2011 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Entry
As If You Couldn’t Leave It
by Lauren Francis Wallach
When I was younger, there was a distant figure in my life—a man—we called him The Comer. As we grew older, my friends and I realized that The Comer was perhaps not the most appropriate name—but only because of others’ reactions to the word. For us, his name will never change. We didn’t mean it sexually, calling him that. It was in the motion of his hand: to come, come here, come to me. We called him The Comer because of this, because this is all we knew of him, and all we feared. Though I think, the fear was mine alone. To everyone else he was a metaphor, a mirage. I don’t even know who remembers him. For me, he haunts the motion, carries with him the memory, the first understanding to vanish, to go somewhere I shouldn’t, with someone I shouldn’t. But it is more than this. The block was mine. The stoop was mine. And after: after he entered, and the block and the stoop, for a moment became foreign, he became mine too.
My childhood was spent in Brooklyn. The first seven years in a brownstone on Berkeley Place, and the following four in an apartment building, blocks away, on First Street. I lived here with my parents, older brother and our dog, Princess. We lived here, before we left the city, before my parents finally moved away from one another into separate homes, before my father moved back and we lived here, the two of us together, before Princess died and I sat with her, watching her death, before my brother was married. Before many things. And before many things, so many memories go back to First Street. As if these four years were actually much longer, or perhaps, much deeper—or maybe this is the same thing. The memories from this time stand still; they are dense, not fluid—they exist in a sphere that is warm and doesn’t move at all.
This is how the summers were. On the block—thick and hot, as if you couldn’t leave it. As if the summer itself was just this one block, and sometimes the schoolyard, which we would sneak into through a whole in the fence. There are no more wholes in the schoolyard fence. Back then there always was.
We moved to First Street in the winter of 1991, but it was in the summer when my life of adventure really took off, where my hang out became the stoop with my small group of block friends: Christine across the street, Kate up the block, Tania on the first floor, and Christine’s little tag along sister, Jenny. Jenny, who we would taunt endlessly. Once we tied her sweatshirt sleeves to a small tree. Once, I told her if she took off her socks and shoes she could walk over a puddle of water. Christine and Jenny would fight the most of course—brutal fights: hair pulling, scratching, hitting, clawing. Jenny, round and curly haired, brown and golden. Tania was from Texas, and would move back soon. She and Christine never “clicked,” as Tania would say; me and Tania’s older brother Lucio had a crush on each other; Christine was my best friend and constant companion; Kate and Christine knew each other since they could walk—they had something I couldn’t penetrate. Christine’s father, when he was alive, was a trucker. He’d park his truck on the block, and we’d all sneak into it at night, climb into the sleeper; a temporary escape from the usual outdoors.
We called ourselves the KBG—“Krazy Beautiful Girls.” Our summer days consisted of the block and the schoolyard. Occasionally we’d go to Second Street, or the 24-hour store for plastic grenade bottles of brightly colored sugar water and candy or salt and vinegar potato chips, or later, up to my 5th grade boyfriends fancy townhouse by the park on Third Street. We’d always have bikes or rollerblades, or we’d be on foot. In the summer the nights stretched out, we’d plant ourselves on the stoop for hours, like the old timers of the block, and play hand games—Miss Mary Mack, Rockin’ Robin, Numbers, Eanie Meanie Sicilini—or talk, not so different than how we would do it now. Except now it’s just me and Christine who are left and how rarely we ever meet on the stoop. Though we still do. For Christine and I, the stoop is our place to talk, no matter how cold or hot, Christine smoking her cigarettes, and us talking about boys. That’s how it always was.
Neither one of us were in the same grade, all a year a part here and there. We didn’t play together in school, we hardly saw each other—but the block was ours, and we recreated ourselves here. Yes—I recreated myself. In P.S. 321, my old school, where I fell in love with my teachers—the ones who invented the spy log, the ones whose class I wrote my first poem in because of the graveyard picture he handed me—I could hardly say a word. I sat still and quiet, and in the schoolyard at lunch, standing by myself, the popular boy and three popular girls came up to me and he said: hey baby, wanna go out with me? And the girls, hovered around, smiling, holding back their laughter. It was winter when this happened. I was covered head to toe in my neon colored jacket, my hat and gloves. I think they could only see my eyes. Maybe they only saw my colorful jacket. I said no, and they walked away, laughing.
Outside of school I was myself, loud and unafraid—especially in the summer, when our adventures would begin, and the days would be so hot and drag on into the night. After our wonderings; playing dolls and strange relationship games at Kate’s, frequenting the corner store with the single dollar we were given, which somehow always lasted the entire day, or playing basketball or rollerblading, we’d be on the stoop, pretending we were ourselves but older, pretending to smoke cigarettes, pretending we had boyfriends. We talked about boys; we talked about sex. I remember one conversation which turned into a fight, because Christine told me you had to suck on a man down there in order for it to be real sex, and I was convinced that that did not have to happen—it didn’t have to happen for it to be real sex. It was so long before this issue would actually concern me, and yet, at 9, it did, really concern me.
