It is summer, and my boyfriend is playing in a non-profit bluegrass band.
“It was amazing,” he says to me on the phone. “You should have seen their faces.”
They are touring the country, playing at homeless shelters, domestic violence shelters—any kind of shelter.
Tonight was their first gig. They are in Lawrence, Kansas, pickin’ and grinnin’ to women and children who have been abandoned.
“What did you do today?” he asks.
“Oh, enough about me,” I say.
This is what I do, every day:
An alarm sitting on my bedside goes off at six o’clock.
I get up at seven o’clock.
I get the bus at seven-seventeen.
The bus trundles across the Mississippi.
I get off the bus and enter a large, metallic-brown building. I go up an escalator and enter a SkyWay.
SkyWays are long hallways that connect the buildings of downtown Minneapolis. This is so you don’t have to go outside in winter.
But it’s summer, and the SkyWays are chilly.
I enter the warm yellow-and-glass embrace of Au Bon Pain. I put a slippery pat of oatmeal into a paper bowl and fill a yellow paper cup with strong, dark coffee.
I stare at, but do not eat, the orange scones: warm, fist-sized pastries covered with solidified orange drips.
At seven forty-three, I take an elevator up to the fifth floor.
On the fifth floor, I meet Sharon and Chuck.
Sharon is white, thin, and twisted. She was in a bad car accident a couple of years ago. She has blonde hair and elaborately decorated fingernails.
Chuck is tall and black and has a big belly. He has a beard and a deep laugh. He often wears a yellow shirt with the zodiac symbols on it.
“About that time,” Chuck says.
A red light comes on above one of the elevators.
“Damn,” says Sharon, as we get inside the elevator.
Sharon is mad because it’s not an express elevator. This means we have to get out on the first floor and wait for another elevator, one that “dings” with a yellow light. We get inside the express elevator with three other women who were waiting in the first floor lobby.
Sharon presses “B.”
The ladies press the button for five.
The elevator goes down one floor.
“What the—?” says one lady.
“Why are we going down?” says another.
The door opens, onto a manila-colored hallway.
“This must be a mistake,” says the third lady.
“I didn’t even know there was a basement,” says the second lady.
Sharon, Chuck, and I get out of the elevator.
“I pressed it,” says Sharon.
“We work down here,” I say.
The door closes.
“Sorry,” says the third lady.
Chuck and I follow Sharon. She slides a card through a black slot and opens a door into a small room filled with abandoned computer parts.
To our left, there is a black and white video monitor. The monitor flicks between the room we are in now and the interior of the Vault. For a few seconds, I can see myself in the monitor: I am a small, pixilated smudge.
When I got the job, my ultimate boss, Sharon, warned me that I would be videotaped, every day.
“We have to let you know,” she said. “It’s the law.”
Sharon is not blonde, twisted Sharon that I ride the elevator with. Boss Sharon is short and chubby and has brown hair and works upstairs. She’s bossy and kind.
It’s confusing that they’re both called Sharon, though. When there are phone calls between the Vault and upstairs, they tend to go like this:
“Hi, Sharon, it’s Sharon.”
“Hey, it’s Sharon, is Sharon there?”
“It’s Sharon, Sharon. Sharon wants to talk to you.”
Chuck and Sharon open up the Vault.
The Vault entrance is like a really, really big safe. There’s a large, circular metal door, with two knobs.
Sharon spins one knob a certain number of times: left and right and then left again. The knobs have no numbers: you just have to memorize how to spin them. Chuck spins the second knob.
Neither knows the entire combination. Sharon has one half, Chuck another. If either one messes up, even a little, it won’t work.
It rarely works the first time.
“Damn,” says Chuck. “Sorry.”
“It’s okay,” says Sharon. She laughs, and Chuck laughs.
They try again, and this time it works.
A puff of cold air releases, pushing the door open.
Don’t get excited. It’s not over yet.
Chuck walks over to a filling cabinet and pushes it up. Sharon crouches down, with difficulty, and retrieves a set of keys from under the filing cabinet.
The keys open a small metal grill inside the large vault door.
We all step inside.
This is what is inside the vault: the desks at which Chuck and Sharon sit.
I have absolutely no idea what they do.
