Buzz Aldrin, If Only

By Kathleen Alcott

Two days before she woke in a place immaculate and white, Keenan looked from her friend Daniel to the man with a face like the bottoms of long unturned rocks and waited uncomfortably for him to reveal what she already knew to be true.

“Intravenous,” he asserted, then adjusted his pants around his hips and protruding gut and spit. “But you can use it to hang plants. Best offer.”

Unfortunately, Daniel only asked after the identity of the T-shaped metal stand on wheels after he had rode it down the street and giggled, unaware that the vehicle of his Saturday whimsy had once held bags connected to tubes that whispered to a dying human. On the half yellow lawn lay all the dead person’s paintings of cats and lakes and afghan blankets. The seller, presumably her husband, was getting rid of years. Later Daniel and Keenan laughed darkly about the way the man turned the supporting adjective on its head and made it a noun—Pass the intravenous, it’s over there by the intravenous–although it wasn’t funny, not really. Chances were he hadn’t loved her, not in a long time. They had gotten lost and passed his garage sale by chance, taken a quick look at the man’s life and decided they better move on to their intended destination.

Makeshift sales tags on the sidewalk were one thing, but whole homes emptying themselves out by a million small pieces were another. Keenan and her friend Daniel had started their Sunday morning estate sale ritual in the spring. Movie star beautiful and gay, he preferred the title of concept artist, and once filmed himself, on the top of a mountain, forming bubbles between his legs in a kiddie pool filled with the thick formula. In it he wore a vintage diving suit and winked at the camera; he is hardly ever serious. Keenan slaves away at multi-media pieces that feature sped-up recordings of a cicada’s lifecycle, photos of leaning staircases, television shows with the sound turned off, and questions people seem to like. She shows her work often but keeps her job at the preschool; it seems to her a cleaner feeling of use.

Their fondness for the estate sales moved into obsession with the onset of dense heat. They each had their reasons. He found things to sell on the street in neighborhoods full of young people with the need to spend money on other people’s memories, while she went along for the stories. Are you a dealer or a collector? A large man with a stretched out blue t-shirt asked her one of the first humid mornings, curious about the calm way she sifted. Oh, neither, she said, and he didn’t have much more to say after that. Sometimes the estate sales were organized, but more often it looked like the house had been shaken around like a snow globe. Dressers yanked from their closets to bisect rooms; plates and plaques taken out of boxes never to return to their containers. In the search for something worth money, the people treated the whole house as if it were worth nothing.

Afterwards, she would call her old friend Madeleine, who didn’t pick up more often than she did. When they were young women with taut skin that glowed but never sweat, Madeline would pose for Keenan’s pictures. She would don crisp lace vintage dresses and relate to the camera while Keenan offered encouragements; she proved remarkably capable of sensing where to place herself in the context of light.  They were childhood friends who welcomed adulthood together and stayed connected via telephone lines after their geographies diverted, but at some point Madeline lost track of the brilliant compass that chased warm patches. The clear promise Madeleine showed in nearly everything she tried—birdhouses constructed of thrift store bibles and driftwood, the ukulele, the villanelle and sestina—had ended up in her head as a lack of any exceptional ability. The tendencies of Madeline that Keenan adored—to feel things strongly and exhaustively, to chase nights until their end—realized themselves as a page in the DSM-IV, and now her old friend swallowed bright arrangements of pills to smother what professionals in colorless clothing named a mood disorder.

On good days, Madeleine makes these little childlike paintings: blue tennis shoes with silver wings floating on a red background, a bathrobe with a little halo. On bad days, she doesn’t want to talk. She tried to launch herself off the earth one, two, three times, but failed with every attempt and instead ended up in beige rooms where she wasn’t allowed shoelaces or razors. Keenan was again living nearby at that point, so she brought her soft sweaters and puzzles and no real literature, because Madeleine couldn’t read anything like that in such a place, even though she’d been the one to install and nurture, in Keenan, that love of large books full of complicated people.

