By John Haskell
FARRAR, STRAUS, AND GIROUX Copyright © 2005 John Haskell
All right reserved. ISBN: 0-374-10432-8
I'm from Chicago originally. I went to New York, married a girl named Anne, and was in the middle of living happily ever after when something happened. I didn't know what it was, and if you would have asked me at the time I would have said nothing, that nothing was happening, because for me nothing was. I was standing in a convenience store next to a gas station along a picturesque parkway in New Jersey. I was perusing the assorted candies and snacks, debating with myself what to bring back to Anne. She was waiting in the car. We were driving to her mother's house and I was probably reading the labels, looking for something nutritious to eat. Although it wasn't a dream, the unnatural light of the convenience store made it seem as if I was existing in the world of a dream, the main difference being that, unlike a dreamworld, in this world, the convenience store world, nothing much was happening.
That's not right. It was all happening, I just wasn't seeing it. I wasn't seeing it because my attention was absorbed by walls of refrigerated cases and the aisles of bright displays. I was concentrating on all the possible choices, which, after a while, I'd narrowed down to a thin pack of peanuts, a protein-style candy bar, and a so-called energy drink. When I paid the cashier I didn't notice the rings on the woman's fingers, and I didn't count my change. When I walked to the door I didn't notice the grease stains on the square brown tiles or the sky which was blue through the window. When I walked outside, back to the car, all I noticed was that the car was gone.
* * *
This is a story of a man who ... I won't say I was never stuck, but I was good at making adjustments. That was my specialty, adjusting to circumstances-I prided myself on this ability-and so the first thing I did was convince myself that nothing had happened, that Anne would suddenly appear. And when she didn't appear I began looking for her. She had to be somewhere, in some part of this service station area, and because there were only a limited number of places she could be, I kept looking in those places. I expected to see her, either waiting for gas or putting air in the tires or parked in the lot behind the small store. Although I didn't actually see her in any of the places she ought to be, I knew she was there in one of them, and that in my mind I was making a mistake, that fatigue or oversight or an optical illusion was keeping me from seeing what must be right in front of me.
According to our plan Anne would be filling the car with gas and I would be buying some treats for the road, for our journey to Nyack, north of New York City. New York City was where we lived, in a house in Brooklyn, and we were driving to Anne's mother's house, and now she was parking the car, or had parked it, and was waiting for me in the parking area behind the store. But she wasn't there. The service station compound was not that big, and as I walked the length of it and took an inventory of every car, I could see that our car, our little maroon station wagon, wasn't getting gas and it wasn't getting air and it wasn't waiting in the parking area.
Something was happening. I wanted nothing to be happening. I wanted not to be nervous and worried, and although I was worried, I tried to keep that worry safely below consciousness. Which wasn't easy. To keep it there I had to assume certain things. I had to assume that Anne was having trouble with the car and had needed to keep the engine running, that she'd gone ahead and would soon be returning. Although this didn't make much sense, I was willing to believe it. I was eager, in fact, to believe it, because if it wasn't that, then it was some alternative, and I didn't want to think too hard about any alternative because I wanted her back. I wanted the car to be where it ought to be and I'd just overlooked it. There it is, I wanted to say. No problem, I wanted to say, but it wasn't the case. The car was gone and so was Anne.
I could tell I was upset because my heart was pounding against my chest; for me, that's always an indication. Also, there was the fact that I was cursing her, cursing, and at the same time praying for her safety. She wouldn't just leave me like that or forget me. That would be impossible. And yet if I let myself think about what might have happened ... But I didn't do that. I should say, I didn't want to do that, because how could I not? How could I not imagine that some man with a gun or a knife had approached her and forced himself into the car, forced her to drive to some remote area off the road, some trees and a picnic table, and to lie on the picnic table, and she was wearing jeans, I could picture them, and her running shoes, and so the pounding of my heart was fear. I loved her and I was afraid. And yet at the same time if she was taking a little side trip to buy some ... whatever, some film or some ... sushi or something and she's, not raped, but safe and happy-although I wanted her to be safe and happy-I would be angry and was going to be angry, but at the moment I was confused, partly because I loved her and partly because I didn't want to feel the thing I was feeling.
