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                     A CUT FROM A NOVEL CALLED 

                OUR LAST YEAR


Described by Frederick BARTHELME as a novel that snares ‘the complexity, detail, and organic nature of thought,’ ROSSI’s OUR LAST YEAR is a book about change, transformation and metamorphosis; through the internal narration of its two characters, the novel follows the disintegration and renewal of a marriage, in synthesis with a much wider natural reality. It tells a story of damage and destruction, both painful and restorative, and necessary. The trajectory of the novel—of becoming part of the planetary process, awake to it, enlivened by it, compassionate towards it—is dramatised through two minds, with an honesty and openness that urges us to contemplate our relationships with others and with our environment. See below for an excerpt from the work.



He picked her up from her job at the high school during her lunch break and watched her walk out the front doors of the large, brick building, her body small and closed into itself and moving quickly in a brown winter coat, jeans, brown boots. As she walked through the parking lot, he saw her pause and check her phone, type something on it, then put it back in her pocket. Inwardly he noted that she had looked at it before she got in the car with him, probably so that he wouldn’t be able to see the screen, probably because she was texting the man she had said she was no longer seeing, though he knew, despite the fact that she had told him she was no longer seeing or texting him, that she was in fact still texting him. He had caught her late one night, then again a few days later, which had led to an argument in the middle of the night, waking both their daughters despite the argument happening in whispers, both their daughters crying, making it impossible for anyone, after that, to go back to sleep, which now made him believe that she was in fact not just texting him but also still seeing him, though she had claimed, when caught, that she wasn’t texting him, it was him texting her, and he was only texting to see how she was doing. He was only, she had said, checking in on her because he was concerned and wished the best for her, for them both, she had said, he really did hope the best for them both during this very difficult time. He watched her walking, head down to avoid the cold and wind, and felt a disturbing and deeply unpleasant anxiety, more potent than any form of anxiety he had ever experienced, almost like an actual sickness, like a constant flu. This sick feeling was a reaction in his body to what he had come to understand was something wrong with the very nature of things, with the very nature of his existence, with the fact that he was losing her, had lost her, actually, had already lost her in some way he couldn’t yet fully define, and he thought that the reason had to do with the fact that she had told him she no longer loved him, she had years and years of accrued resentment towards him, and it was likely they weren’t going to be together in the near future, all of which contributed to the anxiety. Not only had he lost her, he thought, he had lost some vital part of himself in losing her. What made his anxiety worse was the additional fact that now that the relationship was closed again, now that he had admitted he had made a mistake in opening the relationship in the first place and had asked for it to be closed again so that they could try to reconnect, to try to correct what he felt was the deeply incorrect way reality was moving, she was still seeing and texting this other person, and this not only increased his anxiety but made him unable to sleep and made him suspicious in a way that he hated—all of which seemed to increase the bodily illness, which had caused him to lose weight, almost physical evidence of losing himself—which she also hated. He knew she hated his suspiciousness because she had increasingly talked about her freedom. She told him that he was smothering her, that when he asked who she was texting, or when she caught him going through her phone—which he knew was not helping their situation, was actually making it worse—she felt violated, which he understood, he really did, but also, what the fuck? There was another problem here that got pushed aside, he thought. Another issue that got ignored simply because she was the one who had a problem in the first place. Because she was the one who was initially dissatisfied, because her feelings were so central here, which he acknowledged they should be, they should be, but because she was the main complainant, as it were, it was as though his thoughts and feelings about things didn’t matter, were secondary, were beside the point, which felt completely fucked, almost maddening, and yet each time he brought up his concerns, he came up against what felt like a wall. The problem she didn’t want to acknowledge was that she was lying on a weekly if not daily basis and had been lying for some time, had in fact been lying by omission—he had come to know this through searching through her phone, which in itself was shameful and anxiety-inducing and which caused his hands to shake while he held her phone, searching through it, hiding in the bathroom, feeling an awful aversion to what he was doing—even before he had stupidly opened the relationship, and he had tried to explain that he understood that she didn’t want to be smothered, but, see, it was her lying that led to his smothering. Her response to that was that his smothering led to more of her lying in order for her to feel free and unsmothered.

