All the buildings I walked by each day and thought nothing about now seemed like they contained the answers to questions it hadn’t occurred to me to ask.
It’s not so far down. It would be so easy—not to jump exactly, but just to tumbleThe train would be so fast.
“You told me you knew you were over her before we started dating.” I argued during our breakup call. “You specifically said that the day before you first kissed me.”
“I thought I was over her,” was his pained rejoinder. “I guess it took me wondering why I couldn’t fall in love with you to realize that I was still in love with her.”
And so our relationship was over.
My heartbreak manifested in all the usual ways: endless conversations with my friends who listened patiently as I analyzed every moment of my failed relationship from first kiss to that final phone call, a return to chain-smoking although I’d quit cigarettes years ago, and copious tears.
I stopped eating and finally understood what people meant when they said, “The weight just fell off.” I was shedding flesh the way trees in autumn shed leaves. Everything in my mouth tasted like ashes. If I did choke any nourishment down, it clogged like sand in my throat. Always cold, I layered myself like a matryoshka doll: a giant sweater cloaking a smaller sweater encasing a long-sleeved shirt worn over a tank-top and finally me at the center of all those clothes, shivering and tiny.
Worse than this was my writer’s block: a first for me. I’d been writing poems and short stories since I was a child, but now the words were no longer there.
I’d sit in front of my laptop for hours, but only simple sentences like I still love him or I’m sad or I wish he hadn’t left emerged slowly from my fingertips.
Before my breakup, I’d always been able to immerse myself in writing, stringing together sentences I could follow like a path through the landscape of my imagination, but now the open Word doc on my computer was an impassable wall. Everything felt blank: the simulacra of a white page on the screen, my brain empty of new characters, fresh plots or unique images.
I went to therapy to parse out family dynamics to see if understanding my origins would show me how to navigate my grief, but no analysis of my parents’ relationship (happy, longstanding) nor my sibling dynamic (fraught when we were younger, closer as we aged) helped me thread my way through the black cloud that hung over me.
I delved into the spiritual realm as well, visiting a storefront psychic who took my money, rubbed the twenty-dollar bill contemplatively between her thumb and forefinger, and said, “He’ll be back, but you won’t want him.” I became a regular at a yoga studio near Canal Street where in corpse pose at the end of each class, I silently sobbed as the instructor intoned Om while pigeons cooed noisily in the airshaft where they roosted. On Wednesday nights, I sat in the ornately carved wooden pews at Grace Episcopal Church on lower Broadway as the choir’s high voices chimed lemonade-bright, cool and sweet, during Evensong.
One desperate day, I even arranged for a ceremony uptown where a babalawo, a high priest in the Ifa tradition, performed a divination and a cleansing ceremony. Although the word babalawo translates from the Yoruba language as “father of the mysteries” or “father of knowledge,” the sacred palm nuts the priest cast on the wooden divination tray revealed no healing messages from the orishas for me—perhaps the gods recognized I was a tourist in their kingdom, a dilettante led there only by my map of grief.
None of my attempts at spiritual transcendence worked: I was still gutted with longing for my ex and unable to imagine a time when my heartbreak would end. Each night I walked home from the high school where I taught literature wishing a car would hit me. The edges of roofs beckoned when, lured to house parties in Brooklyn by friends, we clambered up rickety metal fire escapes to stare at the view across the water—our constellations not the stars above which, anyway, were usually blocked by thick cloud cover or light pollution, but, rather the shining buildings of Manhattan. On these nights, I’d clutch my flimsy red Solo cup in one hand and a cigarette in the other, focus on the low hum of conversation around me, and try not to imagine falling.
I don’t believe, in retrospect, that I really wanted to die. Instead, I longed for oblivion—a lengthy Rip Van Winkle nap. I wanted to close my eyes into merciful darkness and then wake, years later, to a world washed clean as if by spring rain where tender green leaves would flourish on birch trees, lion-faced pansies would shine bright as living jewels, and I’d no longer feel entombed in my depression.
I wanted to be happy again or, if that weren’t immediately possible, at least optimistic that someday things would change and that I wasn’t doomed to spend the rest of my life exactly as my days unfolded now, full of their predictable sorrows.
Now my days were dull and gray as newspapers left out in the rain; my nights sodden—there seemed to be no end to my weeping.
“Why can’t you get over it?” asked my roommate. “You’ve been like this for months. Nothing is changing.” She didn’t mean to be cruel, but my heartbreak cast a pall on our apartment like smoke lingering in the corners, tainting the air with its acrid scent.
“I don’t feel like anything will ever change,” I replied.
