if you close the door, the night could last forever
|Helena Fitzgerald||Jul 30, 2019|
this is last week’s griefbacon, which you may have noticed didn’t arrive last week. I wrote most of it and then felt unsure about sending it. it’s about michael, and about brazenhead, and I’d already written about that in the last one, and I worried I was writing about all this too much. I never wrote about Brazenhead back when I actually spent time there, even though I always, always, always wanted to write about it. I thought that if I somehow got it wrong, I would reveal that I had never belonged in the first place, that I was not good enough or cool enough, smart enough or rigorous enough, and I would be found out, and never allowed back. This was the same reason, or one of them, that I didn’t go to Brazenhead often enough in more recent years, why I refused invitations to parties I should have attended, sometimes didn’t answer Michael’s texts, cancelled plans. I let my fears of my own insufficiencies, the shame I sometimes feel at my own rampant sentimentality, be the reason for not loving this place and this person as hard as I might have loved them. Anyway, I’m writing about it now, again.
Michael’s memorial was a long party on the hottest day of the year. It was exactly like something out of the kind of book that would have been buried somewhere in the shelves at Brazenhead, $8 marked in thinning pencil on the inside flap, which Michael would have brought down to $5 or $3 when I tried to buy it. I probably would have bought it, because I am exactly the kind of person who loves exactly this kind of book. Outside, with the heat index, it was one hundred and seven degrees. We flung ourselves from doorway to cab to doorway. The apartment was empty in the early afternoon and then it was full of bodies and everyone was sweating and getting drunk early, the air inside thick and curdled with smoke and paper. I awkwardly introduced myself to people and then gave up on it. A handful of old friends and I assembled and re-assembled in the back room, by the teetering book piles, sinking backward into ancient couches. I wore heels I hadn’t worn in years because the version of myself who grew up at Brazenhead always wore heels to Brazenhead, carefully stepping knife-points between discarded books and sprawled limbs and everyone else’s feet in their calmer shoes. There was barely air conditioning, but soon everyone crowded into the kitchen and the hallway anyway, meaty and determined. Everyone was beautiful and for once none of it made me feel bad, even the women in their flawless black slip dresses with their pencil-sketch arms somehow untouched by sweat.
It was almost funny, or maybe it was funny, how this long day was exactly as it would have been in a book that might have lived for longer than I have been alive on the shelves at Brazenhead, reappearing in every iteration of the store. It’s all too easy to imagine the kind of weighty novel that would contain in it a memorial that was really a wake and really just an all-night party in New York City in the dead heart of July, on the hottest day of the year, populated by people who used to love each other, who used to hate each other, who still love or hate each other, who can’t quite remember each other’s names yet feel mutely important to each other, who are glad to see each other without expecting to see each other, squashed together awkwardly on the way to the bathroom, trying not to say anything too big or too heavy or too soon.
I went to the kitchen and found it so stuffed with bodies that everyone was visibly slick with sweat. Every one of these sweaty strangers was someone with whom I shared a common grief. One of those beautiful pencil-sketch women in a flawless black slip dress put her arms around me. Most people my age, I suppose, already know about the way that people hug each other at funerals, but I learned about it on that long day, in that sweaty apartment, holding people’s shoulder-bones in two hands. People I had only met once or twice, and only ever at Brazenhead, hugged me like I was family. We didn’t make small talk; no one asked what anyone was working on. We wrapped our arms around each other’s sweaty backs and then we walked away.
I sat on the couch until it felt like there was no possible science or religion, that could compel me to stand up from the couch. My tiny knot of friends and I talked to whomever drifted into the room and settled down near us. Someone brought in a huge bottle of the terrible whiskey Michael used to drink; someone else brought in sandwiches and then drifted away, with the sandwiches, toward the other rooms. People got quiet and then the door to the hallway would open and pour in a whole new group of people I sort-of knew, and we’d start over again, yelling and laughing, competing for who had the best or worst Michael story. Someone showed up with a guitar. People took books down off the shelves and piled them up on their laps. Somewhere outside the sun must have been setting, picking up the architecture of the city in unreal pinks and golds. Somewhere outside it was beautiful, but in here it had already been nighttime and would always be nighttime, and nothing outside of these few rooms existed.
