Colossal Mistakes

Ellie crossed the street the way she did absolutely nothing else. She left the curb and plunged into traffic, ignoring green lights and headlights and the warning voice of her mind telling her to please not get splattered across the sidewalk. She dove into the swarming cars as though nothing could possibly go wrong. When she climbed stairs, or made phone calls, or typed memos out for her boss, she was never reckless. She was meticulous and grammatically correct. Nobody ever had a reason to swear at her or click their tongue impatiently or roll their eyes. But when she crossed the street, the falling wails of car horns washed over her and she just didn’t care. Nothing else felt that safe, for her to put herself in danger.

Sometimes her boss sent her on weekend trips to meet somebody upstate. That was the only time Ellie ever drove a car herself. She would rent one for a couple of days and keep the receipts for expense reports, and drive on the winding highways until she got somewhere that she’d probably been before. In the car herself, she knew the impotent rage of the drivers watching somebody cross the street in front of them. Until she got out of the city, she tugged at the steering wheel and screeched while people blithely stepped in front of her car, as though they couldn’t see her coming and didn’t care about the tons of metal barreling toward their unprotected bodies. People are so soft, she thought, and they don’t realize that when you hit them they might break open. Her phone rang promptly as soon as she got onto the highway, past the red lights and out into a stretch of speed that felt like unbending muscles into the air. Ellie glanced at her phone, just to see, and nearly swerved. Her father’s name was on her screen for probably the first time, ever, that she could remember. Since she’d been old enough to have her own phone. She turned her eyes back to the road and fastened her fingers on the wheel. She didn’t ever answer her phone while she was driving. It was far too risky and irresponsible. She would think about calling him when she got to Croton or wherever it was that the GPS was telling her to go, when she got out of the car, when she had started to believe that her father had called her.

The robotic voice telling her that she had reached her destination startled her. She’d been thinking about her father for what felt like hours, and she’d barely paid attention to the route. The GPS directed her, and her body moved to answer it without her brain interfering. Ellie hadn’t spoken to her father in more than a year, since last Christmas when he stopped by her aunt’s to say hello and then left just as abruptly. She hadn’t called him since she was in college, when she’d been in the hospital and thought she’d needed him. He hadn’t called her, she didn’t think, since he’d told her he couldn’t make it, he was sorry, work was bad, she understood of course. In between obligatory family holidays she almost forgot the halting rasp of his voice.

Ellie got out of the car and put quarters into the meter, mechanical, reaching into her purse and feeling for the coin slot while her eyes rested farther away, unfocused. She turned and pulled her phone out to check for the address. Her boss’s name was on the screen under her father’s. She had a voicemail. She clicked on it expecting, somehow, that it would be her father’s message, but it was just her boss. Some halfway through the message she registered what he was telling her. “I’m sorry, El, I sent you up there for nothing, it was really last minute, of course the company will still cover the car and everything, if you want to stay the night because the reservation is there already you might as well, think of it as a paid vacation or something, I hear there’s a really good bar. Can you send me that report from Thursday sometime today?”

She stared at her phone. It faded and went to black, and she looked at it in her hand without seeing it, and then she got back into the car. In the driver’s seat she leaned against the steering wheel, resting her forehead against the leather, and touched her father’s name. Maybe it was important, she thought, what the hell. If she was careful and didn’t call him, she would never know. The phone rang against her ear and Ellie braced herself for his voice, the tone of surprise or accusation when he picked up, whatever it was that made him call her in the first place. It rang, and she tensed, and then it ended. He didn’t even have a voicemail set up. Ellie stayed in her car with her head pressed to the wheel for a long time before she straightened and carefully, methodically, painstakingly maneuvered back onto the street and turned for home.

Stranger Stories

Nadia told herself the stories of strangers. When she walked to the grocery store in the afternoons, she passed people going the other way, not meeting her eyes, people going about their business and thinking about their own lives. The man with sand-colored skin and dark eyes leaning against the wall watched her walk by, his fingers pressed together in front of him. She told herself that he was the sort of person to watch the world happening around him, to take it in, to be overwhelmed by it. He once went on a grade school field trip and sat in a canoe on a vast lake with his second-best friend. He put the oars inside the boat and leaned back, just as he is now against the wall, but instead of the crag of brick in his back there was a flat splintery board and water beneath it going down an endless way. He was, Nadia thought, just the sort to float and feel the way the waves against the sides of his boat tugged and shoved it back and forth but couldn’t touch him, could only lap at his feet in the puddle sloshing around inside the canoe while he closed his eyes against everything.

