You can’t even be somewhere without spending money anymore: to earn the right to perform your cellular respirations in any given square foot, you’d better have a receipt or be standing in line to get one. A cup of coffee buys you an unharassed half hour on a high stool; a jaunty shopping bag shields you from suspicion while you linger for a moment on a bench. I once spent time in a city where the mall for the affluent was protected by security guards with machine guns. The people they let in were taller, robust, pressed. The ones whose path they stepped into were slighter, hungrier, looser in their clothes. In another city a hemisphere away, sidewalk guards stepped in front of men from the provinces and told them that the parks and stores were closed.
To be treated humanely, you must seem to be doing well.
We’re still more interested in the friendless, the bereft, the people who are left out of the sanitized exchange of the marketplace, the bleaching streetlamps of public life, the invisible fences around gated communities. There are those who are completely outside, and those on the edges, who eke out their positions every day. The story of the have-not is the only interesting narrative; stories of success are all alike: find your market, trade up.
~T.M. De Vos, Editor
Cathedral by Samir Atassi
Like Brothers and People Who Have Nothing by Roy Bentley
Friendless by Colin Dodds
Two Poems by Simon Perchik
Potato Chips by Jessica Wiseman Lawrence
Art Untied by Katy Masuga
Cassandra by Lindsay Merbaum
The Greyhound by Wendy Vaizey
Just the compliance of me, rubber-banded together with my sisters like a bundle of green asparagus
sticks in the backseat,
Little Muslims parked in front of St. John Nepomuucene on Fleet, a house my father said we were not
allowed to enter. I remember
My mother’s face when he told her, “We will wait here for you,” as if she were running in real quick
to get perishables. Poor
Muted apple, she joined aunts and uncle hopping puddles down their childhood street, where Grampa’d
call them all in for dumplings
And milk. I felt their eyes, the women burning coals under veils, or blunt, brooding holes of men, silent
apes in hats. I watched their backs
Vanish through massive doors opened up like a man’s chest, snagged on lines of Koran that would not
let go of my foot. I imagined inside
Swinging censers and smoke, a long aisle in stretched marble, a mitered man, the wrinkled husk in
casket, who then stood up
In his baggy pants, searched the pews for his wife, rolled both sleeves up to the tattoos, one last
partnered dance, to music that opens
Up flowers of cathedral. His kids’ Hail Marys and his grandson’s fatiha adding color notes from the
curb’s captivity, both helped hold
His pants up, as he got his rods and his bait from the fountain where he left them, said he was going to
catch us some perch, told me
The Cross and The Crescent had a child, it was The Fishing-Hook. Then the bells clapped their hands
above the steep, widowed roofs of Slavic Village.
We drink good scotch from Old Fashioned glasses
at a bar near a college where I teach. Drive home.
He knows what a brother is. Jim, born after him,
lives in Wisconsin. He’s not forgotten, just busy.
Work and a terrific wife. A couple of great kids.
This is about watching out for someone, keeping
his secret and feeling the light rain on your face
all the way up the walk with his sagging body
cradled and dragged, by turns, so that no one
will know to acknowledge what you’re doing.
The trick isn’t discovering the key, it’s finding
the front-door and then propping him up while
you work a deadbolt. They won’t mention you
in the obituary when he’s passed, but so what.
Tonight all that he has is you and your refusal
to let him fall. Between a good night’s sleep
and the rest of a life after this night, there’s
only you to steady him. Only you to unzip
by a hedge plant, saying I’m taking a leak
as he rises to do the same, finding reserves
of extraordinary resolve after your example.
How long until both lungs fail him? Years.
Until the unsuccessful transplant? Longer.
Long enough that tomorrow he will laugh
and ask which God lets him drink like that.
He won’t remember anything come morning,
your pouring him into the bed to sleep it off
and going back out, into the rain, to retrieve
his Members Only jacket from the dark car;
a beloved memento no worse for wear and
rough handling though, without him in it,
mostly remarkable for its sheer emptiness.
People Who Have Nothing
It’s like they’ve had an epidural to the heart,
those who have enough for now. It’s those
with less than what’s needed who feel it,
the ache to set want aside for a while—
like someone struggling to speak only good
of the dead who has to search for a word
for selfish, a tactful adjective that shines
a less focused light on self-protection;
and, in doing that bit of magic, confesses
that love, for any human, takes practice.
When we visited eastern Kentucky, drove
from Ohio to the row houses of our family
who had chosen not to follow the exodus north,
I saw Less as the house without a furnace
or serviceable linoleum in the kitchen.
I watched those with nothing make biscuits
of flour and what’s at hand. Tasted
how that much of nothing melts
in the mouth. Slides down the throat.
In winter, coal smoke hung over houses
in townships with no one named White
called Whitesburg. And mud-shiny Neon
with the opposite of a glow. In all weather,
Want shuffled to a metal folding table
to fashion a hand-rolled cigarette
and smoke and lean back and laugh
as if life is good if there’s enough tobacco
and talk of Reds baseball or Jesus Christ
in places where American Legion Hall beer
and whisky is swallowed like the truth about us.
I need someone to tell me it’s not my fault
the world is the way it is, so I can tell my dead
this is what happens, this is how you live on.
No man has opened himself up
to utter destruction
like the man with no friends.
He nods while voices in the bar
oil the machinery of enjoyment.
He is always on the wrong side of fun.
The voices all around are heavy
with the two American verbs: Put and Got.
“I got a woman and I put it in her,”
brag the men.
“I put out and got what I wanted,”
brag the women.
And the voices caroming off the walls
will always be more important
than the continents
of things he does not say.
He laughs when he speaks
to let you know he fears you.
It’s an old servants’ trick.
To the friendless old man
with pomaded hair,
we are all members of usurping tribes.
He gestures to the laughing crowd
“I always forget
which of us is Scylla
and which is Charybdis.
Just watch out.”
