A New Nation’s Gray Glow

I lay on my back, half awake and restless, for some hours. At last, sleep, like fine dust, began to settle over me; its grains piled up like a pyramid and bore down with its occult weight until I merged with it and took on its heaviness. I could no longer distinguish between the ceiling’s blackness and the blackness I dissolved into when I closed my eyes.

How do we know that a body—a presence—is in the room, something animate and not the TV set, or a board mewling and slipping, or a pet? Is it vibration? Air pressure? I don’t have pets.

A draped form passed soundlessly over my threshold. I can’t say that I saw it, exactly; the apparition engaged me physically. I felt it in the way that I felt sleep; it was of the same order but separate; as the sleep continued to descend it passed over and around him too, cleaving softly, as I would imagine a flow of gold sand drizzling from a giant hand would split on striking a sharply edged rock. The form the spirit assumed in this initial visit was the form it would retain. Male, Capuchin, Roman, with a noble beak of a nose, long and solemn cheeks, a purposeful, worried chin: I thought of Pilate in Master and Margarita, and of mid-level movie gangsters cajoled back into the life for one doomed last score.

I awoke in morning’s sun, alarm bleating, without realizing I had nodded off. I expected to find him itching about like one who’s shared your bed for the first time and been unable to rest—halted mid-pace at the window onto the back yard, or at the kitchen table, hunched over, chin propped wearily in hand, before him a bowl of damp cereal and a cup of coffee with cadmium-white matter from my just-off half-and-half flecking its surface. Up all night; but his patience would be infinite.

I was wrong. Every room in the apartment stood aloof and empty. I turned on the radio, showered, brushed my teeth in the shower. Even as I locked the door and tramped down the stairs, I hugged myself with a smile. I’d knew he’d be back.


That night when I opened the door—no, no, he was not there. Dust coated the kitchen table like translucent felt, with old newspaper clippings—ephemeral amusements—wilted there, and on the fridge, and on the floor where they sometimes fell. In the living room the love seat looked jilted; in my bedroom the floor lamp stooped.

Nevertheless I felt quiescent, with something of his presence inside me, something that inflamed my limbs like a lesser fever. Like someone in the early, happy stages of a romance—reliving first contact, daydreaming of the future—I knew he would return to me. I trusted; it was religious; and I felt like a little god.

I scooped up the kitchen table dust with a rag made from an old tube sock I’d split in half.

My days thereafter slid along their well-worn channels: hasty stovetop meals alternating with cheap takeout; books; records and radio turned low for companionship; sixty to ninety minutes of television daily; long showers where the steam made the bathroom’s bare bulb a glowing tropical sun. And of course trudges out each day, gloom or sunshine, through the black door of the building where I worked, into a slow, ancient, terrorizing elevator. But now my heart glowed with the flicker he had put inside it; and ascent to the 21st floor lifted it like a torch to a belfry, where it transfigured into a signal to the restless world.

He appeared again not on the third but the fourth day (to avoid blasphemous connotations, I could only assume). Again I lay in bed, this time with a lamp sizzling at my ear. The buttery leaves of a hardbound book lay against my stomach under the splayed volume’s warm weight; I rubbed my cheek, against the grain of its stubble, over and over, as I thought about a few sentences and what they meant. I rubbed, felt my own hand, felt the roots of the little bristling hairs incandesce with irritation. As red warmth spread across my face, meaning unfolded and flapped like a banner at the top of a flagpole.

I saw him this time in stark shadow, his noble, austere face like that of Marcus Aurelius; though it was difficult to judge from my position below, he appeared over five feet ten inches tall. Despite his bearing, his calm eyes, I sensed a great burden bearing down upon him—I could almost see it, something like a massive, overstuffed laundry bag. Rather than his helping me, I was to help him: The task, the altruism, was to be mine. This transition in affect is what makes its object truly indispensable: Only the most self-hating, the dog-kickers, don’t relish exerting their own power to help, and thus take power over, another.

Tell me, I said.

He shook his head. This insulted me; I knew if I could only put my arms around him for a few moments, what eeled inside him would slip into me and his eternity would be free from that pain. I leapt up to clutch him, to subdue and soothe him, to rub my warming hand against his stony cheek and my forehead against his cool hand. I moved as fast as I could but of course by the time I reached him he was gone.


