by Ryan Schulte
Eoin Glassman was stumped until he realized, at fifty-five, that he still had work to do.
He had been a well-respected middle and high school math teacher all his life, and upon retirement, he thought he’d had it. Originally, he hesitated handing in the papers – but then considered that all his students, colleagues, and bosses wanted was a perpetual dispensary of his personality, which had given him trouble lately. He was just ugly enough to go undetected, and though they said he’d be missed, he went.
Before he could remember anything, he’d had the sensation of nearly drowning in a kiddie pool, and maybe, looking back, he could sort his life into when he’d felt close to or remote from the prehistoric experience. Watching his two children grow, for example, he felt terror again and again and again.
Walking down the quarter-mile central hallway for the last time, portraits of state and county-honored graduates now well into their forties grinning down at him from the Nineties, he felt relieved of complacency and pause.
Susan Glassman looked like a singer, but had never been one. Think of Nico, but how she’d look now.
A small-town real estate agent, she’d kept all her vinyls through the Nineties and 2000s, so when a revival hit she was able to snatch a pretty affordable new record player and listen, like new, to what in their house had always played. The difference in their tastes was just abrasive enough, you knew they were different people. Susan loved Leonard Cohen and could not listen to Joni Mitchell, Eoin loved Joni Mitchell and wished Cohen’s brother had killed him at the end of “Famous Blue Raincoat.” In childhood, Mort and Courtney had overheard their parents arguing like friends.
Goes without saying – I don’t know why they decided to take a break. But it was likely decided with the same amicability. Susan liked having the image of family and an unbroken home, but then again, she suspected her children had sworn to stay abroad forever and wanted to know why. Eoin sensed the same, and that they wouldn’t get to the bottom of it by pretending that nothing had changed, that the children and the world were frozen in time. Nobody had to know – but it was a good reason to book flights for Europe.
On the very last night before Eoin moved in with his brother, who sorely needed the company, they sat on the carpet, backs on the bottom of the sofa like teenagers, and chainsmoked for the first time in decades, with a little gin, and from the open window over the summer evening drifted in the hushed radio of someone else’s party.
Susan could remember watching television reports on Vietnam. The artillery and wastelands left her assuming, without the words, that she and her family were like helpless bodies floating in a hopeless sea, that you couldn’t even drink from, because the salt kept you buoyant. Even without war visuals, this worldview fit well into an ascendant lower middle-class white family.
A little older, she followed her friends to nuclear disarmament protests and wondered, in the crowd, why these gatherings did not happen all the time. When her friends weren’t going, she didn’t ask around and find somewhere to go alone. In the Eighties and Nineties, you either believed the United States was pitching the world into inferno, or numbed your senses and listened a bit to Reagan and Thatcher telling you that everything was, finally, fine. The AIDS crisis, in which a few of her college friends died – she made no new gay acquaintances after the age of twenty-five – was a blemish she thought about separately from the government. It was awful, and she would be happy when it ended.
She noticed patterns and wouldn’t name them, for fear that trying words would remove some of her intuition. Nonetheless: one thing she saw was that all actions, of great and small consequence, are connected, like the same shade of yellow will fill a flower petal and the longest breadth of flagrant sky, just before the dusk.
Eoin never thought he’d see Berlin. He got a single room in a youth hostel – didn’t see the purpose of any hotel because his stay would be so short – and walked, what he could, of the line of inlaid bricks that traced where the wall once stood. He did some of it, it was so long. Of course he had Mort’s phone number, of course he could have asked to be put up – but something in him wanted to have a conversation that would be consequent of father and son having their own spaces, like adults. His hostel was in the former East, which he found quieter.
It was reminiscent of New York and the little he’d seen of London, and in one of the busiest districts there was a church whose roof had been bombed open, and though he didn’t visit the renovated site he took note of the photograph on the tourists’ noticeboard. Eoin and Mort arranged a time – Mort’s partner, a decade and change older, had gotten through family or friends or witchcraft a rent-stabilized apartment in Kreuzberg, and waiting for his father Mort wondered if the formal nature of this meeting meant that someone had died. Eoin had always talked about visiting Berlin and Palermo after retirement, but this was not what his son had imagined.
