AFTER LIFE – Nicholas Clemente
January 27, 2022
They were swapping out the streetlights. Strange the way they went about it. Not all at once, not block by block. More like a lottery. Whichever ones needed replacing, I guess. I didn’t even notice the change until he told me.
He said it wouldn’t be long until people forgot the way the sodium lights used to paint the street a warm yellow-orange. It made you remember there was a fire somewhere inside you. Or that there had been once. It reminded you of who you really were. Like if you could puke up your most sentimental thoughts after a night of drinking or cut open your blood to make it bleed, that was the color that would come out.
The white LEDs made you feel like you were walking through a photograph. A world fabricated, imagined, animated artificially. Everything was the same but nothing was ever going to be the same. After he pointed it out I couldn’t not see it anymore.
We met again, after all those years, in an apartment that didn’t belong to either of us. It was winter, December 2020, and the city had just shut down all service at bars and restaurants. There was nothing to do but drink pot after pot of tea in the tiny kitchen of this apartment that belonged to neither of us.
He asked if I was still writing. No, I said, not really. I asked: You? No, he said, not really.
We took a walk around the neighborhood to kill time. There was a boarded-up Lutheran church down the street and a boarded-up Baptist church a couple blocks north. Both Gothic-inspired, high church, stained glass and floating masonry. Not even a hundred years later and the whole colony of Germans or Swedes had packed up and vanished. I wondered how far into the suburbs or into the country’s interior you would have to travel to find them or their descendants. Raptured up without a trace into Protestant heaven. But they couldn’t take their churches with them.
We talked about the people we used to know. All the guys we used to play in bands with, some of the girls they used to date. Funny to think about now. Because you knew it had to end eventually, but we did it anyway. No one ever got famous, no one ever got paid. No one ever came close. I guess that wasn’t the point.
It just never happened for me, he said. What, I said. Writing, he said. I tried as hard as I could, he said, I did everything I was supposed to. But it just never happened. I don’t know how to explain it other than that.
We walked a little farther up Nostrand under the overcast sky. The forecast said snow, but nothing had happened yet. And we weren’t going to walk forever. We didn’t have any destinations in mind. Everything was still closed. So we turned onto Flushing and came back another way.
Night came early and the forecast had changed to no snow. There was no TV in the living room so he was lying back on the couch watching a movie on his phone. I told him I knew an illegal bar disguised as a record store on V——— Avenue that some friends of friends had started up. He said yeah at first and then said no. He said he wasn’t sure he should be around people like that. Shouldn’t be going to places like that.
There had been large gaps in our friendship. He would move away for a time, or I would. We would lose touch for years and encounter each other again whenever our orbits overlapped once again in New York. It occurred to me then that I had never really given a thought to what he had been up to during those lost years: where he was, what he was doing. It occurred to me then that maybe I should have, or that maybe I could start, if it was not too late.
He was probably right – we probably shouldn’t have gone. There was a guy standing up but resting his head on the bar and another stumbling in place in the corner with his eyes closed. He had a young body but an old face. No shirt on – the skin smooth on his chest but wrinkled starting at the neck. He was mumbling the words to some song that only he could hear. I didn’t recognize anyone else who was there.
I got a whiskey soda and my friend got a Coke. He was visibly uncomfortable, fidgeting around, tearing up napkins. No one was talking except for the kid in the corner mumbling some song to himself. We finished our drinks and I got us a cab back to the apartment that didn’t belong to either of us.
I had forgotten to feed the cats. I couldn’t even find them at first. I wanted to call their names but I could never remember them. We spent half an hour looking in closets and under beds and couches before my friend found them behind the floor-length curtain covering the balcony window.
It was a nice apartment in a not very nice neighborhood. But it would be nice enough in ten or twenty years. They had put their first payment down, their first kid was on the way. They were there to stay.
We made more tea and talked more about the people we knew, where they had ended up and why. Some had gotten help from their parents that they never talked about, some had changed cities chasing degrees and jobs and promotions and succeeded on their own. Everyone else had stayed pretty much where they had been after graduating college or after dropping out. There wasn’t much in between.
The silences between sentences grew longer. The kettle was empty, and we were sick of drinking tea. It didn’t even taste like anything anymore, just hot water. I yawned though I didn’t really have to yawn and said I would probably be going to sleep soon.
He didn’t say anything at first. I didn’t want to make any assumptions, so I wasn’t going to say anything either. He was going to have to say it.
He asked if he could stay there. Stay the night? I said. What do you think, he said.
I pretended like I had to think about it. But I knew I had to tell him he shouldn’t. Not that I wasn’t going to let him, but that he shouldn’t.
I told him it wasn’t my apartment, I didn’t have any right. But I used to know them, he said. I know, I said. But you don’t know them anymore.
We didn’t say anything for a while. All arguments had been exhausted and nothing had been resolved. I looked out the window and saw it had started snowing. Heavy flakes of snow, streets slick and black. It had gotten late – 2 AM somehow – and the trains weren’t running because of the lockdown.
And you’re sure you don’t have anywhere else to go? I said.
Doesn’t that sound, he said, like something I would be sure about.