He stood on the threshold, holding an apple in both hands and smiling. I was thirty-eight years old. It had been a good while since anyone had stood at my door like that. And now here he was: a messy blond-haired man who looked as if he hadn’t slept; a neighbor; a man offering an apple to me.
We’d met the week before. On that day he’d worn a chunky sweater and had stood in front of my apartment building next to his beat-up orange bike, talking to my neighbor Amy about the weather. It was the last week of September in Iowa City. The sun was shining, giving everything a romantic gloss: the building, whose windows were ablaze; this man’s sweater, which looked straight from a small knit shop in Dublin; and Amy, whose face lit up when she saw me coming down the sidewalk. I waved to her as I approached, smiled as she introduced me to the man, who lived in the plain white house across the street.
I asked how long he’d been living there.
“Who knows,” he said. “I’ve lost track. A long time. A lot of years.”
As he talked, I tried to figure out how old he was. Late thirties, maybe early forties. Handsome. Brainy-looking. Preoccupied. Disheveled.
Someone I knew in college many years ago once asked me what I considered attractive in a man. I said I liked men who were not slick, who were unkempt, who wore wrinkled cotton shirts and cable-knit sweaters, and who didn’t care if there were holes in them. For days after that, my friend would show me the tiniest tear in his shirt or a single thread unraveling along a sweater’s seam, as if to say, Is that attractive to you? Are you falling for me now? He’d missed the point: by “unkempt” I’d meant flawed.
Now, a week after we’d met, this flawed man was on my doorstep with an offering of fruit. I invited him in. He set the apple on my kitchen table, and we talked about the Midwest, where he was from and where I hoped to stay.
“I like being near my mother,” he said. She lived in a small town in Wisconsin.
I liked Iowa’s weather, I told him, and its trees.
We talked about the neighborhood — conveniently close to the university, but situated between the sorority and fraternity houses, so there was lots of noise on Friday and Saturday nights. But Saturday and Sunday mornings were blissfully quiet, I pointed out. All those hangovers. All that sleeping in.
We opened a bottle of wine and took it out to the flat rooftop outside my kitchen door. Under the starry October sky we continued talking about his never-ending, changed-focus-four-times thesis on French painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and about my taking-forever novel, which was really a memoir, but I was hardly ever brave enough to call it that, believing that if I confessed to writing a confessional, people would think I had no imagination.
I told him about the five other women who lived in my building, how we were all friends, how much I loved that.
“A building full of gals,” he said, and though normally I hated the word gals, right then I decided that maybe it wasn’t so bad after all, that it had a certain 1940s charm.
Inside, the apple sat untouched on the kitchen table.
As we said good night on my porch, under the moonlight, he leaned in toward me, and I thought, This is it; this is the night he will kiss me for the first time, but he didn’t. Instead he said, “Let’s have dinner next Sunday.”
I watched from my kitchen window while he opened his door across the street. And as I went to sleep that night, I remembered a greeting card I’d saved through seven moves and nearly two decades, a card I’d held on to — like so many other things — because I found it charming, and because I’m a sucker for bad puns, and because I’d hoped someday to meet someone who would find the pun charming too. And I thought maybe I’d just met him.
On the front of the card was a cartoon drawing of Toulouse-Lautrec, who was known for his short stature, standing at the feet of a woman dressed in black button-up boots and a large hoop skirt and holding a parasol that covered her face. The inside read: “How about coming over to my place for a short one?”
October was the happiest time in Iowa City. With university classes underway, the town shed the heavy heat and humidity and accompanying languor of summer, and it sat upright again, the air sharp, everyone’s head clear, intentions reliable and pure.
That Sunday I picked up cornbread and the makings of a green salad and two bottles of wine (a red and a white) from the co-op. Then I went home and made turkey chili from a neighbor’s recipe.
At seven o’clock I set the table: blue-and-white bowls from Japan, tulips in the center in a clear glass vase.
At eight o’clock I opened the white wine.
