A Living People

Chas Carey

You first went to the book club the week after your doctor told you that he couldn’t be sure whether the cells in your blood which had (until recently) been trying to kill you were officially in remission before your next check-up, six months away. According to your mid-2017 journal, although you no longer needed a mid-afternoon nap, and your hair had finally grown back to a length where you’d been able to get it into a passable bob, you nevertheless spent four of the six days after that appointment calling in sick to work and crying alone in your apartment. Your parents had finally returned to New Jersey the month before, when it looked like you were on the mend, so it wasn’t like you could ask them to come back, and no matter how close you might come to death, you weren’t going to leave Brooklyn for Hightstown. The only good option for pulling yourself together was the book club, which’d previously existed in your mind as an eternally unaccepted calendar invite sent by a well-meaning high school classmate who thought it might help you get out more. Because the group consisted mostly of friends of friends, it would put you in a space where you couldn’t break down (at least not right away, without providing context).

The book club was reading a new-ish oral history of the New York City rock scene during the aughts called Meet Me in the Bathroom, after The Strokes' song of the same name on their sophomore album, Room on Fire. An earlier journal entry talks about how you’d been the first person to play the album start-to-finish on your college’s radio station during your 3:30 a.m. DJ slot your freshman year. As the CD had spun to a close, you’d told your listeners that this was what it felt like when your heroes let you down. You read about half the book in advance and skimmed as much of the rest as you could on the bus ride over. When things got started, you smiled and kept out of the conversation. At some point, though, you mentioned that you didn’t much like Room on Fire. A guy across the room raised his hand and his eyebrows and said he thought it was a bit disappointing, too.

His skin was pale, even though it was summer, and his hair was cropped close in an unfortunate manner that accentuated the roundness of his stubbly face. He wasn’t unattractive, but he sat hunched in his chair as if fighting against admitting that he was no longer as thin as he used to be. Still, when he leaned forward to pitch questions your way, something in the intensity of his voice caught your ear. As someone who DJed in college during this era, did you see the rift at DFA Records coming? Were you still active in the music world by the time the buzz about Vampire Weekend picked up? Before long, you were in the thick of it with everyone else. You were new, and he was inviting you in, and that was nice.

At the end, as everyone was finishing the wine and chatting, you wound up in a cluster of people along with him. He kept glancing at you. If he noticed you noticing, he didn’t give it away. You were a little taller than him, sure, but you were a little taller than everyone in the room, and the way your shoulders and spine jutted out into your flowy top made you feel insubstantial, a milk-white cloud with a pair of hazel eyes hovering over the proceedings. When he looked at you, he lent you some of his weight.

The friends of friends reached out to your friends and told them to tell you that he’d asked if you were single. He’s a solid enough dude, they reported, the kind of guy who might bring you soup when you’re sick, but you should pass if he gets in touch. He tanked a three-year relationship in April and thinks he’s ready to get back out there. He’s only going to hurt someone else. You’re going through enough on your own, girl. You should take care of yourself.

When he emailed you to ask if you’d like to grab a drink, you said yes, yes you would. You traveled for work and so did he, so the only date you both had free before Labor Day was August 1st, a Monday, the night before he headed off to Seoul as the lead camera operator on a four-week documentary shoot. He showed up at eight and you talked until the bar closed at midnight. You helped build jet engines for a company based upstate, you told him, and you’d just been assigned to the team opening a plant in Tennessee. He wondered whether being out on the loud factory floor made you a bigger fan of noise music, or maybe really aggressive outlaw country. You laughed.

By the time the bartender turned on the bright lights to chase you off, you were a bit tired, but still irritated that you couldn’t stay with him longer. On the way out, you noticed a framed poster hanging slightly askew on the wall opposite from the table where you’d been sitting. In a simple typeface superimposed on a blurry photograph of a woman running, it read:


Some long-dormant bank of your memory reminded you that this was a promotional poster for Cat Power’s 2003 album You Are Free, a perfectly acceptable record that you’d played tracks from several times on your radio show and forgotten about as the years had passed. Oh, poor Chan Marshall, he said, giving the poster a nod. The great Cat Power herself. Didn’t she have, like, crippling stage fright, or some autoimmune disease, or both? Something that made her keep going into hiding? Something like that, you said. But she kept coming back, you thought to yourself as you walked him home. Maybe the stage name helped. If she believed she really was someone else, willed herself to be Cat Power, maybe she wound up believing the rest of her slogan, too. You kissed him goodnight on his stoop and heard your blood rushing in your ears. You shook your head when he asked you to come up, though. You wanted to want more than something fleeting. Keep in touch, you said.