Since I'd left my cell phone in the car I used a pay phone by the air supply to call, first her cell phone and then mine, but either they weren't turned on or they weren't working. So I waited. I sat on the perimeter of the gas station, literally on the edge of a galvanized metal railing, watching the procession of cars pulling up to the attendants in blue uniforms. There was never really a lull in the stream of cars, but during a relative lull I walked to one of the attendants and asked the man if he'd seen a maroon-colored station wagon, or a dark red station wagon, but the man, naturally, couldn't remember any one specific car. And not only that, he didn't speak much English. But he wanted to be helpful, so he called over a colleague who, although he seemed more in charge, had even less facility with the English language, which was my language. And because I thought I knew a little Spanish I tried to speak, about un carro con una señorita. Buscando por la señorita, I said, and the second man, who according to his shirt was named Ramon, after consulting with the other attendants, and after some gesturing-all the time monitoring the gas pumps-made it clear that something bad had happened. Something muy malo. And although I didn't want to bear about anything muy, malo. I said, Qué pasa, which means, roughly, "What is happening," not because I couldn't feel what was happening to me, but because it was the only way I knew to ask what had happened, to my wife.
Something had happened, that much I could translate. I couldn't be sure what it was, or how it happened, or who it had happened to, only that it seemed to involve several people and a couple of cars. I believed the men were probably telling the truth, but it wasn't my truth, and certainly not a truth about Anne. They were describing some other situation. There were millions of women in the world, and as the attendants were indicating the height of this specific señorita, and saying that moreno (which means brown) was the color of her hair, it was clear they were saying that this woman was gone. Nada más. Which means no more, but no more of what? I didn't know. I was saying to them, and to myself, No problema, no problema, but the men were shaking their heads as if there was a problema, a gran problema, and I was backing away, thanking them and nodding, trusting that the whole communication process was impeded by the excitement of the retelling, or by the impatient honking of the cars waiting for gas, or by the language barrier; somehow in the gap between us the message had been scrambled, and I was getting the whole thing wrong.
All I could think to do was wait. Anne could be impulsive, and the waiting itself was an attempt to preserve the illusion that nothing substantial had happened. I sat on the metal guardrail, trying to find the padding in my buttocks, watching the cars, one after the other, car after car, and by now it was afternoon. It wasn't afternoon before, but now it was, which meant I'd been waiting a long time. And all during that whole time I was still expecting Anne to pull up any minute, waving and smiling and ready to go. I drank my drink, ate the peanuts and the candy bar, and tried to adjust. I tried to banish the unpleasant thoughts I was having. And I did, to some extent. I noticed the trees, for instance, and the slow sway of their branches. I tried to fill my mind with the small moments that together comprised what I thought of as beauty. The clouds in the darkening sky and the cool breeze ... And I was able in this way to find a modicum of that beauty. Some. A little modicum, if that's possible. But it wasn't enough to dull my agitation. And because I was still agitated, I decided to take action. Action begins with intention, intention leads to decision, and as the sun sank lower into the sky I decided it was getting late. I called Anne's mother (no answer) and I called our house (again no answer). I called Anne's cell phone one more time and then decided to go home, saving my reaction to what was happening for later.
I walked back through trees and rocks, along a trail overlooking the Hudson River. I walked across the river, on the George Washington Bridge, and about halfway across I stood, with the wind and the sky and the sun going down, leaning against the railing of the bridge, looking down to the water and the patterns in the water. I was following with my eyes the current of the river when a man took a spot on the railing about an arm's length away from me. The span of the bridge was enormous and in that entire expanse the man chose to stand close enough so that if I wanted to, I could reach out and touch the man. Which seemed to signal a desire, on his part, to engage in some form of interaction. But when I looked at the man, in his windbreaker jacket, he kept looking away; as an animal might look away, out to the distant spires of the mettlesome city.