A clunking shift of weights on an old scale: My initial poise became unbalanced. Though at work when I closed my eyes to shake off the blur of the gray computer desktop, that nauseous glow, he was the only thing I saw, and though the fullness when I inhaled deeply was him as well—despite these seeming comforts I felt uneasy. The buried germ of need had sprung its shell.

After two days he made a series of appearances strange and in passing. I first noticed him sitting in my car of the AM train, in a long raincoat worn from original black crispness to an eroded brown. He got off at the station before mine; but then, impossibly, he brushed past me in a street near where I work: The indifferent touch was a tool of reprimand, scarring as a coat hanger heated on a stove. At lunch I saw him in the aisle of cleaning products at the deli. Then, after hours of failure to work, I leaned far, far back in my chair, so far that I could see upside-down what was behind me. My vertebrae slipped slowly apart; ligaments loosened; blood rushed to my head and I felt as if I were being washed in tepid water. A co-worker passed nearby and shook his head, not even surprised.

Out the aperture to my cubicle I could see inverted a long aisle of low, gray-white walls with slots; each section trapped another poor soul inside it. I had my headphones on, though the requiem I listened to had fallen silent. The quiet became crystalline, a field of geometrically still perfection.

At some distance he crossed the corridor. He wore a dated brown suit. He stopped briefly but wouldn’t look at me. He made me feel as if he had come across me by accident, and my presence, my existence embarrassed him somehow; it was as if he felt everything—hardly anything!—up to this point had been a mistake. From now on it would be all business. He eschewed eye contact. For an instant I was all rage; a spirit can still be a jerk. But then he made a pair of awkward gestures, rolling his shoulder and dipping his neck; I considered, too, the suit. I was gripped with shame for whatever I had done to make him so homely, so human.

At six o’clock the first cleaning lady passed by to handle my trash. I was dismissed.
I decided to go to a yoga class. I felt I had missed something, or failed to be prepared; ergo I wanted to wear away the wall that held apart my body and my mind, or at least root around its base, see how difficult it would be to blast or scale so that the next time he appeared I could receive him fully, as I had the first time on the outskirts of a dream.

But yoga, in its method of transcendence, is too bodily; and the sociable chanting embarrasses me: Am I with these people or am I alone, acknowledging and accepting that I am trapped, to the bitter end, in my own stupid body? I need a guru, not a “class” of people grunting and farting. The day’s nervous sweat had dried like a second skin I couldn’t slough off. In the middle of making a bridge of myself I faltered, quit, let myself collapse.


For a time I despaired. He failed to appear for a few days in my apartment or elsewhere. Which cause, which effect? I don’t know. But I stopped brushing my teeth in the morning. I told myself it was over before it had really begun.

(A few days? Yes, of course I know the number. Five.)

I invited an old roommate to my house to watch Game One of the World Series. Neither of us likes baseball especially; we just like events that help us feel connected to other people, and also each other. The two of us wear similarly nondescript clothes, and when we lived together we adopted each other’s phrasings and pronunciations, some of which we retain. If people had seen us that night shaking hands, slapping backs, me taking his coat, him handing me the six-pack he brought, catching up in slow and uneven conversation, smoking cigarettes, they would think we made perfect sense together. And we did, we do. But beneath that consonant appearance is something intractable that we’ve accepted. Maybe that acceptance makes us even closer. He is one of the only people I trust enough to tell every single secret, because he doesn’t really care. Also, unusually, I have loaned him money.

My love seat was too small for us: Kevin stands six feet even and I manage to be less contained by my frame than I should be—around me people need a little more space. But, having no other option, we crammed onto it anyway. We worried at our beer labels, the pace of talk slowing, as the homiletically monotonous game sipped at our attention. I was reassured to hear the sinoid rasp in his breathing that I had noticed years ago and years ago forgotten. But comfort in this failed; the physical intimacy acted as a straightjacket, and the tension it created an edgy magnetism of repulsion: We must not brush thighs, we must not rest arms behind each other’s shoulders, but the resistance always fraught, with the slightest fidget threatening, promising to flip the magnet north to south and forcing us together.

Nevertheless we sat askew from one another. I felt gypped.