At nine o’clock I sat on the edge of my bed with a glass of wine in hand, hoping I would still hear him knock at the door.
At ten o’clock I returned to the kitchen, stood at the sink, and stared at his porch light shining through the trees.
Then I decided this was bullshit, and I should go over there.
I marched across the street intending to confront him; to tell him it was bad manners not to show up for dinner when you’re invited (even though he’d invited himself); to communicate powerfully that he could not treat me like this (even though he just had). I was thirty-eight, not twenty-eight, I reasoned. Wasn’t there an age at which such humiliations should end?
When he answered the door, he had glassy eyes and a dreamy quality to his expression, as if he’d just awakened. He took a good long time saying the word hello.
“Weren’t we supposed to have dinner tonight?” I asked. I didn’t sound angry or confrontational, as planned. I sounded like a child whose promised prize had been denied.
“Oh,” he said, still smiling. Again, it took a while for the word to make its way out of his mouth.
He was wearing Levi’s and a white T-shirt and hadn’t shaved in a few days. He leaned his head against the partly open door, and through the crack between it and the jamb I could see a young woman, dark-haired — also smiling, also dreamy-eyed — on the couch. The room was enveloped in a haze of smoke.
“Oh,” I said.
“We’ll have dinner another time,” he said.
The porch light seemed overly bright.
Then it was winter, which lasted six hard months most years. We all said we dreaded it, but it may be why most of us stayed in that college town: the lengthy, uninterrupted stretch of time with little reason to go outside and every reason to hunker down. The joke among women I knew was that you had to find someone to sleep with by the start of December, or you would be sleeping alone all winter. Again.
In early January I went to a party. There were always parties in Iowa City. Just when you thought you’d met absolutely the last tongue-tied, neurotic writer you could bear to meet (someone almost as tongue-tied and neurotic as you), or chatted with the last arrogant PhD student you could stand to talk to (why was their arrogance never based on actual accomplishments?), or gone to the last party your soul could take (is there an end to dull parties in college towns?), there was another and another and another. You’d trudge through the sullen streets, wrapped in a peacoat you’d bought in Japan and a scarf a student had made for you and an unflattering hat and sturdy boots, hating winter, hating the windchill. Then you’d enter someone’s quaint craftsman bungalow and strip off all those layers, and there you would be once again, standing next to a table with a plate of cantaloupe and crackers and slivers of Wisconsin cheddar, and you’d want to get across the room to that platter of hummus and sourdough bread from the co-op, where you had just seen everyone who was now at this party and where, in the checkout line, you had waved goodbye to them thinking, Oh, I hope I don’t run into you in two hours at so-and-so’s, and the other person had surely thought the same thing, and now here you both were again, and you couldn’t make your way to the hummus and the sourdough bread because the party was too crowded with those arrogant academics and those neurotic writers. Again.
Of course there was hummus and sourdough bread at this January party, and fruit and wine, always lots of wine. A graduate student in the art department asked, “Where do you live?” When I told her, she was immediately familiar with the location because it was across the street from the disheveled man. Did I know him?
“Yes,” I said, holding very still. “A little.”
“Odious,” she said, shuddering. “He’s odious.”
I got my neighbor Amy to ask around about him, and she came back and told me it was heroin. He was addicted to heroin.
And just for a split second I thought: He’s addicted to heroines. How lovely, how sweet.
“Anyway, he looks like an anteater,” she said. She was trying to make me feel better. It was February, and I was sitting in her bright-white kitchen, the winter sun pouring in. The two of us were drinking tea.
“But I like anteaters,” I said, thinking of his long, narrow face and his small eyes, which seemed both young and old at the same time.
In Boston I’d once seen a painting by Manet: two angels, one with garish blue wings, surrounding the body of Christ, fresh from the cross, gaunt and bleeding. He looked gray — a man being flung from one world to another but still between places, as if he were turning to or from stone. The angels looked worried. One turned her head from Christ, but the other offered him comfort. What was striking was how the second angel looked: anxious, yes, but resolute, tending to the man so freshly dead, refusing to look away.
