Melissa Wiley

The End of Longing

After my husband left for work this morning, I made another cup of coffee and washed dishes. I wiped soapy hands against jeans before lifting my shirt up to a mirror that we lean against a window ledge in our kitchen. Where glass rests against more glass, I looked into the smaller rectangle and saw fresh evidence of the fact I’ve lost a little weight over the summer. My waist and stomach have shrunken, though my husband hasn’t noticed. While he goes to work in a downtown Chicago office and I work from our apartment, an egg inside my ribs keeps expanding and presses on my diaphragm. Early mornings when I first awaken, I sense the sheen of its unbornness. Falling back asleep, I watch myself give birth not to a baby but to myself again. I tell myself I’ll have another lifetime for everything I’ve always wanted. I tell myself I can afford to do little more in this one than watch life happen.

One Friday evening in Manhattan, where my husband and I were spending a weekend a couple of weeks before this, we had a rare evening of fullness. The evening left us with nothing that either of us still wanted. Two of my closest friends and their spouses met us for dinner in the West Village, where we stayed for hours talking after our food was finished. None of us were in a hurry to leave our wholeness, to begin breaking it into pieces. Near eleven, an actor best known for a television series that ended more than a decade ago walked into our corner of a courtyard. The play he was starring in had finished production. He sat at the table across from us beneath a garland of paper lanterns, and he seemed to be at ease so long as we kept ourselves from staring.

Earlier that evening, before we had met our friends, my husband and I walked past the theater where he was performing. We saw his face and the play’s title, “The End of Longing,” without wanting to buy tickets, without even giving it consideration. Since his television series aired its last season, the actor has become better known for his alcohol and drug addiction. Less attractive in person than I would have expected, he drank water only and sat at the far end of the table from his castmates, who ordered wine, beer, and salads. His smile stayed toothless while they were laughing.

Unlike many of my friends and unlike my husband, I have never wanted to live in New York City. I have never wanted to move somewhere that leads more easily than other places to dreams of living an alternative existence. I have never wanted to pay more money for a smaller apartment, to ride more crowded subways than Chicago has already, to pursue another direction than my life has taken. Yet the morning after our evening of fullness, I could not help wishing some things were different. I could not help wishing my eyes were blue and sparkling rather than dull and brown. My last morning in this city for what I imagine will be a long time to come had started with my husband staring into my face as my eyes blinked open. Gazing at me with concern and revulsion, he told me to look in the mirror, when he watched me face my own reflection and absorb the fact my right eye was bleeding.

An internet search confirmed my symptoms matched those of a subconjunctival hemorrhage. Though frightening to witness, the condition is not a serious one. This form of internal bleeding is normally caused by too hard of sneezing, coughing, or straining from constipation. In the past few days, however, I had done none of these things. Overnight, after the evening of fullness ended, some blood vessels had simply burst at random. New York City is also one that can easily cause blood to break open from arteries. It can easily delude things into breaching their natural boundaries.

After we dressed and walked to Chelsea to buy breakfast, my eye was still weeks away from healing. Already forgetting the strain New York put on my body, my husband said he would never return to the Midwest again if he had his way about things. Temperatures had reached the mid-nineties as we bought bagels and iced coffee, as I continued walking several steps behind him. The air stank of sidewalk garbage, though my husband said he couldn’t smell it. Where I saw pools of urine, he only stretched his neck higher toward the tops of the buildings.

As we wandered closer toward the Village, an apartment complex with a striking art deco entrance caught his attention. He stopped and told me to look at what I knew had been a boutique hotel only a couple of years before this. When he pointed to the beauty of its cornices, I nodded in silence. I let him think he was the first one of us to see this. He would have had no way of knowing I stayed here once before without him, though he would have remembered me leaving him for the weekend had I taken time to remind him. He would have remembered having wanted to go with me when I told him I wanted to spend time with my friends without him. At the time, he seemed to understand this. He also did not ask me where I was staying, because he assumed I was staying with my friend who lives in Harlem.

I never told him that one of the friends I was visiting lived in Chicago, however, not New York City. Almost ten years older than I am, Sara lives only a matter of blocks away from our own apartment building. She has been married for decades to someone I have always found funny and handsome. Still she asked me if I wanted to meet her in Manhattan along with another man she was sleeping with. She asked me if I wanted to watch her live out an alternative existence. Looking back, I can see she must have known what my answer would be even before I did. Otherwise, she would not have risked telling me about the affair she was having. She must have sensed a desire for another life stirring inside me even if she knew nothing about the egg weighing on my diaphragm, pressing as it grows against my sternum. Had she ever really known me, had she ever seen me clearly, she would have understood I am content with waiting, with doing little more than watching.

