Sarah Blackman

What happened in what we now know to be the final years of the city was a form of spread, characterized by a wavering, uncertain sideways movement quite in contrast to the sturdy on and up we had previously enjoyed. At first it was just the sidewalks, a few more blocks between home and the park and the lonely, staunchly manned hot-dog stand. Then it was miles. An endless expanse of concrete. You couldn't see the park; the hot-dog man?—a boundless memory. Logically, this would have eventually marooned us, a situation for which you can be assured we prepared. On Sundays, Jane and I would take the car out of the garage—tipping the boy who sat behind the Plexiglas heavily because we suspected he now lived in his little booth—and drove the thirteen, or fourteen or twenty-five miles to the Italian grocer who stocked the kind of salami Jane liked and also carried tubs of purified water that I, with the help of Marco the bag boy, hauled one by one to the car.
      In time, we realized even the Italian grocer would be depleted of his horde—the waxy slabs of salami sliced invisibly thin, rolls and bread sticks reduced to bitter crumbs—and we busied ourselves imagining back up plans, possible eventualities; roof top gardens and the like. But then the spaces started to fill again. The process was gradual at first: a tree here, a park bench there, but one morning a whole building appeared (a squat brownstone with a tendril of smoke ribboning from its chimney) then several, then a block. They were nothing we had ever seen before. Buildings, yes, made of concrete and glass, steel and brick, but strange somehow. Untenable. They were solid enough, I bruised my knuckles knocking on their walls, but they looked almost like mirages—things make solely of smoke and heat.
      Jane and I huddled in bed, talking late into the night and listening to the music from the discotheque that was now outside our window. We decided that the buildings were a product of warp, of the stretch in the fabric of the city. It was a sort of plaid effect—spaces had been made, lines of horizontal opportunity, and here were the inevitable, necessary forms to fill them. It was a natural process, a form of evolution. Meanwhile, a Jewish Deli had popped up three blocks down and the ghostly stacks of water bottles in our cupboard dwindled.
      One morning, I woke up early to the smell of bread baking and delivery men shouting and clanging the gate of their truck. "A bakery!" I thought. "Just what we were missing," and turned to nudge Jane awake. She was burrowed under the covers, as she did even on hot nights, with a tent of sheet held over her face by one elbow. I was gentle, I remember even in my extremity I was tender, filled as I was with visions of freshly baked bread, but when I pulled back the sheet I remember thinking that were I a lesser man I would have screamed or clouted the woman on the head with my fist. For it was a woman there—beautiful in her way, with dark hair and fine wrinkles spreading from the corners of her eyes. It was a woman, wifely too, but not Jane.
      The next few hours are blurred and opaque. The scent of bread peaked and dwindled; the sun broke over the top of the next building and went from gray to visible, almost solid, bars of gold across the hard wood of our bedroom floor. The woman, the not-Jane in my bed, slept on and I—in the chair across the room, crouched just below her pillow, making an automatic pot of coffee in the kitchen—spanned through a series of vague, desperate, nauseating suppositions that always ended in total inconsequentialities. What would we have for breakfast? I thought at one point. What would we do when it came time for her to unfold the newspaper among the jumbled wreckage of our breakfast table and do the crossword, and for me to object that she always got to do the crossword and her to say, "For God sake's Robert, buy another newspaper. We do this every day." I had gotten all the way up to bed time again and the horrors of tooth brushing vs. mirror vantage positioning when the not-Jane awoke.
      She sat up in bed, stretching much the way my Jane did, and I scuttled for the kitchen. I was futzing with the full, and overly hot, coffee pot when she walked in the door and reached up to the top shelf of the glasses cabinet where my Jane kept her special coffee mug. I heard the squeaky hinge as the cabinet door opened. I heard the not-Jane grunt, just the way my Jane did, as she strained to the tips of her toes and fished for the mug's handle. Then, she came up behind me, reached around my waist with one arm, patted my stomach and placed the mug on the counter. She rested a totally unfamiliar hand—darker, more wrinkled, scarred slightly above the index knuckle—on the handle of the coffee pot and said, "Well, you're up early. I thought I smelled bread this morning. Do you think a bakery moved in next door?"
      Throughout the day, I tried to explain to the not-Jane that she was, in fact, not Jane. They looked similar, but in the details really nothing the same. Not Jane was slightly taller. Her hair was darker. She stood with her shoulders pulled farther back and walked with a bounce, off the ball of her foot, that made the floor boards squeak in unfamiliar ways. We had hardboiled eggs and fruit for breakfast, as usual. We fought for the paper, again as usual, but not-Jane used a blue pen and chewed the point and when she cracked the shell of her egg she did it coolly and efficiently—pulling the shell apart in concave halves—with none of the picking and fussing that my old irritating breakfast companion had habitually employed. Strangely, she protested, claiming that yes, she was Jane (she was not!), that, wasn't I silly teasing her like this (I was not! I was scared! I was enraged!) and finally, around the time my Jane and I would have started to argue about whether or not to eat in or walk to the Pearl Garden for dim-sum special, the not-Jane started to cry.