To normalize the situation, or to normalize my own discomfort, I began talking to the man, mentioning conversationally that I'd lost my car, telling him about the gas station and about Anne's disappearance. I didn't go into much detail but I had a desire to speak, so I did. "I can't find my wife," I said, but the man didn't look up. Or rather, he did look up, but his look didn't acknowledge me. I couldn't tell if that look was directed at me, or at something beyond me, something in the soft hills of New Jersey. And because I wanted to create some fellow feeling I turned and surveyed those same hills, and when I couldn't determine what part of the landscape he found so compelling I turned back. The man was staring, not so much at me as through me, so that I had the sensation, not of being seen, but of being seen through. And it wasn't that I was afraid of the man; if you had asked me I would never have mentioned fear. But I was afraid. Of my own transparency. What was unbearable was to not exist, and although I knew I existed, I attempted to prove that existence, to get some acknowledgment from the man that his world and my world were at least a little synonymous. But before that could happen, the man, in his khaki slacks and yellow jacket, started walking, and he continued walking, past me and along the pedestrian walkway. I wanted to stop him and say something about our common experience-"Nice view" or "Some river"-and in this way manufacture a degree of fellow feeling. But instead I straightened up, stepped away from the railing, turned, and walked back to New York City.
I caught the subway to Brooklyn, walked down the tree-lined street to my house, and I could tell Anne wasn't home because no lights were lit. And that's all right, I thought, she's probably out shopping, at our local market, a co-op market, and I walked inside, turned on the lights, and waited for her to come home. I listened to a telephone message from Anne's mother asking us to call her back, but I didn't call back, partly because Anne was the only person I wanted to talk to, and partly because I heard in her mother's slightly distraught voice the desire to believe that everything was fine-thereby indicating that something wasn't fine-and the hope that if she believed it enough, everything would be.
Which was also what I was doing. I could accept the events that were happening as long as they meant what I wanted them to mean. While I waited for Anne to come walking in through the front door I tried to go about my normal life, to do what I normally would do, but I couldn't remember what that was. I sat in my kitchen, our kitchen, with the little cactus plant by the sink. I sat in what I thought was my old familiar chair, trying to find its familiarity. I sat in a variety of ways-legs crossed, legs spread, legs up on the arm of the chair-trying to find the familiar position that would restore my familiar life, so that I could then live it. I was waiting for normalcy to return, and not just waiting, I was searching for that normalcy, and so I walked upstairs and went to sleep. I should say I went to bed, because sleep never came. I lay in bed, naked and slightly cold, the blue comforter pulled up to my neck, eyes wide open, staring at the uneven ceiling.
And Anne did not come home.
That night I woke, not from a dream, because I wasn't sleeping, but it was like a dream. In my mind I could clearly see a man-actually several people, men and women-getting into a car, my car, and driving away. I didn't know who they were, or remember who they were, but lying in bed, wide awake, I could see them. All night I watched a variety of permutations on the same basic story, a repetitious sampling of various people forcing themselves into the car, forcing Anne into the back seat or the front seat, and then the car driving off. To change these images, or control them, I tried to imagine a scene in which Anne uses some arcane martial art to subdue her assailants. When other thoughts intruded I pushed them away, fighting the unwelcome thoughts, trying to maintain the thoughts I wanted, the thoughts of Anne's superior power and cunning. These positive thoughts, however, were constantly shifting and moving, running ahead of me and getting away from me. I was chasing, in my mind, the images I wanted to see, and at the same time avoiding the unbidden images that were coming after me. And eventually catching me. By morning I'd seen the scene, or thought it, so many times it became embedded into my reality.
In an effort to clear my mind I went to the upstairs front room, which was my room.
Excerpted from AMERICAN PURGATORIO by John Haskell Copyright © 2005 by John Haskell. Excerpted by permission.
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