Oranienstrasse reminded Eoin of St. Marks, particularly, and just before ringing the buzzer the middle-aged man had decided to feel at home like only white Americans can abroad.
From the age of ten, Mort had asked to be called by his middle name, because Eoin and Susan would have never given siblings names that rhymed. They expected the child to eventually grow displeased with Mortimer but it stuck. That says a lot about the kid, now a man.
Mort’s partner had left for the weekend and their apartment was painted like the sky, which, out the open windows facing behind the apartment building, gleamed a juvenile kind of blue, soft and subtle as it was uninterrupted, for now, by cloud. The evening was nice – in a few weeks the temperature would get unbearable and Mort might decide to leave, too. For now, approaching thirty, he sat with legs crossed on the sofa cushion and a beer at the meeting of his hands and feet. Eoin was smoking too, sitting on the floor with his legs stretched out but feet laid one on top of the other, his back against a bookcase. There was a record on, something. The tattoos on Mort’s forearms, some new, reminded Eoin of what he used to draw with capless pens, lifted from his father’s home office, on spare sheets of graph paper and the empty backs of old exam rubrics, not even ten years old. The young man hadn’t slept well the night before, but would tonight.
“I’ve only told this to Frank,” he started. “But since you’re here – it feels right. There was a guy a year above me in school and I can’t tell you what it was about him, you never can. We met through friends and hooked up a few times and he wanted to end up with girls and I, I didn’t. I don’t know if that’s what it was – so I started watching like everything he did to prove that it wasn’t not my right to, and in comparison the warm regard he offered me felt like indifference, because I wanted it to be indifference, in a way, you know? You might not. I’m getting to the age where you start remembering what happened when you were younger and, especially, realizing that you really at those points thought you might die, thought it might be over, the more because it didn’t end the last time, which might have been yesterday. But by knowing him – it’s weird – I questioned who I was and what I was doing and though I was so often wrong, I was wrong because I was lying, and eventually I figured out why I was lying. So he raised me in a way although we never – yeah. I came here instead.
“When I first met Frank I could tell, superficially but that was almost enough, that he needed me more than me him. Even though I’m not from here. They say when you’re gay you’re dead at thirty. It has something to do with that. But no matter – although it wasn’t the same dynamic I tried making Frank feel exactly how the guy from home did to me, and I couldn’t tell I was doing it, because that other guy couldn’t either. It wasn’t even revenge but I thought it was the only way things worked. I’d absorbed that. It was hard to get that out of me. Only by – when two people are really in love, what they do – you and mom, at some point – yeah. And then we got together and we’re not monogamous or anything but here I am. I could change or die next to him knowing I’ve done something – does that make sense?”
“Who was the guy in high school?” Eoin asked, because for him Berlin still didn’t and would never really exist.
For a few minutes Mort laughed so hard he nearly puked – Eoin joined in, because the laughter made him hear himself, if only, for a moment, because his son was there – and catching his breath he crossed the room and kissed his father’s head, half-bald. From somewhere above him, Eoin heard, “when you’re gay it’s hard because so many people try and raise you after your parents. But without you I’d have been clueless who to respect.”
You tend to keep up fake appearances before people you love – until, all at once, something strikes and you speak or shout like nobody is there. You might suppose this would be more insolent than anything else. But it happened to Susan and Courtney and on their authority, this loud erosion can be perfect.
Susan saw that the major streets of Palermo were designed, a bit like in New York, like railroad tracks, and she walked a few of them, ending up by the sea each time. She’d never seen topaz water before. The winding alleys, some of which she tried, made her think of hidden tenants who wouldn’t see the light of day, or who hadn’t made it to the United States. The street murals were so beautiful, it startled her they weren’t under glass or otherwise preserved.
The marketplaces were so packed with people, Susan got intimidated out of buying anything and trusted the current, silent strangers taking her who-knew-where, like a heedless swimmer. Also, she still had to peer closely into the faces of coins to know how much they were.
Ascending the dark stairway to her daughter’s flat, part of her wished she was gaining altitude in a plane, homebound. But a few seconds and an opened door delivered her daughter’s grin.
