It sounded like two small rocks being lofted at my window. A quick ping, then an anemic thunk. Maybe a pigeon was resting on the air conditioner and had bumped against the glass, hefting itself into uneasy flight. It was too dark to tell, and I wasn’t interested enough to investigate. I placed a kettle of water on the stove, switched on the gas, and listened to its rapid click-click-click until a blue flame bloomed.
The tapping outside grew louder and more persistent, and by the fifth or sixth thud, I stepped towards the window, pressed my nose against the glass, and tried to make out the figure on the shadowy street three stories down. I couldn’t see much beyond my hollow reflection.
Across the entire city, not to mention eight states, the power had abruptly gone out in the middle of the afternoon. Like most other New Yorkers, I lit some tea lights, normally reserved for romantic evenings, and prepared to tough out the inconveniences with the hope of maybe seeing stars at night. More than a few people would spend the night alone, closed up in stuffy apartments whose windows were blocked by useless air-conditioners.
Most shouting men sound alike. The voice hollering my name from the street was hard to identify, but the tone was unmistakably Mark’s—exasperated, but bent on sounding authoritative. When we were dating, his confrontational style was constantly pitted against my passive aggressiveness. “Anthony! For Christ’s sake!” was a favorite expression. The inflection fell on a different letter or syllable each time, but the indignation, the frustration, and the fact that the fighting was still its own special kind of foreplay were all there, even three stories below.
The hair on my neck bristled, and without thinking, I rapped on the glass. “I’m coming!” I yelled, realizing he wouldn’t hear me, but hoping he wouldn’t fume off down the block. He had a habit of running away.
We liked to think of it as an amicable breakup. We pledged to remain friends, but once we had sorted out the tedious ex-lover logistics, like returning the collection of vinyl records he never listened to and the pile of almost outdated sweaters he stowed in our closet, he only stayed in touch when he felt like it, which wasn’t often. The awkward phase had ended, nominally evidenced by the fact that we were fighting less and straining to act cordial. Still, I was pissed that I received the perfunctory phone call only at his convenience. Or when he needed a favor.
For a moment, I forgot the lights were out, and the dark hallway took me by surprise. I gripped the handrail and hugged my hip against the side, trying not to stumble on the crumbling rubber grippers on each step. It occurred to me I should have brought along a candle to greet Mark at the front door, but that would have been too Gothic, too romantic. Going back into the apartment and fishing for a flashlight would have taken too much time, and Mark might have fled by then. I finally reached the door, where a sliver of dusky blue light crept under the sill, and found the knob with little trouble.
Mark stood there, slightly frazzled, just as he always was. He liked to seem frazzled. Arms akimbo, dyed-black hair lazily smoothed back, eyes drooping, and a horrendously wrinkled shirt halfway unbuttoned. And freshly plucked eyebrows. He looked exhausted and sexy. I joined him on the sidewalk for the last few minutes of daylight.
“The city’s gone to hell,” he announced, tossing his arms around me with more than a little indifference. “Thousands of people walking up Broadway and yelling at cars that are honking back at them. People selling bottles of water for five dollars.” He sighed. “We come together in time of crisis,” he said in a bad British accent that he reserved for mocking people or things he didn’t like. He knew I always found it annoying.
“You’re all sweaty,” I said.
“Yeah, it’s hot out. You’re sweaty, too.”
“The air-conditioner isn’t working. Without the power.”
“Right.” He wiped his face with one sleeve and mopped the sweat on his back with his shirttails. I understood why he looked even more disheveled than usual. “What time is it?”
“Eight o’clock,” I answered. “Where’s your watch?”
“Doesn’t work. Dead battery, I guess.”
He hated fixing things.
“When the lights went out, everyone left my office and joined the rest of the idiots on the street. I hung out in the park for a while, and three miles later, here I am downtown,” Mark said.
“You want to come in?”
“That’s why I was throwing bits of mulch at your window. Buzzer wasn’t working.” He let out a throaty snicker or a grumble—I couldn’t see his face and couldn’t tell which. He started to walk down the dark hallway, his steps confident and steady. “Can I hang out here? I can’t head back to Brooklyn right now.”
