She knew that this was the last evening that she would see him for whose sake
she had given away her lovely voice and left her home and family; and he would never know her sacrifice. It was the last night that she would breathe the same air as he, or look out over the deep sea and up into the star-blue heaven. A dreamless, eternal night awaited her, for she had no soul and had not been able to win one. --Hans Christian Anderson, "The Little Mermaid"
Destiny lurks, but when the time is ripe, it devours.
Don't imagine for a moment the silver towers of Manhattan, shining in December with sweat and frost. Forget the postcard images in your mind of the city, the looming skyscrapers, the brown and gray apartment buildings obscuring any trace of morning sunlight; lose your memory of the small grocery mart with its rows of oranges and apples and cheap flowers, and the great clock over the Persian rug shop, and the closed trattoria with ragged awning flapping, traces of soap on its windows.
Imagine instead a vast cavern of overgrown brownstone and gleaming pumice, frozen in spray up to the sky; imagine the anthill and its inhabitants; imagine anything but the buildings along 8th Avenue, the yellow taxicabs, the young man in sweatpants and hooded jacket jogging, the gray-suited bald man with glasses, shivering, a steaming Starbucks coffee cup in hand; the handsome and the ugly; the elfin woman still drunk from the previous night, blown by an icy gust as she walks her Boston terrier on a short leash; the masks and the faces they reveal; the two shiny men with gym bags; the piles of trashbags; piles of kids as they wander with their Walkmans and cel phones; the overcoats fluttering; the hat pulled down over ears; and through it all, the serpent turns.
And it lurks. And it will devour.
The message steams in the crisp cold air, the breaths of fog that pour like smoke from the mouths of people wandering the chilly city streets; it is in the exhaust of buses, too. The citadel of stone could stand for a hundred more years, and still none will escape destiny as it waits, hungry. The city is the cave for a serpent, and serpents can look like anything or anyone, but still they are what they are. Only you know it, because you are part of the In, you are close to the pulse of how this island kingdom runs. You are one of the few who can journey from the In to the Out and back without fear.
And you know that today, the serpent is loose.
But it is an ordinary winter's day, they call the city New York, they live within the belief that all is well for now. Somewhere across this island, there are construction workers' jackhammers making the earth's crust tremble, and somewhere, between the In and the Out, what should've stayed chained has been set free. They all dig down deep but never find the In, they never know
all the wormholes that the serpent has, but you know, you and the others like
you, you know the passages of the serpent, and you know that no matter how it
looks in the Out, what has been loosed cannot be put back.
But it's business as usual here. Christmas is coming; the lights are up even
early in the day; shop windows are heavy with ornament and display; the snow
from the week before all but melted in the city; the trash bags roll and shift with wind and rats along the side streets as the Village bleeds into Chelsea; as you watch her walk -- no, as you watch her stride towards her goal. In her stride, her destiny.
She is the kind of woman that once seen, will never be forgotten, not because
of some ideal of beauty, but because of her very nature: she is the unmade
bed, she is the lost unknown, she is the woman whom other people speak of but
whom no one invites, she is mystery, she is purity-in-chaos. Her eyes are
brutally kind; her manner is distant; her face is pale without being sunless,
a redness around her eyes and nose, a vulnerability. She has the look of
having been in the storm, droplets glistening on her skin, crystal snowflakes
melting. You read her thoughts in her hands as she gracelessly reaches in her
coat for keys or some Kleenex or a good luck charm or a memento from the
past. You see the child-like way she smiles at nothing, perhaps at the very
air itself, perhaps at the folly of life. She reminds you of the woman you'd
want to meet someday; but she has darkness within her. She has spent her
life searching for the serpent; and now it will find her.
She is dangerous.
"Destiny lurks, it does, I tell you when your time's ripe, it devours, it surely does, it's a devourer, it opens its jaws and unlocks just to get you." That's what the teenaged boy on the corner of 14th Street and 8th said to the woman who had passed up his offer to allow her to give him change. He shook the can that had once held Del Monte pineapple slices and now clanged with a few quarters and several pennies, and perhaps later on would carry water or soup if he could get some. His stink was strong, a gust of foulness from the pit of some unwashed arm. His name was long forgotten, but those who called him friend also called him Romeo, for no other reason than the fact that he roamed.
