17th Street Review

Plusquamperfekt

B. H. N.

I’m slain by his blue razor next to mine, a twin set from a clinical box of one hundred, priced at seven cents apiece.

I think about him alone in an airport hotel room, sterile and sacrosanct, and me, alone in Margaret’s apartment.

I’m also out of deodorant. But at least I don’t have to worry about leaving a trail of drops on the floor. I can wipe my hands on my back pockets, for example, and that would work just fine, if I were wearing pants.

Still, I have grown meticulous, infinitely neater both in personal and in household hygiene.

Margaret’s apartment has beautiful, sunny views, which I cannot enjoy right now, it being night. Truth be told, it is a little old for my tastes.

I have really come to appreciate the comforts of a modern home: the functionality of its appliances and well-regulated floor heating, the additional settings on the washing machine.

Margaret’s place accumulates dust in the corners, although I know for a fact many people find it charming. I can see that the rubber trims around the windows are growing mold.

She is a trim and tidy person, Margaret, which I used to be, for a time. Her sentences are always crisp and tight, the expression of a well-regulated psyche. She says she doesn’t mind my staying at her apartment, but we’ll see how long that lasts.

I’m not paying any rent so far, and, truthfully, I don’t have the resources to do so.

I haven’t contributed a whole lot in terms of groceries either — in fact, I haven’t contributed anything, so far — but tomorrow I’m thinking of making a run to the corner store.

We are low on milk and eggs, which I don’t mind, although coffee and breakfast aren’t really anything without them, and after all I’m going through a very tough time.

It’s only been a week. Margaret really is a wonderful friend, but I expect she will be coming to resent her role in our arrangement. In any case, I’m in a foreign land.

If friends aren’t for times like these, then what else? Still, I can imagine she might be regretting this visit, which turned out so differently from the reunion that was planned.

* * *

The kitchen has an excellent collection of tea, I find: Japanese twig and rice varieties, and bespoke French bouquets — floral blacks and greens — high-end, certainly.

It’s a shame, though, that the kitchen smells so strongly of soup. Even when no one’s cooking, the space is colored by that warmth. Even the clean aromas of her teas assume a soupy air.

It’s only been a few days since he left, and, even though I am doing everything to refresh myself, I’m still visibly shaken.

I wonder what Margaret thinks about all this. She’s a kind friend, but I can’t help feeling her whiff of superiority, a sense of abasement and shock.

He’s a bright man, and the four of us did have some interesting conversations, before and despite, and I know for a fact that both she and Kevin were impressed by his brainy, incisive contributions. I did admire that about him, and, clearly, so did the handful of institutions that vied for his place on their faculty before we landed at the FU.

Still, I can’t imagine Margaret relating to all this, what with the pleasantry and respect and the carefully planned child that pass between her and Kevin.

Now he is alone in an airport hotel room, sterile and sacrosanct, and I am alone here in this apartment, liberated from the environment and the man.

* * *

What I first noticed were his toned shoulders and bright eyes, and his full head of hair. We got together over our shared love of rock climbing, meeting at the local bouldering club. I guess what he noticed about me was my physique and neat style, which unfortunately were something of a posture. Knowing this would have saved both of us some grief.

He has a cordial nature about him, too, and I was impressed by how he asserted himself, assured but not arrogant or boastful, even though he could have been.

I would say it’s rare for someone to really strike me on a first impression, but he did. I would say it’s rare for me to really make a point of getting to know someone, but with him I did, and maybe this was a part of the problem: our levels of commitment never really matched.

We bonded over our understanding of the oppression of the white male patriarchy, but disagreed over which of us was more aligned with its transgressions, I being white and he being male. This comes to me now, as I consider which of us is doing the oppressing.

Someone who loves me, in any case, will tell you what he committed was far worse.

* * *

The place we met was not a place that took kindly to the un-patriarchical and the un-white, so we were happy to embark upon an adventure in Berlin, one that circumstantially also furthered his career. Even so, it did me no favors to cut ties in a rush.

I don’t have a career now, but he still has his, which adds fodder to our respective fires. He took everything from me, controlled and patronized me in that way, and I trapped him with false pretenses. Of course, these are reductions.

But I haven’t even called my place of work, which hardly seems worth mentioning, since it was more of a hobby, a pretense, than anything else. Our arrangement, if you could call it that, has probably been terminated by now.

