One of my exes wants to know how my new dog is doing. Another asks if eating three cheeseburgers counts as exercise if done while downloading the Nike Training Club app. A third found an old manuscript of mine.
Dylan, my most recent ex, is worried he sounds too zeitgeist-y for reaching out in the first place, but given the times — the pandemic, the fact my father has bad asthma and sleeps with a CPAP — he’s curious how I’m holding up.
And I too am guilty of wanting to engage, even if just as a name on a screen held by a familiar hand.
It’s some kind of closeness. “It’s like a pandemic Bingo square,” my friend Jacqueline says. But when we can check on social media what someone has been up to, or simply to confirm that they’re alive, why intrude? Why drum up the past?
What I really want to ask Dylan is what he did with the roses. Late for Valentine’s Day reservations this past February, we had stuffed the roses in his refrigerator and rushed out. By the next morning, we had broken up.
He had a personality, in his own words, like walking fast. Zippy. Going somewhere. Where? Couldn’t tell you. He was smart, funny and driven. We had been together for six months, and I would miss him. But my take has always been, however nice it feels to reconnect, it’s nicer not to relive old feelings of hope and disappointment. So I usually opt for the clean break.
“I like you so much, but please do not text me,” I had said to Dylan that last morning in bed, relegating him to the Tough Love Graveyard in my brain, a place with a fence around it. I hoped he would do the same.
Now we’re sheltering at home with our separate families in separate states, and he’s wandered out of that graveyard, suddenly among the living again, with a “Hey, I’ve been thinking about you.”
I didn’t want to reply.
It was a reversal, in a way. Dylan and I had just started dating when, for an entire half day, I was dead. Then came back to life.
It was late August, the city still sticky with summer. I had returned from a friend’s place on Nantucket — a few days away from all the stuff: emails, trains, pigeons, endless robocalls with catch-free offers. The plane landed and I rushed home to shower before the dinner date he had planned. He would pick me up. I liked that.
We sat street-side at a table in the cooling night air. The asphalt was wet; you could hear it on the tires of cars passing. A cab pulled over and tapped its horn. I loved being there, inside that feeling. I seemed to notice everything except the range of my own arms. Exclaiming, I knocked over my glass of wine.
“Go off,” Dylan said with a laugh, reaching for a napkin.
The thing that tips, the night spilling open. Our server gave us a free round, pity with a wink.
By then, I had already died. Taken a backward plunge four stories down to a city street not unlike where we were dining. But news of my death would not reach me until the next morning. Dylan, late for work, hurried to put his clothes on while I stayed in bed and went back to sleep.
My phone started ringing.
“Max?” Jacqueline said. “Is that you?”
“No,” I said, yawning. “It’s Barbara.”
“Barbara Walters,” I said.
“I’m serious,” she said. “Are you all right? Are you safe?”
She texted me the New York Post article. I opened the link. On speakerphone, she began to explain. She was right: According to the article, a different Max McDonough, my same age, had fallen to his death from an Upper East Side roof party the night before.
“Isn’t that where that new guy you’re seeing lives?” she said. “I was so worried. I thought — ”
We agreed how odd and horrible the coincidence was. We talked a while longer, caught up, then said goodbye.
I went about my day, grabbed a coffee at my neighborhood place. Since it was sunny, I walked all the way down to Central Park and back. I declined the incoming calls from various unknown numbers. Robocalls, I thought, promising to forgive my student loans (if only).
My roommate was making bacon when I returned to the apartment. I said, “You’ve got to see this,” and showed him the article. But it was afternoon by then, and the story had been updated.
“Are you sure this isn’t you?” he said as the bacon sizzled and popped. Then his face changed. “No, I think this is definitely you. They’re calling you a ‘drunk writer’ and they link to your website.” He handed me the phone.
I felt a little insulted, thinking he was horsing around. But it was true. Since I had last checked hours ago, the New York Post had updated the article to include my personal information. “Drunk writer” were their words, not his.
As if on cue, my phone started ringing again. Another unknown number.
“You probably should take that,” my roommate said.
I picked up. “Hello?”
“Is this Max McDonough?” It was a man’s voice.
“Yes, this is Max McDonough,” I said. “And who is this?”
“But are you sure this is Max McDonough?” the voice said.
It turned out to be the lawyer husband of the co-founder of the company I worked for. By the time I had persuaded him that I was indeed still alive, he said, “Reports of your death are greatly exaggerated.”
Then another call, this time from my boss, crying: “What the hell. Some reporter reached out to PR. I was in the park with my kids and about to call your parents. My whole body is shaking.”
“But everything’s OK.” I didn’t know what else to say. “I’m just here, pacing around my apartment. But thank God you didn’t call my parents.”
Later, in person, I would tell Dylan all of this. But for now, I texted him the story and said, “I’m dead?” It made for a good story, albeit without an end.
Of course, out of frame, the other 27-year-old Max McDonough really had fallen. He had a real family somewhere grieving. Maybe they were as livid as my own family for all the confusion, the lack of integrity, the mix-up.
I wasn’t sure how to talk about all this before the pandemic. It seemed to be a spectacle without meaning, which made me feel shame. I felt guilty about the friends reaching out — joking that I should stay away from balconies, railings, rooftops. Some of them I hadn’t heard from in years. They told me what I had meant to them, were glad I was still alive. Meanwhile, there was this other person who had died.
The part I didn’t expect: Some of his friends reached out as well — emailed, sent me direct messages — terrified, asking for clarification. Maybe they hoped not to receive an answer from me, which would have meant good news?
Life goes on, work happens, the weather changes. I got swept up falling in love with Dylan. For months, he and I walked everywhere. Whether we were getting along, or weren’t, we walked. Up through Washington Heights, turning back at the Harlem River, and down the Upper East Side until our feet were fried.
On these walks, arm in arm, I couldn’t help but wonder which block it had been, and what building, from which the other Max had fallen. The Max who could’ve been me but wasn’t. Instead, I was here — with Dylan. His hands were sweaty. And where were we going? A bakery, a train stop, the river, a kiss, dinner reservations, roses in the refrigerator.
This is what I mean about drumming up the past. It’s a circuit, difficult to leap out of.
I think, when I was reported dead, that I got a small taste of what the pandemic has heightened for everyone: a dose of uncertainty, a reminder of our mortality, a distillation of what matters. We’re worried for ourselves and loved ones. We’re asking in new ways: What does it mean to be alive to each other?
Maybe this is why the exes are texting. We all have these moments we carry around in our heads. They are specific and bodily and sometimes, when we are afraid of loss, they rise above the noise of daily life.
I don’t know what Dylan’s moment would be. For me, it’s the night of the death report, after the spilled wine but before the cab home, his laugh in the wet air, the warm light, a car’s stray horn and the feeling something was about to happen, something important, though I couldn’t have told you what.
I took a few hours to decide about breaking my silence, but I already knew. “I think about you too,” I typed.
Max McDonough is a writer and poet in New York City.
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