of vision, they were gone. My panicking exhausted him. “I’m still here. I haven’t left you,” he shouted from the far side of our apartment. He stared at doorways like they were escapes. I sensed he wanted the departure over with already, though selfishly, I wanted someone to stay and watch me recede.

The day Alex left, he set flowers next to the window, a bouquet of cheap carnations. “They smell wonderful,” he promised. A few feet had become an uncrossable distance, an entire desert. Watching him from the window, I saw him step outside surrounded by people. He slipped seamlessly into the crowd, where people touched him. They looked at me and touched him all over. The phone rang but I couldn't pick it up.

*

So now I'm left with my memories.

I remember the first time I touched Alex. It was years ago, we were walking along the river soon after the river had flooded its banks, just a minor flooding then. I wanted to stay on the trail, though Alex wanted to tromp alongside the water in the mud, beside the river stink and the scooting water bugs. I followed him and our shoes got soaked and muddied as I knew they would. At one point, Alex pushed me into the water, which was slow-moving and chilling. This was the first time he touched me. The touch was neither gentle nor loving. He held me down, the water splashing around my waist, the rocks underneath us hard and pointed. At first I struggled, then I stopped, and when I stopped struggling, he grew bored and let me go.

I remember insignificant things too. In our kitchen, Alex opened a drawer while I closed the fridge, and my hip brushed against his leg. I wrap my hand around his arm in a compassionate greeting. While he slept on his side, his curved, wide and freckled back turned to me, I kissed the warm middle of his back, his body more familiar than my own. I touched his hair.

Not all of my memories involve Alex of course. Sometimes in the afternoon, I think back to when I was a child. For instance, yesterday, a memory came back to me of this exhibit I used to love at the old science museum, just a row of unmarked boxes secured to a wall. Each box had a small hole in the front. There were no television screens or bleeping buttons or levers. There weren’t even instructions next to the boxes but all the children knew what to do. We lined up and would wait, sometimes for ten minutes, sometimes longer, for our turn to insert our hand into each box and guess what was inside by touch, as if the shape of an object reveals everything.

Once, in one of the dark boxes, I thought I felt the wing of a large butterfly. I snatched the wing and hid it in my palm. The now empty box confused the line of children who came after me, who thrust their hand in the box and frantically felt around. Some children pretended they felt something spectacular in the empty box. “It’s the best one,” an older child said, and I remember the look on one small child’s face, determined, her eyes closed, her hand pushed as far in as she could go, the other children arguing for her to move on already, but she stood with her hand in the box for several minutes until her embarrassed mother came along and gently tugged away her daughter, who was empty handed.