"Listen, you give me change, lady, and I give you salvation. It's a damn good bargain you was to ask me," he said, his voice like the squeal of brakes over shattering glass bottles. He was too old to be young and too young to be old, and his red baseball cap had seen better gutters. His eyes were dull and milky as if he suffered from some ailment a woman like this would never want to know about. His grin was infectious in all the unfortunate ways.
"All right, lady, destiny lurks but it can devour any second, and just the
price of a cup of coffee'll get you some relief. It's a -- whoa -- a huge
mother of a snake -- and it gets out and it bites you where the sun don't
shine. I said its got a sting and a bite and then it just chows down like you
don't even matter and I seen it, I know what it can do."
He knew his words didn't sound as clear as he thought them in his head, but
he said them anyway. She glanced at him once, and he was sure that she
looked right through him before moving on. She walked so awkwardly towards
the subway entrance, with her tan coat, her faded jeans, her worn sneakers,
the way her hair wasn't quite combed, nor was it quite blond. And something
about the way she glanced back at him let him know that she was not one of
the Out People even if she hadn't given him a quarter or the time of day.
She's one of us.
She had the darkness in her already; he could tell.
The street, so alive with suits and skirts and rags and vendors and loafers,
washed her image away like a sudden downpour. Hunger wrestled with his
fears, but he kept shaking his cup and hoping that he'd get enough change to
take care of his great burden. He didn't like the thought of the serpent or
of the lady who wanted to find it, but there was no coming between what was
and what was meant to be.
Don't think, just do.
The words were like mosquitoes humming around the woman who stepped down into the urban underworld known as the subway. Within her mind, the world itself
was a mass of mosquitoes all swirling in patterns around her.
Just do, she thought, wiping at her nose with a Kleenex.
Quit thinking so much. Thinking too much about it is what screws everything
A cold, left over from Thanksgiving, lingered in her sinuses. She fumbled
with the nasal spray bottle to get one last clear breath -- she laughed at
herself, wondering why she was so worried about her stupid cold, why she even
cared anymore. Inhaling, she smelled the dust and piss of the subway and
street and then her head began pounding again. She'd had a Sudafed with a
glass of wine at six a.m., hoping it would allow her to fall asleep; but it
just seemed to make the pain more intense, and she wanted to get the feeling
out of her system. It manifested itself in a throbbing at the edges of her
scalp and a constant hammering behind her eyes. Her head was pounding with a thousand words left unsaid, conversations she'd wanted to have, arguments she wished she'd been brave enough to incite. But none of it added up to much,
and so little was clear she just wished all thinking would stop.
But one thought pounded at her, the hammer of one thought, up and down, again
and again, behind her eyes. One thought.
All she could think about as she went down the cold stone steps was that he
would never have let her leave the apartment had he known that she intended
to throw herself in front of the first train that came down the tunnel.
But he'd gone out for an hour, and she had her chance.
In under a minute she laughed, wept, and smiled. Then, she closed her eyes
and tried to pray but there were no more prayers in her. She glanced up at
the sky before it disappeared from view as she went down the stairway into
the bowels of the city. A last glimpse of sky. White with clouds. The bare
trees of winter.
She tried to picture the winter sky as she walked through the passageway.
The walls comforted her to some extent; this was a safe enclosure, an
antidote to the open muddy fields and burnt ruins of her childhood. The city
was a cold but welcome embrace, and she never felt it more strongly than down
in the subway.
She knew what he would say. The Alien. His name was Alan, and she liked to
think of him as Alien because then it was easier to not let him touch her
anymore, to not let him get under her skin in any way.
But still, she knew what he would say if he'd been there to stop her.
"Naomi," he'd say, "it's the winter blues, that's all. Have you been off
your prescriptions again? That's not good. That's not sticking with the
Sticking with the program.
Learning to cope.
All of them, Alien buzz words. "When you have all your ducks in order, we
can sit down and talk about the future," he'd say, and whenever he used this
phrase, she wanted to get an Uzi and shoot all those damn ducks and watch the
blood and feathers fly.
She knew how he would suddenly be gentle with her and how she would lash out
at him. He would sit there and be gentle and even kind. Her thoughts would
turn violent although she did nothing to fulfill them; his kindness would
feel violent to her. Sometimes kindness was the worst sort of treatment.