The heroin addict disappeared from my life for a while. Iowa City was a small town but also an anonymous one, where people knew how to keep to themselves. I loved its smallness and its anonymity. I loved my apartment. I loved teaching and tutoring, correcting worrier to warrior when a student wrote of Othello, “that great black worrier.” I loved the life of an adjunct, which meant I was off the hook for meetings and evaluations. I loved the looseness of my days, during which the heroin addict and I didn’t run into each other, not once. But we did live across the street from one another, and one day, for no particular reason, I began watching for him, hoping to see him. And I did.
It was as if by wanting to see him I had conjured him up, as if I were a sorcerer cloaked in ordinary clothes. I taught the same composition classes that I’d always taught, went to the same coffee shop I’d always gone to and ordered the same cup of St. Louis Blues, edited the same scientific dissertations I had always edited for the same thin, quiet Asian men who always wanted their grammar to be perfect, without a single mistake. But at the same time I was living another life — a messy, magical one in which I had summoned up an illusory love for myself.
I saw him all the time, now that I was looking. I saw him unlocking his orange bike in the morning and flying away on it to school. I saw him leaving the co-op, a loaf of bread under his arm. I saw him returning home late at night, the automatic porch light briefly illuminating him, a figure in the distance, a man turning a key in a door. Then he would disappear inside, and through the curtains I’d see a light come on.
I watched from the kitchen window while washing dishes. I watched from my living-room windows instead of watching TV. I caught glimpses of him through the snow-covered branches of the blue spruce. I spied on him from the window in the bedroom, where I sat on the edge of the bed from midnight on, a bottle of wine on the bedside table, a full glass in my hand. I also kept a notebook and pen on the tiny table next to my double bed. I noted that, when he opened and closed the door, the light bled out, momentarily forming the shape of a cross.
The heroin addict was one in a string of crushes I had in those years: The writer in the apartment with the bright-green door. The married man who drove a beat-up yellow truck. The guy in the leather jacket who loved country music and moved to Nashville. There were relationships too, lasting three weeks or six months. But I was a connoisseur of crushes, of making men up, of ascribing intelligence to the young guy at the coffee shop or sensitivity to the computer guy from Los Angeles. This required diligence on my part, a focused effort to ignore the fact that the computer guy, for instance, was sensitive to a lot of other women, too, including a girlfriend he failed to mention; that the twentysomething in the coffee shop was not the deep thinker I assumed he was, something he tried to tell me over and over again in various ways. One day he said outright, “Do you know I was in a fraternity? And I loved it? That I still hang out with those guys?” I did not. But knowing as much did little to deter me.
A crush is a way to light the flame of romance without burning down the house. There are no dirty socks left on the bedroom floor; no grating words like gals coming from his mouth; no nasty habits like heroin or booze to overlook. That a crush still leaves you wanting inside is nothing to worry about, because here’s the beauty: with a crush, you can’t be crushed.
One night I went to yet another party, and as I buttered a piece of sourdough bread and listened to a graduate student in American studies talk about his dissertation (something to do with borders, something to do with liminal space, something to do with the subversive), I thought that I would rather be home alone than with all these people, home drinking wine and watching my neighbor and imagining — what? A second evening on the porch? Dinner on a Sunday night? A first kiss?
My imagination did not run wild. My imagination was a lazy indoor cat who preferred to stalk her prey through the glass. I did not imagine an elaborate future with the heroin addict across the street. I simply wanted to go home, change into my flannel nightshirt, open my wine, and watch his porch light come on. I wanted this more than I wanted to talk to another writer or assistant professor or graduate student. Their conversations all seemed dull and theoretical and stunted and pointless, whereas observing my neighbor seemed thrilling and unpredictable and so real it hurt.
