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Authors: Paul Lisicky

The Narrow Door

BOOK: The Narrow Door

Advance Praise for
The Narrow Door

“Intelligent and intimate, fierce and tender, real and raw, Paul Lisicky’s
The Narrow Door
is an unforgettable memoir about love and loss, friendship and forgiveness. It had me in its thrall from page one.”

—Cheryl Strayed, author of

“Paul Lisicky’s
The Narrow Door
circumnavigates the often inscrutable forces that bring us in and out of each other’s lives and hearts, while paying welcome homage to the oft-unsung role of friendship in them. While Lisicky bears witness to ‘the hell of wanting [that] has no cure,’ his ship always feels buoyant, by virtue of a narrator whose attentiveness to feelings both big and small is marked throughout by honesty and devotion.”

—Maggie Nelson, author of
The Argonauts

“Relentlessly self-revealing, achingly tender in the way he holds his loved ones and the world, Paul Lisicky has written a memoir as raw as Jeff Tweedy fresh from rehab, and just like a Wilco album, packed with tracks, so elegant in their bewilderment and sorrow, you’ll want to visit them again and again. This book charmed me, moved me, upended me, indicted me, compelled me, wrecked me, made me want to say the big YES, made me want to be better than I am.”

—Pam Houston, author of
Contents May Have Shifted

“A beautiful, funny, devastating book about love, friendship, and loss that manages to be simultaneously timeless and keenly attuned to our precarious moment. Few things I’ve read so perfectly capture both the communion and the competitiveness of writers’ friendships.
The Narrow Door
is a miracle of personal narrative, observation, and feeling.”

—Peter Trachtenberg, author of
Another Insane Devotion


Also by Paul Lisicky


Famous Builder

The Burning House

Unbuilt Projects

A Memoir of Friendship
Paul Lisicky


Copyright © 2016 by Paul Lisicky

Excerpt from “The Kitchen Table: An Honest Orgy” © 2007 by Denise Gess. Reprinted with permission. Originally appeared in the

Parts of this book originally appeared in the
Boiler, Clockwatch Review, Ecotone, NANO Fiction, Sliver of Stone, Sweet
(reprinted in
Philadelphia Stories
Wag’s Revue
, and
Yalobusha Review.

This publication is made possible, in part, by the voters of Minnesota through a Minnesota State Arts Board Operating Support grant, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund, and through a grant from the Wells Fargo Foundation Minnesota. Significant support has also been provided by Target, the McKnight Foundation, the Amazon Literary Partnership, and other generous contributions from foundations, corporations, and individuals. To these organizations and individuals we offer our heartfelt thanks.

Published by Graywolf Press

250 Third Avenue North, Suite 600

Minneapolis, Minnesota 55401

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States of America

ISBN 978-1-55597-728-3

Ebook ISBN 978-1-55597-921-8

2  4  6  8  9  7  5  3  1

First Graywolf Printing, 2016

Library of Congress Control Number: 2015952176

Cover design: Kapo Ng

Cover photograph: Feilo Poon

He rested there a little while to recover from the effort involved and then set himself to the task of turning the key in the lock with his mouth.

—Franz Kafka,
The Metamorphosis




Imitation Jane Bowles

A World Out There



Sometimes Relationships That Didn’t Happen Are Worse Than the Ones That Did

Famous Writers




Artist Colony

A Fire in the Road

Oiled, Sooted, Smeared

High Maintenance


Romance and Betrayal and Fucking

Mystery Beast

Tree House

It Is Hard Work to Be Dead



The Freedom of Failure

The Narrow Door

Pasture of Darkness

Part I

2008 | 
Our feet are warm. Our faces shine. The room is getting dark, the night coming a little sooner these days. Should I turn on a lamp? Then the prospect of dinner changes our placement toward that dark. The chicken stew on the trivet. The moist leaves in the hard black bowl. The macaroni and cheese still bubbling, although it’s long been out of the oven. For a moment, we’re no longer eight years into the new century, in Philadelphia, in a loft apartment that’s too big for us, but inside a cave, a tight, sweet space. We give our joints and muscles over to the heat of it, the spell, the hearth at the center of things. Our gestures say, we’re here for you, time. We’re all right with you. We’re not straining against your grasp. No concerns about the side effects of the latest round of chemo earlier in the day. No cheering on the small miracle of the meal, the first meal she’s cooked since July’s diagnosis. No anxieties about the election, the results of which will crackle across the country, throughout the world. No steroids, no PET scans, no CAT scans, no ports, no hoods, no wigs, no hair coming out in wads—none of it. We are the four points of the clock: her mother at three, her sister at six, me at nine, Denise at midnight. See how we hold that clock in place? Nothing but us now, one breath, one body in the room. This table, this bread, forks lifting again and again to our mouths.

