Life in Small Spaces
(An excerpt from her novel, Letter to the Last Gay Man I Will Ever Love)
An early spring snowstorm in upstate New York. As we get out of the car it is so beautiful that it does not look real, but more like one of those snow globes parents bring back to their children from faraway places or Disneyland. Across the road is the farm belonging to Nicky and Sasha. The windows are all lit up. We all had made it out just in time. Me on the bus for five hours, Mark and Gregory on the road for four. It snowed the whole way up, and by the time we arrived a thick frosting of luscious white smothered rooftops, trees, fences, cars. Some of the roads were three or four feet high with no tires having gone over them. Others were grooved, allowing for tentative but safer passage. Mark’s tires made a quiet crunching sound as we turned onto Beaver Kill Road.
Gregory is asleep in the back seat with the dog. Mark says that they had argued most of the way there earlier about things I knew nothing about—missed appointments, perceived insults—and that he had been glad when Greg finally dozed off.
“You should have driven with us.”
“I think I’m glad I took the bus.”
“He never stops. It’s like he’s my mother,” he says, sighing and blowing smoke out of the window. I wonder what it would be like to be in love with a man like Gregory. I tell him I didn’t even want to hear the word mother.
“Oh, yeah,” he says, laughing again.
Their boys are visiting their birth mother, so it is an adults-only affair.
Sasha is standing outside wearing a plaid jacket. We are expected for dinner. Next to the house is a barn with their two caramel-colored Clydesdales, standing near the door watching us. On their manes is a fine coating of snow that looks like diamonds or tiny crystals. When the male, whose name is Thomas Mann, sees me, he shakes the diamonds from his coat and starts walking toward the road.
Yeah, Thomas Mann.
“He remembers me!” I say to Sasha. I’d only been up a couple of times before, but had spent much time with the horses.
“Of course he does.”
I walk up to Thomas, searching in my pocket for the packet of sugar I’d brought from home. I pour it into my hand and let him lap it up. It happens so quickly it is almost as if I hadn’t given him anything.
We bring our bags inside. The house is chilly, with a few lights on timers here and there. Outside the snow glows bluely wherever the moon’s light touches it.
Mark’s barn had once been part of a bigger spread which had slowly been parceled out as the main land owners, the Swanson family, curtailed its farming activities, first by selling off the cattle along with much of the land they needed for grazing. Then came the barn, formerly used to store vast bales of hay still grown on the surrounding land, then the farm house itself. Now the area was home mostly to a handful of locals still able to make a living in the surrounding towns, and weekenders. Mark had turned the barn into a grand home with a chef’s kitchen, a library, a sitting area with twenty foot ceilings going all the way up to the crossbeams at the roofline, four bedrooms and three baths.
There are comfortable, stuffed chairs and sofas in the living room and library, a farm table in the dining area that could seat twelve with long, carved benches, framed photographs of friends and family everywhere, dried flowers hanging upside down in the kitchen, hooked rugs and orientals, and hundreds of books. Near the dining table is a simple fireplace tiled white and built to Mark’s specifications, so that he could barbecue indoors. A window off of the south end of the table opens onto the fields and a pond with a massive willow weeping into it.
I am impressed. And humbled in a way that makes me feel anxious and distraught. I feel poor, and homely, and not worthy of this company. I need to calm myself, It is a bit soon to be feeling so odd. I excuse myself and go up to my room.
When I am afraid like this I need to go to that similar, small, dark space to feel free. The punishment place. The place where I learned to read. To think. To plan. It may be a matter of physics. The behavior of matter in extreme conditions. How it learns to adapt. My mother never explained to me why it was necessary to put me in these places. A closet. The pantry. The bathroom. It was just a thing that she did. We did. Later I constructed an imaginary house full of small rooms off of a long corridor. Each room held a different delight.
