When I travel, I often visit towns other than the one intended, some place that otherwise I wouldn’t bother seeing. The trip to Nashua, I think, was like that. It was after Christmas, and I was housesitting west of Boston for a while, keeping an eye on a teenager and two dogs for a family friend. I rarely saw the teenager, except to drive her from place to place, but I let the dogs out and walked them and picked up the garbage they had strewn about. I cooked meals with food I found in the freezer—shrimp, petite lasagnas. The house was large enough that cleaning people came every few days, and when I couldn’t find something I always thought that they had moved it when I had probably just forgotten where it was. One night I drove to an old, unheated cinema to watch a musical. To get there I drove through the snow down unfamiliar roads, then drove back, hoping I would find the teenager at home, maybe chasing the dogs, trying to get them in their cages. There was, as always, the relief of living within a life that wasn’t mine, of raising the heat, of walking barefoot across the bathroom’s stone floors.
Around this time, I realized I had fallen in love again—now with a man named Ansel, who was a drinker. I remembered a story by Alice Munro in which a woman, sensing she is falling in love, and fearing what had happened to her in the past, gets in a car and starts to drive and keeps going. It was a snowy day when I thought about this, and I sat in my bedroom and imagined waiting the feeling out, how long it might take. Outside there was the scrape of shovels. But for what other reason are we alive? I thought.
I had driven to Nashua to look for farmhouses. I was researching abandoned farmhouses and wanted to find a part of New Hampshire with both rural and urban poverty. Once in town, I bought a bottle of whiskey at the tax-free shop, then found a Salvation Army. I bought fabric to make curtains and asked directions from the woman behind the register, but she knew the roads by different numbers than were listed on my map.
As I drove over the hills, the sun hit low across an apple orchard, and it was so striking that it didn’t surprise me to see an abandoned farmhouse—just like that, just what I was searching for—at the top of the hill. There was a neighborhood-watch sign nailed to a tree. I pulled over and started to walk.
There was no cleared path, and the snow went up over my boots. I walked to the side of the house, and through the window I could see furniture—not arranged to make the room habitable, but grouped together as if to be taken away. It wasn’t a beautiful farmhouse—it was in the style of a musty-looking ranch—or I would have felt the desire to go inside. I was glad the desire was less than it might have been. Still, it was difficult to leave. Eventually I stopped at a church in another town. There was a secondhand shop next door. The door was open, but the woman inside said that it was closed, that I would have to come back the next day.
There was a time in my life, in graduate school, when several men I knew gave me their poems, and one man—who I didn’t think was a very good poet otherwise—gave me one that I still have. He wrote about holing up in a hotel in France, never going outside, and overhearing the woman in the next room telling her lover about him, saying that seeing him was like seeing a man at the end of a long tunnel. Some people, I took the poem to mean, are lost before they even know it.
I thought of this poem when I went to Poland to find the village my grandparents had emigrated from. I never made it to the village and instead stayed a week in a small hotel off a village square—my room overlooked it—where I would sit in the window and smoke and watch pigeons. In the afternoon I would go out for a donut and a cup of tea and walk around until it was time for an early dinner, and then I’d return to the hotel to read and drink from bottles of wine I had purchased near the train station.
I cried some nights, as I wanted a child back then and I was almost past the point of being able to have one. I imagine that’s why I was in Poland, because I wanted time to think about these things—about this man and the poem he’d written, about the little girl I might not be able to have. Seeing a ghost, having your own ghost, being the man at the end of a long tunnel, changes you into a ghost, too, separates you from the people around you. This town in Poland turned out to be a destination for schoolchildren on class trips, as Copernicus had once lived there and his house had been converted into a museum. The children passed through in packs. The streets winding near the museum were narrow and made of stone, and I would come upon the schoolchildren, fifteen or twenty in their winter coats, with one or two tall, thin women behind them. They would pass, and I would draw away from them and spend the rest of the afternoon walking, sometimes stopping at a café to write a letter. I kept thinking about going to Warsaw, of walking the old streets outside of the center, but I never left that village.
