Winner of the SLS Graywolf First Chapter Prize
Tblisi photo credit © Scoundrelego / CC-BY-SA-4.0
Courtney Sender is the winner of the 2019 SLS Graywolf First Chapter Prize, which covers full tuition for the SLS program in Tblisi, Georgia.
Courtney Sender’s unique prose creeps up on you, and transforms a would-be unassuming story about the end of a love affair into an entrancing and rhythmic ode to loneliness. The narrator is observant and attentive to others, but—like most skilled watchers—she can be less than aware of her own blind spots. In this excerpt Sender introduces us to a rich emotional landscape and begins to unfold the first layers of several personal histories, including those of the narrator’s grandmother and her ex’s brother.
No Civil Way
By Courtney Sender
An excerpt from the novel I Am Going to Lose Everything I Have Ever Loved
WE BEGIN with facts: You loved me first. Before you knew it, you have come to say. From the instant you saw me. This story of yours, of course, is a fairytale. You only smiled at a girl-who-could-have-been-any-girl on a bridge, river flowing under her, red barn rising before her, curly hair and an hourglass her dress wasn’t trying to hide.
Of course, I believe you loved me from the instant you saw me and centuries before. Time bends, in a story that is strictly true. All our love was packed into that first smile. Now, it is impossible to enter that moment of meeting without what’s coming next. As it was, at the time. We couldn’t live that moment without what was to follow.
No. No, you are going to leave me, and when you do you aren’t coming back. I am susceptible to letting myself get carried away. Hope can carry me a long way—to another story, where my fury makes you choose me, this is my problem, my Friend says now over coffee, that I am incapable of anger in the presence of its object. And she’s right, I can report my anger but before you I can only laugh or beg or hope. Hope: that murderer, the unmet longing that my heart bangs its head against, hope is the bubbles in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, and truth is the fan waiting to chop my head off. Kill it. Hope for nothing and live. My Friend should not fetishize hope. It wasn’t hope that kept her going in the camps, my Nana always said. Why then did you live, I would ask her, trying not to sob, because even as a teenager all I felt when I was next to her was the hope that the next time I saw her I would bring a man who would raise children with me, so she would know I was going to keep our family alive even after they had killed us.
Why then did she live? It’s life, she would say. The because somewhere built-in. I know she felt we were surrounded by ghosts, she and I as we sat in her living room, my unmade cousins somewhere with us tapping on the glass. I felt them sometimes, too. The night Samuel and I first slept together under the red barn—I never told him this—I felt them lying in the bed beside us. Then flattening themselves to hover in the ever-smaller space between us, then pressing their pinky fingertips inside me along with his, it was a good feeling, it was what made me so willing to bring him inside without asking questions, they were staking their claim, coming too. When he came I thought of Nana, I thought thank God, I suppose that was when I loved him.
As soon as I rolled off of him I told him I’d never done that before, and that I was never going back to doing it the old way. Do what, he said, and I said fuck without a condom. He was flabbergasted. But I’d been so confident about it, I’d climbed right on, I hadn’t paused. And I’m not on birth control either, I added—and where he should have blanched, he laughed, which may also have been when I loved him. I sensed it already: the more outrageous the better, with this one. Good, because I was in constant outrage. Love hadn’t come to me; I was thirty-two; I had tried. What I felt was worse than outrage, it was the truth of loneliness, but it is too early in this story to understand the texture of that.
He laughed, and stroked my pinky fingertip slowly with his own, and I told him I had a good explanation for my oversight about the condom: I was ovulating. And I was. With him my body answered itself without my notice, and when I noticed, maybe that was when I loved him.
I would have written that was why I loved him, but that phrase is never true. I loved him because by the time I could meet him I had already loved him from the beginning of time. That he is a sad singer, a political savant, a logistical basketcase, that he draws maps of imaginary kingdoms where his father is the king, that he has a hollow collarbone and a dexterous tongue—the explanations for love are always playing catchup to the fact of it.
So I was ovulating the first time he and I had sex: my genes’ need to replicate and my spirit’s need to pair and my Nana’s ghosts’ maniacal need to break out from behind the glass, wailing in my arms—they worked together to overcome all those decades of education at the best schools in the nation, which couldn’t do either of the two things I wanted, anyway, which was make me not-alone or keep me safe. Forget barriers, my body and spirit said, my Nana’s ghosts overtook me, he was here, my brain was elsewhere.