At the time, I often met her for coffee at a bakery halfway between our two buildings. Sometimes I arrived early to engage in the briefest of interactions with its manager, whom I found attractive and often kept me sane during days of petty conflict with my husband. His dark and curling hair, the length of his eyelashes, and the smoothness of his movements as he reached for a scone or muffin made my own life seem less random. Sometimes I lingered at his counter shamelessly. I wanted nothing in these moments beyond prolonging a relationship best characterized by being completely painless. Inevitably, I gained a little weight in the process, consuming more pastries than I needed. There is always a price to pay, though, for passing pleasure that amounts to nothing. I have gone there less and less since meeting Sara in New York City. Since my right eye was bloodied, I have no intention of ever returning. I am done with longing.

After I told her yes, I would meet her for the weekend, Sara confessed that she and her lover see each other in Chicago fairly often. In New York, however, they could be freer of their spouses. They could love each other in public, could roll over on top of each other in Central Park near one of its oldest stone bridges. Had the manager of the bakery paid her the same amount of attention as he paid to me, Sara said she would have taken it further. Had they had any chemistry, had her light not already dispersed itself among so many other men already, she would have seduced him. As it was, she said she found him too skinny, a comment I suspected was voiced from defensiveness because she felt ignored by him, because he rarely made eye contact with her. I knew she wanted me to ask her questions, allowing her to tout her own sexual successes. I changed the subject.

When I first walked inside the lobby of the Midtown hotel where Sara and her lover were staying, I had been curious, expectant. I wanted to see someone whom I knew fairly well inhabit another life in another city. I sat waiting for them for twenty or more minutes. On one of the lobby’s velvet couches, I could have opened the book I kept inside my purse and had been reading on the plane. I kept my purse zipped, however. I looked down at my legs and then stared into my inner wrists. Thinking Sara could still be having sex at this moment, I studied my wrists’ central useless tendon, which allows for no tighter grip, makes me no stronger a person. Should another tendon rupture, a surgeon could use this one to replace it. I knew this only because Sara had once told me this happened to her after a bicycle accident. This tendon had been grafted onto her thigh, helping her repair the damage. Her right inner arm had looked strangely smooth compared to her left one ever since. Then she confessed she had fallen half in love with her surgeon. She said she would have slept with him were she not heavily sedated.

Both of my own tendons still reach for my inner elbows without touching them. Each one resembles a string tied to a balloon that has floated into the sky and left me stranded. They are matching strings connecting my body to nothing beyond it. That Sara has only one left now seems almost symbolic, whereas I still have my fantasies if I need them. I still can let them go, watch them vanish. Whenever I lift my shirt up and see my stomach, I know for certain how much good going to the bakery less and less has done me. I know I was ten or more pounds heavier two years before this as I sat waiting for Sara and her lover in the lobby.

Eventually, she called and told me to come up to their room because she wasn’t ready yet. She needed more time to apply her makeup, to finish her coffee. Nearly noon and she was still wearing a robe, still braless. Two empty champagne bottles lay sideways on the dresser. It had been only a few weeks since I had last seen her, yet her eyes slanted higher up at the edges than I remembered. Back in Chicago a little more than a week later, she admitted to having plastic surgery. Defending herself without me accusing her of anything, she said it wouldn’t be long before I’ll want to do something similar, before I’ll find attracting men’s attention isn’t easy. I knew as I sat waiting for her to dress for our day in Manhattan that she had told herself the reason I had come here was only because I lacked courage to do what she was doing. This weekend, it was already clear she was going to have her way with everything.

When I first met the man she was sleeping with, I couldn’t help but notice he was balding and chubby. Sara’s husband was far more charismatic, more hirsute with a far more sculpted body. When her lover stretched his hand out to me, I grasped a palm that felt as soft as a baby’s. He wore a salmon v-neck sweater and laughed at everything I said even when I wasn’t being funny. He told me he had bought Sara several leopard-print blouses the night before this. They all had sequins for eyes staring out from where her nipples hung behind them. When she flew onto the floor to show me, he rhapsodized about how sexy she looked wearing them all. His worship of her, of all her vanity, I realized was his main attraction, what made him necessary. I told myself I could not imagine ever sleeping with someone who gave himself away this easily, who had such terrible taste in clothing. Had I ever been similarly tempted, had the manager of the bakery ever asked me to meet him after closing, seeing Sara with her lover might have saved me.