She wanted to tell him she'd been seeing another doctor who suggested she'd
been misdiagnosed, but she knew that the Alien would really find a way to
twist that up so that she would begin to doubt her own sense of reality again -- and she didn't even blame him. It was her. It was completely her. "You
need to pay for good medical care. These therapists you know," he'd say, his
head shaking slowly, "bargain basement prices, and no real training..."
But none of that mattered. She had to smile as she asked for the subway
token - a buck fifty. A subway ride was still a bargain, one of the last of
them at the end of the 20th century - a real bargain basement, she thought,
glancing around. You could go anywhere on the subways in Manhattan for a buck fifty. That was New York all over. Anywhere that didn't matter, you could
get there cheap. She could go the length of the island and never get back to
the place where she'd been happiest.
A child stared up at her as she dropped the token in the turnstile. Dark
hair, dark eyes, a wan look as if he had no expectations. His mother, a cool
drink of water -- that's what Jake would've said. The boy's mother was in a
bad mood. Her eyes were fixed on the boy's hands, like a cat ready to
pounce. "Where's your token?" the mother asked and the boy's mouth dropped,
drool on the edge of his lips. "Where the hell is it?"
The child watched her even while his mother clutched his hands, demanding his
Two men, tall and stocky, hair on one like a rock star, non-existent on the
other, businessmen in blue and gray uniforms, rushed past her -- the
earthquake rumbling of the approaching train grew louder. A short redhead in
a raincoat practically shoved her. Then the rain of people followed in her
wake. From all corners they shoved and jostled and slipped between one
another, creating pockets of personal space; black, white, a woman in furs, a
teen in a leather jacket with purple hair. They melted into one another as
they rushed forward, grabbing their places along the platform.
To her, it was not a platform on the subway, but a precipice.
The edge was everywhere. The edge was life, and she was always on the verge
of discovering what lay beyond the edge. Her eyesight was all messed up;
tears? No, not tears. Tension. The headaches. The memory that she could
never dredge up, no matter how hard she tried. All she could call it was the
blank spot of her life. But her vision sucked -- she laughed thinking of it
that way -- and the faces in the crowd, she remembered the poem, the
apparition of these faces in the crowd...
We're all ghosts, already. We reach adulthood and we're already gone from
the world that matters. We're just keeping things in order for the next crop
of people. We go about our business. And why? We're ghosts. We repeat
patterns without knowing that we have no effect. Our lives are determined
before we're twenty After that, we just repeat. It's already the future.
These people are already ghosts. I am a ghost.
I am no one.
My time has come and gone.
I am ruined, she laughed to herself. I am ruined. I will be no more.
She stood there, her head throbbing. Slowly, she walked to the edge of the
platform, closing her eyes. Her steps seemed completely silent to her. She
barely noticed the murmurs as those she passed spoke about the lives they
were leading, their victories that were really just defeats in disguise.
Their eyes had not been opened.
Images bled in her mind:
Her mother, lying in the coffin; her brother stealing the trophy; the Alien,
his eyes flashing green, picking her up in the rain outside of Lincoln
Center, his car so warm, his manner so smooth, her desperation so great; the
blank spot, the blindness of moments in time, moments that were cut from her
and had turned to darkness; and Jake -- just his face, sixteen years' old,
sweat shining like smoldering ashes under his skin...Jake, if only Jake were
here...If only I had the courage...
Now, the other voice within her whispered. It was the voice of her highest
self, she knew. The one who knew how to do things. The one who knew where
she was going.
The sound of the train grew louder, and the tunnel wind swept her hair --
One foot ventured into the air beyond the platform. The rumbling was loud.
She could feel the train's heat, nearly. She could do it; she knew she
could. All it would take was another step forward, and then she'd fall, and
the train would reach her before she landed on the tracks...
She drew her foot back; she looked down at the track, and the train was
suddenly there, its silver flash slowing to a blur and then it became solid,
a train once more, doors opening. The door opened in front of her, and a
woman asked if she was going to stand there all day. "Can you hear me?" the
woman asked, her voice full of crust.
She stepped aside for the crusty woman. The rain of people poured in, the
doors closed, and then the blur of an impressionist painting as faces and
train became one.
The train moved on.
