The Lack of Absence

Rachel Toliver

If I had been writing to you, I would’ve written about what that December was like. I would’ve written about how the whole back wall of my apartment was knocked out, how the plastic heaved like breathing against the cold. My letters had always grasped for a sort of extremity, a sort of poverty, a declaration of all the fucks I did not give. Then they’d lapse into questions about whether I should cash out my retirement fund or when you were coming to visit next. I’d write things like sanitized slumming or cultivated dirt—partly for the way they sounded, partly for the way they’d sound to you. I was making a life for myself, in a new city. I was trash picking Victorian couches that smelled like cat pee. I was using anything at hand for an ashtray. But I was also making a replica of that life—for you, in my letters. I would write the cat pee smells like a funky Fendi. I would write the ash threatens to subsume me as I write.

 I was pretty reckless. I’d ride at 2 AM in a Ford with a blues musician who drank whiskey with one hand and steered with the other. I’d invite the weird fix-it guy in for some vegetable stew. I’d stumble home—a woman alone—from the bar, feeling every step like I was bounding weightless, toes barely grazing the sidewalk, as if moving through water. But much of that recklessness was wrought only so that I could render it for you. And part of it was also for the questions—“Who’s that guy? What’s going on with you two?”—that you never asked.

The setting for that December was crazy and stagey and entirely right. I’d wake in the morning, look out over vertiginous rush of winter-flayed trees. The cold would cusp against my morning coffee. It was just flapping plastic and then outside: pendular and squinty-intense and sere. I’d place my hand on the frame that had once framed the windows. I’d think about how this was good for a breakup—the inarguable precipice of frost and the sycamore trees and the forlorn squirrels. I’d think about how this wasn’t even a breakup, that we hadn’t even been whatever. I’d think about how this fact—that we hadn’t even been whatever—was actually worse than our no longer being whatever. I’d wish it were a breakup so that I could feel the way I felt. I’d notice how my breath stood out like spun glass. I’d notice how the cold bristled in my lungs, how it arced and branched. I’d notice how all of these things were, when I wasn’t writing to you about them.

That December, I listened to an awful lot of Leonard Cohen, which felt appropriately austere—given the gape of space, given the not writing to you about it. Each of those songs blasted open something that was once a window. It felt like a vista but it was only an absolute and ever-receding December. Leonard Cohen sang I need you; I don’t need you. If there was a little gasp of I remember you well, it was snatched into the spectacular void, into the ruinous vortex of dead bark and darkness and frozen roofing tar. Leonard Cohen’s you was drifting somewhere in the minor-chord interstices, in the murmurous gaps between low notes. His you had gone someplace warm, or someplace less ambitious, or someplace that was any place not New York. His you had gone someplace where the letters could not or would not reach. Surely, at least one you had gone someplace that was actually death. I had no clue about Cohen’s historical you, never bothered to Google it. I was living with no back wall; some days history felt irrelevant. As for me, I’d pour a glass of red wine, look upon its ardent glow, and taste the lack of absence. I’d allow the finality to settle, like the paisleys of frost on my bathroom mirror. That’s all. I don’t even think of you that often.

I knew that I was going clear, and clearer, and clearer, each night—at the moment when the stars became indistinguishable from the Vodka. My ridiculous life went on being ridiculous, as it always had been, and that December went on, being yet another ridiculous month. I’d watch Breakfast at Tiffany’s on VHS while drooped in a false swoon over the smelly antique sofa. I’d rewind it—after the rain had done an ending pretty well—and drape myself in Holly’s pathos all over again. But who would even know about my cigarette smoke turning an old-timey blue in the Moon River shimmer coming off the TV screen?

I lived in a bold cacophony—dinner parties, plates weighted with lasagna, cacciatore, crock-pot alchemy. My recipes had big ratios, had multitudes in mind. But to whom could I make the point that I wasn’t lonely—that my life was a holiday-light waltz, a glint of my white throat in the glamorous dark? With no one to note how gracious and busy I was, all the swooping from party to body-humid party did indeed feel lonely. Without you to see how little I needed you, I got a little weary of all my independent whirling. Saying Oh what the hell and going to a basement club at four in the morning was actually the seedy endeavor that it seemed to be. Smashing beer bottles in the parking lot of the Ethiopian bar wasn’t dramatic—it was just sad. We hadn’t even really broken up; half the time the bottles just spun on an empty fulcrum and didn’t even shatter.

