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I am Hazel Saltwater, daughter of Erwin and Sarah Saltwater, a citizen of the borough of Manhattan, proprietor, researcher, part-time recluse, widow, fury, known to the waiters at Wavy Grain Bistro (formerly the Cosmic Diner) as Ms. Patel, known to the co-op board at the Apelles as a compliant and reliable neighbor, among resident children of same known to be a Halloween enthusiast, known to my dry cleaner Tio as a generous December tipper, to my acquaintances a person of pleasant demeanor, to my lenders an exemplary credit risk, to my friends a mystic, a crazy woman, an apopheniac, a rationalist, an open wound.
It is a gray morning. The men working on the building across the street have arrived with their coffee in paper cups and egg sandwiches wrapped in foil. They’ve staked out the stoop, draping themselves variously over the railing, across the steps, boots on balustrades, shooting the shit, their voices pinwheeling like kids in a schoolyard. The contractor’s big Ford pickup, outfitted with racks and rails, drooping lengths of PVC pipe, assorted proofs of masculinity and patriotism affixed to the window, idles at the curb. They’re in and out. The doors squeak open, slam shut. It is 31.7 degrees Fahrenheit according to the website upon which I rely for semi-accurate readings, a hub formerly owned and operated by the University of Michigan and in accordance with the rules of academio-subversive nomenclature dubbed the Weather Underground back in the dork days of Telnet. The site was later purchased by the Weather Channel, an acquisition that precipitated the degradation of the Underground’s predictive qualities. These days storms blow in without warning, prophesied rain never falls, it’s hot when it’s supposed to be cold, snowing when it’s supposed to be hailing, tsunamis never show, hurricanes lose focus and drift out to sea. My handheld device, which came preset to display the Edenic atmospheric conditions over the city-state of Cupertino, the Holy See of our sparkling new aluminum universe, is equally worthless at making predictions. However, though it’s as useless as a crystal ball, the Underground is invaluable for historical readings.
I am alone, and the first to admit that I have not handled well the loss of my husband. I haunt the internet, as do we all, though perhaps I leave behind, pixelated, more of myself than most. Occasionally I chat with strangers on sites where I expose my body to the blue light of the screen, the empty cyclopean eye that so coolly observes whatever I can throw at it. The chats take a familiar, comforting route, along the lines of, Hey bb. Hey bb. Show tits? And I do. I am aware of government and extra-governmental surveillance, the great electronic blanket that shields and suffocates, and I do like to imagine an NSA agent on his or her break scrolling over to my feed and, while popping peanuts somewhere deep within the recesses of that shiny black rectangle in Maryland, possibly flipping through NBA trade rumors on a handheld, one eye on the monitor, one on Kevin Durant’s latest tweet, lingering just for a moment, just to see how far I’ll go. The thought strikes me like a depth charge. Here’s how far I’ll go. How about this? And this? Do you see this?
In the years after my husband’s disappearance, I froze up a little. I wouldn’t say I’ve ossified. I don’t leave the building much, though I’m not, strictly speaking, afraid of anything outside, not the way my father was. This is the same apartment where I grew up, which might be a signal that even before Vikram disappeared I was a creature of habit. New York, so fanatically public, is the world’s best place to hide. If I so choose, I may live unseen. But that’s not what twists my lemon. I want to be seen, to be observed, but without the knowledge that I am being observed. Like the lady said, I want to be alone. By which I’m pretty sure she meant, Think of Me Always.
Anonymous friend, please watch and see how far I’ll go.
Vik’s specialty was the assessment of undervalued companies. They called him Old Mother Hubbard, the lax bros and big swinging dicks who staffed his firm. He was the worrier, the detail-sweater, a man of the people who could be trusted to come back from the factory break room with the real story. He traveled a lot. He traveled so that he could sit in a sawdust-floor bar with the drill press operator, or the warehouse associate, or the Logistics Tech II who, after a few drinks, after Vik had listened more patiently to their catalogue of complaints than anyone had listened in their life, might begin to feel that maybe Vik wasn’t just some asshole vampire from New York who’d come to suck the life out of the factory that put food on his family’s table, but that this guy might actually be sympathetic to the plight of the workingman. Maybe he’d flown all that way because he wanted to do right by them.
They weren’t wrong for thinking such a thing. Vik had a soul. He was an avid conversationalist. And if he determined, after a period of information collection, that a distressed company might be made more profitable, his firm would purchase it and set to restructuring. Big deal, so management took a haircut. No one needed to worry about those guys. They parachuted into new Aeron chairs in new offices at new companies without putting so much as a single wrinkle in their khakis. My husband’s firm was not a buy-and-burn operation. And they did fine, just fine. They did fine, I should say, until the day they were obliterated, every last one of them.