A few weeks later we watched an episode of The X-Files where a modern version of Frankenstein’s monster, a kind-hearted but hideously-deformed teenager created in a mad scientist’s lab, watches the movie Mask over and over, yearning to be loved and accepted the way Cher in that movie adores her disfigured son. When the teenis later arrested, FBI agent Fox Mulder turns to his beloved partner Dana Scully and says, “This isn’t right. This isn’t the way it should end. I want to talk to the writers.” And then the agents do. In a moment of meta-narrative, Mulder and Scully talk to a comic book writer who’d been chronicling these adventures all along and somehow through Hollywood magic, the episode revises itself, ending not with imprisonment but with a road trip where the FBI agents bring the modern-day monster to a Cher concert. Cher pulls the lonely monster on stage to serenade him and Mulder and Scully slow-dance with each other as the closing credits roll.
“That’s what I want,” I said to my roommate as the episode ended. “This isn’t my right ending either. I also want to talk to the writers.”
But there were no writers. My story had already been told, the TV was turned off, and only the black screen looked back at me. No heroic FBI agents would find me a new ending; no author inscribing my life was willing to be swayed from the narrative he’d already created.
Instead, I was the writer and I was powerless.
Although my first class wasn’t until 8:30, I always arrived at the high school where I taught an hour early. The other teachers all either had first hour classes or came in later so this extra window of time allowed me some privacy in the faculty lounge. I loved the peacefulness of drinking my coffee and reading the paper alone and unencumbered, silently cloistered in a building full of people and noise.
My morning, like others before it, would be spent with a scalding-hot coffee from the café down the street and a day-old copy of the Sunday New York Times that I hadn’t bothered to look at over the weekend.
But on this Monday in early October, the lead story in the NY Region section of the paper was about a tiger that the NYPD had sedated and removed from a Harlem apartment. The 350-pound Bengal was the secret pet of someone living in the Drew Hamilton Houses, a public housing development on 141st Street.
The article said that in the past few days, the NYPD had received a series of anonymous phone calls: first claiming a wild animal was loose in the city and then, the next day, directing them to the address where it lived. When the police interviewed the housing development’s tenants, some neighbors complained about strong urine odors permeating the building, others mentioned strange loud noises, and one neighbor even said that his daughter had seen the tiger. The NYPD obtained a warrant and confirmed that the tiger existed by drilling a hole in the apartment door to peer in.
Imagine that moment: the drone of the saw and a flurry of sparks accompanied by wild roaring from within. Then, when the peephole is cut open, the sight of sleek orange and black fur pacing back and forth, a long tail lashing displeasure, the contained power of the tiger’s heavy jaws and alien golden eyes staring back at you from the dark room.
And the tiger wasn’t the end of the surprises. After a police sharpshooter rappelled from the roof to send a dart through the window to sedate the giant cat, the officers who entered the apartment found that the tiger had a roommate: a five-foot long caiman lived in the attached bathroom.
As I read the article, I began to feel light, exuberant. It was like I had been encased in stone the past year, as if my grief had calcified into a second skin weighing me down and isolating me from the world. Now that heavy shell was suddenly crumbling into ash. I had been wrong that the world held no surprises, that every story had already been told! The city I lived in was a Wunderkammer, a gigantic living version of those curiosity cabinets beloved by the rich in Renaissance Europe. Behind the bland brown-brick facade of a public housing project was an apartment inhabited by wild animals. Inside, a Bengal tiger lolled on the couch, magnificent striped flanks rising and falling in the slow cadence of sleep. And in the next room, a reptile, scales gleaming like jade, might rise from the cold water of the bathtub where it naps to greet you, its jaws yawning wide. Anything could happen.
A reptile, scales gleaming like jade, might rise from the cold water of the bathtub where it naps to greet you, its jaws yawning wide. Anything could happen.
Somewhere in this city a version of my life could unfold where I wasn’t heartbroken and crying myself to sleep every night. Somewhere there might be an apartment where a man lived who I could meet—on the street, in a park or a library or waiting one morning for the train—and fall in love with. There might be hundreds of men, or thousands. New York was alive with possibilities. All the buildings I walked by each day and thought nothing about now seemed like they contained the answers to questions it hadn’t occurred to me to ask.
All day I hummed with energy as if thousands of honeybees swarmed my veins. As I walked home that night in early autumn dusk, I looked at all the windows I passed. Some were still dark, but most were lit up: bright yellow squares of light. Each one of them, light or dark, contained a mystery waiting to be revealed.
When I arrived back at my apartment, I sat down at my desk. I turned my laptop on and opened a new document. My fingers rested lightly on the smooth black keys. I stared through the window as the city unrolled in front of me; each building full of wonders. For one long year I’d forgotten how to imagine any of the world’s stories, including my own, but finally, now I could write again.
Kate Angus is the author of So Late to the Party (Negative Capability Press, 2016). Her poetry and nonfiction have appeared in The Atlantic online, Best New Poets 2010, Best New Poets 2014, Ninth Letter, The Washington Post, The Rumpus, and Verse Daily. She is the founding editor of Augury Books and the Chair of the Advisory Board for the Mayapple Center for Arts and Humanities. More information can be found at www.kateangus.org or follow her on Twitter at @collokate or Instagram @collokateangus