December 6th, 2019.
As 2019 draws to its close and we inch closer and closer and closer to the end of the decade, we present Allison Theresa's essay, "Green," from Issue No. 7 - 2019, for our daily. Within her essay she narrates and paints a picture of the way the seasons and perhaps by extension, the years, pass in New York.
"My motivation for writing the full length essay, "Green," came from a feeling of being convicted by the seasons and by what I saw as constants in my new home in NYC. I’d look outside my window and see the trees budding, blooming, putting on leaves, and being bare. All of that happened slower than I changed, slower than I fell in love. I’ve never heard of that being a good thing."
Theresa's video collage; artist statement, as well as "Green," below.
All of our best,
Green: A Reading and Collage
In the collage, “Green: copy/paste,” a hand with small buds bubbling at the end of her fingertips grows out of this forrest-turned-root. Various men in marble are scattered in the root system, almost as foundational as the roots itself. (Of course, one looks out, judgingly, from a window.) But none, not even the man in her grasp, is as vibrant as the hand itself. There is a hard-won growth happening here. The kind that happens during snowy seasons. The kind tried out tentatively in the early days of spring.
As I was making the collage, I had a totally different image of how the trees I cut would be used. I thought they could look like a forrest (one real and one a kind of ghostly shadow in newsprint, an idea you can see tried out in this video) but as I arranged them on the page I realized that they were the roots of the image, in the same way trees are the root of the essay, “Green.”
My motivation for writing the full length essay, "Green," came from a feeling of being convicted by the seasons and by what I saw as constants in my new home in NYC. I’d look outside my window and see the trees budding, blooming, putting on leaves, and being bare. All of that happened slower than I changed, slower than I fell in love. I’ve never heard of that being a good thing. And at the same time between those trees, I could see a neighbor of mine whose routines felt similarly convicting to me. He was so stable and steady and grounded whereas I felt so untethered and confused and excited in this new life I was creating.
At the time of writing, and sometimes still, I feel time is either moving too fast or too slow. I don’t ever feel like I’m quite on time with the way I feel about things or the way I feel about people. I wrote “Green” to examine nature’s time and how the constants of our lives can be both judge and juror for how we think about ourselves.
- Allison Theresa
Every morning I see him. After I’ve returned to bed with a cup of coffee, vulnerable in worn t-shirt and night sweat, a balding man with rounded shoulders leans half his body out his window to light a cigarette. I can almost smell his smoke.
Sometimes during this ritual I am alone. Sometimes I sleep through it. Some- times a mess of dark hair and tattoos lies silently next to me.
My neighbor drags on his cigarette and looks at me, or I think he looks at me. He is just far enough away that I can’t follow the exact target of his gaze but close enough that I still flit my eyes away when I feel the dull current of his attention. I consider closing the curtain, turning back to the bartender sleeping in my bed, but I’ve known my neighbor for longer.
My neighbor looks out from his third floor window over the segmented boxes of backyards filled with the detritus of forgotten herb gardens and empty cigarette packets. Soon the trees will form a seasonal curtain between my neighbor and I, but for now they are bare. It is April, and even though the chill of February is safely past, the trees refuse to green too early.
They bud slower than I fall in love and I can’t imagine that being a good thing.
The summer I moved to New York from my small West Texas town felt like a long time coming.
Since I can remember, I imagined myself akin to the fragile trees of the Pan- handle, a sapling in a place determined to drain me with summers of drought, bend me with the endless wind, stunt my growth with May frosts. I uprooted from the desert to find a place I could grow, a place where things budded and bloomed more easily. I arrived in New York ready to put down roots.
The green of the city in the summer shocked me. Green, packed like the people, in every crack in the pavement, every corner of unused space, every abandoned planter. Every rustle of leaves in the wind sounded to me like an affirmation.