On the way back from the bathroom, I paused in the doorway between the kitchen and living room. It’s my favorite spot in the entire apartment; I’d move my bed there if it would fit, so that I could always be half in one place, half in another. I studied Kevin from a position behind him and to the side. The grayish TV glim streamed over his shoulders, rubbed his neck, ran through his copper-colored stubble as if it were dingy cotton being drawn through it. His untucked shirttails and his haircut, hacked like a figure’s in a woodcut, helped keep him seeming boyish though he was well beyond that age. I have always been jealous of his appeal even as I am prey to it myself; I suspect it results more from reasonably impressive stature and a kind of detached fondness than raw physicality or active charm. After we moved in together, I discovered that he subsisted quite happily on his own and rarely needed to bring anyone home, for sex or otherwise. This had made me insane. The sight of him now flipped into detailed visions of people I’d bent over that very couch where he sat dull and remote like a teenager. Asses thick and thin, backs expansive like plains or nubbled with moles nauseating to touch: How little memories of any contact made me happy when confronted with a recalcitrant body.

In my spot on the loveseat, another form sat. It turned monumentally slowly, threw its arm over the back of the shabby little couch: him, Marcus (the only remotely adequate nickname I could ever come up with; I used it in the end rarely, as human phonemes seemed too coarse to pronounce even in my head. I have since read that angels’ speech, like every other aspect of their being, is composed of light). The two poised together assumed formed an allegory, with the gray stubble on the hoary head echoing the youthful bristles on Kevin’s chin, the sculptural presence foiling Kevin’s lanky slackness, the dull gray hands-all-over of the TV’s light versus the golden light of the lamp, which seemed by comparison from a star within a shade. His profile cast a long shadow—yes, a shadow; he cast them like you and me. I no longer knew what interaction was to take place between us, by whose responsibility and to whose benefit, but I was more certain than ever that something depended upon its occurrence. There he was; it was fate. He showed the faintest hint of a smile.

As I moved towards the couch, he rose and took an endorsing position behind it; I plopped down, throwing my arm around Kev so freely that neither of us noticed, and felt a gentle pressure on each shoulder. Now the baseball seemed more pleasurable, I could attend fully both to it and to Kevin, as if I were a model host, full of life and bonhomie; and all the while I could also keep him in my head, feel his hands, see every pitch as something he would hang on, every crack of the bat as something he could glory in—and it made no difference whether the hit went for or against his team, he was that kind of fan: Glee bolted up from the sound and excitement of contact. I drank up my beer with gusto, opened another, ran out to the deli at the seventh-inning stretch to snag a final pair of tallboys, which we didn’t come close to finishing.

The next night I lay in bed almost asleep, experiencing the twists and vertigo of ripping against the wind on a long fall. He appeared. After having passed a long evening alone, and expectant, I was perhaps too eager to interpret his presence as something like contrition for the long absence. Though it occurred to me afterward that my chair stood across the room, supporting a humidifier, he seemed to sit at my bedside. We communed silently for a time that might have been five minutes or might have been three quarters of an hour: Such is time with loved ones. I thought indulgently about myself, mused on futures, considered past wounds without replaying them for the sake of masochism. Under his eye—warm and philosophical, human and not, present and not—I could work through all of it coolly; there was no pain; I was being healed.


In any story, the ones we read or the ones we tell ourselves, there comes a time when occurrences fail to be particular; events repeat and lose their specificity, falling into patterns against which new specificities appear. Pin-prick dots expand and unfurl like buds becoming flowers: This is how we start cheating on spouses; how we quit noticing the constituent features of our lives. Though some peripatetic souls eschew numbing consistency—they want every moment to be new, like it is for children and acid-heads—the transition to repetition is normal, and imputes a happiness: The singular and originary transmutes into the ritual, the evanescent becomes the eternal.

But it is not the eternal. What we perceive as eternal is only a symbol, the way the ocean symbolizes infinity. Easy come, easy go.

