I Don't Even Trust Me
I wonder when it began.
I’m burning cigarettes in the dark, filling the place with smoke and staring, listening, and feeling my eyes adjust. I can see more clearly in the dark. I think I always have, just never had occasion to notice before. Taking a sip of my highball I marvel at how clearly the ice clinks, ringing through the dark room, like dense bizarre music I can't quite understand. It joins with everything else perfectly, a symphony of noise solely for me.
Uselessness and pity and carefully I place my glass back on the desk, it has to go exactly onto the same stain, concentric circles would ruin the sharp angles that soothe me. I let my fingers trace the grain of the wood, feeling it rub against the pits and valleys of my fingerprints. I can hear the scraping and made a rhythm of it. Below that, my burning cigarette’s like a forest fire, with every mote of dust hitting the floor, an explosion mixed with the screams of billions of dust mites and other tiny bugs.
A new smell drives such dim thoughts from my mind: Andrea’s here again, with her slightly apple scent and tireless chatter. She’s speaking, as she always does, and I’m nodding, the motion of my head creating eddies in the air and moving her scent around erratically. It clings like heavy smoke.
She moves near me and I can feel her breath against me, her slight heat. Her voice is masking all the other noise, the symphony I'd been enjoying, but I stare at my cigarette and concentrate, and I can just hear the forest fire, serene and constant, battling her apple-smell and painful voice, which gets louder and louder until I realize with a start that she’s shouting and I feel rude. Before I can do anything about it, however, she grabs my chin and twists my head until I’m looking at her.
I’m amazed at how she's changed, all points and shadows where there had been depth and detail, an occasional smile. The lines of her new face are deep and complex as they work together and I realize with a start that they’re really one line, wound around her features like a Mobius strip. I forget to pick her words out of the cacophony and just study the line, seeking its beginning. I was very close to deciphering it all when she pushes me away, turning her back on me, and there it is, tracing the path of her spine, a spider-silk thread-like crease which creeps from her hair. I wonder if it would come loose if I pulled, if I could then tug gently and unravel her.
Then she’s gone, and I have no idea how long she's been gone.
In the middle of our conversation, Andrea paused for breath, and I got lost listening to the waiters whispering. I'd been drifting in and out all day, trying to pay attention but the waiters were whispering like burning paper about the soup of the day, Manhattan Clam Chowder. No one had ordered it all day and no one knew why. The chef was in tears over the vats of soup in the kitchen, he’d refused to cook anything else and the orders were piling up. The patrons were getting angry and a waiter had been attacked brutally over at table 23.
A bold plan was hatched. As the waiters went on break, they prowled into the kitchen one by one and consumed as much soup as they could. Then they pretended the soup had been ordered. The chef was calming when a new crisis erupted: one by one the waiters were coming down with food poisoning.
Our lunch arrived. I hadn't heard anything Andrea said. The plates and trays filled me with dread as they arrived, as they were set upon the table and gleamed at us with portent and danger. The idea that they may have been poisoned as well, that everything in the place might have been, can't be ignored. Out of the corners of my eyes (which I kept trained on Andrea, as she was talking again) I could see the waiters dropping in sickness, their fellows scuttling forward to drag them out of the way, back into the kitchen. Grimly, I stared at Andrea. She was eating her salad.
Around us, people began to cry out, clutching their abdomens, falling from their seats. They’re being poisoned; they're all dying, and Andrea had yet to breathe. I gripped the arms of my chair until my knuckles are white and numb.
The last waiter, pale, shaking, near death, crawled from the kitchen in a fury of puke and blood. He made it on all fours to the erasable marker board that lists all the specials, reached up carefully, and wiped the Manhattan Clam Chowder off the board.
The restaurant grew quiet as table after table became too weak to moan or shout, and Andrea's voice swam back. "You're not eating." I think she said.
"I'm too young to die." I think I replied.
"I think they're making the coffee with urine these days."
I was tapping my keyboard randomly, filling the screen with soothing gibberish while they made small talk. I laughed at everything, because invariably small talk is meant to be humorous. I wished the phone would ring, since that usually made them walk away. They didn't bother me, really, but they distracted.
