I can hear the snow. Outside, up there, crinkling down past the rooftops and dusting the fire escapes that hang there in the dark, slanting through the trees with their amputated limbs and collecting on the suspended utility wires, falling with a steady tick tick tick tick tick on the ground where I am sealed. It’s cold down here. In the Underneath. This concrete slab where I am huddled feels like a skating rink. The blast hatch has fucked me. I should have just ordered one prefab. Edwin warned me about the deadbolt release when we first installed it (“It’s not work. My perdition is very bad”), and he kept nagging me to bring it back to that jackass metalsmith in Gowanus with his personal pour-over bar and grotesque ear spools. You know the type: another pioneer with stellar financials and dreams of jumpstarting an empire in the toxic wilderness. A flagship gallery, his own metalworks guild, an afterschool program for at-risk teens doing earthworks graffiti and monumental sculpture for social justice. Every time I went to check my order at his metal shop, a converted service station furnished only with stacks of pristine white sandbags, he invoiced me for a “studio visit.”
Billy, I know you’re busy planting digipressions on social media platforms I’ve never heard of to fizzle upward your brand (or is it “upward fizzle”?). Or maybe you’re templating out the licensing agreements for all the logoed merch you plan on shilling when we’re finally, really post-pandemic and your concept matures? But if the morning brings a thaw and I manage to somehow leverage my way out of this refrigerated hole to daylight, the sky hanging low and sick and oil-painted over this city that makes a fool of everyone who stays here, I’m coming after you and the risk combine that issued your business owner’s policy. For the sake of my two boys and their college funds, I hope you’re covered to the hilt.
Full disclosure: I’m high on one of Billy’s small-batch solvents. Either that or the early symptoms of exposure are much akin to the eye-fluttering wallop you get from huffing acetone in the dark. I’ll have to ask the Internet if I ever get a halfway decent connection down here: “symptoms of hypothermia,” or, “what to expect from using inhalants.” Do you know what’s wrong with the Internet? I think the Internet is huffing too. All that data sucked into the cloud and suspended there in curtains … Wasn’t it supposed to make us better people? Anyway: I fumbled on a tin of Billy’s elixir in the supply area while I was looking for the box of 500 lightsticks I thought I’d shelved. (No luck.) The monumental store of ramen noodles in assorted flavors I found right off. The cases of moist-wipes with Aloe essence and the gallon jugs of hand sanitizer I secured before the disinfectant bubble—I swear, they glistened in the dark. The Ham Radio rig still in its shipping box. The ancient portable CD player that runs on D batteries—this was not part of my original resilience plan—and the zip-in binders with the ‘essential’ CD library from my post-college years. I have the complete U2 catalog up to their kitschy, post-ironic masterwork Pop. That’s where I lost U2.
You can reach, but you can't grab it You can't hold it, control it—you can't bag it You can push, but you can't direct it Circulate, regulate—oh no, you cannot connect it.
I remember Lisbeth wincing when we were unpacking the house and I pulled one of those CD binders from its moving box. We’d always lived in apartments up to then, nothing bigger than two bedrooms, and it felt like hitting Powerball to wander the floors while our Israeli movers carted in our furniture all mummied up in quilts. A real house with four stories and an outdoor terrace, a landscaped garden, and more bedrooms than we could ever hope to fill. We’d toured the public school the house was zoned for and it felt like the stage set for a propaganda film about the benefits of public education. The halls outside the lower grade classrooms were lined with student art projects about the Lenape people who had once inhabited Brooklyn, an anthropology of their way of life in yarn, sparkles, cotton balls, and a rainbow of construction paper. When our tour guide—a parent who worked in Legal Aid and ran a Sacred Harp encounter group for women on parole—ushered us into the school auditorium, we watched a third-grade class rehearsing scenes from Lucia di Lammermoor with an actual singer from the Metropolitan Opera. It was just one of the school’s strategic partnerships for arts enrichment.
Afterwards, still giddy, we discussed our options over coffee and a burnt, angular pastry at the Alsatian collective bakery down the block, and in whispers so low the realtors and their clients having meetings at the other tables wouldn’t hear us, we decided to buy in.
“What’s wrong?” I asked Lisbeth while I marveled at all the CDs in their little plastic pouches. It was like wandering into an ancient tomb in Egypt and discovering neat little rows of canopic jars, each containing a body organ. Sinéad O’Connor, The Lion and the Cobra. Brand Nubian, One for All.
“You don’t want me to save the CDs? It’s our history.”
“It’s your history,” she said breezily. “I never liked your taste in music.”
Jude was only five then, Willy was two. Lisbeth had changed jobs the year before and was making ridiculous money for the first time. I was doing fine then, too. It was our first day in Brownstone Elysium. Lisbeth’s BlackBerry chimed and she peeled off to take the call in the empty dining room.