Every love note starts out warm
sent by one hand over another
is pressing down on this snow
making a fire on her grave, covers it
with those songs from the 40s
still trailing smoke, longing for rain
that’s not one night alongside another
each falling off as the name
at the end, a pet name, a secret
you would write on a wall
to whiten it, begin again
already winter and bleeding to death.
You always wanted to be near ashes
close to shore, kept warm
between two fires and the afternoons
easing around the rocks
you dead go here with
adrift just below the surface
that has no owner
though nothing falls to the bottom
the way even now the rain
smells from smoke and your coffin
looks for another body
–you wanted to be water, run clear
take your bones with you
and after a long loosening
empty them as a go-between
this hole to lean down
and filling it from shells
not yet your mouth and shoulders.
I watched too much television as a child. In the summer, I actually preferred low-quality programming, things that would eat away the time without making any real impact on me. But sometimes a little nugget would shine through. One that sticks with me is a line from a show called, It’s A Living. Crystal Bernard, who would later be in Wings, got her start there, and there were other actors and actresses that you might recognize without being able to name. It took place in a restaurant with the usual cast of imbeciles and cynics that populate the sitcoms of mediocrity. In one of the episodes, the female boss was talking to the cook and telling him that she had been some type of monarch or noble in a previous life. The cook responded by shaking his head and saying, “Everyone always says that they were someone important in a previous life. How come nobody says, ‘I was a toothless beggar run over by a manure truck?”. The line stuck with me, because it seemed unusually well observed for that show. Most of the lives in human history must seem unremarkable, so, if you hear the list of your previous lives, they must seem mostly unremarkable. One way to make these unremarkable lives seem more remarkable is to look not at the accomplishments of the life, but at the ways that a previous life intersects with other souls in your current life.
For my generation and the generations of people before me, that solid connection with the people around you probably made a good deal of sense. Though my generation traveled more than previous generations, we still probably knew a relatively small number of people when you think about the vastness of the world’s population.. Sadly, that might not have kept us from falling out of touch with this relatively small group of friends, because they weren’t part of the core group of souls that you had been connected to since the dawn of man. The ones that you weren’t all that close to during your high school career, but that you ended up running into again and again, developing a greater sense of kinship were some of those intertwined souls. The same holds true for the folks you left behind during your transition from college to your first real job and so forth. Those were a small number of bonds that ran deep.
However, as you can now stay in touch with a larger number of people, and you can be “friends” with people you’ve never met, you have a seemingly infinite number of strands for connection. The problem, of course, is that if you have too many strands, no single strand or group of strands tends to stand out. So, when connections are being handed out in the afterlife, rather than having a family or set of loved ones comprised of the people you grew up with and worked with, those strands must be harder and harder to manage for the people interweaving them. The strands must be getting both thinner and more plentiful, making it almost impossible to decide who gets matched up with whom. Admittedly, Facebook’s ability to keep people in touch after geographical movements and other natural forms of separation should have severed ties could be seen as a good thing. However, as you think about it, when the strands don’t break, it might well make the carpet more muddled, uglier. Not to get too Darwinian on you, but maybe the strands should, more often, break for a greater universal good.
But those lighter connections (and their disruption) are just the start of the problems that Facebook must be bringing into reincarnation. The other problem is what Facebook is doing to our concept of time. With trends like throwback Thursday and sharing links, everything is beginning to happen simultaneously. The trip you took last month, the family gathering from when you were in fifth grade and the logo for the company that you currently work for are all there on the same page, laying your life out in scattershot and incredibly specific detail. This thoroughly postmodern representation of your experiences makes it difficult to think about your life in a linear way, and if everything is happening always and at the same time, then it’s very difficult to conceptualize eternity. Perhaps time exists more as a reference point, as something to show these entanglements than it is as a sense of movement and difference or as something cyclical. If throwback Thursday helps us to remember, perhaps it also means that nothing ever ends (not to get all Watchmen on you, though if you look up Watchmen on Facebook…ah, I won’t go into it).
If you don’t think that the nature of time as portrayed on Facebook has an impact on our concept of eternity and the afterlife, try looking up “eternal bliss” on Facebook. If you want a more fun, but less meaningful game, try looking up “sexy (fill in the blank)” on Facebook. There is a group for “sexy clowns” as well as “sexy zombies”. The zombie group is probably a bit sexier, but the clown group is more unsettling. In any event, when thousands and hundreds of thousands of people spend time reading and commenting upon the casting choices for a Star Wars movie four years hence, and when we feel more connected to these bits of pop culture than we do the people we work with, then we spend more time on minutia than we do on burning off our stains and releasing from the worldly concerns that keep us from moving forward towards Heaven or Nirvana (in place of a joke about the band Nirvana, I’ll point out, here, that there is a group called “sexy Buddhist hoes”, though it seems like a true Buddhist wouldn’t refer to women as “hoes”). But you can see the logic of those icons building the strongest temporary connections. If you were from the generation of folks who would have gone to the same church for years or decades, sitting and looking at the stained-glass windows, then the icons appearing in those windows would slowly etch themselves into your mind. Compare this to the iconic swoosh of Nike. Like the stained glass window, its ubiquitous nature is what helps to burn it into our minds. But the blankness of the swoosh and its origin is much different than the determined meaning of the window. Perhaps the swoosh is like a variable, an x in an algebraic expression that has no inherent meaning, but if that’s the case then the connection between people sharing the swoosh is built on a tenuous, perhaps imaginary string. How can that sort of connection last from this world into the next and back again?
