It’s true I made you up as I went along. All the more reason, I say, that I should be able to make you go away when I want. But you have proved to have a solidity not normally associated with the imaginary realm.
I know that when we first met you were just an ordinary guy—a little shorter maybe, a little bit more into art and the Rangers but really just a regular Joe.
You made yourself at home right away at that loser party that Lisa and I threw. You didn’t for a moment act bored; you laughed at my jokes; you circulated amongst the ten people there. You told me you were having a great time—like you really meant it.
Maybe that’s when I first began to construct you in a distant corner of my mind.
But I don’t remember putting much store in your friendliness; friendliness of the ordinary sort was not high on my list of attractive qualities then. Besides, I was after your roommate Robert that night, had been after him for a while, sure he was the guy for me. I’d met him through work—his cubby in the community service office was down the hall from mine in career development. After a month of chance meetings, most calculated in ever more inventive ways by me, Robert and I still remained serious, sincere and considerate with one another—our conversations wooden, our meetings informative, intellectual even, but deadly dull. Still, I was sure that Robert and I belonged together. And the party, I thought, would finally ignite something between us.
Alas, it didn’t. Robert and I had three of our usual serious and sincere talks with only three noticeable differences. First, both of us held beers in our hands. Second, while I spoke, I swayed a bit, and as Robert listened, he leaned heavily against a wall. Third, we were mercifully interrupted by you and Will with talk of that weird name of yours. Will insisted and insisted until you finally revealed it.
“It’s Frank N. Stein,” you said. “My mother was obsessed with Mary Shelley when she was pregnant with me and so . . .”
We’d had enough beer by that time, and you’d said it with such a straight face that we actually believed you. And before we thought too much about it, you said, “No, I’m kidding. I’m named after my two grandfathers: Franklin and Norris.” And we laughed loud enough to make the party seem fun (if only for a moment).
“This is the last guy who’s any kind of monster anyway,” Will said, cocking his thumb in your direction.
“You’re a wuss, Stein,” he added, looking over your way.
Then to me and Robert he said, “He won’t even fuckin kill the goddamn cockroaches.”
I decided then that Will, who had the clean-cut, polo shirt-and-khakis-jock look that screamed “frat boy” down, just didn’t get it. You were a sensitive guy, one with principles. It seems you took on more shape then, though you remained in a distant part of my mind.
You told me later that you got dragged to the party by Will because he had a major crush on Lisa. Weird thing was that Lisa had something for Will too; for weeks I had heard nothing but her jabber about the clean-cut guy with the big nose and blond hair who worked at the circulation desk in Fordham’s library. It’s funny how it all turned out. You and I hit it off; Will and Lisa never clicked.
Much later, it was Lisa who told me I should have been able to figure you out because of the macho idiot Will was. She said you can tell everything about a guy by meeting his best friend. A guy’s best friend, she said, has every character trait that he admires but is afraid to display. I told her that the be-spectacled and serious Robert was your best friend and that Will was just your roommate. But Lisa just looked at me like I was making life more complicated than it really is. I guess, I’m not the only one with an active imagination.
Somewhere around eleven when the two other people still left at the party packed it in as a lost cause, you and I sat on the stairs with Robert, Lisa and Will. New York suburbanites all, they’d struck up a conversation about the Yankees. You weren’t a baseball fan, and I liked the Pittsburgh Pirates, their stadium an hour’s drive from my hometown in Ohio.
So we sat there mute for a while listening to them. Every now and then I’d interject a stupid question just to have Robert’s brown eyes gaze at me while he carefully answered me.
They went on and on about the pitching staff, George Steinbrenner, the great Yankees of the past, and some TV announcer named Scooter until I was so bored even I gave up on asking Robert questions just to hear him speak. That’s when I looked over your way, and on impulse, asked, “Has your name scarred you for life?”
“Naaah,” you said. If there were any scars, you didn’t know about ’em. As far as you could tell, your name made for a good joke at parties, and people rarely forgot it. I admired your good humor, admired the way you brushed off what I felt certain had to be a painful subject for you.
I must have filed away a vision of you as a child: endlessly bullied, pummeled with fists, crying alone in your room with no comfort. Yet you had survived, flourished even. I grant you it wasn’t terribly original: sensitive soul with painful past who admirably becomes an artist. Originality, of course, is not necessarily the province of a 22-year-old Catholic girl from Ohio, raised on TV and cheerleading.