“I’m keeping them around,” I said, dropping the CDs in their moving box and taking in the life we’d just closed on: original coffered ceilings, herringbone floors, pier mirrors, marble fireplace. This was the one room in the house that time and a shitty 1980s renovation had left untouched. I used to tell Lisbeth that, when I died, I wanted to have a deluxe coffin brought in so I could lie in state under those coffered ceilings and let the mourners from every stage of my life file through. She could put out sandwiches wrapped in wax paper and trays of Country Time lemonade in Dixie Cups. A big bowl of smelling salts once I started to putrefy. Jude and Willy could pick the music. No: I wasn’t huffing then, not yet. I was a frustrated environmental policy analyst who had washed out of the startup scene too early and taken on the bulk of childcare duties so my partner could scale the career ladder. I had downscaled my prospects to maximize our flexibility as a working couple. I ran my own consulting business on weekends and in the off-hours. It wasn’t booming by design. And I had trouble making peace with our good fortune.
I’ll get to the Underneath and how I dug my way down into this mess, trussed up in Mylar blankets and hugging as many disposable heat-packs as I can swaddle in my arms. It’s quite a fucking story. You might even call it the story of our downward lurching times. I’ll get to the final blowup I had with Lisbeth on the front stoop while the boys thumbed their devices in the back of the car and waited to leave for Orient Point, the confession I made to her about the condition of our hard assets—sorry, but I can’t be any more specific than that for legal reasons—and her ultimatum, get this, about my intake of edibles. She used the word “dependency” again, and it made me want to laugh. Of course I’m dependent on edibles! Have you ever tried a healthy slab of cannabutter spread thinly on warm toast? You haven’t yet? You can also skip straight to the magic butter and let it melt slowly on your tongue. It’s not a high: it’s the end of history.
There is a verb tense for every stage in life. Bear with me; I have a habit of turning philosophical when faced with any kind of threat. This has been borne out by years of couples’ therapy, where I often catch the thread of an idea and follow it until Lisbeth is clutching at her phone in desperation beside me and the therapist is fast asleep in her/his/their Eames chair. The simple present. This is where we start out in life. I see mother. Mother feeds me milk. Da changes diaper. Diaper leaks on Da’s favorite blue shirt. Why is Da so angry with baby? The smile that lights up any infant’s face, the stricken look when a favorite rattle falls from its grasp, is a product of the baby’s prisonhood in the simple present. From these rudimentary beginnings, we graduate to the tense known as the continuous present: Mother is taking her nipple away. Or, I am snapping mother’s nursing bra. Haha! This was a favorite pastime of Jude’s when he was still a baby, and while Lisbeth used to laugh along and play a game with him by snapping the other one, I read this as a message just for me: I am mother’s favorite now and you, my friend, are sleeping on the yoga mat. The simple past and the continuous past enter in unison: I was playing and you made me stop! Or, Last night you gave me chocolate ice cream I was happy! The past starts out as a shallow puddle, and then it grows in size and depth. Enter the past perfect. I had put down my shovel in the sandbox when that mean boy came and took it away. Then the present perfect. I have slept in my own bedroom ever since I was three and Da went on that ‘golfing’ weekend in Las Vegas with his college buddies.
The future is there, too, of course, although it doesn’t really come of age until there is something to look forward to. Simple future: Tomorrow I open my Christmas presents. Future continuous: After I open the Nerf gun I asked for, I will be shooting my brother with high-powered foam darts all day. Parents introduce the conditional tense in the form of threats and coercion: If you lose another jacket, I’m taking it out of your allowance. Or my favorite: If you can do your homework all week without any drama or complaining, then I’ll let you play Minecraft with your friends until you start drooling on the keyboard and lose the feeling in both your legs. Don’t worry, I’ll wrap this up soon. What I mean by going into all of the above is that, when you’re young, and not just a child, but afterwards, too, the majority of life takes place in the simple present, or those tenses not so far removed. When you graduate from the present, you live in the future. Everything is untried and shimmers out ahead of you. (This is when Lisbeth usually starts shifting on the therapist’s IKEA couch and sneaks a hand inside her four-figure bag to rummage for her phone.) You are convinced you have a past—a Classical period, if you will, worthy of your excavations—but that’s largely a misconception. Your past is present. It’s still happening. It isn’t officially the past yet, but it will be. If you want to know what it’s like to have a past, a real past, try turning forty-seven. It’s the late middle of middle-age. The fourth beer in the six-pack. Hour thirteen of the Ken Burns baseball documentary. (Lisbeth grimaces while she scrolls through her work messages. She crosses her freckled legs. The therapist sighs and twitches. I can’t tell if she/he/they is asleep or awake anymore.) Forty-seven is the third conditional tense. If you need a brush-up on grammar (Lisbeth groans audibly. Her head drops into her hands. I can see the part in her hair clearly, the little ‘z’ that always, always forms naturally in the middle. It was there on our wedding day), the third conditional tense comes to pass when you build a sentence out of two separate clauses: one of them a condition in the past that never happened, and the other an outcome that also didn’t happen as a result. It is a verb tense steeped in regret, and in a constant throbbing pain—and lamentations. If I hadn’t ordered that blast hatch from Billy in Gowanus, I could be in Orient Point with Lisbeth and the boys now. Or, If I’d never gone online and discovered Japanese jetlag porn, I would still have a working marriage. Jetlag. Do you remember getting jetlag? The third conditional is mired in a no-man’s land between a past that can’t be changed and the present that might have come to pass if you’d made better choices—if you avoided the crucial mistake. It’s a present so haunted by the consequences of your own actions that it barely exists.
