If we took worry — blasted, ineffectual worry — to its endpoint, we would arrive at — instead (yes, instead!) — a perpetual state of open, courageous concern. I reach for it, yearn toward it —
And wake. My dozy brain leapfrogs. I shift and remember the squawky air mattress below me. The sun is on my arms as the shadows of wide ginkgo leaves gambol about the old parquet floors. I lift my head. The leaves glancing and glancing upon each other sound like water sluicing out of a faucet. Glinting, then lambent, light makes the corners of my mouth pull skyward. Joy like wispy feathers fills me on the inside — into quads, into calves! I smile and smoosh my face into the musty pillow. To the bar, I think. Later today I will go to the bar.
I flop onto my back. My name is Lyly. Pronounced like “lily.” It is a Finnish name meaning “from Lydia.” Lydia being my mother. My mother being someone who’d love nothing more than if I remained, forever, an unopinionated derivative of her. She thought she would name me Liddie, a nickname from her youth, until, seven months pregnant, she found Lyly in a name book. Never mind that Finland has a Black population of less than 1 percent. Mother named me Lyly so that I might always know from whom I came. From Lydia. Her. Well, harmi, Mother, har-to-the-M-I-mi. That means “too bad with a dash of annoyance” in Finnish, though deep down and squirreled away, a part of me is sorry whenever she is mad. And she is mad now, so mad; she churns with maximum distaste for me. Knowing this, I still check my phone and confirm she hasn’t texted or called. My ferocious mother, who is 134 blocks north and five avenues east of me. I miss the carapace of her overwhelming love.
When I slide off the overinflated bed, it makes a long, mournful oiiiink. I pad quietly to the bathroom. My host has a cat named Rumple (short for Rumpelstiltskin), and she sits eagerly on the edge of the sink. I turn on the tap as I lower myself onto the toilet. As I mat Rumple’s fur with water, the vibrations of her purr tendrils up my arm. After my pee, she moves her head so that I, too, might have access to water. I’ve never shared a sink with a cat before, and the perma-sweetness of the experience — my brain bubbling-burbling words of affection, my insides soothed with warmth whenever she’s near — symbolizes for me the kind of living I find myself, well, living. The kind of living I’ve always wanted to live, but by soft temperament or mother circumstance found impossible until now.
I dry my face and, time enough to pause, consider my reflection in the mirror. Like my mother, I have brown skin, brown hair, brown eyes, brown brows, brown hands, brown arms, brown — no, wait, painted them last night — blue nails and toenails. Unlike my mother’s, my anger doesn’t sit well in my body. My nervous system’s preferred mode of safekeeping is catatonic freeze. Rumple meows to be let out of the bathroom. She leaves, and I continue my routine of brow pluck and lip care. What happened happened three months ago. Mother’s words lashing still. Recall painful still. Every morning a retracing of events in language that rezones, reassures, remembers me. There are many ways to take a long view. Take out the silence, the wildfire in her eyes, the moment before the slap — no. Tweezers by eye. Blink. Count. Wait until breathing returns. Alright. I’m alright now. Scene with Mother was and wasn’t dramatic, depending on the placement of lens. Dramatic to sever maternal bond, to have no contact for three months. Not dramatic to be living in Chelsea, half in the living room, half in the bedroom of a friend who travels often for work.
As I make toast and tea, I realize I had always wanted more for the world and myself than the airless polarities my mother offered me. In her world, I was either safe or dead, never alive between. Why would I want two strikes against me? she asked again and again the night she kicked me out. Not one but two! Not one but two! As though by being a raging homosexual, I had forgotten the basic principles of integers. As though by being both Black and gay, I would be so marginalized that I couldn’t also fight against systemic racism. Her love had become — in the months since I came out to her (too late at twenty-seven) — barbed and shredding. Gargantuan fears pythoned through her. She thought she could wear out my gayness the way I used to wear out my begged-for ASICS running shoes. Not one but two, she repeated, afraid for my life, but the more she seethed and roiled, the more her sense of justice became illogical to me for the first time.
I don’t want to wear your anger like an amulet. This is what I wish I had said when she finally placed by our door her oversized, irrepressibly cheerful suitcase filled with my things. Ultimatum, game and set.
