amy, her city
You spoke to Amy only once, almost two years ago, at the Tarski Heights subway station. It was past one in the morning and just the two of you were waiting for an uptown train. Her hair was dripping wet. You paced the platform and listened to the thunderstorm hammering the street above the girders and grimy pipes while Amy sat on a bench and read a book: the Oxford University Press Very Short Introduction to The Tao. You tried to pretend she wasn't there—it was all you could do not to pull your eyes out of your head and throw them at her.
Hey, Amy said to you after ten minutes went by. Relax. Sit down. Talk to me.
The two of you chatted about Grimes, The Last Unicorn, the fundamental choice every person must make between fear (the mind killer) and love (the weight of the world), and what one should do if one should meet the Buddha on the road. It was still an effort not to stare. You looked down at the lace patches on her jeans, at the city workers darting glances toward her from the platform across the tracks, or at the open book in her lap. (Its pages were blank.)
You were wearing a sandalwood bead bracelet that night, a Valentine's gift from a guy you once really liked, and who once really liked you, but shit happens. Amy said she nearly bought one just like it from a street vendor when she was visiting Mumbai, and that was how she discovered her wallet had been stolen. She laughed, and her laughter was precious, like catching a chickadee yawning, like finding a firefly perched on the tip of your nose. She asked if she could try the bracelet on. It contrasted her skin like cinnamon topping chai foam. It never occurred to you before then that something so plain as a bead bracelet could be worn so much better by one person than another, and your fascination superseded your jealousy. When you told Amy she could keep it, she refused at first, but finally relented at your insistence. She was perfectly gracious, perfectly naturally so, and you suspected that Amy was accustomed to receiving gifts from complete strangers. Far from detracting from your admiration, the tinges of envy adorned it, heightening it, like a needle topping a skyscraper.
What Amy didn't know (how could she?) was that you could have peeked inside her and tested her sincerity. You were tempted, more than you'd been in years. But you didn't get the chance. You'd nearly worked up the nerve when the D train pulled into the station. Amy stood up, touched your bare wrist and thanked you for the conversation and the bracelet, and got on board without looking back. You waited for the C train for another twenty minutes, awash with wonder and regret.
Hey, the men on the downtown platform called out to you after Amy's train had gone screaming into the tunnel. Who was that? Who's your friend?
Even if you'd deigned to acknowledge them, you wouldn't have known what to say. She left you bewildered. When she was speaking to you, it was with such intention and such a mien of intimacy that you scarcely noticed it was mostly small talk. As soon as she was gone, it registered that she'd told you virtually nothing about herself. All you had was a name. Amy.
Ever since that night, you've been pricking your ears whenever you hear that name spoken around town. You'd never listened for it before, so you never realized how many tongues it's on. But Amy is no secret.
You'd never listened for it before, so you never realized how many tongues it's on. But Amy is no secret.
The giant metalheads vaping on the abutment outside Ballywick Brewery & Board Games in Crown Village exchange stories of Amy sightings: she was interrogating the parsnips at the farmer's market, she was flirting with the mastiffs at Towhee Dog Park, she was dozing beneath that one horse-chestnut tree on the bank of the Laptonachgat River with a fishing pole in her hand, and the reel was lineless. The gap-year layabouts juggling apples and balancing on unicycles by the fountain at Pullman Square observe that Amy doesn't run with any crowd: if she's ever spotted with company, she's half of a pair. Sometimes she's with a man, sometimes she's with a woman, but it's always someone who nobody recognizes and is never seen again. The identities and fates of Amy's companions fuel as much speculation as Amy's age. Milky and Jimmy—that forty-something couple who throw those warehouse parties in Port Wycliffe—guess that Amy could be anywhere between 24 and 32. They've been trying for three years to convince her to let them host her birthday bash, but even though they once got Peaches to show up at their loft for a stealth show, they've had no success in getting Amy's ear. Out in front of Montezuma's Revenge Records in Midtown, the earth-mama girl playing the accordion with her ferret on her shoulder tells her flapper friend with the cello how she once saw Amy just waltzing through a door behind a bouncer during the Chvrches show at the Croc, like she was on the guest list or something. Her flapper friend with the cello mentions the time Jamie says she looked up from the sidewalk on Linden Street one night and saw Amy—might have saw, it might have been Amy—learning over the railing and smoking a clove cigarette on the upstairs patio of the Monday Club, and it was definitely BDSM/darkwave night that night. The girls' androgynous buddy with the castanets respectfully controverts Jamie's account: he was at the Still Happy Still Hardcore rave at the Annex that same night, and when the lights came on for last call at 3:45 he definitely saw Amy reclining on one of the couches in the corner, languidly sucking on a Firecracker ice pop while the PLUR kids took turns doing Fireball shots from her navel.
A few people you went to school with convene once a week at the round table in the corner of Ascetic Coffee (no flavor syrups, no wifi) to discuss fashion, review the belles-lettres, and pass judgement on the world. You happen to be sitting in on a session when Amy comes up on the docket. Try as it might, the committee cannot find fault with her dress and hair—though it's unanimous that the Snapchat spectacle of Amy emerging from the Yellow House CVS wearing her immaculately understated pea coat and legwarmers, her hair freshly dyed from a July sky blue to an autumnal chestnut, on that very morning, the first unexpectedly snappy postsummer sunrise, carried a faint but undeniable whiff of conspiracy.