Once we left and started walking toward the nearest subway, neither one of them felt like visiting any of the museums that Sara had said we would visit. They both wanted to do more shopping as they walked with their hands inside each other’s back pockets. After a lunch of sandwiches and salads, I suggested that we separate until early evening. I told them I wanted to visit the Whitney, a special exhibition. After glancing at the gift shop, however, after seeing the price for admission, I decided instead to sit outdoors at a café. I took my book from my purse and started reading. I looked up and could not help noticing I was being noticed by a table of two men across from me. Crossing one leg over its opposite, I watched as other men in passing turned their heads toward my aloneness. I realized I could take a lover here if I wanted. I realized there was power in turning my head back to my book, power in withholding.

A group of much younger women walked past me in heels that sounded as if they might puncture the pavement. The shortest and most brightly attired was holding balloons, each one inflated into the shape of a phallus. A bachelorette party then. As the one holding the balloons moved closer to the intersection, she let go of them all, seemingly by accident. The two men at the table across from me started laughing as the other bachelorettes began shrieking, only pretending to be disappointed. The balloons soon would have become annoying to carry wherever they were going. Better to have had a weak grip, I thought. Better to have lost them.

I left the café and watched the last of the balloons vanish behind clouds that threw them into relief. I looked toward more men turning to look at me as I kept walking and remembered how, when I was only six or seven, the Indiana sky’s grayness had swallowed hundreds of other balloons, all an orangish red, all looking fire tipped from a distance. Instead of male anatomy, they had better resembled the egg that still fills my ribs to bursting. They were the shape of innocence, of pure promise. They were all inflated with helium that as children we were not allowed to inhale and in this way shorten the frequencies of our already high and bleating voices.

Attached to each one had been a library card, on the back of which was printed a handwritten name and address. There had been one balloon for each person hoping for someone else to find it across an ocean. From a parking lot facing a gas station, everyone in our Catholic school released a piece of string from their hand after counting down from ten in unison. Unlike the bachelorettes, we had done this on purpose. Until we stood waving goodbye to the hundreds of balloons as a body, I had not known we were lost, in need of saving. Yet we were giving the sky, the balloons, a mission.

Most of my teachers were middle-aged women wearing baggy blouses. Letting go of a balloon bearing their personal information was as close as most would ever come to allowing a message of pure desire escape them. This was the 1980s, the town too small for indiscretions, online flirtations not then an option. All were also married with children. However pure their motives, they had still sent something of themselves wafting into the distance. Our lives are not good enough, they as good as told their balloons before letting them go, before risking being known to someone far and foreign. They had more than likely smiled to themselves, knowing this would never happen. However contented with lives they may have wished were different in only the slightest of ways, they remained the ones who thought of this. We were only children.

Sara and her lover planned to meet me in my own hotel lobby before we had dinner and then went to see live comedy, a show for which we had bought tickets a week ago. I was waiting on the elevator when she texted that they wanted to come and see my room for a moment. I texted back there wasn’t much to see, but she insisted. After I let them in, she asked me to take her picture against the window with the Freedom Tower glittering in the distance. This was the hotel she had showed online to her husband before leaving, she admitted. She told me he would know the one in Midtown, for which her lover was paying, was too expensive. She instructed me to keep the bed out of the frame, as her husband would expect to see twins, not a queen bed. In the first picture I had taken, her lover’s reflection appeared in the glass behind her. Sara laughed then deleted it while telling him to stand in the bathroom instead, where he retreated, giggling. She had me take another as she smiled more widely, looked a little less genuinely happy. As I handed her phone back to her, I found myself feeling sorry for Sara’s husband, someone she often claimed likely had his own dalliances. I felt used by her even though I consented. She was asking me to do more than watch life happen.

After the three of us left my hotel with the art deco entrance, we walked through the West Village. Looking for someplace to eat among dozens, I had almost forgotten Sara could be so picky. Nothing pleased her despite her claims that she was starving, and I sensed her power over her lover had made her even pickier than she would normally be. After she browsed each menu, after she stepped inside each successive entrance to examine the ambiance and seating arrangements, she left frowning. None of the endless options had anything she wanted. We bypassed all the Asian, Mediterranean, and Italian, all those with courtyard seating. The farther we walked, the less time we had before the standup comedy show started. Eventually we settled for gyros that we ate standing on the street corner once I told her we had time for nothing else, once all of us were famished. Sara insisted this was the real way to eat in New York City.