So, rather than hunting for the souls that you’ve been connected to for lifetimes, you look at what the Huffington Post, Fox News and/or Variety have written about a combination of celebrities and/or politicians. Or, at least, Facebook encourages you to do this. You can get in a seemingly endless rabbithole of clicking on links that functions to prevent you from peace or attainment, because it creates within you the desire to click on one more link. And you rarely return to the same link twice. Rather than sitting and taking in the colors and shapes of the stained glass, you go through the articles and images to be done with them, not to take them in. It keeps you thinking that about the immediate, three-second future instead of being able to back up and get some sort of perspective upon your life and your position within the cosmos. So, if people care less about their past lives (or even their own lives) more than they do the hivemind of pop culture and social media, why would anyone involved in assigning new lives to existing souls want to make a genuine effort to care about their recently ended lives? The next life will be as disposable and temporary as the previous one, so why be concerned about which invisible strings get preserved and which get severed?
Now, I should address the one genuine counterargument, which comes out of that hivemind observation. Someone could argue that the process of reincarnation is partially the burning off of impurities or negative idiosyncrasies that cut us off from our connection to others. Not just specific others, but all others. If this is the case, then someone could make the argument that Facebook actually does hustle us through the cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth by getting us towards that hivemind. However, I would argue that it’s equally likely that the hivemind actually encourages the worst similarities rather than a purity of soul (note: “sexy old souls” is not, as of the writing of this essay, a group on Facebook, though perhaps that’s for the best). In particular, the way that we stay outside of the hivemind is through acts that manifest our individualism. But the problem with Facebook is that what we use to represent individualism is all too often just a fractured representation of existing outside symbols, corporations or cultural artifacts, not anything that demands or encourages a genuine expression of our interior. It’s more like the splintered, reflected mess of a kaleidoscope than it is the more coherent image of the stained glass window. Both can be beautiful, but the kaleidoscope spins with no real end or sense of progress. If our sense of time has been bent by Facebook, then it becomes more difficult to conceptualize the eternal tranquility of Nirvana and the meaning of all of the intertwined souls that we meet on our way there.
Of course, I have no real solution for the problem that Facebook poses to the quality of our reincarnation experiences (assuming that reincarnation is a real thing). Instead, I raise this as an issue mainly to highlight the subtle but important impacts that social media might have on not just our lives, but our after lives and our future lives. In Slaughterhouse V, Vonnegut says that, if you’re able to maintain your consciousness for eternity, then he is not happy, but he appreciates that he has as many positive moments as he’s had (we might argue that his kaleidoscope is filled with especially lovely junk). Facebook would, I think, be hell, then for Vonnegut, because it’s nothing but reminders of who you’ve been. In fact, it’s a permanent and constant reminder of the miniscule and decontextualized events of your life. Pettiness and visual self-absorption: this seems more like purgatory than the permanent friendship of many lifetimes.
Hospital basements have a lot of room for those of us who had to stop at a bachelor’s degree. I know, because I used to work in the central supply room at a rehab hospital, restocking the medical supply rooms on each floor. One afternoon I got off of the elevator on the physical therapy floor, pushing my cart, and I saw a wheelchair-bound man in the hallway, moaning. His mouth was open wide enough to split the corners. He looked down at his lap then snapped his head back up to the ceiling.
His head was shaved in one place. The bald spot there was stark with black stitches, and the skin around them was as green as the potato chips you sometimes find at the bottom of the bag. When I was a kid, my best friend used to tell me those chips were poisonous. “He’s a traumatic brain injury with dementia,” Elisa from housekeeping whispered as we stood there, our carts like cars at a stop light.
“My cousin’s a nurse. She said he had a stroke, too.” She shook her head with her eyes closed. “Makes you think, don’t it?”
I think we’re a network of tubes. Our once-fresh veins and arteries can become corroded. Sometimes there are infections in our walls, and blood rushes unchecked past the rust and the corrosion of living. I thought about this as I watched that man. I could almost see his brain through the green and black. I could almost see his reasoning gray folds dry up with his injuries, his disease, and his forgetting everything.
—Jessica Wiseman Lawrence
The art might have been interesting, but that was never what was at stake. The patrons were meeting with old acquaintances, bumping into new strangers, standing in groups of four or five catching up perhaps on the week gone by, catching up on new rendezvous, on pop culture gossip disguised as art news, on exchanges in fashion advice. On my way back to Paris from a conference, I met up with an old friend in London for a couple days, and she brought me to the swanky SoHo opening. There were mostly young girls and older men, men in their fifties with that cool air of indifference and so perhaps a confidence fit to stroke the burgeoning ego of a twenty-year-old boy or girl, to take home and pat around, boring and new and fleeting. Men in their forties with that cool air of finally knowing what it is to be a man but having come to it the hard way and so still struggling still trying still being hard about it with the young men and the young girls they would indoctrinate, they would wolfishly seduce, preying on desires with compliments coupled with sadistic criticism and sultry, subtly tucked away in accepting, deliberately childlike insults and sexual innuendos.
The young girls myself included were interchangeable–an eating disorder, thoughts of being smarter or different or somehow unique from the whole lot of the rest but still wishing to be friends with that certain group e.g., by the door wearing designer scarves and fedoras given to them by the designers themselves or designer assistants their friend is dating or who were old family friends or who they had a fling with and stayed clubbing friends with. It was a trendy hip scene, girls in skintight jeans or stretch pants, legwarmers, wingtips, bright red lipstick, loose men’s shirts with belts.
The bonus of these events is the free booze, so we got ourselves a couple glasses of wine and settled into the far corner to watch the more serious attendees comfortably. It was a small gallery, with the wall that faced the road composed entirely of windows, floor to ceiling. I wanted the free wine because it was free. I wanted to look at the art because it was art and it was free to be there and to look at it, because it represented some part of society that seemed greater or larger or important or more important than anything I ever knew growing up or in the world as something to define or complement or explain the passage of time. I wanted to be around these people because I wanted friends, I wanted to feel connected, I wanted somehow for the world to show me how I could be meaningful or how it was meaningful or how I could or was already living in a world that was full and interesting. I wanted to get away from the stale but fresh wounds and worn-out thoughts of a previous relationship that simultaneously dug me a grave each evening and made me grateful each morning to still be alive. I wanted it to be like what I imagined it was like for everyone in the past centuries, all those idols who managed to live regular lives but managed to record them or to share them in a way that could never appear as regular simply because of the fact that it was being recorded and shared.
