I had survived by passing as unnoticed as possible, by anticipating the next move against me, by being prepared when the shit hit the fan to take it in my stride, pretending not to be hurt or humiliated. I had learned early that silence is better than sycophancy, that silence breeds guilt in other people. That it is fun to persecute a pig because it squeals, no fun at all to persecute an animal which does not cry out.
I didn’t know then that what seemed like the end was only the beginning. All children are flotsam driven by the ebb and flow of adult lives. Unbeknownst to me the tide had turned and I was being swept out to sea.
Peter comes home and sits down at the table next to Kira. They don’t know if they will ever stop feeling ashamed that they were forced to give up. How can anyone lose like this without dying? How does anyone go to bed at night, how do they get up in the morning?
All adults have days when we feel completely drained. When we no longer know quite what we spend so much time fighting for, when reality and everyday worries overwhelm us and we wonder how much longer we’re going to be able to carry on. The wonderful thing is that we can all live through far more days like that without breaking than we think. The terrible thing is that we never know exactly how many.
Some people are lucky this way: Your life splits into hundreds of hallways, and you can briefly grasp all the lives you’ve had and all the people you’ve been even in your short span on this earth. You can see the infinite, never-ending math equation of it, and you realize that any way you tried to tell your life story would be wrong. You weren’t even one person! You aren’t even one person, even now, as you
Sometimes Jill would say, that seems reasonable. Sometimes she would say, that doesn’t really make sense. And that had been my guidepost for the better part of my life. Now there was no one to tell me the difference, and so my thoughts bobbed uncertainly as Aqil drove.
Standing there in the doorway, gaping at the television, spooning ice cream into my mouth, I felt more than ever that I was not one person. I was the awkwardly shuffling, distracted dad that the boys may have vaguely noticed as he opened the freezer and rummaged; I was the kind of fussy, self-involved husband who pestered his dying wife with petty issues about his work life, until she had to beg him: Please. I can’t; I was the kind of man who would sit by your bedside and feed you ice chips from a spoon; I was also the one who thought that the ending didn’t have to be so grim, if only you tried harder. If only you’d be less pessimistic.
What happened to us?
It was a question that interested her. Most people seemed to believe that they were experts of their own life story. They had a set of memories that they strung like beads, and this necklace told a sensible tale. But she suspected that most of these stories would fall apart under strict examination—that, in fact, we were only peeping through a keyhole of our lives, and the majority of the truth, the reality of what happened to us, was hidden. Memories were no more solid than dreams.
So I unaffixed myself from the mattress and put on some sweats but I couldn’t shake this feeling of shitty unfriendliness. There was the distribution of wrapped packages, the forced jollity, the desperation of a widower trying to make “family memories.” I couldn’t stand it. I was thinking like, Oh, a book. Oh, a cheap video game. Oh, a sweater I will never wear. Thank you. May I go now?
And yet you’ll still feel this weird pinch of tenderness toward him. It was his dream to have sons who adored him, to be the fabled Good Dad, to be sweet and kind and wise, to be your buddy in your time of need, and you feel a twinge of compassion but combined with the urge to flee, to put as much distance between the two of you as possible.
My dad didn’t know this, of course. He doled out money for “books” and “expenses” without even blinking an eye—I guess he’d gotten some money from my mom’s insurance—and honestly the majority of our conversations involved him opening up his wallet and handing me some cash. Sometimes he would pop up and attempt an amateurish performance of a dad—he would go off on some digression about how constellations aren’t real, or how kale is really good for you, or how he wished we would have gone camping more when I was little. Did I want to go camping? Or he would lay some wisdom on me, Sufi wisdom, he said, which seemed completely random and impenetrable. Then he’d roam off, trailing his wisps of positivity through the house. Mostly we avoided each other successfully.
The occasional embrace, a head leaned for just a moment on your shoulder, when what you really wanted more than anything was to press them to you and hold them so tight you fused together and could never be taken apart. It was like training yourself to live on the smell of an apple alone, when what you really wanted was to devour it, to sink your teeth into it and consume it, seeds, core, and all.
“It terrifies you. That you missed out on something. That you gave up something you didn’t know you wanted.” A sharp, pitying smile pinched the corners of her lips. “What was it? Was it a boy? Was it a vocation? Or was it a whole life?”
While they wished to look out for each other, and to keep tabs on each other, staying in touch took a toll on them, serving as an unsettling reminder of a life not lived, and also they grew less worried each for the other, less worried that the other would need them to be happy, and eventually a month went by without any contact, and then a year, and then a lifetime.
His life, he thought, was a collection of the usual stuff: driving to and from work, listening to the radio, checking and answering his steadily accumulating email, shopping at the supermarket, and watching select highly regarded shows on television and reading a few books that had been well-reviewed and helping the boys with their homework, details that were—he was increasingly aware—units of measurement by which he was parceling out his life.
Back then I didn’t realize how Michael noticed and didn’t notice, how sometimes he saw me and then, whole days and weeks, he didn’t. How in that moment, I didn’t matter.
It was not that cinemas and bookshops, restaurants and cafés had vanished from the city, just that many of those that had been there before were there no longer.
The town wakes early, like it does every day; small towns need a head start if they’re going to have any chance in the world. The rows of cars in the parking lot outside the factory are already covered with snow; people are standing in silent lines with their eyes half-open and their minds half-closed, waiting for their electronic punch cards to verify their existence to the clocking-in machine. They stamp the slush off their boots with autopilot eyes and answering-machine voices while they wait for their drug of choice—caffeine or nicotine or sugar—to kick in and render their bodies at least tolerably functional until the first break.