Inside the club, we were seated almost at the comedians’ feet. Our knees rubbed the stage because we walked in only seconds before the show started, because everyone else wanted to avoid the spotlight shining partly down on them as well. The man Sara was sleeping with started laughing before anyone said anything funny, and each of the three of us in turn became the comedians’ focus. Clearly visible from their vantage, we were their easiest targets. Sara was wearing one of her leopard-print blouses, and while I no longer remember what I was wearing, I know I allowed myself to look more like a woman than I often do in Chicago. Working from my apartment, sometimes going days with speaking only to my husband, I have little reason. Whatever my dress or outfit may have been that evening, Sara said it attracted attention. I know my legs, which are longer than hers though no longer than average, were showing. Beneath the glow of the stage lights, her dyed auburn hair also struck me as garish, her makeup too heavy. Despite her plastic surgery, the flesh around her chin folded when she looked down toward the high heels she was wearing. I vowed in that moment to abandon my own vanity, before I turn into an older woman who carries it around as lifeless baggage. In the two years that have passed, I have weeded many of my tighter clothes from my closet. I have weeded some but not all of them.

As I walked past the same comedy club a couple weeks ago with my husband after our evening of fullness, he asked me to take a picture of him standing in front of it. He told me it was famous, to which I nodded with my right eye bloodied behind my sunglasses. Before we had left the Midwest for this weekend, I had asked him if he wanted me to buy tickets to see a live performance, either here or somewhere else in the Village. When he told me no, I felt myself fill with disappointment. I was forced to acknowledge that part of the reason I asked him was because I wanted to see if the man at the door taking tickets, if any of the same comedians, might remember me and how I had looked in whatever I was wearing even though I knew there was no chance of this, not in this vast of a city with so many thousands of tourists. Almost on a daily basis, I try reminding myself that having someone else acknowledge your existence does not make your life more valid. Having men notice you doesn’t mean fewer spats with your husband.

Walking past the comedy club I had once been inside but he hadn’t, my husband sighed and said this was life as it should be lived. He said this with his arms raised wide to the city’s penthouses. He said this with some real bitterness while casting his gaze back toward the door where tonight more people would be laughing, where someone else would serve as the comedians’ target. Walking into Washington Square Park, past disheveled men playing chess and smoking, my husband confessed he often feels his life is unfair to him. Because I have no desire to live here, because I prefer a quieter existence in a smaller city, he says he has no real chance at dreaming. He claims he tries not to, but sometimes he blames me for his life’s limitations.

Roaming the steaming streets of Manhattan while the air smelled of urine and garbage, he said he felt alive here in a way that at home he simply didn’t. Maybe he didn’t know about Sara and the man she slept with, but here he felt more freedom, maybe the possibility of more exciting women, regardless. I have spent considerably less time with Sara in the two years since her lovers’ weekend. I have let our friendship fade into nearly nothing. I had almost forgotten about her until I walked past the boutique hotel that is now an apartment complex where I was forced to take her picture with the Freedom Tower in the distance. However disappointing one lover may have been, I know there have been others, have been many. Telling myself I wish only good things for her, I also comfort myself thinking how little we have in common.

In my apartment, I hold my shirt up to the mirror, look for my ribs appearing. I sense the faintest outline of an egg above my diaphragm, though I doubt I will ever give birth to anything besides myself again in this lifetime. There is also something consoling in housing so much life, silent and waiting. Something pure and whole resting deep inside my solar plexus.

“The End of Longing” bills itself as a play about broken people who become unbroken. Four strangers, all with various dysfunctions, meet in a bar and then help each other find redemption. The play’s star enacts a version of himself, an aging alcoholic. From the few reviews I have read, most critics have skewered the play as self-serving. The reason the main character drinks to excess stems from his feeling that he has never gotten all the love he needed. Before the play begins, another girlfriend has just left him. What he longs for beyond another female body to soothe him, to tame his restlessness, is never stated. Without having seen the play, I doubt it is the love of another person, however. The real reason I believe the play was hardly worth the price of a ticket is because he is looking for someone who serves no purpose. He is looking for himself before he began dispersing like the light of a dying star into a thousand pieces. Through the fog of other people, he cannot find him. In this city where he lives, he cannot allow this lifetime to pass without much happening, to let his fingers loosen from strings attached to what is only another sphere of plastic filled with helium.

Melissa Wiley won the 2019 Autumn House Press Full-Length Nonfiction Contest, judged by Paul Lisicky, for her book Skull Cathedral. She is also author of the personal essay collection Antlers in Space and Other Common Phenomena (Split Lip Press, 2017), and her work has appeared in places like The Rumpus, DIAGRAM, Entropy, Phoebe, Waxwing, The Offing, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn.