Chapter One: Womb
Waking up is the hardest part. Before the ego has a chance to erect its walls, when the id lies naked in illusory safety and then the fact swoops down upon it: there is no other. There is only Alex and the world. And the world pushes in at the windows with the sound of lunchtime traffic and with the light from the skylight above his bed, in which he feels unmoored and unwelcome.
The pipe is where he left it on the nightstand, but the bowl is cashed, and in the time it takes to empty the ash (there is now a three-day pile next to the bed), repack, and locate his lighter under the pillow on the far side of the bed, he is fully awake. A spark, a puff, and he waits for the world to recede again, thankful for the brief asylum.
He never used to smoke in bed, hardly ever in the loft for that matter. Eli didn’t allow it, and the one time that Alex risked a joint while Eli was visiting his parents, he’d gotten so paranoid that he spent the rest of the day cleaning until the chemical smells of lemon and lavender permeated the space and Eli could do nothing but marvel at his industriousness upon his return.
There is something painful about smoking in bed now, but it is a pain that smiles.
The demands of his bladder break through the buzz, so Alex shakes off the comforter and trundles to the bathroom. He doesn’t bother shutting the door, the only door in the loft, because Eli isn’t there to complain and Alex never wanted the door shut anyway. He finishes and flushes and leans forward on the sink. In the mirror he examines his wiry frame, its thirty-one years beginning to show around the hips like fabric on a tired couch. When did that mole appear on the chest, that angioma at the back of the armpit? Whose is this body, and where is the one it approximates—the one he remembers being pleased with, the one that looked like going places rather than been places?
He wants to return to bed, to lose himself again in sleep, but his mouth has gone dry and his back aches from the old mattress. In the kitchen he stands and drinks from the faucet, eyeing the desiccated pothos perched on a shelf near the window. Eli built the shelf after the plant’s near-death experiences in other corners of the apartment, hoping that its proximity to the tap would encourage watering. Now it’s so far gone that it seems a waste of water to resuscitate it. Better to let it finish what it started. Scarcity builds character. “Devil’s Ivy,” its tag read when Eli brought it home. Now Alex is exorcising it, one hour at a time.
Through the window, the world is waking up too, finding itself and resuming its verdant raiment after a season of desolation. Tulip poplars and young sycamores planted by urban renewers radiate growth the color of celery. Beyond them, on the other side of I-95, lies Fisher Point and the mouth of the Philadelphia Harbor, now freed from the floes that the Coast Guard ice-breakers pulverized throughout the winter months. Beyond the Delaware, at the far end of the Atlantic City Expressway, lies the closest thing to infinity this side of suicide.
Alex shakes his head and rubs the crust out of his eyes. He despises melodrama, in himself most of all. Sentimentality is the refuge of the weak. He plunges his head underneath the faucet, grateful for the icy water as it makes the four-story climb. Standing, he lets the rivulets trickle along his spine, across his ribs, between his legs until it pools on the concrete beneath his feet. It’s good to feel something physical, something he can control. If he can still feel, perhaps he can still work, and work, he knows, is the refuge of the hardy.
The need to escape the condo comes upon him urgently, almost bodily, but the action of going somewhere needs somewhere to go. Sometimes he thinks he’d get better if he just had somewhere he had to be. If there were someone who expected something of him, he could focus on delivering it and forget everything else, at least for a while.
He picks up the phone and dials the school’s main number, wondering as it rings whether it is in fact a weekday. When Marian picks up he has to clear his throat twice before he can ask to be put through to Principal Sutherland.
“I’m feeling a lot better,” he says after the transfer, hoping he sounds it, “and I’d like to come in today to talk about coming back.”
“That seems soon,” Sutherland responds. He is not what Alex would call a subtle man. His voice, if not his words, makes him a terrible bullshitter. Alex has always admired this quality, born or bred into his supervisor in Camden classrooms long before he took the helm at Bayard Rustin Academy and transformed a revolving door into a prep pipeline. “It’s only been, hell, Alex, three weeks? There’s no rush. We got a great long-term sub, and the kids are doing fine. You don’t need to worry about school right now. You’ve got enough on your plate.”