The subway platform, empty, but for Naomi Faulkner, standing there looking
wistfully at the flashing of the train as it moved through the tunnel. Naomi
Faulkner who had once had dreams like anyone else, but had reached the age
where dreams no longer were enough to clean up a messy life. She had come to the realization that she was not special enough, that whatever magic she'd
imagined life had, it was not for her. It was for other people who went on
to bigger and better things. It was for people that got on the train and had
their minds on things other than themselves.
Selfish. That's what you are. Selfish and stupid and wasting your life
chasing something that people like us don't ever get.
She heard her own voice in her mind saying those words, but she could not
pinpoint from whom she'd first heard them. She hated the feeling of
I am not a victim. I will not be a victim.
She could say it a hundred times, but she would never be sure if she meant it
The platform, so lonesome a place now, with two empty benches, bore smudges
of washed-over graffiti on the chipped-paint walls (*she's all that*, one
read; *I Moan*, a spraypainted scrawl with an obscene sketch beneath). She
got the sense that she stood in the empty corridor of a windswept and icy
school. It reminded her too much of waiting for the principal or the school
nurse; suddenly she was thirteen again, and expecting punishment. St.
Anselm's, the Church in the Vale, at the edge of Carthage, its ruined
steeple, and the way they'd dragged her there like a dog... Church, sins, the
white chapel with the long aisle and the hardwood pews, and having to stand
up in front of everyone on that day and confess her sins...
She went over and sat on the bench. Glanced at her wristwatch -- it was
eleven a.m., Saturday, December 14th, and this would be her final decision.
And, as far as she could remember, the only important one since she'd run off
as a teenager too many years ago. That decision hadn't worked. This one
A man with a foolish grin walked by her. Perhaps he was thinking something
funny to himself. She liked that. The Alien had no sense of humor
whatsoever. He was completely solid and sober. He needed to be like Foolish
Grin a little.
"Damn you," she said aloud to no one. When she looked up, she realized
Foolish Grin was still there at the platform, rocking back and forth, heel to
toe. He had prematurely gray hair and a wore a houndstooth jacket over a
bulky sweater. He glanced at her briefly, then looked away.
Let me tell you what I'm planning, she thought. I'm planning on leaping off
the platform into the path of the train. I'm planning on feeling every moment
of this train bursting my bloody atoms apart. Then, with luck, I will be
She heard the hoofbeats of wild bulls -- the sound of an oncoming train -- she
glanced down the track and saw two pinpoints of light. She glanced at her
watch. It had only taken a few minutes for the next train.
She stood, smoothing her coat. Then, she giggled to herself at her own
vanity. Who cares if my clothes look like hell? Wait'll they see my
apartment, then they'll really know I went the failed diva route.
The image of her messy bedroom floor with its piles of laundry and stacks of
paperbacks brought to mind little Katie. She was sure that Maria or Soozan
would come to Katie's rescue in a day or two. In the meantime, the cat had
enough Friskies in the bowl and plenty of water in a shallow pan to last her
'til then. Surely, one of her friends would remember the cat as soon as the
news was out.
What if she was so obliterated that no one could identify her for weeks?
What if Soozan was off on one of her last minute trips to the Bahamas? What
if Maria might be so involved with her work that she'd even forget to give
her the usual Saturday night phone call, let alone check in on Katie?
No, I'm sure they'll remember Katie, they love Katie. Maria was there when
Katie got spayed and even loaned her money for the vet bills.
They'll think of Katie before they even think of the Alien.
The train drew near; she stepped up to the edge of the platform; she could
practically see her tabby cat mewling for food and water in a dark, forgotten
studio apartment. Stop it! She shouted within herself. They'll find you
Katie within two days and Maria will probably let you come live with her.
Naomi Faulkner, a struggling actress in Manhattan, threw herself to her death
this morning at the 14th Street subway beneath the express train going
uptown. She is survived by her cat.
She imagined the words. It would be nice to have an obituary, no matter how
Katie would be fine. She'd sent the note to both of her friends, and they'd
be getting it by Monday or Tuesday at the latest. There were enough Friskies
to last until Wednesday. Once they got their notes, they'd go get Katie and
that would be that.
Foolish Grin was stepping up to the platform, not so much beside her as
behind her. She could sense him even if she couldn't see that grin. Get a
load of what you're about to see, Mr. Foolish Grin. Watch this swan dive.