So it was even with the apparition. Frustrations sprouted inevitably, tension forcing green shoots through tough bark; it was pain followed by small, ugly efflorescences. His visits came at irregular intervals; they were of brief duration so that I had not by the end of any one found out what I might know, or done what I might do. Inexplicably, he might turn sullen. If he appeared for a few minutes while I made dinner—cutting the lid out of a can of tuna, say—he would lean against the radiator, incommunicado but promising—then vanish before the bread finished toasting. If I had rented a film that I’d wanted to watch with some special scrutiny, he would loom distractingly at the edge of my field of vision. When I moved towards him he would stiffen or start. There was nothing cute about it; the persistent threat to disappear kept me backed against the walls of an invisible cell he inhabited: Let inside but kept at bay, I was held together with him but apart.
But, but. The appearances did become, if not predictable, regular. Two times a week and perhaps a third; even if I could get little out of him, he was there, over and over. We make allowances… Do I have to spell this out? I am a lonely person. It was enough to see him occasionally, and against the wall his shadow (why is it that the intangible is the surest sign of presence?). I piloted myself through my simple routines and waited for them to be disrupted and my heart to thrill. A long walk on a waterfront that shifts from warehouses to condos: At the rocks overlooking a slender inlet, would I see a couple of homely teenagers with their hands in each other’s jeans, or a bum with trash bags full of aluminum cans—or him, absorbed in the water’s tessellated planes? Would he acknowledge me? Had he ever, so much? Insufficiency clogged our every interaction and soon made moments spent together into something like dirty dishwater draining; but it made no difference. I made myself uneasily comfortable; I had to pinch myself if I wanted to remember that a new day could dawn and I’d never see him again.

After the World Series game, I left the ashtray with Kevin’s butts sitting unemptied for I don’t know how long. (Really. Here I did not keep count.) Gusts from opening and shutting the living room closet created a halo of ash around it, half on the coffee table and half on the carpet below. The ring took on a kind of permanence and with it symbolism; it was something to be looked at and considered—for a while anyway, during the stage before it became invisible, and then, one day of fresh vision, something to disgust and get rid of.

One morning while shaving, I caught my eye in the mirror; stared; my hand slipped; and as blood began to flow I began to despair. Perhaps “despair” was the wrong word to use earlier, after he came to my workplace then vanished for a time, though its hyperbole captured the falseness of that initial mode. Now, as a red drop sidestepped a wad of toilet tissue and slid down my cheek, my nagging dissatisfaction with what had come to seem a changeless state evaporated in fear of losing even that. He could disappear forever; and thus I despaired with the clingy desperation of the middlingly loved. I became hot and wailing, at least on the inside; on the exterior… well, who knows what others see? But it felt good to remind myself that I had a deep feeling, and the very capacity for it. I used parts of myself I hadn’t used since being lost in the supermarket as a kid.

I don’t know. Maybe I am going crazy.

During this phase, when he had again left me for a few days, I succeeded in persuading a woman to come home with me. It was the night of a big football game, and I flipped idly through a book on Atlantis—our planet’s subconscious and emotional core, so the author argued—until the hour arrived for me to walk to a nearby bar that subscribed to the appropriate sports channel. People all over the country would be watching. I was excited; I wanted to be able to read the sports page the next day, listen to WFAN sports talk radio right afterwards, and agree or disagree violently.

Yes, we picked each other up at a bar. Embarrassing.

She appeared at my ear, close enough for her hair to slide across my shoulder. Hey, how’ve you been?: updates on so-and-sos, job promotions and persistent drug problems and pregnancies. I offered to buy a drink but she gestured back at a group of friends, tucked away sullenly in a corner cloud of cigarette smoke. She invited me to sit with them; when I declined, aggression—and a smirk—rose to the surface of her face. Mine too.

It was OK that, when to my surprise she returned, I could only watch the game in darted glances over her shoulder; it was novel, even flattering, to have her attention. She is, however, one of those people who believes discord is charming. Every point of conversation is a point for rote complaint: This beer is too warm, these pretzels are stale, why do you want to watch football anyway? This is flirting? Too, she rarely paid attention to what I said for more than a few moments before her straying eyes—the dark and wet, welllike glittering eyes of an egomaniac unfulfilled—alit on some other target. She had ditched her friends (or they ditched her: At a certain point they had made for the door, a stream of thin overcoats and collarless leather jackets, with a few tossed goodbyes), she ever declared her readiness to ditch me. I suppose some people appreciate built-in distance, which keeps both parties in the interaction comfortably unreachable; for my part, that night, I was happy to let my eye rest on the television, its spinning ovoids and inaudible impacts. I wonder if she maintains her detachment always, or if she oscillates between flashes of connection and Siberian winters of indifference; or if she once in a while fully exposes herself, only to punish most harshly those who have seen what they should not.

