Chloe in Brooklyn
by Julie Hart
–“the 19th century city is surprisingly intact and, in parts, it is unusually handsome, with its low skyline and big old trees and rows of sculptured houses of brick and brownstone. Writers seldom live where it is ugly, if they have any choice in the matter.“ Evan Hughes, Literary Brooklyn
Chloe finds a third-floor walk-up in a brownstone in Brooklyn Heights, a block and a half from where Truman Capote wrote Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Not easily, or without soaring hopes followed by crushing depths, but she finds it in only five days on the New York City realty roulette wheel. Like all good fortune, it is largely undeserved. She has traded in floor space for centrality, kitchen facilities for convenience to her husband’s job. She is not sorry. Her husband and son see it only after she has secured it, and they give it two thumbs up. The price is New York reasonable, which means it is ridiculously high for what it is by Midwestern standards. But how she longs to finally slip out of those handcuffs. She pays people to lug books up three flights of stairs. She arranges the subset of their goods she has brought to New York. Her husband goes to work, a mere five minute walk from Willow Street. Her son starts college.
An expectant feeling, a sense of finally coming back to the world-class city that had won her heart in grad school, the place she had met her husband and walking the length and breadth of the city together, had fallen in love. She is home. Here she will not have to explain that her microfictions are not deep purple tragedies but sharp ironies meant to elicit short barks of laughter.
She writes. She talks on the phone with one or two fellow writers, reads them her poems, tries to explain how she feels. They praise her, sometimes to the skies, other times with a hint of hesitation that can ruin her day. She writes ode after ode to characters on TV shows. The beautiful dry fall weather arrives. Around New York, the streets glow with the turning leaves, golden fruits. A brilliant blue sky serrated by skyscrapers dwarfs all her efforts. Heat and glare make her close her eyes on her work. It is as if the exploding colors behind her eyes are accusing her of irrelevance when of course she accuses herself often enough. Whenever she sits at one of the little round marble-topped tables of a cafe and stares into the sepia depths of an espresso, these colors rise up and clash inside her head. She curses. She curses her craft. She curses this idea everyone has of craft. She had intended to return to teaching when she came to Brooklyn, now that her son was out of the house and she didn’t need to accommodate his schedule. Nice idea, that. As if she could find any words in that profession either. Easy to think she could outside the classroom, impossible inside. Poets anyway often think it will be easy to communicate the ineffable. No effing way.
Chloe has left behind in Minnesota a huge tribe of worker bees for whom a job sufficient to allow a mortgage appears to be all they have ever aspired to in this life. They get together at every holiday to swap renovation porn and new baby photos. They live, they consume, they drive endlessly up and down the service roads of the ever-growing sprawl while bemoaning the loss of wilderness. Fellow writers in Minnesota, encouragingly or insultingly, she’s not sure, kept reassuring her that her aesthetic will find a more receptive audience in New York.
Usually about eleven o’clock in the morning, she returns to the studio lugging bags of fruit and bread and cheese, milk and coffee and chocolate. She is so much alone. Here in Brooklyn she sees no one all day. Her husband is at work, her son is away. She wishes there were someone beside her, someone to talk to, to listen to, to help her lug the bags. She had thought the move and her son’s going to college would leave her more time with her husband, but in fact she has less. Out the window the buildings across the street are old and beautiful and mute. Brownstones and wooden houses, architectural flights of fancy or stolid four-square bourgeois abodes. She wonders who lives across from her, who could see her if they bothered to look at her pale, pinched face hovering there at the third floor window. Out there is the celestial city, New York, dazzling, ever-changing, ceaselessly morphing into the next new thing. Impossible to keep up with or to know completely. From the Promenade, Manhattan glitters and intrigues. Her elbow on the arm of her chair, she props her chin on the heel of her hand, stares and stares and stares and wants to forget herself in imaginative reverie. A snapshot of her mother’s face comes into her mind begging for solicitude, aid. The old voices call to her now only in her head, but still she can not rid herself of them. “What are you doing there, staring into space? We have to get a move on if we’re going to eat at six. Come on, get up off your rear end and iron that tablecloth. This is the third time I’ve called you.”
She jumps up and runs outside to clear her head. She walks the slate paving stones to the Promenade once again and hangs her head over the railing to hear the roar of traffic on the BQE below her. Manhattan looks like a tourist postcard from here. A ferry toots its horn and slides slowly out of the slip across the water. She feels she could reach out and touch the Statue of Liberty, as millions must have noticed and remarked before, as the tourists now are saying to each other in the babel of languages to be heard around her. The rollerskating brats Capote complained of have been replaced by pint-sized hellions on scooters. Her nerves feel grated by sensation. She can’t remember any more what it felt like to be unselfconscious. How was she ever able to just float on the surface of sensation without trying to translate or analyze it all?