The caveat isn't enough for Frieda, your freshman-year roommate. Before the roundtable can move on, she erupts, declaring how sick she is of hearing about Amy. Amy's not magical, she's not some kind of unicorn, she's human, damn it. Frieda cites as evidence the persistent gross little pimples on the back of Amy's neck, the telltale titles of dilettantism among the books she's seen to read, and the really stupid tattoo on her right calf, which she keeps trying to cover up with another stupid tattoo. Two years ago it was a potato with a Hello Kitty face. Then it was a horseshoe crab wearing a Bolshevik hat. Now it's some vaporwave thing, which makes it vacuously pretentious and trendy in addition to really stupid.
Tim, Frieda's fiancé, suggests that these things don't necessarily devalue Amy's allure, and might actually augment it. The felicitous imperfection is the very essence of wabi-sabi, Tim says, and so we therefore confront Amy as an authentic and inimitable entity whose flaws concresce her virtues the way the fine leaf sediment at the bottom of one's teacup lends a certain affirmation and elegance to the last sip.
A week later, Tim posts on Facebook to see if anyone in his extended network might be willing to house him and his record collection while he finds another place to live. Within two hours, Frieda is posting a jeremiad against "self-styled manic pixie dream girls" and the harm they inflict on "forthright" women.
Amy isn't on Facebook. But she does have an Instagram account. You know this because you've browsed the list of people Tim follows on Instagram, and Tim follows Amy. Her username is amy69845. The account is private. Only the avatar—a pic of a calf bearing a pretty stupid tattoo of a greyish-white marble foot with the caption おじまんぢあす—cinches amy69845 as Amy, the one and only. She only follows 17 people, but somehow has over 2800 followers. Whenever you look again, the number has climbed a little higher.
Amy's most visible web presence isn't on social media, but Craigslist. The Missed Encounters page is a testament to her home in the eternal corner of the world's eye. By your estimate, something like 15 to 20 percent of the listings during a given week are descriptions of Amy submitted by people who scarcely realize they're all smitten with the same person, the woman who came to them like a promise of a better world and evaporated just as quickly. The word "shimmer" occurs with unnerving regularity.
You pass Amy every once in a while. When you see her, she's gliding in the bike lane outside the window of your bus as it rumbles past her. You look down at her from the footbridge over the Laptonachgat Trail when she's strolling below with headphones over her ears. She materializes like an apparition under the paper lanterns during the New Year's parade in Chinatown, and you lose her in the bodies and bottle rockets before her name can rise in your throat. You observe her passing through the doors of the Civic Auditorium without a date on the night of the sold-out opera. You and Amy simultaneously venture over the Boulevard in parallel crosswalks, separated by twenty feet of ruthless traffic, and by the time you can cross over to her side she's already gone. Your uber was waiting for the light to change up in Gilman Corner, and there was Amy, right outside the car, getting buzzed into an apartment building, and you watched the door shutting behind her as your driver "Chad" explained he'd be getting the power windows and locks in the rear passenger doors fixed the next day and asked you to please stop banging and shouting.
She was wearing your bracelet.
That was last week, and it was the final straw. You've had all you can take. It's settled: you're going to read Amy's mind and demystify her once and for all. There's a real Amy somewhere behind the glamour and rumor, and you're going to find out precisely who she is.
I still remember how nonchalantly you explained it to me. Tim, even though both his parents work in advertising and pretty much secrete connections from their pores, even though he has the gift of pith and a natural marketer's flexibility of perspective, Tim chose of his own volition to major in theater and is contentedly working the box office at the Stallard Hook Playhouse. And you, you've been doing clerical work for that law firm over in Society Corridor even though you showed great promise in film school and possess the rare gift of ESP.
We choose what we do with our gifts, you told me.
you've been doing clerical work for that law firm over in Society Corridor even though you showed great promise in film school and possess the rare gift of ESP.
Cosmic Cycles advertises itself as the least quirky bike shop within six zip codes, but judging from the proprietor's handlebar mustache, the Soviet punk rock on the speakers, and the hand-carved, painted, and varnished signs about its spartan interior (WE RIP EVERYONE OFF AND PASS THE SAVINGS ON TO YOU), Amy might be thinking she'd have been better off taking her wheels to the equally eccentric but nominally honest Lyle's Bikes & Repairs & Condescension on Dodge Street. But you don't know what Amy thinks. Nobody does. That's why you followed her seven blocks to Cosmic Cycles from the halal cart you absconded in mid-order when you caught sight of Amy pushing her bicycle up the sidewalk, even though you only had ten minutes left on your lunch break and are already on thin ice with your employers.
Amy sits on the bench and kindly humors the owner, who taps at her rusty gear cassette with a pencil and makes an admirably unlabored double entendre on the word "crankshaft." You stand behind a hedge of retrofitted vintage Schwinns, unheeded, unsuspected.
You've told me telepathy isn't as simple or precise a procedure as Emma Frost or Miss Martian would have one believe. It's not as though a subject's thoughts are disclosed to you like messages on a whiteboard to be read: it's more like running a virtual machine in your cerebrum that replicates the physical state of that whiteboard, and then you try to determine what's written on it by feeling the letters on its surface. It's really less mind and more body, you've said. Like threading a needle. Like sticking your tongue to your nose. Like extending a parasubstantial third eye/arm/proboscis and fastening it to Amy's personal event field.
