Authors: Francisco Goldman
Quiéreme mucho, mi amor.
Love me a lot, my love.
No quiero morir. I don’t want to die. That may have been the last full sentence she ever spoke, maybe her very last words.
Did that sound self-exculpating? Is this the kind of statement I should prohibit myself from making? Sure, Aura’s plea and invocation of love would play well on any jury’s emotions and sympathies, but I’m not in a courtroom. I need to stand nakedly before the facts; there’s no way to fool this jury that I am facing. It all matters, and it’s all evidence.
Is this really happening, mi amor? Am I really back in Brooklyn again without you? Throughout your first year of death and now, out on the streets at night,
pounding the pavement,
up one side of the block, down the other, lingering at steamy windows looking at menus that I know by heart, what take-out food should I choose, what cheap restaurant should I eat in tonight, what bar will I stop into for a drink or two or three or five where I won’t feel so jarringly alone—but where don’t I feel jarringly alone?
The five or so years before I met Aura were the loneliest I’d ever known. The year plus months since her death were much lonelier. But what about the four years in between? Was I a different man than I was before those four years, an improved man, because of the love and happiness that I experienced? Because of what Aura gave to me? Or was I just the same old me who, for four years, was inexplicably lucky? Four years—are those too few years to hold such significance in a grown man’s life? Or can four years mean so much that they will forever outweigh all the others put together?
After she died, for the first month or so, I didn’t dream about Aura, though in Mexico City I felt her presence everywhere. Then, in the fall, when she should have been starting her classes, I had my first dream, one in which it was urgent that I buy a cell phone. In the middle of a lush green field with a silvery stream running through it, I found a wooden hut that was a cell phone store, and I went inside. I was desperate to phone Wendy, another classmate and friend of Aura’s. I wanted to ask Wendy if Aura missed me. I wanted to ask Wendy, in these exact words,
Does she miss our domestic routines?
carried the new cell phone, silvery with sapphire keys, out of the hut, into the field, toward the stream, but I couldn’t get it to work. Frustrated, I hurled the phone away.
Do you miss our domestic routines, mi amor?
Can this really be happening to us?
Degraw Street, where we lived, supposedly marks the border between Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill. Our apartment was on the Carroll Gardens side of the street, Cobble Hill on the other side. When I first moved there, about four years before I met Aura, Carroll Gardens still seemed like the classic Brooklyn Italian neighborhood, old-fashioned Italian restaurants where mobsters and politicians used to eat, lawn statues of the Virgin, old men playing bocce ball in the playground; especially on summer nights, with so many loud tough-guy types milling around, I’d always feel a little menaced walking through there. Cobble Hill was where Winston Churchill’s mother was born and still looked the part, with its landmark Episcopalian church that had a Tiffany interior, quaint carriage house mews, and park. Both neighborhoods had pretty much blended together now, overtaken mostly by prosperous young white people. 9/11 had accelerated the process—nice and quiet, family-seeming neighborhood across the Brooklyn Bridge. Now, by day, you wove through long crooked trains of baby carriages on the Court Street sidewalks, and ate lunch or went for coffee in places filled with young moms, au pairs, and an embarrassing number of writers. The Italian men’s social clubs had become hipster cocktail bars. On every street brownstones converted into apartments years ago were being renovated back into single-family homes. A few blocks away, just across the BQE is Red Hook, the harbor and port; at night you can hear ships’ foghorns, Aura loved that; with a swimmer’s little wriggle she’d nestle closer in bed and hold still, as if the long mournful blasts were about to float past us like manta rays in the dark.
This was Aura’s yoga studio; here’s the spa she’d go to for a massage when she was stressed; here was her favorite clothing
boutique, and there, her second favorite; our fish store; this is where she bought those cool eyeglasses with yellow-tinted lenses; our late-night burger and drinks place; our brunch place; “the-restaurant-we-always-fight-in”—that’s what walking these streets had become now, a silent chanting of the stations. The neighborhood has an abundance of Italian pizza parlors and brick-oven places, and a single small antiseptic Domino’s Pizza on the corner of Smith and Bergen, by the subway exit, its customers mostly residents of the Hoyt Street housing projects and black and Latino teenagers from a nearby high school. One night we were coming home late from drinking with friends when, without saying anything, Aura darted through the Domino’s glass doors and stood at the counter no more than a minute, I swear, before she came back out with a giant pizza box in her hands and a look-what-I-just-won grin. All the upscale pizza places were closed by that hour, but I bet at that moment none could have satisfied Aura’s hungry impulse like Domino’s. Where she grew up in Mexico City, amid the residential complexes of the city’s south, every evening an army of helmeted delivery boys on motorbikes, thousands upon thousands, buzzed and zoomed like bees through the clogged expressways and streets, speeding fast food pizza to the apartments and families of working and single mothers like Aura’s. Now I never walk past that Domino’s without seeing her coming out the door with the pizza and that smile.