This is forty-seven.
Lisbeth, are you still listening?
Scenario #1: Three Japanese airline stewardesses in retro uniforms are riding a hotel elevator with a very horny looking bellhop. The stewardesses all have carry-on suitcases at their sides with the handles extended. While the elevator rises, they compare notes on the cities they’ve passed through in the last week: New York, London, Paris, Tel Aviv, Dubai, Tokyo, Beijing, Singapore, Los Angeles. The bellhop is aroused by their travel itineraries and listens with his hands in his uniform pockets. He’s standing behind the stewardesses and inches closer while they go on gossiping. The bellhop starts to visibly rub himself. The stewardesses are oblivious. “Oh, I have the worst jetlag!” one of the stewardesses complains in badly dubbed English. She sways and grabs onto the handle of her suitcase to keep from falling. She is the most proper looking out of the three stewardesses and wears a bright blue uniform with a matching cap and a silk scarf. Her hair and her makeup are still perfect. “I don’t even know what time zone this is,” she goes on. The other stewardesses nod gravely. “If a man came into my room tonight,” she says, “he could really take advantage of me …” The bellhop starts rubbing himself more vigorously through his uniform pants. The stewardesses erupt in giggles and start to yawn dramatically.
“I’m sooo tired,” another stewardess says between yawns. “It’s a good thing I packed my best vibrator …”
The third stewardess sighs. “Why does jetlag make me want cock?”
The bellhop keeps rubbing himself. He is sweating and turning red.
CUT TO: The interior of a hotel corridor. A set of elevator doors slides open and the three stewardesses file neatly out, still laughing and rolling their suitcases behind them. The bellhop hangs back inside the elevator so they won’t notice him. “Bye!” the stewardesses call to each other. “Sleep well!” “Don’t forget to lock your room!” The stewardess in bright blue wheels off to the left, while the others wheel off to the right. Their chatter drifts away. The bellhop holds the elevator door open and takes one step out into the corridor. He straightens his uniform, looks both ways, and then follows the stewardess in bright blue down the empty hallway.
CUT TO: The interior of a hotel room. The light is dim and the curtains are drawn. The stewardess in bright blue opens the door and enters with her suitcase. By now she is visibly swaying. “Finally …” she says with a dramatic yawn. She lets her suitcase go and staggers to the bed. She flings off her blue hat and collapses on the bed in her uniform. Her skirt is hiked up and she is wearing tights with garters. No underwear. She groans, whimpers a little, then falls still. The bellhop lets himself into the room quietly with a keycard. He sees the stewardess laid out on the bed and stops to gape at her. He can’t believe his luck. First, he goes to the minibar and grabs a bottle of Evian water. He takes a long drink and wipes his chin. He tosses the bottle in a trash can and starts unfastening his uniform pants.
I don’t have to tell you the rest.
Scenario #2: A businessman is checking in at a luxury boutique hotel. The attendants at the front desk wear sleek black uniforms with a Modernist logo and wireless headsets. Electronica plays softly over the sound system. There are clocks with the time in eight international cities decorating the wall. “Welcome back, Mr. Kitano,” the desk clerk says to the businessman. This time the actors speak perfect English; there is no dubbing. “We have you booked for three nights in your usual suite.” Mr. Kitano nods gruffly and scrolls through messages on his phone without looking up. Not far from him, a pretty businesswoman is also checking in. She wears a conservative suit and very high heels. Meek utilitarian glasses. “Are you in town for business?” the clerk asks the woman. Yes, she says. She’s attending a convention for the first time, she tells the clerk. Her flight was terribly delayed, and it took her more than thirty hours to get to Hong Kong. “I’ve never felt so sleepy,” she says. “I can’t stop yawning …” She yawns again and apologizes profusely. “Do you think it could be jetlag?” Mr. Kitano looks up from his phone. He listens in while she goes on talking to the clerk. “Do I need to reserve the spa? I don’t? Good. I’m dropping all my bags and heading to the spa. I hope I don’t pass out! You never know with strangers in a steam room …” Mr. Kitano’s clerk finishes his check-in and slides his key cards across the desk.