Nadia walked past the man who may once have sat in a canoe. In the grocery store she stepped around an old woman who was hobbling down the bread aisle behind her shopping cart. The woman’s mouth opened and clamped shut, but if she muttered something it made no sound that Nadia could hear. That, she thought, was probably something this woman was used to. She had a husband who lost his temper sometimes and told her off in a stern voice as if she were a child, and she learned that when he left the sink running or the clothes on the floor it was better to complain inside her head, to keep the words clogging her throat. The woman’s brother called once a week like a dutiful sibling to check up on her, but he was hard of hearing. He yelled into the telephone, “Speak up, I can’t hear you,” and she whispered back “I’m sorry.”

Nadia felt that it was a serious task to tell the stories of the people she saw, even though she only told them to herself. Of course they were false, only figments, half-waking dreams that didn’t mean very much. Who would ever correct her? The sand-colored man didn’t know that she thought he had once sat atop a lake, and he couldn’t tell her otherwise. Nadia liked to tell stories. She wasn’t going to see most of these strangers ever again, but she could mostly remember their faces to illustrate the stories she made up for them. The versions of them that she told to herself lived in her head, occupying places she invented for them. But then, where else could they live?

Writing in Real Life

The man at the counter at Starbucks did not have the kind of face you would recognize. He was all straight lines, droopy eyes, neatly combed brown hair. Most people could have turned away from him and been unable to describe him. They would have mistaken three other people for him without walking half a block. Robin had never seen him before, but she recognized him. At least, she thought she did. She thought she had seen his forgettable face before, but she didn’t know where.

After she bought her coffee she settled in the corner with her laptop. She had a weekly tradition of coming to Starbucks to write. It got her out of the narrow office that held her most of the time. Her husband knew she was in there by the clacking of the keyboard and her mumbles. She didn’t emerge often. He had occasionally sidled in, afraid to bother her but worried, only to find her sagging in sleep with her head tucked into the crook of her arm. On Tuesdays she stayed at Starbucks for hours, letting herself be distracted by the hipsters and businessmen around her, half-listening to the conversations about lovers and deadlines. It was buzzing and busy in all the ways that her office was not, papered in drafts and stained with the rings of many a mug.

The woman waiting in line for the restroom wore an expression of perpetual boredom and impatience, her thin lips pressed together. Robin’s gaze rested on her. The woman looked like somebody, but she was not sure who. Bored, thin lips, blond bob, chewed fingernails– “oh my God,” Robin said aloud to her laptop screen, “It’s Cara Selman.” Cara Selman’s name was hidden in the lines of text on Robin’s screen. She had just walked into the scene where Doug was leaning closer to his secretary, and Robin hadn’t decided yet what she was going to do. Cara was sort of loosely based off of Robin’s sister-in-law, but she was trying to make the difference imperceptible enough that she wouldn’t get in trouble with her brother for it when the book came out. The woman waiting for the bathroom to open was still there, studying her nails, and Robin turned her eyes away.

That was where she knew the dull man in line. He was Doug. Of course he was Doug. He was probably off now with his mocha nonfat latte to flirt with his secretary all day, because Robin was toying with the idea of making him a bit of a slacker at the office. He wasn’t her favorite character in this book, but she thought she might be able to do something with him if Cara got really angry. Judging from her expression as she stood glaring at the “Occupied” sign on the restroom door, the woman needed something to get worked up about. Robin thought that possibly Cara liked plunging herself and her husband into high-flown dramatics more than she actually liked her husband.

An old man sitting at the counter by the window turned and bent down, creaking, to pick up his newspaper. As he straightened his eyes met Robin’s and sent a spasm of electricity down her spine. Mr. Hilgood was at Starbucks too. He didn’t look happy. His jaw was tight and his hands shook. The wrinkles trailing from the corners of his eyes deepened when he clenched his teeth just the way she had imagined them to do. Robin’s stomach dropped. Last week she had written him into the doctor’s office and she knew that he had gotten some bad news. She didn’t think he was going to tell his wife, who was going to find it all out too late. Poor thing, Robin thought. She ached for the old man stooping to pick his paper up from the floor where it had fallen. He was a lovely man, and he was never going to get the chance to make amends with his children.

The Starbucks was too full of people who had, before, only populated her mind. Susan might show up, and Robin didn’t think she could bear that. She packed away her computer, her hands clumsy, and nearly dropped her bag as she stood. The smell of coffee was starting to make her feel light-headed. As she blundered toward the door, she knocked into Mr. Hilgood’s chair. Robin ordered her eyes downcast, away from his face. “I’m sorry,” she said to his shoulder, and then she left.