Now I am bereft, except — to my surprise — bereft is a space so open that I want to write home about it. I drink my tea and eat my toast. I draw a little cartoon for my roommate. I feel like a round of aged cheese with the hard rind hacked off: no protection, none, and I am soft, aglow, with nothing I need you to save me from. You as in Mother.
I walk to the subway with an even mixture of terror and tenderness. It is persistently hot with a hum of hot, like I’m inside a dryer with an unclean towel. I smell: scent of burger, scald of tar, then cedar — cedar? Ah, cool, clean candle shop. Reflection in window, people by window, motion going blur-blur. A dapper man exits the shop carrying a starched and pressed canvas bag, a ribbon to secure the handles pirouetting round and round. He smiles at his French bulldog. Weeks ago, I would’ve blamed him for something — everything. Now a jackhammer goes tat-tat-rattattat. A taxi driver blares his horn. A bus’s pneumatics blast unimpressed. But the city being hurried does not harry me; the city being harried does not hurry me, and I tarry a moment, rhyming. I trot down the gummy staircase to an approaching train, the warm gut-breath from the city’s underbelly billowing my dress and the patter of my feet doing a quick one-two-three, one-two-three. I slip into the air-conditioned subway.
There are days, astounding days, when we are returned to ourselves again and again. I remember there is a tenor of care more powerful than anger. There has to be.
I walk into the bar. They keep the Christmas lights dangling all year. It’s 3:00 p.m. on a Sunday, and people are drinking martinis and margaritas and looking and sounding like all purposefulness sated. No false intensity. The noise is lilting and pleasant. I see you, Emma, at the other end laughing with your dancer friends. It was a hunch and a hope you’d be here, Emma, and here you are. Blood rushes like waves in my head.
I go to the middle of the bar and order a soda. I am paying when I notice you notice me. Hi, Emma, hi, I think. You are smiling, and I smile back until I have to turn away to settle my joy. Your white arms are muscular and slack by your sides. Your shoulders are perpetually pulled back by those rhomboids I bit just once. I want to dash over. I want to sing. Instead, you wave and I nod.
I’m putting change away with my clown smile stitched on when, accompanied by a gust of warm wind, I see the other you walk into the bar. Not Emma you but Georgie you. Oh no. You, Georgie, as in I was inordinately in love with you, Georgie. Third-generation, Asian American homme girl you. How long has it been? A year of hanging out, of maybe-flirting, of never braving the chasm that’d turn us romantic. I see you, Georgie, and then you see me. You with your bright eyes, your soft frame. You, Georgie.
The bar contracts and telephoto zooms, with the two of you closing in from opposite ends. I am unmetaphorically sandwiched. Emma you, Georgie you. Had I thought expansive thoughts all day? Hahaha.
Oh, Georgie. Such times of infatuation, but only our eyes will say and only when we are drunk with buffers upon buffers of people around us. It is both too much and not enough. If we ever got together, we’d be the mystical, uncommunicating lesbian couple! You work as a time physicist, and you hope to invent a better universal clock. You want to know, you want to improve, and it’s all this wanting of yours that draws me. Our clocks will be 1.5 seconds off in a literal million years if we don’t adjust them, you told me one night, after which you physically spasmed (actually spasmed!) with discontent. That we could be so imprecise, you said. And I thought: Dear girl, you have an optimism that I want to be around. You said you’d die happy if you could get our clocks to the precision of picoseconds. But you want control and I want freedom, and we have been circling each other for too long.