I didn’t miss it.
So it was life that kept my Nana going in the camps, that was all, not a gift but a fact, like the laws of physics or of gravity. You are given life, you tend it. You are struck on the knee, your leg jumps. An effect without a cause beyond the physical source. You need not hope for better to tend the life you have. God gave it: hate him for it, love him for it, disbelieve in him or spit on him or try to find his mother; you have it now.
So when he said later that, unless I let him leave his girlfriend for me slowly over time—time I didn’t have before my Nana’s ghosts came screaming out my throat—he would kill himself, I didn’t take him seriously. A gamble. My Friend’s boyfriend threatened to kill himself if she left him; she did; he did. Blew his skull off. Now she can’t say no to anyone, she is the best friend a selfish person could ask for.
(I am not a selfish person, she would have me clarify. She knows I tend to make myself the villain in the story. Lightly villainous, obnoxious more than immoral, which is worse if you are a woman wanting a man. She would have me note that I rented a car and drove her to the mental hospital upstate, when she had to go, and that I removed my shoelaces and belt and drawstrings alongside her, and I checked her in, and stayed inside with her when the fire alarm screamed and the patients had to stay and the visitors could leave. All this is true. I am excellent at showing up for friends when they are miserable. I will raise them up until their happiness repulses me. I will cover their ears against the voices but I will never, ever remember their wedding anniversaries. I make it a point to forget.)
I haven’t told him Nana’s story. He came along too late to meet her, and for this I always hated him. God I will miss him. How many ways are there to deal with longing. I want to lance it. I want to throw it up. It lives in that place at the top front of my collarbone, where nausea sits. (Do not think of his collarbone.) It wants to be expelled. (This is my reality story, flights of fancy don’t belong here, they make the impossible seem possible. His collarbone was a birth defect, it stuck out too far and made his shoulder thin and sloping on his left side and was hollow. It was a genetic anomaly. It was like he was a bird.)
I don’t know why I haven’t told him Nana’s story. Her story isn’t one I keep secret. I write it freely in fictional and nonfictional ways, I only half-know it so I feel no compunction about changing it to suit my story’s needs, with strangers it comes up often. In Madrid, where I lived alone as well as lonely, it came up with two Belgian girls I met in a bar who cried and said they would never forget it or me or my Nana and whose names I can’t remember.
But with you, never. Her story explains me, I told the two Belgians. It explains why sorrow is always waiting under my joy but joy is not always under my sorrow, why I haven’t been able to find a man to have children with, my suspicion of laws and banks and national anthems and hope. I guess my sorrow and my hopelessness come up a lot, with other people. I find myself having to explain them. You, though. Samuel, you are the origin story of my happiness. With you I open my mouth to tell the story and a flying-bird sound comes out instead. So I say that today my father and I freed a mouse we caught under a cup in my kitchen, I let you tell me my heart is beautiful and loving toward the small things of this world, I do not say that we both prefer to snap the vermin’s neck but we drive the highway with its feet on our lap because we are Nana’s. To shorten a life is a sin.
Of course it’s my own fault, this mess with you. I should not have gotten mixed up with a man who was already mixed up with a woman, especially after what happened the last time I tried the same routine. I will not try again. But you smiled at me on that bridge and all the men before you disappeared. Oh, I thought. This is what it looks like when a person loves me. I understand now, why I could never logic all the others into this smile.
I did, at the time. I did think that. Time had folded. We hadn’t met yet. He already loved me; I already knew.