I always forgot, every couple years, every couple decades, every couple trends, that the group I thought was interesting was not what I wanted to think or more importantly wanted to be. The athletes in middle school, punks and goths in high school, philosophy majors in college, English majors in grad school, the smaller groups in between, blazer-wearing girl with two-toned hair and plaid pants in the post office line, bearded guy and his folk-guitar girlfriend in the café, fixy bikers on Friday night, wine connoisseur friends of friends, bad and happy poets at the open mic, old roommate’s cousin who makes her own clothes, people who made the posters for the university cinema club, my mom’s sisters who had picture-perfect families.
I was waiting by the bathroom door for my friend so that we could leave, a bit tipsy and lonely or empty or at least ready to move away from the atmosphere that had been fresh and fun but that turned exclusive, loud and threatening after a few glasses. The free wine was dwindling, and you really needed to make an escape before it totally dried up, and the entire night ran the risk of becoming a full-fledged psychological disaster. In general my friend was less into these things than me and liked to leave when the awkwardness first approached. That is to say, the moment when things started breaking apart, when too many drinks were taken off the tray, too many loose tongues, too few people left, the possibility of becoming an ass and knowing it, and the desperation to make friends, to find the avenue to comfort and connection set in. That’s not to say I was ‘into them’ but she probably didn’t feel the same kind of hopeless attraction to being in the in, to be part of the knowing the being the living the art.
I was waiting by the bathroom when that guy in the fancy pinstripe suit spotted me, and I spotted him, but it was more that I was spotting him spotting me, and I was being subtle. He came over to say what he had to say, and it was smooth. It was really smooth, in the right way, the cultured, mannered, gentlemanly way. That’s how it felt, but maybe I was already fitting him into a group I wanted to be part of and so admired something that was really nothing and maybe was even worse than nothing.
Am I French? No, I’m not French, no, you see, ah, no the knee-high boots, the black eyeliner, no I’m American. Oh, really? Yeah.
Yeah, so I guess I look French or maybe it’s a compliment, maybe just in London, to tell a girl you think she looks French, or maybe that’s just a cheeky come-on.
He has a friend he’s calling his cousin who just sauntered up, and they are exchanging knowing glances and slight grins. My friend comes out of the bathroom, and suddenly we’ve been propositioned for dinner, and so why the hell not? The cousin isn’t interested in my friend, he’s gay, and so everyone’s in on the deal, and it’s obvious that Pin-Stripe is interested in me, and it’s obvious to me that I’m not interested in him but it’s also obvious to me and my friend that I need to get out more in general, and that I can’t keep holed up in my mind turning over and over a past that isn’t going anywhere and isn’t changing.
We’re taken to the Royal Navy Gentlemen’s Club. My friend and I quickly see the absurdity, atrocious and deliberate, and young Mr. Pin Stripe is doing his Old Money best to impress us in all those right or maybe disgusting ways. He knows what girls like us go for and what girls like him don’t. At the door, Pin Stripe indicates his affiliation to the Royal Navy Gentlemen’s Club, but Cousin is promptly yet discreetly informed he needs a tie to enter the premises and not after. Cousin lives in Germany and we can see he comes from a different level of social custom than Pin Stripe. Luckily, a group of what might have been my countryfolk saunter up, and in fantastic French with Parisian accent and all, Pin Stripe acquires a temporary solution for his untied cousin, so the lot of us can cross the threshold of the female-only-on-the-arm-of-a-gentleman club.
We are escorted inside toward the lounge where a fireplace occupies one wall and is large enough for me to walk inside of it. Our new gentlemen bring us champagne, and we sit in furniture that costs more than my education. Before any further chatting can commence, my friend and I make a dash for the ladies’ room in order to faire la toilette. We burst through the door like unbridled steeds. The night had become an unexpected pantomime. With the hot air blower, I dry the heavy sweat rings in the armpits of the pink, shimmering blouse I got that afternoon at the charity shop in Cambridge. I put on her lipstick. We recompose, we exit.
I am greeted halfway back toward the lounge by Mr. Pin Stripe, who promptly walks directly up to me, eye to eye, and quietly yet very, very forcefully tells me not to remove my jacket again. The collar on my blouse is not low. The problem appears to be my body itself, as it appears the effect of the iridescent material produced against my flesh Pin Stripe finds inappropriate. I do not remove my jacket again.
I sit back down, and the four of us finish drinking our champagne, discussing the possibility of dinner. The group of young French folk return, the ones who loaned Cousin a tie, and everyone exits to the inner courtyard for a cigarette. The group moves together like a giant beast composed of swanky, well-dressed boys and pale-skinned girls scuttling long legs, slinging delicate arms across each other’s shoulders. There are giggles and gleaming flashes of perfect teeth, well-coifed hair, slender fingers with painted nails holding short, American-style cigarettes with care. Because of the generosity of the French visitor, the topic of conversation outside turns toward ties and more specifically how to tie them correctly. The posh pin-striped boy proceeds to direct us all in a lesson how to tie a Windsor knot and how to tie a St. Andrews’ knot and how to distinguish between the two and how to distinguish between the sexual preferences of the man wearing the knot.
In a moment, we are finished with the gentlemen’s club, and Pin Stripe and Cousin decide to take my friend and me to a Chinese hole-in-the-wall over in Chinatown. We walk. On the way he slips his arm into mine and when I tell him that makes me uncomfortable, he is simultaneously disappointed, surprised, and intrigued. No, it seems, I am not the easy French girl he took me for. I am losing my displayed first impressions one by one. At the restaurant, my pin-striped boy orders all of our meals including wine and what the ladies will have with the greatest charm and comfort. I am too giddy to feel crushed by the overwhelming evidence that I am a doll, a tool, a pretty thing used as a toy for the night. But I’m not so simple or foolish. My friend assures me we are in it for the peculiarity of the experience – and the free dinner – as much as they are in it for the exoticism of picking up two random (not French) girls at a private art opening.