In the summer, we would always meet on the block, usually around 11am, soon after we’d wake up. Christine would be out first and call up to my window on the second floor, and hearing my name echoing through and up, I would come running outside. This particular day there was no call. Nobody was outside, and there was a further feeling of stillness somewhere. I felt lonely. I don’t remember where everyone was exactly, like my mother and brother. I am sure they were not home. My father was probably doing construction in an apartment next door as they were in the process of renovating the entire eight family building we lived in. At that time, it seemed the building was only ever half filled. I walked back and forth in the apartment, gazing out the window, until I decided to just go out alone, believing Christine would show up eventually.
Had I really been waiting aimlessly for Christine, not knowing if she’d ever show up? Perhaps, as I try to recall me then, “waiting for Christine” was an excuse. I think I just wanted to be out there, on the block, on my stoop, even if alone. I must have been in a deep daydream. Nothing moved, the block was completely empty, and I didn’t know anyone was approaching. But someone was. I saw him when he was a house or so away, rather thin, dark hair, but faded, medium tanned skin, not so old, but a face lined with wrinkles. He was holding nothing but a plastic bag, which appeared to have nothing inside it. He wasn’t dressed especially suspicious, though something about him was. Regular pants, and a button down shirt not tucked in. It all felt very worn and old.
He stopped by the tree in front of my building, which isn’t directly in front, but a few feet up the block to the left. He looked as though he didn’t have a voice, like he couldn’t speak. I never heard him speak. I was standing in front of my stoop, leaning on the banister, next to the gate where there is a flowerpot, and then stairs leading down to the basement. Time stood still for a long while, as we stared at each other. I became frozen, and as a divergent or form of safety, I gazed to the side of him, beyond him, with the hopes that me pretending not to see him would make him believe that I really didn’t see him, and he would grow tired of not being seen and walk away. But he didn’t.
And then with the index finger of his right hand, he motioned to me to come to him. That’s what the motion of the finger means, as the hand is held up to the sky, and the finger moves like a backwards circle.
I wanted to run up the stairs and get inside, but I didn’t have my keys, or if I did have them, I feared I wouldn’t be able to open the door fast enough. If I rang all the bells at once, how long would I have to wait? and he would be there, still through all that time. But what would he do? He didn’t have a car, where would I go if I went? There seemed to be no place, and yet, simply the motion to come made me feel like I could really go somewhere, like I could disappear into his empty plastic bag, or disappear somewhere inside of him.
At one point, a mother and daughter walked by. I saw them approaching from up the block, and believed I was saved. They would see that something was wrong, or he would finally walk away. But none of that happened. They walked right past, right through the tunnel of him and I, on a completely deserted street, and didn’t even look. Either way. They were talking to each other, the mother and her daughter, younger than I was. How could they not see? How could I not say anything?
Even then, it may have been questionable. He may have been questionable, his presence, his existence. But then, so could I. I have played back the moment so many times, what proof do I have? The only people that walked by seemed to have not seen anyone at all. Not even me.
Eventually he walked off. It ended like that. I kept pretending I didn’t see him, four feet away, and he kept standing there, until he left, slowly down the block, the same way I saw him coming, with his empty plastic bag.
I don’t remember what I did after that, whose bell I rang, where I went. I only remember him walking away, and I wonder how long he had really been there, how long had I. Did anyone ever look out of their windows? How I wished they had on that hot summer day. What would they have seen?
For a long time I didn’t tell anyone what happened. I told Christine, Kate, and Tania one day, some weeks later. That’s when we gave him the title of: The Comer. I described him to them, and we all knew to look out. But we never saw him. Except once, about two years later. I was 11. We were sitting on a stoop around the corner, which was none of ours, we just wanted to spice things up a bit, sit on a different stoop. He was a few buildings away when I noticed him approaching. You guys, I said in a whisper, that’s him. That’s The Comer. We sat there a bit longer. When he entered the gate of the building we were sitting at, we took off walking fast. When he left the gate, and seemed to be following us, I took off on my own. I have to go, I told them, and I started running. I don’t know where I was going, but I ran through the streets. I wonder if he remembered who I was. I put on my hood to camouflage myself as I ran up and around empty blocks, blocks with people. When I came back to First Street, there were my friends. And after that, I never saw him again. And in my memory that original day always grows brighter and lighter, like an old photograph. It grows thicker and hotter. It grows with comfort. It grows, the way the years will because of how memory recreates them, how memory distills a time that is longer, or deeper—if perhaps, they are same thing after all.