Throughout the interview Susan was conscious of Courtney’s balcony, like everybody who passed under it had some opinion about the afternoon. Susan’s arrival, Courtney’s hospitality, the dinner, the ricotta, the pastries, the strong coffee out of a kettle-thing she hadn’t seen in decades, the pauses. Courtney knew her mother enough to count them not for signifying discomfort, but as evident of Susan’s attempts to take in the rooms, which were strange to her, even at middle-age the woman loved different rooms the more she hated staying in them. She had a curiosity for how other people lived but never wished those people to be her children.
Courtney would never know about her parents’ cigarettes and gin a few weeks before, and didn’t drink or smoke in front of her houseguest. This made what she had to say more scattered – but passionate, and Susan, with old-world posture, listened as though her daughter’s life was the most natural thing in the world.
“Something I want to improve in myself,” she started, and it was total, “is how little I care about people. I don’t care about what happens to you and Dad because if I did, like you’d expect me to, I wouldn’t have moved abroad, I’d see Mort more, I don’t know. I am happy most of the time here. I am so alone sometimes I go mad. At home I know what people expect of me – I can see it in their eyes and more than that they’ve told me by complaining about other people when they thought I wasn’t listening. Inside of a foreign language you can get a lot of silence and really face yourself – I’ve been to other places in Europe where, if you’re American they will start talking to you, and here, if you don’t speak Italian they really can care less. I don’t know how. You might take this. But from being gay, and I should talk to Mort about this before I say too much, but from being gay I learned that nobody is really there for me. That doesn’t run through my head every day – but what does is that, should everything be taken away, should I face the worst luck of my life, there’s something that feels like a snake or a cockroach at the bottom of my soul that would tell me to pick up just enough of what I need and get the fuck out of where I am, to move on. Other people – not just not-gay people, and some gay people don’t have it either – other people have never needed it, that sense, and I grew up middle-class, I’ve never been jailed, poor, beaten, abused, anything like that, but I knew when I had to split. I don’t know where it comes from but I feel – like it’s so much a part of myself I have no control – that I privilege it before connecting with anybody, because I know what it might do, the more I’m ignorant of where I am sometimes. Most empathetic people are really self-satisfied, and they’re evil, and that’s not empathy. I trust people who know they’re broken and can’t imagine an amendment. Because even if we find one – who can see it now?
“The first girl I was ever with, in high school, was a bit older than me, more experienced, could go from girls to guys and back again while I thought a boy wouldn’t look at me. That was security for her – she knew I’d always be there, and like an idiot I told her that too. At the same time – I feel like I’m speaking out of a different mind, now – she was so focused on other people I don’t know how she would have had the time to think of me. In the heart of her she did feel connected to a few, I was almost one of them because she’d name them in front of me and why they hurt, and then go back out into the world to repeat what I thought was stupid, stupid patterns, some false life. But I think that’s what I loved about her, one of the things – like that sense of connection, the opposite of which has, more or less, kept me here. I wish I were easier. I love you, Mom.
“I just need to let myself live more. I’ll go on, for sure, don’t worry about that – but I need to welcome it instead of putting up some defense.”
“Like I’ve done,” Susan whispered, but clearly. “Like you’ve always seen me do. For example, defending yourself against the world so a space is left for you where you can be alone, like solitude and contentment are the same – they might be for me, but they never were for you. Or if I was troubled there was a reason for it – while, your, what you, your strife, runs at you accusing that it’s all your fault before anybody else’s.”
Courtney had tried moving dishes into the sink. She had really, really been focused on it, but now stood at the center of the kitchen while the tap ran, nothing in her hands, her fingers trying to find her liquid face but failing at it. She got back to her seat okay before Susan could decide what to do. They spoke about her childhood, and even some of Susan’s – the best memories from both – for hours, into the evening and night.
Courtney lay in the queen-sized bed and Susan on the sofa – after her daughter fell asleep, Susan let herself out the front door. Palermo looked like every foreign city on Earth, even some she hadn’t visited in the United States. Few people were around. The darkness smelt of stone, or sand. On the pavement, back to her hotel, she counted like footsteps the list of mothers whose names she knew that had come before her, and imagined – like blank ancestors in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – all the women, cis, trans, gay, straight, white, nonwhite, hers, who would proceed with humanity once she’d ceased being visible.
At a small bar two towns away from where he raised his children, Eoin started drinking. Two, maybe three pints of beer an evening, and a glass of whiskey straight he nursed over the hours, rejecting each of the bartender’s advances with an ice cube (they never remembered him). Part of him wished his former students would show and they never did. If he’d come the night before Thanksgiving or Christmas Eve, they would be here, along with God knew who else, as the bar became a one-night frat mixer to pay for the quiet winter. For now, he shared the counter with other people’s neighbors, some white, some Latinx, and overheard the rotation of television sports as he watched the traffic lights change through a front window. He really had peace there, however, because nobody expected him to talk. Nobody approached him – not that he was intimidating or anything, but he seemed alright enough on his own, never caused problems, always left early and paid in cash.
All at once, a good-looking young man walked, although his gait had something of a sober stumble to it, through the door and assumed the stool next to Eoin even as many others were free. Eoin never noticed men – like, ever – but this one had grey irises that leered out of the sockets like resplendent contained storm clouds, eyelashes stark as ruffled-up hair, and dark hair moved by what might have been a hand covered in rain. The night was dry, so that must have been sweat. He didn’t smell any more than the room. He folded his arms on the counter and kept his gaze directly forward at the cabinet of spirits, replacing Eoin’s view of the traffic lights. He didn’t seem ready to talk, the stranger, but showed no intention of moving once he got his drink. Eoin hoped it wouldn’t be whiskey, and it wasn’t – instead, the cheapest bottle of beer imaginable.
Almost in the way he entered, quarter of the bottle gone, he turned to Eoin and asked, “You aren’t gay, are you?”
“I don’t think so, no,” the father said quietly. “Were you looking for somebody?”
“The opposite.” He drank. “For all I know I’ve been to this bar before, met you before, and you’re hiding it from me.”
“Well, I’m not. Hiding anything.”
“I drink too much.”
“You’re not now, are you.”
“That’s true,” and he sipped. “I – um – I don’t know if you’ve been with a woman for a long time, if you’re married or anything, but I just came out of, like, realizing I get along well with women, I have, or had, a fiancé, until a little while ago, this morning actually, and if I think, even before her, it’s like, people are inspired to do all kinds of things for me, give me special consideration and notice me and help me out, and I’m not complaining, not at all, but they never tell me the full extent of what they’ve sacrificed because they don’t want to admit it and at the same time they’re constantly wanting payback, the more they don’t say, the more they expect I know what it is and aren’t telling them because I’m, well, people find that sexy, I guess, that withholding. Do I sound like a fool?”
“No.” Looking instantly back, Eoin thought he might have added a few more words, but the moment passed.
“I’m a fortunate man but I think other people find that when they meet me it’s one of the most unfortunate things they’ll ever experience. I’m not – that sounds pitiful, I did pity myself for a bit but I don’t anymore. Once I realized what the pity was, and that I had it, I moved on. And I guess – well, doing strange things I might not have done before, walking in here, talking to you, I guess that’s moving on. Just not all the way. Sex scares the living shit out of me because it seems to happen in a completely different place – not a bad place to be but then you have to deal with the rest of your life. For example, I can’t imagine my parents touching each other but apparently they did. And if they tried to forget it, same time as they were living with me – well, then, what did all that do?”
“That’s a young man’s question,” said Eoin, more to mark it for himself. He could have kept that statement to himself. But, having failed at that, the guy realized he was being listened to and was so tempted to shut up.
Realizing that and not wanting it, Eoin tried to go on, “You don’t know yet what you have and your parents didn’t – often, you have the time. That doesn’t separate you as much as you think it might. You and I can still talk, can’t we?”
“Is this talking, really? Or am I just rambling at you.”
“Alright.” Another bottle arrived, opened. When he drank a bit more from it, he added, “Freedom probably won’t feel so good.”