Now Keenan lived across the country in a city Madeleine had never been to, and they talked on the rare occasions Madeleine felt up to it. Keenan would chatter too pleasantly about the lives she’d put together at estate sales in strange houses in Queens, and sometimes tell anecdotes from parties she’d been to. Madeleine rarely left the house anymore, but she still understood the stories and sometimes even laughed at them. “Oh my god,” she’d say. “History is malleable? He said that? What an asshole.” Keenan would feel slightly better, at least take comfort in hearing her breathe, until they got off the phone and she clutched at her bed like it were an unsteady boat threatening to leave without her.

When Madeleine does not pick up the phone,  Keenan waits for the answering machine, still an actual box with a light that blinks, and praises this rarity at least. Keenan knows as she speaks and breathes that Madeleine is there, drowning in a television show or napping in medicated fits, and that her words won’t be banished to some digital cave never to be checked. They will grow out of the holes in the dirty once-white plastic, echo into the physical space where Madeleine’s body tries to contain the pounding of her brain. They will engrave themselves onto the nylon circle of the tape; they will live again and again and risk growing warped with exertion, if that’s what it takes.

Part Two

You had to get there early, sometimes even wait in line. The rest of the people there were coarse, many from New Jersey, some with pimples the size and odd shape of peanuts on the backs of their necks, and they yelled back and forth about how much this record or that teak dresser might be worth.  She tried to float between their explosions, fingering a just-too big dress with slightly yellowed armpits or a stack of postcards, attempting to imagine the rooms silent, listening and listened to. The estate sales featured all the items the family didn’t want: a vast display of the deceased’s extras. She thought it disheartening, all the proof deemed not worth keeping, and Daniel offered little unaffected comments about their country. It’s the American way, he said. We accumulate and accumulate and accumulate.

On this particular Saturday, while the rest of the searchers rifle hungrily, Keenan picks out clues to the overall narrative and supplements them with details. Ten years worth of saved Jell-O boxes in the basement: had the dead matriarch loved gelatin deserts fiercely, or just feared some occasion in which she wouldn’t have enough? And meanwhile, the forgotten papers revealed that the husband had flown malicious planes in Japan, had learned and kept the language and its beautiful inky branches and wrote in it later, after the war. There were guitars and pianos, also, and plenty of songbooks, and sports trophies from three different children: they had been happy or tried, she decided.

It wasn’t just in these strange houses where no one lived anymore that Keenan felt confused by the way lives bled in circles around ownership, that she felt offended by the myths of separate existences. As a child she had been the sort who ended up crying whenever anyone else in proximity did, sometimes her sobs and gasps growing so loud that they shocked the other little girl or boy’s original sadness back into the silence of their bodies. Some days had to remind herself that her pain upon watching Madeleine disappear could not possibly rival the pain Madeleine herself was feeling, despite how complex caring about her was. It felt like falling to remember the two of them, at various ages, convinced of parallel positions on the same plane. At age nine, attaching metallic streamers to their bicycles and pooling their money towards the purchase of paper lanterns; at fourteen, sprawled on a velveteen comforter conjugating foreign verbs and urging each other I go, you go, he/she goes, we go; at 20, gossiping on the phone from their respective liberal arts college campuses, entirely confident they stood before long lives that sparkled with endless rooftop gatherings and relationships with bearded men that left minimal emotional impact. And so Keenan found herself perpetually remembering her friend was not clad in silk and high-waisted linen, striding through an office and commanding it, or riding air conditioned public transportation under a city she loved, or otherwise continuing to shape the world. No: she was opening her disability checks, she was asleep again in a suburban apartment she barely managed to clean. This a truth for years now.