Tap, tap, tap.
"Is it five o'clock yet? I think Tuesdays have seventy minutes in each hour."
I nodded and giggled, maybe for too long. The letters were starting to come together and make sense. I had a theory, one that went with the infinite monkeys thing, that if I typed randomly long enough, the letters would come to make sense, and I suspected the sense it would make would be startling.
"Boy, you look busy. Where'd you learn to type so fast?"
Every time I felt close to my discovery, someone pestered me with some inane curiosity, the phrases and sounds and breaths of vapid, endless stretches of self-contained entropy, tugging at me. The truth, embedded in the random letters on my screen, was trying to catch my attention and these little black holes were pulling me, turning me, getting me lost.
"If I quit and start my own company, will you work for me?"
I mumbled and murmured and they went away, and when I looked back at the screen my eyes caught the word, buried amidst the chaos: listen. I stopped typing and leaned back in my chair. "That's what I've been trying to do." I said to myself.
I'd been riding the subway all day with my briefcase, reading other people's newspapers and listening to the rustling of the paper. I'd been riding the subways ever since I'd been fired. It was peaceful. The newspapers were like wind in the grass.
The amazing thing was, all day I read other people's newspapers, ones I found, ones I read over their shoulders, and every one of them was different; every one of them had different headlines, different stories, photos, and scores. I'd always suspected it would come to this: there was too much news for one regular newspaper. There had to be dozens. And it was impossible to find out about it all in just an hour, over coffee - it took all day to read it all. Any less and you weren't informed. I thought someone ought to be informed.
"Do you mind?" From what seemed a great distance, the person next to me spoke. It had been days since I'd heard anyone's voice, and I looked up from the newspaper in surprise. "That's very rude."
I studied the headlines sitting across from me instead for a while. When my neighbor left, he left his paper behind. I didn't understand people any more.
Everyone seemed to be talking at once, so I stirred my Manhattan and tried to remember what I'd been thinking of earlier in the day, before I'd been interrupted. The bar was filled with smoke and voices. Some of the smoke was mine, but none of the words that swam around belonged to me.
I turned to Alec. "What?"
He said something about the bar being too crowded with guys like us, trolling for chicks. I replied that I wasn't trolling for chicks, I was drinking myself into an early grave. Alec laughed and told me the bar was too crowded with those, too.
My drink was bitter and warm and I was drinking it too slowly, so I took a big gulp and studied my shoes, which were brown and too tight and scuffed.
I wondered if the people I met ever looked at my shoes, and what conclusions they reached. For a moment, I thought perhaps that had been what I'd been thinking of earlier...no, something quite like it, though, something...
I glanced at Sharon. "I'm sorry?"
"Why are you hiding your gorgeous self over here, baby?"
I told her I wasn't hiding.
"You're brooding, all alone. Is everything okay?"
I told her I was just trying to remember something, and that remembering required peace, sometimes. After a few moments I realized she had left me alone.
I knew what I'd been thinking of before had nothing to do with Sharon -or with anyone, for that matter. It danced on the edges of my thoughts carelessly, always out of reach. The more I concentrated on it, the filmier it became. I became engrossed in my cocktail, and I wondered who had invented it, who had come across this particular combination of unnaturally occurring liquids.
Hours later, Sharon was next to me again. "What?" I said.
"I said, quit staring at your drink and start staring at me."
For a moment the words didn't make sense, and then they fell into place. "Stare, yeah!" I sat up, suddenly animated. "That's it!"
She said something, but I was already moving.
"You know, Bobby, you haven't been yourself lately, you drift. Is there something you want to talk about? Sometimes, lying in bed at night with the quiet and the moonlight is the best time to open up and talk. It's so peaceful, as if we're the only people in the world right now, you know?"
In the dark, the ceiling was a mottled gray, undulating with each breeze through the tree outside. Little societies of shadows formed and split, died and evolved, little revolutions of moonlight.
Next to me, Andrea was talking. "What do you think about Costa Rica this summer? Francine went last year and hasn't been able to stop talking about it. I was thinking we could get a really cheap flight if we planned this far ahead, you know? Do you think you could get two weeks off in June? It would be lovely, we could drink Margaritas and make love on the beach.”