“There you are, sir. Suite 617. Enjoy your stay.”
Mr. Kitano nods distractedly and takes the key cards. He is still watching the businesswoman with the bad case of jetlag.
“Thank you,” he mumbles.
CUT TO: The interior of the hotel spa. Everything is bare wood. The light is soft, and you can hear the sound of rushing water, as if from a waterfall. Mr. Kitano wears a robe and sandals. He looks around the spa nervously. There are two doors: one for the MEN’S STEAM ROOM and one for the WOMEN’S STEAM ROOM. A single robe hangs from a peg outside the door for the women’s steam room. The pegs for the men’s steam room are all unused. Mr. Kitano takes off his robe and hangs it by the men’s steam room door. He is naked and quite fit for a man of his age. He has a jaunty, average-sized cock. He walks to the women’s steam room door and opens it. He vanishes into a cloud of steam.
CUT TO: The businesswoman from the desk is lying on a bench in the steam room, wrapped in a towel. She is fast asleep. Her glasses are lying beside her on the bench. Mr. Kitano stands over her and pulls her towel off carefully. He takes in her body. The woman’s breasts are large and lazy-eyed. They are transfixing. Her pubic hair is trimmed and aerodynamic looking. She stirs on the bench and starts to moan. “I’m so tired … So tired … I think it must be jetlag …” Mr. Kitano takes his cock in his hand and starts stroking it. She moans some more. “Jetlag …”
I don’t have to tell you the rest.
Scenario #3: A prosperous looking white couple is lying in bed with their reading lights on. The husband reads a copy of Survivalist magazine on his side of the bed; the wife is reading on her iPad. Her face glows an unnatural white. Framed pictures of their children—two boys—crowd the bedside tables and the walls. The furniture in the room is all mid-century Modern. The husband wears a t-shirt to bed while the wife is wearing a negligee. There is an unopened travel suitcase on her side of the bed. A bottle of pills on her bedside with the label AMBIEN. The wife yawns. The husband looks up from his magazine and asks, “Jetlag?” She nods, still staring at the iPad. “I was in three different time zones this week,” she says. “I had to take an Ambien.” The husband doesn’t answer, but he smiles to himself. He flips the pages of his magazine and keeps peeking over at her. First, the wife’s eyes start to flutter. Her head droops and the iPad slips from her hands. She moans and slumps over on her side. The husband tosses away his magazine and slides up closer. He pokes her in the shoulder. No reaction. He snaps his fingers in front of her face. No reaction. He picks up the bottle of AMBIEN from her bedside and shakes it. Satisfied, he springs up from the bed.
CUT TO: The same bedroom, just a few minutes later. The wife is still passed out. The husband is busy with preparations: he rolls her travel suitcase closer to the bed and extends the handles. He turns on an electric candle at the bedside and dims the lights. He opens a drawer and takes out a clear bottle of lube. He strips out of his t-shirt and pajama bottoms and checks his hair in a mirror. The husband is pale and out-of-shape, with fading Maori tattoos from decades earlier on both his shoulders. His cock is half-limp and bent in the middle. It is a homely looking cock. It looks like a bunched up pair of ladies’ tennis socks. This is not how a cock is supposed to look in pornography. The husband climbs onto the bed with his bottle of lube and takes his place by the wife’s feet. He lifts her legs in the air and drapes them over both of his shoulders. The wife’s negligee is hiked up and her legs are bare. He runs a hand along her legs and strokes his half-limp cock with the other. He strokes harder and shuts his eyes to concentrate. The wife’s eyes open suddenly. She looks at her legs draped over his shoulders and his hand on his cock. It takes a moment to sink in.
“What do you think you’re doing?” she demands.
The husband stops.
I don’t have to tell you the rest.
It’s cold down here, in the Underneath. This pit, this hovel in the earth, this refuge, this grave I’ve dug beneath an arbored backyard in a historic district of a borough—and a city—with entire departments devoted to giving out summonses and levying fines for infractions so minor they make this private bunker look like, well, an unpermitted excavation site and a dangerous public hazard. I counted the code violations once, earlier in the project, back when Edwin and I were grunting out wheelbarrow loads of fill between two and five a.m. beneath the cover of blue tarps and ferrying them to a waiting Ryder truck for disposal. Twenty-three. And that’s probably too low an estimate. How did I get away with it? Until now, that is. Until this … My shiny Mylar skin is no comfort from the cold, from my mistakes. I have stopped getting any warmth from the disposable heat-packs in my arms; in fact, I can feel my own body warmth, or what’s left of it, draining into them. I am cold. It’s dark. And loud … Who knew the Underneath would open up a channel to the ancient gearworks and the blasting ranges that turn the city and pulverize it, turn the city and pulverize it. My cock. My cock.
I don’t have to tell you the rest.