She goes to an open mic night at one of Brooklyn’s many literary bars, two poems clutched in her sweaty paw, hoping to stun the audience into poetic submission. She sees the same two pages in every paw in the room. The readers are alternately frozen in anxiety or haughtily dismissive of this audience, any audience. She is not anxious (why, she has no clue) nor does she want to be dismissive. She claps like a maniac after each poem “pour encourager les autres.” This is not the time for criticism. That will only harm the nascent poets here. Like herself. She wishes she had any experience in this sensation:
“There is danger in being appre
She wishes to test that sentiment empirically.
Sometimes, especially late in the quiet mornings, she feels this place, so near to the absolute center of culture, is also the middle of nowhere. The Atlantic seems so close, so overwhelming. She walks the streets, so homely, so comfortable, so bourgeois. She looks in the plate glass windows at salon level and sees giant chandeliers, bookcases to the ceiling, thickly painted walls in vivid colors, art. The garbage piled up at the curb attests to the ceaseless getting and spending of this corner of the borough. Packaging. So much packaging. Wine bottles, milk cartons, pizza boxes. She herself has added to the pile, though she attempts not to. The air is sticky with the smell of sour milk and the waste products of dogs. To herself, she seems a superfluous person, completely beside the point. Just like everyone else.
Always she goes back to the studio. Why, she asks herself with a grimace, is it she who has nothing to do, nowhere to go, no one to see or speak to? Deciding every morning where to go and what to do begins to corrode her will to live. She feels her body slowly softening and its strength draining away. Her entire being thrills for some purpose, just out of sight. It makes no difference what she does, or what she says, or what she writes, so it is all too easy to just stop. Much as she’d like to scream, she knows it will accomplish nothing. And she is nothing if not efficient. She can find nothing worth her effort, her attention. She is inconsolable. She is a live nerve registering each faint change or charge in the atmosphere. No one wants to hear of this now.
She has never been mad before. In both senses. Both the angry and the unhinged. It has to do with her vaulting ambitions and intellectual (what a dirty word this has become) and philosophical pretensions—which don’t feel like pretensions, but are only taken as such. If she has no desire to write in the popular idiom, it is, it must be, her own fault if no one wants to read her manuscripts.
She speaks, and the words fall as snowflakes in a blizzard: “We need a new bed.” “The laundry can’t be picked up before 5 pm.” “I can’t eat out any more.”
When she goes to cafes and restaurants, her words similarly fall on deaf ears: “Double espresso. This is a cappuccino.” “Vinho verde. This is chardonnay.”
For most of her life, she knew nothing of despair. She has no explanation for this. Now all at once a full lifetime’s worth has rained down on her, leaving her vaguely wishing at each street corner that a speedy car would upend her and end her misery. Quickly before she damages anyone in her attempt to claw her way out of some self-imposed mental hell. She has no sufficient explanation for this either.
Overnight, plywood cladding appears around the stoop next door. Sledgehammers batter at her wall, just above the marble mantelpiece of the no longer functional fireplace. Her head throbs.
She has so efficiently cleared her days for writing that the lack of distraction has become distracting in and of itself. She throws her being out into the narrow street, then with it flies over the rooftops to view the city as a crow or an owl. Yes, an owl. She would be surprised if she were to feel in balance now. Why read a newspaper? Why debate politics? Review books? Engage in online debates about women’s rights, the patriarchy, racism, the outrageous behavior of people caught in publicity’s headlights? Why? She is not unhappy. Secretly, she considers herself as always striving for equilibrium at the same time as expecting little or no help from anyone else. She wonders why, in her search for mastery, she has learned not to trust the opinions of others, to no longer ask them for anything since basically everyone she knows asks her to help them. She would like to scream, to weep. What is wrong with me, she cries out to the empty street. The sky soothes her. She sits down at her desk, determined to work until she can stand to sit no longer. She writes.
On rainy days the brick and brownstones darken, the paving stones become slick and black, the trees drip from each tiny twig tip. The sky behind the Brooklyn Bridge lowers, slate gray. From her window, unmanned umbrellas bounce along the street. It is dark and the city closes in on itself, becomes small, a bubble only an arm’s length across. It is suffocating. She had been under the misapprehension that her practiced optimism would always buoy her. That nothing could ever undermine her skill for living. But whether it is menopause and its hormonal swings, or the empty nest feeling suddenly barren, or just a withdrawal from previously high levels of circulating endorphins, she does not know. She asks herself: do other people live like this all the time? Her pity for the human race in general, if this is their normal condition and for a few of her friends who struggle constantly with mood, rises like the tide in Newfoundland. But this in no way consoles her.
