Body of Absence

JOEL: I can’t remember anything without you.
CLEMENTINE: Aw, that’s… very sweet, but try.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

The people with the most persistent claim on my attention are all gone. The persistence is linked to the gone-ness. I take it upon myself (from somewhere well beyond and before conscious choice) to outline their absence. I hang on to them, which can be a problem because—let’s face it—a degree of forgetting is necessary in order to get on with living.

A loved one’s premature exit fixes even the most banal image into a mental frame. Look. Hold it up to the light. Turn it over. Don’t polish it up. Just look. The way a man once leaned in over a shared dessert, then later tucked a newspaper under his arm right before disappearing around the corner. That man reminded me I could write. There are no more images to be had where that came from.

Howie's Hat
Howie’s Hat

With no new experiences to be had, presence turns to absence and gets filled with stories. At memorials, wakes and shivas. Don’t ask how we are. We are broken. We are sitting at the edge of a volcano trying not to lean in. On a couple of mornings in the early raw months, I wake and for a few seconds am in a prologue world. I wake with mundane thoughts smoothing the sheets. Calm. As if.

And then.

As a writer, I should write about such things. Stories with Meaning and Import. But I have either smoothed frosting over tears or poked at grief so tentatively that every nerve wakens while nothing is healed. I hate those stories. I don’t want those stories.

Then someone who knows loss says to me, “All we have are the stories.” We trade some between us, and the shape of an old absence sharpens again. We’re talking about Howie, murdered in 1992. He was my business partner. We founded Smart Set. We were unlike in most ways, but through the business our names rolled out of people’s mouths as one: howie’an’jana.

In the aftermath, I was a proxy widow, a location for people’s grief. He was so loved. When he was with you, he was really with you. He didn’t leave anything unsaid. No unfinished business. That’s what everyone said at the memorial. I wanted to say, Howie left the unfinished business with me. The widow indeed.

“All we have are the stories,” she said. After 23 years, my memories have been cut and recut. For years I was sure that I was partly to blame. I hadn’t cared well enough for him. Guilt about frustrations vented over the business that I couldn’t take hold of as personal frustrations. So much submerged in my deep seated Minnesota-nice. I didn’t see Howie much in the last months before he and the world he was making were cut short.

None of it made any sense. Killed by two idiot children with men’s strength in their bodies and, I imagine, snow for brains.

I didn’t know where to put that kind of cold. I fetched his Timberwolves jacket from the drycleaner, where no one expected it to be. Howie had vowed to wear it with all its history until the team won a championship. Had he lost faith in the team’s destiny? Or, I hoped, had he met someone new he really wanted to clean up for and impress?  

I tried harder to get hold of my own humanity, usually crouched defensively behind getting to work on time and never being late with a payment. When the homeless man stood on the steps of our first office asking for money—which all three of us knew would go to booze—it was Howie who walked with him down the street to the store where he bought him a loaf of bread, a pack of bologna, mustard and milk.

Howard Liebhaber
Howard Liebhaber

One Monday morning, Howie burst into the office and demanded I sit down and—before anything—read John Sayles’ “The Anarchists’ Convention.” The business survived because of my 24/7 work ethic. I survived because Howie knew that business wasn’t life. I still wonder why, in the lottery of violence, why, why take him—the one who wanted his life—instead of me, who was always ambivalent about everything except a deadline?

There’s forgetting that is oblivion and forgetting that is a form of taking in. We had some hours together, and there our stories end. In all the years since, Howie’s life as he would have lived it goes undone. But not unremarked. I was the one who fought with him and would like to fight with him still. If I love you, I might have to kill you, goes the logic of close relationships, our dependence a feature of love (though often treated as a tragic bug). So maybe it’s my stubborn insistence that we’re not done that has led to a certain taking in of how I remember Howie … an embodiment of memory that needs no specific recollection.

I still wonder what he might say … what new thing he might be fascinated by … what he might insist that I try right now. Listening to music he liked. Reading authors he admired. Technology. Jewishness. Social justice. Bicycles. Sports (occasionally). All those things that don’t come naturally but expand the possibility that I might be able to do what’s needed. Not what is “good.” What is needed.

I’ve taken him in, what parts of him I had the wherewithal in those years to grasp. He told me almost nothing about his personal life, and that was alright between us. We’d never be married, so we had a business, and that had to be alright between us. Really, I knew him so little.

Janice Porter | "coffee cups laughing" | pencil on paper | 8 x 10 | 1985
“Coffee cups laughing” was Janice Perry Porter’s gift to me and Howie on the founding of Smart Set in 1985. (I see him in the cup on the left.)

I dream of him periodically. In the beginning, he would walk in to other dreams to ask how I was. Just interrupt an unrelated scene to check in. In those dreams,  we both know he’s dead. We’re just having our usual coffee meeting but without the coffee (we were all about the coffee).

This January, he showed up in a different sort of dream. He arrives, and he’s alive. He was in prison somewhere, but now he’s back. He stays at my apartment and decorates a room with photographs—most of his life, a few of my life, and some of us together. Thank you for doing this for me, I tell him. With a sideways grin, he says: Who said I did it for YOU?

A full dream, and mostly forgotten on waking, except for the dream’s pulse of SURPRISE. The surprise of Howard. Stories can remind me of his originality but never re-create it. I can’t know what he might have done. Might have said. Might have wanted. Surprise me, I want to say to him. And instead, as the rest of the dream fades and I begin to wake up, one image sharpens: I stand in the middle of the room he has decorated, and now I am holding up his severed head, fingers in his black, curly hair.

Now I’m fully awake … up against the limits of imagination (and memory is an act of  imagination). Conjuring scenes that, no matter how dearly felt, have no body or breath but what I give them.

Other absences crowd in—other people gone too soon for my taste. A swell of what might have been (and relief for some that wasn’t). Doors hush. Screens are dark. There is no looking back that isn’t also a moving forward (though tiny whiplash reversals can feel like standing still). I take what I can remember, mangled pieces of their particularities. I miss them. I miss him. They whisper in my veins and wash my actions with an instruction to get on with my own particularity. Surprise me, I want to say to them. Surprise us, they say back.

2 thoughts on “Body of Absence

  1. Jana, halfway through reading this, I got chills up my spine, sitting here at Smart Set (same, but so different …), how I also feel his presence daily, and also, sometimes when its quiet in the morning, I also think about what he would be into these days, and how his excitement was so contagious, his love of life. Guess who stopped in the office about a week ago? His sister, Sharon, visiting her cousin here in Mpls. (I directed her to your blog, I hope she contacts you.) It felt like all this happened yesterday. Wow, Jana, thank you, for keeping his light shining in a very dark world. I know for a fact he revered you. – Kevin

  2. Thanks for that, Kevin. Sharon did contact me, and a long phone call opened the floodgates – so you’re an invisible catalyst for this piece. It was a relief then and a comfort today that you were willing to keep Smart Set going. Love, friendship, respect – Howie had such regard for you, in and out of the office.

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