Now, watching her weave through the cars of teachers and high school students, he didn’t know what to trust, and it felt as though everything he had known to be true was no longer true. What this meant, he thought, was that every small gesture or word seemed to carry some banal yet significant information encoded in it. Simple gestures like texting were charged with insidious meaning, coming home slightly later from work could mean she was hiding an encounter, her clothes already changed when he arrived home from work could mean something he didn’t even want to think about, but which he thought about: that she was having sex with someone else. The thought was banal and crushing as a cheap movie or after-school special, and all the attendant thoughts, spiralling and pointless—what positions, how good, how often, how long—were equally banal and equally painful and also equally shameful. He regarded her as his, not someone else’s, and that possession, that feeling of ownership, was such an ugly feeling that when it hit him in the chest one night in the form of a panic attack, the next day he had felt wiped clean, illuminated, and he had suddenly seen the simplicity of it all: just care for her. First and foremost, just care for her, and all would fall into place, like an apple falling of its own accord, and by design of the universe itself, into his hungry, waiting hand. Despite the clarifying of this simple intention to care for her, which had been covered up, despite this, there was still all the rest of what had occurred between them over the last few months lingering there in the recesses of his mind, occasionally arising like toxic gases from the bottom of a lake, poisoning the clear waters, and all these things that made him suspect that she was doing something behind his back now that they had agreed to close the relationship—at the exact same time that he once again saw again how to be kind and attentive, like a child coming out of time-out and giving a hug to a mistreated friend—made him feel insane with anxiety and suspicion. These were things he hated feeling and hated about himself and which complicated and made difficult the intent to be kind and present with her. And the anxiety and suspicion were things that he would normally address, ask her about, to make himself feel better or assured, but now he couldn’t because it could make her feel smothered, and where was the kindness there? There seemed nowhere to go, nowhere in all the universe to really be himself, and today he told himself not to say anything, not to ask who she was just texting, not today, despite his anxiety, today was too important. They were beginning counselling.

She opened the car door and sat down in the passenger seat. It was the first time they’d been in a car alone, without one or both of their daughters, in a long time, more than weeks, probably months. He wondered if she was noting this as well, since he thought he could sense from her that she felt the same anticipation he was feeling: what was going to happen here, what was going to be revealed? He said hello and asked how her day was going and she said that it was fine, hold on a second, she needed to reply to a student email. She put on her seatbelt and then pulled her phone from her coat pocket, the screen lighting her face, and began typing with her thumbs. He nodded and said okay, understanding that she didn’t want to talk, that was understandable. He tried to believe that what she was doing was replying to a student email, though her phone was tilted away from him, though she had just been texting someone in the parking lot, and he thought now that that person had most likely replied and now she was replying back, explaining that she couldn’t talk because she was in the car with him, though at the same time he actively tried not to think this, he actively tried to question this thought, not to assume. He attempted a deep breath—he had again taken up meditation with a renewed seriousness, and simple breathing helped with his anxiety—but it was like there was something keeping his lungs from filling, and he couldn’t get a deep breath and he felt his heart getting faster. He tried to ignore it. He backed the car out of the parking space, drove out of the parking lot and began down the road, wondering if she really wanted to do this, because it certainly seemed like she didn’t. When he had asked her during the winter if she wanted to do this counselling together, she had said that she really wasn’t sure it would help at this point. He hadn’t argued with her because she simply wasn’t letting him argue with her anymore. It was only after asking a few times on separate days that she eventually said that she was willing to go, to check someone out, she had said, and while he had felt relieved, he had also wondered if she was just doing it so that she could say that she had tried everything, just as she had agreed not to see this other person anymore because, she had told him, she didn’t want him to think that this other person was the reason for her wanting out, and now, in the car, her attention directed elsewhere, into the reality inside her phone, he felt that maybe this was all pointless.