There's no mistaking the moment you make contact. Layered over your view of Amy's head and shoulders through the bike frames is the man with the handlebar mustache as Amy sees him, and the odor of his cologne reaches you through Amy's nostrils, forking into the double streams of how it smells to you (not without its charm) and how it smells to Amy (noxious), which you perceive separately, simultaneously. You feel Amy's feet in her socks in her Doc Martens, tight at the ankles where she tied the laces around the collars, and you notice the constriction of her sports bra, which you also notice Amy ignoring. The neutral taste of her spit isn't quite the neutral taste of your spit, and the bracelet you gave her hugs her wrist differently, somehow more comfortably, than it did yours. The extra inch Amy has over you radiates from your crown like a halo of bone and brain and hair, while your center of gravity and Amy's center of gravity form a phantom barycenter in your abdomen that sets you teetering on your toes and heels, jostling and rattling the bicycles, prompting the man with the handlebar mustache to glance in your direction. Amy's guts—her beating heart, her lungs, liver, kidneys, intestines, uterus—you feel them transposed imperfectly over your own, you experience the gentle exertions of her urethral sphincters against the pressure of her bladder, while the vibrations in Amy's larynx haunt your sympathetic throat as she utters the words Can I use your bathroom? to the man with the mustache before he can say anything to you.
Meanwhile, Amy's thoughts balloon like anomalous jellyfish at right angles against the current of your awareness. Generated and regenerated in the Galapagos of her being, they are peculiarized beyond compatibility with any ecosystem but her. You cannot parse them.
Margaret Mead had nine months to acquaint herself with the habits and idiosyncrasies of Samoa before drawing her conclusions. You scarcely have nine seconds abroad in Amy before she stands up and turns around. You panic. You pull out before you can suffer the mortification of the sight of yourself through Amy's eyes. But maybe you wouldn't have seen much of anything: Amy's gaze lands on you for an incomplete second, only long enough to ascertain the cause of the disturbance behind her. It's purely reflexive, as is the courtesy of the smirk she vouchsafes you before pivoting and walking to the back of the shop, where she disappears behind a door marked by a wooden sign engraved with the image of a unicycle.
Of course she didn't recognize you right away. It's been two years. But that's not why you're dizzy and nauseous. Not entirely.
The proprietor clears his throat. Can I help you, sweetheart?
You don't have it in you to lie. You murmur something and careen for the exit. The proprietor figures you're drunk and lets you go.
You don't go back to work. You hop a train back home, and lie in bed for a very long time, readjusting to yourself, to being in your body by yourself.
The office calls you once and leaves a voice message that you don't listen to because you can guess the gist of it. That's just fine: you've already made up your mind to take on Amy as a project, and it's going to have to be a full-time endeavor.
When you first told me what you could do, I was surprised you didn't do it more often. My first guess, based on what I knew of you then, was you were inhibited by a firsthand appreciation of the ethical ramifications of getting so deeply into someone's head and under their skin for the sake of personal gain, caprice, or malice. That's not why at all, you told me—you don't do it, haven't in years, because it's weird, and really never in a good way. You asked me to imagine trying to filch the answer to a subtraction problem from a first-grade teacher and getting slammed with her hangover and waves of unmistakable hatred for you and your classmates. Feeling other kids' farts at the lunch table, smelling them the way they smelled to their dealers. Sharing your older brother's first orgasm over a Victoria's Secret catalog through the bathroom door. Reaching into your neighbor Susie the time she slept over and getting swallowed into a Fisher-Price playset landscape sprawling beneath a finished basement sky where you coaxed jibberish from the aberrant mouths of rotating extradimensional Care Bears, faintly suffering Susie's bad sinuses and eczema and fearing you'd never find your way out. And then there was the string of incidents involving that boy in the eighth grade, the one you had a hot little crush on. Billy. All you've said is that what happened was so unpleasant and awkward for both of you, especially Billy, that you afterward gave up the use of your gift, shut it away like a skateboard, guitar, or any other deserted adolescent pursuit. And it was only the healthy skepticism of the guidance counselor who listened to Billy's story that forestalled what really should have been a scandal.
All you've said is that what happened was so unpleasant and awkward for both of you, especially Billy, that you afterward gave up the use of your gift, shut it away like a skateboard, guitar, or any other deserted adolescent pursuit.
I still didn't believe you back then, and thought I could tangle you in your own joke by pointing out an inconsistency: if tapping into someone else's consciousness doesn't involve any astral plane voodoo, how do you explain Susie? Didn't you say you went into her dream and moved around freely in it?
You explained, very matter-of-factly, that it's different when a person's asleep. So much of waking life is the back-and-forth slosh of stimulus and response, all turbulence and sensation. When someone's asleep, the noise dissipates, the waters clear, and you can experience their event field like a lucid dream. And even though you enjoy more control and mobility in this mode, it can be difficult to learn much about someone when you're meeting them as an environment instead of as a consciousness.
But you've only ever tried it with Susie and Billy.
There is only one respect in which you've ever made explicit comparison between ESP and sex: pants and heads, after you've gotten into someone's, there's a lot less work involved in getting back in. Having made contact with Amy once, you can do it again easily, and from across town. You wait until 2:30 on a Tuesday night, when you can reasonably suppose Amy will be asleep. Standing at arm's length from your bedroom window, you have to stretch to press your palm to the glass. You keep stretching, straining until you've extended yourself beyond yourself, thrusting through the thrumming spaces over Smithy Row and the Narrows, between the floodlit spires of Midtown, blind to everything but the dilating beacon at your destination. Amy.
You leech into her, occupy her, entangle your substance with hers over the gusty divide. As your respiration acquiesces to her rhythm, as you abide the ebb and lap of her semisensate awareness, Amy's inner architecture opens up to you like an evening primrose.