Without the tallies of bottles and glasses that I’d kept for you, drinking as I did became a little more frightening. That December, I was drinking a lot but it was just a month of drinking a lot in a life of drinking a lot. On Christmas Eve I bought a case of beer, kept it cool by setting it out on the living room floor, and then drank the whole thing—every bottle—hunkered under afghans with a friend. She’d intended to get to Midnight Mass but instead she passed out, fingers laced and bluing—arranged strangely like a wake in the midst of that immutable cold.

That December, I brought home a guy who lived in New York, which was that place I used to live—that place where you still did. This was one of the things that I did not write to you about because I wasn’t writing to you. Nothing much happened anyway—but nothing happening had never kept me from writing to you, about the nothing that always happened before. I’d gone out to see a show and he was the drummer and he wore a formidable parka that he kept on even inside my apartment. I showed him the trembling plastic where the wall had been and our boots scootched through the sawdust as if it was snow. I kept reminding myself it wasn’t cheating since I was no longer writing to you. I kept reminding myself that—even if I had been still writing to you—it would not have been cheating. In fact, though, very little happened. I pulled the plastic down from its tape and we smoked cigarettes, looking out over the riot of fire escapes and dead vines. We went to bed and kissed a little. Later I realized that he just didn’t want to crash in the van with all the other band guys; any action he got from me was probably just an added perk. Which was fine because I’d mostly wanted to show him how much space I got for only $250 a month. Those sorts of wry musings—his avoiding sleeping in the van, my showing off my square footage—were the types of things I used to write to you. They showed how arch and worldly I was and how little I took myself seriously. I was pretty happy to have made out with someone who wasn’t you; he left a nice cardigan with elbow patches that smelled like cigarettes and deeper down like something intended to make boys not smell like boys. I was glad to not even think about offering the sweater to you even though he was exactly your size.

That December continued on into January with the back wall still missing and the vortex still glittering and pouring through, infusing my whole apartment with its dark glory. I wrapped Christmas presents in whatever I could find—wax paper, blueprints trash-picked at the university, paper grocery bags. I gave my friends handmade patches and small notebooks for writing down thoughts and other stuff that girls give to their girlfriends. I wore a long, low-backed black dress to a fancy New Years’ party in a really busted house. In my apartment’s abiding chill, I clasped around my neck a rhinestone choker with many of the rhinestones missing.

Somewhere in there—while dancing in a club that I never went to otherwise—I ceased being a 26-year-old and began being a 27-year-old. I kept on thinking That’s all. I don’t even think of you that often, until it started to become more true than not. I’d still think of what I would write to you—but the writing became gradually more opaque, obscuring any view of the you to whom I would’ve written. I’d think the beams in the living room ceiling impale the dark with more dark. I’d think we girls drink wine, play drums and shatter cymbals against the steadfast winter. I’d think my hand upon the front door key, my foot upon the threshold, stepping from the cold outside into the cold of home. And these things were entirely themselves, just like the ice-sleek trees—one bright inscrutable morning—were entirely themselves, each tiny twig and nub electric with its own particular light.

The back wall continued to be gone for most of January; in its place, a shocking winter-bright sky rushed into my apartment. There was a space created by not writing to you and I was adrift in it. I listened to Leonard Cohen, who sang to you and you and you—each you sinking in a bed, each bed world unto itself. And all those beds and all those worlds already sunk. I’d left my old life, my old city, and you in it for the hope of exactly this: a huge, cerulean flooding-in. And so, I went on not writing letters to you—not giving those fucks, or trying not to, or not giving many. Each morning felt more and more like waking up; the sun and the freeze clasped like an arrival. It was the same foolish confusion it had always been, but the chill lent something new to it. There was a pearl in there somewhere, and the faucets were so cold they adhered to my fingertips. It was always freezing but it was not always dark. My living room was huge and other people—before me—had painted it an audacious aquamarine blue. I came home to sky and cold; it felt like fathoms and fathoms of a perfect drowning.

All of it was everything it was.

But that was just another thing that you would never know.  

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Rachel Toliver has work published or forthcoming in American Literary Review, The Chattahoochee Review, The Pinch, The New Republic, PANK, Redivider, Third Coast, and Brevity. She is an MFA student in nonfiction at The Ohio State University.