His emails from Seoul were long, but impersonal, like you’d been bcc’ed on his itinerary. Visiting various intercultural affairs agencies, standing on hills to get sweeping shots of the American army base at the center of town, watching without interfering when a man with lesions on his skin that looked like Kaposi’s sarcoma threw a punch at a Black kid in uniform on a street near the university in Hongdae. You wrote back about Nashville, about Schenectady, about all the smaller towns in the supply chain you had to visit to get up to speed on the new project. You didn’t tell him why it was all so new to you, why you didn’t have any long-standing things you needed to stay on top of at the office where you’d ostensibly worked for the past three-and-a-half years. He didn’t need to know about the blood. If he was interested enough in you, he’d get someone else to tell him.

You needed something to do besides work as August dragged on, and after pulling an old leotard out of the bottom of one of your drawers by accident, you thought about dancing again. You started off with a couple yoga classes to stretch your body, still a foreign thing to you with your newly-visible ribs and the fear of falling you harbored even after the chemo ended. When you felt steady enough on your feet, you went down to a ballet studio to take a few runs at the basics. You showed up as close to the start time as you could to avoid any chatting beforehand. Out on the marley you moved like a knife, cutting the air as your muscles reacquired memories they’d thought they’d surrendered to the endless bags of intravenous drugs. After class ended, a woman shot your emaciated thighs a sidelong glance as she fished her phone out from her NYU duffel bag. How do you stay so fit? she asked. Leukemia helps, you said, and the conversation around you trailed off. I’m so sorry, she stammered, before launching into a story about her grandmother that you didn’t stick around to hear the end of.

A few days later, he sent you an email, ever-so-slightly different than the others. It opened with a few links to some deep-cut videos from K-Pop legends BTS and closed with a very short sentence: can’t wait to see you. That Friday, you went down to the warehouses near Sunset Park and threw yourself onto the plywood floor of a makeshift club in what used to be a seafood distribution plant until you were drenched in sweat, men and women alike entering and exiting your orbit but never having the courage to so much as shout hello. It didn’t bother you. You weren’t there for them. You had plans.

He arrived right before the West Indian Day Parade down Eastern Parkway, texting you that, with the jetlag, he didn’t know when or where he was. It worked out for the best, though, because his friends were going to Jouvert that night instead of the official festivities in the morning. The chance to walk alongside the stationary floats with the dancers and street bands, getting paint daubed on you by passers-by, was always more fun than the parade itself. Did you want to tag along?

You met him and his friends at a bar in Crown Heights and walked together down the long line of percussive groups setting up in the parade’s staging area. Is this music your kind of thing? you asked. Yeah, definitely, sort of, he said, I mean, I love Afrobeat in general, but this is islands music, Caribbean stuff, with one group very different than the next, and you never know what you’re going to bounce off of. Bounce off of, you repeated. Yeah, he said, like, if you’re not going to latch onto it, you might bounce off. Physics.

You found his turn of phrase charming at first, as if it wasn’t the music’s fault that he had opinions. As you took in the performers along the floats, though, he kept on saying it, and you started thinking it was just weird. Maybe you were tired. It was late, or early. By the fifth-or-so time he said it, you laughed and pushed him. Okay, so bounce, you said. Are you bouncing yet? Do you live in a bounce castle? He smeared paint on your face. You smeared him right back. A woman on a nearby float rolled her eyes at you both.

The sun rose over Flatbush Avenue. His friends took a Polaroid of the two of you together, which you tucked into your pocket. Then you walked back to your place and tore each other’s clothes off without so much as looking at the shower. You fucked until the thought of fucking again didn’t seem possible. I don’t think I’ve come this many times in a row since I started masturbating, he said. Bounce off this, you said.

His finger traced the line of discolored skin along your right shoulder, a mottled brown of a different shade than the many varieties of paint you’d left on each other. What’s this, he asked. You told him about the medicine, about your blood. Your skin can darken where they inject you, you said, and some people never go back to normal. He wrapped his arms around you. I asked about what happened, he said. I’d wondered why I hadn’t met you before. You froze for a second, the tenderness alien after months of being touched only by doctors and nurses in sterile rooms. Then you nestled in next to him.

