Our feet are warm. Our faces shine. The room is getting dark, the night coming a little sooner these days. Should I turn on a lamp? Then the prospect of dinner changes our placement toward that dark. The chicken stew on the trivet. The moist leaves in the hard black bowl. The macaroni and cheese still bubbling, although it’s long been out of the oven. For a moment, we’re no longer eight years into the new century, in Philadelphia, in a loft apartment that’s too big for us, but inside a cave, a tight, sweet space. We give our joints and muscles over to the heat of it, the spell, the hearth at the center of things. Our gestures say, we’re here for you, time. We’re all right with you. We’re not straining against your grasp. No concerns about the side effects of the latest round of chemo earlier in the day. No cheering on the small miracle of the meal, the first meal she’s cooked since July’s diagnosis. No anxieties about the election, the results of which will crackle across the country, throughout the world. No steroids, no PET scans, no CAT scans, no ports, no hoods, no wigs, no hair coming out in wads—none of it. We are the four points of the clock: her mother at three, her sister at six, me at nine, Denise at midnight. See how we hold that clock in place? Nothing but us now, one breath, one body in the room. This table, this bread, these forks lifting again and again to our mouths.
But in the world of Denise, stillness is death. If illness weren’t ragging her brain, she’d be driving to Chester County later tonight, to the apartment of the lunatic golfer with whom she’s had the best sex. Or she’d be steaming through Fairmount Park on in-line skates, or laughing with a friend, or arguing with that same friend—any opportunity to slam up against the unexpected. Abruptness, collision, anything to wrench her awake. As if she needs to be wrenched awake. For God’s sake, she has more electricity in her than the train yard on the other side of the river. The freight cars bang, startling us, with all the suddenness of thunder. Or is that really thunder, a storm coming toward us from the west side of the city?
She gets up from the table. She walks to the kitchen, brings back a second loaf of bread, sits down. She looks happy tonight. She props up her chin, looks at us with a satisfied gaze with melancholy in it. Still, it cannot be so easy to see the two sides in her—the writing side, the family side—embodied in the group of people she loves, sitting across the table in peace. Complete peace. They’re not supposed to live in peace! How would she get any writing done if all she had were peace? No mother to say, can’t you write another story? I don’t know about this one: Where is the happiness? Must everything end that way? Of course all Denise wants is peace, because she never gets any. There’s always someone to call on her, need her, in the middle of the night. Think: animals scrabbling the bark of a tree. Does she ever get to sleep?
The flames shudder on the candlesticks. The TV harangues from the living room. We’re talking about the election again, our terror, the disaster of the last eight years. The relief is that we’re all on the same side. We couldn’t have sat together if we weren’t on the same side—at least on this night. Imagine the strained politeness of the conversation, the frozen hole at the center of our talk.
Somewhere, I imagine, maybe in Bucks County, maybe just two floors above our heads, a white man sits in front of a TV. He twists the bath towel in his hands. He can’t give his mind over to the fact that the black man might win. If the black man does win, this man will rise up tonight. He’ll walk down the street. He’ll push another black man who’s coming toward him with a bottle in his hands. (Just like a black man to be coming down the street with a bottle. Jesus Christ. Wipe that smile off your face, he’ll say, trying to knock him off his feet.) While two streets away two college students will throw open their windows. They’ll bang pots and pans, cry up at the stars, no sense that there’s anything but joy in the world tonight.
Some of their joy is filling up the apartment right now. It’s not pleasure or delight but tougher than that, more encompassing, more dire. Is it just the news, the stirred-up molecules in the air? Or is it still the hearth of us, the memory of those twenty minutes on the couch earlier today? Her mother and her sister not yet in from Mullica Hill and Mount Laurel, and Denise needing to rest up for the night. “Could I put my feet up on your lap?” she said. “Well, sure,” I said, shyer than I expected. She swung her head to the armrest. A book in my hand, her legs over my legs: how light the weight of her. She went right under, the sounds of her breathing calming the room. Funny that it took us twenty-six years and cancer to get here. Ease with one another’s bodies. It doesn’t matter anymore that she’s straight and I’m not. See how we’ve been a little bit in love all this time, and not able to say it? But that’s the story of any friendship that lasts this long. All those hours on the phone, in restaurants, in classrooms, or at the dog park—after all that, you couldn’t not be in a little bit of love.