Musing

Soon I’ll clear the cobwebs out of my mind. They’re softening the corners, white and frail, sagging a little, cradling dead flies. In a little while I’ll find a broom and I’ll sweep the floor, leaving clean boards in my wake and shuffling dust into a pile. Puffs will rise from it like smoke. The wood will be smooth and my feet will touch the floor without prickles or grit. Before too long I will organize. Everything will be on the floor and I will put it back where it belongs, some things stacked neatly in the cabinets and others in a row on the shelves. There will be room to stretch my arms as far as my muscles will allow. My fingertips will not graze the piles that rise, teetering, threatening. Soon I will tidy up my mind. For now I will live with the clutter.

The Old Future

In the old future, Sandra waited until the very last moment and then she called Will. She sat at home, festering, the rotten anger building up inside her and heating her through until she burned with it. Everything in the house was infuriating. The art on the walls, the stack of unopened mail on the end table, the mug from his coffee that morning when he’d drunk it, scarfed down breakfast, and left. All without talking to her. Mornings had been hard lately. In the old future, things changed.

In the old future, he answered the phone. He said her name and his voice was soaked with relief. She let it bleed into her, holding the phone to her ear and sagging in the comfort where everything was okay. They both said they were sorry in a rush and laughed, words tumbling into each other, their voices woven on the phone connection, both their forgivenesses tightly spun in the air between the house and his work. He came home at once, didn’t even stop for the usual drink with Mike before he got on the train. She picked him up at the station instead of letting him take the bus. In the car he put his hand on her knee and even when they got out and walked into the house she could feel the heat pressed to her skin, the print of his hand still warming her.

In the old future they got into another argument in the kitchen, trying to decide what to do about dinner. Their voices, so recently entwined, knocked and hammered at one another again. Finally Sandra cried. She was so tired of hearing her own shrillness and seeing his face crumpled in frustration. She never cried, but now she did. He melted when she did. She backed into the corner and sank to the floor, shoulders shaking, and he knelt in front of her. His fingers lit on her arms, tentative, pulling her to him. When she looked up there were tears on his face too. “It’ll be okay,” he said to her. “We’ll be okay. We don’t need to fight.” She cried harder from the torrent of wonder, just imagining that things would change. They would be okay.

In the old future, they skipped dinner. They clung to each other and undressed each other and dissolved into each other in the kitchen. They fell asleep on the floor and Will was almost late for work the next day. He kissed her before he left, leaning over while he pulled on yesterday’s pants, his lips holding hers. After he left she could still feel him on her. She spent the day in a daze. Long minutes passed while she stared at her cereal, or at the papers in front of her, or at the blank black screen of the television. Her whole body was lighter now. She nearly floated.

In the old future, Will came home and nearly crushed her in an embrace. They ate dinner in bed that night, flicking crumbs at each other. Laughing.

In the old future, everything was okay. They lived together and they loved each other. Maybe they had some children. Only sometimes did they have moments of passion, but they always forgave each other.

In the old future, Sandra called Will and he picked up the phone. Everything was okay. The old future might have been true until he didn’t answer.

In the new future, the one that is true now, Will did not pick up the phone. Maybe he saw her name appear on the screen and he clicked “Ignore” because he wanted more time to mull the fight over before they talked. Maybe he was in the bathroom. Maybe he was already with Mike at the bar. In the new future, he went for a drink with his friend and then went home with Mike to sleep on his couch. He woke up in the morning and left for work. He was probably short of sleep from sleeping on the lumpy couch with snores drilling at his ears, and that’s why he didn’t look when he crossed the street toward the office. The driver of the car that hit him didn’t stop. They called Sandra from the hospital. She’d been angry that Will had never come home.

In the old future, everything could have been okay. The old future will always be okay, because it isn’t true. Sandra lives in the new future now.

Keep Going

Go go go don’t stop don’t look back. If you look back they can get you, the demons, the shadows, the ones who never slow down. Keep running they’re catching up. They’re always catching up. You said to me once that the truly terrifying thing, what makes you prickle cold with sweat at night and shakes your bones all day, what scares you is that you can go a long way pretty fast but they go slower they do they plod on but they never ever ever need to sleep. You slowed down and they got you.