Behind them is a long skinny table, at which I work. Around me are rows and rows of shelves, and the shelves are filled with thick, brown files.
That’s about it.
This is what I do: I go to a shelf. A yellow folder, sticking out past the others, marks this spot where I left off the day before. I gather up files in my arms, as many as I can carry.
I take them back to the table.
I insert ear buds into my ears.
My iPod was a present from my boyfriend, and sometimes it feels like an indicator of my lack of personality: he has uploaded all the music: Robert Johnson, Gram Parsons, Bruce Springsteen, The Black Keys.
I like his music, or rather, I appreciate it. I have to think about why it’s good and after I think about it for a while, I get it.
As I listen to classic American country and blues, I look through each file. Ideally, each file should contain a will or a trust. I compare the dates on the wills and trusts to a long, standardized list. I mark in pencil, on the list, when a date is incorrect.
Most of the dates are incorrect.
If the file is not on the list, I put it in a plastic bucket.
Most of the files are not on the list.
No one is sure what to do about this.
It’s quietly panicking Boss Sharon, actually, how many files there are down here, unaccounted for on the master list. It’s one of the things that Should Not Be, and yet it is.
This was supposed to be a simple project, simply verifying that the files were all there and updating the dates.
It’s becoming obvious to everyone, however, that the situation is raging out of control. Someone’s going to have to figure out where all these mysterious files belong and send them back where they came from. Sharon comes down, sometimes, accompanied by Ultimate Bosses, and they look at the rows and rows of mysterious files and sigh and open them and laugh short, despairing laughs. It’s not comforting, exactly, to think you could store your will with one of the nation’s largest banking companies, and that they would completely lose track of it.
I got this job through a Temp Agency. I temped for the same company last summer, so they got me a long-term assignment quickly, as soon as I had graduated college and accepted that I didn’t know what I was doing. That I would have to fall back onto temping, despite having said repeatedly that I wouldn’t fall back onto temping.
It’s been two and a half months. Boss Sharon is talking about hiring more temps to help me. I go upstairs to meetings in small, windowless rooms, bring up sample files and talk to Ultimate Bosses about what I’ve found, how there are approximately three times as many files as they thought there were.
Everyone praises my work ethic, compliments me on sticking out the tedious, repetitive job.
“It’s not coal mining,” I always say.
After lunch, I return to the outside entrance of the vault. Chuck, Sharon, and I have to leave and enter the vault at the same time. I can’t be here without them. This means we take specified breaks: fifteen minutes at nine o’clock, half an hour at twelve, and fifteen minutes at three o’clock.
I sit on the floor of the manila-colored hallway, reading my library book, and wait for Chuck and Sharon to return from lunch. They are always late.
Chuck returns first.
“Why do you wait down here?” he asks. “Why don’t you wait upstairs?”
I don’t have an answer.
“It’s depressing down here,” he says. “I saw this huge cockroach one time.”
My cell phone rings. It has a loud, piercing, unforgiving sound.
Chuck looks at me. “You get reception down here?” he says. “That’s some phone.”
I don’t usually. I get messages when I leave for break, muffled by the building.
I scrabble through my purse. Are you my boyfriend? I think.
Jack Spencer appears on my screen.
I let it go through to voice mail.
In a few minutes, Sharon comes down and we all go inside the Vault.
At four-thirty, Chuck says, “About that time.” He follows this with: “I know you’re anxious to stay, but all good things must come to an end.”
I try to laugh. But I’m truly bad at pretending that I think something is funny when I don’t. Chuck, Sharon, and I ride the elevator up one floor.
It’s warm outside, much better than inside. I listen to my voicemail as I lean against the outside of the building.
Hey, it’s Jack.
Difference between a boyfriend and an ex-boyfriend: boyfriends say, Hey, it’s me.
I emailed you but you didn’t get back to me.
I don’t have email access at the moment. None at home, none at the Vault.
I was wondering if you wanted to have dinner or something.
Dinner? Not coffee? Not lunch?
In Jack speak: dinner = sex; coffee = I am dating someone, so no sex; and lunch = I am pissed off with you.
I’m sorry we haven’t talked in awhile. Things between me and Karen were a mess, and are now no longer things, so…
I am so right.
Give me a call. I should be around tonight, I don’t have plans, so call anytime.