“You’re right about that. But when it gets here – ” and Eoin trailed off. Until he found himself again – it coincided with his taking the rest of his whiskey down in one go, and what he said was, “The only way to compensate for people’s emotional labor benefitting you is, if they want it, spending time with them. Not even doing things for them. Because everybody is lonelier than you know. And you don’t know who I am.” The last bit sounded most important, all of a sudden, and Eoin couldn’t tell you how but judging from his age and the tone and his looks he could see whom this stranger might have been to his son.
“Drinking helps you lose people.” Throughout this conversation the two men’s eyes rarely met.
Eoin cleared his throat as the last of the whiskey touched him, “You need to give yourself up and up and up until the time comes when you know it’s not the thing to do anymore. That’s Henry James” – where in hell did he pull this quote from? – “that giving’s the only sure thing, next to giving, taking doesn’t stand a chance.”
In what the guy tried to not let sound like a whimper, he murmured, “Everybody needs a dad,” and in that moment Eoin saw him as a stagnant liquid pool attached to the bar floor.
Susan took trains and trains and trains in the afternoons. She never needed to see Europe again. New York she liked better, and she could rest for hours on a bench, with her pocketbook on her lap, in Madison Square Park, Central Park, Bowling Green, Stuyvesant Square, Chelsea Piers, anywhere she located a good view. One day she made it to Washington Square. All these places were roughly the same to her, she overheard the vast differences between passing people and not the identities at either end of each difference, and she fit into their web of movement, she felt, because of her silence. Nobody bothered her.
It was in Washington Square that a young woman prepared, it seemed, for a job interview sat on the other side of the bench-barrier, some metal curves nearly the size of what you’d find at the edge of a child’s car seat. She was young, had a white blouse on, and black pants and shoes – she also carried a pocketbook. Her eyes, however, were in tears, and due to this sound she didn’t seem to fit with the summer afternoon the way the other strangers did. Susan didn’t feel moved, more perturbed. All at once she considered what a ridiculous voyeur she resembled, thinking she could move throughout the millions like a pristine human camera without film – but she gave no evidence of this conclusion when greeting the younger woman, instead she asked with an immediate intimacy very new to her own ears, “Are you alright, sweetheart?”
The white woman kept facing forward. When she spoke, it became obvious how young she was. “Are you coming on to me?”
Because that was the question, Susan immediately said no, as though she’d been asked for a cigarette.
“I don’t know why I said that.”
“I don’t know why you did either, sweetie.” Susan made a mental note to stop calling her anything like that. Not only because of her evident concern, but since it belonged in an ancient or passed-away person’s mouth. “I just – couldn’t say nothing, because I heard you so upset, and you weren’t moving. That sounds strange. Other people, I guess, are as upset as you are but they pass in front of me. And you’re sitting right here. And – ” Susan hesitated to explain how the way the young woman was dressed had something to do with it, but sensing that the conversation was getting too self-centered, she stopped. “I don’t even have a tissue or anything in this stupid handbag,” was what she added.
“No, I’m fine, I’m fine,” the girl still didn’t look aside. Susan started wondering if she’d just had an argument with somebody.
They chatted a little – facing in front of them, as it were – and found out they lived in the same place, or the girl’s parents were neighbors of Susan and Eoin. Susan stopped before asking about any connection to her children. If it existed, it would have been implied, and the girl could choose to say something if she liked. However, the talk’s final turn, when her face was drier, took on another tone.
“I’ve always wanted to say something to – where I grew up, but I only have it in my head when I’m in this city. It leaves me, or the strength leaves me, whenever I go home.”
Susan wondered how this was connected to her tears. Didn’t ask, though.
“This is going to sound ridiculous but you’ll never see me again, most likely. I don’t have a heart. I really don’t. People call me considerate – because you know what other people have, how they feel, the more that in comparison you’re vacant. Which is how I apply to jobs, do my love life, et cetera. And I guess I always” – she was building up to a word – “when I was younger I just assumed I was a lesbian and now I’m not so sure. You know that home is middle-class and everybody treats you well. But where other people have a genuine desire to connect with others, to feel un-alone, I have the conviction, I think, to hold everybody I see accountable to how often as a kid I felt misunderstood and unable to say it. If I don’t continue making everybody happy – and crying in front of them like this is not how you make them happy – then I might do a crime. As it is I collect reasons to hate them all – and I’m not even talking about people I know – and never tell why. Nobody reaches out to me. Nobody tries. Because they think I’m fine. So when anybody gets a little bit closer or by mistake sees how vulnerable I am, I think it’s revenge, like the world finally telling me it knows I’m such a fake, and I cut them off like you block out anything you don’t want to see. Sometimes I think I’m so nice to everybody – on the job, at home, with friends – because I know we’ll only stand a chance once everything we see is destroyed.”
