Excerpt

“How To Get Along Without Me”

Kate Axelrod

April 8, 2024 
The following is a story from Kate Axelrod's collection, How To Get Along Without Me. Axelrod’s writing can be found in Joyland, Narrative Magazine, Story Magazine and various other publications. She studied Creative Writing at Oberlin College. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children.

These were the things that Gabe told her: when he was eight, he fell from a jungle gym and knocked out his two front teeth (newly grown, a little ungainly, but then they were gone, replaced by small slabs of acrylic, smooth and sleek, the color of milk); in college, he’d drunkenly purchased an alligator from an exotic pet store in a mall in Rockland County and kept it in his bathtub for several weeks until it grew too large and restless; and now, at twenty-seven, Gabe had been sober for nine months. Eleven, really, but he’d been smoking weed occasionally during those first weeks, and when he later admitted this to his sponsor, he was kindly told that he’d have to start the count again. She imagined the loss of those weeks, and chips? Coins? She wasn’t sure which. How infuriating that must have felt. To have to return something that was rightfully his, something he’d earned. But Gabe didn’t seem to mind.

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“I feel at peace,” he said, “for the first time in a long while.” He kissed her then, disarming her with his affection. Twice on the cheeks and then on her mouth, long enough so she could really lean into it, taste the faint flavor of cinnamon on his breath, feel his lips that were both soft and slightly chapped.

This was the beginning, when he was eager and full of charm. She had mostly dated men who were reticent and stony, unwilling to share themselves, and she felt in Gabe something of a kindred spirit. She was constantly, accidentally revealing herself to people. She didn’t mean to but the words seemed to spill out of her, like some layer of armor was weathered or missing. She could spend an hour with someone and they would leave knowing about the first time she’d had sex, or that year in high school where she was bulimic, ingesting tubes of Pringles and cartons of ice cream, vomiting it all up before her parents came home from work.

Within just a couple of months, Gabe went from forthcoming to extremely evasive. He would leave town for weeks and if she texted him and asked where he’d gone, his responses were always vague, like down south, or just to visit some friends. She’d ask him if he could ever just actually answer a question, but he’d shrug his shoulders, smile at her, his eyes two tiny beautiful slits. When‐ ever he came to her house, he drank water directly from the kitchen sink, dipped his head below the faucet and let it flow straight into his mouth. As if the simple act of opening her cupboard and choosing a glass suggested too much commitment.

Much of the winter passed this way; Gabe would disappear, and she’d feel as though she’d had enough, couldn’t take it anymore, but then he’d show up unannounced outside her office and seeing him—the way he leaned against the building reading a magazine he’d folded into thirds—was enough to fill her with something she could easily mistake for love.

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*

One Friday evening there was a blizzard, and the entire transit system shut down for the weekend. They drank warm cider and cooked all the packages of spaghetti she had, then sat cross-legged on her scratchy turquoise rug and ate at the coffee table.

“This feels like a snow day,” she said, giving him a kiss.

They played rounds of spit and gin rummy, and had sex beneath her bulky down comforter. And it seemed possible in those tiny moments that their intimacy could last, like it could just stretch out forever. She would use these bits and pieces, the scraps of information that Gabe had shared with her, and she would fill in the spaces on her own. It could be enough, it could be a life together, she thought. She felt a pang of despair when the trains were up and running again.

On a Tuesday night in March, they lay on her couch, the TV on mute, and he told her that when he was a child, his father had been in prison for a long stretch— ten, maybe twelve years. He recalled the six-hour bus rides his family took upstate for just a forty-five-minute visit. And he remembered staring longingly at the vending machine in the corner of the visiting area, taunting him with its shiny Twix bars and bags of Fritos. His father wasn’t allowed to hold coins or dollar bills. Some visitors purchased things themselves but this simple fact, that he could spend money and his father could not, felt too unjust to act upon.

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For several years, Gabe’s father wrote him letters daily, long yellow slices of legal paper filled with small navy print. The pages were textured from the way he’d press so hard against the paper, each word carefully constructed, all in capital letters. Mostly they were directions, instructions for things to do around the house, things that his father would’ve ordinarily taught him if he had been home. A recipe for meatballs made from ground turkey; how to fix the circuit breaker in the hallway when his mother blew a fuse; the quickest, most direct way to visit Gabe’s great aunt who was in a home forty miles west of the city.