The drapes were billowing into the room, pregnant from the wind for a moment and then retreating to hang limp. They made soft, velvety sounds as they moved. Every time they moved inward, the shadows on the ceiling shrank away in fear, crowding back towards the back of the room. Then, it seemed, they would be inspired with foolish bravery and they'd swell outward, like a crowd of people breaking through barriers, and the drapes would deflate, the New World Order defeated. When the shadows shrank, I imagined I could hear them scream.
"Don't forget the Rogers' party on Saturday. I know you think Tom is a drip, you've said as much, but Carol is a good friend of mine so we can make an appearance. We won't stay long if you don't want to - I could use a sleepy weekend too, actually.” Andrea was warm, she was glowing with the perfumed heat next to me and the shadows crawled away from her, and I resented her for it.
I was glad to be at the funeral. At least everybody shut up for a while. I was listening to the rain as it drummed on the casket and I kept starting a thought: I can't believe it's raining it's such a cliche and then losing track of it. The priest was droning and Andrea was crying and my feet were wet, but I didn't mind. It was as close to silence as I'd been in what seemed like years.
Feeling as if I wasn't really there, I wondered about Andrea's cousin Fred, who was the honoree at this particular burial. I pictured him in the bed of satin, comfortable in his favorite suit, in the darkness, in the silence. Under all the world, and the wood, and the padding I imagined it was cool and quiet. Especially quiet.
These thoughts soothed me so when we were walking to the car after all the histrionics and tears and dead flowers I wasn't annoyed when Andrea began to talk again. She was just venting at first, anyway, so I could just let it flow over me, the nasal quality of her voice. I was used to it, so it had a certain soothing quality of its own.
Eventually, however, I realized she wasn't giving up. She kept talking and talking. "Do you mind if we don't go home right away?" she asked.
So I had to keep talking and talking. "Where do you want to go?"
"I don't care. Let's get a drink or some coffee or dinner, whatever. I'm just sad. I want to talk for a little while before we go home."
I chose not to mention my opinion, which was that we could talk just as well at home. Instead, I suggested O'Mally's for a cocktail. Once we had decided where to sit and talk, she shut up and stared out of the window.
I listened to the car. My timing belt was going and the bird-like whir was weaving in and out of the squeaking shocks and the purring engine, and I noticed when I hit the brakes a new squeal insinuated itself into the mix. Whenever I got bored I hit the brakes to liven things up.
Later on, she began to talk again, and I would hit the brakes, playfully, to drown her out.
I was shaking his hand and smiling, praying that he would exhaust his drunken self and leave.
"Really first class party, man. Had a great time. We really ought to do this more often." He was saying, clutching my hand and looking me in the eye.
"Really first class party."
My hand ached, crushed within his over-served paw, squeezed ruthlessly. He kept saying it, over and over again, pumping my hand endlessly, his eyes holding mine. "We really ought to do this more often."
I was ready to fall asleep where I stood, I was full of beer and bullshit, and Andrea was asleep on the couch and I ought to help her upstairs. He just kept shaking my hand. "A really first class party, man. Had a great time. We really ought to do this more often."
I stared at him. I heard what he'd said. But I didn't know what he was saying.
The radio was broken in my car. Andrea's Paul McCartney tape had become jammed in there and my choice was "Take It Away" over and over again or silence. When I chose silence, I could hear Andrea breathing through her nose. After a few minutes of that, I put "Take It Away" back on.
I kept turning it up a little louder and then a little louder, trying to drown her out. When she finally woke up, I pretended I was singing along and really enjoying it.
I was eating lunch and reading the paper and in the background Andrea was on the phone with some old college friend, her hyena-like laugh cutting through the air from time to time, and every time I heard it I lost my place and had to start again. My ham on rye sat untouched, a distraction.
After a while, I found myself staring out the window, waiting for her laugh.
"I wish you wouldn't play that crap so loud." she said in irritation.
"I knew the bride when she used to rock and roll." I said hopefully.
"Just please turn it down. I swear to god you're getting downright dense."
I flicked my eyes at her and grit my teeth. "Shut up." I muttered. "Just shut up."