But in the world of our Denise, stillness is death. If illness weren’t ragging her brain, she’d be driving to Chester County later tonight, to the apartment of the lunatic golfer with whom she’s had the best sex. Or she’d be steaming through Fairmount Park on in-line skates, or laughing with a friend, or arguing with that same friend—any opportunity to slam up against the unexpected. Abruptness, collision, anything to wrench her awake. As if she needs to be wrenched awake. For God’s sake, she has more electricity in her than the train yard on the other side of the river. The freight cars bang tonight, startling us, with all the suddenness of thunder. Or is that really thunder, a storm coming toward us from the west side of the city?

She gets up from the table. She walks to the kitchen, brings back a second loaf of bread, sits down. She looks happy tonight. She props up her chin, looks at us with a satisfied gaze with melancholy in it. Still, it cannot be so easy to see the two sides in her—the writing side, the family side—embodied in the group of people she loves, sitting across the table in peace. Complete peace: they’re not supposed to live in peace! How would she get any writing done if all she had were peace, no mother to say, can’t you write another story? I don’t know about this one: Where is happiness? Must everything end that way? Of course all Denise wants is peace, because she never gets any. There’s always someone to call on her, need her, in the middle of the night. Think: animals scrabbling the bark of a tree. Does she ever get to sleep?

The flames shudder on the candlesticks. The TV harangues from the living room. We’re talking about the election again, our terror, the disaster of the past eight years. The relief is that we’re all on the same side. We couldn’t have sat together if we weren’t on the same side—at least on this night. Imagine the strained politeness of the conversation, the frozen hole at the center of our talk.

Somewhere, I imagine, maybe in Bucks County, maybe just two floors above our heads, a white man sits in front of the TV. He twists the bath towel in his hands. He can’t give his mind over to the fact that the black man might win. If the black man does win, this man will rise up tonight. He’ll walk down the street. He’ll push another black man who’s coming toward him with a bottle in his hands. (
Just like a black man to be coming down the street with a bottle. Jesus Christ. Wipe that smile off your face
, he’ll say, trying to knock him off his feet.) While two streets away two college students will throw open their windows. They’ll bang pots and pans, cry up at the stars, no sense that there’s anything but joy in the world tonight.

Some of their joy is filling up the apartment right now. It’s not pleasure or delight but tougher than that, more encompassing, more dire. Is it just the news, the stirred-up molecules in the air? Or is it still the hearth of us, the memory of those twenty minutes on the couch earlier today? Her mother and her sister not yet in from Mullica Hill and Mount Laurel, and Denise needing to rest up for the night. “Could I put my feet up on your lap?” she said. “Well, sure,” I said, shyer than I expected. She swung her head to the armrest. A book in my hand, her legs over my legs: how light the weight of her. She went right under, the sounds of her breathing calming the room. Funny that it took us twenty-six years and cancer to get here. Ease with each other’s body. It doesn’t matter anymore that she’s straight and I’m not. See how we’ve been a little bit in love all this time, and not able to say it? But that’s the story of any friendship that lasts this long. All those hours on the phone, in restaurants, in classrooms, or at the dog park—you couldn’t do all that and not be in a little bit of love.

Now she looks at the bookshelves, the paintings on the walls. Maybe it no longer seems like the place she had to settle for after giving up the apartment of her dreams. Two weeks in that apartment–two weeks! All because it was three flights up, stairs, stairs, and more stairs. And what of that day she had to sit on the second landing, weeping, waiting for someone to carry her to the third floor because she didn’t have the energy? Nothing was worse than that. At least she has her elevator now. Life on a single floor, with a decent washer and dryer, just in case she shits those new, expensive jeans. Her family is here; I am here. So what if her hair comes in puffy, white, and dry, if the chemo’s clouded her magnificent eyes, if her cat’s gotten radiation sickness from curling up on her still-taut stomach? She lifts her chin. She starts dancing. Not a timid dancing, but a life-large, goofy, it’s-great-to-be-in-my-skin dancing.

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