Jack is lonely.
I walk home. I drop my library book off at the public library. I buy an iced coffee. I cross the Mississippi via the Hennepin Bridge. Gram Parsons keeps me company all the way, his chords somehow a perfect match for the sunshine. Much like my boyfriend, I probably don’t appreciate Gram Parsons quite as much as I should. I like him sometimes, in certain, concentrated moods.
Here is how I pictured my life, as a small child: I would be all alone. I would live a life apart, in a small, white room. It would be a life, however, of great accomplishment. I would never find love, but in place of love, I would do great things. The competence of my professional life would make up for the startling lack of a personal one. Other, simpler people would have families and love, and I would be alone, but in the karmic balance of the universe, I would be gifted with other things: with admiration, perception, and intellectual power.
Somehow, I have reversed myself. My professional life does not exist, really. Worse, though, is that I have no clear goals towards which to work. Graduation felt like a game of musical chairs: suddenly, the music stopped, and every one else, all my friends, had a chair, somewhere to sit: graduate school, a job at a non-profit found through an uncle, work as a paralegal found over the Internet. They scattered, far away from Minnesota and St. Ben’s to London, Africa, New York City. Not all the chairs were comfortable or elegant, but they were somewhere supportive to sit. I, however, was unprepared for the music stopping. In my final year of college, petty, preoccupying personal troubles had distracted me.
So my boyfriend is the best thing in my life. And I never thought I would have a boyfriend, so I never thought my boyfriend would be the best thing in my life. I was destined to live a life of accomplishment, alone. But then I fell in love, not once, but twice, and it scooped out everything that was inside of me. That may sound melodramatic, but it is how I feel, scooped out: like a half grapefruit after breakfast, all my insides removed with a tiny silver spoon. And ever since the scooping, I have sat, drying out amidst the wreckage of breakfast, my emptiness toughening up next to the forgotten cornflakes and half-drunk cups of coffee.
To return to my earlier metaphor: I wander the room, I won’t play the game, and I still hear the echo of music in my head, even though I know that it has stopped.
My boyfriend calls. I pick up.
“We should go to the Science Museum. When I get back,” he says. “They have an exhibit on Pompeii.”
“Horrible death frozen in time,” I say. “How romantic.”
“Or the Zoo. We could go to the Zoo.”
“I don’t approve of Zoos. I think they’re cruel to animals.”
“The band went to the Zoo, here,” he says. “We wanted to see the monkeys. We snuck in a bottle of Tequila and drank it on a bench. By the time we found the monkeys, the Zoo was closing.”
My boyfriend—Peter, his name is Peter—is still in college. He has a year left. So, ostensibly, I’m still in the Cities, waiting for him. It’s a reason to be here. It’s not a good reason, all my friends say.
“Don’t stay for a man unless you have a ring on your finger,” says one.
“You’re going to stagnate,” says another.
But it’s a reason, and in my new, self-less incarnation, I’ve convinced myself that nothing is more important than love.
I could, of course, come up with a laundry list of other reasons to stay: my divorced mother lives here, for instance. She works in administration at the University of Minnesota and even works on Saturdays, letting herself in with a key. I could stretch out the list till it seemed reasonable, inevitable, that I would stay.
But, of course, there is only one real reason and that is Peter, the best thing in my life.
“When are you coming home?” I say. “It’s hard for me here. I can’t ever plan on spending the weekend with my boyfriend, because he’s not here.”
He says, “I kind of like that you’re unhappy. I don’t like to think that you could be happy without me. Because I could never be happy without you.”
I don’t think this is true. But it’s nice to hear it. Together, we are fond of making dramatic, overwrought statements about the importance of our love. We are pumping our love full of air, trying to make it float up and carry us over all the things we can’t do anything about.
Maybe life can be divided up into: things you should do and want to do; things you want to do and shouldn’t do; and things you don’t want to do and should do.
What I want to do: Call Jack.
What I shouldn’t do: Call Jack.
What I should do: Not call Jack.
What I don’t want to do: Not call Jack.
But sometimes in life, instead of making a decision, you simply watch yourself make the decision. It’s not about what you want to do or what you should do, but rather simply, what you do. What is The Thing That You Choose to Do? It has nothing to do with woulds or shoulds or even wanting to. It’s just A Thing That You Do.