Chloe realizes that she had been hanging on to her sanity more and more tightly, more and more desperately the longer she stayed in the Midwest. She knows she had a charmed childhood, a Happy-Birthday-to-You cupcake life in the suburbs and finds no one in her family or set of friends who understands her restlessness and desire. But now she is in New York! She can read, write, live, be understood finally in a place where the idea of thinking does not automatically bring a sneer.
When her husband gets home from teaching future CEOs about black holes, even the most routine inquiry into her day can send her into a cold rage. “What do you mean ‘What did I do today?’ I stared into the middle distance for exactly one hour at a cafe, gave it up and came home, binged on Arrested Development and Candy Crush simultaneously, felt ill and couldn’t cook. No, I didn’t order that lap desk you asked me to. No, I didn’t find those unsalted pistachios for your father. No, I didn’t call anyone. I couldn’t speak to anyone!” He buys her flowers every week in a mute attempt to bring color back into her life.
When the sun shines again, she ventures back into the streets, ahum with the ceaseless thrum of buying and selling. She walks the shopping streets, sits at one of the cafes with huge plate glass windows near a subway entrance and watches the throng. The arrival of trains creates tides in the waves of humanity. The girls and women wear leggings with boots; the men have shaved heads, big beards, faux workman’s jeans. They all carry smart phones, earbuds; briefcases or messenger bags. Their faces are crumpled with worry or disdain. Buses lumber down the street, periodically wiping the scene away. People gather and scatter, gather and scatter. Knots of high school kids pass, heads together suddenly, then flying apart with uncontained laughter.
At times she walks slowly past the temples of an undead Mammon: bank buildings. Some have been repurposed as bookstores, gyms, Trader Joes, Urban Outfitters. High ceilings, massive chandeliers, the kind of decorative style that is no longer being made for anything. It is all so irretrievable, this attention to detail, this art for any sake besides selling. From being drawn toward the ant-like activity that parades itself as life, she now is repulsed by its pointlessness. It all looks so terrible, just an endless trestle table of expensive food mindlessly wolfed down, then excreted. And she, too, lives just like a dog. This is not living, she cries out, and does not know where to turn, where to direct her steps, where to plant her body to take in the sun, where to stretch her legs or draw them in. In the end, she tells herself she lives too much alone. She shudders, unsure how to accuse others of not feeling for her when she herself is the definition of pitiless.
Her son emails her: “Written any hilarious poems lately?” She has to admit that she has not.
Then comes an offhand invitation to a gathering of poets. She has no idea why she was included in the guest list, but decides to go. She must take all consolation where she can. It begins as a quiet evening gathered around the coffee table, sipping rough red wine. It ends with the writhings and grindings of hip hop. Her sweat runs freely between her breasts, her legs become wobbly with sustained unaccustomed effort and her soul thrills to even the most banal music. Sweet dreams. Not really made of these. But her body has come alive again after a hibernation of what feels like years. She removes her shoes. Then her socks. She shimmies on into the night, aware of but not constrained by the movements of the other poets around her. Everyone in Brooklyn seems to be a poet. All poets, all the time.
She wonders what would be her situation now if she had used all that time and effort she had put into her husband’s career, her son’s education, her extended family’s holiday traditions, if she had used all that thought and concentration to write, where would she be now? Somewhere nearly as lonely, or lonelier, but with a higher page count? Well, that didn’t bear thinking of. She had never before wasted time regretting what might have been. Not enough time left to start now.
Weeks pass, Chloe has written nothing that she has not torn up immediately afterward. She wants arresting, astonishing, accomplished, undisputed mastery and she is not providing it. Not now. Not yet. Something new, something short and heart-stopping. She continues to massage her manuscript of poems, cutting and pasting, adding, then subtracting. Each poem has one essential phrase, the rest of it worthless. Her good fortune in being a sensible balanced human holding steady in the churning city, her simple feelings of gratitude and well-being burst as she thinks of them and rain down like shards of glass on a tile floor. She wants to abandon herself to the catastrophe of being alive, which means no more writing.