Of course it's a city—everyone who lives in cities dreams of them. You lose track of the hours and miles walking the streets of Amy's twilight capital. You're a tourist here, and an unprepared one at that, ignorant of destinations to seek, lost in every place you stand. You wander through neighborhoods of every character and attribute, through business districts with glass towers and marble facades, train yards and loading docks, bridges and colonnades, historic precincts with Victorian porches and cobblestone streets, dewy promenades in the shadows of Amy's monuments, outdoor sculpture gardens on elevated walkways, shopping arcades, and riverside wharves where the candle-capped masts of moored fishing boats rise and sink in time with Amy's faraway breathing. Some neighborhoods adhere to a grid layout; others are like Boston, eccentric and tortuous; elsewhere concentric circles and hexagons prevail. There is no moment when the sun has not just dipped below the horizon in the west. Variously illuminating the streets are baroque oil lanterns, sodium vapor lamps, halogen globes on posts, white Christmas lights trained to utility poles and traffic signals, and the warm yellow emanations from the tenements' window shades. Above it all, the principal stars of Amy's sky gutter in her gloaming.
Where the avenues are broad, and where there's not an elevated median instating rows of locust trees, bifurcate lamp posts, or Doric columns, trolleys modeled in the classic Pacific Electric style skate along inset rails. There's no curb that's not a harbor for an unbroken line of parked cars, but all the traffic in the streets is pedestrian. It's delicious a dusk as can be dreamed of, and the citizens of Amy's city are in no rush to get home.
Amy's people sit at glass tables on the sidewalks, tasting gelato, taking cigarettes with their espresso like it never went out of fashion. They browse the fruits and relics in the Edison glow of her open-door boutiques, recline on blankets on the grassy hills overlooking her amphitheaters, form attendant rings around the violinists on her street corners. They gulp their ales and sip their whiskies over ineffable toasts in her taverns, lay wreaths against elevated tombs in the glowworm gloom of her cemeteries, stand in rapt contemplation before the statuary on display in her riverside belvederes. In her parks, under moonflower pergolas they share kisses and confidences neck-to-neck, they explore the weedy ruins of her factories with kerosene lanterns in their hands, they congregate beneath ideogrammatic multiplex marquees and discuss the day's events in the impenetrable dialect of dream.
You're a perfect foreigner here; nothing they say finds purchase in your ears. You're also a trespasser, and you learned from that unfortunate business with Billy that it's best not to draw attention to yourself. You keep a low profile, you watch and you listen, and you keep on walking.
Night after night.
You sleep during the day and wake at sundown from dreams of Amy's dreams. You've found that Amy is always asleep by 2:30 AM, and have set that minute as your time of departure. While you wait for it, you sketch out maps of her streets, collocating her neighborhoods and their relative locations. You pore through Wikipedia for architectural terms—"balustrade," "farola fernandina," "anthemion," "Art Nouveau," "chancel screen"—so you can better describe and document her city's genius. The empty pizza boxes, Chinese delivery cartons, cans of Red Bull, and Dasani bottles accumulate on your floor. You're not getting unemployment because you walked out on your job, and you're falling behind on your share of the rent. Which is fine—you helped me out those three months after the bookstore closed down, so I'm happy to return the favor. But I'm getting a little anxious to know where exactly you're going with this and how long you'll be at it.
Your project is halfway into its second month. When I knock on your door one evening, you invite me to come in. You pull selections from the cascading piles of maps you've drawn on graph paper, and explain they're only useful insofar as they can be analyzed in contrast to each other. Walking in any one direction through Amy's cosmopolis, you inevitably come across landmarks you thought were behind you, but the adjacent neighborhoods will have rearranged themselves. Even when you believe you've been moving in a straight line for hours, you can look over the pitched roofs and willow trees on a quiet lane and find the wester-glow inexplicably shifted to the north, south, or east. The river's location changes, and the skyline on the opposite bank is dominated by skyscrapers and minarets you distinctly remember having walked under on prior evenings, when there was no river in sight. There's a pattern, definitely, to these permutations. You wonder aloud: is Amy that pattern?
Where Amy begins and where she ends remain a mystery.
You have yet to locate a town hall or the city limits. Where Amy begins and where she ends remain a mystery.
When I can get a word in to mention the trash on your floor is attracting mice, you tell me how clean Amy's city is: the only time a cigarette butt, a flapping newspaper, or empty sarsaparilla bottle is to be seen on the ground is when it needs to be there, when it unifies the composition of the environment the way Vermeer's painting of the girl is resolved to a sum greater than the individual values of its parts through the operation of the pearl earring. The flattened black wad of gum pressed to the infrequent sidewalk tile is like the mole on Marilyn Monroe's cheek; a tin can on its side in a flagstone alley might as well have been placed there by Duchamp.
I seize on a pause to ask, gently, when you plan to move on from this.
As soon as you understand Amy, you tell me. It won't be much longer.
I say it as gently as I can. This is getting kind of weird. Morbid, even. There's Facebook stalking, and then there's…well, there's this.
Amy's not on Facebook, you remind me. She's given us no choice.
What shall I say to that? ("Us?" comes to mind, but I keep it to myself.)
At length I persuade you to let me bring in some trash bags from the kitchen and take care of the moldy cartons and food scraps on the floor for you, while you sit in bed and review a stack of maps, taking rapid notes.
Another two weeks go by, and I never see you at home. When I knock on your bedroom door, you don't respond. When I let myself inside, you're not there. But I see you've shifted your focus: you've stuffed the heap of maps under your bed, and now you're taping charcoal sketches of faces to your walls. Each time I peer in to see if you're there, I find your portraits multiplying like an algae bloom. You've begun stapling new faces over the old ones on the walls and tacking some to the ceiling.
One evening you return from Tarski Arts & Crafts with a fresh batch of bristol paper and charcoal pencils. Your bedroom door is visible from our doormat. You can see that it's wide open, and a roommate-shaped shadow eclipses the light thrown by your desk lamp onto the hallway floor.