None of this particularly mattered, however. Personal disregard, like any pressure constantly applied, becomes arousing. And underneath her teenage-boy clothes—zip-up hoodie, jeans, a tight tee—she had curves and muscles, a thick ass, the body of a gymnast gone a little to seed. Imagine her a juggling pin; with her center of gravity you could toss her any crazy way and she’d right herself by the time she touched ground. A few displays of clumsiness were heartening—when the bar’s stickiness compelled her to slough off her sweatshirt, she knocked over half a pint of sticky ale. Thoroughly embodied but humanly so: I found it appealing that she was no migrained stick-woman clutching a sweater to herself. She took up space, was physically very much there.

At a certain point she took the liberty of propping her elbow on my shoulder. I decided that it would be appropriate, then, to ask her to come home with me.

In the sobering air, with my arm around her and our laughter shrill like crow caws; in an atmosphere of adolescent glee and small rudeness—I became nervous. The sexual tension between us, I realized, was almost entirely hostility, a frustration on each of our parts that we couldn’t find someone better to meet our needs, chase away our loneliness. She noticed my stiffening, I think, and began to misbehave in small ways. She led me onto lawns to splash through piles of raked leaves. She plucked the radio antennas of cars parked on the street like bow strings. She slammed the metal grates pulled down by shopkeepers gone home for the night. She shouldered me against one, hard.

To steer her I put my hand in her ass pocket. I then explained that an apparition sometimes visited my apartment. In part it was a boast; and I knew, moreover, that her reaction would betray her. She made some “jokes” about rattling chains and bumping things in the night; I made some unkind, possibly savage comments; though I see her around, and I think there are no particularly hard feelings—we drink so we can get away with the things we don’t even know we want to do or say—she and I have never talked so much after that night. I finished the walk to my apartment by myself, knowing horribly, but with a sense of justice, that I had ensured I’d be doubly alone that night. I stayed up late listening to West Coast callers on WFAN and argued with myself, if dispassionately, over the game’s controversial results.

Cold fronts moved in, forming banks of massive clouds. One more day and I would not have seen him for a week.

To pass the time, and to feel capable of some at-least-small task, I cleaned the kitchen floor. I boiled a Dutch oven full of water and filled the rest of the mop bucket from the tub’s hot tap; in the drafty apartment, crevices everywhere, steam rose up in wisps, gusts, planes, sheets. I imagined the floor not as colorless rubberized cardboard but a field of black igneous rocks in a sauna.

When I had finished, sweaty and chilled both together, I opened a window. Like a fire nursed with breath, the vapors swelled and rose with fresh currents; it formed columns and clouds and soon the Finnish sauna became a Scottish moor, with the lamp’s glow from the living room a light issuing from some distant window. It could give one a cozy feeling or a lonely one, depending.

I turned my back on it, peered out a window I’d left shut. In the next yard, past my downstairs neighbor’s rectangle of muddy grass, a demoted chest-of-drawers with a blue-and-white checkered tablecloth draped over one half of it swayed in the wind. I waited for it to fall.

Something brushed my shoulder, a fluttering, Parkinsonian hand or a bird’s wing.

He stood, like the teetering dresser, a bit far off. The steam’s occlusions made him more obscure than ever, with the lamplight from behind rendering him opaque yet massless, as if he were composed not of matter but of shades of gold-tinged gray physically denser than the wavelengths them nearest in the spectrum. I moved towards him sharply; but the look on his face paralyzed me. I lowered myself carefully to a squat, then further lowered my buttocks to the floor. My ass grew damp through my sweats. Then, still more slowly, as slowly and methodically as I’d mopped to kill time, I splayed my limbs and let myself fall onto my back.

It was as if I lay on a wide, drooling gray tongue, with the cracked paint on the ceiling above forming a network of blood vessels on the roof of a bloodless mouth. My clothes soaked through quickly. It was hot.

