February 13, 2012 | by Sarah Manguso
The Thursday edition of the Riverdale Press carried a story that began An unidentified white man was struck and instantly killed by a Metro-North train last night as it pulled into the Riverdale station on West 254th Street.
The train’s engineer told the police that the man was alone and that he jumped. The police officers pulled the body from the track and found no identification. The train’s 425 passengers were transferred to another train and delayed about twenty minutes.
When college was over, we all moved to New York. Harris’s mother cosigned a lease for a loft apartment in Manhattan, on Chambers Street, and for the next decade, a lot of people we knew lived there for a week or a month or a few years.
The third-floor loft, a photographer’s former studio, was fourteen hundred square feet and had a small bathroom with a door, a tiled area with a refrigerator and a stove, and a smaller area in the opposite corner, about four by six feet, raised eight inches with some plywood.
I bought some cheap red velvet and hand-sewed a curtain to surround those twenty-four square feet and mounted a bar on the two open edges. I hung my clothing on wire hangers begged from the dry cleaner around the corner, borrowed a narrow futon and a plastic crate from Harris, and lived there for two and a half months.
My ten-foot-high window looked south onto the World Trade Center. It was so close I didn’t need to think about it. When I woke up, it was there, filling the window with its mirrors.
My roommates paid more rent than I did and lived in office cubicles separated by drywall. It was more than a year before anyone figured out how to put up a ceiling. As we fell asleep at night, we spoke to each other in the dark like brothers and sisters. Sometimes someone played music in his cubicle so we all could hear it.
After a while we instituted a rule against that, trying to force the illusion of privacy.
Eventually everyone just called the place Chambers Street. We all knew it was No. 119. Keys were given away and lost. Things fell into the floorboard holes. Drugs got stolen. Tenants came and went and their artifacts accumulated—a framed drawing, a piggy bank, a bong. Someone brought home a puppy. Someone put on a nitrous-oxide puppet show. Someone dropped the air-conditioning unit out the back window and through a grocery storefront. Someone published a novel about the place. Someone tried to hang himself in the bathroom.
Every New Year’s Eve was like the last moment of your life—if you stayed late enough, within a few hours you’d see everyone you’d ever met, minus a few relatives.
Wire-reinforced windows opened onto the fire escape at the front of the building. I sang in a choir and practiced my parts out there, in the cacophony of traffic. I never felt anyone watching me or listening to me as I sang Mendelssohn into the air, three floors up.
After he built his ceiling and bought the orchestral score of a Webern opera, Harris invited me into his room. It wasn’t a cubicle anymore. I muddled my way through the soprano line of some song, and he looked at me as if it had been the best thing he’d ever heard.
Harris met the train with his body, offered it his body.
The train drove into his body. It drove against his body.
It sent him from his body.
The conductor went down onto the track and touched the body and lifted and carried the body.
There was no need for a doctor.
The body was removed from the track and rested for two days without its name.
As we pulled into Harris’ driveway on the first night of Passover, having taken a car all the way from the city to his parents’ house on Long Island, Harris said, Be careful—my grandmother will think I got married. We smiled.
We spent all our money on drinks and taxicabs. We knew that others our age had enslaved themselves to mortgages and pregnant wives. Family was a balm for the unimaginative, a consolation for the unremarkable, just another thing to feel superior to.
As if Harris didn’t know any better than to eat a cracker before offering one to his girl, his grandmother pointed to the olive spread and said to him, Make a nice one for Sarah. What we didn’t know, of course, was that the grandmother understood. She just pretended not to. She had seen it all before.
When I was older I understood that I’d been invited into the family and that I’d been too frightened to accept the invitation.
I really wish I could show you my penis, he said, as if it were a painting or a country. God, I just wish I could show it to you.
It was said to be a majestic organ, the greatest that many had seen.
We still lived with three other guys in that raw loft space, and at home I turned my gender most of the way off so that when the guys evaluated women, I could listen and even participate a little, and not just fall to pieces at the irrelevance of my femininity. I listened to the dick jokes and cruel anecdotes and judgments and didn’t feel a thing. Not for years.
A few women had confirmed among themselves the supremacy of Harris’s penis. Eventually we all accepted it into our reality along with another roommate’s hairline, another’s whining. Harris was the one with the ear for music, the folding bike, and the penis.
Aside from a couple of intoxicated kisses, Harris and I never attempted to touch each other, so his penis was always safe from the responsibility of its power. We could talk about it as if it were an amazing restaurant in another town.
For years, we returned, yearningly, to the subject of the transcendent penis. Each time we discussed it, we observed our feelings—would it be possible that I could be shown the beautiful thing? Could either of us recover from it? And if we couldn’t recover, would it be worth it, just to have beheld it for a moment?
If we’d ever been to bed, we could never have talked about his penis as we did.
Now it is among the great mysteries.
I lived in Manhattan for six months and then moved to Brooklyn, near the East River, and awoke after the planes had already hit the buildings. There was no television. The transmitter was in Manhattan in a pile on the ground.
As I got dressed and packed my camera, Harris rang up.
A giant white bank of plume spread east, from Lower Manhattan, across the otherwise blue sky.