In the passenger seat, she looked at her phone while he drove them towards the affluent side of town, without speaking. She was glad for it. She needed to respond to a student who needed an extension on a paper, and she did so, explaining that there was no way he was getting an extension, she had already given him an extension. The gall of asking for another extension was beyond belief here, and she thought it’d be good if he considered that before he wrote her back. She was grateful for having something to do, and as she typed she hesitated more than necessary, performing that she was considering what to write. She typed the email slowly because she wanted to be quiet. She wanted him to be quiet. She didn’t want him to ask her how she felt about what they were about to do. She didn’t want him to check to see if this was okay with her. She didn’t want him to ask her if she was okay. She didn’t want him to be the way he had been for the last few weeks, which was kind, understanding, attentive. She didn’t want him to be this way because it infuriated her. It wasn’t so much the things he was doing. The things he was doing were the same, though he was no longer working every weekend, no longer leaving her with the girls when it was convenient for him and when he thought he could get some work in, something he had been awful about in the past and something she had, over time, come to hate and resent him for. Now he was staying home on the weekends. He was mowing the lawn regularly. He was painting parts of the house, window trim outside, crown moulding inside. He was not the same person. Though she had hated him when he had left her every weekend—pure assumption, no thought to ask—she equally hated that he was making this change now. Why now? Well, that was stupid, she knew why. But still, why now, why not before? What the fuck? Still, those were relatively few changes: he still made lunches and dinners, still kept the house clean and tidy, still did his share of the housework and had added more, and really, still told her he cared about her. What was really different, or most different, what made him feel like an alien implanted into the man she had once known, and what was most infuriating, was the attitude with which he did these things. There was no longer the sighing annoyance when he was doing the dishes or cleaning the house, indicating, she had learned, that he was doing it all again, and she wasn’t. And there were no longer the passive-aggressive comments about how many pairs of shoes she had left out. How she left a mess of dishes in the kitchen. How she’d begun a project like sanding and staining the old coffee table, finished it, and left all the materials for him, the maid, to clean up, like he was her employee. That was the language he liked to use. That was all gone. Where had it gone? she wondered. What the fuck? Mostly, though, there wasn’t the same empty stare when she came into his studio with a question. There wasn’t the same frustration about being interrupted. He was attentive to her. He put down what he was doing, turned away from a canvas or whatever he was working on, and was suddenly present in a way he hadn’t been in the past, or had only been when it was convenient for him. How could he do it so easily now? she thought. It was bullshit is what was. It was unbelievable. Fucking now. Now, when everything was broken and out in the open finally, or maybe now that he was seeing the consequences of his actions, or perhaps now that he felt he was losing ownership of her to some other man, whatever it was, now he was going to be his best self? No, that’s not how it worked. Not only was that not how it worked, it was unfair, and on top of the unfairness, the cruelty of his sudden kindness and attentiveness, there was no way for her to know if it was real. Was the way he was being real or not? She couldn’t know, and that put her in this position where she had to figure out what was real or not. It made her suspicious. It made her examine his actions to see if he was being sincere or not, or if he was only playing the role he thought she wanted him to play. What was he doing this for? she wondered. Was his attention to her when she told a story about how a student’s mother had been diagnosed with lupus, was that born out of actual interest, or was he only interested because he knew he should be? Was his sudden lack of frustration at home actual, was he really not frustrated, or was he only hiding his frustration, for it to explode later? She tried to read him but couldn’t, and therefore couldn’t tell what was real. Had he made a change or not, was he doing it for her or not? Was this another version of selfishness, was he just afraid of losing what he knew well? It made her angry to even think about it, that there had been all these years when he hadn’t been paying attention and now he was or performing that he was. She shook her head gently as if to shake away the thought and finished typing the email, then put her phone back in her coat pocket and glanced at him. She was mad again. Just looking at him made part of her hate him a little. He seemed to be sitting in the driver’s seat a bit too rigidly, as though he were bracing for cold weather or something, but the car was warm, which made her think that he must be feeling nervous or awkward, which meant, she thought, that he was feeling the same awkward tension she was feeling. Then she felt bad for feeling angry a moment ago, that she allowed him to make her angry. Then it occurred to her that this anger at him was also hers. It was her anger at herself for all the years things had been wrong, and she was tired of it. She was tired of being angry at him and tired of being angry at herself for allowing it. At the least, she thought, she didn’t need to be feeling that anymore. It wasn’t who she wanted to be. Yet at the same time she didn’t want to convey to him that going to see this therapist was going to be some cure or that his changed attitude somehow fixed everything. It didn’t. And really, all of this, his sudden kindness, though he hadn’t always been unkind in the past, but his kindness coupled with his attention, his asking to close the relationship and his explanation that he had only offered to open the relationship so that she might want to come back to him, his wanting to do therapy, and also his constant surveillance of her phone and who she was texting, all of it made her uncomfortable. Like she was walking through the world where the tilt of reality was just off and she couldn’t regain her balance. Anger, suspicion, sadness, these were the things of this world, the readymade emotions, and she wanted away from it. She wanted to turn on her phone again to get away from thinking all of it, but she didn’t want him to be thinking that she was texting this other man or something—he was driving her crazy asking who she was texting all the time—she wanted him to know that this was between them. That this other person was not the reason she didn’t want to be with him anymore, that had been a mistake. She could admit that. This other person had been an escape into something pleasant and kind and fun, and yes, sexy, pleasurable, but the problems between them remained whether this other person was involved or not. So best that he wasn’t involved, she thought. Maybe, later, once all of this was done, she could contact this other person, but right now she wanted to be sure of her reasons, which were reasons that had to do squarely with him, with her.