Three afternoons a week, I sat in an empty furniture design store, watching preloaded TV shows on my laptop when no one was looking, which was most of the time. The light was very dim and people rarely noticed me or recognized the shop was open.

We led a nice lifestyle, certainly, moving into a newly built luxury complex after I joined him for good in Berlin, with underground parking, a shared amenities room, and rooftop terrace.

Still, I couldn’t help feeling a little bit afloat. I had moved halfway across the world for him when I was barely an adult.

Certainly, it was exciting, and he had ample financial means to provide for our material comfort. But I didn’t have the security of my network, profession or language. I didn’t have family or friends, which left me feeling always at his behest.

He was providing for me, and I had stripped myself of the ability to provide for myself, for the sake of a union that was non-contractual, and therefore non-binding, which provided me with plenty but did not enable me to provide, which left me penniless and stranded years later.

* * *

Now I can almost feel myself watching my eyelashes when I squint and roll my eyes up. I can almost roll everything into that: fluttering eyelashes, and everything is almost okay.

But then I am returned to the agonies of the mind, the little corners it crawls up to: eyes closed, prostrate on the sofa, during a brief and excruciating moment of conviviality, out to lunch among friends, or here, now, in Margaret’s apartment, in bed.

I get up and pull a pack of cigarettes from the side pocket of my suitcase, tucked away under the brass poster bed. I put on a garish ski cap and pull one of Kevin’s sweatshirts from the closet over my still-damp shoulders.

My throat is throbbing as I try to construct a semblance of routine, however destructive, some sense of place.

* * *

First there were those daily, household issues that emerged: the sponges, and the water, and how I decided to organize the pans in the dishwasher.

Then there were the structural issues: my health insurance, or visa status, how I had traveled so far without the promise of something that would last.

In the end, I was left with our weekly lunches, and the dinners and weekend outings that he often canceled due to unforeseen work — papers to grade or last-minute conferences to attend — and the inevitable, obliterating fights — my crumpled nature over a lack of friends or a faraway death in the family, my sobbing, disheveled in the corner and his looking on with resignation and distrust.

Sharing the showerhead meant that one of us was always shivering wet at home. Usually this was me. I inevitably felt cold when we showered together; therefore I felt entitled to more of the showerhead time.

I did always hope I might adjust my predilections.

* * *

The night before he left I vomited from the bottom of my stomach and laid my face down on Margaret and Kevin’s bathroom floor. He had not gotten up from his placement by the window overlooking the garbage bins. When I emerged, he looked up from the computer screen to measure my response.

Get some rest, he said, before entering back into some other occupation.

In that bed I lay in a mind shifting in on itself, suspended in loops that play out the instant as infinite, the mind on a paranoiac trip that just needs to get some sleep, get some sleep, get some sleep, that does not fear the words the mouth will scream.

* * *

But my hair is wet still, here, and I feel the ache in my kidneys. Gyrations churn down from my temple, setting my stomach in a furor and shocking the hairs at the crux of my skull white.

As a child my hair was always damp after swimming lessons, too long and thick to dry in time to catch the bus back to school. In the winter it would break off like ice.

* * *

He has our apartment now, and he has my cat, who is nowhere in sight, my friend tells me over the phone. She thinks he might have brought him to the animal shelter.

The spare key no longer unlocks the apartment door, but she hears halting footsteps when she knocks, once in the morning and twice in the evening. The man in the apartment below tells her it has been dark for weeks, feline howls no longer punctuating late afternoons.

Even our basement cubicle has been outfitted with an additional lock, as if he rescinded my possession of everything I once owned in his rescinding of me.

All of my history was appropriated when he negated my claim to that space. Between the wooden bars, my suitcases and relics sit in a neat concrete box.

I want my furniture and my belongings: the Scandinavian design he derided and the teddy bear from my childhood. My diaries, my books.

It makes me infinitely sad to think of my possessions liberated from their environment, the way I am, and, sadder, the way I am, for it.

* * *

Margaret in her expectancy has been enlightening on the anatomy of maternity. The uterus expands, first modestly, and then to fill the whole cavity of the abdomen, pushing organs and muscle tissue aside.

Of course, the belly balloons, and it’s no surprise to anyone that this expansion is caused by a bubble filled with a baby, or a fetus, if you prefer. But I always expected it to be just that: a bubble atop business-as-usual, which is restored once the child is released into the world.

