September 7, 2016
How can one writer account for the dark, viscid air of a Brooklyn summer night? It’s a mass organism, this air. I’d call it munificent in the way it warmly sticks to everything if it weren’t for the tang of trash-smell it leaves in your clothes and hair.
About a year ago, I was hurrying through the hot black breath of it with one of my wife’s good friends from Peru. We entered a pharmacy, a Walgreens or a CVS, I can’t remember. But the sleek, fluorescent modernity of shelves and sundries and cash registers belied the brick-and-mortar street corners and upright brownstones that characterize external Brooklyn. An escalator droning down into an even larger supermarket, an alien brightness, made me realize how much of New York City is really subterranean—caverns and tunnels and hidden dynamos. Hours earlier we’d also been underground, in transit from Manhattan, when something terrible happened.
In the New York subway in summer, the air inside has the same crushing density as the air outside, except there’s no breeze. It’s trapped air, stale air, permeated by the sweat and odor of millions of human beings. Even on the subway, there’s something aspirant in the manner New Yorkers sit and stand, angled against the tug and take of the train, against time, as if every second in the city were a chance to define oneself. I’ll never forget the hard seats that might have seemed softer if not for the hard fact of loss cramping my wife’s insides as she sat across from me.
Blood rushed from between her legs, soaking the preemptive pad she’d placed there. What had been initial signs were, in fact, the end of the life inside her. A culmination of years of us trying for another kid. Underwater, between boroughs, in the squeeze of the tunnel, her abdomen tightened like a fist, and life slipped away. Just like that.
Hours later, in Brooklyn’s subterranean supermarket, I approached a young, urbane clerk with a pack of adult diapers and other emergency supplies. Whatever twitters the purchase could have inspired never materialized. The clerk accepted the strangeness of the situation, the tired, perplexed, sweat-stained man who clearly, from the uncertain way he gripped the Depends and gazed around at everything, was not from New York, coupled with the Peruvian expat whose raspy accent could easily be mistaken for European. She was my wife’s childhood friend born of the same South American city of Lima. She helped me heft the load as we hurried back through the sticky dark to her apartment, where my family and I were staying the night. It would be a long night and a long morning, trying to stanch the blood, trying to reach our doctor by phone.
The greatest realization we make in adulthood isn’t that the universe is indifferent to our suffering, but that the opposite is true. That we think it is indifferent is a shopworn notion of mid-twentieth-century existentialism, Camus and the like, the logical result of centuries of scientific reductionism and materialism, what Bertrand Russell called “naive realism.” We know now, in the twenty-first century, that the universe is incredibly responsive to every little thing that happens, that every little thing that happens is actually a huge thing, a complex, dynamic event of particles and waves and shifting energies. We know the planet we live on, Earth, is incredibly responsive to every little thing we do, that what we put in the ground and in the water and in the air affects the entire ecosystem. Our inability to see the manifold repercussions of our actions has nothing to do with nature. It has everything to do with our own lack of awareness and understanding and a persistent lack of imagination.
It has to do with the nihilism we cling to when life gets tough. We slip it on like a coat. It fits our species well, not caring, giving no fucks. It alleviates pain. It cloaks pain. It looks good, too. It’s fashionable. I know because I’ve worn it off and on throughout my adult life.
But it isn’t true. Nihilism has never been true. As Sartre himself found, the very act of writing refutes it. A dandelion refutes it. A child’s hand refutes it. Something always refutes it. Because the world is full of somethingness. The universe is full of somethingness. Even a black hole, despite its anthropocentric name, is a profound display of somethingness. We don’t want to believe it because believing it means we actually have to care about how we live. It means we actually bear some responsibility for our actions. We’d rather play dumb. Grow numb. Pretend the world is cruel and indifferent, though humans, more than any other creature, are the cruel ones.
We lost a baby last year on the New York subway. Just two months before that, we lost my wife’s father in Peru and my grandfather in Utah. The summer of 2015 was, for us, a trifecta of death and mourning. Our four-year-old son couldn’t understand it. He cried one night in his bed saying he didn’t want to die. He didn’t want his baby sibling to die. He didn’t want his parents to die. He wanted us to explain to him why it is people die. He was sobbing as he spoke. His fear was visceral, as real and palpable as anything I’ve ever known. It twisted inside me. I tried. I couldn’t find the right words. I couldn’t explain how what feels like nothingness is really somethingness.
I still can’t explain it. At least not well. Nabokov once described fate as using an alembic, that is, the chemist apparatus used in distillation. The raw mixture of life goes in, and depending on the substances, the amounts, the processing, the adjustments, the tweaking of innumerable, infinitesimal factors, something comes out. Who or what ultimately controls the alembic is the subject of our greatest intellectual debates. But what’s indisputable is that something comes out. The more we understand the universe, the more we see into the nature of our own inputs. The way we live matters. The way we die matters.
On a subway in Brooklyn our baby died. We said goodbye. We cried. The air was softer that night when I ran through it with a pack of Depends. It was almost friendly, playful, like a dog with a panting tongue wanting to play. Of course, it wasn’t a dog, and “air” is just a word describing some phenomenon whose essence in itself we may never grasp. But that night, the air of Brooklyn felt utterly alive when things dear to us had been pronounced dead.
Now that I think about it, that night was the beginning of something. The incipient distillation of our future. We flew back home. We healed. We got back into our routine, more mindful of how to live and why. Our son turned five. He overcame his fear of death, maybe because so much life continued on. Waves and waves of life just kept coming, filling in the hollows. Spring came. We learned my wife was pregnant again. Summer came. We learned she was pregnant with identical twin girls. One zygote split into two embryos. Mitosis. Mood swings. Four feet drumming against the door of the world.
Now we’re getting ready. Our Brooklyn babies will be here before Christmas. Our son sings to them every night. I could tell you how all endings are beginnings and so on and so on, but you already know this.