While You Were Away By Cliff Burns

While you were away the cat died.

It happened very suddenly. I noticed he wasn't lolling around in any of his usual spots: by the door, in front of the refrigerator, on top of my desk. When I went to fill his plastic "Purina" bowl one day, I saw that the food I'd put there previously hadn't been touched. I got up early one morning and found him drinking from the toilet bowl. His fur looked mangy 
 While You Were Away
 While You Were Away By Cliff Burns

and he seemed listless and weak. The next day he was lying on the mat in front of the door and he was panting, his tongue swollen, gums red, his guts one big slipknot. He was dead by noon. I doubt if a vet could have saved him but I procrastinated, trying to convince myself he wasn't as sick as he looked. I buried him just outside the city limits, near the place where you and I used to go to stargaze. I was drying my eyes when I noticed the sign that said that this was the future site of a condominium development. Still, I left him there. In someone's backyard.

His ghost I brought home with me.

While you were away sunsets ceased to have any meaning for me.

While you were away I turned the music up loud and played air guitar and danced around the living room and drank bourbon and made long distance phone calls to people who didn't recognize my voice. The conversations were stilted, the laughter self-conscious. But I forced them to reconstruct my past, recalling for their benefit numerous shared misadventures and gradually I could feel the blood flowing in my veins again and a pulse in my throat. Sometimes I was crying a little as I talked and maybe they noticed and took pity on me because all at once they seemed eager to re-enact a fictitious version of our lives together, sometimes embellishing my lies with a whopper of their own. And there was gossip, of course, and mutual bitch sessions and maybe just a wee bit of flirting but it was all very tasteful, practically G-rated. When they asked about you I said you were great, we were great and everything always finished off with each party telling the other how much they looked forward to getting together again in the not so distant future, schedules permitting.

While you were away a girl picked me up in a bar and performed oral sex on me in a cab on the way home. I have never been more frightened in my entire life. I wanted to scream in exhilaration and when I gave the cabbie a ten dollar tip he didn't even bat an eye. The girl was half-passed out in the backseat and yelled something at me as I walked up the steps of our building. I ran inside, my heart thumping. I tried--am still trying--to convince myself that I was not being unfaithful to you and haven't broken any vows. I started to explain it to the voice on that 24-hour phone sex line but all she wanted to know was how big I was and what my turn-ons were.

While you were away God knows how many different species went extinct and how many life-giving trees joined the ever-growing pyre. Starvation and poverty continued to exist as did cancer and herpes and migraines and government corruption and torture and death squads and insane Vietnam vets and Jerry Lewis telethons. The AIDS casualty roll got longer and longer despite Hollywood's best efforts. I have been feeling very ache-y lately, bones and joints creaking. I have trouble getting motivated. I worry about falling. I worry about losing you. I feel very disoriented, almost demented at times and yesterday I experienced a kind of psychedelic rapture while out walking.

While you were away Eugene Ionesco died.

While you were away South Africa exploded (again).

While you were away I masturbated two, sometimes three times a day, tugging at myself with the mindless determination of a rhesus monkey.

While you were away our galaxy rushed along through the endless, ancient night at a velocity of 2.4 million kilometers an hour, destined for an inevitable collision with the monstrous constellation of Virgo.

While you were away a lonely kid who never aspired to be popular, who only wished to be liked, listened to a couple of hours of hardcore death metal, decided that the thirty-five year old millionaire lyricist with a beer gut and bad skin was right, life wasn't worth a fuck so why not just drop right out and this fourteen year old kid with a history of violence and random acts of mischief, defacement and public exposure, he took a rope, tied one end to a hook in his closet, the other around his neck and leaned out into empty space...just died, no note, no 11th hour commutation of the sentence he had imposed, just one last stupid, useless act, senseless and pathetic and cowardly but, in the context of the situation, completely understandable.

While you were away I watched bad science fiction films and porno flicks.

While you were away Stephen Hawking ruminated and considered and conjectured and discarded and pondered and twisted his mind into other dimensions...but still couldn't come up with The Answer.

While you were away I read a very bad book that received rave reviews from every critic in the Western world.

While you were away I got really stoned with this guy I know. I dug out some of my old tapes and CD's and mellowed out with some Floyd and Julian Cope and Tangerine Dream and Bob Dylan. I stayed up all night playing track after track, side after side. The next day I felt tired and wrung out and the music just seemed...depressing.

While you were away I went through all of our photo albums, shocked by the transformations, the time lapses between pictures, cherubic smoothness and innocence giving way to wrinkles, bloated features, thinning hair, fearful eyes. This is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends: not with a bang but a shudder.

While you were away three different people called asking for Jim. I told them he had just stepped out and kept telling them that each time they called. The messages became more and more frantic. I patiently explained that Jim was a very busy guy but if they kept trying I was sure they'd catch up with him. Eventually.

While you were away the milk went bad, I ran out of MiniWheats and Cheez Whiz and, for good measure, I scorched the bottom of the kettle.

While you were away I tried to meditate, seeking inner peace, the most fleeting glimpse of nirvana but I couldn't get our last conversation out of my mind, how calm you seemed, how distant and something tugged at my conscience but I wouldn't look at it.

While you were away World War III nearly started (in Korea, of all places!).

While you were away China was granted another year of MFN and was warned, yet again, to clean up its human rights record. China, politely and magnanimously, I thought, chose not to respond.

While you were away I kept track of all the silly things I thought or said or did so I could tell you about them and make you laugh, convincing you that it had been all right to leave me on my own, that it had been good for both of us--and at the same time distract you, keep you at a distance until I had time to get used to having you home again, the suddenly extant sunset exploding through the window, your arms around my neck.


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