It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Now, she thought. Now. Do it.
The twin headlights of the train -- only now they were dreadlights, eyes of
spiraling fire -- heading for her, zooming down the tracks...
And now, you have to jump. Just another second, and --
But I can't, she thought. Oh god, it's like willing yourself to drown. Can't
do it, have to fight for air, have to survive. Oh shit.
Damn it, I can't jump.
Yes, I can. I can. Damn it, just jump, real easy, just step off the edge and
walk on air for a second and then when the metal smacks you upside the head
you can get rid of that headache once and for all and you'll never have to
think again and you'll just sleep forever and ever...
Just think of what you have to live through if you go back there, think of
what's lying ahead down the road a few years, think about how the Alien's
going to somehow make nice and you'll be taking more Prozac and then you'll
be secretly sneaking out, and how all you want to do is go back to a place
you can never go, and twist time around and pull back to that one moment when
you made a decision so monumental in less time than it takes to jump in front
of a train, go back to that and then see if you can stop all the crying in
your head, all that noise.
And then, it began. The cats all yowling, the alley of her dreams, full of
cats and snakes, the rattles and the cats, the cymbals all smashing together
like windup toys, and the girl in the middle of the muddy field screaming
louder than anyone could possibly scream...
"Shut up." She wasn't sure if she opened her mouth or if she was still living
in her mind, but it all hurt, all tore at her --
There was something about knowing that this was it - this was her last chance
-- that forced the images in her mind: the friends, the lousy job, the
apartment that was like a crate with a toilet attached, her cat, even him,
the Alien, and then the memories of Carthage, hellhole and heaven all at
once, and Jake, Jake who was no longer there for her, but somehow, just the
fact that he existed somewhere -- in a place she would not go -- was enough.
Here come the lights. Close, closer, getting warm, feeling the warm dusty
breeze of the train against her skin, the silver blur...
Voices from the past erupted within her as she closed her eyes, willing
herself to jump.
"It's not as bad as it seems."
"Oh my god. It's the worst thing a human being can ever do."
"No. You're wrong."
"You know I'm right. You know this is the worst thing. It's a sin. That's
what it is."
"There's no such thing as sin. And this is not your fault."
"You're wrong. This is a sin. What I did. What I never should've done. I can
never be forgiven. This is the worst sin on earth."
She remembered those words at a distance of thirteen years, the girl who
lived in Carthage, Virginia, the girl who had never really gotten out --
The girl who had become a woman at some point in time and had moved to New
York only to make her life's ambition a leap from the platform of a subway
station into the lights of a train.
The end of the line.
And she could not jump. The life spark was there -- it was like the voice of
an old friend within her. Life had importance. Life had substance. Life was
everything she knew. Even something about church teachings was screwing with her and wouldn't allow her to give in and jump. Or maybe it was pure
biology. Perhaps her whole body, its flesh and blood and bone, all refused to
help her accomplish what should've been her greatest triumph. It just felt
like the nearly inaudible mumbled whisper of life asserting itself.
She wanted to live, after all. She took a deep breath. The train was
speeding into the station, but she would remain on the platform.
Here it comes, but you won't be leaping. You're a coward at heart. You love
life too much. You just need to get away from the Alien. You need to figure
out this mess. You need to begin anew. So what if you become an alcoholic or
a head-pounding freak? New York was a good place for all that and more.
Other women reinvented themselves here, they couldn't all be together, hip,
interesting, sexy, and brilliant, could they? There must be some mouse like
you that just fell into the wrong maze and can't quite find the cheese.
There's got to be a place for you.
She didn't need to kill herself just to get away from the Alien. She didn't
need to prove anything to anyone. She needed to figure it all out; she
needed to get her life back. That's what it was. She needed to grab the
keys to the car and drive, which was something she'd given up doing. That
was the problem. Life wasn't the problem.
Thank god, something within her whispered. Thank god, because you didn't
really want the pain. You didn't really want to find out what it would feel
like to have all that metal and fire inside you, tearing your skin, bashing
into you, breaking you.
And then she felt the hand pressed into the small of her back, almost a
"Wait," she gasped, half-turning, but then he pushed -- Foolish Grin? Was that
who was pressing against her? -- the rough hand making sure she went over the
edge, into the path of the oncoming train.