To Certain Men in Certain Cities that I’ve Left
Kate Petersen

No, this plant-sitting gig hasn’t swung me into the New York-or-Die camp, but what I will say is you can get a fried egg sandwich at any time of night here, made-to-order, on thin buttered rye toast with a glass of juice-your-choice and a booth to eat it in. Not like our dinners of last resort—salt and vinegar chips and Newcastle at the Thirsty Scholar those winter Sundays when we’d sleep till midnight and wake, starved, to find nothing else open. Insomnia is easier here, half-holy, even, to prove with your own small acts how the world (at least this one) never closes.

People have been stacked so thick and high and long here that on certain corners this one-size déjà vu comes up at you, stings like subway heat: pigeons thwapping down into in that park on Christopher St., another person dropping his dollar coffee and dancing out of its way. The booksellers, unfurling their swaybacked tables of Nabokov and Salinger around Washington Square at noon.

Of course when your only responsibilities are a set of keys, a few cyclamens and a jade, it’s hard not to think the city is a good place. You get all these free souvenirs—the surprise man in the strange silk-tree pop-up jungle on 28th, hidden on his folding chair among the ficus trees, whittling a pencil to with a painter’s blade. The look of people who’ve just been told good news over the phone—you know that pause when they have to stop smiling before they can talk again? Or two girls spending their lunch break on the steps of the library, side by side, completely ignoring each other because they are both playing Angry Birds. Maybe texting. And at times, you see the face of someone half-in-love, the closed-mouth promise of it, the way they wait to cross the street or switch their bags from one hand to another. Hum, even.

What then, you asked, of us? It’s not like they say, that you begin to see someone everywhere. I was looking: you weren’t there. But your voice carried, and I was not prepared for that. I was in the Rose reading room and when I found that Yvor Winters poem—“I, peregrine of noon”—it was your voice tracing the words. So I had to go careful back into the day, blinking, the poem, now as much yours as mine, ringing in me like the last bells of a dream in another language.

When I wrote to you, I put the dates I’d be there in French—30 Juin, 1 Juillet—numbers first, like they do it there.

God, to see you, you wrote back, but I’m not going to church.

So I sang in my churches without you. Chartres, Honfleur, Notre Dame. Packed my music away and waited on that corner in the 14th like you told me to. One-night stopover, an early-morning flight to London. You’d put me up, you said, like it was your city. I did not know which way you’d be coming from. What had it been, five years? Damn, you said when you saw me, and I went shy into myself, thinking yes, that. For a girl who remembers everything, how’ve I forgotten the rest of that night in Paris so quickly, what I took up to your room and what I left in my suitcase seven floors below?

I remember the man with the saxophone on his neck who came by our bistro table, but not what he said, though you translated for me once he was safely gone.  You showed me your balcony, precarious as I’d imagined from your letters. The sink, the crease in your toothpaste, the grooves in the faucet for fingers—I’ve got all that still.

But I can’t remember whether there was a top sheet, or which one of us fell asleep first. Perhaps you stayed up the night reading, or writing, but that’s as plain a guess as any. And what did I tell you about the boy back home, the one I asked if he planned on loving me? Did he sound like something I made up? Sometimes, I think I did. Turns out, I could have held you four hours on a Thursday some laddered ways above Rue de Rennes and not changed the ending much (I’ve read ahead: he still kisses her). And yet I can’t get our goodbye straight—did I wake you when I left, or let you sleep? And that album, the one you played for me before we got the beer, before anything had been ruled out, what was it? No, never mind. Chet Baker. Got it. But when did you learn to play records?

What I have still: The letters on your reused whiskey bottle gone soft with fingerprints. How small your refrigerator looked there in its corner, the door’s narrow swing between your trumpet case and bookshelf. And even though bookbag whiskey is how we got from sunrises to the copy shop that first fall, I said no when you poured. Closing time, and I can still feel the relief of that small bistro table against the window where we ordered beer and dredged the last popcorn from its cage.  Some danger had passed us, left us quiet, and we each held our glass and looked through it, as one who wakes, comforted by the blank patches of a dream.