He came so easily to loving me that it seemed impossible his relationship was not in some way already over. Surely, at least, it had to be on its way out. I knew better than these hopeful surelys, of course. I’d had the gift of the one before him, differences so slight not even I could miss the similarities, the first a poet and not a speechwriter, five years younger, two inches taller, involved with a nurse he entertained leaving for me until he wasn’t so diverted anymore. And so this mess I’m in now is my fault. Samuel has never blamed me, for what it’s worth. He never says I knew what I signed up for. God I love him. It will be impossible to end. I know the hard truth that my Friend will not acknowledge: to lose him does not mean I will find someone else. It could be all loss, all the way down. This is possible. Has been possible. Out of this hard truth I once wrote an essay that was picked up by the Times that was picked up by angry right-wing men—incels, they are called, involuntary celibates—who hate me, which is funny, because they and I have more in common in our righteous loneliness than not. I empathize with them. They do not empathize with me, because I have written an article in which I call for men to follow up with women after they have been inside her, even if it is to say that they do not wish to be inside her again. After that I am no longer allowed to treat any suitor less than humanely, or else I am a hypocrite of the highest order, and so I come to learn that treating everyone humanely is more energy-intensive than I could have possibly imagined.
For me. Never for you.
Your brother is the loneliest man in the world. This sounds like invention for story, but it is not. This is my only-truth story, my only one. He reads books about World War II and he lives beside your parents in a house they bought for him and he quits every job you manage to wrangle him into with his associate’s degree in hospitality. When I am asked out by a man who scares me later, who sends me unanswered text after unanswered text and uses Twitter to announce his bafflement that the entitled fucking bitches of DC/Baltimore do not like him, I am reading his texts to you, to show you how scary he is, and you tell me to stop. You can’t stand it. His words are someone else’s private calling-out, they are not for you to know. You tell me your brother once posted a rage to Facebook, asking why nobody bothered to click a button and wish him happy birthday. You tell me to be gentle with this person’s heart.
So it is to other people that I say I am afraid this man will show up in my class someday and blow my head off. To you I let him disappear from the stories we tell each other, even as we praise ourselves for our ability to tell each other everything, and I regard you with yet another layer of confounding goodness. This seeing of your brother everywhere, in every loneliness except mine, is of a piece with the impenetrable puzzle shapes of your castledreaming and your mapmaking and your bird collarbone. They are the gentlenesses of you. They have nothing to do with your anxiety meds and your lifting weights in your basement and the sex we have, even when it is soft and slow. It is to less-gentle people that I speak of how dangerous it is to be a single woman, not because we will be followed home by a stranger who knows he is a stranger but because we will be followed home by a stranger who thinks he is a suitor.
Once many years ago, a man who was a stranger became the man who would become my Nana’s husband because he showed up at her doorstep, unannounced. She was in hiding behind a false wall in a pantry. He’d found out she was there because she had the look of someone who was not the woman on her papers, and he’d trailed her home. (My Nana’s is a story that I only half-know. How are both truths true, that she was hiding and also walking home?) One piece is certain: When she came to the door, he held out a piece of cellophane wrapping in his hand. It was a time of stale bread and dried milk, and he’d brought her nougat in the middle of the war.
It is doing of this kind that will ruin us finally. Talking to him is well and good, feeling the immensity of this thing between us is well and good, as is making bold claims to uniqueness. That our love is an attempt at absolute equality, which is insanity. True equal partnership is necessarily insanity. It means we don’t know how to do each other. Somebody should be certain, somebody should be the less fumbling one.
In some ways it has been me. My strength in love is creativity, in complex relationships I have always been able to shine. Distance, affairs, age gaps, anxiety—I have been expert at figuring out a third way. I love it. Maybe I need it. I have been able to find pockets of possibility that other people don’t even look for. 5am. Sublets in his city. Hotels in the next town over. Kennels for the dog. I can bend the rules of the civilized world because I don’t really believe in civility, and so have kept myself on its periphery. It is always easier to see the fissures from the outside.
Was it Nana who taught me this, that the rules of civility break down so I may as well ignore them, get a head start at seeing the cabinets and attics and false papers of the world?
But my sister is my Nana’s other granddaughter, and married, to a standard man with a standard vision of loosely equal love. So it must be me who took what Nana had to tell—guns, gas, train tracks—and decided oh, the rules are broken. If they will break me, I will disavow them first.
So he and I met at 5am, and in hotels, and in sublets and pockets of time I pointed out and he accepted with such gusto that it made equality from the truth that the suggestions had been mine. We loved this way and surely ours was equal to more standard forms of love, if different, and this was believable—until other people’s alive new boyfriend ran into a coffeeshop carrying the depression meds they’d left unswallowed on the bedside table. Or showed up at their doorstep in the middle of a war. Or sat beside them at their little sister’s wedding, which was in June, and very sad. When other people did that, then I felt something shift like a tectonic plate inside me and the truth revealed itself: The immense way he and I have loved is not enough. It isn’t even love. It isn’t nougat.