We walked to the river. On the other side of it, one building stood where there had been two, and I took two pictures of the fire at the top of it.
People waited quietly along Kent Avenue. Car radios played every couple of blocks, and Harris and I stood in the street, waiting and listening and watching the tower burn.
We didn’t stare at the tower as if it were television. We looked at it, looked away, talked a little. People were jumping out of it like angels.
A woman near me screamed, Oh my God, oh God, oh my God, oh my God, and whole lives passed before I understood that the tower was falling. I watched its hundreds of glass windows shimmer to the ground.
The roof fell neatly downward, erasing floor after floor, like an accordion, but I remember this only because I remember thinking shimmer and accordion.
Of course there are several films of the buildings falling down, and I could go online right now and watch, but as far as I know none was taken from Kent Avenue, where we were standing.
Harris walked me home, his left arm around me. All the subway trains in Manhattan had stopped. Some of the stations were filled with corpses, with fire.
We walked to Greenpoint and rode the G train to Long Island City, and rode the Long Island Railroad to Jamaica and then to New Hyde Park, where Harris’s mother fetched us and drove us to Great Neck.
She cooked steaks and opened a bottle of American wine, and we ate candy and watched Manhattan on television.
The next day Harris and I went to the beach with a couple of friends staying nearby with another set of parents. The waves were enormous. I lost my sunglasses and was thrown ashore. A red bruise swelled on my hip.
The act of war occupied the reported news all day, just that one story, so we swam through the gale. On a different day we’d have noticed the water was too choppy to swim.
And of course the whole memory of that morning has been written over with what has happened since: My friend, who stood with me and helped me, who hugged me as we walked back toward the city from the river shore, is dead.
Engineers who have driven suicide trains, who have looked into the eyes of the people they were forced to kill, aren’t required to disembark to remove the remains from the track. Removing the remains is the conductor’s job.
My lab partner from ninth-grade biology, now an emergency doctor, writes:
I’m not sure that anyone can tell exactly what happens to a body upon impact with a train. It happens very fast, and it’s hard for me to imagine that the person has any awareness of pain because the trauma will likely be so massive and so instant with the amount of force a fast-moving train carries. I don’t think any more specific data exists than that it is essentially a massive and rapid crush injury to all organs, bones, etc.
In photographs of bodies hit by cars and crushed by bus tires, train wheels, and tanks, I can see that all the red and yellow interior parts of the body have been pressed out of the skin. The hard skull is detached. The clothes are shredded. The soft inner parts of the body cover a surprisingly large area on the ground.
If I worked in a morgue, I wouldn’t expose the entire extruded mess. I’d show the identifier a small part of it, whatever still resembled the outside of a body, or what the identifier might remember of the outside of it, if I could.
I think I remember hearing that Harris’s parents identified the body, but then I think the teeth must have been collected, and maybe no one had to look at what was left of Harris’s body after it was crushed into its constituent parts. Thus untethered, the body no longer possessed situation in the world, and there was nothing more to say about it.
I was in my apartment, absolutely alone, when I heard of a famous writer’s fatal jump from the Staten Island Ferry, and I got up and stood in a doorway, holding myself up by the door frame. I remember wondering when I’d arisen and walked to the threshold. With the writer’s drowning I’d advanced one lurid death closer to my own.
I wrote my obituary soon after my college graduation. It seemed as necessary as knowing my Social Security number. I edited it from time to time, adding the names of books and towns. I also wrote the note that would be found with my corpse. For years I saved it in my file so it would be there when I needed it, but I don’t need it anymore. Now I save it to remember how far I have traveled from that place where no help comes.
Last year a colleague of mine, someone I’d been out to drink with more than once, someone I’d talked to about his poems and my own, put the barrel of a shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. Afterward I felt an echo of that old feeling—that the line was moving, that I was now one death closer to the threshold—but it was a faint echo. I’ve felt insulated from my death since I began taking this new medicine. I am no longer moved to write poetry, but I traded poetry for a longer life. I knew I was doing it.
I used to believe that death would come when I was ready to walk through the last door. When I was done with suffering, I’d just open the door and walk through it. I still believe it, but now I believe that someone or something else will open the door.
Harris and I sat in McCarren Park on a sunny afternoon. Maybe we’d bought ice cream. It was very hot, so hot that I was wearing only a dress and rubber sandals. I carried my house key and nothing else, just walked up Bedford to meet my friend on the dusty lawn.
We lay on the grass until it was almost dark and Harris mentioned a dance party in Queens. I couldn’t go because I didn’t have a sweater for the air-conditioned train or proper shoes or my wallet or anything. It was so hot, I wasn’t even wearing underwear.
Harris convinced me to go with him to the party, that he’d take care of my subway fare and anything I needed. Our friend Victor had just died. I felt sad, but most of all I felt safe. Now that Victor was dead I could ride the G train at night without underwear. Now that Victor was dead, I would never die. We were done dying, we who had spoken or written to Victor the week he died. We were twenty-eight, twenty-nine, thirty. Victor had exhausted our tragedy quota. It would be a long time before anyone else would have to die.
Excerpted from The Guardians: An Elegy by Sarah Manguso, to be published February 28 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.