The first time you — Emma you, you you you — and I slept together, we were drunk. I was trying to get over Georgie; I don’t know what your motives were. Are you even the motives type? I barely know you. It’s been two weeks, and we didn’t exchange numbers. We met at this bar, and our friends kept buying us drinks. I didn’t think I could be attracted to a white girl whose skin glowed in the dark corner we stood in. But we talked poets, swimming, and poets who swam. We played Dolly Parton and Childish Gambino on the jukebox. The gentleness with which you carry yourself and treat those around you — even now, I can see it across the room. My usually biting lawyer friends became docile and wide-eyed with you. You were you, I was me, then we were holding hands, then we were kissing, then we were strolling home, blurry with anticipation and drink. That night you were a revelation. I replay the scenes still. How, even in the throes of orgasms building, did you embody that mixture of terror and tenderness I am only now coming to know? You ached to be nowhere else. I knew this from the words you used. Instead of Yes, yes, don’t stop, don’t stop, you said: There you go, there you go, plus the soft refrain of I’ve got you, I’ve got you. So supportive. By turns graceful, savage, acrobatic too. I turned over onto my chest, and you pressed my pelvis flush to the bed; I arched my back, and you whispered something about my sternocleidomastoids — my what? — my neck muscles, you said, and then, cradling my shoulders with one hand and spreading my legs with your other, you, four fingers thick, no preamble, slipped into me from behind. In tune with all of yourself, with me, with the room we were in, the room that was not even your room.
But, but now we are three here, and you’re both walking over, and it is presentness, it is kindness, that I want in this life, it is — oh God.
“Hi,” I say to Georgie, because she arrives first. “Aren’t you supposed to be at the lab?”
“I was, but I thought…” Georgie looks at me, then away. “How are you?” she asks.
Emma arrives. “Lyly, hi,” she says and leans in to kiss my cheeks.
Georgie doesn’t react. I feel my repertoire for effective action shrink. “Emma, this is Georgie. Georgie, this is Emma,” I say.
“Wow, you’re so pretty,” Georgie blurts as she shakes Emma’s hands. Emma laughs. And oh, Georgie, your clothes today are so unsuitably inspired by Shane in The L Word. This wrinkled, hobo-chic look is not something you can pull off. I sip club soda to bide time.
Finally, I tell them that Georgie is a time physicist and Emma is a dancer.
“You’re a dancer, not for a hobby?” Georgie asks. “What dance do you do? Is that the question?”
“Contemporary modern,” Emma answers.
“We try to use the different languages available to our bodies to convey something true.”
This soars over Georgie’s head, and when she doesn’t try to hide it, a quiet, familiar fondness fills me.
“What do you do with time?” Emma asks.
“I’m trying to measure it better. With new lasers, UV lasers.”
Emma points to her watch and jokes, “Analog’s not good enough for you?”
Georgie pretends she’s not annoyed. “Right now we have to adjust the UTC — that’s the global clock — monthly. Monthly! Millisecond by millisecond we lose sync with one another, and every month the Germans call the Argentinians, the Argentinians call the Canadians, the Canadians call the Japanese — ” She swallows a building diatribe. “It could be more elegant,” she says, resigned.
“Georgie’s trying to make it more elegant,” I say, controlling a rising urge to smooth an awry strand of hair from her head. “Did you know that gravity is not a constant?” I ask Emma. “I didn’t. Georgie reminded me that maybe we shouldn’t be so sure of what we build our knowing on.”
I see that Emma likes that. I also see that she is trying to evaluate if something is happening, happened, or will happen between Georgie and me.
Time, I’ve learned, is the measurement of how long it takes light to travel between two points. But light travels at different speeds depending on gravity. This (little) fact only matters if, say, on our way somewhere Google Maps fails us because satellites in space get out of sync with clocks on earth. This same (tidal) fact has been the raison d’être for Georgie since she was nine, when her father told her about the oddball effect. The oddball effect goes something like: one, two, three, four, ball. Our brain takes a moment longer to register “ball” because it is unexpected in the sequence. Time stretches between “four” and “ball,” but only in our perception. Bed, sofa, table, moon. Longer on “moon.” Time moves in one direction, but the experience of strange newness can lengthen our subjective experience. Later, doing doctoral work, Georgie learned that some kidneys that get transplanted never adjust to their new owners’ internal rhythms; those kidneys insist on functioning according to their own clocks, excreting and balancing on genetic whims. We take for granted seventy trillion cells working in concert, and then something changes. We wake up in the middle of the night thinking about someone. We wake up with a rogue kidney of emotions, as Georgie told me once. It is small, and it doesn’t answer to the suprachiasmatic nucleus. We wake up and the forward motion of time has not stopped, no, but it has taken on a quality we have to relearn. People waste their whole lives resisting this very natural phenomenon, she said. When Georgie first explained this, I understood she was trying to tell me that people fear change. Lately, however, I feel her words in my body, a vague bubbling just shy of understanding as a horn in my head blares mar mar mar.