The conversation at the restaurant is not dull but no longer has a purpose. I am filling the holes and gaps now as his mentor, as an unexpected teacher with some story to tell that gets extracted from me as always with rehearsed, almost sincere smiles. The story of how a small town American orphan made her way to Paris, an explanation to give of my unexpected presence in the place where I’ve strangely been found, and all the while to be gentle on the ego of the listener, usually seducer, who expected something else entirely and to be self-deprecating as I excuse myself from untying in this case the boy’s world.
The night ends far shorter than Pin Stripe wants. It is late after dinner, and I am feeling the weight of it, becoming less able to suppress my desire to be alone in a quiet room. As we walk again along the late night or very early morning London sidewalk, Pin Stripe calls up a Moroccan sheik who is ready to entertain us at his mansion across town, but I am finished. Accepting my rejection with gentlemanly grace, Pin Stripe bids us farewell, and we part ways at the Tube station, the summoned black cab slinking away without its late-night patrons.
I’ll never know the inside of that sheik’s mansion.
Bernie was the first of her patients to appear in her visions. He was middle-aged and depressed. Unable to move, to pause the reel, Cassandra watched him in an office, boxed in by false walls, the kind everyone could hear through but maintained the illusion that they couldn’t. He sat across from a man whose job it was to fire him. The man was both younger and thinner than Bernie. The young man had pale lips, the tongue behind them stained with coffee.
The vision ended with Bernie working in a cubicle, a microphone affixed to his head as he spoke on and on with ersatz cheerfulness to strangers who hung up on him. His eyes were red and moist and he rubbed at them continuously as a manager circulated like a shark looking for weak seals. At the end of his shift, Cassandra saw him standing by the road against a darkening sky. He shivered a little, his hands stuffed into his pockets, the wind ruffling his scant hair. He was waiting for his mother to slowly pull up in her station wagon to take him home.
A week later Bernie appeared in her office for his session. He informed Cassandra that he had been laid off. Guilt was blossoming in her heart, a kaleidoscopic flower.
Day after day, Cassandra looked into the weary faces of her patients as they sat across from her in her cramped office full of books, the ancient radiator hissing and clacking, and blinked rapidly against grim glimpses of the future, their future: their spouses would leave them, they would suffer illness, their children would abandon them. They would sicken and die. Watching as these events played out left her tearful and full of dread. She could not protect them. She could not even warn them. Each morning she lay awake, the covers pulled up to her chin, and waited for the trembling to subside. Her boyfriend—her “partner” she sometimes called him—seemed nervous. Cassandra didn’t tell him about the visions. Then, at the end of the month, he left her, something Cassandra had known he would do, but not because of a premonition: she had seen his things in boxes stacked at the back of the closet.
Cassandra was relieved that at least now she could go off the Pill. She’d wondered if the visions had something to do with a recent change in her birth control, if this were just some kind of hormonal malfunction. But the visions did not stop. If anything, they grew more frequent.
She went to see her gynecologist and sat on an examining table in a paper gown and spoke vaguely of being overly sensitive. She blushed and fiddled with her glasses.
Dr. Sternenberg seemed unfazed, not even looking at Cassandra as she scribbled in her file. “Give it some time. Your hormones will level out soon.”
Cassandra swiped surreptitiously at a tear that had gathered at the corner of her eye.
“It’ll pass,” Dr. Sternenberg said flatly.
Cassandra nodded. She had seen the doctor sitting naked in an examining room, attempting to preserve her dignity with erect posture, her lips set as she listened to a colleague explain why chemo was not an option.
Each day Cassandra awoke willing this to be the day the visions stopped and her life returned to normal, though “normal” was beginning to seem like a far-off, unknowable thing. She thought about seeing another doctor, but could not think of a way to describe her symptoms. At her temples appeared strands of gray, standing out against her unruly mass of dark hair.
In the meantime, the lives of her patients seemed weekly to grow more tragic. The urge to caution them kept Cassandra up at night, lying in bed jiggling her leg. A few times she grabbed her cell phone and selected a patient’s number. She let the phone ring once, twice, before she realized what she was doing and cut off the call. Cassandra took to drinking cheap wine while reading tawdry novels, though she had trouble focusing on the words. Soon, two glasses a night became a bottle. She woke up on her couch still wearing her clothes from the day before. Sometimes she left the window open and snowflakes drifted in.
When she did sleep, she dreamt of barren precipices of jagged rock, a few hardy shrubs growing out of the cracks, the wind the wailing of a woman in anguish, the sky cloudless, bluer than any sky she’d ever seen. There were never any people in these dreams. Even her own body was formless, a ghost.
The breaking point came when one patient, a middle-aged man with a carefully structured comb-over and pudgy hands he held in his lap, brightened for a moment during a discussion of his divorce.
“I think things are going to get better,” Ron said, his eyes peeping hopefully at Cassandra from behind his glasses.
She had seen Ron living in a grungy one-room apartment that smelled of bleach and burnt popcorn. His adolescent children shifted their weight in the doorway when they came to visit, not knowing on which shameful and embarrassing object to rest their gaze: the shabby, second-hand pull out sofa, the bare, grimy walls, the dishes filling the scuzzy sink, while their father cried, “Come in! Come in!” with too much cheerfulness. Soon, their mother would meet someone else and when the children begged out of visiting their father to spend time playing pool or riding jet skis with this other man instead, they would finally and forever break their father’s heart.
Cassandra burst into tears. Ron looked at her with alarm, offered her a tissue.
She decided to go on sabbatical. Cassandra called all of her patients and recommended colleagues they could see during her absence, an arrangement she knew might become permanent. “I’m sorry,” she repeated to each one. They would be better off without her, she reasoned. In the meantime, she began seeing a therapist of her own.
