You Can Write Me
Hi I say into my phone, I’m outside your building I think. Erin Miller, Pat says. Erin Miller. A pause. Um, just wander around a bit, you’ll find it. His voice sounds thin through the earpiece, flat. I’m not sure if he’s serious or kidding.
I squint through my sunglasses at the windows in front of me. There are at least a dozen units in the building. Is this the voice of someone who would have garland draped across their balcony? Wind chimes hanging by the door? Something about the weight of his voice makes me think not.
I’ll come to the front he offers after another bit. Ok I say.
He appears off to the side from behind a gate I hadn’t noticed. He’s taller than I remember, but slender in that muscular way, the way he was in high school, middle school. Once, a couple weeks after I broke up with this one guy I used to date in graduate school I ran into him and remarked that he was taller than I’d remembered. He’d looked at me sadly and said that’s because I’m shrinking in your mind. I decide not to comment on Pat’s height. He isn’t wearing shoes and his eyes are pinched in the early evening sunlight and I figure he too would be hurt by it.
Erin Miller he says again. My name sounds funny in his voice, an echo from some other time, some other canyon. Hi I say, waving, approaching. I have a four pack of craft brews with me. I brought you this I say, offering him the chilled bottles. He doesn’t reach for them, considering me through furtive glances, his head turning side to side, his glasses the kind that don’t have frames really just the lenses and some wire. It’sthis way he gestures, turning toward the back of the building.
The apartment is in disarray, though it feels like it was like this before he started packing for his pending move to Monterey, some couple hundred miles north of Los Angeles. There are boxes everywhere that aren’t quite full, aren’t completely taped shut, leaning in stacks, leaning like the palm trees that line the streets. It’s Sunday evening and he is scheduled to move on Tuesday. It’s near impossible to pick my way into the cramped studio, the general debris of his life churned out from the drawers and closets vaguely on display in the encroaching twilight gloom, like the pockets of pants that come out of the washer inside out. We stand and survey the land, the front door still open, the only light coming through it from the corridor. This is where I live he says, yea it’s um, it’s. Wow, I’m sorry he says. A wave of self-consciousness comes over him so strong it’s visible. Is he normally like this when a guest come over, if they even do? Don’t even worry about it I offer, trying to sound light hearted and amused. You’re moving! This is always how it is when you move.
I realize the lights have been off all afternoon, wonder if they would remain off all evening had I not come by, the blinds drawn tight across the sliding balcony door. He’s quiet, shifting on his feet, so I play hostess and try to make it sound funny. Thanks for coming by, want a beer? Let’s have a beer!
Oh god, you probably think I’ve, he’s lost it. That’s what you’re thinking, he says, he’s lost it! Well, maybe I have! Maybe I – I don’t think you’ve lost it Pat, I interrupt. You’re moving. It’s always like this when you move. He shuffles behind the kitchen island, looking down in the darkness.
We haven’t seen each other in almost a decade but I want to grab his arm, make him look me in the eyes and tell him I get it, I don’t think it’s weird and I don’t think you’re crazy, but you will drive yourself crazy if you let yourself suspect other people think you’re crazy. But the lights aren’t on and we haven’t even had a drink. Those pinched crab eyes. It would be too forward I figure, too forthright.
I have lights I do, he says, reading my mind. He scuffles with bikes, boxes. This big ceiling light just went out a couple days ago he says, looking up, flipping on a small table lamp perched on the counter, its short chord miraculously reaching an outlet. Well that’s sort of perfect isn’t it I say, hoping he’ll laugh, perfect timing! Again a wave of self-consciousness. Yes he says, yes, it is perfect. Perfect timing.
At the other end of the room a pile of canvases is propped against the wall blocking a closet, making it impossible to close what is either the bathroom or bedroom door. I pick my way around the scraps and the salvaged, peering in, poking. What are you doing with all this I ask, thumbing through months of recent Rolling Stone issues, stacked in chronological order backwards starting from next month. It’s January but Rolling Stone is telling us about February already. You’re really going to save these? He’s fumbling with something, still behind the kitchen island, watching me nose around his jumbled belongings.
Eventually he says I’m a slow reader Erin. I wonder if I’m allowed to laugh at that but don’t. I turn and notice a huge stack of crinkled newspapers under a desk by the wall. As I take them in he interjects. I have to clip those he says, urgent, coming over, tripping. I freeze, he freezes. I have to save them he insists. They’re very important for my work, a mix of defensiveness and biting awareness in his voice. It hurts to hear. Some moments go by, neither of us moving, the air still even the dust particles stuck in midstream, a thin line of them held hostage in a single slit of magic hour sun fighting its way into the apartment through the blinds.