“But I’m ready, and I want to,” he says, nearly believing it. “I’m actually already in the neighborhood,” he lies, “so it’s no problem.”
He hangs up quickly to preclude further protests and tries to think about leaving. Getting dressed takes longer than usual, first because he is still high and has to brace himself against the dresser to put on socks and pants. Laundering has not been a part of his life since Eli emptied his side of the closet and three drawers in the dresser, but he settles for a flannel that hides its stains, then realizes he doesn’t remember his last shower, so he undresses again, cursing himself, and steps into the flow, washing his hair twice to hide the smell of pot. He considers getting off while he stands there, but the thought occurs more out of habit than desire, and anyway he now has somewhere to be.
Dry and dressed for the second time, he checks himself again in the mirror. If he squints, it almost looks like someone he recognizes, someone he hopes Sutherland will recognize too.
The school is a mile and a half south along the river, down in Fishtown. A ten-minute trip door to door if he catches the Five, but most days he makes the forty-five-minute walk. Past the Polish market and the row homes with their gated porches. Along the back of boarded-up St. Barnabas and its grown-over graves. Under the greenway down into Kensington, where the sight of a foreclosure is now less common than the sight of brushed nickel and teak. As he walks his breath falls into a rhythm that reminds him of a poem Eli used to recite, and he increases his gait.
For a high-school English teacher, his tastes in poetry have always been unorthodox. As a freshman at Temple (the first institution to complicate his hitherto abominable experiences with the word) he joked with classmates that Whitman turned him off of white men for life. That spring he met Yussef, and under his tutelage Alex discovered the lyricism of the Sufis, of Rumi and Abu Nuwas, and learned to take pleasure in the intricacies of foreplay, forsaking the linear approach to sex he had practiced since his first experience with the subject. Senior year, Yussef introduced him to Levi, a Hebrew Studies major, and the three enjoyed ecumenical love until, like all academic endeavors, it unraveled, leaving each of them more confused than before.
After his sojourn among the ancients, Alex crossed into medievalism with Pedro at Penn, a sometimes-Catholic from Madrid with a morbid fascination with the figure of St. Sebastian, who dominated his tastes both artistically and sexually. For two years Alex explored the music of Juan Ruiz, Chrétien de Troyes, and Dante, and the pleasure in making his body feel things in uncomplicated ways. Alex was three months out of graduate school and six weeks out of the Inferno when he met Eli.
Friends used to tease Alex about making his romantic life a survey of the Abrahamic faiths. It wasn’t that he sought out people of the Book, but he liked the purposeful pageantry and the implicit understanding among adherents of who they were and what they were to do. It made him wish, just for a little while, that he had some piece of it to call his own.
About the only thing Alex can call his own these days is what’s left in the loft. Even the walls and the floors belong to the bank, and what was barely affordable on two teachers’ salaries is far beyond the reach of one.
Across the street from Bayard Rustin High School, children chase each other through a park while parents lounge on benches, taking the sacraments of caffeine and social media. He and Eli once talked about having children, weighing the benefits of adoption against those of surrogacy. They played with imaging software that combined their features, creating a chimera that was unsettling without being repulsive. Now Alex shivers as the sun retreats behind a cloud, grateful that there is no issue to dispute, no progeny to litigate, no innocent to eviscerate. Only Eli and himself. And neither has been innocent for quite some time.
“I asked you not to come, Alex,” Principal Sutherland says as he closes the door to his office.
“I know, but I was already—”
“It’s not just about you.” The desk chair squeaks helplessly as Sutherland sits back. The man looks distracted. “It’s about the kids, too. It’s confusing for them to see you here.”
Alex’s heart does something that nauseates him. He wishes he had never gotten out of bed.
“You said my leave was temporary, that I would be welcome back when I was ready.”
“You are. When we’re all ready. Look, Alex, saying you’re not to blame is not the same as saying you’re not involved. What happened was traumatic for everyone—especially you, but not only for you. You need some time to heal, and the kids need some time to let the world settle and make sense again. Your being here just dredges up old questions for them.”
