But Pity Us Too
A Short Story by Geneva Chao
Written using the suggestion "You learned to go unnoticed behind a lamppost."
Originally featured on 01-07-2011
As part of our series "The Benefit of Doubt: Stories Written to Explore Domestic Violence and Abuse"

The office was a converted apartment, like a warren with a long narrow hall and rooms opening into an airshaft. All the walls were off-white, and all the floors were off-beige carpet with a grey track worn down the middle. The computers where we entered codes, 356 for “Life” and 375 for “Love,” 192 for “Family” and 030 for “Death,” were all beige, with grimy indentations on each key. It was necessary to escape from it once an hour, to sit on the front ledge in the sunlight of a late October morning, watching the foot traffic on Broadway. You broke open a Cadbury Fruit and Nut, which we shared, you washing it down with Diet Coke, me with coffee. I dug in my pocket and offered you a Gauloise.

When my boyfriend came out down the marble steps he would say to us, “I wish I smoked.” I sat there and you sat there, one on either side of the pillar, like bookends with our black hair and cigarettes, with our black clothes: jeans and sweater for me, lacy skirt and a cardigan for you. “I wish I smoked so I could take a smoke break,” he said. Nobody questioned the impossibility of pretending. You either need a smoke break or you don’t. It’s like oxygen. To do otherwise would be frivolous, and nothing is so impossible for a German as frivolity.

Your boyfriend once asked me, standing in the office while my boyfriend typed furiously, if I knew what “levity” was. I did. He did not know, despite not being German. He was charmed by the word. You were charmed by your boyfriend, and decorated your days with small caresses. I can’t recall ever seeing you kiss, but I remember plenty of tandem walking, the two of you comfortable and shambling in matching shapeless cardigans. I was not charmed by my boyfriend, who preferred words like “pusillanimous” and “impecunious” and who had a bad habit of tossing down pills and cheap bourbon until he passed out on his futon before unfolding it, leaving me to sleep on the floor or make the lonely trek from 108th and West End to 106th and Amsterdam at 3 a.m. Again. But we had operatic sex when he was conscious, and the double-dating was convenient, and we both had nasty habits that gave us plenty of time to ourselves.

Your boyfriend had already graduated from Wesleyan, and you were fresh from Harvard, working at the Press and interning at the Paris Review. My workdays were rounder with you there. Though we were the same age, I had two more years at Columbia, and my boyfriend had left Princeton in disgrace amid a scandal that involved wife-swapping with the physics department. That alone should have warned me of how drastically our paths would diverge. You were the tortoise, trudging slowly through your paces to become a Famous Poet, and I was the hare, passed out in the gutter, or more accurately, on the 96th Street subway platform when my boyfriend had given me a pill.

After a time we saw each other less: at work, or at happy hours before you and your boyfriend went downtown, to readings at NYU or to dine with your Harvard friends in the East Village. You lived on Avenue A when it was still cool, but not quite dangerous. My boyfriend and I stayed on the Upper West Side, hosted dinners for motley crowds of failed intellectuals or sat and read Adorno while drinking shots, telling lies. A German is someone who cannot tell a lie without believing it himself, Adorno says. He is not wrong. Dialectical materialism occasionally caused my boyfriend to slur, Gimme one of those Sargnageln. Bitte, mein Schatz, I purred back. I enjoyed watching the smoke permeate his lungs, the more so because it was infrequent; my boyfriend was training for the marathon. He ran the six-mile loop in Central Park over and over. He put stress fractures in both his legs, pounding pavement late into the night. I spent long nights staring at the traffic on 106th and smoking until my throat was raw.

That you quit smoking whenever you visited your parents in Whitefish Bay — to maintain the illusion of innocence — seemed to me the height of disingenuousness. I never hid my vices from my parents. I was above that, which had caused them to disown me, which had caused me to have to work full-time to supplement my scholarship, which had caused me to view my classmates with ferocious scorn. My boyfriend appealed to my sense of candor. He never tried to make things prettier than they were, only uglier. It is easier to trust that way.

I was mean to everyone in my classes. I was mean to everyone except you, because you were my cognate, but you started to disappear, though you were still nice to me. You were nice to everyone. You were normal, I thought. Normality is death, says Adorno. You were liked by the literary establishment; you were accepted to graduate school in poetics. You started to take walks during our smoke breaks. Often I would glimpse you at the corner, but when I hastened to catch up, there was no one there. Or you learned to go unnoticed behind a lamppost, emerging seconds after my departure. The boss, the British one with the cheese breath, chose you to work on a research project for the encyclopedia and moved you into a separate room. I stayed in the back room, walking down that grey track each day, reading poems, typing in the codes for the themes: 375 Love, 096 Loss, 177 Ambition.

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