You say hello, set your tote bag on your bed, and ask me what I'm up to.
I tell you I really dig your drawings.
When I ask who all these people are, I don't get an answer. You stand quietly by my side for several awkward minutes while I examine the sketches and await an explanation. You want me to figure it out for myself.
One of the pictures is different from the others: it's drawn in pencil on a sheet of graph paper, and I recognize the face. It's the boy who used to play the castanets in front of the record store. You tell me you found him crying on a bench in a park. Amy's park.
You direct me to another face, hiding behind two others on your wall. It's Tim. One night you found him dismounting a streetcar carrying an umbrella and a valise, walking hurriedly into a back street and descending through a cellar door that promptly locked behind him. You point to the ceiling, and I find the faces of Frieda and the weekday morning barista from Ascetic hanging beside each other. You saw them sitting together on a porch swing in one of Amy's colonial districts. He was dressed in a Clark Gable tuxedo and smoked a cigar. She wore Vivien Leigh's green dress and held an ivory wand to her lips, blowing acid-blue soap bubbles that pealed like summer wind chimes when they popped. All these people on your wall are from Amy's city. And they're all from our city, too: you pick out a few at random, and borrow my phone to show me their Facebook profiles. You're less surprised every time you're out during the day and pass someone you've seen setting paper swans afloat in Amy's fountains or selling cogs and lightbulb filaments from a stand in her bazaar.
It should have been obvious. There's no reason it should have took you so long to notice. But you were never really attentive to the identities of the people you found in Amy's city. Not until…
I clear my throat. Until what?
Until some of them began watching you.
You'd been getting a little tired of walking around and looking at buildings all night, and you weren't sure what more you could learn from it. Looking inside the buildings, that was the next logical step. So you've been trying to jimmy Amy's locks, sneak in through her windows, get into her crawlspaces—without success, thus far.
But your efforts apparently haven't gone overlooked. No matter what neighborhood you're in, somebody's always observing you from a patio table, following your movements from behind a shop window, gazing down at you from an open-air mezzanine. It's always the same people, maybe about twenty of them. Their expressions are blank. Cold. But they don't say anything to you. They don't interfere with your search. You've concluded you have no reason to be concerned about them.
I feel crazy in here. I can't stay any longer. I mention the heating bill and ask if you're planning to find a new source of income sometime soon. You say something about Craigslist and usher me out. You've got a lot on your plate, and you've spared all the time you can afford tonight.
From then on, whenever I try your door I always find it locked.
I'm trudging through the snow after a late night at the library. The storm's taken the buses offline, and with the maintenance on the C-line, it's easier to just walk the next 26 blocks home instead of going out of my way to board the el on 39th Street. My feet are wet and my hands are cold. I stop into McGinty's to defrost with a drink. While I'm waiting for the wizened sod of a bartender to bring me my Guinness, a woman takes the stool next to me. The bartender all but forgets to hand me my glass when he sees her.
Amy, he says.
Top of the evening, she answers, faintly, without enthusiasm.
I notice she's wearing a sandalwood bead bracelet.
Haven't seen you in a while, the sod adds with a noncommittal benignity that's definitely forced.
Could this be the Amy?
She's not at all what I expected. She looks worn out. No: worn down.
Amy nods at him. She removes her scarves and coat and lets them slip to the floor at her feet. She's starkly thin, sickly thin. She orders a shot of Jameson in a mild voice, downs it, and slides the glass across the counter, asking for another.
Could this be the Amy?
She's not at all what I expected. She looks worn out. No: worn down. She sits with a hunched posture, elbows drawn to her sides, fingers gripping the counter. Before she'll commit to any kind of movement, she glances to the left, to the right, and over her shoulder. When she does, her motions are jerky, compulsive.
It's not just anxiety. She's afraid. Knowing what I do, I can't help drawing some frightful inferences.
A few men sitting in the booths by the entrance regard her intently, but hardly desirously. A woman on the other side of the bar gestures toward Amy and makes a comment to her boyfriend. He responds with a shrug that says that's just how it goes I guess and sucks on his Smitticks.
Amy senses me looking her over, and turns in my direction. I've never seen such an intense expression that's also so unsuggestive of emotion or intent. I gasp into my glass and cough. Amy looks away, takes her third shot, and discreetly cries into her palm.
It's instantaneous. I fall in love with her.
I pound the rest of my drink, close my tab in a hurry, and bolt for the exit.
Walking beneath the incandescent candy canes and Santa Claus effigies hanging from the lamp posts along Dubliners' Row, I coax my heart to stop racing and curse myself for being such a chickenshit. I could have told Amy everything. I should have told her.
I make it four blocks before turning and racing back to McGinty's. The snow stings my face and I keep slipping on the ice. I limp up to the bar with a twisted ankle, and where Amy was sitting I find a deserted stool, an empty shot glass, and three newly minted ten-dollar bills. The sod scoops them up, shaking his head.
I knock on your door. I jangle the knob. When I call your phone, a recording tells me your number is not in service.
I throw myself on the sofa and watch Westworld to get Amy off my mind. Between episodes, I pull myself up and rap on your door, but to no avail. I keep at it until 3:30 AM.
My alarm goes off half an hour earlier than usual. Before getting in the shower I bang on your door, shouting your name. For ten minutes.
I look up Amy's Instagram page at work. It's been deleted.
When I return home in the evening, I don't even wait to take off my shoes before I start pounding on your door. I yell until I'm hoarse. I try ramming it in with my shoulder, and discover you've pushed your dresser up against it.