“What are you saying?”
“The same thing I said three weeks ago: take some time off. Don’t rush it. You’re on paid leave. Hell, get out of the city! Go sit on a beach somewhere until your world makes sense again. That’s what I’d do.”
“For how long?”
Principal Sutherland looks at him, tired and compassionate. “Let’s see how we’re feeling come summer.”
“Don’t force things, Alex. Just tend to the now.”
Now. The aimless, purposeless wanderings in one long moment without end. Now is wanting to sleep and wishing you could wake up. Now is alone. Now is no Eli, no Eli in his bed and no Eli in his classroom. It’s not even Eli bedding one of his seniors, knocking Bunsen burners and pipettes to the floor while they fuck atop a pile of quizzes on covalent bonds—which seems symbolic, though Alex doesn’t know enough to say for sure. Perhaps Eli would be here now if Alex knew more about covalent bonds, about what sustains or dissolves them.
His feet take him from Sutherland’s office on a route he has trod before in times when his compass spun without sense, though up until recently he thought his wanderings there had ended. He follows a jagged network of alleys, flowing like runoff toward the river, down along the Delaware until the packing plants become piers and he is dwarfed by the mammoth footers of the Franklin Bridge. From here he must decide between the living and the dead. Julia’s place (closer) offers a hug, a smoke, a drink, and a conversation about the things he has no words for. The burial grounds (another two blocks—but now one and a half because there was no decision to make) will be quiet on this wet weekday.
He has spent whole nights under the oaks in Christ Church burial grounds. He remembers his first visit (though not the school he was attending that year or whose field trip paid the entrance fee). The preteens made a tour of the graves, whispering that his was the name on the weathered stones, pushing him off the path into the plots when the tired teacher wasn’t looking. In college he and two friends broke in after a party. They traced Ben Franklin’s name with their piss, trying to knock off as many of the tributary pennies as they could. Alex made the other two keep watch while he left a more substantial tribute that shames him now. On one of his night walks with Eli they clambered over the wall and huddled on the steps of a sepulcher, pressing hard into one another until the ache seemed one with the aurora, Eli reciting a poem he had learned in Berlin about life and death and the dominion of the world. The tomb was the end of all mankind, the poem preached: So spricht der Tod, die Welt ist mein. They stayed until the sky was strafed with periwinkle and the caretaker drove them from the premises.
Most days now, when he comes at all, he spends his time atop John Taylor, once the gravedigger here for over fifty years. His is a simple marker, hardly legible and mostly neglected by tourists and passers-by. Underneath it lies a man who knew what the inside of every grave looked like except his own.
Alex has been almost as stunned by his reaction to Eli’s indiscretion as by the fling itself. He has never thought of himself as a prude. There was a time, capstoned by Yussef and Levi and Pedro, when he lived in defiance of anything that felt like order. It is now more a series of impressions than sustained memories. Though he did not say it then, a part of him knows that he was running through it all—through the ecstatic nights and indefinite days and the bodies of indeterminate boys—running from the thing that knew his name in the darkness.
When he met Eli, he was surprised that he felt no need to run, no need to lose himself in any influence or embrace but this one. His conversion to monogamy was unforeseen and unintended, but that did not make it any less complete. Even now, with the idol of his fidelity defiled, he can’t resurrect a desire for the multifarious pleasures of his past.
His phone sounds from his pocket, and he ignores the call from Raquel, his mother-in-law. Soon to be his ex-mother-in-law—though Alex suspects that Eli’s family wishes water were thicker than blood. They’ve left countless voicemails in the past three weeks. The first were frantic, trying to locate Eli, who had gone silent. Since the facts became known, their messages have been a journey through the stages of grief. From listening to the messages, Alex knows they are mid-depression. But he can’t help them.