Now, I feel like a woman who is emptied of child — my insides distorted and scattered around an amorphous vacuum of loss, incapable of setting things firm and right.

I cannot imagine Margaret in this impending state, the loose disarray that will follow the birth of her child. Like an immortal celebrity, she will fastidiously set her body right through discipline and determination within the course of a month, her womb modest and rightly set below the tightness of her flat abdomen.

Since I have not been quite right I have lost control over certain bodily faculties. Continence, for one: in the shower or on the stairs. If I lost ten kilos I would be reduced to bone, but four might make me comely.

* * *

Kevin places an eye that lingers on the blue room I now occupy next to a birch wood crib, and I watch myself devolve, cower, blubber, and grow black-cheeked. I see the sharp contours distorted.

I see my face widening, pasty and cracked like a day-old bun. I see my silhouette stretched in his eyes, and once again I am amorphous, which is to say undefined, and, therefore, inarticulate: the final coup.

I remember the clenched fists and the spiked words and what’s more, the sponge politics and shower curtain censure, all the undercutting and unfaith.

We cannot undo the years and the scaffolding that we provided to each other’s lives. He is forgetting me already, diffidently undoing my possession of our furniture, of our street. But I, for one, am still afloat.

* * *

It was dark and quiet both times he asked, in those moments when words travel inches, and that future was contained in that space: dark and quiet, temporally dislocated from the continuum of days like victuals.

When they passed, what had passed as future was already past perfect, undocumented and undetailed.

My need for love and affection became his fatigue and resentment. My hurt was his anger. My need was his waning. His waning was my anger. His anger was my anger. Our anger was the end.

The waning became the unexpressed amid the expressed and inexpressible urgency of letting love grow, damn it. When we pulled towards each other we were always tearing apart and when we pulled away we were always desperately pulling back, like a Chinese finger trap. But he asked me, too, those two times.

And if this were a ship, I would not sail it through such stormy weather.

* * *

When Isabella is born, Margaret isn’t immortal and she isn’t weak.

When she looks at Isabella, her eyes are full moons. She is bundled up, stretched and thin where her daughter became in her and then became a part that left. I don’t know how to do it justice.

Right after birth Margaret is as a woman three parts through pregnancy, just thicker and more tired around the eyes. A receptionist congratulates her and asks for her due date before Kevin steps out of the elevator, holding Isabella, scarlet and compressed, in her portable car seat.

Margaret moves through the apartment now like someone sussing out a new house, cautious and slow. She makes her home on the sofa and in the rocker. Isabella puckers her mouth in sleep and fathomless dreams, while Margaret travels a long way off.

A child makes a space in your body and then draws out parts of it, the hands and the eyes. I cook soup so the house doesn’t lose its color, a color I disdain less now.

I can be useful too, but I do not belong in this family. A family needs time and space to grow.

I guess you could say her birth transformed me.

* * *

When I return to the site of my injury, nothing is changing, which is not to say nothing has progressed. Time is moving on without me. I could never afford the apartments that have doubled in rent.

I can’t help laughing in his presence. Like a jesting child, I am goofy and pleasing around him. My behavior is a certain kind of undignified performance, a coerced lightness.

He still has my towels hanging in the bathroom. I am stunned into normalcy.

When I pass my neighbor on the street, she looks startled. One day you just disappeared, she says, and asks if I am back now.

No, just for a visit, I say, and I smile because I cannot, in front of her children, say I am returning to the site of my injury. I cannot explain to her that one night, all of my tethering was gone.

* * *

It is sub-zero, and I trek back, through layers of snow and ice and wind that strip softness from my face, to the place I’m temporarily renting, an airy apartment off the street where I once shopped.

In the apartment, I write:

I think I have caught your sadness. All that is future looks tawdry.

Everything I have created becomes circumspect when I feel what I feel in your presence — small, but warm, always falling towards you, always unable not to be held.

I am frustrated, like a small child, who can speak but not always articulately, who can feel but not describe her feelings.

Everything I have created feels mundane in the light of your cooking. Everything that I live — work, home, our finances — feels small in the presence of your friends, your house, your wilderness.

I am silently howling because these things do not know that you’ve wronged me, do not know that I fell against you naked, time and again.

I remember the balcony on a November night, beautiful child, cigarette in my mouth, your slippers and coat on my rash-stricken legs, you asleep in your bed-sized room right next to me.

That first trip was the moment what became possible became actual. I could fall into whatever fate befell in you, the plane, the plane, how can I describe the other road I took.