*   *   *

In what she assumes was the master bedroom, Keenan squeezes her small frame past the massive oaken wardrobe that’s dividing the room like urgent punctuation. The afternoon is present in smell and light: a thickness of sweat marinating and soap fading, the march of the dust motes more pronounced. She tries to imagine the room long before it was ravaged—the bed made, a glass of water set out for the morning—but nearly all that remains after the day long pillage is a ceramic Kleenex holder and two visibly stained and bunchy wool sweaters hanging in the closet. The wood floor is brighter in places where carpets covered its color, and she lays down on it, feels grateful it has been busy receiving the sun all day long. She stretches her arms as if to float. The wardrobe blocks her vantage of the door completely, and she thinks with a childish simplicity how nice it is to be hidden from entrance and exit both.

When she wakes from a sleep she didn’t mean to enter, Daniel is crouching over her with a slight smirk on his face. She feels a wave of embarrassment to have lost consciousness in that place, which belongs to no one and that she certainly doesn’t belong to. Her dream of filling a car with gas, feeling the heavy click as the pump connects and the crinkled tube expands to accommodate the rush of useful liquid, is soon gone. “We should go,” he says. “Everyone else is gone.”

When Daniel pulls up to Keenan’s apartment and she gathers the few things she purchased—a live country record, a framed embroidery that shows a threaded cherubic boy smiling at a racket and the single cursive word “Tennis”—she tells him, “Thank you for waking me up.”

He giggles a bit. “Should I have left you sleeping?”

He honks as he pulls away and yells, as if it were her name, “Dreamland!”

“Good luck on your date,” he says, and shapes a penis out the air, puts it in his mouth with a great deal of seismic eye rolls. She regrets telling him immediately, then misses the discussions of love that gushed freely between her and Madeleine. For years, they had held an unspoken promise to drop obligations in the event of the other’s heartbreak, they had driven through the nearly empty intersections of three and four am to fill the newly vacated side of the bed and be there in the morning.

She turns the lock of her door—whose difficulties she understands and solves every day—and sees but doesn’t feel, through the glass of her living room window, pink proof of the days growing longer. She calls the man whose penis Daniel had simulated and is not surprised to hear his pleasant answering machine. Some ten minutes later a text appears. Hi baby! it begins. Los Angeles is systematically taking me apart! In between two meetings with producers now. Can’t wait to see you! He is, by nature, exclamatory. All of his films are short.

Part Three

Keenan remains tired even the next morning, as if the sleep she’d indulged in, on the floor of the house that sheltered no one, was stolen, and taking revenge insidiously. At work, the children of the preschool gather around her in bunches that tighten and recede, a series of circles that confess needs consistently. Jaime wants it to be naptime now and not later, and she keeps finding him asleep: under the fish tank, in between the low bookcase and the tiniest sink. Oscar poops in the bathroom but specifically not the toilet. Eloise whines she would like her hair braided like “A bird watcher” and Keenan has to admit she does not command this technique. Through the day she sips at coffee and reads the children a story about a little boy who wishes he were a jellyfish and anticipates the evening, when she will meet the man who is currently crossing the country on a plane. She reads the last sentence of the book and lifts the watercolored page—“And they all raised their tentacles and waved goodbye”—and imagines him looking out the oval window, thinking of her, then pushes the thought away like a mosquito in a room with high ceilings.

*   *   *

He has graying blonde hair and the whitest teeth, impossibly clean fingernails, and 15 years on her. He makes these films in which he deconstructs love and sadness into scientific elements, measures life long marriages with MRI machines and showcases the melancholic behaviors of certain types of whales. He lived in New York when he was younger, before he had children, and they are sitting in this bar in Brooklyn named after a public institution that’s rapidly losing funding. The Post Office. It’s a weak joke, she thinks. An infectious song featuring a great deal of whistling comes on and she groans at the memory it invokes—a whole heartbroken summer she spent sleeping off days, missing a man who had left her for a perky redhead with a small dog, this song booming from every shiny, happy car that zoomed by on the street outside.

“You know,” he says, he twinkles, “We could reform your mental association forever. If we both threw these glasses at the door and ran out of here, that would be the story your brain told about this song from now on.”