He looks across Independence Mall to a line of women carrying infants and toddlers and exiting the Quaker meetinghouse, probably from a music class or a yoga session. On either side of the entrance hangs a banner: Love is Love on the left, Black Lives Matter on the right. He laughs at the paradox of progressive religion. An institution designed for conformity wants to reinvent itself as revolutionary. “Mom yoga and kindermusik. That’s your grand plot for revolution?” he mutters, getting to his feet and rubbing the cold damp from his rear. “White people soothing themselves with therapy groups and social hours while the world burns.”
He listens to Raquel’s voicemail as he turns down Arch Street. She wants him to call—apologizes for asking him to call—but wants to hear his voice. They still love him, and they’re worried about him. They’d like to see him, maybe this weekend, or the next. They have some things to talk about with him. Things to decide. He can’t imagine what they have to decide; cutting him off doesn’t require bilateral negotiations.
He runs to catch the Five before it leaves the stop. He swipes his SEPTA card and sits along the wall facing the side door. In front of him stands a woman out of a Swedish-bride mail-order catalog. Her pantsuit, pumps, and pea coat are so starkly white that Alex begins to wonder whether she has stepped off the bus since winter descended four months ago. Perhaps she rides the route all day, her platinum hair swirling in the crisp air whenever the door opens. She is staring at two men sharing earbuds in the seat facing her. They’re laughing at something on the screen, and Alex can tell from their nervous side glances that they haven’t even kissed yet. The Lebanese looks like he’s working up the nerve—maybe tonight—but little Tel Aviv is still trying to convince himself that the pillar of salt standing before them isn’t his own personal portent of doom.
When Alex steps off the bus ten minutes later, the sun is shrouded in haze and the city feels like January again. Fumbling with his keys, he curses himself for not restocking his stash while he was out. When he nears the landing on the fourth floor, he sees Raquel and Damon Brooks sitting on the top step, looking like orphans in need of a hot meal.
“We didn’t mean to ambush you,” Raquel says as he pushes the door open. “We honestly stopped by because we were in town, but then you weren’t here, so we thought we’d call, and then we thought we’d wait to see…”
“How long were you waiting?” Alex asks, hoping that he sounds more concerned than annoyed.
“Maybe half an hour,” she confesses.
“I told her we wouldn’t stay past four,” Damon adds unhelpfully.
“You shouldn’t have waited,” Alex says, then catches himself. “I mean, it’s cold.”
They stand in the middle of the loft, glancing around at the home that once belonged to their son, looking even more lost in the space than Alex feels. He becomes aware of the dishes in the sink, the ashes by the bed, the laundry absolutely everywhere.
“Here, sit here,” he says, clearing piles of mail and detritus from the stools at the bar. Their presence confuses him, and he suddenly can’t believe the disorder around him.
“We won’t stay long. We just wanted to see you,” Damon says. “It’s been a long time.” They don’t remove their coats, and he doesn’t ask them to.
A lifetime, Alex thinks.
“How’ve you been?” Raquel asks, and he wants to hit her for it. Instead he looks around at the loft, indicating the disarray with one arm. He says nothing.
“We could get someone to come in and clean. It’d be one less thing for you to worry about.”
“The mess is a symptom, not the cause.” He knows he’s taking it out on them, and he hates himself for it.
“Sometimes symptom management is the best you can hope for while the problem works itself out,” Damon offers. He sounds like a TV doctor.
“Is that what you tell your clients?”
“We didn’t come here to critique you or fix you,” Raquel interjects. “We’re just worried about you.”
He swallows painfully and traces beams in the ceiling. “Well, thanks,” he forces out. “But I don’t want to talk to you about Eli.”
“Are you talking to anyone?” Damon asks.
He nods, then shakes his head.
“Do you need someone? I know colleagues who could recommend someone here in the city. Someone who doesn’t know our family.”
He shakes his head again and produces a smile. “I’m all right, but thanks.”
“Alex, come out to the house this weekend,” Raquel says, sliding off her stool and taking his hands. “You need to get out of this place, out of this city. There’s too much baggage for you here right now.”
“You think there’s less baggage waiting for me at Eli’s childhood home?”
“You guys never spent much time there together.”
“You know why that is.”