If I keep going fast enough they won’t get me. If I keep running I’ll be okay. That’s what you told me. Your words go in my head keep going keep going keep going run run run and one syllable with every time a foot hits the ground so I’m saying the words as I go even when I’m walking because my legs might fall out from under me. Those words keep my feet forward, keep my bones working and my blood churning and my face turned up and ahead of me so I don’t look at the ground so long that I just sink right onto it. Sometimes the dirt looks so inviting.

There’s no way I give up, you have to know that, you might be gone to me but I can still talk to you in my head. It’s not like there’s anyone else to talk to either and I’d always rather talk to you than anyone. You know. You always know. Now when I have to do all the knowing when my brain has to work all the time and my body has to go go go all the time and I’m without you and all I have is your words that keep me going because I have to keep going. Now that it’s like this, I still talk to you in my head. I always did and always will. There isn’t anyone better to talk to. Even if there was someone they wouldn’t be better couldn’t not possibly because you’re always you even though you’re not here you’re not with me you’re still you. When I ask myself questions because I’m so so so tired sometimes I can hear your answers because I know what you would say. Sometimes I ask just to hear the answer you would say come back to me and I can pretend for a little minute there that you’re telling me how to survive how to be how to live and it’ll work and because of you, your words in my head, you’re gone but I have your words and so I’ll be okay.

Do you think I’ll ever be able to rest? No don’t stop run run run never stop.

A Moment of Everything

Dan stopped to stand still on his way to the grocery store because he was enraptured by everything. He’d been walking quickly, but then he’d glanced up and his feet had slowed. Now he held still and watched the world. The buildings stood there on either side of the street just as they always did, but did he always notice the way the crack in the paint on the side of the old restaurant swooped and wiggled across the wall? People walked on the sidewalks, ignoring him, but he usually ignored them too. Now he saw.

Look at the woman following her husband, chasing him before her with words! She talked without thinking about the miraculous movement of her lips, the sound issuing forth, the little wrinkle that she was carving into the space between her husband’s eyebrows. Look! The two men sitting outside the convenience store leaned ever so slightly toward each other, and their whole faces crinkled up when they laughed. They were in the path of the sun, so it painted a shadow on the wall beside them with crisp edges, the shape of their heads and the intricate little wiggles of their ears and collars skewed on the surface behind them. The little girl across the street was dragging behind her mother. Her hair was working to escape its ponytail and she looked around her, mouth pursed and eyes unblinking. She was like Dan. They were trying to see the whole world at once.

The tree that grew in the space between the sidewalk and the road had noticed the breeze skulking through the street, and was dancing in it with a timid flutter, as though it was afraid somebody would notice. The middle-aged man with the bushy mustache was leering at a girl passing, and she kept her eyes fixed straight ahead. His face was red like the paper underside of an autumn leaf. Her straight-ahead eyes were ringed with smeared eyeliner, but in between the black smudges they glittered. She bit her lip, he could tell from the dip in her mouth right then, just a little. She was annoyed, or trying not to smile. She held enough of the expression out of her face that Dan couldn’t tell what it could have been. He watched her pass and he looked down the street.

An old woman pushed a cart full up with laundry. The wheels squeaked a little bit. She was furrowed in concentration, navigating the sidewalk, fitting herself around the man smoking a cigarette. He stepped back, not even looking at her, just automatic, letting his body move without asking it to. Somehow Dan wondered that he could move without thinking about it, that he could move his whole body on his unthinking feet without listening to the signals run from his head down the fibers of his muscles and through the building of his bones, until the whole mess of a body in its scrambled complexity just shifted over half a step like it was nothing.

There was music coming from inside the convenience store, and the plump lady behind the counter was singing along. Her voice was thin, as though she wasn’t entirely sure what it was going, but she was following it along anyway. It was not a beautiful sound, except for that it was sound being made. Dan listened to her as if it was beautiful. How amazing that she could make sound! It was something beautiful just that she could open up her mouth and a song would come out, that the elaborate scroll of notes and tones and pitches and melody that is written out in black symbols on white paper with lines and curves and circles across pages and pages and pages could just spill out of her mouth while she wasn’t paying attention, as though it didn’t matter a bit. So Dan listened.

Behind her song there was the music of the street. A siren whistled and bellowed in the distance, its voice soaring and dipping, soaring and dipping. The cars grumbled and wheezed as they passed by. People’s voices blended and lifted, tangled and burst, wheeled and murmured together. The tree had stopped dancing with the wind now, the breeze gone away to wander somewhere else. Its leaves were trembling to stillness. A car blared its horn.

Dan started, blinking. He couldn’t waste the whole day just standing and looking at things like this. He’d never get anything done if he didn’t move, anything at all.