That summer I was still in love with my husband, a waiter that brewed beer in massive glass bottles and rarely did his own laundry. He called me babe and slept through the day. In New York, he felt more distant than home. We moved together with the hope the city would make us different. We imagined the further we were from the desert, the further we would be from the years of drought in our marriage. We prayed we could salvage what wasn’t rotted at the root and plant something new. But nothing fit right.
The queen bed we’d hauled from Texas was too big for our tiny room, so I sold it for twenty-five dollars to a man with a pickup truck and bought a lofted full bed from the kid’s section of IKEA. We slept an arm’s-length away from the ceiling and made love like two people in a coffin.
The thin walls seemed to close in on us instantly and did little to contain our arguments. My angry demands for him to love me better and his wounded rebuttals that my anger was the only thing we’d managed to make room for echoed in the spaces around us. We were terrible neighbors.
It wasn’t long until the lack of light, the stale air, the pressure of the concrete all around us made me feel like I was dying. I bought a plant that promised to grow in indirect sunlight and hung it from the slats of our bed. I watered it religiously, hoping this bit of green would be enough for me to hold on a little longer. But the leaves turned pale and then yellow and, four months after I moved to New York, I started fantasizing about a substitute teacher I met at my job at a SoHo coffee shop.
Without me realizing, the substitute and I made little routines: a croissant and coffee before work, a beer and a shot on break, a bag of beef jerky and darts after my shift. I spent more and more time away from that tiny room with the wilting plant and more and more time with the substitute in the back corners of bars and restaurants that let us continue our conversation while they swept and mopped.
Occasionally, when he took me to a moody cocktail bar or a candle-lit restaurant, I would bristle, realizing suddenly that this would be hard to explain, and suggest that we go back to one of our dive bar haunts. My favorite was the one in the Lower East Side that played porn on tiny, fuzzy TVs and sold something called Ass Juice.
Six months after moving to New York, the wound that had opened up in my marriage felt less threatening with the substitute teacher in it.
As soon as I realized I wanted to sleep with the substitute, I found the lofted bed, the dying plant, and my husband’s hurt unbearable. I yanked at the feeble roots that had begun to grip a new life in the city and moved out. Sleeping on the sidewalk seemed softer than sleeping next to someone I didn’t love anymore. It was the first new year I saw in New York and I was so cold I thought about moving home.
The substitute teacher took pity on me and let me stay in his apartment. He offered to sleep on the couch, giving me the bed to myself, but that first night I pulled him into me, sealing with my body the decision I’d made to never go back to my marriage.
I stayed at his place for a week. After responding to an ad for an opening four blocks from his, I moved into the room in the back of the apartment and took the dying plant with me. It hung in the window that looked out over a row of backyards. Its leaves turned green again even though I was rarely home to water it.
The last time the trees flowered outside my window, I was in love with the substitute. He let me smoke his weed and drink his coffee. He called me honey. We spent months roaming from meal to meal. Oysters and wine. Tacos and mezcal margaritas. Beef tartare and egg foam cocktails. We ended every night collapsed on his mattress on the floor, finding a position to pleasure each other without upsetting our stomachs. His room looked onto the street and all I remember of last summer is the glint of sun on the bus stop, the rhythm of the ever-present ice cream truck, the minutia of August from his window.
I loved the substitute teacher for loving me but hated myself for spending nights in his room instead of my own, for convincing myself that he was more than cushion, for needing the cushion at all. In the mornings, between his snores and the sound of a neighbor’s radio, I often wished I was in my bed, in my room, by my window.
On the last warm day, at a cafe over cheese and happy hour wine, I vented about my soon-to-be-ex-husband. Feeling the openness of the rosé and the chill from an open window, I told the substitute that I’d lost a lot in the split. I explained that, though I was happy to be where I was, I was sad about what I’d left behind. He took a sip from his glass and exhaled a heavy sigh.
I knew what that meant. He didn’t want to talk about this. He’d told me a dozen times in the last nine months but I could never help myself. I let the moment fall into silence and watched him avoid my gaze.
A sudden gust from the open window reminded me I’d forgotten my jacket at home, at his home, and every decision I’d made since moving to this city came rushing back to me.
