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 think of him then as courageous for loving me—but it wasn’t courage.

To understand you have to understand that we are never going anywhere but where we’ve always been.

Today I lie watching clouds out the window from my sofa. They are something to me now . . . this movement through intangible space, the breaking and dividing and reconnecting. I watch and feel split down the middle, splayed and sliced. You belong to me, I think. Then: clouds move under the spin of Earth, breached where white-blue easy cotton tears apart and the sun shimmers along the hems like something holy. It’s June, new green leaves. His birthday arrives and passes. I saw the old typewriter collecting dust on the porch of his new place as I stood knocking. Nobody answered. I gave him that. Children ride bikes with helmets on their heads past the window where I watch the clouds. I saw Liam yesterday standing in the soft rain after a storm; he was smoking outside a bar. The sky held a gold haze and a rainbow that everyone came into the street to see. I said hello, and asked him how he was, but I just kept walking as he shouted out, “Okay!”

The sun makes the edges of objects gleam: a jar full of seashells, the legs of the rocking chair, a candle on the coffee table burned to the wick. I am listening to Tom Petty for the first time in years. It reminds me of the way Liam doesn’t know who he is and also the way he kissed my head and let my hair spill through his fingers.

Liam still talks about the trip to Nova Scotia as if it was our honeymoon, though half the time we felt wrecked by a distant emptiness. Smoke from the campfire where we cooked hotdogs, only yards from the sea, stung my eyes as I filled myself with cheap Canadian beer. Still, I loved that trip in a way, even driving the awful silver Mustang the guy at Avis offered us as a free upgrade as though bestowing a grand prize. He did not realize the extent of our bohemian snobbery, but we took it for the iPod connector.

We were changed, weren’t we? Liam had an affair while I was away in Siberia and Mongolia for a month. He said, “I just didn’t feel connected to you.” I returned from 36 hours of traveling and we made love, then, hours later at a restaurant, he told me he didn’t think we were good together. I gulped down my beer and left him there. Returning home, I slept for days. Months passed before he told me that he’d had the affair. I could tell he was high, or maybe he’d said, “Shit, I’m really high.” I was visiting my family in Minnesota, and having drank too much I called him and started interrogating him about other women. He said, “Well, actually . . .” and my chest filled with the heat of rage.

We thought Nova Scotia could heal us. But we didn’t know what was broken. On the beach, Liam handed me a piece of sea glass and I said, “It’s sea glass.” It was as if he felt stupid for not knowing the name or as if I’d ruined his treasure in naming it, but that wasn’t it, of course. He ran down the beach away from me, flailing his limbs like a sea gull. I ran after him in a moment of chivalry, and caught him by the arm: Look, I know you don’t know what to say . . . how to act. But, I didn’t either. We stood there, turned to the ocean. I traced the horizon with my eyes, thinking of our first trip to the ocean in Maine—we read Hemingway aloud to each other, The Garden of Eden.

At Meat Cove we camped on a hill overlooking the ocean and spent the afternoon sea kayaking in the fog. Liam paddled ahead of me. I watched his arms propelling the little boat forward and imagined a ballet of arms. Art, I thought, is less painful. He waited for me and we drifted side-by-side, together for a moment, silenced.

In Halifax he gave up and said: I’m not enough for you. I should have said, of course not, nothing is, but he had risked something and it humbled me. We made love on the terrible bleach smelling sheets then ran out into the night to eat and eat and drink and drink until we could barely walk ourselves home.

I never knew what Liam wanted me to be, how he wanted me to be. I assumed he wanted me some other way because I did not want him the way he was. But of course such desires have only to do with one’s own self-loathing.

If you see these words in linear time, they make no sense, but if you step beyond time into the melody of consciousness, you find truth . . . .

When you lose your love, you become estranged from your own body. Your body feels alien and unlovely. You want it to shrink or grow into another shape. A shape the old love will no longer recognize. His hands as they moved over the puzzling contours of this strange new country would go cold with the mystery of it.

I think of his body growing in my absence. It grows so large that it spills over the edge of the bed as I curl tight in the corner, hugging the bear my father sent me for Valentine’s Day.

I shrank my body as best I could, perhaps someone would feel sorry for me if I became too thin. They would say, “Look what he’s done to her!” But instead, of course, everyone complimented the slimmer me, so I went on smoking cigarettes and not eating, feeling sorry for myself.

Will it storm again tonight? If I smoke another cigarette will I throw up? Why does this neighborhood smell of grilled meat? Someone lights a firecracker and three dogs start howling. People here tie up dogs in the yard or the alley. Dogs on a rope tied to a tree bark, slobber and howl until someone opens a window to scream. Where will I be? How will I arrive there? Will I ever stop longing?

I learned to listen to music again. I play all my old albums trying to understand what the voices want me to know. I lie on the sofa listening, while my pain morphs into rage and then back into pain again. It is either/or: pain or rage. I hate Liam. The hate makes me feel unclean. I love Liam and I feel pathetic. There is no salvation in loving someone like a dog. It feels like that to me, dog love.

Today I wake up loathing Liam. In the moment each morning between dreaming and waking, I forget. But then I remember. Mostly I remember everything. Though there are dark holes of drunk that have no memory. I go downtown wearing my swim suit under shorts and a T-shirt that says, “I want you naked” (Who am I?). I wear enormous tortoiseshell sunglasses that cover most of my face.

He walks up before I notice him and says, “Why the long face?”

“Hi,” I say.

“I just saw you,” he says and sits down cautiously, “you were in my dreams this morning.”

I want to roll my eyes, but instead I smile.

There is a period of regression between two broken lovers when they still act like lovers. They try to find new ways to kiss and hug, to touch an arm or a knee, but it always feels like old times for a while. The body moves of its own volition for a while. If the old love is in the vicinity the body senses this old body of comfort and finds it. Liam and I ran into each other almost daily. We lived in a small town, but still, I made efforts to avoid him that never seemed to work. Of course, then, if I wanted to see him, felt some need to, he wouldn’t be around.

Liam was nervous and shaky. Open, I thought. Sometimes I still believed we would marry each other. But, mostly I remembered the way it was.

“How are you?” he asks.

“Okay. I dreamed you were sleeping with my sister again.”

“Which one?”



“It’s either a dream of jealousy or betrayal.” I could sense him withdraw from the word betrayal.

The day he helped me move he smoked three joints in two hours, and I told him I was smarter than him.

Then I said, “You betrayed me.”

I betrayed you?”

“You broke my heart.” I looked right at him to see if he’d flinch.

“I’m sorry, Emily.” He didn’t.

He always smashed the fantasy. Why couldn’t he just say, you broke mine, too, which was true. No one gets out undamaged.

We were silent and his body seemed to shake. I wondered if he felt powerful for being the one to actually leave. But then, how many times does someone have to say, I can’t love you the way you are, before it gets to be really obvious you’ve gotta go? I could have just as easily said, how can you love me the way I am? It’s unbearable how simple we are.

. . . truth being the ability to know o