“Buses aren’t running?”
“No one can get on the buses because they’re so packed, and the buses can’t go anywhere because the roads are full of people.”
“Sorry, I haven’t been over to Broadway. I was just asking.”
“I can find someplace else.”
“No, stay,” I said.
“If you don’t mind. Let’s go inside.”
I heard his foot smack down on the first step. Many times before, we had held onto each other going up these stairs. When he first came up to my place on our third date, he grabbed my ass as we reached the landing, and slipped his hand into mine up the last few steps. On other nights, after three too many martinis, we would hang onto each other out of hazy romance and necessity and slog up the stairs, collapsing into a jumble of limbs, sweaty clothes, and gin-tinged breath. And ten months after we met, we hauled a truckload full of his stuff up those stairs when he moved in with me.
In the dark, the stairwell felt oddly romantic. It was something we should have tried when we were still together—turning off all the lights and holding onto each other all the way up the stairwell. But we had missed our chance, and now I just swatted my arm out, trying to find his body in the dark. If he could have seen me, I probably would have looked like a child flailing his arms, running after his unaware, older brother for protection from something that wasn’t dangerous at all.
“What’s taking you so long?” he asked, trying to sound like he was kidding.
“Chill out. You in a hurry?” I tried to sound like I was kidding, too.
He bounded up the steps two at a time and stomped down the hall, each clack of his heels echoing sharply. I was more cautious, taking each step one at a time, and he beat me to the door. Usually when Mark grew impatient, he picked at his nails, rustled his hair, or jingled the change in his pocket. Only when his irritation peaked at a level that even nervous ticks couldn’t soothe did he cease all movement.
“Welcome,” I said, bumping the door open with my hip. The teakettle was sputtering a breathy, uneven whistle. I walked slowly, for fear of stepping on the pile of magazines or dirty laundry I hadn’t picked up.
“You shouldn’t leave candles burning.” Mark eyed the teapot. “Or the stove on, for that matter.”
“I was just going down to get you.” I tossed my keys on the coffee table. A loud clank.
He put up his hands in surrender. “I just got here—let’s not start this,” he said.
“Start what?” I asked. The candlelight made his knitted brow, his squinted eyes, and tightly-drawn lips look even more exaggerated. It probably had the same effect on me, too.
I snapped the knob on the stove to the left and extinguished the flame. The whistle quickly died, sliding down a brief cartoonish scale. I imitated it for a cheap laugh or at least a smirk, but got neither.
“I put the water on for tea. Want some?”
“It’s too hot.”
“You hungry?” I asked, pretending we hadn’t even started to bicker.
“I haven’t eaten since a lunch meeting this afternoon. Early this afternoon.”
“We’ve probably got only an hour until everything in the fridge goes bad.” I started pulling out chicken breasts, tomatoes, half a lemon, yogurt, and rosemary, though I figured the herbs would probably be okay for a while. Everything smelled fine, though an already rotten bag of mixed greens had tainted the whole vegetable drawer with a fetid odor. The chicken smelled like raw chicken, though I didn’t know exactly how to identify barely spoiled poultry. I poured a glass of milk, which was surprisingly cool. I had imagined it would sour instantly, so I shotgunned one glass and poured another for both of us.
“What are you going to make?” he asked, assessing the perishables on the table. I had placed them methodically in a line, as if a creation would simply manifest itself from a tidy arrangement of ingredients.
“Uh, whatever comes to mind.”
“Want me to make some rice?”
“Don’t have any.”
I tried to act busy, mulling over this collection.
“Whatever you make will be fine,” Mark said. “You’ll just be saving the stuff from the garbage can anyway. The standards are lower.”
“Yeah,” I heard myself say. I chewed on a fingernail and stared at each ingredient, but found myself thinking more about what to say than what to cook. I decided to throw everything in together and see what happened. We would be two friends having dinner, like any two normal people on any normal night.