So after work, while walking home, I call Jack. For the first time in over a year, we have an easy conversation and arrange to have dinner. He is happy to talk to me, as opposed to dodging my calls, which is what used to happen. I suggest a restaurant, and he says he doesn’t have a lot of money, but he has ingredients to make homemade pizza and a few movies he wants to watch, so I should come over, and we should make dinner and watch a movie.
In Jack speak, this = I really, really, for sure, want to have sex with you.
Obviously, I shouldn’t go. Obviously, I will.
The day I am supposed to go over to Jack’s for dinner, Sharon comes back from lunch before Chuck. I am sitting on the floor in the hallway, reading my library book. The book keeps making me laugh. I laugh and then feel self-conscious about laughing. It is awkward to laugh when you’re sitting next to someone else who is silent. So this only intensifies my laughter, till I am crushing a finger inside the book, and my back is partially collapsed, and I making horrible, elephant-like sounds.
“What’s so funny?” Sharon says. She seems irritated, distressed by my laugher.
I try to explain, but it is difficult: what set me off is only funny in the context of the book, and explaining the whole book is tedious. Also, the line I collapsed over wasn’t that funny. I have always been too easily amused by what I read.
I try to breathe, but I keep giggling.
Sharon looks at me, her arms crossed.
For Sharon and Chuck, I think, laughter is primarily social: a way of affirming common obstacles, a way of taking the sting out of potential criticism, a certain ritual they engage in.
So, their laughter is: social, life-affirming, shared. My laughter is: private, smug, dark. No wonder Sharon finds it unnerving.
Back inside the vault, I concentrate on my only job perk. Shifting through the wills and trusts, I occasionally unearth a piece of fragmented narrative.
The documents usually stick to certain prescribed terms and phrases, a mix and match of the same legal language. The way that funds are allocated is also usually dull: husband leaves everything to wife. Wife leaves everything to husband. A few things for the kids.
Occasionally, though, you get something that indicates a more interesting situation:
I have intentionally omitted my children. This omission was not occasioned by accident or mistake.
A particularly ridiculous law firm name is also occasion for a moment of private glee: “From the offices of Dunderthorpe and Savage.” “From the offices of Cant, Piffler, and Brown.”
It is also my responsibility to determine if the people inside the files are dead. Most of them probably are: the will papers are crinkled; the dates, entered by typewriter, suggest that the creators are not still in the prime of health: 1936; 1947; 1955; 1967… But unless there is proof in the file that the creator is dead, it must stay on the shelf.
Appropriate proof of death includes: death certificate; copy of death certificate; obituary. A scrawled note from an administrator, staying “Date of death 11/05/1986” is not sufficient. If I can prove that the creator is dead, I write “DNA” on my master list. This stands for “Death—No Action.”
Today I find a husband and wife pair, stuffed in the same file. Wrong—they should be in separate files. A date of death is written for both on a piece of notebook paper. It is the same date: “DOD: June 25th, 1980.”
I flip through the file, trying to find sufficient proof of death. I doubt the accuracy of the scrawled note: why the same date for both?
I find a newspaper clipping.
My story for the day.
I write “DNA” for both names on the master list, pleased at my discovery.
I feel sorry for all the files that aren’t on the list, the mysterious files that keep piling up.
Hello there, I think, paging through the papers of Mr. and Mrs. Edward Batchellor, not on the list.
I love that your last name was Batchellor and that you still got married! I think.
I bet when you trusted Cant, Piffler, and Brown and Midland National Bank to make and save your will, you never thought they would just lose it. I bet you thought it was safe.
Or maybe you just made a new will and forgot about this one.
I feel responsible for these files. I discovered them, after all, and I’m the one who looks at them every day. No one cares about Mr. and Mrs. Edward Batchellor but me. They’re probably dead, anyway, their securities, bonds, and insurance trusts distributed without my help, but I’m the one that has to see the documents, the one who has to pretend that, just maybe, Mr. and Mrs. Edward Batchellor are still alive.