He has poked an old wound, and he feels a little sorry about it. For the first three years he was persona non grata in the Brooks household, while they worked through their conservative misgivings. In the past year they finally thawed, and Alex started harboring mild hopes for the future, right around the time when Eli started sailing in extracurricular waters.
“We can make up the futon in the den so you don’t have to stay in his room.”
He wants to pull away, but he can’t think of an excuse. “Why?”
“Because you’re our family,” Damon says, moving over next to Raquel. “We’ve had our differences on a number of issues, but we care about you just as much as we care about Eli. Right now, maybe even a little bit more.”
Alex smiles despite himself, and Damon gives a wry laugh.
“Take the train out on Friday afternoon.” Raquel is capitalizing on their momentum now. “We’ll do dinner in the sunroom, and keep a huge fire going all Saturday, and maybe not even get out of our pajamas!” She lowers her voice: “You do have pajamas, don’t you?”
“He can borrow some of mine,” Damon says, and the awkwardness of it makes them all laugh.
“Is that a yes?” Raquel begs.
Alex nods and lets her hug him, though most of him hopes he’ll find an excuse to back out before Friday.
“I think we’ve done what we came to do,” Damon suggests, and they start moving to the front door. “Think about my offer,” he adds, turning around on his way out. “None of us gets through life alone, Alex.” The bitterness of it stings them both. “I mean—you know what I mean. I can put you in touch with someone.”
Alex closes the door behind them and locks it, leaning against the cold metal that takes his mind off the fire in his brain. How dare they come here, to his only safe place, and bully him to ease their consciences? He kicks the door and listens for noise in the stairwell, but they have already exited the building. His mind races for something to latch onto—a task, a distraction, a cut that will tear his mind from the pain—and then he looks up, pushes off the door, and goes to the bathroom, where, in the vanity, he finds something that Eli forgot to take away when he left—an amber bottle of forgetfulness, inscribed with Eli’s name and half full of absolution. He wrestles the cap off the bottle and takes one tablet with water from the sink. Then he goes to the bed and pushes his head into the pillow until he forgets that it no longer smells like his husband.
Alex Fitzwater is no stranger to abandonment. After a childhood of itinerant foster care and institutional abuse, he unexpectedly finds the storybook stability he once thought didn’t exist: a job teaching English in a Philadelphia magnet school, and Eli, a colleague turned husband who makes him reconsider his abysmal views on family life. But when Eli commits the teacher’s cardinal sin with one of their students, Alex reels amid resurrected demons of loneliness and worthlessness, as well as the familiar but dubious remedies of drugs and sex. In the chaos, he stumbles into solace in the arms of someone he earlier assumed to be outside the bounds of possibility or propriety, and when that relationship meets its violent conclusion, Alex must decide whether it will be his end too.
The World Is Mine grew out of bitter soil. After the honeymoon following Obergefell v. Hodges, I watched with pain and disbelief as several of our gay married friends discovered the legal corollary to matrimony: divorce. Having marched under banners proclaiming “LOVE WINS,” my generation quickly began learning what happens when it doesn’t. Simultaneously, our country was perpetrating the regular, unchallenged slaughter of African Americans. As I watched bereaved families plead for justice, I thought of my own husband and our son, both African American. I wondered if I possessed the kind of strength that I saw in those who mourned their loved ones. I wondered if I knew anything at all about what it means to live with real loss.
The title of the novel comes from an anonymous medieval German poem that dramatizes an argument between Life and Death regarding dominion of the world. It is a text (and a song put to music by the Mediaeval Baebes) that I’ve turned to countless times over the past few years, when it looks like the forces of destruction (public or private) threaten to overwhelm us. I am trying to remember that the triumph of Life is often as frail and inevitable as the first flowers after a wildfire.
Jonathan Freeman-Coppadge is a writer and the fiction editor at Oyster River Pages. His work has most recently appeared in Hippocampus Magazine and Rainbow in the Word: LGBTQ Christians’ Biblical Memoirs (Wipf and Stock).
Embark, Issue 4, April 2018