Sometimes I’m still furious at my old neighbor for this. If that first object of my ardor had stuck it out with me when we were young, then even now, two decades later, I might not be coming from a place of constant scarcity and so would not accept other people’s boyfriends and so love would not be constantly scarce. Cruel, that loves comes most readily to those who have had it before. Samuel said so, once. One thing among the thousands that worried him about exchanging her for me was that I’d never lived with a boyfriend. Do I understand about sharing a bathroom? About the way a hair that clogs the showerdrain can interrupt even the most passionate of intertwinings? That worry broke me like a rule. Don’t punish me for that, I told him. Don’t give me more nothing because I’ve had nothing.
A metaphor about job security, maybe. How you need experience to get experience. Who cares. Jobs mean nothing. That’s another truth my Friend does not like or want to believe—she met alive new boyfriend at a sales meeting, have I considered getting a real job, in an office—and it’s another reason I want so much that my wanting becomes too repulsive to allow me to get. Jobs mean nothing. Only love means anything. I say this knowing that people starve. With money or without it, with civility or without it. Nana knew too. In the middle of the war her husband brought her nougat, and when he died, losing him stood just as impossibly in her heart as losing her entire village, her entire family, her God himself for the rest of her life. And so I hold my life soft and fluid and open, like legs, until there is anyone worth concretizing for.
You. How I have loved you. Your birdbone collarbone, your cartographies of imaginary worlds, your portraits of your father in the basement. Your laugh. A guffaw that defined the word, I had only read about guffaws. You read to me. You sang your messages on my voicemail. I listened to them like the radio. I made up a song that made you giggle. When we shared hotel rooms we had an easy ritual around poop: I sang the song that I made up for you, I turned up the TV, you laughed when you emerged.
See. I could have understood it, about bathrooms.
I am afraid beyond fear that you will never show up in a coffeeshop for me. I am afraid I know the texture of the reason. The only thing I want to do is sing to you. Take your head on my chest and pet your hair until you are sleeping. It’s a maternal love, says my Friend, having swallowed her meds and watched her boyfriend leaves the coffeeshop. She says this ignoring all the stories I have told her about Nana, ignoring that I know no Jewish mother who accepts her children for exactly who they are. Give that love to yourself, says my Friend, who is no longer alone and refuses to remember what it was like. No one loves themselves the way they love their child or their lover. No one wants to kiss themselves on the forehead.
You think being in a relationship is so great? says the barista who has overheard and is probably with a partner who doesn’t love him, whom he doesn’t love, with whom the sex has stopped or never existed or should never have existed, with whom he has nothing to talk about, who annoys him, which is the true opposite of love. Impossible to feel amorous when someone is an irritation on a couch. Over the years, I have told a friend or two in the barista’s category that they only stay with their partners out of fear of being me, alone. I tell them sometimes it is worse to fear the bogeyman than to be him.
After that, those friends and I lose touch.
Your brother. I called it early, I heard the way you talked about him and I heard that there is something familial in your love for me, too. I am your brother, I heard this early, earlier than you though you will come to it eventually. My parents try to make him feel so loved, you said. They let him read them endless histories about World War II, not novels or even narrative nonfiction, just facts, rifle suppliers and train numbers and aviation parts. He can’t read with inflection either, it’s hard for him to understand emotion in person and even harder on a page, he just drones and my mom says uh-huh and stirs the chicken into broth, and my dad says what else and claps the mud off his shoes. My dad is eighty-seven. Iz is forty-three.
It is lovely, what your parents do for him. We both agree. Lovely and sad. It is what I do for you: tell you I love everything about you, the things I don’t love too, because you are not strong enough to hear the truth, and to be so completely loved makes you so happy that I am willing to love the things I don’t love if it draws that happiness out of you. These are the delicate conditionals of love, I am learning, so often the contingent on contingent: if you want it I want it; if it makes you happy it makes me happy; if you love to be loved I will love you.