The trees along the roadside were leafless and grey against the cloudy sky, and from the car the trees were a part of their vision, a part of their world, but they remained unseen, somehow outside the reality that was inside the car. That morning it had been sleeting, but now it was only raining. It was unclear whether it was spring yet or still winter. Temperatures had climbed in early February into the sixties and suddenly rue anemone, those early bluish-purple flowers of spring, were blooming along the roadsides, until temperatures dropped again, killing the new flowers, ice on windshields in the morning. Then there was wet snow that came down from the mountains and dropped big, heavy flakes and closed the city for a day, but not twenty-four hours later the air was warm and the day was sunny and bright and the snow was gone, as though the seasons themselves were confused, uncertain where in time they were. 

People wanted to know what was going on, they were laughing, what’s going on, is it spring or not, global warming is lovely this time of year, they said laughing, and others chastised them for it, and others didn’t notice at all. Despite the too-early rise in temperatures, most of the deciduous trees remained dormant. These trees had growth inhibitors that would cease their function and end the dormancy of the tree only when the tree had experienced enough chill hours, regardless of occasional warm temperatures. Additionally, trees sensed light. Their branches, the tips of roots sensed light in a way not completely dissimilar from the way insects, animals, mammals sensed light with their eyes. Except for some early flowering plants, the deciduous trees in the region physiologically experienced several things: that they had not been dormant long enough, that there had not been enough warm weather, and most importantly, that the days weren’t long enough though temperatures were warm. There was not enough light. Thus they knew to stay resting in order to avoid injury, frost or freezing, which could harm or kill small trees and new growth. And though some trees opened their buds too early, most waited through the false springs until they had remained in dormancy long enough. The trees waited for the signals from the rest of the trees, emitted in chemicals in their root systems and passed along, though pass wasn’t correct, it was more that the root system of a single tree interacted with the root system of another tree of the same species, chemical signals firing between them, almost so that the trees were connected. The forest or copse was actually one thing, not two. Any two trees might pass information in the form of chemicals between themselves and then to the other trees, perhaps waiting to hear from the tallest, the biggest trees in the forest. Was there enough warmth and light? All forms of communication, of an intelligence that no one in the buildings, in the cars on the roads, at home in their houses, was even considering, not even as though it was of no importance but as though it didn’t exist at all, wasn’t real.