Georgie fidgets in her Nikes, and my fists clench shut. “There is still so much about supermassive black holes and the fluctuations of minute quarks that we do not understand,” Georgie says. I’m suddenly angry. The conveyance of language between what we feel and what our minds know also falls apart on both ends, like science, but what? So what?
Georgie tells Emma about a man whose job it was to walk around a Swiss town with a pocket watch to give all the watchmakers the time; he did this every day from 8:00 a.m. till 7:00 p.m., and people would knock on his door during lunch as well.
Emma in turn tells Georgie about a woman whose job it is to walk from wind turbine to wind turbine, collecting the bodies of dead birds. Georgie interrupts. “Are you making an equivalency between time and dead birds?”
Emma shakes her head and explains that, as a dancer, her work is inextricable from time. Her company is working on a piece about climate change and Lazarus. (I explain to Georgie’s mystified face about how, in a book called the Bible, Jesus brought Lazarus back to life after Lazarus had been dead for four days.) “Resurrection, the price of believing in resurrection, is inaction. So I’m thinking about rising and falling, not just into and away from the ground, into and away from people, but into and away from history as well.”
Emma turns to me and puts a hand on the small of my back. “Would you like a drink?” she asks, though my club soda is two-thirds full. There is no thought, only reaction to her touch. I am a blossoming from navel to face. Her thumbs-up, thumbs-down, again.
“Oh,” Georgie says, “the two of you.”
The ease with which Emma simply claimed what she wants.
“I don’t mean to — ” Emma begins. But she did mean to; she made the gesture. To stake. To claim. Oh, Georgie. Your eyes cast down, then up again. Simple, bone-deep, unsurprised resignation.
“Georgie,” I try, not knowing what I’m trying.
“Do you want to hear something on the jukebox,” you say with your need, Georgie, to evaporate, to be going-gone, mumbling, “I’ll play something,” as you go.
Emma smells floral with a hint of sweat. Golden, dilated hazel eyes. So in shape that I can see her pulse by her sternocleidomastoids. “I have been coming here every day hoping I’d run into you again,” Emma says.
Georgie’s Kelly Clarkson anthem starts. I stare at Emma’s lips. In this moment, I learn that it is possible in one instant for the heart to break and the body to not give a damn.
Waking again. Face smooshed into pillow again. A flimsy airplane pillow. The air cold and biting through the oval window. White roar of engine noise. Night out at thirty-five thousand feet. The grief in me like — like.
En route to Helsinki. Have lost the why of things. Time — truncated again. Language — bright with education and fizzy with omissions. Remember the call Emma insisted I make. It’ll be fine, Lyly. She must miss you, Lyly. The it’ll-be-fine-ness of Emma plucking at the most confused parts of me until, in a moment of dozy trust, I acquiesced. I called. I spoke. Mother listened. Mother moved her head — I heard her earrings clinking. I heard a siren bloop-bloop outside our old window. I felt her push aside our drapes to keep watch. What do you see? I asked. Mother said nothing. Then she said, Come back when you’re ready to fight.
Young baby crying across the aisle. I look over to hear better. The father is shushing, cooing gentle words. I think he says, “Nuku…nuku.” I turn away. I want to reach down for my water bottle or climb over my sleeping rowmates, but I refrain. Nails bitten and unpainted, I’m unembodied, fragmented again. A light blips outside the window — another plane, another three hundred people in a pressurized tin hurtling through freezing air.
We have to be on the lookout for change, for foundational theorems razed to the ground. That was something Georgie used to say, something I shook my head at. But I was laughing when I shook my head, and I was laughing, too, when I told her about the band on NPR that played carrot clarinets and squash trumpets. We used different words, but we kept trying to hear ourselves through each other.
