Emily Arnason Casey

The Blue Room

I arrive at a small apartment room in the basement of a cold winter. It is here my disease reaches its first pinnacle; it is here I spend entire days reading Eliot’s “Four Quartets.” Alone, I could drink as much as I wanted. I could smoke and throw up in the trash bin, piss in it if I wanted. I made no friends in that city; I barely spoke to my roommates. I’d walk to class up a hill through the snow. In the spring the first unbearable buds of green breached winter’s gray distance. I recited Eliot to the wind that rattled my cheeks, burned my eyes, stung my young skin.

A part of me still lives there in that city by the lake with its fog horns howling through the amber night, its cold lake water lapping the stone shore, and the room. Every room I have lived in weaves its way through this room, as this room will become the color of the next, until the final rooms of a home outlive all the rooms of the past. Still, in the shadows, I will see the little Mexican ashtray overflowing, feel the carpet I scrubbed clean beneath my feet, smell the scent of air freshener mixed with stale cigarette smoke, of the cold winter basement room where I found Eliot as I began to lose myself to my disease.

Truth keeps in the rhythms of the body, the echo of a voice in your own, the pulse that rises sacred from the chorus, a brilliance. Year after year I lost and found Eliot just as I lost and found my addiction—forces of life always right there below the surface of the breath, at the bottom of the lungs, hollowing and hallowed. It was the measure of “Four Quartets,” when Eliot returned, that opened me. That turned a bird into a shredded glimpse of eternity, a city into a maze of destinies. Though I’d memorized the lines I loved best in “Four Quartets,” the words were secondary, first the tempo, the cadence, then quick now, here, now always–

Before you tell a story you sense its truth. Why then can you not explain the way the sparrow in the yard, as you hung the wet linens, broke your heart?

Liam came into the café where I worked Sunday mornings and ordered a small, black coffee. He sat alone and wrote in a journal. Once, I watched him tapping his foot on the floor, bending over a little notebook scribbling, and decided he was odd. It was winter. His beard was overgrown. His hair, uncombed and slick in certain places, knotted at the crown where he must have twisted around in his sleep. Later, I could imagine him doing that, wiggling around in his sleep, sprawling his legs before curling them up. I only noticed him for a minute before I went back to French pressing coffee and steaming lattes. This was back when he was still a sleepy woodsman type, a little bit of childish mischief playing around his furry lips. It’s been so long since I remember him like that: happy, carefree, silly. In the end he never laughed.

Liam was afraid to jump in the creek the first time he took me to the camp in the mountains of Vermont. The June humidity greased his skin while his long hair stuck to his neck. I wore my bathing suit under a yellow sundress I’d bought at a yard sale. My windswept hair looked like a lion’s mane. Back then, I thought of myself as a lion. We sat on the rocks beside the creek, drinking warm cans of Budweiser and smoking rolled cigarettes. Liam didn’t actually smoke tobacco, but he started when he met me because I didn’t like marijuana smoking—which he loved. But really he loved weed in the same way I loved booze.

The creek was up and fast from a wet spring and snowy winter. Liam dipped his foot in. I laughed and yelled at him, “Liam, you chicken shit!” I stood up and tore off my dress. In two steps I’d leapt over the edge of the rock and plunged in. I swam like an eel, hungry for water. Hungry for everything, nothing was ever going to be enough.

Liam thought I was tough as nails, a sort of hard-ass feminist woman who wasn’t taking any shit. I had nothing to lose, and wanted to make sure you knew it. That was of course the last thing I was. I’d get drunk, tell him to fuck off, tell him he was weak and cowardly, that he’d end up just like his father, a miserable man. Liam went on loving me anyway, I guess, at least for a time. Sometimes I thin