Winter comes. She leaves the studio only to descend into dark dive bars on the Lower East Side, where poetry is gratingly shouted into cheap microphones over the din of the craft-beer drinking hoi polloi. The ambiance of no ambiance. The music is too loud for conversation, not rhythmic enough for dancing. The poets who read ramble on and on, long poems, longer poems, too long to listen to at one sitting, which make her hyper-observant of the poet’s physical presence, something the poet may not want his listeners to do. Other listeners have lost the thread of the poem too; chins lit from below by the blue glow of their smart phones. By the time each poet finishes, she has memorized every pore and mole of their face, every wrinkle in their skinny jeans. She wonders what, if anything, this has to do with poetry or literature. If she isn’t here to find a lover, what is she doing here? She stands up and leaves.
Chloe imagines she is Cassandra, the bearer of bad tidings, inconvenient tidings. Some people really do want to shoot the messenger. Will she be content to keep her knowledge to herself, for private use only? She sees she may have to. Despite intellectually accepting this, her body somehow seems to shirk this wisdom. She falls slowly into a shallow depression. A rut, if you will. Is it that no one can hear her? Or that no one knows she is anyone to listen to? Does it matter in the end, to her? Deep circles ring her eyes. She can’t sleep well, if at all. Her body protests this disruption of optimism by visiting her with one minor affliction after another. Each problem, tiny in itself, takes her one step lower on a downward spiral until it feels to her as if she is looking up at a distant circle of light no larger than the moon, which is the view from the bottom of a well. From this vantage point, she can’t see any longer how to scale the well’s slimy dripping walls.
She sits now at the window, too enervated to leave the house except to buy food and this is not good. She begins to conform to the chair, her buttocks and thighs to spread into a square shape completely filling the seat. She plays online Scrabble against the computer for hours on end because she must silence the voice in her head that keeps declaring no one loves her, not as she does them. It may be true, it may be false, but she can not listen to it any more. She knows no one who can help her, who is not drowning more completely than she is.
Her husband starts telling her that he fears he’ll wake up one morning to find a post-it note on her pillow: “Out of cornflakes. FU.”
She is trying to devote herself to her writing in the most serious way possible, but it is impossible, because she herself can’t imagine her writing making a whit of difference in this world or any other. All the poets she reads, the published ones, need to write those poems more than anyone needs to read them. Maybe all unpublished poets too, herself included. She has the volatile emotions of adolescence, but the less egotistical and more historical worldview of someone already old. Her fury fuels her unwillingness to surrender, her agony is laced with scorn, her misery is undeserved. Yet who among us deserves misery? Who happiness? It appears to be an arbitrary bell curve across the population of the globe. The only difference is how long you let it control you. She asks herself again and again, What is wrong with you? If she knew, she could tackle it like any other project, make it bend to her considerable will. But she can not locate the source of this foul and needy temper she is in. What is wrong? Why can’t she say what is wrong? What is wrong with her that she can’t figure out what is wrong? She looks out at the people in her life and thinks, none of you have ever had the least idea who I am, have you? Despite years of words, gestures, behavior, plenty of evidence. You made a picture of me, a paper doll perhaps and that flat icon went through my life for you. How can adding more words, or more behavior give you more information? You have all you need and it means nothing to you! Her gaze becomes vacant. Why look at any of them if they never see her? The horror of uselessly repeating herself. The chagrin that what she’s said and written so far has been so fatally misunderstood.
Above the roof of the houses opposite, a flock of birds wheeling in the mist appear and disappear as they individually circle in and out of her limit of visibility. Reality is like that. Some parts are visible, some not. Who is to say which part of reality is more real? It strikes her like a frying pan to the head that she has been too goal-oriented in the last year or two. Something that she has not succumbed to until recently. Process is all, in those endeavors she has prided herself on in the past. Friendship, love, mothering: writing is no different.
At the next open mic, Chloe reads a poem about an effortlessly beautiful young football player on TV. It is appreciated. Afterwards, she can hear people all around the room saying the beautiful young man’s name over and over. Her blood fizzes like champagne in her veins. Just this tiny peep of the positive is enough to tip her back into balance.
If you want, you can look at the facade of the brownstone where she wrote “Paean to Tim Riggins”, down the street from where Truman Capote wrote Breakfast at Tiffany’s, where Arthur Miller wrote Death of a Salesman, where Auden lived when he wrote “September 1, 1939”, where Henry Miller was evicted after June urged him to quit his Western Union job, where Whitman printed Leaves of Grass at his own expense, sent it to Emerson and blew the lid off American poetry forever. But is the facade of any brownstone more eloquent than the rock face of a mountain?
Originally from Minnesota, Julie Hart has lived in London, Zurich, and Tokyo, and now in Brooklyn Heights. Her work can be found in Five Quarterly, Denim Skin, PANK magazine, The Rumpus and forthcoming in Floor Plan Journal. Follow her on Twitter or Tumblr.