We talked of other things for a while. Then during a pause in the conversation, which made me nervous, as all such pauses did then, just for something to say, I asked, “So Frank N. Stein what do you think of the Frankenstein story anyway?”
“I’ve thought about it,” you said. “I always end up wondering why people always think Frankenstein is the monster not the creator of the monster.”
“People aren’t readers,” I suggested.
“I don’t know. Maybe there’s truth in the slip. Maybe there’s something monstrous about art hanging on your walls like a badge or an omen…”
“Gives an awful lot of power to inanimate objects, don’t you think?” I said to try and provoke an argument with you.
But you didn’t take the bait, deciding—much to my chagrin—to agree with me.
“Maybe you’re right. Maybe it is the artist that’s really the monster, displaying all the guts of life . . .”
“But does your art really terrorize you?” I asked, intrigued by the idea, imagining you: a tormented soul walking up and down your studio, staring at your pictures and tearing at your hair.
“Naah,” you said. And as if to make my image of you real, you looked at me, almost through me, and I was sure you were thinking of something or someone else. For you said softly, almost so I couldn’t hear, “Sometimes it does. But so does memory so maybe making art’s not such a bad idea.” That’s when Lisa pulled me away to save her from Will, and to this day, I’m still not sure if that’s what you really said or if I just made it up later on.
By the end of that first party, I‘d pegged you as a suffering artist, in need of encouragement, in need of my encouragement.
Then we kept running into one another—on campus, at the grocery store, at parties better than the one I threw.
Each time you asked me if I was going to have another party, as if my party had not been so bad. One time, you told me that you liked my name, Michelle.
I remember that day; we stood on the corner outside the bank. It was the first warm spring day of the year when everyone in the Little Italy neighborhood we lived in just wanted to stand on corners and talk to one another. No one was in a rush to go anywhere. You and I were no different.
You were coming from the art class you TA’d and your jeans, Rangers T-shirt, and Mickey Mouse baseball cap were splattered with paint. I was on my lunch break dressed for success in my favorite spring skirt, my unruly hair tamed into a ponytail. I felt pretty. The sound of an opera floated over to us from the gas station on the corner and seemed to mingle with the smell of baking bread from Terranova’s.
You said you were shopping for a special dinner for your ex-girlfriend, Sharon. You said the two of you were trying to patch things up. I thought you looked appropriately saddened by the vexations of love. I knew how you felt: A year ago, I had broken off with my first boyfriend.
“I like the name, Michelle,” you said. “It doesn’t have that jangley sound that the new names have. It’s good and solid.”
“I’ve always wanted something with more panache,” I said. “Something like Eleanora or Jenna. For a while, I tried to get people to call me Shelly, but it never stuck.”
Then I grew suspicious.
“With your name, don’t you just like any name that doesn’t smack of literary villains?” I asked.
You assured me that, despite your own unfortunate appellation, you still maintained a high degree of discrimination when it came to the judgment of others’ names. “It’s kind of arrogant, I guess,” you said.
I laughed. We laughed.
I bestowed you with honesty and charm after that conversation. Very few people, I thought, could tell me that they liked my name and not make me think they were bull-shitting me. But you did it—telling me about your girlfriend in one breath and appreciating my name in the next, you seemed so sincere. Not like the last guy I’d dated who failed to mention that his friend was actually his ex-girlfriend who he was actually still sleeping with.
I ran into you during my lunch break at the library a week after you and Sharon finally called it quits for good. I found you mournful and wanted to comfort you.
I was on my way to eat and asked if you wanted to join me.
You said “no,” but we walked on a bit together anyway. And somehow you began telling me the gory details, and we ended up having lunch.
I took your side in the matter of your girlfriend. I agreed that you were too young for marriage; I understood that you needed to be alone with your art. Sharon had been too demanding, I decided. I would not be. I would be your friend.
After lunch, we walked back to my office.
“Man, you’re so easy-going,” you said lingering in the doorway. You stretched your arms above your head until they reached the doorframe then, looked at me, smiled—all, I could tell, without thinking too much about it.
Warning bells went off in my head. I’d heard of the rebound. But you were so up front. I knew you were getting over your girlfriend. And I thought that knowledge alone would prevent anything from happening between us.