I remember asking. You obliged, described the women who’d been by: a series of young global do-gooders you go to the office with. Drew their good skin for me, their bright futures, the one with the lower lip you could bite without hurting her. I remember eating the popcorn and thinking, it is because I am not here. The lie we memory girls tell ourselves over that particular kind of beer, the kind bought to keep away from the nearest bed.

We tell ourselves: my lip would not hurt either.

What else? The uplit statues in the Luxembourg Gardens as I walked alone to the Metro at four in the morning, brandishing the invincibility that comes from saying no for so long, as if the darkened world knew I’d just turn it down, too. And I’ve kept the sound of my suitcase over the street, which may have been cobblestone or brick—in memory they sound the same, the nick in the left wheel ticking at the same rate I’ve been leaving Paris, everywhere since, as easy as if it were you.

The postman is reading my New Yorker. I’m pretty sure.

It comes on a Friday when it used to come on a Tuesday, and he looks more cheerful than usual, like he’s just read an Ian Frazier piece about some botanist who loses his marbles after being booked as a lecturer on a commercial space voyage. Light years etc.

You’re not supposed to start with weather, so I started with something else. But it’s fall here anyway. Looks different than in Seattle, where autumn came like a secret that wasn’t supposed to reach you: some building’s shadow fell wrong one afternoon and you just knew. Here the sumac is sudden and red and the bugs are gone, and everything else has gone to straw. Except the willows, which seem out to prove something.

Remember that time we were talking on your porch, the one on Vincent? I was picking paint off the wrought iron rails with clothespins, having already gone through the beer labels. The first fall. I barely knew you then, and everything I knew was beautiful.

What if we aren’t meant to do all these things they say? you said. All these great things. What if we are just meant to do one thing all day, like deliver the mail, pedaling up and down the streets with a hat on and a bag, letters grouped in those rubberbands you find like windfall by the mail box, leaving your bicycle tipped over on lawns like when you were young, keys jangling like you’re the janitor of good news and cable bills. (I said nothing, traced the unimportant seam of your pant leg.)

And then, you said. Then you returned and had done the thing–completely, well, as much and no more than was required. To a room with a cot. (I let you go on.) Just that: one cot and some walls and a reading light and this stack of books that other people had told you about, others who were doing just one thing also, and you read until your eyes closed and the light had a switch on it so that you could end the day as simply as you’d done the rest: in one act.

What was there to say then but to kiss you like it was the alternative to your life with the cot and the letters? Which of course, it was. I knew this postman story was how you were saying to me: I am leaving. Not quite yet, but almost.

And then, the next fall, you did. A minivan of things we sorted with football on in background, a couple minutes in the hall, holding on as if everything that had ever happened to us had happened right there by the mail table. Good luck, you wrote months later when you heard I’d gone. You are so good at arriving in new places. No, make that deft.

I thought that too, but we were wrong. I was good at that when I met you, but not anymore. It is not my one simple thing, my constant, like standing all the letters on end. Now I know it requires very certain conditions: maybe that year, the right street to walk down, or you, the way a painter only paints for a few same hours every day, when the light mimics itself, and only in the same season, otherwise the shoelaces or sugar beets she’s painting go different.

Here is like this. One day I woke up and where the light came in to be painted a house had been built—poof, overnight—and when I went to the window to see where it had come from, there you were in the street below. You wore a mail carrier’s hat and bag and whistled as you thumbed through your letters, glancing into the upper rooms of houses, just sometimes, and not for long. And I didn’t wave, knowing you would not see in, knowing you would only see that one piece of the sky thrown back at you.

Kate Petersen’s work has previously appeared in New England Review, The Collagist, Keyhole and elimae, and was on the long list of very short things for Wigleaf this year.

Photograph by Ashley Inguanta