He pulled into a neighbourhood with large, old two-storey houses, big trees and yards with elaborate landscaping. She peered out the window, already feeling both envious of the privileged lifestyles, judgmental of those same lifestyles, and a little intimidated—some wealthy, privileged white woman was going to try to fix her marriage—but then she heard him say, Whoa, I like this therapy already, I think it’s working. He heard himself say this, the first thing he’d said since hello, completely spontaneously, and he wondered if he shouldn’t have said it, shouldn’t have made a joke, but then he heard her laughing. She felt herself smile and then laugh and then heard herself say that they’d have to quit their jobs as teachers and start working as bankers to ever be able to afford someplace like this. Or just become therapists, he said. My god, the people here are so happy, he said, motioning to the houses around them. These houses make them happy, she said. And all the therapy they’re doing on each other makes them happy, she said. He turned off the car and they both got out, going up the brick paved walkway to the very fine ranch-style house, and as they walked up to the house where this therapist would decide if she would take them on, and where they would equally decide if they wanted to do this, they both inwardly noted certain details of the previous moment: he noted that she still thought he was amusing, and also that she had said they would have to quit their jobs as teachers if they were ever going to be able to afford a place like this, noting that she used the word they, that this joke, however improbable, included him in it, and him as part of their family in some imagined future, and in this imagined future that was a joke, they were still they, and he told himself to try to hold this very lightly, because maybe it was nothing. But maybe it was something, he couldn’t help thinking. He was aware he was looking for something, he couldn’t help looking for it. While he was thinking and feeling all this, she was walking beside him noting that she still enjoyed being amused by him, that there was still, at times anyway, a basic, almost elemental ease between them. Despite the awkwardness in the car, something effortless occurred, and maybe what this meant, she thought, was that they were meant to be friends. If he could get over them having to be together, maybe they could still be friends, which would be difficult, she knew. Certainly difficult for him since he was having such a hard time letting go, but it would also be difficult for her, because her life would have to change as well. Still, that was her hope. She did want them to be friends. She thought maybe he was beginning to see this, and maybe, after they did what felt to her like this almost unnecessary step of trying out a counsellor, maybe then he’d really see this for himself. Then, right after having these thoughts as they approached the front door of the house, she almost put her hand to her mouth because she realised she’d made a joke about both of them becoming bankers and living in this neighbourhood, implying, of course, that they were and would be, in the future, together. She needed to be more careful about that, she thought. She didn’t want to lead him on.

He knocked and she watched him knock. She thought he knocked maybe too eagerly, and he watched as she crossed her arms across her chest, either to keep warm or to separate herself from him. Neither of them could tell what the other’s gestures indicated. Neither could read the other’s body or understand the codes of their own language anymore, and as they waited on the porch, standing apart, for this other person who was going to force them to see in ways they hadn’t for a long time, neither knew what was going to happen next. Neither liked it, and as soon as the counsellor opened the door, introduced herself—thin, mid-sixties, with a creased, hawkish face and alert, dark eyes, and dark hair with streaks of grey—they felt even more uncomfortable because here was someone who, they could both sense, was going to really look at them, who already was.