So I let you become a part of my week. We began to go to lunch together once, twice, then three times a week. Then hanging out on the weekends once in a while with a group or on our own then most every weekend.
I found myself thinking about you, admiring you when you weren’t around. The seeds of your final construction lay there, I think. You had a vocation—art; a hobby—hockey and friends to go along with each. I compared my life to yours and found mine wanting. You seemed so sure of your path—always working toward making your art better. In contrast, I seemed to take a step here, then there, then back again—never really getting anywhere.
My only on-going commitment—and I use that term pretty loosely—consisted of a vague sense that I ought to be doing something more for animal rights. It’s true I went to one of the on-campus group’s meetings and suggested an incremental approach: to begin the fight with a call for a reduction in the slaughter of animals. The group members told me that I was soft on crime, that I lacked conviction. My inability to respond to these accusations, and my other scattered interests made me think they might be right. One day, I’d go jogging in the Botanical Gardens and plan to enter some races, maybe the New York City marathon even; the next day I’d cook myself French toast for breakfast and decide that maybe I’d been wrong to have gone to college, maybe culinary school was really for me and then—in the middle of that thought even—I’d catch sight of a show on Milan on PBS, and I’d dust off my college Italian books and resolve to strike up some conversations with my neighbors.
This constant changing of activities and career interests exhausted me. I felt myself knocked about in an ever-changing wind, apparently of my own making. I’m still an adolescent at 22, I kept thinking. Will I ever grow up?
Even my job advising freshman students on career choices seemed to me both the ultimate in irony and an evasion of my own confusions. Unlike my fellow counselors who advised upper-classmen, I was allowed to encourage my freshman to think big, to tell them that the world lay at their feet. Sometimes, explaining the possibilities that lay before each student, I envisioned those possibilities stretching before me too, as if my life were renewed, my choices extended with each new student who walked through my door.
You listened to me, to my confusions. You took my arguments for animal rights seriously, but you said, you were not so sure if you could ever enjoy a meal without meat.
Then as happens sometimes, when people take each other seriously, we turned on each other and teased each other without mercy. As I recall, I was the flaky vegetarian, and you were the artsy-fartsy Neanderthal.
I can’t quite remember exactly when that happened, but it must have been shortly before the end of classes. By the time of that barbeque, we had each other’s number for sure. That day so warm and sunny after a mostly frigid spring, as if the sky had opened up its mouth wide so all its teeth would show. With Will and Lisa, we ate grilled hamburgers and veggi-burgers without the buns we’d forgotten to buy and drank beer on the roof of your apartment. Robert, as I recall, was supervising some of the undergrads who’d taken the neighborhood kids on a trip to feed the hungry.
You and I played roof ball. A game of catch on any other surface, we agreed, was for people who didn’t enjoy a challenge. We proceeded—with three six packs of beer and a tennis ball that skittered off your hands and into the alley—to take on that challenge. Next we lost a half-deflated basketball, then found a stash of three tennis balls and surrendered them, moved onto a Nerf football, a soccer ball, a golf ball, and finally a ping pong ball—each ball in its turn finding its way into the alley or onto one of the roofs of the other three buildings that surrounded us—bouncing against mounds of tar or knocking antennas out of place or on occasion coming to rest on a spot of roof like a welcomed guest.
Lisa and Will looked at us as if we were being quite childish, but they chuckled despite themselves. I had by that time given up on trying to kindle anything between the two of them. They managed a laugh together only at you and me and even then rather reluctantly. In the end, I failed to catch a ping-pong ball, and we realized—to our utter delight—that we had lost every single ball that you owned.
“Michelle,” you said, “you kind of lack the protective instinct one would expect in a vegetarian.”
“Me, you’re blaming this on me?” I said, “Stein, I think this has a lot more to do with you over-compensating for being called a sissy artist. You’re throwing not only with your arm but with your ego.”
“Oh yeah,” you said and disappeared into the apartment, repeating a phrase and an action that had resulted in the losses of many a ball that afternoon. You came back with Will’s football.
“Whoa fellow,” he said. “I call game.”
You pretended to throw the ball to Will, smiled wickedly, and dropped the ball back into the apartment. That ended our game.
