On Being Seen
by Sarah Perry
We sat on a bench at the end, beneath the canopied trees of Eastern Parkway. It was a few weeks before Halloween, but some of them were hanging on, clinging to wrinkled leaves turned brown by the descending light. The sun barely touched them anymore, but they could not give up, not yet.
Seven days before, as you’d turned to go to your apartment, leaving me to walk to mine, you’d said, “I’m not going anywhere.”
Now you’d asked me to meet for coffee, but the shop was too busy, and anyway, it was 4 p.m. on a Sunday. I didn’t need coffee, and neither did you. We walked to the parkway along narrower streets, and as we walked, you told me it was over. I’d yelled one too many times, forcing my words through the air because it seemed you could never hear me.
The thing that was hardest for you to hear was no. We’d once stayed in an Upper West Side apartment with a wide-windowed kitchen, twenty or so feet from a turn in the building where we could regularly see a family, children. At night with the lights burning, we were on display, the children’s playroom so close across the small block of dark. No blinds or curtains to pull shut. The apartment was borrowed from a friend; we were keeping an eye on it for her. We didn’t belong there, although the doormen were kind to us.
You loved cooking, and in the kitchen, you’d get amorous. One night, you kissed me and pressed your taller body to mine, backing me up into the granite slab of counter. You reached between my legs with your long fingers, pressing against the gathered seams of my jeans. I kissed back, body warming to your attention, but then pulled away. I did not want the family to see us. “No,” I said. You laughed and kissed me again. “There are kids,” I said. You picked me up and put me on the counter. You pressed your pelvis into me, moving in your rhythm. I said no again, less committal. The laugh that came out of you sharpened its edge. A “let them see two women” challenge. I was sure it wasn’t about us being women, but not sure enough. I didn’t want you to think I was ashamed of us. Later, after, my bare thighs on the cool stone, I did feel ashamed. At first, I had looked over your shoulder, then I’d shut my eyes against seeing who might see us, who might see my pliancy and mistake it for intent.
This was one of the things I yelled about, during that final fight, the day you said you wouldn’t leave. “If you’d been a man,” I said. My fury exploding from the pressure of delay. “I said no,” I said. “You didn’t listen,” I said, as loudly as I possibly could, not caring who might hear.
But now, a week later, I was quiet. You were resolute and yelling would do nothing. We sat down on a bench and cried in the chill wind of early October, holding hands, clinging to the final moments of warmth. A man came up to us, bare hands wrapped around the green, closed leaves of a palm. “Excuse me, are you Jewish?” he asked. When we looked up, really looked at him, we saw how young he was, almost still a child. He couldn’t see what was in front of him. “No,” we said, “we’re not Jewish.” Even if we had been, we couldn’t imagine he’d really want to call us in, two queer women mid-breakup. Still, a small part of me longed, in that moment, to pray with someone, to be held and seen by someone outside of our tight, tortured circle. The week between our last meeting and this one had been Sukkot, a time of joy and celebration for so many around us, community and warmth so close, yet inaccessible. A contrast to our coming grief, the creeping cold.
The young man went away. We kept crying, telling each other what we’d miss. Your smile when you awake in the morning, like sunrise. The fuzz of my undercut on your palm. A few more minutes passed, and again we were approached. “Excuse me, are you Jewish?” “No,” we said, now laughing. And again. Three times they asked us, and three times we denied them, falling into hysterics, finally, at our invisibility, in this of all moments. Beneath my laughter, a great sadness: I had the feeling that once I went home to my apartment, we wouldn’t have existed at all. These boys joined by all the people over the years who’d thought us sisters, or straight women on an adventure, performing heat for them. Contrasted with all the people who’d clocked and welcomed our held hands, the bemused Boomers with gentle smiles, the other queer women on the street with frank, conspiratorial faces. The guy who’d tried to fight me in a bar, because I told him to back off you, his aggression almost welcome, a strange form of validation. Now I would be invisible, a figure alone, hidden under increasing layers as winter approached, belonging to no one, my “no” now guaranteeing my solitude.
After the end of days, it is said, all will celebrate Sukkot, the question of identity swept away. I wait under the bare trees past the end, to belong to someone again.
Sarah Perry (she/they) is a memoirist and essayist who writes about love, gender-based violence, queerness, and the power dynamics that influence those concerns. She is the author of the memoir After the Eclipse (Houghton Mifflin, 2017), an account of her mother’s life and eventual murder in 1994. She holds an M.F.A. in nonfiction from Columbia University and is currently a member of the Tulsa Artist Fellowship. Originally from Maine, Perry spent ten years in the South before making her home base in Brooklyn, New York. She is working on a second memoir, The Book of Regrets, which will contain a lot more romantic love and sex than her previous writing. For pictures of her roundish wobbly cat, Ziggy, follow her on Instagram @sarahperry100, and to read more, visit sarahperryauthor.net.