I continue to sort through the files, changing dates. The crucial date is not the date of the will creator’s signature; it is the date the document was notarized, made official. Underneath the signatures of the witnesses, there is a short line, affirming that a public notary of the appropriate county affirmed the document. Then it says: WITNESS MY HAND AND SEAL, followed by a stamp and a signature.
I love how official this sounds, how indelible. I wish I could mark the actions of my life in the same way. Every time I made a decision, I could stamp it: WITNESS MY HAND AND SEAL.
I take a sip of my coffee. WITNESS MY HAND AND SEAL!
I make another trip to Sharon’s jar of flavored tootsie-pops and triumphantly select and chew up a piece of sweet blue plastic. WITNESS MY HAND AND SEAL!
I sit back down and start to work again. WITNESS MY HAND AND SEAL!
Peter calls as I am driving to Jack’s apartment.
“I had a thought,” he says.
“You know when I go to Guatemala next year?”
“Yes.” I am sticking around the cities for Peter, but he is going to study abroad for two months. The waiting will become transcontinental.
“I was thinking that you could come with me.” The words come out in a rush. He has Come Up With a Plan. “You could take classes in Spanish. There are plenty of ways. And when I’m done we could travel together.”
Peter likes traveling. He is currently on the road with his band, after all, and they are all reading On the Road and The Motorcycle Diaries.
“But I wouldn’t know anyone,” I say. “Only you.”
“But it’s Guatemala. Don’t you want to learn Spanish?”
“Not particularly,” I say.
This is boring of me. Why don’t I feel more expansive, more up for possibility? Spanish is a useful skill. A marketable skill.
“I’ll call you back later tonight,” I say. I hang up and put the phone on Silent.
The thought of Peter’s plan makes my chest feel compressed and heavy. I try to breathe.
I pull up to Jack’s apartment. This experience is the closest to time travel that I will ever come. The building looks exactly the same: dark brick, blue awning. When I enter through the back door, it smells exactly the same, a smell like nothing else, a smell that suggests only itself.
Jack’s apartment looks exactly the same. The same rug from India hangs on the wall; the same guitar leans in the corner. The apartment is still small, still meticulously clean. It is as if my past has grown back up out of the earth. Or as if my past was always there, waiting for me to come back to it.
Do not be moved by the apartment, I instruct myself.
Jack does not look exactly the same, of course, because he differs in some small, slight ways from the image I have of him: he isn’t a photograph, after all, he’s a person. He moves and breathes.
I do not want to describe Jack.
I’ll tell you a story instead.
In our small little college campus world, Jack was, in a mild and unassuming way, a Heartbreaker.
I did not think very highly of him.
I didn’t know it, but Jack started to watch me.
He watched me walking down the street. He sat in a coffee shop and watched me go by.
He watched me in class. He watched me at parties.
I know this because he started making observations.
“You smile to yourself a lot,” he said. “What’s that about?”
I didn’t know.
He took me very, very seriously. He listened to everything I said. It never occurred to him that I was funny. He never got any of my jokes.
I was a Heartbreak-ee, and I should have been an easy target.
But it didn’t work out the way it should have. I’d gotten my first taste of power; it had come too late, and it went to my head. When he asked me out, I said no, and then I said no again, and then again. The Heartbreaker had become the Heartbreak-ee and vice versa. Unused to our new roles, we handled them badly. We made all the classic mistakes.
One night, I heard he was dating another girl. This same source (oh, gossip) told me that Jack had never really been that into me; the word was that I was making a big fuss over nothing. I drank three large glasses of gin and called him, asking him to come over. Once he was there, I couldn’t think of anything for us to do, so I asked him to help me put together my bookshelf.
It was a bookshelf from Target, easy to assemble. Companionably, we hammered. Then we started filling it with books. We lay down and stuck our heads into the bottom shelf.
Perhaps a measure of how much you like someone is the degree to which you are willing to insert yourself into an uncomfortable position.
We stared up into the bookshelf. The wood dug into the back of my neck. Neither of us said anything. It was unclear how we gotten into this position: why the bookshelf had seemed like a pillow, why we had decided to lie down on the floor. What was clear was that if either one of us took our heads out of the bookshelf, everything between us was over.
“I heard you were dating someone,” I said.
“Fending someone off,” said Jack. “I have this thing. I’m cute. I keep trying to explain it you.”
“You said I was making everything up.”