Two days after that botched call with my mother, I rang Georgie from the Catskills. Emma and I had been together for about four months (four months after the bar, four months during which Georgie faded to acquaintance). The director of Emma’s dance company owned the Catskills house, and the dancers used it whenever they wanted to get away from the city. “Do you want to come? Please come,” I said to Georgie over the phone. She was on my wavelength, and she never would’ve made me call my mother. “You calm me down, and I know you have, like, femten days saved up.” Femten, as in fifteen after the decimal point. “I know it’s a big ask, Georgie. I know we were talking, hanging out, and I disappeared on you.” And though I didn’t know if this was true, I added, “Emma also wants you to come.” So Georgie came — to be a friend, to ease the pleading in my voice, to find some closure, I can’t know why — and I wore a saffron-colored dress that I knew she liked. She arrived in the middle of Emma’s rehearsal time. We sat on the steps of the house to watch. It was autumn, and we both found sweaters to put on.
“You can see sweat fly off her face,” Georgie remarked.
Emma was dancing in a clearing canopied by swaying trees and carpeted by moss. Deer sometimes wandered by, pausing a ways off, entranced by the sinewy language of her human body. She had a portable speaker that looped a series of percussive songs.
“Her season started,” I explained. “She does this every day, two to three hours, plus her regular rehearsal with the company.”
Emma danced like one side of her body was doing call-and-response with the other, and mid-move, she smiled the way she does when she’s intuited something. The way she smiled the night she performed in the rotunda at the Guggenheim, the way I think she is better than me because she was invited to do that.
“Sometimes she’ll look up to take in the world like she’s never seen it before,” I said. “I don’t know, Georgie. I want that. Don’t you? Regular contact with grace.”
Georgie shrugged. She could see, perhaps, that I was trying to express something. I asked after her instead.
Georgie complained that her lab was collaborating with Columbia to see if the laser technology for their clock could be used for heart surgery. Could it? “Of course! Woundless arterial repair, blah blah. But why do we — I mean me — why do I have to babysit them while they find out?” Her impatience was so sweet to me that I laughed, then hugged her. Dove soap and soft, overwashed flannel — her familiarity rushed into me.
She pulled away.
“You know why I can’t have that grace?” I said, loud enough for Emma to hear then. “Fundamentally, I can’t have what Emma has because there’s a baseline gratitude I don’t have, Georgie. According to her, I’m too angry.”
Before Emma had danced with an invisible force animating her. Now, after hearing me, she moved only when she punched herself — punched ankle, ankle followed velocity; punched elbow, elbow followed velocity; uppercut chin, chin followed velocity; like this around and around, faster and faster in staccato lifts and falls. The violence to her movements — her body stop-starting — held us. I had colonized something Emma said and taken it out of context with a meanness that would’ve once shocked me. A new song came on that had rain and traffic under the piano and bass. The birds were loud in the dusk air.
Emma fell from a pirouette, then lifted from the ground into this tap-dancey move that was meant for Georgie. She held Georgie’s gaze while her body went funny-spastic, and Georgie laughed because Emma meant for Georgie to laugh. Emma’s irrefutable, borne-on-confidence ability to command the world with her body. She used her body simply to say hi to Georgie. Hello, welcome, Emma’s body conveyed. Innocuous, delightful even, but in that moment, I broke. Anger and envy flooded me. I saw that Emma’s temporal experience was different than mine or Georgie’s; hers was full of presentness and easy courage. I was action-reaction with nary a gap between. Policed by my mother so I might grow up into a not-policed life. Fighting for air, for space, for some wreckage of peace. Were there people who desired things instead of being taught to shut off their desiring systems? Of course there were. Their name was Emma, and there she danced. She was light-years ahead of me in the world I so craved, a world where I didn’t inherit outright the pains of my mother.
I seethed next to Georgie. I had become full of fear again — red fear. Terror without the tenderness. That’s why I called Georgie. Or, I didn’t know why I called Georgie, except that when Georgie walked through the door with her doe eyes, I was at least grounded, at least softened. After all this, though it was too late, I finally understood: Georgie was the one my body felt safest with. How subterranean it is, the way our bodies choose kin.
We didn’t do much in the few days Georgie stayed with us. We cooked together; we went on hikes. Emma and I fought, and Georgie pretended not to hear. Emma cried a lot, but red-eyed, she’d still listen to Georgie explain time-physics concepts. Emma taught Georgie how to build a fire that lasts through most of the night, and Georgie improved upon it the next night with a hand-drawn diagram of assiduous precision. Drunk by the crackling fire, I put a hand on Georgie’s lap and felt her lift and remove it.