I’d watch as he turned his porch light out, then wait to see whether the lights came on inside or not. Whether the curtains would move or not. Whether he would emerge once again into the night. When he didn’t, I’d think, See,we’re both homebodies! I’d wait for the smiling, dark-haired woman to return. She never did, but one day I saw him outside in daylight with another woman, dribbling a basketball at a small park near where we both lived and looking so happy that I couldn’t help but feel happy for him — until I remembered that I didn’t have that kind of happiness myself.
At night, while I waited for his curtains to move, I yearned to talk to him about his thesis, to discuss his favorite painters, to ask him about Mary Cassatt’s children and Paul Klee’s lines. I wanted to tell him that I remembered the pale, pink-striped wallpaper in Cassatt’s painting of two women, one hatless, the other drinking tea. That I remembered something Paul Klee had said: “A line is a dot that went for a walk.” That I remembered my father telling me once that he hadn’t known, until he’d seen in a museum Vermeer’s painting of a maidservant pouring milk, what the difference was between a painting reproduced in a book and the original in front of you.
“That was real milk she poured,” my father said. “That was a real pitcher.”
I thought of another Vermeer: a single figure standing still, reading a letter, the drapery behind her, the leaded glass of the open window, the curve of the paper in her hands.
That was a real letter the woman held.
This was a real conversation going on in my mind.
Who says the imagined life isn’t real? Who says the lovers we make up aren’t the most compelling lovers of all?
I should mention that the memoir I was working on was set in Japan — a place I had once lived and had loved as much as I now loved Iowa City — and was about a man who hadn’t loved me back. I had gone mad over him and watched his curtains from afar with rapt, drunken attention. History repeats itself. It didn’t seem to matter where I moved or how many years slid by. Maybe part of me believed I couldn’t figure out what had gone wrong with the Japanese man until I’d orchestrated the same situation in Iowa with someone new. Maybe that was the appeal of the heroin addict. Or maybe I was just forever interested in the person across the street.
When Amy told me in March that she’d heard the heroin addict had a police record, finding out what he’d done became of paramount importance to me. Maybe seeing his terrible crimes in black and white would offer a cure. Who could love some scum of the earth who’d sold crack to school kids or an asshole who’d hit an elderly woman while driving drunk? Even I had standards.
I made a few phone calls and was soon standing in line at city hall, bracing myself, waiting to pick up the photocopy of his public record. Once I had it, I went outside and tore open the envelope right there on the sidewalk.
His crime: shoplifting from a local drugstore.
The item: a pack of gum.
The price: $1.23.
His offense was so pathetic, so minuscule, that even I, with my gifted imagination that required minimal fuel to keep it spinning, could not pretend. Not anymore.
When I got home, I placed the thin sheet of paper in a manila folder labeled “Heroin Addict” and filed it away in a cabinet in the closet — a sign that my neighbor was no longer a figure for me to dream about.
Spring is a sad time in Iowa City. The hordes of students leaving town put their old couches and chairs and chipped end tables and worn-but-still-working coffee makers out on the sidewalks, where the rest of us, the ones who stayed year after year, went scavenging, picking and choosing among the castoffs, perhaps finding something we didn’t know we needed and dragging it home.
One night in late April I was washing dishes at the sink when his porch light came on, and it didn’t even register with me right away. It wasn’t until the dishes were done and I’d taken a bath and put on a nightgown and readied myself for bed that I remembered my obsession. But now my sorcery failed me, and the light was just one among many on our little street, nothing to pique my imagination or stir my desires. The light was no longer a dot going for a walk.
Looking back on those years of crushes, I think that I have never felt so alone and so sad and also so charged and alert and imaginative and alive.
Sometimes late at night I would put down my glass of wine and reach for something new to heighten the drama: binoculars my sister had given me some years before, intended for bird-watching.
I reached for them because the bird had become a man.
Because the man’s curtains, lit by a dim living-room light, fluttered in the distance.
Because, even when left alone, some of us cannot leave well enough alone.
Because the solitary life is still life.
Because surely there are worse ways to spend a winter than staring into the darkness of your own loneliness, refusing to look away as the curtains close, as the porch light goes out.