I stay up until 4:00, listening outside your room. I forget to set my alarm and wake up at noon, lying on the rug in the middle of the hall. Good thing it's a Saturday.
Twelve hours go by. I think of Amy—I've been doing a lot of that in the last few days—and hope to god you haven't done something really stupid and horrible.
On Thursday night I wake up from a nightmare and visit the fridge for a glass of cashew milk. The kitchen lamp is already on, and I find you slouched in a chair at the table, clad in snowpants and a parka, both a little speckled with bird shit. A pile of mittens, scarves, ear warmers, and wool hats lie in the puddle spreading from your boots.
Your explanation is terse: you've been camping out on the roof, sleeping in a nest of blankets in Mr. Graham's pigeon coop. You wake up exactly at 12:00 AM to cross over into Amy's city, returning to yourself at dawn to get a bagel and a water bottle from the bodega on the corner.
I ask why you're out on the roof. Better voltage up there, you say.
I'm not sure I care to hear what that means. And I don't know what else to ask you, what to say. But I know you well enough to know you'll volunteer what's on your mind if I grind some coffee, boil some water, and sit down at the table to leaf through the issue of The Atlantic that came in the mail today.
But you don't. Not right away. You sit there and glare at me, as though you're waiting for me to come clean. The standoff lasts almost twenty minutes before you fold and have out with it.
Wherever you go now, no matter what you're doing, Amy's people are watching you. All of them. At the moment of your approach, all activity ceases, every voice is hushed, every face becomes an unsignifying and severe blank. They're shunning you: you're the sole object of their unblinking attention, but they react to nothing you do.
Wherever you go now, no matter what you're doing, Amy's people are watching you. All of them.
You were able to ignore it for a time and press on with your search. But the successive hours of nights of unfriendly stares chipped away at your nerves.
You can pick Amy's locks now. You've been doing it for weeks. But in every building you find endless, white-walled corridors lined with even more doors. Some of them are easy enough to get into—but there's never anyone inside. The furniture is always draped over with heavy black cloth, and all the picture frames on the mantelpieces are empty. The other locks, however, the ones on the doors with rosa marble or sandalwood frames, are considerably harder to negotiate. The longer you stay put to work on them, the more of Amy's people gather at your back, like white blood cells surrounding a pathogen. You always hightail it before enough arrive to trap you.
Two nights ago, they followed you out to the street, where even more of them were waiting. It finally became too much. You demanded to know what they wanted from you, you begged them to leave you alone. You tried to reason with them, employing phrases you memorized when they still spoke to each other in your presence. You screamed at them. You threatened them. Nobody budged; nobody looked away.
You grabbed one by the shoulders and shook him. His eyes swelled in their sockets, his mouth gaped in a voiceless scream. He thrashed in your grip like an out of control fire hose, and then melted into putty, all of him, clothes, hair, skin, bones. The puddle that was a person somehow soaked into the concrete—and at that instant a building collapsed, two doors down from where you stood, imploding like it was dynamited at the foundation. A person on the sidewalk was buried in the collapse. She just stood there and stared at you until the rubble swept over her. A sinkhole opened up in the street, swallowing up about a dozen others who didn't even try to run. For each person that fell, another building caved in, another part of the sidewalk or section of street split, crumpled, and cratered. Soon the entire block was effectively razed, and still the dominoes kept falling.
You ran as far as you could. Even after the noise and smoke were far behind you, you didn't stop. You were miles away when your legs trembled and your breath burned your throat. Unable to go any further, you sat on the marble steps of a church and sweated under the blistering glares of the people congregating in the street before you.
You point your finger at me.
The person you seized was me. It was the first time you'd seen me in Amy's dreams, and you're burning to know how I got there.
I tell you Amy was sitting next to me at McGinty's a few nights ago. I tell you she's not looking good.
This doesn't come as a shock to you. Over the last few weeks, there have been nights where you leapt across town and landed in Amy—but found no city of Amy's dreams because Amy was wide awake. You've found her pacing her studio apartment in the dark. Drinking a hot toddy on the window ledge. Lying on the bathroom floor, fumbling with the cap of an aspirin bottle. You didn't have to wonder what was keeping her awake. Her migraines were visited upon you like kicks to the skull.
And then there was last night, when you found yourself on the floor with Amy, as Amy, having her seizure. At least you think it was a seizure. It was like being electrocuted, banging your head on the floor, sobbing, laughing, hysterically, so hard you pissed your pants, all at the same time. Whatever it was, it incapacitated you along with Amy. Retracting a psychic projection is like relaxing a muscle, which is a tall order when you've lost control of every part of yourself.
You believe it only lasted a few minutes, but afterwards you felt like you'd ran a marathon through a hailstorm. You rolled over in your bedding in the pigeon coop and puked. You lay cheek-down in a puddle of stomach acid and bagel chunks until dawn, too exhausted to budge.
When you finally got to your feet, you found that someone had kicked aside the cinder block keeping the door to the stairwell ajar. You braved the antediluvian fire escape to reach the ground, and maundered the streets in a daze. The flatulent drone of traffic was intolerable, and the sunlight ricocheting from the piled snow struck your eyes like BB gun pellets. You couldn't walk in a straight line. More than once you doubled over in the slush and retched. It was Monday morning, and the people around you had places to go, trains to catch, jobs to do. You'd seen them all before in Amy's city, spied on their celestial other lives, secret even to them. No face is unknown to you now.