It wasn’t the first time that feigned pensiveness had been my alibi for silence. Him hashing out a business plan, me focusing on driving and highway exit signs, both of us reading the Times in bed. Finding excuses not to talk was our forte.
I knew he was only a moment away from, “Anthony, it’s not that hard to cook a chicken breast,” so I set to work. After washing the chicken, I patted it dry, dropped it in yogurt, squeezed in some lemon, and added a few sprigs of rosemary. I started to transfer the bowl to the refrigerator to let it sit for a while, but quickly remembered the power was off. I grabbed one of the candles off the floor and slid it across the kitchen table between us.
“I’m making chicken something-or-other. Don’t know quite what it is just yet. Chicken à la blackout,” I quipped.
He snorted. “You’ve always been a decent cook. Anything’s fine.”
“I’ve burned dinner before,” I said. “When you were running late.”
“Trying to burn the place down?”
“No, just trying to keep the food warm,” I explained, realizing I made myself sound like a put-upon housewife.
“It’s not like we were married.” It was the first time all evening that he looked at me squarely. He gave me a pitying look, which infuriated me. I’d gone on dates with a couple guys since him and abruptly dumped anyone who condescended to feel sorry for my thankless job in publishing, perennial angst, or strings of bad luck.
“Okay,” I told him. “We weren’t the model couple. We still aren’t,” I said, with a dramatic gesture towards the candles and the dinner on the stove. He offered a brief round of applause. At that moment we reverted to our habit of doing what we each do best, and changed the subject. It’s how WASP’s fight, I once told him.
“It’s weird not hearing the subway,” he said.
I noticed the absence once he mentioned it. When the trains went by, the martini glasses would quiver in the cupboard and the dull vibration would make the floorboards hum. It was much more intense in the lobby, but even on the third floor, we felt the sound—“the rush hour rumble,” Mark used to call it, even when it wasn’t rush hour. It’s the kind of thing I got used to after for a while, especially in such an old building. I noticed it most when it wasn’t there.
“You don’t have a portable radio, do you?” He knew the answer.
“People on the street said the power might come back later tonight, but no one really knew.” He cleared his throat. “I was just wondering if there were any updates.”
“Or just something to listen to.”
I used to think Mark was more agreeable the less we talked. Maybe that was the kind of man he was—the quiet type—and besides, that left less room for arguments. When he was unhappy, he was sometimes vocal about it. When he was quiet, that could signify anything, but I often took it to mean he was content. It’s just that I had learned to focus on the tender moments—his whispering that he loved me, his mid-day phone call just to say hi—and for the most part, to try to forget the barbs. It took a lot of learning to fall in love with him.
The chicken had marinated long enough. I turned on another burner—again, the flickering—and poured some olive oil in the skillet. Once the oil began to spatter, I dropped in the chicken breasts and yogurt.
“Smells decent,” he said.
“For blackout cooking.”
“Can you get a couple plates out? You know where they are.”
I stirred my concoction, careful not to let anything burn as the hiss grew louder. Whenever I sauteéd anything a little too long, a smoky, oily smell coated the apartment. It stayed around for hours, which was particularly unpleasant if the meal wasn’t very good. Two weeks ago I had had a first—and last—date with an accountant. He had started to kiss me on the sofa, and even with his musky scent and dousing of Old Spice, I couldn’t block out the odor of charred salmon. Fifteen minutes later, the accountant grabbed the bottle of wine he had brought and walked out the door. The breeze from the corridor was somewhat refreshing.
“You’re quiet,” Mark finally said.
“I’m just trying to concentrate on the cooking.” Immediately, I knew how lame that sounded. I stabbed the chicken with a fork, lifting it from the skillet to two plates. Juices trailed along the counter.
“If it’s too soon for us to be hanging out, and you’re not cool with it, just let me know,” he said. “A few months later, maybe it’s still tough for you.”
“Four months,” I said, wincing at how whiny I sounded. I could almost hear him roll his eyes. “No, it’s not. I mean, it’s not too soon to be hanging out,” I said. “I think the awkward phase is over.”