Overwhelmed by the reality that I left a life for a man who wished I hadn’t lived it, I started to cry.
The substitute turned his attention back to me and pulled his lips together in a tiny flat line. He said something about how he knows this is hard for me, how when I cry there is no room for his emotions, how I always seem to be crying. Panic and anger flooded my brain and blocked anything after.
I downed the rest of my glass and left him with the bill. Shivering in the shade of apartment buildings and trees, I walked alone to my own apartment.
I spent three days on my own, probably the longest I’d spent without him since we met. The sharp responses I sent to his texts made it clear that our time together was over. Still, I asked to meet him on the corner where our streets intersected.
Under a flourish of September wind, I cried into his linen shirt one more time and told him I needed to be alone.
I spent the rest of the warm days sleeping off a chill. I returned to my own window. The trees were shedding the leaves I had neglected to commit to memory. It was the first time since I moved in that I noticed my neighbor, revealed more each day as the leaves between us died and floated to the yards below.
I started to wonder about my neighbor. I wondered what he did for work. I wondered if I ever passed him on the street. I wondered if he’d seen me masturbate. I wondered if his landlord or partner or child made him smoke out of his window. I wondered if he noticed the mornings I spent alone. I wondered if he, too, feels foolish for not remembering what the trees look like in full bloom.
I wondered if he thought about the distance between us, about our closeness despite the space we can’t cross, about the ways the lack of green exposes us to each other. I wondered if he would call it intimate. I wondered if he would call it anything at all.
In a daydream, I imagined that one morning he would reach my window with a well-crafted paper airplane, a love note floating over the three-story drop. Maybe it would say he looks out for me. Maybe it would say he wishes I were more careful with my heart. Maybe it would say nothing, a blank origami to remind me I am not alone.
In reality my neighbor remained silently removed.
After a month of ache and with my second New York winter setting in, I sought to stay warm with strangers I matched with online.
I walked the Williamsburg bridge with a film editor who lived in Chelsea. He wanted me to show him Brooklyn and kissed me on the corner of Bedford and Fourth. His lips felt like nothing at all. I promised to call him and instead sent him a text saying something I’d read in a magazine about not feeling a spark.
I slept with a hiking enthusiast in a tidy room in Ridgewood. He fucked me against the tennis racket on his wall and bit the skin on my shoulder. He wanted to see me again but I was afraid to bring him to my room.
I kissed an Australian on a dance floor. He took my interest in his beard as an invitation to my lips. We were both sloppy, me from booze, him from blow. After a few songs swaying next to him I excused myself to go to the bathroom and left with- out saying goodbye.
I slept with a barista in a lofted twin bed that smelled like pallet wood and dirty clothes. His messiness was comforting and I invited him to stay in my room. In the morning he smoked a cigarette on my fire escape. I worried that my neighbor would join him from across the yard and whispered a prayer of thanks when he didn’t appear. I didn’t see the barista again.
I quickly tired from all their artificial heat. It was another winter, and the trees outside my window were dusted with heavy snow shadows.
Where I’m from, the only green is in fenced-off backyards and golf courses. The trees are smaller, thinner. In the Texas Panhandle, we plant cottonwoods to stop the wind and have to water them constantly to compensate for planting a tree where only tumbleweeds belong.
The trees my parents planted years ago still bend, submissive in the breeze. Their branches are spindly and dry even in July. When they bloom, the wind strips the weak leaves and the branches always have bald spots. Late frosts threaten the ones that bud too quickly.
When I am home I like to wrap my hand around the trees’ skinny trunks, closing the space between thumb and middle finger. I say a little prayer that they last until the next time I visit, knowing their own recklessness might ruin them before I return.
But in New York, from my third floor window a thousand miles away, the trees tower over me. They’ve grown between my building and my neighbor’s since before I was born. They’ll be here when I’m gone. They’ve held their fragile buds until the right time for more years than I’ve lived in this city. If I think hard enough, I can almost imagine them green.