When you went out to the bathroom, he paired his phone to your speakers. A part of you wanted him to dig through your vinyl instead and pull out something shared and familiar from your childhoods, but it probably wouldn’t’ve been a good idea to have him pawing through your records with his body covered in paint and various slicks of sex. In a colonial hotel, you fucked up the sun, and then you fucked it down again, sang Nick Cave’s sultry baritone from the speakers as you walked back in. Thank God we have the day off, he said, before pulling you down onto the mattress and kissing you firmly up along the inside of your left thigh as Nick Cave crooned: where do we go now but nowhere.

You picked up your acoustic guitar from its stand next to the couch in your tiny combined living room and kitchenette and watched as he bashfully stepped out of your bedroom in your running shorts and a T-shirt about three sizes too small. Your journal entry from that day remarks on how funny his embarrassment felt. You always wore gym clothes around in college: your own, someone else’s, whatever. Did wearing your stuff that afternoon feel more intimate to him than fucking you all morning? We should get dinner, you said. I’d love to, he said, his eyes glassy, but I’ve gotta get home and unpack. There’s a shoot tomorrow at noon, and I’ve got no idea how I’m gonna sleep this off. One corner of his mouth twitched up into a smile.

There’s a poetry thing on Wednesday, he added as he balled up his dirty clothes, a reading that a few of my friends in the book club are going to, up in Manhattan. Wanna come? You did, though you had to be upstate early Thursday morning. No wild night after for us, then, he said. You sighed dramatically and said you’d be back on Saturday. How about a weekend dinner at my place, he said, and you nodded with a smile. You plucked out a melody on the guitar as he walked down the hall, a song you’d learned to pick up boys in college. Oh, that’s Jason Molina, he called back as he opened your apartment’s the front door. Quoth Captain Badass, I am setting your heart on fire. Something fluttered in your chest.

It was suspiciously full for any poetry reading, let alone a Wednesday poetry reading at a café in a terminally unhip subsection of the Upper West Side. The friends were a pretty close-knit group, he told you later. They showed up for each other, even on a weekday. You’d barely made it, coming straight from work, managing to sneak in as the lights were dimming and sitting down on a frail wicker chair by his table at which he was struggling to stuff a few napkins under an uncooperative leg as a shim.

He straightened, and, as the first poet walked to the tiny wall alcove the café was using as a stage, took your hand. The back of his palm rested on the table, leaving your entwined fingers washed out and ghostly under the piercing white stage lights that shined indiscriminately onto crowd and performer alike. The first poet read a long piece about rocks: glacier-carved shield walls, boulders to surmount, a heart of stone. You thought of The Rolling Stones song of the same name, but in watching her face, brittle under the glare as she stared up at the ceiling rather than out at the audience, you wondered whether it wasn’t Blondie she was channeling.

He didn’t have much interest in talking to anyone else once the reading ended, waiting until the first poet settled in at a table far from yours before asking whether you both should make your exits. After all, he said, you’ve got a long day tomorrow. On the subway ride back to your respective apartments, he whistled in an odd sort of rhythmic way that you only later noted in your journal mimicked the pattern of a spoken-word line that opened a Shangri-Las single: is she really going out with him?

You texted him as you came off the factory floor that Thursday. Engines coming together up here, you said. Dinner plans for Saturday coming together down here, he said. Chicken and green beans okay? Sure, you said. In the quaint hotel they’d put you up at, you texted him again. Been thinking a lot about the variety of West Indies sounds we were talking about at Jouvert, you said. Got any leads? Not really, he said, though I once knew a DJ who once got thrown out of a party for playing too much soca. You found a YouTube channel for soca and bopped your head along to it as you cleared your work inbox. When you finally climbed into bed, the radiator hissed you to sleep, and you dreamed that your blood was evaporating.

His Park Slope walk-up studio was a mess, but he looked like the kind of guy whose place would be a mess, so you weren’t particularly disappointed. The chicken was a little dry, and the green beans weren’t crispy like how you’d get them from preheating the pan in the oven, but the thought was sweet, and the rosé you’d brought wasn’t bad. He nodded through the questions about his potential winter shooting schedule, asked you if Schenectady had anything to offer, and before long you were making out on his ratty mustard-colored couch, surrounded by lumpen black bags of mysterious film equipment a few convenient feet from a bed without a headboard or top sheet.

Not that you made it that far. You were on your hands and knees on the carpet, which at least looked like it had been vacuumed for the occasion, then on your stomach with his tongue deep between your ass cheeks (who said there was nothing new under the sun?), then on your back, then on the couch with your legs resting just outside his shoulders. You were at it for long enough that his music library ran out of Stereolab and proceeded alphabetically to the Steve Miller Band. Oh, shit, well, that’s embarrassing, he said, struggling to reach his laptop on his cluttered desk. Leave it on, you said, knocking him back onto the floor, it’s good driving music.

There followed a few weeks of what you called your grand tour: Schenectady, Nashville, and, oddly enough, Tokyo, a city that felt like two or three copies of New York smashed on top of one another. You were on different phone operating systems, so you couldn’t text one another for free while abroad, and the emails grew sparse on both sides. You were both busy. That was fine, you told yourself. You bought him a Buffalo Daughter record and a pair of socks that fit snugly over each individual toe. He went down to Mexico City for a shoot and came back with a mezcal he tried to cook more chicken with when you reunited. That was fine, too. It was all fine: the nights together when you could swing them, the quiet moments, the attempts at cuisine, the sex, falling asleep next to another person. You started crossing off the days on your calendar until the six-month check-up.

In late October, you invited him to the wedding of your high school classmate who ran the book club. Low stakes. A simple way to do something more, maybe even entice him to dance, since he hadn’t found the time to join you in the club yet. He had nothing going on that weekend, you knew, and so you drove out to Princeton together in the car you rented listening to a mix you’d made on your phone. What’s this? he asked. Soca, you said. Ah, he replied. I didn’t recognize it. It’s a kind of music I tend to bounce off of, if I’m being honest. At the reception you got him to move vaguely rhythmically in time with the band, but he wouldn’t shout along to Otis Redding with you, even when they opened the bar again. When you lost your voice the following morning, you let him order your omelet for you in the diner tucked into the corner of a South Jersey strip mall’s parking lot. He got it all right, down to the crispy bacon on the side. You sat together in silence waiting for the food to arrive.

In November, another friend threw a party at her fancy apartment in Cobble Hill. He agreed to come along with you, after you asked twice, because work was slow in the run-up to Thanksgiving. He helped out in the kitchen and even cleared everyone’s plates. You talked with the gang. How were you feeling? You were feeling pretty good. You were dancing a lot, and maybe you were going to have to do it all again, fight your own blood of all fucking things, or alternatively just curl up and die, die in your sex-soaked bed and be buried with him standing at an indeterminate distance from your grave. In the kitchen, he found a pair of gloves to wear while degreasing the heavy pans and chatted tersely with someone else’s boyfriend about landscape architecture, a subject he knew absolutely nothing about.

The day before the check-up, which you had scheduled for the earliest possible date, you called him, a rare event in your text- and sex-based relationship. Listen, you said, I know you’re busy, but I need you here tonight. Maybe it’s stupid, I don’t know. I’ll be there, he said, I’ll be right there. He showed up at around 8:30 with some Indian takeout and held you tight. I’m with you, he said. You’ll get through this. He took out his phone to pair with your speakers, and you stopped him, found your vinyl copy of Fleetwood Mac’s Mirage, which your mother had once told you she’d listened to nonstop during the week you were born, put it down on the turntable, and stayed up late staring at the revolving vinyl as he slept, long after the needle lifted from the final groove.

You scheduled a group dinner for friends out at a restaurant in Carroll Gardens for the day the test results were due back, which happened to be the Monday after Thanksgiving. He went home to his family for turkey and football while you went to a dance party in Bushwick that didn’t get out until deep into Friday morning. You’d seen enough of your family over the past year, and he didn’t suggest celebrating together. As Black Friday dawned, you stumbled along the sidewalk and into a record store plastered with ads for once-upcoming releases that you were embarrassed to admit were now retro. You were gathering your strength to brave the G train home when a familiar poster caught your eye.


You started to cry, harder than you’d cried in months, guttural, wracking sobs. The poster stared blankly at you as you sank to your knees in front of it, a pathetic supplicant. The clerk, a twenty-something with the look of a woman whose holiday shift had already started out wrong on her face, tried her best to ignore you. She couldn’t have helped you anyway. Neither of the things the poster said was true. You were not Cat Power, and you certainly were not free.