“I wanted it to be true,” said Jack. “I’m full of crap.”
I curled my fingers into his fingers. I had the sense that I was leaving my small, white room behind. I no longer had any framework to tell me who I was, but Jack’s look suggested he was very fond of whoever it was that I was, so I tried not to mind too much. I curled my legs into his legs and thought about how careless I had been. But that was comforting: we’d both already fucked up, so maybe that meant that fucking up had suddenly become okay—impermanent—a minor dissonance that resolved given enough time.
So despite the fact that, eventually, my Heartbreaker pose wore thin and then wore out; despite the fact that, of course, seeing me up close was different than Watching From Afar; despite the fact that girls did indeed like Jack, and it was A Thing; despite the fact that having decided, on little evidence, that I was The One, Jack was capable of quietly and on as little evidence deciding that I Wasn’t; despite the fact that he is the only person to whom I have ever or ever plan to scream Fuck you motherfucker seriously just fuck off fuck you—despite all this, I am still always waiting for Jack to tell me that he is full of crap, to erase, once again, all my mistakes, to stare at me so fixedly that I know I must be there, that there must be something there to look at.
Jack and I make pizzas. I chop tomatoes and he spreads cheese out onto the crusts.
We put on little shows about How We Have Changed. I try to make my movements precise and particular, neat and clean. When I get some tomato juice on the counter, I instantly wipe it up. I am trying to convey the impression that I am no longer Messy. Look How I Have Changed! WITNESS MY HAND AND SEAL!
“Check me out,” says Jack, his wrist snap depositing the last of the cheese. “In the past, I would have obsessed about making sure each layer of cheese was even. But look at me now! I don’t care.”
He actually says this.
“You’re growing,” I say.
After dinner, we watch Notorious. Ingrid Bergman, daughter of a Nazi, has a drinking problem. She flirts with Cary Grant, swaying. Her stomach churns and she places a hand to her mouth.
“Just the thought,” says Jack, “of Ingrid Berman puking…” He shakes his head.
“I bet Ingrid Berman did throw up,” I say. “I bet she took a shit sometimes, too.”
For this, I get A Look. Good, I think, I am being unsexy.
Jack has never been able to accept that Ingrid Bergman probably threw up and took a shit. I’m far from being Ingrid Berman, and I once drank too much red wine at a party we went to. I spent half the night puking in the bathroom. I’m not sure Jack ever forgave me.
Jack’s bed is a small, soft mattress on the floor. We have to sit on it, side by side, to watch the movie. The TV is set up at the foot of the mattress.
Here we are, in bed together.
Jack and I continued to have sex long after we broke up. But I have a boyfriend, now, so I won’t, will I? I’ll just get him to admit he wants to. And then I’ll roll off the mattress, put on my shoes, and sashay out the door, forever the One That Has The Upper Hand.
The movie ends. Cary Grant has rescued Ingrid Berman from the South American Nazis.
“That was good,” I say.
“Yes.” Jack has rolled over onto his side and is giving me A Look, only a different one this time. This look is the look of a little kid begging for a favor. This is Jack’s signature look. We used to call it “Bambi eyes.”
“Bambi eyes will get you nowhere,” I say.
The attraction between us feels sometimes like a piece of indestructible material: we have, for kicks, exposed it to everything destructive, to fire and flood and compression. We have thrown it, angrily, at the wall. As someone who breaks things easily, someone who drops plates, tears jeans, shatters bracelets, it’s nice to think there’s one thing that I can’t break, on purpose or by accident.
We are facing each other now, lying down, just looking. Roll, I think. Just roll off the bed. Just turn. Stop, drop, and roll.
But I don’t. I feel like I can’t, that I just won’t, but the truth is, I just don’t. That is The Thing That I Do. Choose not to move.
In the morning we wake up to public radio.
Because life is not above seeming contrived, a smooth voice fills the apartment with talk about the nature of regret. No fooling.
“Regret can be seen physically in the brain…” says the voice as Jack and I share an uneasy naked hug. Jack goes to take a shower. I dress and sit on the sofa. Jack makes breakfast. I feel like I should offer to help, but I’m too paralyzed with fear to move.
Jack makes oatmeal with bananas. “I feel guilty eating oatmeal without fruit,” he says.