But your parents will fail. There is no substitute for this love, the kind I give to you. I know it. My father is my Nana’s son, he loves me so and all I can do in his presence is long for you to meet him. Your father does for your brother what my father does for me, which is not enough: invites me home for New Years, says he is thrilled to see me, reminds me I was born with my eyes open in his arms; but I am unpleasant to him in every way when I am tossing in the twin bed of my childhood, knowing my sister is off with her Catholic in-laws and my Nana who is dead now would be crying, but who will have the grandchildren, and she would mean who will bring our ghosts into existence out between our legs.
I have tried to think of how to heal your brother. Of who I know who might date him. Someone intimate with loneliness. Who does not take another human heart beside theirs for granted. An autistic woman. That man, the one who scared me. Me. I have thought about this, truly, whether it could be me; but to love him would be an act of loving you, and the only kind that is enough denies the rules of transitive property or substitution.
Who does not take another human heart beside theirs for granted. That’s your problem, Samuel. Your hardest story is the one where two people love you. You and I are different species. You’d have had to make me human.
I have thought of writing him a letter:
Isidore of the beautiful name,
I am a friend of your brother’s. You haven’t heard of me. Once your brother sobbed in my lap and said it’s you who deserves the kind of love I give to him. He doesn’t; you do. He loves you so. Not enough to live like you do, of course. Not enough to do that and so make you human. He left me like you. I know how lonely you must be. He doesn’t; I do. I swear I do. There is nothing more to say. He doesn’t love you, it’s true. You and I both know it.
P.S. It would devastate him if he knew.
He doesn’t respect the shortness of all this, says my Friend who has decided suddenly that she is willing to get it, waving her arms to encompass herself and me, the coffeeshop, greater Baltimore, the United States of America, the earth and sky and all of time immemorial. He doesn’t respect that death is coming, and love is the only thing. There is no other goodness. It is a sin, to leave me. If you love me. There is no order of goodness beyond this.
His girlfriend, perhaps, would disagree.
I have been to her home. Met and pet and even walked her dog, who should have bitten me but didn’t. I did not sit on her furniture. I stood in the middle of rooms, I kept my hands in my pockets, I did not look at the pictures in the frames. I understand you, sister. Usually I write fiction. There I can bear to look and see that you and he are smiling and natural and even guffawing together at somebody’s sister’s wedding. There, maybe, you can bear to look and see that the number he says is his father, calling all the time, is not the number from which his father calls you. Sometimes we do not want to know the things we already know.
Or maybe we don’t know. Samuel, you say your girlfriend loves you. The truth is I believe she loves you and I believe you love her and I believe you love me and I am almost certain I love you with the brutality and totality that I promise you, up and down and sideways, whispering in your ear, gasping it, mumbling. Sex. The partner’s name too beautiful. An angel’s name, too foreign to speak, a name I use when I am angry or playful or telling him to tell me to get down on my knees. We are excited by each other’s excitement, our sexuality is a law of infinite recursion. We invent positions that we both know have probably been invented before. We name them after the places we invented them, Hen of the Wood, Malaprop, Blue Orchid, and so they are ours, filled like our bodies with history and desire.
No, says my Friend. Obeying desire is not the way to attain desire. Restraint is the way.
But here’s the thing—Isidore already knows—when you are the child of who we are children of, other people’s counsel is as useless as their rules. Other people stayed in the Gestapo’s office and were carted to the camps; my Nana’s husband, for whom I am named, saw the officer turn his back and swiped a piece of candy off his desk and walked right out. Other people tell me to say no to him, make him wait, make him work—but where’s the fun in restraint?
The fun is in the power, says my Friend. You get to keep the power.
As if there is only one kind of power. There is power in offering, owning yourself so completely you can give yourself away. Recklessness is a form of power—the unexpected yes, the all the way. Take my heart take my body have my future take my life, take it, I trust you for no reason, I ask you to prove nothing, I sense only that what is divine in me resonates at the pitch of what is divine in you and that your definition of sin will be letting me go.
My conundrum way back on the bridge, knowing already he had the satiated look of a man whom another woman loves: take something, or keep nothing. When you have had only nothing, you know that there is nothing worse. You will take anything. You will never say no, you will walk back every line in the sand. Sit next to me in June; decide by September; see me on New Years, do it, I’m through.