His face appeared, first high like a planet, then lower in the manner I had seen times past at my bedside. When I tried, as ever, to reach his cheek, roseate and bluish in patches, narrowly furrowed, a terrain my hand would never tread upon—when I tried to lift my arm it would not move. I strained and could only work my head in scraping circles along the floor. Soon my face was slick, my hair as spiky and alien as a patch of fungus in a jar opened then resealed and shelved for too long. I panicked, then quickly felt as if I were being restrained for my own good; his brown eyes calmed me as if I were pure animal. I strained further, just to feel my muscles work against invisible hands, to fight with abdomen and thigh against a stronger force I could never dream of overcoming. For once I could take pleasure in this struggle. I measured my limits and was not afraid of them.

Steam’s gauze wrapped round my eyes, my apartment, bandaged the whole suffering world—it’s why we like fog, and snow. Then, layer by layer, it began to dissolve, and with each layer a layer of his being. Curiously, in these moments, I took little emotional note of his evaporation even though I stared at him: I was slipping into exhaustion and dream. It occurred to me that he looked a little like me, and that perhaps we were secret kin, and perhaps he was an ancestor, and perhaps he had crucified Christ. Or maybe his was the face of someone I had seen dead on the street once, I don’t know.

I came awake expecting to see him—coffee, a piece of cake, a brandy, like the talking-time after a funeral. But I did not.


After the initial bafflement, I felt giddy—the giddiness of “There’s no going back,” which we contain by limning with false assuredness that nothing has changed, nothing can change. Humans are incremental creatures, things sneak up on us, new shapes stark or subtle appear with the pace of accreting sediment; for this reason we romanticize Saul/Paul conversions, epiphanies of all sorts. The punch of the kitchen scene gave me a buzz; the skin on my routine, like the skin on overheated milk, had been peeled off, and beneath lay a white opacity waiting to be lapped up. What did it taste like, again?

Bland, and it made my chest heavy. The weather had turned definitively gray, the seasonal shift that will only lift on its own time, and the trees that lined my routes began to look bitten, cankered. My few friends’ calls went straight from the realm of the telephone conversation, which approaches live presence, to tape recordings of voices, and on to scolding red lights on the answering machine. Work seemed ever more a kind of duvet—something full of feathers that was paradoxically heavy, comforting and smothering, resulting in dreamy distraction and hot sweats. For the first time I realized that my cubicle was for me individually the perfect size and color.

Excitement still spiked inside me, for instance when I conjured some illusion in the corner of my eye. But with passing days, deepening loneliness, the peaks shrank. I convinced myself that he would return: It’s just like the old days, nothing has changed; he doesn’t have to follow human rules. I tried to brainwash myself even as in my gut something curdled a little more with every nightfall. Part of me hated his gnomic flatness; but I repressed that, for fear he would detect it and stay away. I tried to heighten my senses, develop an ESP (which, apparition aside, I certainly had never possessed before). I tried hyperventilation exercises; I whirled in place in my living room like a Sufi. Both increased my nausea, and embarrassment at being human. I could elevate my heart rate, recalibrate my ear so even computer hums sounded like bone saws, quicken my eye so it flitted like a sparrow’s. All in an effort to better attend his coming; all of which guaranteed extra pain when he did not.

Eventually I began to suffer from insomnia. I had not fully realized how his coming was so associated with bed and sleep; slivers of loss lodged inside those things and swelled and made them grow stiff and sore. I’d sit on the couch, face sagging, until I began to nod, then drag myself to bed. After seconds of peace I’d be ripped into a dream, heart pounding, see him looming above me with his grave sphinx’s expression. Then the vision would evaporate; I would open my eyes expecting it to continue outside of my head, and I would be gripped by positively Biblical grief. My teeth gnashed, my body strained, I gripped myself and dug in my fingertips so that in the morning, after a few hours of sleep like that which extinguishes a day of hard physical work, I’d have five small contusions on each forearm with red lines from my nails. If I flicked on the bedside lamp and picked up an old paperback, either every sentence stung me, as if mordent commentary on what was happening, had happened; or else they simply slid away, as if carved on a massive greased tablet that I tried to heft but kept losing. When I threw the book down, then, and hid under the covers (afraid to turn off the light, for it would reset me before night’s blank screen), I balled my fists against my face and would work over every act, trying to isolate what things I had done wrong, and elect what I would change, in the past and the present and the future, if only he would reappear.