I remember that cold, dark shell inside of love.

How can I explain everything is ahead, that I belonged wholly to that bright, foreign bed? How can I say: you let me slip into your jacket, and I was cold?

How can I say: I was twenty, it was everything, the cold bar, that city is gone, and fuck you for eating my possibility.

* * *

It’s dumb to hide from a man, to be bowled over in shame. But I see it all around me: I see everywhere the reflections, everywhere my name.

I am alone and burdened and bending, I am alone, and it lives in my bones.

You took my breath away, took away my words. All our greatest moments you orchestrated, hurtling me out of place and executing my momentum.

I was going one way, and then I was shaken, standing still and then standing in circles around you.

All my initiations you shot down, shushed or called untimely, and assumed your own.

And I, infinitely grateful you had given me love, followed you.

* * *

I search our old email archives for some bureaucratic detail: the name of our realtor. I am in a strange home drinking tea, and I know now there is no recourse, know there is nowhere more of a place for me than this.

I google the Plusquamperfekt, past perfect, and some examples.

She had played well until she was injured.

He had already been in Berlin for a month before he went to the opera.

We hadn't known anything about it until she finally explained everything.

The wolf had already eaten the grandmother before Little Red Riding-Hood came into the house.

Clearly, the grammarian in question is a native German speaker because only a German would think to hyphenate “Riding-Hood,” which in German is articulated in a single noun: Rotkäppchen.

Nonetheless, I am surprised to find that the grammatical tense I am seeking is Konjunktiv, or the imperfect conditional. I am disappointed because this has nothing on the word Plusquamperfekt.

In effect, I wanted the reality of the word to be different. I want to maintain the word, the sound and the idea of it, so exactingly and comically and beautifully German, and I want to will its reality to be different.

By progressing I might travail — and here I mean prevail — in the endeavor, and so I write it down. I am articulating a thought on the Plusquamperfekt, I am expressing possibility.

* * *

In a book I read as a child, a polar bear rubbed up against a door in the North Pole and caught a bare fir wreath around her neck. She makes the most beautiful Christmas wreath through her bullish endeavoring, and then can only loose it by rubbing her neck back up against the door where it hung.

When Santa returns, he is grateful for the wreath and the elves are amazed by the beauty of the paltry scraps they’d hung. Christmas miracles are real. But what is real is the polar bear’s distress and how humans sometimes find the work of distress lovely.

* * *

It is possible to ironize grief. I have learned that one might mistake names, but never stories.

In new places as in old, I carry our habits. There will still be years that go missing, gone astray.

* * *

The Zimtschnecken taste just like before. At the Biomarkt I buy wool socks in pairs for nine euros. The white ones with the little blue figurines have disappeared — so have my cookbooks. I will miss them for years to come, as if they were the very best things in my life, all because I cannot have them anymore.

The dingy rented room fills up with half-opened suitcases and loose contents.

Today I realize I have forgotten my slippers. Tomorrow I will run out of contact solution.

I vacillate between exuberant overconfidence and placeless defeat, because there is no home, no money.

There are no appointments, just time.

I know that I am not making myself lovable.

* * *

Then there will be an afternoon that is endlessly bright. On the lawn, for example, when I will inhale the halcyon.

I’m not bitter, just crusty. My gratitude has been boundless. I know these expanses have been opened up by loss.

There will be moments of the sublime, not just in mind or in memory, but in the world. I will be there — bark, stark, in the world.

* * *

There is a park: I inhale, exhale. Replete. I am alone, and I am capable.

I am alone and I am capable, but I have nowhere to go, nothing to be. I am abandoned of words and justifications. The scaffolding is obliterated.

I want to say that everything is possible, much is light. Vielleicht, vieles ist leicht.

There are parts of me that still yearn, like the mouth that smelled his apartment on the towel, which once was relief — like an amnesiac flexing the last of what is muscle memory.

But the part has no more claim on my identity than the particles that, through inhalation, stake a claim on physical composition.

Breathe out now, breathe out.

She had played well until she was injured. He had already been in Berlin for a month before he went to the opera. We hadn't known anything about it until she finally explained everything. The wolf had already eaten the grandmother before Little Red Riding-Hood came into the house.

You welcome me there as an old friend, in tears and a too-long embrace.

You welcome me and tell me you know who I am. A moment before, I had just forgotten.

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