All of a sudden one day you got all serious on me. It was at our end-of-the-semester celebration. We were at Egidio’s eating chocolate-covered cannoli and drinking cappuccino. We had devoted the last hour of conversation to our uncertain futures: I wanted to leave my job but didn’t know where to go; you wanted to leave Fordham and its lousy art program but didn’t think you’d get any of the artist colony scholarships that you’d applied for. We had just finished devouring dishes of pasta with broccoli rabe sautéed in roasted garlic. The first vegetarian meal, you reluctantly admitted, that you thoroughly enjoyed. I laughed in triumph. I began trying to think of good ways to gloat.
That’s when you got all earnest on me and told me that you didn’t know how you could have gotten through this thing with Sharon without me. And something in your eyes at that moment made you look so sad. I wanted to bring mirth back to those eyes; I wanted out of that heavy conversation; I wanted our usual gleeful banter back. And so I said: “Hey, big guy what are friends for?” as I punched you in the shoulder.
That night I gave you a beating heart and you moved front and center, far from that distant corner of my mind.
Two weeks later I made what I thought of then as the mistake that led us to this place. I had been away for five days visiting my parents. Walking into the stifling heat of my apartment, I was glad to be back in the Bronx, glad to be so close to you again. As I walked toward the phone to call you, it rang. You asked me how home was and then suggested we go to the zoo. On the phone, you sounded edgy, nervous even, I thought. But when I met you, everything seemed the same. You had bought two ten-ouncers for us to drink.
Concealing our beers in your backpack, we sidled through the zoo, stopping in deserted places to drink. Near the seals at the end of our usual route, despite just about finishing my beer, as I spoke, I had the distinct pleasure of thinking that I sounded very sober. I had just finished raging against traditional polar bear displays, and you had emphasized with unnecessary outlandishness the need to prioritize humans ahead of animals, especially given the realities of big city finances when I just blurted it out: “We get along so well, Frank,” I said. “Don’t you think? We should go out.”
You looked at me for a moment. I couldn’t quite read your eyes.
“You and me?” you said.
I felt my face grow pale with pain.
“Sure, you and me,” you said.
You smiled at me. I felt myself smiling back at you.
I held your hand then. You were kind of quiet. But I attributed your unusual silence to the sort of strange shock that always accompanies such sudden altered relations. I wanted you then, wanted my hands on your flesh. But you said you felt inspired, that you had a vision you needed to get on canvas. Maybe I had inspired you, I thought, and felt flattered. Still, I couldn’t help but be disappointed that you wanted to paint rather than be with me. But I wouldn’t be like Sharon. I wouldn’t stand between you and your art. So I let you walk me back to my apartment.
I knew we would kiss then, and I stood extra close to you and asked for a hug. I lingered in the hug, pressing against you. You didn’t respond at first, and for a moment, it occurred to me that there was something wrong. But then you pressed your hands onto my ass and began kissing me. It was a good kiss, warm and insistent but not too sloppy. It seemed to me later to be just another reason we belonged together—no real awkwardness. You pulled away suddenly, said you were really sorry, said you hadn’t meant to get us all hot and bothered, said you had really meant to just go paint.
“It’s ok,” I said. “I’ll see you tomorrow. No big deal.”
You looked at me like you were going to say something. But then you said, “Ok, have a good night.” And you walked away.
I ran up the apartment steps, unlocking the apartment door so quickly I don’t remember doing it. But I do recall that I sat on the fire escape with my arms hugging my bare legs. All of my uncertainties and doubts about my future seemed smaller, less difficult. Tomorrow, after you were done painting, we would be together, I thought.
I watched you shuffle along underneath the streetlights and smiled to myself. As your figure got smaller and smaller, I felt the settled feeling inside of me grow stronger and stronger. We’ll have so much fun together! I kept thinking. Yes, I sat there imagining our future together and staring out at the street corner around which your figure had disappeared until long after the summer night had grown cold.
The next morning shoved under my office door was a note. Written not in your usual scrawl but printed in a deliberate hand, the note said you were leaving. You were going to tell me yesterday, it said. But you didn’t know how. You had gotten a two-month scholarship to an artists’ colony in California. It was a really big opportunity. You had to go. You’d definitely keep in touch. It was too bad, you said, something really cool might have happened. You said you knew I’d understand: easy-going chick that I was.
I couldn’t believe it. I kept expecting you to come walking through my office door in your paint-splattered clothes and say, “What about lunch?” But lunch came and went, and you didn’t show. Around three o’clock I told my boss I was taking a late lunch. I kept checking my phone and email. For some reason, I was sure you wouldn’t just leave like that. I was sure you’d call or leave me another note, saying that you were sorry and that you wanted to talk. But I was wrong.
After work I went over to your apartment. Will answered the door. He looked sheepish, as if he had done something wrong. When I asked him, he told me you had really left. He told me you and Sharon had taken off for California early that morning.
“Sharon?” I said.
“Yeah, they made up a couple of days ago, I think. If you ask me,” Will added, scornfully, “they just got back together for convenience sake: both bound for California all alone. Ya know”
I felt myself begin to shake. Will let me in and showed me your room. He pretended not to notice my strange behavior. I’d been wrong about him: Will turned out to be a good guy afterall.
Inside the room, I saw that all of your stuff—your canvases and paints, your Rangers’ memorabilia—all of it was gone. Only a heavier layer of dust, marking out where your desk, bureau, and bed had been, remained. It was unmistakable then. You had really gone.
Or so I thought then.
But the next morning awakening from my sleeping pill-induced slumber, I could just make out your outlines in the fog of my mind. I thought it was some weird aftereffect of the drugs, but when you were still there three days later, I couldn’t deny it: you had taken up residence in my head. There you sat, stretched out on a couch, an unlit cigarette in your hand.
Why’d you have to go with Sharon? Why’d you have to make me wonder if everything we shared had been a lie? These were my first questions to you.
Then I thought you might answer me. But you didn’t; you just lay on the couch and lit your cigarette, spilling the ashes and not worrying about where they might fall.
Back at work with the new school year’s orientation just about to begin, I was busy, preparing introductory lectures (Getting Along With That Familiar Stranger: Your Roommate; Time for Time Management!), making a power point (Navigating Fordham University, and reviewing notes on the incoming freshman class. All the while you lay on a couch in my head beckoning to me; most of the time, I managed to ignore you.
At home in the apartment, with no work to shift the focus of my attention from your omnipresence, I would endlessly talk to Lisa, trying to make the very flow of my words distract me from too closely examining you.
“I thought leaving Dave was hard,” I said. “But at the end, we couldn’t be in the same room with one another without arguing. With Frank all I can think of is how much fun we had.”
Lisa listened, and nodded, and told me that I would be ok.
“It would have been so perfect,” I said. “I still can’t believe he left with Sharon.”
When Lisa finally tired of me and went off to study or to sleep, I would be left alone with you. Why? I kept asking you. How could you just leave like that? Why didn’t you just tell me? You didn’t answer: content to let the questions echo back to me. You monster, I finally said. And then I wanted to scream.
I tried to explain my predicament to Lisa.
“I have a monster in my head,” I said.
“I know it’s hard,” Lisa said. “But, really, you will get over it.
“But you don’t understand,” I said. “He’s really in my head. It’s him. Frank N. Stein. You’d have thought his name would have given me some kind of warning.”
Lisa said that I should try to look upon this time in my life as a growth experience.
It was the kind of advice I might have given once. But for the life of me, I couldn’t think of one good thing about having a monster in my head.
One Friday night Lisa came home to find me moping, not wanting to go out. I lay on the floor, my elbows resting on a big blue pillow; the TV tuned to the Lifetime channel.
“Would you get over it already,” she said. “He’s going to become an accountant, you know.”
I flipped over to look at her for a moment. Then I smiled. “No, he’s going to end up making infomercials. He’s going to totally sell out. He’ll even change his name.”
Lisa smiled. I think she was glad to see that I was finally showing some spunk.
We went on to discuss the type of infomercials you would do: hemorrhoid ads were a favorite, as were diet drugs, and hair loss replacement ads.
This didn’t actually make you go away, but it did set me to thinking that maybe you’d light yourself on fire with that goddamn cigarette of yours or maybe one day you’d fall off the damn couch, which, like you, seemed to have become a permanent fixture in my mind.
Other times your name got the best of me and I would think, how could I have made you up? Why did I have to make you into such an icon? My Romantic hero? Surely you were blood and bones like everybody else. Why couldn’t I see that? And now that I had, why wouldn’t you just go away?