When you’ve had only nothing you’ll never be through. Ask Isidore of the beautiful name. To go back to nothing is the worst thing. It is no one to hold you. The knowledge that babies die if no one touches them. Three a.m., four a.m., no difference. One p.m. even worse. You know that three a.m. is coming.
Not you, of course. You are a different species. I have tried and sputtered every time, to offer you this intimacy, that ghosts live over my shoulder behind a glass wall that separates the living from the dead. You’ve watched me with those well-loved easy eyes and I’ve known your lot is too much with the living. Once upon a time I conceived of a plastic wall that separates present from past, that could melt, but this is my true story and this one is sadder. Sadder in the way that all things that are sad become sadder: because there is no hope of change. The ghosts were all set to be created, in the middle of the last century, but they never got to be. The wombs and arms and hands that were supposed to shepherd them into the world got gassed or shot or tossed into a pit. The ghosts did not know where to go, God wouldn’t take them back or else they wouldn’t have Him, I don’t know, the theology is crooked and Nana never trafficked in theology. Me neither, not here. And so they stand behind my family and press their noses to the glass like gorillas in a zoo. Then they press their way in between bodies that are forming positions that only feel new, they sneak into the egg and sperm and they live and grow and emerge out between our legs.
They try to, anyway. But these are sad ghosts, they have spent eons separated from the world, we both know people who can understand them. These unmade of my uncles and aunts and cousins, they try so hard, where there is too much life, to pass through the glass: when my Nana and her husband who brought nougat are conceiving their son; when her son and my mother who does not pet my hair when I am sleeping are conceiving their daughters. For the most part, the ghosts fail. They were meant for an earlier century and they do not thrive in the unnatural heat of this one. Barely anybody even sees them. My sister and mother don’t, my father only sometimes. Nana used to ask.
Maybe you are suspecting already, my guess as to the truth of loneliness. I am coming to it. My poetry teacher told me once that I was crazy, that I am full of wilderness and abundance and grace, that I carry these things with me when I step into a room, I am life in a dizzying verdure, if I choose to be anything else it is only a story I tell myself, and I better stop, soon.
If I don’t stop then time will loop back, in his first smile will also be contained the loss of him. I will be unable to recall that to love him is to feel I have always been waiting to be conceived of through the eyes of a man who dreams of castles. Isidore, this is time as you will never know it. So many truths you’ll never learn—your brother’s love will never teach you as it teaches me, the love you have is not the kind that teaches—here’s another: Nouns. Nouns are of utmost importance, when the person you love is not beside you and you wish to tell them how you wish to hold them. In person you simply touch his cheek, or collarbone, or uppermost protruding bone of collarbone, or base of penis. You need not name it. But from a distance you learn that there are infinite places to press a fingertip to the skin of your lover’s hand, but there are finite nouns. Palm, wrist, fist, finger, knuckle, thumb. Words like pinky are useless, add no value from a distance, only a level of ridiculousness, though in person the slow stroking of a pinky finger can be the most erotic or loving or suggestive or sorrowing gesture in the world.
Compound nouns, too, Iz. There are endless available joinings of a noun to its diminutive, babylove, birdbaby, gorillababy. Your brother and I never use each other’s names. Our public names, he calls them. When I speak the word ‘Samuel’ it feels foreign in my mouth. Once I was looking at him and I forgot his name. He told me that was the most intimate thing on earth. He told me that in college, at a summer job his dad had gotten him, he’d sold furniture. I picture him younger, blond, insouciant, knowing or sensing he had the world—I do not think I would have liked him, he was too sure that love was coming—selling people the nouns that would tie them to the floors and homes and co-couch-buyers I would fight, someday, to have him.
I do not think I would have liked him, I was too sure that love was not coming.
My Friend when she was sadder once asked, having read a made-up story of mine I’d mailed to the institution, if I had ever been in love. She asked this through a tinny phone connection, which annoyed me, because I had just waited for an hour as the wall phone in her ward had been passed from hand to hand. The inmates running the asylum, I had muttered to my father. He had laughed. I called her maybe twice more while she was in there. Later, when she was out and taking sales meetings, she told me he had called her every day.