In hindsight, you understand it was Frieda and Gary (Frieda's new boyfriend, who just happens to be the weekday morning barista from Ascetic) who approached you. And you get that they were questioning you, staring at you because they hadn't seen you in like three months, and now here you were, covered in puke and pigeon crap, disheveled, looking like you'd spent the last twelve weeks trying a heroin addiction on for size. When your legs gave out and you screamed, everyone else was looking at you too. For a moment you didn't know whose city you were in, who anyone really was, who they belonged to.
What happened next?
Well. After Frieda and Gary scuttled off, pretending not to know you, and after everyone else resolved to get on with their mornings without implicating themselves in yours, you stood back up, feeling much steadier and more lucid than before. You recalled a peculiar, melon-citrusy taste in Amy's mouth when she was suffering her fit; you've heard gustatory hallucinations are common part of epileptic episodes. So you hiked across town all day, visiting the supermarkets and co-ops, stealing bites from their produce sections until they kicked you out. Twenty-two stores later, you were no nearer to discovering the fruit that lightning tastes like to Amy.
And now here you are.
I ask what you're planning to do now, though I dread the answer.
You're going back. Something is terribly wrong with Amy. You need to find out what. It's the only way you can help her.
Don't, I tell you. Please. The best thing you can do for Amy is leave her alone. Let it go. Please.
I'm waking up on the floor in my toppled chair. My phone is vibrating; my boss is calling. She wants to know why I'm an hour late for work. When I tell her I'm pretty sure my unstable roommate whipped a sugar dish at my forehead and laid me flat, she gives me the benefit of the doubt.
Before I head off to the emergency room, I look around for you. You're not on the roof. Your door is open, your dresser pushed off to the side, but you're not in your room. I sense you don't intend to return to it.
I have trouble sleeping the next few nights. I don't think I need to explain why I've informed the landlord we won't be renewing our lease next month, or tell you why I'm really hoping you don't come back.
But you do. Three weeks later. I'm pushing Bananagrams tiles around the kitchen table and waiting for the kettle to boil when you open the door with your key and take one step inside. You're dripping wet with sleet and your eyes are swollen from crying.
Amy is gone, you tell me.
With that, you slam the door, and I hear you bolting for the stairs. I know you well enough to know you expect me to come running after you.
But I don't. I slide a B tile and then an A to form ABNEGATE. Then I make myself a cup of coffee.
This time I know for sure you won't be coming back.
The symptoms of spring disclose themselves as ordered pairs. The last sooty icebergs withdraw from the curbs to the storm drains, and the tech bros on skateboards retake the bike lanes. The dogwoods blossom in Layman's Cemetery, and the Thompson School of the Arts freshman are climbing the fence to conduct gothic photoshoots they'll be disavowing by December. The sidewalks become places again rather than frigid conduits between places; the food trucks stake out their turf, and the cafes and bars drag their patio furniture out of storage. And it's from one of the wooden tables freshly planted outside Ascetic that I overhear Frieda talking to a visibly uncomfortable Gary.
I've made a point to try not to listen in when Amy's name is mentioned in conversation on the street, but I can't help what I overhear.
Amy was forgotten before she was gone. Public interest peaked at the beginning of her purported meltdown. She gained a lot of weight, then lost even more. She stopped putting any effort into her appearance.
Amy was forgotten before she was gone. Public interest peaked at the beginning of her purported meltdown. She gained a lot of weight, then lost even more. She stopped putting any effort into her appearance. Percocet chic sans chic, that's how Frieda described her uncoordinated outfits and frizzy hair. What really damned her was the loss of that self-possession, the comportment that had people convinced she could maneuver between the individual droplets of a rainstorm if she preferred to stay dry. That was what so delighted Frieda and the other critics: Amy revealed her mundanity, shed the mystique in which she so expertly clothed herself, the trompe l'oeil suggesting expanded and secret dimensions.
Everyone heard about it, everybody saw it: Amy's stock was in freefall, and the savvy public at once withdrew its investment in her. Not that people didn't feel bad for her—but it was the kind of pity that jaundices one's former admiration, makes it a source of embarrassment. Nobody noticed when Amy left, and only now are they beginning to feel her absence.
Right now I'm hearing Frieda enumerate the evidence for her claim that Amy's disappearance was related to an out-of-control painkiller addiction. Judging from Gary's wincing expression, this isn't the first time he's heard it. I cut in to tell Frieda it actually was a brain tumor. Amy moved back in with her folks up in Ontario while she undergoes treatment.
That's a novel theory, Frieda answers.
I've been saying it to anyone I overhear who seems like they might care, but to them my explanation is just what Frieda called it: a theory. One among dozens. But I know it's true because I found Amy's address written on a slip of paper under your mattress when I was clearing out your room. Because I went there and talked to the building's superintendent, who repeated to me what Amy told him.
This is the first time I've actually seen Frieda since December. I expect there will be questions when I tell her you've left town—but she only has one, and it catches me completely off guard.
Her question is: who?
I don't belabor it. I let it go. I wouldn't put it past Frieda to be so abashed by her association with you during the aftermath of your sidewalk performance that she'd pretend not to have any idea who you are.
That's nuts, of course. Something else is going on, but I don't have the appetite to probe it further.