My small space of choice was the storage room of the restaurant where she worked nights after she lost her teaching job. The crates of carrots, onions, potatoes served as bed, desk, chair. The smell of the sawdust mixed with onion skins, carrot greens, potato dust mixed with the sawdust. An elixir. Life saving, giving. And dark, streaked by shafts of light coming from a sole window above the door. I read by that light, selecting volumes from a box of Golden Books provided by a family friend. She was hardly aware of what I was doing. She just needed me to be quiet and still. A child’s gaze is too much sometimes. Too all-knowing. The truth spills from them, they can’t help it. She didn’t need that while she was working, fucking men, coloring her hair, looking at her own body. The spread of middle age. Disastrous. The intelligence of a child, too much for her.
I can see her small hand on the doorknob of one or another small space. Ushering me in. If only I would stay in there quietly, everything would be all right. In there, for me, total freedom. Anarchy. Freedom from prying eyes. From adoring stares. From a daytime light too bright, too demanding. From inside of wherever I was I could hear children playing. Car horns blaring. Music. Laughter. Inside there were only my own sounds. Very few. The repositioning of my body. Sounds of my own breath. Words, very few. Not a talker, at least not to myself. Sometimes I call out to to her, but not often. I’ve already said too much. That is why I am put there in the first place.
I find somewhere like this in Mark’s house to be. It is the attic of the former barn, used to store bedding and boxes. You can barely stand up in it, and it is cozy and private and I know that if anyone finds me I will be branded a lunatic. There are boxes marked “winter clothes,” and huge zippered bags filled with down blankets and pillows.
I press myself into ultra-fine goose down pillows. I can smell myself. The smell of fear. Its intoxicating pungency. Fear, of the debilitating sort. I cannot always overcome it. Unlike pain, which is often bearable, this fear breeds panic. Big, big panic that threatens to consume. The space inside always has a counterpart. People are doing things, living, outside of the space that you are in. The carapace, netting. Trapped.
I realize that I have to leave this place soon, before I am discovered. But it is too late. I hear footsteps and then a deep voice, Greg’s, asking if I am okay. I’ll have to explain, to reassure him that I am. He helps me down the ladder to the second floor landing. It is one a.m. “Mark is asleep,” he whispers, even though their room is way at the other end of the hall. Co-conspirators.
“Want to talk?” Greg asks. He wants a story to supplant his own. Gossip often makes the heart lighter. You can say anything, really, as long as it has an element of truth to it. Sometimes even when it doesn’t.
In the kitchen we decide on an unimportant bottle of Cotes du Rhone as our beverage of choice. The countertops are filled with bowls full of produce and bread, taking up most of the available space. There is one spot near the stove that is clear, and so we pull our stools up there. Greg’s face is unshaved and looks haggard, in that way that handsome, thin young men’s faces appear if they have indulged too much and too often, and have slept little. Greg is a chain smoker as well. He is also a bon vivant, a twinkly-eyed doll. Mesmerizing. When he pays attention to you, you feel very special.
He wants a story that will relax and amuse him. We are not very close. He is not really that concerned about me. That he does not know me or want to know me allows him to fill in the blanks of any story I might tell in any salacious way he chooses. It allows him to continue thinking of only himself, which he prefers. It makes it easier for me. He will begin to relax once the familiar-sounding details of sexy betrayal are spilled.
I know that in the morning we will exchange conspiratorial looks over breakfast. He will assign any odd behavior I exhibit to this story that he barely remembers. It will give me a pass on any further scrutiny. It will be my tale for the weekend, and the weeks, to come. I will stick to it. I didn’t ask that he not tell Mark, so he does, in a blurred, passing way. Mark is not interested in this type of thing, gay or straight. So for him, I am not immune to scrutiny. For him, I will have to come up with a better story.
Deborah Pintonelli is the author of the award-winning collection of poems, Meat and Memory, and a story collection, Ego Monkey. She is represented by Mitchell Waters, at Curtis Brown, Ltd. She has won awards from the Illinois Arts Council, PEN Midwest, and the National Association of Arts and Letters. Her stories and essays have been published by Gargoyle Magazine, Web Conjunctions, Tribes, the “First Time I Heard” series, and included in anthologies by NYU Press, Autonomedia, Thin Ice Press, and Arbre a Cames Editions in France. Pintonelli is a proud alum of Columbia College, where she earned her MFA. She is currently working on a new novel, Letter to the Last Gay Man I Will Ever Love, and lives in Chicago with her two children.