Thus, by the grace of my husband’s good worry, I was allowed to remain on the island of my birth, in the only home I’ve ever known. I was two months out of Amherst, living in my childhood bedroom, when Vikram hired me as an analyst. He was seven years older than I. We were connected by a long history, though we didn’t know each other very well. At first our ages served as a natural barrier. We were formal, respectfully awkward. I told myself he was no different than his colleagues. Nice suits, tall collars, Breitlings, wallets fat as hamburgers parked on their desks lest their spines go crooked from twelve-hour days on misaligned hips. Strange men. Men of practiced masculinity, no subtlety, all of them silently yearning for a lost boyhood. I told myself I had no interest in a man who’d chosen such a life for himself. I told myself I was disappointed in how he’d turned out. We were married three years later.
Vik looked good in a convertible. He looked good in shorts and sunglasses, no shirt, hair blown back. He looked good at the console of Bo Vornado’s old Boston Whaler, which he’d scored at a sweet discount. Bo had tried to recruit him when he was twenty-five. The boat had been part of the mating dance. Bo had an eye for talent, but it never would have worked, which Vik recognized long before Bo did. Bo liked to hit the jugular with his fangs out. My husband was a gentleman. He met your eye and listened. He might touch your shoulder on parting. A spy, not a hairy forearm-to-the-face type. On a flight to Tulsa he could talk crop rotation with the Aggie on his right, then turn and talk shoelace production with the Sooner on his left. Mostly he listened, and for his patience he’d been rewarded with a mind that was a warehouse of the arcane. What good does a working knowledge of the lacing patterns attractive to the suburban Caucasian male American 13–17 demo do you? None until you need to assess the financial viability of Oklahoma’s last shoelace factory. That kind face, which was absent the menace that men manufacture to scare away the other dogs—it put people at ease. He had brown eyes, elegant bovine eyelashes.
When he traveled for work, I often wished his plane would go down. This was after we were married. I was still in my twenties and hadn’t yet developed the competencies that I assume would have allowed me to navigate a long marriage. I didn’t know why I wanted him to die. I only knew that I wanted a blank slate. I was getting a bead on it all when he disappeared. He could do a great French accent. He could roll bastard around in his mouth and I’d be in agony. I loved him and I wished he would vanish and he did.
After he disappeared, I told the counselor that I’d often wished he would die in a plane crash. She said I’d felt abandoned. She said I was angry at him for traveling. I said that a plane crash was cheaper than a divorce. Ha. You’re essentially a solitary person, she said, and I said, Yes, that’s true. She said, Do you feel guilty now for wishing that he would die in that manner? No, I said. It was just a fantasy, I said, an escape fantasy, and I knew that much even then. Okay, the counselor said. That’s probably what I would have told you. It’s a normal fantasy. You know, parents sometimes wish their children would be abducted. Well-adjusted, normal, decent people. Fleeting thoughts, the counselor said, but worth examining. I can imagine, I said. Sometimes, she said, as a reaction to overwhelming life events—the unpredictable nature of love, for instance—our psyches create scenarios that allow us to relieve the pressure. Sometimes that’s all we need, a stress valve. If you sometimes feel relief that he’s gone, that’s normal. It’s fine to feel that way. As valid as any other emotion. Do you ever feel that way?
Relieved? I said.
Yes, relieved, she said.
My counselor was named Lana and she was terrible.
* * *
Surely he’s easier to love retrospectively. Would we have stayed married if he hadn’t disappeared? Doesn’t matter. Do I still love him only because he’s gone? Doesn’t matter. Is his existence within me a form of love? Doesn’t matter. I’m well trained in the analysis of markets, art, literature, and I’m capable of accurately extracting motivations, intentions, and presuppositions from a wide range of people, and none of that matters, either. It’s all mechanics, gears and grease; the only thing that matters is the feeling itself. The how of feelings—even the why of them—is a distraction, a game for college kids reading Descartes, something for a neuroscientist to build a career on.
The ability to experience an emotion without labeling it—that’s what I’m talking about. I know it’s not cool to say this, but Vik is a living, breathing thing within my every feeling and my every action, and while I recognize that (as I have been told by a number of counselors) I do not have to allow loss to define me, I believe the righteous path is one of memorialization. Of course, I have some experience serving as a vessel for memories of the dead, and perhaps that has influenced my feelings on the matter. Perhaps I’ve chosen the comfort of the familiar.
Copyright © 2021 by Jack Livings