There is a pause while they smile at each other, an electricity where she feels she is someone he finds singular. She takes his wit and meets it. They do. The arc of the glasses as they fly is phenomenal, his courting hers in the curve before they hit, the sound when they shatter so many notes. They run. They hear the snotty bartender’s expletives only briefly, and they keep running, passing people who lean against walls just so, storefronts that keep a light on all night, black cabs charging more for some illusion of luxury.

She and this man met originally thanks to a number of cocktails with ginger and dark bar where they exchanged witticisms but not facts. Following an evening in his darkened bedroom, they spent the next 48 hours over one brunch with banana walnut pancakes and again in his bed to watch a series of documentary films. He told her about his divorce and his sons, and she held his hand like she could understand at all. She was already packing her bags, then, to leave Los Angeles, but what could have been plagued her in a soft fever. She returns to his affections in a cycle that neither of them discuss and that travels as frequently as he does. He used the word love in regards to her once, but so flippantly that she never felt she could cite it or build any tower on top of it. Every time it has been so long she concludes they have vanished from each other, he re-emerges with a laughing phone call.

“That!” He says, when they finally stop running. And he squeezes her, does this thing she remembers him doing where he places several fingers in between the discs of her spine and drums softly. It is phenomenal. She can smell and feel and plead with the inevitable sexual act already, though she will tease and deny it for several more hours.  They’ll be too busy rearranging their neural pathways for a while, anyway.

Now you, she insists. There is a bar that seems promising leaking red light onto the sidewalk a half block ahead, one just below street level so that when sitting inside they see only see boots and creamy calves pass in the window. A jukebox emits light in the corner, but they don’t rush over. She has tugged gently at the idea of loving him, on and off, for two and a half years.

When he drinks he bends the two cocktails straws against the rim of the glass and over, then holds his index finger around them. He listens to objects and people with equal attention. In between words there are moments, and in between moments there is the tiny gathering of desire. There is the clear recollection of the tea-tree shampoo and conditioner in his bathroom, how happy she felt hiding there, the overwhelming tingle it produced, the towels clean and expensive and designed to forgive. The memory of him returning from a run, removing his shirt to reveal his chest, the hair slowly paying a tribute to grey.

She has a hard time imagining him ever really suffering, that’s how unflagging his cheer, and so the approach of some mental rewiring on his behalf feels strange. It seems inorganic to ask him recall some sadness when none is present, and so she wanders over to source of music to sift through the titles and wait for a dark corner in her brain to light up. He joins her, he stands behind and places his fingers on her hipbones.

“Do we plan what we’ll do once it’s on?”

He shakes his head; he has not stopped smiling. “We’ll know.”

And so she finds another, a hackneyed song that Madeleine played constantly after her second time in the hospital. She presented it as a black joke, a jab at an optimism so golden, and whenever Keenan hears it she imagines a cache of deaths: the vinyl record itself reaching its centerpoint and leaving the room silent, the relegation of Madeleine’s once worn and loved silk dresses to weak piles in the closet and on the floor. She narrowly avoids the literal, but the question remains: how would Madeline look if she fired all parts of her body from their roles and finally escaped the small and dark home her brain had become? How many more times would she try?

He doesn’t ask about the source when it starts playing. True to form, it leaves her buckling, and there are no corners on this jukebox, just curves, so she can only lean.  He is buzzing around the bar, now, with drinks he’s purchased to convince the other patrons. People trust his charm immediately, and they agree to accept his offer, to sing. He slings her body over his shoulder, so that her hips press against his shoulders, and rocks her gently while nearly the whole bar offers their lilt to Bobby Darin’s Beyond the Sea. She opens her eyes intermittently to see the floor move, closes them again when she feels one of his hands move up her thigh. Nearer and nearer.

In the hour that follows, his phone plays, on loop, the song that floated through a Peruvian restaurant the night his wife finally left him; they purchase a bouquet of balloons sea green and blood red, then approach drunks outside of bars and junkies negotiating sidewalks and politely request they attach the strings to themselves as a personal favor. We’re changing our brains and we need your help, they say.