I’m looking at him but he looks only at the pages on the floor, so I rest my gaze on his shoulder and hope he’ll feel less I don’t know, less what he’s feeling. Was Pat like this in middle school when I knew him first, dated him for what felt like a significant amount of time but was probably only a month, wrote notes to him and folded them in elaborate ways and received notes from him folded in equally elaborate ways, could ride my bike to his house in the summer time barefoot with no hands, lines of squishy tar covering the cracks in the middle of the roads melting under the harsh prairie sun. June, July. I should stop looking around I think, hide my prying eyes, but I keep wanting to make him laugh, to see how funny all of our lives are. I like to read the obituaries he offers finally, a bit calmer. I like to know what people did with their lives and I like the pictures too.
You know, a lot of this stuff is digitized now I say. The comment falls flat, like that first belly flop into a cold pool on Memorial Day with all your friends watching. Ooooooo, they’d be yelling, daaamn!
Yea I know, I know. You’re not, god! You’re not the first person to point that out to me. Wow, you’re really getting the full picture here, aren’t you he asks, gesturing to the scraps and bits sorted in a way only he sees, all those crumpled newspapers.
I start picking my way to the balcony. Mind if I have a cigarette I ask, should I have it outside? No, just yea, push that open he says. He watches me struggle with the heavy sliding door. It groans in that way doors do when they haven’t been opened for months, have settled into the metal grooves. I push the door back wider than I need. The sun is setting that glorious burnt orange red, that sun that makes everything drip in honey auburn. I look down and notice the balcony is completely covered in singed leaves. I rustle on them and light a cigarette while Pat rustles awkwardly around the apartment.
I clear a little spot where I can stand without crunching, the sound so loud I can’t hear him inside. You don’t use this balcony much do you I say over the leaves, hoping he’ll finally chuckle, loosen up. I just need to clip these articles, he repeats. Go ahead I say, don’t worry about it. He continues looking at the papers, biting his lower lip. This is going to take hours he moans.
He sits down scissors in hand and begins clipping the articles that mean something to him, the pictures that make him wonder about life, the obituaries that recount moments and achievements in the lives of people he will now never meet, or at least not in this capacity, stories that sometimes make him take up a paint brush and sometimes a pen. You’re right he offers, I don’t use the balcony. If I want to be outside I just go outside. It’s a good balance like that he says. I nod, understanding even though I don’t.
We turn to the basics because that’s the most obvious place to go, where did he go to college what did he study, he studied screenwriting and does write for the screen, an now he paints too though he’s always been a sketcher, and I ask him if it’s during college that he became a hermit. I don’t look inside, don’t to want read his reaction in the fading light. The newspapers swish around his ankles. After some time he drops his hand in his lap and says I know the kind of life I want to live Erin, I’ve known it for a while. I guess college allowed it to develop more but I’ve always been shy, I’ve always struggled with communicating, my whole life really. Since I was a kid with a speech impediment, to, you know, now where it’s just. It’s a fear.
You have a fear of being misunderstood I say, looking at the sky, the crab apple tree just beyond the balcony, the little white petals. Yes he says. It’s hard to be understood. Don’t you think? Yea, I say, but. Don’t you also think that no one can ever really understand what you are saying, completely?
Sure he says, everyone will always interpret what you say in their own way.
Then don’t you think your fear is sort of putting you in a constant position of frustration, maybe?
He answers with silence and for the first time I understand he’s glad I drove out to see him before he left town. Why are you moving, I ask.
I’m moving because moving is a good way to keep your mind open, and keeping our minds open is critical, it’s very important. So many people are only concerned with their little cubes, he says, they drive the same streets on the way home from work in the evenings. And in the mornings on the way there.
I agree I say, putting my cigarette out, moving inside. I leave the balcony door open, the cool evening air on my back and shoulders and sit on the black leather chair he cleared for me, it’s a good seat he says, really. I almost say it’s also the only other seat in this joint but then I don’t because I’m pretty sure he won’t laugh. It’s the kind of chair that has wide arm rests that hug you from behind, the kind you can recline in and contemplate life, death, the stuff in between.
Scissors still in hand he’s alternately convinced he’s doing the right thing and cursing himself for being cumbersome in his inspiration. Because some of us get it and some of us don’t, he continues after a bit, but we should all be trying to make this world a better place to live in. In some way. In some way, and if you’re not, then well, there’s a failure in that.
I nod, sipping the beer. He isn’t drinking. The scissors snip, snip. He discards the parts of the paper he doesn’t care for in a big box under the desk. But don’t you think being a hermit makes it hard to engage with the world, to make things better, I ask.
He stops cutting, studies the orange plastic handle blades, snips the air. All writers are hermits, he says, turning and looking square at me for the first time, over his shoulder. I’m not sure I agree I say. I consider myself a writer, and I really like people.
I like people he says, but there’s a part of every writer that is private. He look away, back at the scissors. It’s a very private life. I don’t respond, something about the implication of his point unsettling me. I think of my husband. Of the things I haven’t told him, might never tell him. He picks up another paper, the snipping filling the room again, now careful and deliberate, now uncertain and doubtful. Here he says, handing me a picture.
A dead body is laid out in a lobby with a big front window, people cluttered around it, a clot of policemen by the door, some more outside. The caption says something about a Guatemalan political leader shot dead on the street, the body dragged in to the bank while the police sort things out.