“Just your patients? Or others as well?” he asked when she described the visions. He shifted in his chair. He looked like a high school chemistry teacher, balding and plump and smarter than everyone else. Still, he was highly regarded by his peers. Our peers, Cassandra corrected herself.
“No, not just them.”
The therapist nodded and scribbled notes. There were files and files of notes in offices all over the city about her: her bank accounts, income tax, her uterus and teeth. Now her thoughts. And soon there would be more.
“And you’re sure that what you’ve predicted always comes true?”
She hesitated. “There are some I can’t confirm.” She could not bring herself to mutter, yes.
The therapist nodded continuously and took more notes, not looking at Cassandra.
“Well,” he said at the end of the session, “I think it might be a good idea to see a psychiatrist. I can give you a referral. You know Dr. Waldren? He’s very good.”
Cassandra said she would think about it. She went home and stood in front of the mirror in her bedroom and examined her reflection. Watched the eyes blink and stared at the mouth, the lips slightly parted, allowing air to escape. Cassandra noted the skin’s pallor, that the eyebrows were growing unruly. This face was not hers. It belonged to some other woman, someone jobless and alone and full of knowledge that wasn’t her own. Cassandra observed the face, watched the worry ripple across her expression. She was depersonalizing herself. That was not a good sign.
She spent the rest of the evening nursing a glass of wine and sewing buttons in odd places onto her clothes. Occasionally she pricked her finger.
Cassandra went to see the psychiatrist, who prescribed anti-psychotics after fifteen minutes. The drugs did not stop the visions, though they made her feel like a poorly stitched-together doll whose arms and legs were coming loose. She spent her days sleeping and staring listlessly at the television. She began but never finished magazine collages, the kind she had proudly displayed in her bedroom in high school. She made a mess with the glue. The living room floor was littered with slivers of paper. Cassandra took to leaving the window open all the time. She wrapped herself in blankets and watched the waltz and scuttle of the wind lifting the bits of paper here and there off the floor.
At her next appointment, Cassandra complained to Dr. Waldren about the side-effects of her medication. In response he asked if the visions had lessened or disappeared.
She had seen the psychiatrist in a hotel room, falling on his knees before a teenage patient, weeping and burying his face in the boy’s lap. The boy had dark, unwashed hair and pale eyes. He held his body like a fragile thing and he stared out the window, wincing as if the world were too much for him.
“No,” Cassandra whispered.
Dr. Waldren nodded his head. “I think we should up the dosage, just for a while, and see if it makes a difference. Yes, it will increase the side-effects, but it’s only temporary.” He smiled.
Cassandra took the prescription from him, folded it up into a square and tucked it in her purse.
She decided to walk home and avoid the subway. There were no patients waiting for her, no one pacing at home. Two white plastic bags scooted past her, hovering inches above the ground, then rose up in the wind, undulating like jellyfish. A man wearing several layers of sooty clothing and pushing an over-stuffed shopping cart walked parallel to her on the other side of the street. Occasionally, he turned his head to glare at her, as if he thought she was following him. Cassandra looked away, her heartbeat picking up.
“Hey!” the man called.
Cassandra kept walking.
“I see you!” he shouted. “I see you!”
Cassandra began to walk faster, her feet sliding over the icy sidewalk.
“Hey!” the man called again. She could hear the frantic rattling of his cart. “Hey!”
She slipped on a patch of black ice and fell backwards onto the concrete, striking her head. In the split second before her skull made contact with the earth, a vision electrified her brain, the image confused and distorted, too bright to see through, as if she were looking at the heart of the sun.
Cassandra awoke to darkness and the sound of steadily dripping water. Her first thought was that she had died and was in a tomb. She sat up, a bed of dead leaves and newspaper rustling beneath her.
“You ok?” a voice said.
Cassandra startled. She peered into the darkness. As her eyes adjusted, she made out a hunched figure sitting across from her, only the shape of the head clearly outlined, the rest obscured by the gloom. Suddenly, she remembered her walk home, the man calling to her. Her fall and the sudden, indecipherable vision. A throbbing pain in her head set in. She put a hand to her skull.
“Hurts, doesn’t it? Yeah, you fell pretty hard.”
The pain wrapped its arms around Cassandra.
“I need to go to the hospital.”
Hunched over, the man shuffled towards her, then squatted in front of her. She could make out his face now. The skin was ashen and scarred, dirt embedded in the lines crossing his forehead. His smell was overwhelming. “Listen,” he said, “can I give you some advice?”
Cassandra shook her head. His breath was rotten. But the man went on, “You don’t get to choose. These things come to you. From the past,” he moved his hands back and forth, miming airplanes. “They follow you. They follow you here, they follow you there. They follow you around, you know?”
“What things?” she murmured.
He smiled. His teeth were a brilliant white, a neat set of tightly packed stars. Cassandra was mesmerized by them. “From the gods,” he said.
Cassandra struggled to her feet, bracing herself against the cold, gritty wall behind her. “Which way?”
The man pointed his finger straight up.
She moved unsteadily, leaning against the wall, hunched over to avoid hitting her head on the low ceiling. She was in some kind of tunnel but she couldn’t tell if it was sewer or subway or something else. When Cassandra found her way outside, she squinted against the gray afternoon light. A Mac truck drove by and honked. This was an area she didn’t recognize, empty except for warehouses. Her purse was gone. Cassandra reached into her pocket for her phone, glad she hadn’t left it in her purse, and dialed 911.
At the hospital, Cassandra waited for hours. She told the nurse she had a head injury, but the woman eyed her suspiciously. Cassandra knew how she came across with no ID, no insurance card, her clothes streaked with dirt, her hair full of leaves. She smelled like piss and grime. She filled out endless pages of forms, pausing over questions about psychiatric treatment and the medications she was taking. In the end, she left those sections blank.