The kind of book that starts with a wake that’s also an all-night party in New York City on the hottest day of the year is the kind of book that fundamentally confuses which things are large and which things are small. It’s a book about regrets and gossip and lost youth and rooms full of smoke, populated with characters who drink whiskey and talk about drinking whiskey, the kind of book that might have in it an illegal secret bookstore on the Upper East Side next to a piano bar, in which a bunch of tenuously connected misfits grew up around and on top of each other, hurt each other and forgave each other and never really talked about anything, had broken hearts and got over them, succeeded and failed, fell asleep in the back room under the first editions, drank until six or seven in the morning and stumbled out into the daylight, back into their real lives, lost and fortified, clutching this big secret to themselves, wondering how to do anything at all. The problem with a book like this is that it convinces itself, and the reader, that these things are important, that these chattering and inconsequential events have any substance at all.
Grief, also, fundamentally confuses which things are large and which things are small. For a whole day I didn’t learn what new horrors had arrived in the world. My friends and I become one body with the couch. We told the stupidest, most irreverent jokes we could think of; we laughed a lot, loudly, the kind of laughter that unhinges somewhere in its center. We were very loud. Everyone was very loud. It was very loud, and very hot, and three-dimensional in that way that distinguishes good parties from lesser ones. The stupidest memories seemed more important to talk about than the big kindnesses or the large injustice of it all. The apartment, fire-hazard crowded with sweaty mourners, felt like the last life raft after the boat sinks, the only place left in which anyone could stay.
The longer we molded into the sunken couch, the more we had to think about whether to leave, and the problem is that leaving makes it real. I was certain that Michael was just in the other room, busy talking to other people, holding court just out of sight. I had to say goodbye to him, at least; it would be so rude to leave without talking to him at all. As long as I stayed on the couch, as long as I didn’t leave, all of this could still be distant, rumors, gossip. He could just be in the other room. I would never have left without talking to him, so I couldn’t leave.
Often on long nights at Brazenhead, I would hum under my breath that Velvet Underground song that goes “if you close the door, the night could last forever” because it felt as though if I never left, nothing outside needed to be dealt with, needed to be true. A good party is always fueled by the collective desire not to go home. The best parties are in one way or another trying to block out the coming morning, the encroaching traffic noises, the bad facts waiting at the end of an ever-shortening hallway.
Eventually, our insistence on not leaving felt too sad, so my friends and I did leave, too early, abruptly. But even when we got outside, none of us wanted to admit that the party had ended or could end, so we got in a cab and went back to my building, where Thomas and I are taking care of our out-of-town neighbor’s back garden. We went downstairs and sat in the simmering, bloated heat, in the sky from which the light had only just barely drained. Our neighbor’s garden is another secret place. The deck juts out unexpectedly from a door in the back of what seems like a completely unremarkable cramped one-bedroom third-floor apartment, opening onto a sudden verdant paradise, plants all jostling to bloom in the thick and limited air. The backs of the buildings face each other and trees stretch up from ground-floor backyards making a sort of rainforest canopy all the way down the block to where the sunset disassembles itself over the river. The lights in other back windows came on, illuminating more tiny spaces like this one, all of these bloomings, these small mercies kept secret behind buildings. We swatted mosquitoes and ordered food and drank about eighteen thousand bottles of seltzer and told rambling, impolite stories about Michael. We argued and laughed too loud and made bad jokes and long metaphors. We recommended books to each other. The garden wasn’t ours, but everything any of us really love is borrowed, is rapidly disappearing, and belongs to us not at all.