Not until I start seeing the graffiti around town. The early tags are just shambolic spraycan strokes. A few weeks go by, and the vandals are employing stencils, and throwing multicolored block letters up on brick walls and storefront shutters:
AMY COME HOME
WHAT PRICE AMY
WHY ISN'T ANYONE TALKING ABOUT AMY
Sometime between the emergence of these messages and the unveiling of the first Amy mural on the wall of the old Peaslee building, I spot the peer support group flyers pinned to bulletin boards and sitting in neat little stacks in the library vestibule. The program doesn't seem to have a name, and on the face of it, its purpose is vague:
YOU ARE NOT ALONE. MANY PEOPLE ARE SUFFERING FROM THE PROBLEM THAT YOU'RE STRUGGLING WITH. WE CAN HELP. ALL ARE WELCOME. SHARE YOUR EXPERIENCES, ANXIETIES, PROBLEMS, SYMPATHY, AND ADVICE IN THE SPIRIT OF COMMUNITY. NO JUDGEMENT. ANONYMITY WILL BE HELD SACRED. WEEKLY MEETINGS YOU CAN ATTEND EVERY TUESDAY NIGHT, IN THE BASEMENT OF THE FIRST UNITARIAN CHURCH ON YORK STREET.
Three recurring letters, emphasized. Most people wouldn't pick up on it—unless the letters A M and Y were already on their minds. Unless they were looking for AMY the way tinfoil investigators connect the tacks of inequity whose relations are too subtle for sane perceptions. Unless the printers of the flyers and their intended recipients both intuited that discretion was their best policy.
I've checked in at the basement of the First Unitarian Church on a couple of Tuesday nights. There aren't enough folding chairs to go around, not even enough room in the back for people to stand in. Even the stairs are full. If someone doesn't show up forty minutes early, they'll have to content themselves with trying to listen in from the hallway upstairs.
But yes, after a while the murals start appearing. The name wasn't to be seen on any of them, but there was no mistaking that face, that indelible head-on collision gaze. Around the time the Peaslee mural debuted, a new weekly book club show aired on Channel One. The books under review are exclusively titles that Amy was known to have been seen reading over the years. Her name gets caught in the throats of the discussion panel, and the conversation is purposefully ushered forward when it does.
Then some really stupid and awfully familiar tattoos suddenly go into vogue, flaunted on necks, limbs, and lower backs all over town.
It's you. You're doing this.
Amy's out of your range now, but you can't let it go. You haunt this city like an uninvited eye in a webcam. Lurking by the restaurants, nourishing yourselves with others' experiences of feeding. Tasting the joggers' endorphins. Peeping at locker combinations at the gyms and availing yourself of the handbags inside. Writing messages to me in the frosted windows of my dreams, telling me what you've been up to. Because you can't allow yourself be forgotten, not completely.
Practice makes perfect. You no longer need to wait until people are asleep before you can slip beyond the wall and enter the cities inside of them.
Everyone who lives in cities dreams of them. But Amy's city was as singular as she was. These people, their cities are shabby Times Squares, grotesque Disneylands, and overgentrified shambles of brick boxes and Starbucks. And they're all filled with dead people, movie stars, and cartoon characters. There's an Amy in some of them, but it's no Amy you recognize. Those who remember her as she was before remember a florid caricature, a human piece of fan art. Those who observed her decline remember a scarecrow parody of the caricature. You're disgusted with these people. How little they know, how quickly they forget.
Nobody knows Amy better than you. So you help everyone else out. You take their Amys delicately in your hands.
Nobody knows Amy better than you. So you help everyone else out. You take their Amys delicately in your hands. As their bodies dissolve, you reshape them like moist clay in your fingers. You make them into the Amy that was—to the Amy you remember, and nobody remembers Amy more clearly than you.
In the event that you happen upon yourself in their drab little cities, you perform the same procedure on the local version of you, sculpting your copy into the likeness—the identity—of Amy. Any thoughts they have of you afterwards are thoughts of Amy. Every memory of you becomes a memory of her.
Lately you've expanded the program. Grabbing any number of the supernumerary slobs and celebrities in their streets and making them Amy. Gradually, some of the repeating fragments of their cities come to resemble Amy's. It's always imperfect, not entirely authentic, like a perverse architectural nostalgia. Nevertheless, you find yourself much more at home in Amy-style neighborhoods.
Amy is become a demonism, a phobia, a fetish, a new part of us we don't understand. Thursday night is Amy Night at McGinty's. The dropouts and grad students playing folk songs in Pullman Square, all their songs are Amy songs, and the crowds they pull in all know the words, and they drop hundreds and hundreds of dollars into their guitar cases. Halloween is months away, and the free dailies are already printing tips for making the perfect Amy costumes. Sexy Amy. Manic Pixie Amy. Blue Period Amy. Glam Amy. Tragicomic Amy. Angel Amy. Devil Amy. Men are breaking things off with their girlfriends because their girlfriends aren't Amy, and they're hating themselves because they're not Amy either, clawing at themselves in the bathroom mirror to break the skin and free the Amy they feel crawling, pulsing beneath.
Our city dreams of thousands of Amys in hundreds of cities. Any Amy in anyone's city is Amy; and if she's Amy, she's a twilight city you can visit and continue your search in. As many people, as many dreams, as many Amys as it takes. Until you've made an Amy who remembers.
Lately I've been staying up and going out at night myself.
I walk through our city's alleyways and its darkest parks, wander the echoing hollows beneath the overpasses and stalk the railyards. I climb over wire fences, clamber up fire escapes and onto the rooftops, creep across the scree of every vacant lot, and slip inside broken-down warehouses and condemned tenements. I carry a long-handled flashlight and a gym bag with me on these trips, and in that gym bag is a can of pepper spray, a baseball bat, and six feet of rope. I wonder how well you'd have to know me to know I'm looking for you, that I'll do whatever it takes.
I wonder which of us will find you first.
Patrick Roesle is from Jersey. When he is not hard at work producing surplus value for his employers, he enjoys mathematics, bugwatching, writing fiction, and other such abstruse and purposeless activities. He sometimes blogs at www.beyondeasy.net and sporadically tweets from @sunspeakgreen (even though he hates Twitter).