Finally, I resolved to be more realistic in the future; I had to face the facts; I’d created a monster; I’d made you better than you really were. From here on out, I vowed, I will keep my feet firmly on the ground.
I began to bring work home, take on extra assignments. I told myself that Michelle, my full name, my solid practical name, suited me just fine.
I decided to write an orientation book especially designed for the freshman career counselor, compiling all I had learned in the last year. I let myself imagine a better future but only when it came to my career. I would become the best career counselor in the city, maybe even the state, writing articles about my experiences and presenting them at conferences.
About six months later at one such conference, I met Ray. He expressed interest in a question I had posed to a panel on “Laying the Groundwork for the Undecided Freshman.” I’d been bucking to be noticed by the powers that be and had found a weak point in one panelist’s speech, which I was capitalizing on.
Ray told me he thought it was a really gutsy move. Then he asked me to lunch.
I made sure we talked only business. I was all about fun orientation events, strategies to deal with the homesick freshman, listening tricks, and the proper relationship of the freshman counselor to the upper classmen counselors. Any thoughts that Ray might be interested in something other than such counseling practices, I wiped out instantly. I gave him my e-mail only, I told myself, as a professional courtesy.
Through all of this you remained—the couch faded a bit, your cigarette didn’t burn quite as brightly, but still you were there. Occasionally, I’d take the opportunity your nearness provided to curse you out. But most of the time, I just went on planning my next career move.
Eventually, I admitted to myself, I wasn’t happy. Work was not enough. But I decided the problem was that I needed to get more involved in community activities, establish community ties. I resurrected my old idea about vegetarianism and decided to start an alternative activist vegetarian group, one with more modest goals for change. I no longer saw myself as lacking conviction.
Ray began e-mailing me to consult on some of his more troublesome students.
“How do some of these students go on,” he would often ask, “after such difficulties at such an early age?”
I had no answer for him, no clear idea of how people coped.
He suggested we get together for lunch once a week. Eventually, I couldn’t pretend any longer that our friendly conversations about movies and sports were just brief diversions from our work. I began then to think of Ray when he wasn’t around. I noticed signs of his construction and tried to stamp them out. But it didn’t work.
Sometimes he got all serious on me and though it made me nervous, I took a deep breath and listened.
Finally, I asked him out to the movies, and he agreed. And wouldn’t you know it, we’ve been together ever since.
I’m the only one left from the old gang that’s still at Fordham. Robert’s a Jesuit now; he works with the poor in the Dominican Republic; he writes me serious and sincere letters, and I donate to his charities; last I saw Will was at a bar on St. Pat’s day about a year back; he told me that at 32 he was tired of the bachelor’s life and was looking to settle down; Lisa and I are still close: we talk on the phone periodically and visit now and again; she moved with her chef husband to the suburbs to teach elementary school and still isn’t sure why I stayed in the Bronx. But I did. Luck and a few early retirements led me to became director of the career center, and now I tell all of my counselors, not just my freshman counselor, to encourage all of the students to think big, to think that the world lies at their feet.
I thought when I married Ray that you’d finally disappear for good. (You’d been fading out for extended periods of time as it was.) But you didn’t.
I’m still making you up as I go along, I guess. You will never go completely away, I know that now. I wouldn’t want you to. Neither would Lisa. She and I—once in a while we talk about you, about that whole time in our lives, when she says we were young and free. I say it too, but I’m not so sure how free I really was. But the way we say it makes a better story.
Nowadays Lisa still likes to think that you became an accountant. She would prefer it, I think, if I were a little more vehement about you, more like I use to be. Maybe she thinks that would make an even better story. And maybe it would.
But I just can’t conjure up the energy anymore. Or maybe I know enough now—most of the time—not to make you or anyone into a monster or a Romantic hero for that matter. So I think of you as like most people: You don’t clean out your cellar or attic as much as you should, you’ve grown paunchy around the middle, and you sometimes watch too much TV.
And once in a long while, when I’m shaking my hands as I take them out of soapy dish water, or when I stare out into the night sky after I’ve placed the garbage by the curbside, you come back to me as you once were, bringing my younger self along with you. I catch a fleeting glimpse of us then as we were that last night: you walking with me at the zoo, laughing, both happy and confused.
Photo Credit: “In the painter’s den” by Ula Peiciute