I had loved Michael only as much as everyone else crowded into that shouting, stinking apartment, everyone else yelling and laughing and crying and playing songs and telling obscene stories, everyone else, handfuls and handfuls of old friends and people who used to be friends, people I used to know, people I meant to know better and never did, strangers, weirdos, old people, children, all these people, like a Brueghel painting, the whole world shoved into a town square. I grew up at Brazenhead. I was young there and lonely there, and I grew up with a rotating yet consistent cast of other very young people, all of us growing up on top of each other, hurting each other in the accidents and clumsiness of youth. I grew up at Brazenhead, but so did lots of other people. And I grew up lots of other places, too. I had less cause for grief than so many of the people we had left at the party when we retreated back here, people who had been in Michael’s life since before I was born, people who had been there at the end. I had loved him but I had equally loved how knowing him felt like living briefly inside the kind of hot-hearted prose-heavy novel about a long summer day that convinces people like me to to move to a big city, in search of secret places, in search of good parties.
Brazenhead was a borrowed place, too, and so was Michael, who managed to make a town square’s worth of people each feel special, each feel like he loved them uniquely and individually and best. It got dark and then darker out in the garden. Nobody wanted to go home. The long Saturdays like this, the good parties, the stuff that might fit into the self-important doorstop novel about the hottest day of the year, these are outside of the realities of our lives. Most days in New York are like days anywhere else, except more expensive: It is difficult to get around, the weather is annoying, we spend too much time worrying what other people think about us, we panic about money, we are tired, we are annoyed, we go home and fall asleep. The meat of life, the stuff that when collected defines it, is dull and busy, unbeautiful.
Evenings like this one, like all the ones I once spent at Brazenhead, change nothing at all. They are difficult if not impossible to record, sometimes even to remember. They do not earn us money, get us jobs, provide anything material we can pin to our presentation of an adult self. This stuff does not print into the permanent ink of our lives at all, and yet it is the only place where it feels like all the paperwork and dullness and tiredness and franticness might be somehow worth it, might be elevated into meaning.
The truth is that I love the kind of book that would contain last Saturday in it, the book that would take place at an all-night wake in a secret bookstore in New York on the hottest day of the year. I love big, stupid, sweaty claustrophobic books about New York and dramatic weather and the small domestic griefs and mendings between small, domestic sweaty people within the smallness of this city. This is the kind of New York City novel whose primary audience is not people already living in New York but rather teenagers living in a landlocked state who have been to New York exactly once on vacation with their family and spend all their time dreaming about their future life in a city that doesn’t exist, and maybe never has, except in these kinds of books. I love this kind of book, and I loved Brazenhead because it felt like it existed within one.
Sometimes, on a very busy night at Brazenhead, the only time I spoke to Michael would be when I bought books right before I left. When you bought a book from Michael, it was a very brief private moment between the two of you, even if you hadn’t talked at all all night. Everything else would turn to background noise. It was like taking communion. I might have been embarrassed to buy this kind of self-consciously New-York-loving dad-prose book. I would have tried to make some dismissive comment about it, brushing it off. Michael would probably have made a point of telling me that he loved the book, and then I would have felt embarrassed by my defensive comment, caught in how false it was, and at once proud of myself, made secure. Michael’s way of loving people always had to do with making you feel uncomfortably seen.
Our friends went home and we cleaned up the table in the garden, blew out the candles, went inside. Across the park, the party in a cramped apartment on the hottest day of the year was still going, blazing out all night, refusing to let the morning arrive. Maybe if I had stayed I wouldn’t feel sad yet, or I would feel worthy of my sadness, like I had earned it. Maybe if I had never left Brazenhead two and five and ten years ago, if I had never walked out into a fluorescent-lit hallway, never said goodbye, never climbed down the stairs and back out onto the sidewalk, the night could have lasted forever. Instead every time I went home, closing up the night, carrying the books I had bought, convinced that small things could be large, that large things could be small, that everywhere I had ever been was somewhere to which I might someday return.
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