As I cling to the safety of summary, the crossroads pinned and described, I understand I am broken. In music, the jazz model has always seemed to me to be braver and more humane than the moralistic classical system. But now, in this telling, I sift, I elide, I cohere simple causes and effects. I cannot allow that my potential for joy and sorrow collided with two other potentials for joy and sorrow. Why do we maintain the prison and consolation of normative storylines? There are no arcs or shapes where real lives are lived.
I split up with Emma not long after our stint in the Catskills and ended up on a cheap flight to Finland. Now I’m walking out of Helsinki Airport in a daze, looking for bus number 615 to take me to the city. The cleanliness of Nordic air is sharp and stinging. I have no connection to Finland except my name, but all I wanted was to be away. To rest. I want a chance at the softness I so crave.
I stare out at the water from different eighteenth-century sea fortresses. I have a packet of reindeer jerky, and I periodically eat some for the simple sake of filling my head with chewing instead of words. I have been walking and walking, feeling that oddball stretching. I connect sometimes and demur at others to people at the bed-and-breakfast. Now I’m on Suomenlinna, eight acres of wandering paths dotted by cannons of yore, stopping here and there to read about Swedish fortifications against the Russians. The blue of the sky is so blue that I feel myself receding into it. A beforetime blue. A blue of many truths. A Priori Blue, I eventually name it, for it makes me want to shed everything I’ve ever known.
In this daze, I accidentally get in the frame of a photographer’s picture of his wife. I smile in apology. The man asks if I might take their photo. I do. They both approach to take back the camera. “You are sad,” the Japanese woman says to me in a lilting dictum. I hand the camera back to the man and see him hide his astonishment. “Thank you for taking the photo,” she adds. She inclines her head in a slow almost-bow. As they walk away, I check that I do not have tears on my face. I breathe the ocean fish and salt air. I tighten the scarf around my neck. They are gone from view now, the photographer and his wife. In their wake, I note my privilege for being here and then wonder what it would be like to live without this noting — to accept pleasures without being in awe of them.
To be so empty.
To walk so long in such blue air because one Sunday I went to a bar.
In bed, Emma would touch me and fuck me and delay me until I learned that what she wanted in sex wasn’t negation but its opposite — to be so connected that life flowed out and returned to us doubled. As we edged closer and closer, how close might we get? She would press the base of her palm to my clit to steady me, to keep me from coming when I was close, and I learned that if I fucked her then, with my clit swollen in her hand, she would get close herself, and then we would arrive at a space, a stretchy, timeless space, and staying there was what she — and later I, too — most wanted. We couldn’t close our eyes then, and sometimes, one time, how many times, it would become a game, a tightrope game of who would finally say, in a begging voice, Now, now, please now.
Nothing is left when Emma is done. Maybe the memory of movement in her muscles or the smeared dewdrops of sweat, but that is not what she lives for. She enjoys the paintings on walls and the books on shelves, but in truth she finds them wanting, because in their making, they could be edited, and so in their making, the risk was tempered. She believes the body can lie, she told me. She believes bodies lie very well. So she inhabits her body; she listens to it; she softens with it, and every moment she tries to be in process. She knows her career as a dancer will be over soon. Already I saw moments when her right shoulder or left knee would act up, but all the more reason for her to keep on, she said, to push the boundaries of what spacemaking means. She compels the present like it’s her birthright, trying to buoy me on wave after wave of her boundless hope. But I can’t. Couldn’t. Can’t.
The wind picks up and causes me to look down. One day I will remember little of this trip to Helsinki except the nick of cold on my face, the tiredness in my feet, and this. kippis, I read on the lip of a manhole cover to the right of where I stand. I know this is the Finnish word for “cheers” because a red-bearded man — his beer roving and roving in my sightline — kept trying to “kippis” with me at a café the night before.
Could Georgie and I have built a haven safe enough to thrive in?
The cast-iron circle has an image of a ship embossed in the center. Kippis, I think, tears now blowing slantwise on my face.
Lyly in Finnish means “from Lydia.” The sea looks forest green and slicked with oil. I unpocket my phone and dial my mother.