She took them into the sunroom at the back where she conducted the sessions. She instructed them to sit on the small sofa in front of her. She asked them to tell her a little about themselves first. She said she’d heard a little bit of the trouble from him on the phone, but she liked to start with just a little bit about the two of them. Neither said anything for a moment, the woman sort of looking at the man. He took this as a signal to begin. He explained that he was a teacher, they had two daughters, he was an artist on the side, though he didn’t know why he said on the side, and things were not going well and that was why they were here. He looked over at her sitting away from him on the small sofa, her eyebrows slightly raised. She explained similar things: she was also a teacher of literature, AP literature, two daughters, yep, and yes, she agreed, things weren’t going well. The counsellor said, Okay, how long have you two been together, how did you get together? Let’s start with you, she said to the woman. The woman explained that they’d met in a graduate seminar nearly fifteen years ago, they’d begun dating then, and she’d followed him as he’d got his degrees in art history, while he was also painting, and she’d become a teacher in that time, teaching at several high schools. They were together seven years before they married, and then another three or so before they had their first child. Why so long before you asked her to marry you? the counsellor wanted to know from the man. He thought it was an unfair question somehow, though he didn’t know how and didn’t have time to think about it because she was watching him. It was simple, he said. It was that he, that they, didn’t have any money, weren’t really settled, and that after living apart for a year—she had a job in South Carolina, he had one in East Tennessee—he realised it didn’t matter if they had money or not, so he’d asked her. And how would you characterise the relationship? she asked the woman. Well, she told the therapist, they were really young at first, passionate, and you know, ups and downs. Drinking too much, I think, in those first years, which led to fighting. The counsellor looked at the man without asking him anything. I agree, he said. We drank too much. The counsellor wanted to know if that was a problem now, and they both laughed. No, they each said, almost simultaneously. We rarely drink now, he explained. The counsellor wanted to know if one or both of them was in AA, and they laughed again, and he said, We just don’t really enjoy it all that much, which is sometimes problematic with friends. The counsellor wanted to know how so, not asking either one, necessarily, and he paused a moment and then said that people took it the wrong way, like as a judgement of a lifestyle or something when it’s much less calculated than that. We just don’t like being hungover. The woman was nodding. Okay, so ups and downs and fighting when you’re younger, partly due to drinking? Yes, they both said. Bad fights, the woman said. Nothing physically violent, but really ugly, mean things. She looked at the man and he agreed. And now? the counsellor wanted to know. Yes, the woman said. Those ugly fights still occur, not as frequently, but there’s something else now. The counsellor wanted to know what the something else was, and the woman explained that all the fights had accrued or something over time, and not only that, but he was always doing his own work, leaving her to deal with the kids, and when he was home it was like the entire family had to be careful around him, he was always frustrated. His frustration about his own work, this thing he did alone and in complete isolation, it infected the household. The girls felt it, they asked what was wrong with him. To be completely honest, I’m just done with it. Not only that, she said, he’s failed me in so many ways, and after this one fight last summer, I was just done. The counsellor wanted to know how he had failed her. He wasn’t there for me when my grandparents died, the woman said. He didn’t take me to the airport, for instance. He actually threw a party one time when I was out of town with my sick grandmother. A party. He wasn’t really there for me when I needed him. That’s not completely accurate, the man said. There’s a lot more to that story, a lot more subtlety. The version that she’s presenting is too black and white, too neat. I didn’t, for instance, know how sick her grandmother was. The counsellor looked at him. You’ll get to say your piece in a minute, she said. She’s talking now. Go ahead, the counsellor said to the woman. The woman continued by saying that that was really it. These were things, along with the fighting, along with his selfishness, that she now resented him for. There were other small things, of course, but these were the big things, and she was just done, she didn’t love him anymore, and she didn’t know how to love him again.

The counsellor turned to the man and said that it was his turn, and he said okay, that was all fairly accurate, he had made mistakes, he was selfish and inattentive, and he conceded that he had let her down when her grandparents were ill. Not ill, the woman said. Dying. Okay, but he didn’t know they were dying, as he was explaining a moment ago, and additionally, it hadn’t been his idea to have a party, one of his friends essentially insisted on it, and yes, he knew he had let her down when her grandparents were sick, but there were other factors to consider. Say dying, the counsellor said. He looked at her for a moment. If you want to know her reality, the counsellor said, you have to say it. He took a breath and said, Okay, dying. Now say the whole thing, the counsellor said, if it’s true. Think about it, the counsellor said. I don’t want you to say anything that isn’t true, that isn’t honest, and I don’t want you to say it if you don’t genuinely believe it. He thought a moment, then said he wanted to explain it, yes, that was true, on some level it was true, but the thing is, he said, pausing, thinking again. No, stop, the counsellor said. You don’t get to think or explain yourself out of responsibility here. She’s hurt, you hurt her, the counsellor said. Do you see why or not? He looked at the ceiling, considering. From a certain point of view, I see that, he said. But there’s another point of view to consider. I’m not asking about other points of view, the counsellor said. I’m asking if you see her reality. He hesitated, and she said, Don’t think of the correct answer. Just answer it. Do you see that? Yes, okay, he said. I see that.

Alan ROSSI’s fiction has appeared in Granta, The Missouri Review, The New England Review, and many other journals. His novella DID YOU REALLY JUST SAY THAT TO ME? was awarded the third annual New England Review Award for Emerging Writers. His fiction has also won a Pushcart Prize and an O. Henry Prize. His first novel, MOUNTAIN ROAD, LATE AT NIGHT, was published by Picador in 2020.


          Lew THOMAS, ‘Sand’ (1973; 2015)
          Philip Martin Gallery, © 2015


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