Sunday Stories: “Temporary”


by Sylvia Math

What was strange about how I met him wasn’t just that it was unusual  in and of itself, but also that of all the many ways we might have met, that was how it happened.  We knew people in common.  We went to the same parties and events.  We had likely seen each other before; it seemed impossible that we had not.  Except that I always seem to attract notice so probably not. He would have remembered.  I have some weird quality of presence and stick out and people notice and remember me; I never get away with anything. There’s always a witness. But it was possible, we decided, that we were in dark readings at KGB bar a bunch of times together, where it’s too dark & crowded to make or receive an impression. That was the most likely explanation. We had to talk about it; rifle through the possibilities, worry the subject. There’s always something a little uncanny & compelling about meeting someone who for sure you should have already met; a sneaking suspicion that you passed by each other; that photos of this or that event you were at would depict the other one of you in the background, undetected…yet.  There all along.

Anyway I was walking down his street in the late afternoon in late August. I saw a small bookcase. I liked it.  It was just the right size for a nude spot in my apartment, a few blocks away.  It was oddly positioned sort of outside his door instead of at the curb, signifying giveaway. But maybe not.  Maybe there was another reason.   I stood pondering.  Why would someone put out a bookcase, but not bring it to the curb?  Was it freshly painted & being aired out?  Was the person just lazy?  I got lost in thought, all the probable and improbable explanations for the mystery. A manic depressive lived there.  She got into an argument with the bookcase and put it outside, but her idea of outside was drenched in hallucinations and so it was actually inside a room that belonged to her, just invisible to me. She would come out and attack me; I would look like a monster to her. Or another, even more offensive bookcase. A very depressed person lived there, and wasn’t strong enough to carry the bookcase any further; they were going to, but gave up. Inside the building somewhere, they were surrounded by detritus of at least 100 unfinished projects and some empty cereal boxes. Any minute they would change their mind, and lackadaisically drag the bookcase halfway  back inside, back into their suspension between things, their conflicted world of which the bookcase was not yet an ex-object.  A  woman was throwing her husband out, and the bookcase was the only thing he brought with him when he first moved in.  When he got home, the message would be clear to him, in the form of the bookcase…the bookcase was a sign, for just one person.  a violent wooden  hieroglyph of refusal ; that only he would understand, that’s why it made no sense to me…

I was so lost in thought I barely noticed when a slim tallish man emerged, with dark hair and dark  questioning eyes.  I felt awkward, guilty.  Guilty not only of coveting  his bookcase he maybe wasn’t throwing out, but standing around suspiciously  outside his windows.  Maybe I was crazy.  What was I up to, anyway.   We both seemed to wonder if I was crazy or not  for a longish pause. This united us.  We relaxed and a wordless sympathy flowed; we were on the same wavelength, asking the same question of this moment. The tension  was dispelled by our gradual joint conclusion that it  didn’t matter if I was crazy or not. I finally said, are you giving this away, throwing it out?  Is that’s why it’s outside?  Yes he replied.  Do you want it?  Yes. Even though the bookcase was not very big, I am not very big  either.  And it was hot.  He offered to carry the bookcase to my house for me.  Ok I said.  

He had not asked me where he was going to be carrying it to, or how far.  I liked this about him right away.  I considered telling him that I lived in Riverdale, or Cleveland, or France to see if he would carry it there.  I had the feeling not only that he would, but that he wouldn’t be surprised at any location or request .  Walking alongside him in silence, never giving a hint about where we were going other than “turn here,” I decided he had a remarkable combination of qualities: he was pensive, perceptive, and reserved.  But he was also attuned to and fully expecting continual otherworldly absurdities.  There was no partying beatnik adventurism about him, nonetheless he was prepared to drop everything and go to Cleveland right now, and wouldn’t blink  if you told that’s where we’re going. He seemed like he had patiently studied his whole life to live in a logical world, then been exiled to a planet that operated only by dream logic. There was a aura of disappointment & resignation, of alienation,  but he used what he knew about logic to parse dream logic, and clearly the first step was going along as if, so he did. It turned out that he was a novelist, he used dreams  as the entire narrative structure of one book, and his name was not real.  His name was a pseudonym taken from an obscure Marxist…he did not tell me this.  Someone else filled me in.  He was secretive. There were things he did not say.

Sex was fine with him in basic animal way, but maybe always something too restrained. Something was missing, or felt like it had already happened.  We didn’t merge or bond in any new heat; it felt like we had already been married for five years or something. We barely knew each other but we were already familiar past a bonding stage that never happened. And so we weren’t bound to each other. 

The one time it was outlined in flame was almost right where we met. We did it halfway outside, in the little vestibule in front of his door.  There was a full moon. I was wearing knee high boots he liked.  Any passers by could have seen us but it was late and it was a quiet street and there weren’t any.  I don’t know what made him so ardent that time.  Some combination of exposure and the moon and the boots.  But, we were also mere feet from where he had left the bookcase. Some places are just more charged than others, even if they don’t look exceptional.   I tried to imagine why. This particular spot may have been a portal between worlds, between the living & dead. It was on the grave of a hungry sex goddess who died young of cholera or something, and drew people to her to meet and then fuck so she could feed on their ecstasy…a little girl who fantasized about magic trick door bookcases leading to another world or at least a secret room or lair, like in a James Bond movie had spent so much time wishing & imagining in his apartment in the 70s that no bookcase could land outside of it without a coating of some kind of bookcase-specific witchcraft…

Maybe absolutely nothing had ever happened in that spot.  Cats never even peed on it. Ants never built a hill. Dandelions never grew.  We were what happened to that spot. Maybe I did it. I charged up that spot with libido for us when we met and then we cashed in later. Maybe he was the culprit. It was his house, after all. He dreampt up the whole thing; I was a character. 

Later he moved upstate and hosted a yearly summer party, in which he created a fictional “temporary” country and invited people to visit. He sent temporary passports and everything. There were imaginary traditions that became realities and were acted out.  I never quite made it there but I always felt like I went anyway. I had a passport. To a place that didn’t exist. I was both always & never there whether anyone saw me there or not.  He can’t remember if I went or not.


Sylvia Math fled from Williamsburg to Hell’s Kitchen, and is working on a memoir called Looks Bad on Paper.

Image: Ricardo Alvarez/Unsplash

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