It’s a pretty powerful picture, photograph, isn’t it, he says. It is I say. I look at the photo a little longer, feeling his sidelong glances on my face, the picture in my hand. I don’t know, it’s all storytelling to me he says. It’s all about telling stories. How’s your brother he asks as I hand the photo back to him. Dennis Miller. I remember him as a wild young man, he says.
All of a sudden I feel heavy, like I’m in a tomb. I hesitate. Is that not right he asks, should I not ask? No I say, you should ask, I actually just wrote a story about him, about how we went to the movies and I realized how much I love him. We were in the parking lot before the movie started in the car, and it was snowing. We were reclined in the front seats watching the flakes fall on the windshield, some of them getting stuck and others sliding down, piling up around the wipers, and I’d asked him if he’d ever thought about committing suicide. But I didn’t put that part in the story because it hurt too much. I don’t know, maybe I should have, maybe I wussed out.
Why, what did he say Pat asks. What was his response?
After a long time had gone by he said yea in this real quiet voice, I say, and I was crying but I didn’t want him to know so I let the snot run out my nose, on my upper lip, and threatened him and I said if you ever commit suicide I’ll kill you.
Pat laughs, and something inside me is relieved. Dennis had laughed too, a similar laugh, short and intense. Do you know anyone who’s killed themselves, he asks. No I say, no one, do you? I do he says, too many in fact. Too many. People don’t understand how selfish it is. It’s the most selfish, egotistical thing you could do and every time someone does I just wonder how they could think life is really that bad. Can life really be that bad he insists, twirling the scissors around his index finger, blades wide apart like a hungry maw. I don’t say anything. I mean I’m someone who has struggled with severe depression, he says, I mean I struggle with it still, but. Life just can’t be that bad.
And then all of a sudden he says god do you remember we used to eat ICEE POPS in your living room, a burst of excitement at the memory. I jerk back in my seat, no I say, I actually don’t remember that. Come on, really he says, you don’t remember that? You would always have a huge box of ICEE POPS in your freezer, and we’d eat them in the summer. ICEE POPS I say, the horrible flavored frozen juice in long plastic tubes? Yea he says, yea. ICEE POPS. I don’t remember that at all I say, shaking my head, but I remember ICEE POPS. He looks saddened, his posture shrinking, alone in his memory. I try to act like maybe I’m remembering it now but we both know I’ve forgotten those moments of adolescent affection. After he snips some more articles he says do you remember the notes I used to write you? Those I do remember I say. They probably had all kinds of weird stuff written in them he says.
I laugh, not wanting to break the moment but also not wanting to break my bladder, so I try to move towards the bathroom without bothering him but he becomes nervous again. I’m so sorry he says, the bathroom is a total mess, I just need to clean it, can I clean it really quick? No worries I say laughing, seriously it’s no big deal I’ve lived with boys before where there was piss on the seat constantly, this does not look that bad! He says my mother would be so upset if she knew. I can’t let you go to the bathroom in this. He starts scrubbing the toilet seat while I stand outside in the small hallway, considering his apartment for the first time without him watching.
Where do you sleep I ask, noticing there’s no bed or bedroom around the corner, just the bathroom. I don’t really sleep Erin, he says, his back to me, scrubbing. You probably think that’s crazy. No I say, but I mean you must sleep at some point, even just for a little bit. Yea he says, on the couch. I have an air mattress but then I don’t know, the couch is just easier. I nod at the couch. That makes sense I say.
He stuffs a giant plastic bag full of single wrapped rolls of toilet paper into the shower stall. What’re you doing with all that toilet paper I laugh. He’s defensive but this time it’s funny, his voice higher in pitch, the answer more fluid. Because, there are just some things I refuse to buy, I don’t believe you should have to buy, he says. Like toilet paper I laugh again. Like toilet paper he says, and pens. I will never buy a pen in my life. I refuse.
I look over smiling at all the pens sprawled across the desk, cups filled with them, notepads covered in scribbles, like the scribbles he used to fold and hand off to me during passing periods in the hallway, his palm warm, the note warm from it burning a hole in my pocket, him on his way to math, me on my way to gym. I laugh louder. Pat the writer, the hermit, ever intrigued by life, by people and the lives they lead, who refuses to buy pens or toilet paper. Like sleeping on the couch, it makes sense.
Ok he says, moving past me back to his articles, it’s still not clean in there but it’s a little better. Can we move these canvases so you can close the door? I help him slide them down the carpeted California floor. Closing the bathroom door I notice the sink is stained a dark purple gray from his oils.
I don’t think I’m going to get my security deposit back he says when I return to my seat. I’m just going to pack up and leave. I laugh, no probably not. Probably best to do just that.
Yea he says. He considers me through his lenses a last time, without flinching. You can write me letters if you want. I’ll write you back.
Ok I say. I’ll write you letters in Monterey. Ok he says. Ok.
- Elif Alp