I think of my daily oatmeal breakfast, how proud I was of my Healthy Choice.
Oatmeal, of all things, has demonstrated to me that however hard I try, I will never know exactly what Jack wants, and that I am very foolish to try, foolish to think I can anticipate exactly who I need to be to get Jack to want me back.
We eat the oatmeal. I feel like Jack wants me to leave. He looks at the clock. I refuse to leave. I won’t leave until something is said.
“What happens now?” he says.
“What do you want to happen?” I say.
He sighs. Jack is a champion sigher: he gives long, reflective, full-body slumps.
“I feel like you want this story,” he says. “You think we’re in this story, and I want to give the story to you. But the story you want ignores some pretty important facts.”
“What facts?” I say.
“Me,” he says. “For one. I’m a pretty big fact.”
I wish I could argue. My throat is clogged.
Confession: sometimes, in my head, I think that my life is a television show. In that television show, Jack is the Main Guy: you know, The One. We broke up to keep the show going; happiness being boring, after all, bad for ratings. My subsequent nervous breakdown was a dramatic storyline, designed as a PSA on the dangers of depression. Now, I have recovered and moved on to a New Guy: you know, The Nice Guy That You Wish Was The One. His primary function is to make Jack jealous, to make him realize what he has given up. Peter is Impediment Guy.
Of course, as Jack has just said, this story ignores some pretty important facts.
I drive home and sit in my car, in front of my house, looking at my phone. Last night, after I put my phone on Silent, Peter must have been a little freaked out when I didn’t call back, when I didn’t pick up.
There are four messages. His name over and over.
Where are you? says a text message.
I love you, says another.
I go to work, where I am grateful for the rows of files. Pretending to need more files every ten minutes, I sneak out of sight between the rows to cry.
I can’t bear to listen to my iPod, so I am at the mercy of Vault Sounds.
Chuck is listening to Mariah Carey. Come back, baby, she sings. We belong together!
My eyes fill with tears.
Do not cry for Mariah Carey, I instruct myself. Do not gift Mariah Carey your tears.
After work, I decide that the next step is to check my email.
I go to see my mother, at the University.
Happy to see me, she even offers to run down the street and buy us coffee while I check my email.
I stare at the screen, googling my own name over and over. Nothing of interest comes up. I think about all the other me-variations who are professors, mystery novel writers, doctors, plant biologists, graphic artists.
My phone rings. It is my mother.
“The 35-W bridge collapsed,” she says.
For a second, I can’t think which bridge she means. It takes me a moment to process that the stretch of 35-W I’ve passed over countless times is a bridge; it doesn’t feel like a bridge when you move over it, not like the Hennepin Bridge. I’ve never noticed the Mississippi, crossing via 35-W.
The bridge collapsed and I didn’t know it was a bridge, I think.
“I’m so glad I know where you are,” says my mother.
“I’m going to go look at it,” I say. I hang up.
I don’t know the campus very well, but I know the bridge collapse is nearby. As if on cue, I hear the sounds of rescue vehicles passing outside my window.
Outside, it doesn’t matter that I don’t know where I’m going. I can simply follow the crowd of people, appearing from every building, who are moving in the same direction. It’s the University, so it’s a young crowd, dominated by blondes. Most of them are wearing some kind of sweatpants, exercise shorts, tracksuits. I can’t believe how many people are dressed to exercise. We look like a slow-moving marathon. If all else fails, we can go work out.
The crowd kicks up dust. It’s hot and sticky. We inch down University Avenue, where the collapse comes into view. Rows of cell phones take pictures. I look at my own cell phone; it rings once, my mother. Then the ringing cuts out. When I try to call back, I can’t. Nothing will go through. I can’t call anyone.
When I finally see the bridge, it doesn’t look a like a collapse; it looks like a rising up. When the middle has collapsed, the edges stick up into the sky. The concrete has rippled upwards and ends at a jagged point.
I can’t see down into the water. I can’t see the cars that have gone down with the bridge. I can just see this hunk of rippled concrete.
I feel a peculiar sense of violation. It is unfair, I think, for the landmarks of our daily life to collapse, to disappear on us.
People are down in the water. Maybe a bus is down in the water. I need to account for everyone I know.