Though I feared I was falling in love with Ansel, little happened between us physically. Most nights we were with each other, Ansel would be drinking and would softly fade out. All spring, winter, and fall he wore a caramel-colored wool coat, with a sash that he left untied. He was tall, with sandy-brown hair that reached his chin. But it was the coat you remembered. Once, when I was waiting to board a bus, I stood behind an older black woman. Her coat was a lot like Ansel’s. It looked as if she had owned it her whole life, as if she had never been without it. She was not stylish—she wore sweatpants and a pair of walking shoes and a polyester scarf around her hair. It was as if the beauty of the coat had happened by accident. She tied it snug to her middle like a bathrobe.
“Where did you get your coat?” I asked once. We were drinking midday next to a window in an otherwise dark bar. A wood bench ran the length of the room. He waved his hand in the air, as if to say, “Who knows?” The sun came in and I touched the wool. The question dropped in the way most of them did back then—not that the effort wasn’t worth it, the effort of conveying information to each other—but that the moment had changed and the question wasn’t there anymore.
Perhaps much of what drew us together was the way life felt to us then. My memory was poor, and I had developed the habit of writing the names of things in a small notebook. I had put off doing this, as I worried it would become obsessive, but it got so that I couldn’t remember a book I had just read, or an art exhibit, or a movie that touched me. A friend had screened an art film in which footage of a snowy cabin north of New York was interrupted by flickering images of the city. Afterward, I couldn’t recall the name of the film or the director. Or another time, I was talking to a student and asked if he had seen Sans Soleil—and then, seeing nothing register on his face, asked in a flurry, “But that’s a movie, yes?” As if I had become worried it was a cleaning product.
Ansel’s memory changed, too. When I was with him, I knew he would remember the moments differently the next day, but there was no way to know in what way, or what his experience of the world was like when drunk. I thought of that forgotten art film and its speckled, flickering light, of the moments when the images played over each other and of the end, when the images just faded out.
One night, after being at a bar with Ansel, I dropped him off at his apartment and he tripped on the stairs going up. It was painful to watch, so I looked away. I drove from there to a diner that had recently opened and sat with a cup of tea. I knew Ansel would want me to tell him about the diner, so I paid careful attention and tried to think of what I would say. It was a desperate thing, being there. At a certain point I started to cough, bent over at the table. I must not have looked well. I hadn’t taken my coat off. The waitress kept asking if I was okay. She was a kind girl whose parents were from India. Her shift was thirteen hours, from 8 p.m. to 9 a.m. Few people came in during those hours, and fewer people were likely to come, as the owner had fired the night cook earlier that week. The waitress teased out the jobs I’d held, which were good jobs. She must have wondered what had brought me to such a place at three in the morning.
I never understood why Ansel drank like that. He would drink until falling down. In a sense, I was mesmerized, drawn in, and he must have known that. It seemed the cruelest thing to ask, so I never did, but I wondered if he understood why he did it. For some reason I had his apartment in my imagination, in the sense that I was able to picture it even though I had never been inside. We used to describe things to each other—details about our furnishings, the style of blankets we used, the layout, how we had set things up. There was one night—in all the time I knew him—when I went home with him. I thought I knew the trade-off I was making, but I later learned that I was wrong, that I hadn’t known what would happen or what it would feel like to be inside his apartment, or even what his apartment would look like.
After that, we rarely saw each other. It happened slowly. At first because he avoided me, and then later because it was too difficult—almost impossible—to have a drinker like that in my life. That summer my mother visited me in the city. We were walking down the street when a man who looked like Ansel walked by. I said his name, once, twice, and then, just when I was about to give up, my mother said his name more sharply. Still, he didn’t turn. At the stoplight, he rounded the corner, and I walked into the crosswalk to try from there, but this man held his body so that I never saw his face. Later I decided it was both him and not him. My mother would sometimes bring it up. She wanted me to ask, but since I felt both versions were true, there was nothing to learn from asking him. It was a way to hold something—the memory of him—lightly enough so that all possibilities were true, and to not crush anything by asking if I loved him or not, and, if I loved him, trying to understand why.