      "I don't know what you're doing, Robert," she said, snuffling and pinching her nose in an unfamiliar way, "but you're scaring me. Of course I'm Jane. I've always been Jane, and this is scary. It's scary and it's sad."
      Eventually though, it was just sad. I slept that night on the couch, and when I woke up it was still the not-Jane, her eyes swollen with crying, who was making coffee in the kitchen. I asked her questions about our past together—trying to sneak them in at unexpected intervals so as to keep her from getting defensive and upset—and she answered every one correctly, each detail spot on, but when she said, "Of course I remember Maine. We rented those kayaks and I almost got swept into the bridge piling," the nuances were wrong. This was certainly a woman who had, at one point, nearly been swept into a bridge piling, but it was not my woman and her specific bridge piling. Of this I was certain. What I became less certain of, as the days then weeks went by, was that this women and her bridge piling had not, in fact, been paddling down that river in Maine next to me. She still wasn't my Jane, and the story—with its twists and turns, its comic inattention, vibrato of fear, and heroic husbandly intervention—was not my Jane's story, but perhaps, somehow, it was mine. It sounded familiar to me the way stories about yourself do when you are young and they are becoming part of family lore. You may not be able to specifically remember hijacking your mother's dinner party and attempting to drive them to Honolulu in the family sedan, but as dinner parties follow each other in stately procession and over the years the story is told, you know with a certainty beyond memory that the story is true and that it is yours.
      The city continued to spread. On our afternoon walks, the not-Jane and I began to notice unfamiliar scripts above some of the corner bodega's doors. On the street, the ambient hum of conversation became stilted, harsh, unfamiliar. Once, in the park, I swore I saw somebody watering a camel in the duck pond, but the not-Jane said I had been out too long in the heat and the next afternoon she made me take a hat.
      Slowly, as outside became even stranger, relations between the not-Jane and I stabilized, even got comfortable. At night, she would snore delicately and I would watch her sleep, scanning her mobile eyelids for the imprint of her dreams. Some nights, when the chanting outside grew to a peak, I would sit up in the kitchen and watch the fire light dance across the walls of the opposite building. I wondered, as the not-Jane turned and called out in her sleep, just what had happened to my Jane, what Robert she woke up next to, or, perhaps, next to no Robert at all. Perhaps, in the space my Jane moved to fill, Robert is dead or in a deep and tragic coma. Perhaps, he has been replaced by someone younger, stronger; someone who, when he saw her kayak heading for that piling, would have called out and let her save herself instead of swooping into the eddies at the last minute and grabbing hold of her bow. Maybe, and this I think is the scenario that makes me the most melancholy, maybe my Jane woke up that morning in our apartment alone. She would look for me at first, no doubt call out in alarm, but maybe, eventually, she learned to get up in the morning by herself, to make a pot of coffee just for one. Maybe she stands sometimes in the square of light that comes in through the bedroom window with an afternoon glass of wine in one hand, the other tucked up under her arm like she used to do, and she looks out over the top of the next building; over its aerials and antennas, its cool slab of tarmac, its colonies of strutting, grumbling pigeons. She stands there and thinks the thoughts that make her eyes go deep and distant and no one comes up behind her and touches the back of her neck. No one says, "What do you think? Chinese tonight? Italian?," and when she is done thinking whatever it is that arrested her there—motionless, slightly amused, wine held ready but forgotten—she turns back to the empty rooms of her apartment and moves through them slowly, drinking the wine, moving things from one place to another, happy in a way I never saw her happy. When she is done with that she puts on a light coat and goes out into the spreading, loosening, cacophonous city. She walks to the end of the block and when she gets there I don't know which way she turns, or how fast her steps are, or the expression on her face when, finally, she disappears.



I grew up in a city but have lived for the past many years in a small southern town. When I'm feeling bummed about various nebulous things in my life, I like to romanticize city life by "remembering" all the vibrant, ephemeral, shifting change of a typical city neighborhood and contrasting it to the staid geometry of the town. Then one day, bummed and nebulous, I took a drive around Tuscaloosa and ended up in a section I'd never seen before. Among other things there was a graveyard full of Civil War soldiers and a house in the process of burning to the ground while firemen laid out quilts and high-end stereo equipment on the lawn. From that I started thinking about how quickly every neighborhood changes, and how sometimes the most familiar things are the things that are most drastically altered and etc...I was still missing the city, though, hence the decision to write "Twilights in the Softening City," and not "Twilights in the Softening Rural Squalor behind the Burger King off Highway 69."