When Gabe got older, his father wrote letters trying to teach him how to drive, but it was a difficult, if not impossible, task. How could one convey something like that—describe motions that were so intuitive, so rooted in your body and your sense of space—through the written word. When your mirror is aligned with the passenger door of the other car, cut the wheel to the left. His father’s tone had begun to sound defeated after that, but Gabe held onto all of the letters, collecting them and keeping them in a plastic three-ring binder.

As he talked, she kissed his face, delicately pressed her lips to his eyelids or his temples. She tried to share some part of herself too, somehow matching his open‐ ness. She would’ve told him anything, but nothing seemed interesting enough.

“I get panic attacks,” she said. “And also, I have this vague and chronic feeling that I’m always getting away with something. Like some ambiguous and obtuse crime, and one day I’m going to get caught.” She told him about the abortion she’d had in college, which was not, in fact, a difficult or painful decision, though she sometimes felt the need to overstate its impact on her. She spoke, briefly, of her own father, who had died not very long before. But her grief felt so uncomplicated compared to Gabe’s; her father had been present and loving while he was alive, what was there to even say about it? How much she’d miss sitting on the phone with him while they both watched the news, or periodically opening her mailbox to find newspaper clippings of a band she liked or an exhibit she might find interesting, no letter attached, just a Post-it affixed that said XO, Dad. She talked about how her father’s death had briefly nudged her toward religion. Not toward God, but to a frame‐ work through which to see her grief. She downloaded an app that reminded her to do the Mourner’s Kaddish each day during the first year after his death. And still, some‐ times she continued the practice at night if she couldn’t sleep. Jews were good at grief, she told him. They under‐ stood how structure was necessary to get through a day, and that having people bear witness to your suffering could buoy you. And she found that she leaned on her Judaism way longer than the week of shiva or the year of daily prayer.

Gabe smiled at her in a way that was not unkind, but for a moment she wondered if she saw a flicker of disdain in his eyes. That night, they fell asleep without having sex.

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*

In April, he disappeared. They had plans to meet at a movie theater on 2nd Avenue and he simply didn’t show up. He didn’t call and didn’t respond to her text messages (there were five of them, their tones shifting rapidly: Hey, I’m waiting inside. Everything okay, baby? I’m going home. Then the next morning: Really? You’re actually not even going to call me, what the fuck is going on?). Two weeks later, she sent him an email, saying that there were no hard feelings and she just wanted to make sure he was okay. He never wrote back, but sometimes he’d post things on Facebook—a photo of a dog rolling around on some dewy patch of grass, a link to an Onion article—so she assumed he was fine.

Over Thai food in the East Village, her friend David said maybe you just liked the idea of him, you know? She stared down at her plate, wound noodles around chop‐ sticks. She hated when people said things like this, when they spoke so authoritatively about other people’s rela‐ tionships. As if she hadn’t already thought of that, hadn’t picked apart each minute aspect of Gabe’s behavior, and all their interactions. And yes, she understood that in a way, she hadn’t actually known him that well, that she had constructed a whole narrative from those small stories he told her. But still she had grown attached to it, to him. For months, each time she got a phone call from a blocked or unavailable number she felt hopeful that it might be Gabe. Sometimes, after she’d gotten a haircut or if she wore a dress she knew he liked (floral, generally, with small iridescent buttons down the front), she would imagine bumping into him on the subway and her eyes would momentarily well up. Mostly she thought of his stories, bound them together in her mind; a book of everything he was willing to offer her.

*

A year had passed, maybe thirteen months, when she caught a glimpse of Gabe in his car, stopped at a red light on Meeker Avenue. Above him, on the expressway, a trail of trucks sat motionless, their horns blaring in quick, uneven bursts. She crossed the street and noticed him hunched over in his little Honda hatchback. His beard had grown in and he looked tan, impossibly hand‐ some. She felt the loss of him expanding in her stomach and she thought of those letters from his father and she wished that everyone could be as kind and thoughtful as to prepare people for their absences, for the gaping hole that they would leave behind. How nice it would be, if every time you lost someone, they left a manual in their wake. How to Get Along Without Me, it would say. It would be filled with tender and pragmatic advice from the old lover, the former best friend, the incisive grandmother. It would brace you for the future, how to manage your solitude, how to fill up all those long, empty spaces without them.

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From How To Get Along Without Me by Kate Axelrod. Used with permission of the publisher, CLASH Books. Copyright © 2024 by Kate Axelrod.




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