Hours later, the nurse set her up on a bed, leaving the curtains around her open. Her head throbbed, she felt nauseated and dizzy, her vision cloudy. Cassandra looked around the room at patients lying curled up under blankets, a doctor leaning over an old man, scribbling on a stack of paper held together with a clipboard. The room was too bright. The nausea intensified. Cassandra looked for something to throw up in. Why wasn’t there a basin, a cup, something? And then they hit her, splintered visions, countless frames fused together from different films never meant to be seen, the voices hissing, whispering, wailing all at once, creating a chorus of suffering that resounded within the hollows of her skull. Cassandra clutched her temple. She was screaming but she could not hear it. Sneakers squeaked against the floor in alarm, voices punctuated the din, making calm, measured statements. It was hell, she realized with sudden clarity. Hell—with all the voices of the damned—had entered her mind.
Cassandra awoke in a small room, an IV plugged into her arm. There was a curtain dividing her bed from another. She could hear heavy sleeping sounds coming from the other side.
She lay still for a moment, wondering how long she had been there, waiting for another attack. After a little while, she fell back asleep. When she woke up again, a young doctor was at the foot of her bed, making notes on her chart.
“Hello, Cassandra. How are you feeling?”
“I’m… I’m ok. Better, thank you.”
“Cassandra, you’ve suffered from a moderate traumatic brain injury.” The doctor was still writing and didn’t look at her as he spoke. She pondered how the words “moderate” and “traumatic” could follow each other in a sentence.
“Are you taking any medications?”
“No, I… I just got off the Pill.” Cassandra hesitated, wondering if she should tell him about the anti-psychotics, then decided it didn’t matter. She wasn’t going to take those anymore. “Can I leave soon?”
“Yes, you’ll be released today. Is there someone we can call for you, someone who can come get you?”
Cassandra shook her head. She felt tears welling up and struggled to suppress them.
The doctor paused and looked her in the face for the first time. “We’ll call you a cab, then.”
She got out of the taxi in front of her building, then labored up the stairs. When Cassandra entered her apartment, she found it in disarray: papers strewn everywhere, the coffee table covered with dirty plates and empty bottles of wine. She retrieved the wastebasket from the kitchen and began to fill it with all the plates, papers, and bottles—anything that was out of place. She straightened the cushions on the couch, shut the windows and turned the radiator up. Then she took a hot shower.
The next morning, Cassandra opened her eyes to a vision. In it, she saw a man she recognized but could not place diving into a pool as a woman stood by, shrieking. The man pulled a child out of the water and laid him on the ground, water streaming off his body. He pumped the boy’s chest, counting aloud to himself breathlessly. He leaned over, forced air into the child’s mouth, but the boy did not move. His lips were blue. The mother began to scream, clawing at her face and her breast, ripping out strands of her own hair. The man did not stop, not until the paramedics came and one of them pulled him back, restraining him as the other examined the body with great reverence, like a priest performing the rituals of death.
It was then, as the man finally collapsed against the chest of the paramedic who held him, the mother still screaming, that Cassandra realized who he was.
When it was over, she got up, dressed herself and headed back to the hospital. She told the nurse at reception that she was looking for the young doctor who’d come to her room, she’d forgotten his name. In fact, he had never given it to her. The nurse looked Cassandra over and frowned as she lifted the phone to her ear and slowly punched in a few numbers. “Rita, is Doctor Miller around? There’s a patient he treated yesterday here to see him.”
The nurse hung up the phone. “He’s attending patients. You’ll have to wait.”
Cassandra nodded and reclaimed her seat. She had planned on waiting. She shifted nervously in her chair, her eyes darting around the room, her foot ticking side-to-side. The people around her sat unmoving, their heads cocked to one side, mouths open, eyes fixed on the TV like lost souls waiting patiently to be claimed. Some slowly turned to look at her, their eyes narrowing, as if they could tell that she was not one of them. Cassandra crossed and uncrossed her legs, squeezed her hands together in her lap and stared at the floor.
Hours later, the nurse finally beckoned to her. The doctor was there on the other side, talking to the nurses at their desk as he scribbled on a note pad. “That’s how I want it done,” he said as Cassandra approached. He turned to her. His expression betrayed no recognition.
“You’re the patient who wanted to speak to me? Is this a legal issue?”
“No, no.” Cassandra took a step closer to him. “I have to tell you something. You’re gonna think this sounds crazy but, I saw you.”
“Yes, you saw me yesterday according to your chart.”
“No, I saw you in a… You were trying to save a boy from drowning,” she added quickly, blushing.
The doctor stared at Cassandra.
“Do you have a son?” she went on. “Or a nephew? He looked to be about seven or eight. Dark hair.”
The doctor sucked in his lips as he continued looking her over. After a moment, he shook his head and approached the nurses’ station, turning his back to Cassandra. “Someone get Psychiatrics.”
“He’s your son, isn’t he?” she cried.
The doctor turned to her. “Ma’am, we’re getting you some help, ok?”
The nurses exchanged glances. One of them picked up the phone and began dialing.
Cassandra turned and hurried back to the waiting room. “Hey!” someone called out after her, but she kept going, pushing her way through the double doors and then out of the building. She ran till she reached the street, then quickly merged with a crowd bustling along on the sidewalk. As she walked on, she turned now and then to see if anyone was following her.
Cassandra reached her apartment, locked the door and began pacing the living room. Finally, she sat down on the couch and stared at the tomes lining her bookshelves, studying their colors and shapes. Twice she picked up the phone, then held it as if it were an unfamiliar object.
Night fell. Cassandra listened to the coming-home sounds of her neighbors: shuffling and coughing, doors opening, the rustling of grocery bags, the turning-on of televisions. Looking out the window, she noted it had begun to snow.
That night she dreamt of the roar of the ocean and a stone city burning, the tremendous fortress crumbling into the sea. Proud, towering idols tumbled down from on high and smashed to bits on the rocks.