Four say yes. Two require ten dollar bribes. Her face hurts from smiling as she watches a particularly gregarious transvestite named Angelina totter away from them, the two air filled globes waving through lower Manhattan, manipulated by their origin at her square hips, which she shakes for their pleasure. Three more they tie to benches, through the branches of neglected trees, and the rest they free into the skyline to whisper stories into the higher and higher windows.

“Now I’ll just remember balloons,” he says, and this is one of the moments she is convinced he is rare and wonderful.

Part Four

His hotel room, later: she sees the composition of his body through touch. All the lights off, the curtains drawn, and she wants to rise and pour out some light but she worries what she might feel in the space away from him. They sing quiet praises of hair and skin in the continuous cycle of losing each other and reconnecting in various permutations and there are no condoms in any of his various suitcases so instead he lets himself go on her chest. They don’t wipe it off, instead pressing themselves together in the last minutes before sleep, joking that they hope the glue will take.

She wakes once to find their bodies still intertwined and wonders at how, even in his sleep, he seems on the verge of an important thought. One of his eyes opens when she shifts and he reallocates her limbs to fit better in his reach, and she thinks this could be the moment in which they abandon the ambiguity of their affections. She could accumulate frequent flier miles and meet him in a different city every month; she could wake him with fresh cups of coffee; she could become as valuable as a rare map, as indispenable as a lamp by the bed.

“It’s too early,” he says. “I just know it is,” and flashes his teeth in a pleasant curve before losing consciousness again.

*   *   *

The curtains are white, as is the morning as filtered through them, and the linens on the bed are white, and the table on which he has placed a note is white.

Had to fly to Austin for a meeting!

Didn’t want to interrupt your sleep!

Be back next month maybe.

*   *   *

It is haiku-like, the way it jumps to conclusion without discussion.

She surveys the space, but there is no other record of him occupying it. In the bathroom she touches the hand towels and the tightly wrapped soaps, opts to shower and lean against the tile that has never once accrued any scum, uses the liquid bodywash that congratulates itself for smelling like nothing. Works her soapy hands vigorously over her sun-flecked body with the intent of earning a purity to parallel that of the hotel room. When she is dried and unscented, surrounded by an oversized robe with her hair wrapped up in terry cloth, she goes to find her purse and pulls out the camera she carries. She sets up a timer and arranges herself in various positions of near invisibility. With the towel over her face and tucked into the v of the robe’s lapels to hide any trace of skin, she stands erect against the curtains and the flash goes off. She grows calm and flat as a lake under the pallorless covers and the shutter opens and closes. As she busies herself disappearing, the phone in the purse in the closet begins to light and vibrate. Only after it has completed the dance for the third time does Keenan notice. It is Madeleine’s mother, and so she knows immediately.

On the phone, she follows the protocol: she gathers details, offers comfort, and asks after the hospital’s phone number. She manages the quaver in her friend’s mother’s voice with an efficiency that surprises her. She is a broom, she is a wrench, she is hand-made screwdriver.

Part Five

Keenan is familiar with the communication system in these types of places. There is a payphone, generally at the end of a long hallway that echoes, from which the patients make and receive calls. The outside caller typically speaks to whoever picks up the jangling first, then asks to speak to the institutionalized loved one. These transactions are hardly ever cut and dry.

She sits back in the provided white things against the pale wall and waits. After only one ring she hears a kind of crunchy fumbling, as if the phone is being passed through a bag of dry leaves, then the voice picks up.

“Hello?” says Keenan. “May I please speak with—“

“What did the moon say,” goes the voice. It is male, low but with a high middle.

What? I need to speak to Ma—“

“Whadthe moonsay.”

“Is this a joke?”