“People go on long after they’ve been emptied, wasting everything they can.”
The exchange was carried out so politely that infernal descent felt smooth. By and by Susan left her to catch the train home, and the done young woman left their bench by the time Susan’s drowsy eyes had opened on the railway station two before hers.
I think it goes without saying that none of these people were free, but what makes them different or interesting is that they, in the moments we’ve met them, were getting there. Of course I don’t write towards the freedom of middle-class white people, who I know, I’ve seen, I’ve been, are comfortable enough, are indifferent and repulsive and maybe it’s the grimy little punk in me that hates them all so much. But that hate lives side-by-side with the idea, which I haven’t been able to disprove, in my head or on my eyes or in my life, that everybody’s lives here are so connected that we either save them all or kill ourselves, like we need a hole in our heads.
What would a world look like – where the alienation that has been spoken of here would be less possible, would fit in less perfectly? Even as suffering is incontrovertible, much of what we saw here could have been avoided.
Eoin and Susan Glassman would take their kids Upstate from time to time, and from the backseat Mort and Courtney would marvel at just how much land there seemed to be. Not only on the sides of parkways, but once you took the exit and drove to the ski lodge or nature museum or Fort Ticonderoga. All this land is stolen. Its owners live here still and will forever. Any redistribution must be done on their terms, this is their home, settlers always have somewhere else to go. And, a lot of what the siblings saw were industrial farms, and property owned by so many public/private entities, including the State of New York, that did not use the land to its potential, as the Northeastern United States had stopped really producing goods long ago.
Something different happens when you care for a piece of land as though it were a human body, and live partly off what it can grow. How many people around the world die making the conveniences Americans use every day, when we live right next to land like this? How many people inside of this country and the Western Hemisphere die producing conveniences that are the binary opposite of their daily lives? No one can be paid rightly for that – and many aren’t even paid.
In the cities, too, how many people suffer for simple lack of breathing space, for the peace that can engender silence or revelry, while in every neighborhood of Manhattan, as the city and state governments continue their ethnic cleansing projects, there are vacant storefronts and vacant apartments and vacant storefronts and vacant apartments that supposedly nobody has money to touch?
In a society of excess we don’t use what we have.
This old Russian dude (Peter Kropotkin) wrote about the evolutionary imperative of helping people. Even now we’ve gotten so backwards that the notion of help evokes paternalism and philanthropy and bullshit, but what was meant by “mutual aid” was people recognizing each other as equals, gauging what each has and the other needs, and organizing an exchange to benefit everybody. Instead of an exceptional practice made possible by divine-ish love, the dude argued that “mutual aid” was an evolutionary advantage that made human beings what they are today, aid, and not the spoils of social darwinism. When you think about how “survival of the fittest” was cooked up by an English cis male white dude in the springtime of capitalism, you can smell a rat.
The Glassmans accomplished love because they weren’t thinking about it, like any conscience would cause anxiety, like venom, corrosive. With a better understanding of how we’ve stayed alive as a species and how we might continue doing so, along with all that is alive on earth, conscience can be used to militarize, strengthening what we do as we are aware of ourselves doing it, loving, helping, exchanging, giving, without fear that once our or other eyes trace our quiet actions we’ll be transfigured to fools.
Ryan Schulte is a graduate of Macaulay Honors College @ CUNY Hunter College. His first nonfiction chapbook, ‘Notes on Water and Blood,’ was published by Greying Ghost Press in 2020 and has now reached its third printing. His novella, All of You, was released as an audiobook by Hello America Stereo Cassette in 2022. His fiction has appeared in Hello America Stereo Cassette’s mixtapes, and is forthcoming in EOAGH. He is a white queer settler, works in agriculture, and currently lives in New York City.