Something authentic was missing from the romance, was what my Friend had to say about my story. I couldn’t tell then what it was. It was petnames. They called each other Lina and Kaitlyn, which was all wrong but I didn’t know. There used to be a scene where Kaitlyn yelled at Lina, saying ‘I love you too’ are the best words in the English language, because they contain reciprocation baked in. I thought this was wise, when I wrote it. I thought I was wise.
I was wrong. There are some wisdoms that extrapolation and study and guesswork can teach; others require experience. It turns out there are gradations of the best words in the English language: when felt deeply, I answer I love you with I love you, as if coming to the discovery yet again for the first time. I could not have guessed this. Of course then I am bitter, that I will not keep this love. A whole font of wisdom I won’t access. Instead I grow wiser about loneliness.
Not as wise as Isidore of the beautiful name, though. Never as wise as your loneliest man in the world.
NANA’S STORY: a setpiece, it turns out. I never share it with him. I never know it, fully. Judaism teaches that to save one person is to save a world. I use her story to explain myself and so to explain the world. I use it to prop my learnings up on stacks of nougat. My lessons are gunpowdery and soft.
My Friend counsels to approach my tardy learnings in a lighter tone. You’re funny, she tells me. Remember?
I just look at her there sipping coffee in a coffeeshop. Her boyfriend is on their couch at home, waiting for her to come back. I remember holding up her cotton pants with my hands, because they made her take out the drawstrings. I remember them locking her behind a sliding glass door while the fire alarm screamed.
Sure, I say. But men-and-women aren’t funny.
I know, she says, I know, it’s all tragedy. Just…laugh about it.
Nougat, I tell her. That’s a funny word. Funnier than chocolate, which is what the candy was. I’ll use nougat instead of chocolate. Fuck truth.
That’s some mild humor, says my Friend.
Because I can’t laugh. Nothing will be tactical, in the end. The time for tactics will have been before, when I had him, when I had the luxury of pretending I was another kind of girl, one who wasn’t so intimate with loneliness, a girl on the side of life. It is a sin, I’ll tell him, in the end. I’ll be on my knees, he’ll be telling me about dignity or civility, I’ll be telling him there is no civil way to break my heart. It’s a sin, I’ll say. We are for each other. Life is for this.
But you can’t teach what is sinful to a man who doesn’t know. If you find yourself needing to, you’ve already lost. The only counsel I’m certain of: Find a man who agrees with your definition of sin. Obeying orders. Killing mice. Leaving your friend when the firing squad screams. Leaving love to just die on the table.
Sin: an abomination against what is holy. To find a man who agrees with your definition of sin you must first find a man who agrees with your definition of holiness. Sex. Poop songs. The slow stroking of a pinky finger. When he leaves I will once again be a woman denied what is holy in this life. How many times can I be sinned against before it’s clear it’s me who is the sinner?
Your brother. To keep loving me would be to love him, don’t you see that? I would have fed it into him. Don’t ask me how. We’re coming to it. Maybe you already know, or guess. In the Torah, El is one god, Yahweh another. Some insist they are one and the same, whole schools of ancient rabbis lived and died to cover up their difference, to knit them together like the ring of darker skin at the head of your penis from your circumcision. What hell if they were two, because true equal partnership is necessarily insanity. Co-equal gods cannot exist. They will war for dominance and one will win. I never asked Nana what she thought, if our gods were one or two. I think she would have hoped they were two, she had enough hatred for two gods, it would explain her overflow of rage.
And now I live with clenched fists because her overflow pools in me. Because Isidore—Iz—: I am going to lose everything I have ever loved. It turns out love is both animal and mineral, Iz. Bedrock and breathing. And love is law, too. Laws of sin and blessings; laws of physics; most of all, the law of perpetual motion.
Iz, you’ll never know that what’s most frightening about love is how alive it is. You’ll think you have a handle on it, the way it is a little sun inside your chest, you learn the shape and structures of love’s goodness as you learn its object’s body—shyly at first, then bolder, laughingly, audaciously, abundantly. And so you come to know its geographies, the places it has studs and fault lines, where it is lode-bearing—then suddenly your Friend leaves you alone in a coffeeshop, to go home to her boyfriend, and you feel it shift like a tectonic plate inside you. Something overbalances; you expect, because you are you, that this is only love’s breaking off and drifting away and that you will reach your arm out after it forever. That you are going to lose everything you have ever loved.