I feel cold inside, clutched with anxiety, but not sad. It shames me, that I can feel so, so sad for myself, and then look on tragedy and feel nothing.
I kick the dirt in front of me. Cry, motherfucker, cry, I think. Why can’t you cry for anyone except yourself?
Several weeks later, I am watching the news and I see an interview with the husband of a woman who went down in the collapse. After days of waiting, endless calls to a cell phone that never picked up, the family had to accept that in all likelihood, she was gone, that the body and car would be nearly impossible to recover. The strong currents of the Mississippi make recovery difficult.
The husband stood in front of his children and made something like the following statement (I am paraphrasing from memory):
“That day, my wife made a decision. She chose to take the 35-W route home instead of the longer route she had planned on. We have to believe that she had good reason for that decision. We have to respect that decision.”
A decision to take one street over another? I think. It hardly seems like a decision. Hardly a life-altering choice. I feel, for a moment, that the husband is angry with his wife, angry with her for making such a choice. And of course. Of course you would be.
Over the weeks and months that follow, there is a constant search for answers as to why the bridge collapse occurred.
Was heat responsible for the 35-W bridge collapse? The news shouts at me one day.
Maybe if it hadn’t been such a hot day; maybe if certain reports had been heeded; maybe if money had been earmarked for repairing infrastructure as opposed to new transportation projects; maybe if there hadn’t been so much traffic.
I heard this theory once, that in the moment before you make any decision, parallel universes open up. One universe in which you went right, one universe in which you went left. You go right, but because there are an infinite number of possible worlds, there is a different version of yourself out there somewhere, the self who went left, the one who took the right way home.
I find this theory comforting, but I suspect that it is entirely untrue. I think we are attracted to the idea that choices, big or small, are not irrevocable. That we get more than one shot, even if that second shot is withheld from us forever by space and time. We like to think the second chances exist somewhere.
I feel that, more likely, it goes like this: at the moment of any decision, a row of parallel universes open up. They hang, glittering, in the air. But when we make a decision, when we vote left or right, we pick one way and we can’t un-pick it, not in this world, and this is the only world we get, so it might as well be the only world there is.
So what happened to me, you might want to ask. What about our narrator, the one standing in front of the bridge collapse, the collapse that she, in a characteristic display of selfishness and narcissism, sees as a metaphor for her own personal collapse?
So there she is, standing, on that hot and dusty day, as a row of possibilities blinks on and off, one by one, like failing white Christmas lights.
Maybe she tells her boyfriend the truth, and he forgives her.
Maybe she stays in the Vault forever, and maybe she goes to Guatemala.
Maybe she eventually finds her small, white room.
Maybe she tells her boyfriend the truth, and he doesn’t forgive her, and this turns out to be not such a bad thing.
Maybe she never tells anyone what happened.
Maybe no one forgives her.
Maybe there isn’t anything to forgive her for.
Maybe what happens isn’t, ultimately, the pleasing and logical conclusion. Maybe it is unexpected and long and messy, in the unfortunate way that life is unexpected and long and messy and not at all like a story.
But whatever happens, whatever combination of small decisions made and not made, whatever precise combination of factors result in the ultimate conclusion, you should know that, while it might not be the ending I want, while it might not be the ending you want, it is simply The Thing That Happens—The Way Things Will Be—the only way that they could be, after all.
This I will tell you: they reconstructed the 35-W bridge in under a year. It’s broader now. There’s a little sculpture in the middle, an upright row of squiggly lines, illuminated at night by a blue light, a little symbol to remind you that you are crossing the Mississippi, so you never forget that the Mississippi is right below you.
Laura C. J. Owen was born in England, grew up in Arizona, went to Minnesota for school, and then moved back to Arizona. That’s actually simplifying things a bit and leaving out a few sojourns to Los Angeles and New York City, but you know what? It’s boring and complicated. She has a B.A. from Carleton College and an M.F.A. from the University of Minnesota. She has received the University of Minnesota’s Gesell award for fiction, a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, and a residency from the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts. She’s published fiction and reviews in American Short Fiction, The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Annalemma Magazine, Whistling Shade, The Momaya Annual Review, and MNartists.org. You can visit her website at www.lauracjowen.com
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