Now she looks at the bookshelves, the paintings on the walls. Maybe it no longer seems like the place she had to settle for after giving up the apartment of her dreams. Two weeks in that apartment—two weeks! All because it was five flights up, stairs, stairs, and more stairs. And what of that day she had to sit on the second landing, weeping, waiting for someone to carry her to the fifth floor because she didn’t have the energy? Nothing was worse than that. At least she has her elevator now. Life on a single floor, with a decent washer and dryer, just in case she shits those new, expensive jeans. Her family is here; I am here. So what if her hair comes in puffy, white, and dry, if the chemo’s clouded her magnificent eyes, if her cat’s gotten radiation sickness from curling up on her still-taut stomach. She lifts her chin. She starts dancing. Not a timid dancing, but a life-large, goofy, it’s-great-to-be-in-my-skin dancing.
“Stop,” her mother begs, as if it hurts for her to watch. “Stop! Please! Denise!”
But her mother should know better. Denise only dances harder.
That’s the story of any friendship that lasts this long. All those hours on the phone, in restaurants, in classrooms, or at the dog park—after all that, you couldn’t not be in a little bit of love.
Eruption. I look up the word and assemble as many definitions as I can find. There’s a strange comfort that comes from making a list, a collection. Eruption as disease. Eruption as outburst in a crowd, on a street. Eruption as volcano. Every day in the world a volcano goes up. Just today, January 5, 2010, two volcanoes have erupted: the first in Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, the other, Turrialba, in Costa Rica. Both mountains are far from towns and coffee plantations and are thus of little interest to the news machine.
But the volcano that snags my attention is Mount Saint Helens, the first to go off in an industrialized country, in a major population zone. I put off the writing I’ve promised myself I’ll do this morning by wasting time on YouTube, mesmerized by footage of the 1980 explosion. The footage isn’t actual; it’s built of single images in the manner of an old-fashioned cartoon. What startles me is the clarity of the lava. The lava slides down the mountainside in a silvery wash, with the translucence of saliva, pre-come, tears. It takes down a side of the mountain with it. It takes down birches, buildings, cabins. It buries tractors, mailboxes, mule deer—though you can’t see any of that from here. I refuse to say the earth is reflecting my feelings; the story of perception is more complicated than that. But the earth is certainly having some trouble about itself, and I play the video over and over, until I feel both better and a little sick with it.
I scroll through the comments on YouTube, all of which are written with the calm precision of people who know what they’re talking about. It’s a wonder that these comments still appear with regular frequency, as if the mountain went off just two years ago, not thirty, and the people are still hearing the grit on their windshields, spitting ashes from their mouths.
—I was finishing at Detroit Lake when at about 8:30 I heard a sound that closely resembled heavy naval ordnance at sea. I had no idea Mt. St. Helens let go at that time. This might have been a distance close to two hundred miles.
—I was a little kid in Victoria when this volcano erupted. Crazy. It sounded like thunder with too much sharpness. Then later the ash.
A few clicks later, a photographer’s website:
—As the smoke rose in the sky, the wind picked up. Specks of pumice were lifted like sandpaper grit, smashing into the few obstacles on the surface sparse landscape. There was little chance to escape the constant bombardment.
—Spirit Lake was inundated with fallen trees and volcanic debris. The fallen forest still floats on the surface of the lake.
I look up from my computer and two hours have passed. What about the book I’m trying to write, the book that wants to bring back my friend?
I scrawl a little math on the back of an envelope. Today Denise has been gone four months, two weeks.
Her eyes: playful, wry, soulful.
Her charisma, her wattage. A movie star.
Her old plea, the old accusation, “Nobody loves me.” Or worse: “You don’t love me.” And her joy on her face when I shut my eyes, or gave her that look that said, I’ve had all I can take of you.
Her quickness to laugh, the laugh that came from deep in the body. Part silly, part womanly.
Her cup of scalding hot coffee, held with both hands, close to the collarbone and throat, even if it was 97 degrees outside.
Her toned olive arms.
Her monkey feet.
Her ability to walk into any room and warm the atmosphere. A ray of energy moving right into you.
It’s the third afternoon of the summer writers’ conference. I’ve loosened up enough to admit that I dislike the room they’ve given M and me. There’s no sunlight, and for several hours every afternoon, the family next door turns on the TV as the kids run in and out through the orange trees out back, shrieking. It feels transgressive to say, I don’t like this place, I don’t like this muggy, dark room, as this gig is especially prestigious. I might be violating some pact between us about making the best of our lot. Am I complaining? A look of confusion registers in M’s blue eyes and then it’s gone.