But you leave the coffeeshop and weeks go by and something new is happening: love settles back in, but deeper. You had not known it was not, already, deep as it could go. This scares you. This scares you more than loss, whose structures you have learned over time. Suddenly it occurs to you that he may never leave. Suddenly when you say I love you, you mean with your life. With the commitment of your life. Suddenly you start to feel things like, give your life to me and I will do the same. Suddenly my heart pledged to your heart means in this bigger adventure, not just this hotel room but this lifetime. Suddenly ownership is not some sexy game, suddenly I want to own you not as a collarbone is owned by a mouth but as a diamond is deeded from my Nana’s hand to mine upon her dying breath, I want you to be mine.
Love is a reverse birth, a monster animal that burrows ever deeper.
And so you wait and wait for the monster to shift again, and though the shift was stark and beautiful, you hope it never will, because you discover with shock that you have liked your life as it was more than you knew, yes your own lonely intolerable life, it has been the one thing that has stayed with you through all this loss; it has words like poop and pinky, it has a Friend who meets you over coffee every morning and makes stupid faces so you laugh; you tend it.
He knew about this shift, of course, already. My lover that other species, he had this knowledge but he let it take me unprepared. I will prepare you, Isidore. You are me and what if someday you are loved. Even as I say this I am sorry. I know too well to plant hope in your heart. Love is nothing more than luck. Even if I get it, you may not. Even if I get it, I may not.
In all this I ignore the ghosts who hover at my shoulder, breathing down my neck, fogging up the glass with their longing—the ghosts who are inside me, blackening my heart. Samuel, Samu-el: your name has god inside it. I have two gods inside me too, myself and the children of that God of death, but you have never felt them. It’s Iz who understands—
And so a monster-plate that moves continues moving. I have thought so long of how to heal your brother, and the truth arrives too whole to be a story I made up: Your brother loves World War II. Your brother who is lonely. My Nana’s story was never meant for you, of course I couldn’t tell you. Her story was a gift for my real love, my mirror-self, the loneliest man in the world.
The story, Iz, is she lost her village but survived somehow, in hiding walking down the street, her husband brought her chocolate. Later she helped the Warsaw ghetto uprising, she never felt sure she had done the right thing, the men who took her orders survived in the dozens and not the hundreds. She felt guilty, she said in her living room, looking just over my shoulder. She had shortened people’s intolerable lives, even by one day. Iz, you don’t survive because you hope for better; you keep living because it is life. It is life and you have it and therefore you tend it. Maybe you hate it and it’s just a fact and not a gift, maybe it’s not beautiful at all and it’s just terrible suffering, still it is life and to have one more day of it is a holy thing.
So finally the story ends, with holiness’s coda: I am in the line of death. I was one of those souls who never got to be made and therefore never should have been, causality runs only backward, the ghosts snuck in between my father and my mother years ago, they snuck in and for some reason this time they managed to survive the heat and love and brightness of the living. I came out with my eyes open, my father says this. Something he interpreted as sharp and smart and curious, something that was merely ready. I had been anticipating life for decades, watching jealous through the showerglass.
Maybe you are like me, Iz. We can have good lives we tend but they will not be like the lives of the people on this side of the glass. We are ghost-made, the texture of loneliness.
I go now, Iz. It’s not fair but even I leave you alone. My prayers now are to your brother, Samuel, my love my only law: beat the ghosts out of me. What if you don’t go. Seal the glass. Kill them finally. They were unmade and that was sad but they should stay that way. You stay. You tell them no, you tell them I don’t need hope but I am the random lucky one, plucked out from the shower glass, I get to have it.
My father is old. Yours is older. I want them to meet us before they are gone.
Courtney Sender has written on love and culture for The New York Times' Modern Love, The Atlantic, and The Lily at Washington Post. Her fiction appears in The Kenyon Review, AGNI, Glimmer Train, American Short Fiction, Tin House, Prairie Schooner, and others. A Yaddo and MacDowell fellow, she holds an MFA in fiction from the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars and an MTS from Harvard Divinity School.www.courtneysender.com