Mark started playing with the candle, and one wall caved in under the pressure of his thumb. Wax slipped down the side, but slowed as it cooled and hit the glass plate beneath it.
“It’s just the first time you’ve been back in the apartment since you moved out,” I said. I looked at my stereo, willing it to magically start blaring music. “This fucking blackout.”
“You’re pissed at the blackout?” he said incredulously.
“Well, yeah, I mean at . . . whatever.”
The scene had played itself out many times before, usually during breakfast after a night of sex and sleep. When the former was conspicuously absent, he ate quickly and washed his dishes before I even poured milk into my cereal.
“Let’s eat,” I said.
He tore at the chicken with his knife, and lifted large chunks to his mouth. He slopped it down so quickly, I knew he either loved it, or he desperately wanted to bypass his taste buds. I poked at the food on my plate, moving it around like a five-year old. Candlelight makes most food look tempting, but intermittent spurts of adrenaline had zapped my appetite.
“You in some kind of hurry?” I asked.
“Sorry,” he said with a mouthful.
He kept eating his chicken and didn’t offer any complaints. I stuffed a large piece in my mouth as a stopper to prevent an avalanche of words from spilling out. If I started, I was afraid that a single word would trigger a bile-infused thought and then a whole messy checklist of things I wish I had said when he was still living with me, when he left, and when he stood throwing mulch at my window. I would tell him I felt hurt, I felt mad that he disappeared for a week, moved out, and then reappeared a week later to say he wanted to be friends. I would tell him I was mad that he met someone else, that he made it seem so casual and pragmatic, and that he seemed so fucking indifferent about how painful a breakup can be, no matter how imperfect the relationship. I would tell him I was mad that I had allowed myself to rely on him, to believe that he would be there, a constant and steady presence, even when my friendships with an increasingly peripheral group of guys seemed more and more shallow.
He glanced at his wrist, probably forgetting his watch was sitting at home, dead. I stared at the candles, now just aluminum cups with crispy wicks in their centers, and waited for them to extinguish.
“I guess you’re rushing off to the Upper East to meet Chris?”
“Don’t sneer when you say his name,” Mark said. “You sound vindictive.”
“I’m not,” I protested.
“Why don’t you hang out with some of your friends?” I know he didn’t mean to nag, but I chose not to take it any other way.
“I don’t have many in the neighborhood.”
“Bobby doesn’t live that far away. Neither does Julie.”
“For God’s sake, I have plenty of friends.” That was true. It was also true that their Thursday nights tended to be reserved for significant others. If the boys headed out in packs on Friday and Saturday nights, then the night before the weekend commenced was reserved for couples. For those past few weeks, I had Friends, Will and Grace, and ER—shows that Mark and I had once watched together and whose plot lines had since become more and more irrelevant. All the characters had known each other far too long, and I had already lost interest in watching them plough on, one pointless encounter and celebrity guest appearance after another.
“Chris and I happened to meet.”
I tried not to picture the two of them together. I had never seen Chris, but I imagined he looked something like me—reasonably fit, attractive enough, and people probably guessed he was younger than he actually was. Unlike me, he probably kept his boyish highlights, which I had let fade away.
“Why didn’t you just head straight over to his place?” I asked.
“I thought I would drop by and see you. Maybe we could talk.” Mark started fingering a loose button on his shirt, as if he were toying with the idea of liberating more of his bare chest. He didn’t.
“I’m dating, too.”
“Good. I’m not surprised.”
“Thanks,” I snapped.
I snatched his plate away, dropped the remaining lump of chicken and bits of gristle in the trash, and tossed his plate and cutlery in the sink.
“I guess dinner’s over,” he said dryly. “What’s for dessert?”
I cleared my plate, too, and leaned up against the sink. I stared at him.
“Is it serious?” he asked.
“Anthony,” he said, with a strange amount of earnestness. He stood up and edged towards me, tiring of the diversions more quickly than I was.
Chris probably had yet to learn how Mark dozed in bed all day, how his body curled away from his boyfriend’s, and how his mouth flinched at a salty morning kiss. “I guess Chris is a safe bet.”