In the morning, Cassandra stripped off her nightclothes, then wrapped herself in a sheet. She walked out of the apartment, leaving the door open behind her, and went up to the roof. The air smelled of snow. She looked out at the uneven line of buildings. They were monstrous, things the Earth had vomited up, each one packed tight with human misery. She walked to the edge of the roof. Her toes were blue. She sat down, then swung her legs over the edge.
People were rushing this way and that on the sidewalk below, all of them looking straight ahead.
A balding, grizzled man with his hands stuffed in the pockets of his soiled coat glanced up at her. He continued walking, then stopped to look up again. Cassandra peered down at him. Even from a distance, the man’s face looked dirty and unshaven. He pointed up. Not at her, but at the sky. Other pedestrians continued to move past. He said something she couldn’t hear, continued pointing excitedly, punctuating the air.
“What?” she cried out, though he couldn’t hear her. She started to scream. “What?” She stood up. A gust of wind tore the sheet from her body. The man saw it, his finger straying after it. Naked, Cassandra watched the sheet flash across the gray sky-scape, a tear of white, like an optical illusion—or a miracle—falling from heaven.
She thought that driving should be private, like dreams. But now the dark form of Marcus was hunched next to her in the passenger seat as they fled down the fast lane into the monochrome remnants of sunset. The drone of tires on tarmac threatened to drown his voice, as did the radio, which she turned up with the controls on her steering wheel stalk. Not realising, he leaned forward and turned it down with the button on the dashboard.
‘What are we arguing about, Sonya?’ he asked. ‘I said I was OK with it.’
‘We’re not arguing.’
‘Yes we are.’
‘I suppose you think that’s funny.’
The seat belt cut across her belly. After only a few weeks, she felt unnaturally bloated, hard and tight, stuffed like a turkey.
She loved to drive, loved the remorselessness of the hard black roads and the clarity of the reflective blue signs. Rain came now in large drops, noiseless despite their speed, and she found the fast sweep of the windscreen wipers as lovely as a blackbird’s wings. She just wanted to drive and keep driving and not listen.
‘You’re so pleased with yourself, but any fool can get pregnant,’ he said.
‘You do mind.’
‘I mind that you’re about to tell him he’s the father when he doesn’t deserve it.’
‘But he is the father. It wasn’t an accident, Marcus. I suggested it, and he agreed.’
With her eyes watching the wet road, trying to make out the lanes in all the reflected light, she reached out her hand and touched his leg.
‘I don’t know why you feel you have to come. You don’t have to do any of this, Marcus. He’ll think it’s bizarre. And I’m fine on my own. Really.’
She preferred to drive alone, late at night, with fewer cars to collide with. She especially liked driving through lit tunnels, the red taillight reflections smeared against shining white tiles. Something about that lonely crushing architecture reminded her of airports, bridges, and other massive feats of engineering. She hadn’t found it so easy to get pregnant, actually.
He raised his voice above the engine whine. ‘You think in some dark corner of your mind that you’ll be with him. As usual, he wants all your devotion, but offers no real relationship in return. From what you say he wants the child too, and still you won’t ask him for money or support. He probably never expected it to actually happen. You don’t see it yet.’
‘I don’t need his money. And I don’t want to upset anyone.’
He sighed. ‘You don’t want to upset his preferred girlfriend, you mean. You know, Sonya, a kiss-and-tell slapper is more deserving of respect than all your classy, noble, self-sacrificing priggishness.’
She smelled roasting coffee, one of the odd motorway smells that flooded the car occasionally in the darkness – between the usual whiffs of fertilizer or grass. At different spots she detected odors of corrupted food like burning chocolate cake or boiling, sulphurous ham. They enchanted her like the freak weather changes she drove through, the sudden clattering of rain on the windshield, crunchy hailstorms and lightning flashes. Listening to the radio in the dark, she felt part of some weird mobile nocturnal community, never lonely.
‘I sometimes think that too,’ she said.
‘Think of the child,’ he hammered on. ‘When he has children with her, yours will be his second division child. It will always miss him, wonder when it will see him again, and what it did to drive him away.’
‘Whereas, you’d be here always.’
‘I would. I would.’
They stopped at a windy, deserted service station. The petrol pump chugged slowly and horizontal raindrops stung her face. Piped carols played as she walked into the Londis supermarket area to pay. A smart greyhound with black and tan striped markings trotted up and down between the windshield washer fluids and synthetic oils. She dawdled over the long-life sausage sandwiches before deciding she wasn’t that desperate. She thought about what her good friend had said. Of course he was right, but there was just a chance he wasn’t. The greyhound ran up, ears back, and scanned her face, then skidded away when a few other people came inside.
When she paid for her petrol, the cashier’s expression seemed tense.
‘That’s a beautiful dog,’ she said when she entered her PIN. The dog darted past again, looking for something, its nails clicking against the floor and its mouth gaping open to show soft pink edges.
The cashier’s head jerked up and he looked at her for the first time. ‘Not yours, is it?’
‘No,’ she said, and glanced at the greyhound again, at its smooth glossy coat, arched rib cage and restless eyes. Collarless, it paced the aisles, panting and searching. She wondered if she should take it with her and look after it until someone came forward.
On her way out she approached the dog, knowing this was a mistake. ‘Here, boy,’ she said, kneeling down. It pattered up to her and pushed her arm with its long nose, making quiet whining noises. She stroked the warm neck, as smooth as suede. It sat down and pressed itself into her quilted coat, quivering.
Marcus would probably lose patience if she now came back to the car with a stray dog in tow, on top of everything else. She stood up, and put her hand on the animal’s hot head. ‘Goodbye then, dog.’ The shining almond eyes looked into hers with the calm acceptance of a Renaissance Madonna. She thought the greyhound might try to follow her but when she walked to the door it trotted in the other direction, checking faces again.
It wasn’t until they left the spur road to rejoin a stream of cars that she realised greyhounds don’t just walk into service station shops. Someone must have driven the dog there and dumped it. And that was the person the dog was searching for.