M yawns and stretches, sitting up from his nap. M is a poet, six years older than I am. We’ve been in each other’s lives for nineteen years now, four as friends, fifteen as lovers. I’ve travelled with him to readings and conferences, where every so often I’m asked to read and teach too. It’s not always easy to be away from home so much, to stay open and friendly to strangers when I’m feeling tired and shy and not terribly strong, but I love this life. I’m so much inside my life with M that it’s hard for me to see it, name it. As much as I pretend to, I don’t even mind the psychic challenge of it—this morning it was the administrator who laughed derisively at my name as she admitted to misspelling it on a poster. It is enough to be with M, really. To watch him reading a book, his brow intent, enmeshed in thought, beautiful thought. Clear eyes moving from left margin to right. A smile breaking light into his face. I am safe, fully myself in his presence, and that’s not anything I’ve ever felt in my blood before.
In a little bit, all nine members of the faculty will meet at the drive-in, a much-loved place in town that hasn’t been renovated since the 1960s. Picnic tables, burgers, french fries in paper boats, grass, flowers, and those remarkable California bluebirds flying from tree to tree to tree.
But before I change into my shorts, I check my e-mail. Among the three new messages, an unexpected name.
Denise Gess asked me to write to you. Last week Denise was taken to the hospital she is at Penn Presbyterian at 39th & Market. I’m very sorry to tell you, she has been diagnosed with cancer, she is in room 565 the room’s phone is not connected Denise is using her cell phone.
My heart should be beating, but it is not beating.
I try to take in the palms outside the window, but they blur. The lawn, absurdly trimmed, hosts the brother and sister next door. They run before our windows, throwing a mottled orange at each other’s backs.
I read the message again. I tell M. I lie down for a minute, talk to M again. He rubs his eyes; he’s still a little foggy, still waking up from his nap. I read it one more time, get up, put on my shorts.
I believe it will help to brush my teeth. I squeeze the tube too hard onto the brush, but more of it ends up on my hands and sleeve than on the bristles. I glance up at my face in the mirror. If the news were serious, I’d have heard from Denise’s brother, her sister, her daughter Austen by now. Doris Granito? Denise can’t stand Doris Granito, the woman who lives down the hall from her, the woman who tries to act like her, dress like her, talk like her, only to get it all wrong. The woman who has the same initials, who believes that this is a sure sign that they’re sisters, lovers.
Toothpaste bubbles at the corners of my mouth.
Doesn’t Doris know Denise? Denise is a burning torch, Denise is a firestorm. Denise has already beaten cancer, colon cancer, six years ago. Cancer is a fucking joke in the face of Denise.
I take another look at the e-mail. I shake my head at her delivery, which seems simultaneously cranked up and dead. In days Denise and I will probably be rolling our eyes and sighing about the tone of this note. Poor Doris, we’ll say; her whole life has been streaming toward this moment. Anything to be at the center. But that’s the thing about Denise. The people she’s hardest on are the people she thinks about the most. And maybe that’s why people like Doris throng to Denise. For who else but Denise ever looked to Doris with such light in her face?
A half hour later I’m laughing with the others at the picnic table. The night is sweet, windless. There’s a smell of lawn clippings and wet mulch. It astonishes me that I can turn off the disaster and listen to my friends. Claudia and Nick are discussing bewilderment as an aesthetic, what it might mean to how poems get made. They’re having a hard time of it: how does one talk about the ineffable? In another life I would have used this window to talk about my bewilderment, the news that came to me an hour ago, and my worry would have been the subject of our night. But not tonight. We need this night. We need to pass Nick and Lili’s baby back and forth, not just for the weight of her—feel her between our hands, lighter than a large bag of sugar—but for the wonder of looking into another face. Isn’t that why people lean toward babies and dogs, after all? We want to look into a face that isn’t going to judge, dismiss, or hurt us, but one that looks back at us with amusement. A face that makes us wide awake.
The night is sweet, windless. There’s a smell of lawn clippings and wet mulch. It astonishes me that I can turn off the disaster and listen to my friends.
Maeve moves from one set of arms to the next. She smiles, reaching toward us with a hand no wider than two of my fingertips together. She squeezes my fingers hard, as if to say, Look! Beware! Maeve is strong!
Across the country Denise tries to be perfectly still as the technician pulls the hood down over her eyes. She can’t see him, or anybody. It is blank behind the mask. Footsteps out of the room. A buzzing in her ears, which doesn’t stop. How can she be Denise if she can’t use her face to say, Yes, you are here, you matter to me?
“Volcano” excerpted from The Narrow Door by Paul Lisicky, published in January 2016. Copyright © 2016 by Paul Lisicky. Printed with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, graywolfpress.org.
Illustration by Katie Prince