Keenan remembers now how on rainy days, she and Madeleine would listen to the Golden Record, the proof of humanity sent into space on the Voyager in 1977: hello in 55 languages, the mating cries of birds, the aching of Chuck Berry and the chirpy drawl of Jimmy Carter. When she comes back from her memory, the voice has has lost interest in Keenan. Instead of hanging up, though, he has left her in the more vulnerable position by simply dropping the phone and letting it hang by its metal cord, so that she cannot call again in the hopes of making contact. Hello hello hello, she says, with the weak hope that someone walking by will hear the faint buzzings and not mistake them for the sounds that flow from their own interiors. She imagines her energy sparks across satellites and wires with frenzy so that the phone sways in progressively wider arcs, like a trapeze artist gaining momentum and preparing for the acrobatic feat that will leave the audience gasping. She pictures Madeleine walking by lost, the phone flying gracefully up to kiss her cheek. Four minutes pass, then five, when an older female voice says hello. It sounds like someone who has spent a great deal of time in casinos, inhaling lights and sounds that add up wrong.

Keenan takes the calm from the anonymous space and prepares to transfer it into the phone, but the voice starts asking questions.

“Who is this?”

“My name is Keenan. I am hoping to reach my friend Madeleine.”

“Does she want to talk to you?”

“We have known each other since we were eight,” says Keenan. She knows this is not an answer to the question. The voice makes a grunt, sounds unconvinced.

“She was always walking on my block in these pink leather mary janes, but I was shy. I never said hello. And then one day she stopped, put her hands on her hips. I was drawing in chalk on the sidewalk. She squinted a little and said, ‘Nice, but it won’t last.’ I went inside and I cried, but after that we were inseparable.”

“Well,” goes the voice, skeptically. “What’s she look like, anyway?”

In the hotel room Keenan places the towel over her face, over the phone, so that she can’t see anything but the implication of light, and thinks.

“It depends. Sometimes she looks like there’s this factory in her body that never closes, and she’s trying her best to hear the sounds of every machine. And then other times like she’s an abandoned building. Her hair is brown but gold when she turns to look at you.”

The voice sounds a little more sympathetic now. “I think I know who you’re talking about,” it says. “Okay, wait and I’ll get her.”

When Madeleine picks up, it sounds like she is speaking through the wrong end of an early morning.

“Maddy? It’s me. Hi, bird.”

Madeleine sounds embarrassed to say anything at all.

“Hello,” she says. “Here I am again. There is a nurse here who is always whistling How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria—he knows no other songs—and I am supposed to listen to him.”

She sighs. Keenan laughs in the lightest possible manner.

“I wish I could come rescue you. I wish I could catch his terrible cloud and pin it down until he was quiet.”

“…”

“Maddy? Do you want to tell me what happened?”

“Nothing specifically.” Her voice now sounds like it has been traveling quite a while. “I told my shrink how I was feeling and he deemed me a threat to myself and here I am. I didn’t even manage to try, this time.”

“Listen,” says Keenan, the towel still over her face. It flutters away from her mouth and returns, clinging particularly to the suggestion of her mouth.

“I could quit my job and buy a car and pick you up. We’ll finally take that road trip. I’ll drive and you’ll say ‘take that exit!’ and we will, and we’ll have breakfast for dinner every night at abandoned diners.”

“That sounds nice,” offers Madeleine, but the way she says this she might as well be pleading but there is no water anywhere.

“And we’ll stay at cheap motels, and you’ll take all my blankets in the middle of the night like always, and we will never see the same person or place twice.”

“Mmhmm.”

Keenan does not stop, although she can sense the prescribed sedatives are starting to sing low notes into her friend’s body. She continues, about how in Wyoming there are more mountains than people, about the possibility of swimming holes along the way, although they both know Madeleine’s current state precludes any carefully packed vinyl suitcases, any joyous horn honking and wild acceleration. In the hospital Madeleine sinks down along a wall holding a payphone with both hands. In the hotel Keenan breathes carefully, like a visitor to the moon. No one is looking for them, and they go on like that. They are not ready.