The long-defunct mud-hued Catholic church across the street from our apartment was being converted into a condo building (the developers, Orthodox Jews, and the work crew, Mexican); Aura would have been happy about the new Trader Joe’s down at Atlantic and Court; on Smith Street, the taco place we were going to open with Zoila opened but Zoila’s boutique closed last year and I still don’t know where she’s gone to. Around the corner is the grungy but popular Wi-Fi café that Aura often liked to study and work in when she wasn’t up at Columbia. She found it easier to concentrate there than at home. No me bugging her for attention or sex or noisily typing away in the next room, no mother phoning from Mexico. I’d come in and see her sitting at one of the tables against
the brick wall, half-eaten bagel atop its wax-paper bag, mug of coffee, hair pushed back by a barrette or a red band or tied back to keep it out of her face as she leaned over her laptop, headphones on, that determined, locked-in look, lightly biting her lower lip, and I’d stand and watch her or pretend I’d never seen her before and wait for her to lift her eyes and see me. I used to come to this café to work, too. She didn’t mind. We’d share a table, have lunch or split a bagel or a cookie. Now I only come in for morning take-out coffee. Waiting in the inevitable line, I stare at the row of tables, the long blue bench against the wall, strangers sitting there with their computers.
I hadn’t thrown away or moved out any of Aura’s clothes, they were still in her chest of drawers and in the walk-in closet. Her cold weather coats and jackets, including the down one, hung from a peg by the front door. At least once a day I’d open a drawer and hold a pile of her clothes to my nose, frustrated that they smelled more of the drawer’s wood than of Aura, and sometimes I emptied out a drawer on the bed and lay facedown in her clothes. I knew that eventually I should give these things away—her clothes, at least—that there was somebody out there who could not afford a down coat and whose life would be made more bearable by it, maybe even saved. I pictured an illegal immigrant woman or girl in some brutally cold place, a meatpacking plant town in Wisconsin, a Chicago tenement without heat. But I wasn’t ready to let go of anything. It wasn’t even an argument I had with myself—though I did discuss it with some of Aura’s friends. At first they had seemed fixated on the idea that, for my own good, I needed to get rid of some of her things. Nobody suggested I had to get rid of everything. Why couldn’t I do it a little at a time, donate some of her coats to the city’s winter coat drive, for starters? In the end, of course, I should keep a few special things, such as her wedding dress, “to remember her by.” During those first months, I drifted away from most of my male friends and shut myself off from my family—my mother and siblings—and only wanted to be around
women: Aura’s friends but also a few women I’d been close to since long before Aura.
With the exception of the table that I wrote at in the corner of the middle room—the one between the kitchen and the parlor room where we slept—and some of the old bookshelves, Aura and I had slowly gotten rid of and replaced all the furniture from my slovenly bachelor years. It frustrated Aura that we hadn’t moved into a new apartment, free of traces and reminders of my past without her, a place she could make wholly ours, though she did completely transform the apartment we had. Sometimes I’d come home and find her pushing even the heaviest furniture around, changing the crowded layout in a way that had never occurred to me or even seemed possible, as if the apartment were some kind of complicated puzzle that could only be solved by pushing furniture around and that she’d become obsessed with, or else maybe it could never be solved, but she always made the place look better.
The last piece of furniture we bought, at a secondhand store about five blocks away, was a fifties-style kitchen table, its inlaid Formica top patterned in cerulean blue and pearly white, cheery as a child’s painting of a sunny sky and clouds. In the kitchen, also, was the evergreen-painted kitchen hutch that we’d bought at an antique store in a small rural town in the Catskills during a weekend when we were visiting Valentina and Jim at their country house; about two months after we bought it, the store’s exasperated owner phoned—it wasn’t her first call—to tell us that if we didn’t come for the hutch soon, she’d put it up for sale again, no money back. That kitchen hutch was no bargain. Farmhouse hutches of just that kind could be found for the same price in our neighborhood antique stores and on Atlantic Avenue. But we rented an SUV in Brooklyn to go and fetch ours, and spent the weekend at a sort of Italian-American hunting lodge, a Plexiglas Jacuzzi with shiny brass fixtures and an artificial gas fireplace in our cabin, where we holed up with books, wine, a football game on TV with the sound off, laughing
our heads off when we tried to fuck in the ridiculous Jacuzzi, and whenever we were hungry we’d go into the restaurant, which was decorated with several generations’ worth of autographed photos of New York Yankees, to dig back into the perpetual all-you-can-eat buffet, spaghetti with giant meatballs, sausage lasagna, and the like. In the end, that hutch ended up costing us about four times what we would have paid to buy one in Brooklyn.
In our kitchen, along with the hutch, were all our other culinary things—utensils, pots and pans—mostly untouched since last touched by Aura. Her Hello Kitty toaster that branded every piece of toast with the Hello Kitty logo—I did still use that toaster, smiling away at Aura’s girly nerdiness whenever I spread butter over the kitty face. The Cuisinart ice-cream maker Aura bought just so that she could make dulce de leche ice cream for her birthday party when she turned thirty, the ice-cream maker’s metallic freezing cylinder still sitting in the freezer. The long dining table from ABC Carpet and Home that we paid for with wedding gift money, and that with its extensions at both ends provided enough space for the twenty-plus friends who came to that party, sitting jammed in around it. We made cochinita pibil, soft pork oozing citrus-and-achiote spiced juices inside a wrapping of banana leaves roasted parchment dry, and rajas con crema, and arroz verde, and Valentina came early and prepared her meatballs in chipotle sauce in our kitchen, and there was a gorgeously garish birthday cake from a Mexican bakery in Sunset Park—white, orange, and pink frosting, fruit slices in a glazed ring on top—served with Aura’s ice cream. Her birthday present that year was two long rustic benches for seating at the table. She wanted us to have lots of dinner parties.
It isn’t true that to be happy in New York City you have to be rich. I’m not saying that another twenty, thirty, fifty grand a year wouldn’t have improved our circumstances and maybe made us even happier. But few people who’d known me or Aura before we got together would have guessed either of us had any talent for domestic life.
Aura’s three simultaneous scholarships added up to a startling salary, for a full-time student anyway. As I never asked her to pay rent, or for much of anything else, she’d had money to spend and to save. She’d wanted to use her savings to help us buy a house or an apartment one day, if I ever managed to save enough money of my own, which I was determined to do. When I finally went and closed Aura’s account, I was astonished at how much was there. Now I was pretty much living off those savings, money from the scholarships but also what she’d been saving since her adolescence. I’d already used up the insurance reimbursement money that was meant to pay off the credit cards I’d used for Aura’s medical, hospital, and ambulance bills in Mexico. I’d paid only about half of those charges, digging myself still deeper into debt. So I was in debt. And so what? Because I had only a part-time position in the English department at the small Connecticut college where I was teaching, I hadn’t been entitled to paid bereavement leave. But I couldn’t bear to teach that semester after Aura’s death, so I’d resigned. I knew that soon I would have to get a job. What kind of job? No idea. But I couldn’t see myself teaching again. I had my reasons. The enthusiasm and willed energy of a committed performer that somebody like me, not a trained literary scholar, is going to need to hold the attention of a classroom of easily bored twenty-year-olds, that was gone. In love with Aura, married, unabashedly happy, I’d been a good and entertaining literature clown.
The plants Aura had kept out on the fire escape had been dead since last winter and were now just plastic and clay pots filled with dirt and plant rubble, gray stems, and crinkly leaves. But her plastic folding chair was still out there, dirty-urban-weather-streaked but otherwise untouched by any human since the last time she sat in it, along with the glass ashtray at its foot, washed out by more than a year of rain. Sometimes squirrels jumped onto the seat from the fire escape’s railing, drank from the rain or melted snow pooled in its slight concavity. In nice weather Aura liked to sit out there on
the fire escape, in that little rusted cage, feet propped on the stairs leading to the landing above, surrounded by her plants, reading, writing on her laptop, smoking a little. She wasn’t a heavy smoker. Some days she’d smoke a few cigarettes; other days, none. Occasionally, she smoked pot, usually when someone at school gave her some. I still had her last, almost empty, bag of pot in the drawer of our kitchen hutch. To Aura it was as if the fire escape was no less a garden than our downstairs neighbors’ actual backyard garden that she sat perched above. I’d tease her that she was like Kramer from the
show who did things like that, celebrating the Fourth of July by setting a lawn chair in front of his apartment door, pretending the hallway was a backyard in the suburbs, and sitting there with beer, cigar, and a hot dog.