There was still thick snow on the ground when I met the bartender. After ex- changing standard screening messages, he invited me to his bar during his shift. I teetered on a stool, legs dangling, while he took pauses from making cocktails to lean on the bar between us. It was hard not to imagine myself wrapped in his tattooed arms.
He played the songs I requested and bought my drinks. He took a smoke break to tell me goodbye and tried to kiss me. But a feeling, a warmth that was taking root in my throat terrified me. Something was budding, blooming, growing up my spine and in my gut. I ducked into an embrace. I shivered from the wind and climbed into to the car waiting for me. From the backseat, I saw the spark of his lighter, the glow of his cigarette, the start of a cloud of smoke.
The next morning I thought about him as I watched my neighbor. I wondered if they smoked the same kind of cigarettes. I wondered what they would make of my sudden prudishness. I wondered if either thought as much about me as I thought about them. As my neighbor made his retreat, I texted the bartender that I wanted to see him again.
The next time I saw the bartender, we drank cheap beers between safe anecdotes. Favorite bands, hometowns, siblings, subway rats. After an hour, he took my hand and lead me to the backyard. The air was brittle and cold but the warm feeling in my throat returned.
In the week since I’d last seen the bartender, the feeling had grown viney tendrils in my belly and seemed determined to crawl out of my skin and touch the side of his face, the back of his neck, the space between his leather jacket and sweater.
In an effort to regain control, I focused on his puffs of silvery smoke and mechanically forcing air in and out of my lungs while he told me about the time he got kicked out of his sister’s field hockey game for yelling at a ref on her behalf.
He flicked his spent cigarette to the concrete. I made a move to go back inside but he pressed his hand on my thigh and kissed me. Fat drops of rain began to make soft pats on the snow. Winter was melting around us.
Back at our barstools, I got drunk and told him about all the ways I felt barren in Texas, about how my roots were still trying to dig into this city, about the ways I was still bound to the husband I didn’t love. He made a joke about dating a married woman and called me a car.
On the curb outside, I ran my frost bitten hands on the zipper of his jacket, trying to prove to myself, to him, to the feeling growing in my gut that I was ready to bloom again. I begged him to join me, to come stay the night in my room. He politely declined. I whined, whiskey heavy and hurt at the rejection. As the car pulled up he leaned in to my hair and said, “I don’t want to go home with you because I really like you.” Electric warmth crept from my spine to throat to fingers. He kissed me again before opening the car door for me and saying, “I haven’t felt this way about someone in a long time and I don’t want to mess this up.”
I called him on the ride home and told him I felt the same.
Now, it’s April and the wind rustles the twigs outside my window like a creaky wind-chime. I am in love with the bartender. He pulls me close to him in his sleep and calls me sweetheart. We stumble from bar to bar in each other’s arms. We kiss in cars that always come to my apartment. We’ve spent the last four months in long mornings in my bed, staying warm with cups of coffee under my comforter. I remind myself I haven’t seen a summer from my window yet.
When I trace the curve of his collarbone, I feel tight green buds bubbling on the ends of my fingertips. They betray my better judgment. I am terrified that the moment the tiny buds bloom, his body will become unseasonably cold, that this will be another year of fruitlessness and stunted growth. I’ve survived harsh winters, but I’m afraid that I haven’t learned.
I told the bartender about my neighbor. I joked that I’ve known the man in the window longer than I’ve known the man in my bed. Now every night before he finds my body with his, he draws the curtain and locks the bars on my window, metal softened with white paint. I never thought to lock it before.
In the morning while he sleeps, I unlock the latch and open the gate wide to let the light in. Sometimes I do this at the same time my neighbor opens his to smoke. His worn t-shirt and morning nicotine comfort me.
I want to feel that my neighbor and I are mirrors of each other. That my erratic morning habits match his steady ones. That we are similarly settled in place. That my roots have taken hold enough to know when this city will stay warm for a season.