ungrateful

Last month we got a new air conditioner, and I wouldn’t even let Thomas touch the box it came in because of what happened last year. I had been dreading this moment all year, replaying that morning in September. I felt awful thinking about it, which is to say I felt very grateful. Imagining catastrophes isn’t a particularly good habit, but it is one that engenders gratitude, one way to stop taking things for granted. The fear of losing something is a way to state that the thing matters. It’s the airplane drop underneath your feet with no warning, and the sudden rush of love and relief when it steadies itself again. 

In many ways, taking things for granted is the whole privilege of long love, the great gift of it, its gluttonous abundance. The zoned-out night at home together on the couch, the long permitted silences, going about our days passing by and between and against each other, the long years, the planning, coming to bed after the other person is asleep, waking up without waking them. This stuff is the big brag of it, more than the romantic gestures or shiny things. It’s the idea that every moment need not matter so much, need not be clutched so desperately. It’s the growing-used-to, the assumption that the person will be there, the next minute and the next hour and the next day.

Ingratitude is then a defense against death, a way to shrug and say that it does not matter, to refuse to give mortality and the finiteness of days the power to make us always cowering, always anxious, always desperately, pleadingly grateful. Nobody likes the entitled, but isn’t this what we are hoping for when we hope that someone will stay? This is the longing that a photo of two cups of coffee in the morning, two pairs of legs underneath two laptops on one couch with two drinks, is meant to engender. Together and separate, alone in space, careless and able to be uncaring because there will be so many moments left to care and be careful, because we account ourselves rich in future time together. Slowness, ease, thoughtlessness, a cooling of the frantic heart, the contented-dog’s sense that the person we love is always coming home, that our house will always be there, that we go back to the same door at the end of every night.

When I wrote about what happened with the air conditioner last year, the thing I didn’t say is that Thomas and I were fighting a lot in the weeks that led up to it. Nothing was wrong, and we were not unkind, nor were we less in love. We were just kind of having a shitty month or two. It had been a grindingly hard year. We were both overworked, overstressed, under-slept. I was taking care of myself poorly, eating badly, drinking too much, rarely exercising or sleeping; I was always in a bad mood and doing the thing that all these bad habits conspire to encourage, in which I constantly wondered where this absolutely mysterious bad mood was coming from, and wasn’t it too bad that I could do absolutely nothing about it, oh well, too bad, guess I’ll feel like shit for one more day. We were annoyed at the world, both its smallness and its largeness and therefore at each other, sometimes. 

When I was younger and trying and to impress people, I would talk about how I didn’t ever want to move in with a partner because it would make us sick of and accustomed to each other. I talked a lot about wanting a sort of permanent long distance relationship, a way to love while keeping the other person at arm’s length, and therefore making sure that this habituation, this state of being used to them, this constant proximity in which we were most likely to get annoyed at one another and take one another for granted, would never arrive.

I wasn’t making this up to impress the people I was trying to impress. It really was what I wanted, and in an easier world it might still be (turns out those married-but-living-in-separate-apartments ideals are a whole lot harder to do if you’re not rich). But I didn’t get, yet, that this is the good part— the things we unearth from proximity, from annoyance, from repeated days of something so good we are able to take it for granted. Long love, in its strangeness, in its unlikeliness, is about what wonder we can extract from learning to live within the necessity of our circumstances, from inconveniences, annoyances, and from that which seems least wondrous.

It was an early morning last September and Thomas took the air conditioner out of the window while it was raining and then walked into the bathroom with a face covered in blood and everything got so slow and felt so fake that I couldn’t tether myself to the facts of what was happening. It was only after the cab to the ER and after the plastic surgeon put at least sixteen stitches in Thomas’ forehead and the hospital checked him for a concussion and gave us painkillers and a follow-up appointment and charged us a co-pay and sent us home, after I cleaned up the blood and broken chair in the bedroom and carried the air conditioner down four flights of stairs and put it on the curb because I never wanted to see it again even though it wasn’t even broken, after I bought gatorade and snacks and came back upstairs and then there were no more tasks to do, that either of us thought about what could have happened. We were stunned into a car-sick sort of silence, the unluckier version of the morning so nearby as to be almost a physical presence in the room. 

Luck is a horrible thing, as is gratitude. Mostly what jolts us into gratitude is tragedy, whether actuality or near-escape. Gratitude is the awareness that the plane could crash, that the floor beneath us could collapse, the car should have hit us, that the odds aren’t good and we shouldn’t have beaten them. Anything that lasts from one day to the next is a wild statistical unlikelihood. None of us should have met each other, none of us should have managed to be happy, none of us should have survived, none of us should have managed to exist like this at all. 

The fact of love is a crisis, because we are all in the process of losing each other. This is the destination toward which we are driving the car. I congratulate myself sometimes (too much) on having finally found a relationship that does not exist in a state of perpetual crisis, but all I’ve really found is a worse crisis and a bigger tragedy, slower burning but far more lethal, with an unimaginably worse ending to it. I used to choose things I knew would end badly or start and end things hot and fast on purpose, sabotaging them to keep them short enough to be interesting, to make sure we never reached the center of the long movie where the plot drags. But now I wonder if I was just trying to make sure there was no possibility of real loss. Thomas and I stopped fighting after the air conditioner accident; I started taking better care of myself. We were gentle and careful with each other; we were terrified. We still are, but then again, we always have been.

A very dear friend of mine died early last week. I hadn’t seen him in over two years, although I felt every day until I heard about his passing that I was probably going to see him the next day, the next weekend I was free. I laddered myself through years that way, so that it still felt as though he were still immediately present in my life. He ran a secret bookstore, which I’ve already written about, and which you’ve probably heard about elsewhere, from the many tributes to it. Lots of people loved him, lots of people who didn’t even know him felt close to him; he was that kind of person, one who generates a universe of second-hand bonds around himself. Knowing him was enough to make two people who could not otherwise care less about each other feel that they were in some essential way on the same side. 

I went to his bookstore regularly during the worst years of my life, when I was making the stupidest choices and putting the bravest faces on them. It always felt like a way to come home and to hide at once, which I think is also how we feel about the people we love most and therefore take most for granted. Michael always knew when I was doing worse than I pretended to be doing. He would makes quiet, gentle comments sometimes that were so perceptive they melted all the bravado right off of my face. He performed myriad small kindnesses for the people he loved, in an almost embarrassed way, like he hoped no one would notice. He once said about Brazenhead that it was “like running an orphanage,” and often that was what it felt like, a room full of misfits who had found an unlikely place where our failures were exactly the thing that made us belong. He knew how much the people who came to this space he had built were struggling, and he loved us for it, rather than in spite of it.

He was a consummate host and a riotous storyteller and absolutely a dirty old man; one of my dearest and most cherished memories of him and of Brazenhead is a night when several friends and I, extremely stoned, got stuck for what in my memory was about fourteen hours in the bookstore while Michael and two other dudes had an extraordinarily scatological conversation about various sex acts. My friends and I were unable to get a word in edgewise long enough to say we needed to go home, too stoned to just leave. If this sounds horrible, it wasn’t, and if that seems impossible, that’s the thing I’ll never be able to explain about Brazenhead: It’s the only place where that whole circumstance would be charming and hilarious, rather than a nightmare.

Michael was Falstaff come to life, huge-spirited and rabelaisian, constructed of one vice piled on another. He was also maybe some kind of saint. He welcomed me back to Brazenhead, and into his life, when I felt welcome absolutely nowhere, and when I hadn’t seen him in months he gave me shit about it in a way that only ever made me feel precious rather than guilty. 

I stopped going back to his bookstore after it moved locations, for any number of reasons. I told myself every week I would start going back again, I would gather friends and this would be the time and we’d make it a regular thing. But I didn’t, and then he died, and now I can’t ever again. 

And of course I’m angry at myself, but I’m also so fucking glad for those years when this place and this person were in my life constantly enough that I was able to take it for granted, that there was a time, measured in years, when I was lucky enough to have felt entitled to something as rare and unlikely as this. How grateful I will always feel to have had that, to have had those years when I was small and greedy, selfish and spoiled, entitled and grasping and never thinking that I could possibly lose this evidently precarious gift. I truly believed that this place, this friendship, the opportunity for return, would last forever. Michael was old and hard on himself and never in good health, but he was too much of a living legend to ever die. I barely even considered the possibility. He just seemed permanent.

All of that love was obliviousness, was ingratitude, and I am so lucky to have had it. One day, I suppose, I will feel this way about Thomas, and my parents, and everyone I love who persists in waking up each next day, in standing up from each accident, from each near-miss. One day I will realize how entitled, how thoughtless I was, and feel horribly grateful that I had a love that lived within such unlikely assumption of its own ongoing. 

When Thomas goes out to run a quick errand, to get seltzer or toilet paper from the bodega or from Duane Reade, I make a joke out of dramatically saying goodbye, like the lady in Game of Thrones crying out don’t leave me alone in this world before her lover goes off to fight. It’s only funny because I mean it. Love is extremely silly. It thinks the stupidest things are high stakes. What’s sillier that is that it isn’t wrong. It’s all a big awful joke: The person you love really could never come back from the grocery store; every moment really could be the last moment. Isn’t that hilarious, how awful that is, what unreasonable bargains we agree to against our own safety, against our own happiness?

Thomas comes home safely and I’m embarrassed to have worried so much for the five minutes he was gone. We go on with our small and uninteresting evening, in our too-small apartment, the air conditioner too loud and the bedroom too warm. Gratitude is excruciating and insufficient. So far, we’ve both always come home. We get to be blindingly ungrateful, unbearably lucky, for one more day.

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