You didn’t text him about it. Beyond the usual sparse banter, the only thing of substance he bothered to send over before dinner on Monday was a YouTube playlist he’d compiled. Exciting times, he said. You didn’t reply, and you didn’t listen to it. Instead, once he and the rest of your friends had settled in at the table facing the bay windows of the quiet storefront restaurant, you told them the news all at once: your blood no longer owned your life, at least for now. There was no evidence of disease, only the vague fear that it could surface again at some point, tempered by the knowledge that they’d probably catch it early this time. He kissed your cheek and poured you a glass of cabernet.

You wanted it more than anything that night, a return to the obliterating sex you’d achieved together at the end of the summer, every possible point of contact made in every possible way by every possible tool at your mutual disposals, the joy of wrenching every ounce of his healthy carefree life from him before coming yourself and collapsing into an inert heap together, the two of you broken down and salvaged for parts. You put on Room on Fire, for the absolute hell of it, and threw him into bed as the propulsive beat of its lead single washed over the room: the night’s not over, you’re not trying hard enough. He grunted through the song with you on top of him before rolling meekly onto his side, the kind of sign a dog might give to signify its surrender.

You waited until the end of that week to send him a text telling him to meet you on a stoop near the Clark Street subway stop in Brooklyn Heights. Neutral ground, equidistant from your respective apartments. All the holiday decorations were up. The streets were quiet. It was cold, but not uncomfortably so if you wore the right coat, which you did and he didn’t. Conditions ideal for a breakup, if the situation so required. When he arrived, round face pulled taut by a grim frown, you knew he knew why you’d brought him out. You paced the blocks for about half an hour, asking him, in so many words, where the fuck this all was going.

The word commitment had never crossed his lips, you said, and when he pointed out that it hadn’t crossed yours either, you snapped that it was fairly fucking obvious that you’d committed to something given that you didn’t know how long you had to live throughout most of your relationship, if you could even call it that, thank you very much. He fought you at first. He wasn’t a mind-reader, he said, and didn’t know what he wanted himself. It wasn’t until you asked him when he would know that he gave in, dropping to the stairs of a particularly lovely townhouse as you stood over him, tears in both your eyes. He was so sorry. He didn’t know how to be in a healthy relationship. He was fine with the way things had been going but got worried when you started asking for something that looked like support because he’d fucked that up before and was now fucking it up again. Maybe he wasn’t over his ex. Maybe it was best if he stopped dating altogether. Maybe, you said, and walked away. On the subway ride home, your phone suggested that you put on your regular soca channel. You began to laugh. You’d bounced off of him.

You saw him a bit at dinner parties after that, friends of friends and so forth, his figure waxing and waning like a dirtbag moon. He was perfectly polite, clearing plates and making small talk, and even when his eyes would occasionally linger on you for a moment, you had the sense he wasn’t longing for the past so much as trying to work through a puzzle he was incapable of solving. Eventually, your friend groups stopped overlapping. Maybe he wore out his welcome with the people you liked. Maybe he moved to Manhattan. Either was fine with you.

When you asked me to digitize your journals with my office’s industrial scanner so you wouldn’t have to take them with us when we moved to our new place in Astoria (maybe it’ll be a memoir or something, who fucking knows, you said), I couldn’t help but read them as I lay their pages flat for the camera. What ever happened, I thought to myself as I waited for the machine to process each new pane of information, and then I started humming The Strokes song of the same name that opens Room on Fire, even though I now know you don’t really like that album. I think it’s fine, personally, but I only really listen to it if it comes up on our station here at the office when I’m up late transferring film reels of Alvin Ailey or somebody to our cloud storage. I didn’t get most of your music references on our first date, but you said yes to a second when I mentioned a club in Ridgewood with a new hip-hop night I wanted to check out. I try not to date anyone with similar tastes anymore, you told me. Eventually you run out of things to talk about.

After the last image from that year’s journal entries finally resolved on my screen, I closed my laptop, extinguishing the last source of light in the empty office. I sat back in my chair and thought about you crying alone in a record store on the Friday after Thanksgiving, not knowing whether your own blood would once again try to kill you. I felt my way over to the scanner and picked up your well-worn notebook. I imagined climbing through the pages and taking you in my arms. I reached back from our future together to tell you: there will come a time when your hair is so long it seems to defy gravity when we dance through Sunset Park. You will live so far beyond the story of the dark line along your right shoulder that you can be anything, or anyone. You are Cat Power. You are free.

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