“He listens to me.”
“And I didn’t?”
“You didn’t say anything in the first place. Except to complain,” I said, moving closer. My lips were closer to his than I expected.
“You want to talk now?” Mark snapped. A drop of spittle grazed my cheek, but Mark went on, unfazed. “Well, I’m listening, but you’re not saying anything. Just the same barbs you throw when you don’t have anything else to say. Anything to eat up the silence. What do you want me to say?”
He had started pacing around the kitchen, until I cut him off.
“Why you left.”
“We never talked about why you asked me to live with you in the first place.”
“We were busy. You had work, I had work.”
“Anthony, I remember Sunday mornings with you. I would wake up alone, and you would be in the kitchen making coffee, reading the paper by yourself. Maybe you would come in the bedroom with a cup and a section of the paper for me. On a good morning. That should have been the most romantic time we had. Sunday mornings in bed.”
“Chris reads to you?”
“This isn’t about Chris.” It was the deliberately controlled tone he used with everyone while he restrained himself from blurting out, You just don’t get it! “If you’re so desperate for another boyfriend, I’m sure you can find one. This city’s full of horny singles.”
“I’m not desperate, and it’s not about the sex.”
Realizing this could go on all night, I decided to abandon my arsenal of retorts. Sex and feelings were two things we could never discuss comfortably during our relationship, and certainly not afterwards. Too messy. But that night, unbundling the raw feelings seemed easier than letting them rot, all packed away inside and tightly sealed. Once he had moved out, there was more room and space to hash it all out. Maybe Mark thought so too, maybe he didn’t. It was the first time I realized I didn’t care. Chris could worry about that one.
I walked past him, into my bedroom, and sat on the corner of the bed. I patted the empty spot next to me, but he didn’t move from the doorway. I had forgotten how the apartment seemed to grow once he moved out. It had been more snug with him in it.
“There’s probably some crazy sex going on tonight,” I said. “With the lights out and everything.”
“Yeah,” he agreed.
“Except outside you don’t have the streetlights to uncover the wrinkles and show you what the boys really look like.”
“There’s the moonlight,” he countered. And the moon was out in full, and much brighter without the storefronts and lamps of the West Village doing anything to dilute it. On a night when no other lights shone, everyone’s faces seemed to soak it in all the more, taking all the energy they could. I noticed Mark’s hairline wrinkles on his forehead and his incipient crows’ feet; he looked vulnerable, yet surprisingly at ease. I knew he would go to Chris that evening, and they would lie in bed, and the next morning they would have little to talk about, so Mark would kiss him. The lights would probably still be out. Mark would look at Chris, then turn over, and fall back to sleep.
I thought about stumbling outside to try my luck with passersby. Another guy and I could start to talk, and not worry about tripping over old ghosts from our pasts. Maybe it would only be a night, but for just that night, it could have that familiar, cozy feeling. A connection even just for a moment. Maybe it would linger for a while longer, for a relationship longer, but probably not. I decided to sleep alone that night.
Mark looked tired, and I know I did, too. We were both trying to act grown up, and it was exhausting. I quietly laughed, remembering how he’d joke that a full moon made him horny.
“People out there just looking to meet their needs for the night,” I thought, then realized I had said it aloud.
Mark sighed. “It happens.” He eased onto the other corner of the bed and rested his hand on mine. His palm, rough and calloused, as always, brushed against a small cut on my finger. I flinched. “I’d better go,” he said.
“Careful going down the stairs.”
“You want to walk me out?” he asked.
“No, but I’ll walk you to the door. I’m going to stay in tonight.” It felt like the first real decision I had made all evening.
We looked at each other, not sure whether a hug or a kiss on the cheek was more appropriate. It turned out to be a hug, and this time, he gripped tightly and pulled me in. Once he let go, I noticed his tart, sweaty smell. It wasn’t unpleasant. It was just one of the things I thought I had already forgotten about him.
He let himself out and gently said, “Goodbye.”
I eased down onto the sofa and watched the candles burn.