And now here she was telling him it was over. “Why?” he asked. He taught ideas of nuance and complexity in his classes and yet he was asking for a single reason, the cause. But she had not had a bold epiphany and there was no cause; it was simply that layer after layer of discontent had settled in her, and formed a mass that now propelled her. She did not tell him this, because it would hurt him to know she had felt that way for a while, that her relationship with him was like being content in a house but always sitting by the window and looking out.
The second month at Camp Paradise was the month of the empty bed. The bare mattress on the metal springs to the right of where Ferguson continued to sleep, the bed of the now absent Noah, and every day Ferguson asked himself if they would ever see each other again. Cousins for a year and a half, and now cousins no more. an aunt who had married an uncle, and now married no more, with the uncle living on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, where he could no longer be with his boy. Everything solid for a time, and then the sun comes up one morning and the world begins to melt.
There was no question that Uncle Don could be more loquacious than his father, funnier than his father, more interesting than his father, but only when he wanted to be, and now that Ferguson had come to know him as well as he did, he saw how often he seemed to look straight through Aunt Mildred when she talked to him, as if he were searching for something behind her back, not able to hear her because he was thinking about something else, which was not unlike how his father often looked at his mother now, more and more often now, the glazed-over look of a man unable to see anything but the thoughts inside his own head, a man who was there but not there, gone.
When I talk to Mother, she looks vaguely at someone else,
as though they were the speaker.
But she gets jealous and sarcastic
if two people talk and don’t include her.
What I do is: talk to another person but look at her.
She is making converts to her ways.
It was boredom that had driven her to drugs and crime: and in her case, the crime had not been wholly in pursuit of the drugs, it had been embraced for its own sake. For thrills, for excitement, for a sense of being alive, for a momentary freedom from the tyranny of time. ‘All my childhood,’ Jilly had told Alix, ‘I sat with my eyes on the clock, waiting for things to be over. Waiting for time to pass. Bored? I thought I’d die. I thought I’d die of boredom. And I mean die. I thought I’d just stop breathing, at the dinner table, in front of telly, in school prayers, in lessons. I used to play these games with myself — that I mustn’t look at my watch or at the clock until I’d counted three hundred backwards, until my father had cleared his throat three times, until a cloud edged across the window pane, until the history teacher blew her nose — and then I’d look, and only a poxy five minutes would have passed. Five miserable minutes, out of a lifetime. And it just seemed so stupid — wrong, stupid — to spend the rest of my life waiting for time to pass. Glad when every day was over. Sorry when I woke up every morning. Relieved whenever a minute passed without my counting it out, second by second. What was wrong with me? I don’t know. When I was high, time flew. And it was even better, breaking into the chemist’s, breaking into corner shops. The excitement. Planning what to go for. Hiding in the dark. Listening out. Hearing one’s heart beat. You know what I mean?
She crosses to the sink, pours away her unwanted cup of instant coffee, washes the cup, washes a foil milk bottle top, puts her foot on the pedal bin, opens it, drops in the foil top, gazes absently for a moment at an empty egg box, an empty tomato tin, the scrapings of last night’s spaghetti, some apple peel, some kitchen roll, a browning lettuce leaf, a cigarette carton, a tonic bottle. She wishes they would not throw tonic bottles in the pedal bin: she likes to take them to the newly-provided Bottle Bank. She thinks of rescuing it, but does not. I don’t want to get too like Ma, she repeats to herself: but even as she rehearses these words, a strange, perverse, numbing respect for her mother seeps through her: how she has persisted, her mother, in being what she is, how stubbornly she has refused to divert herself with trivia, how bleakly and boldly she has stared over the years into the heart of nothingness. For it is trivial, it is all trivial, coffee mornings, eating, drinking, the National Theatre, shopping outings, reading books, embroidery, evening classes, country walks, wiping surfaces, emptying waste-paper baskets, Bond Street, Regent’s Park, saving bottles for the Bottle Bank, gardening, telephone calls, listening to the radio, Terry Wogan, going to the hairdresser, chatting to the window cleaner, giving small donations to Oxfam, throwing away silver foil, collecting silver foil, cleaning the bath. It is nothing, all of it. Sex and small children had provided a brief purpose, the energy they generated had made sense of the world for a while, had forged a pattern, a community: clinics, playgrounds, parks, nursery groups, mothers waiting at the school gate: and now: nothing. An idle flutter of garbage over an empty pavement. Coldness, nothingness, grips Shirley as she stands in her kitchen. She knows herself to be biologically dead. Her spirit shudders: she has seen a vision, of waste matter, of meaningless after-life, of refuse, of decay. An egg box and a tin can in blue and white plastic pedal bin. So might one stand forever. She lifts her foot. The lid drops.
Alix was, at this stage, perhaps perversely, perhaps naturally, attracted by poverty. It seemed to her less alarming than it had seemed to her parents. She got on speaking terms with it. She discovered the art of sinking. She sank. Not very deep, but she sank.
They did not know then, were not to know for many years, were never fully to understand what it was that held them together — a sense of being on the margins of English life, perhaps, a sense of being outsiders, looking in from a cold street through a lighted window into a warm lit room that later might prove to be their own?
As the front door closed behind her, Clara bit her own lip once more, this time in frustration and anger. Why had she said Captain Charlie Durham [was where she got her brains]? That was a downright lie. False as her own white teeth. Clara was smarter than Captain Charlie Curham. Hortense was smarter than Captain Charlie Durham. Probably even Grandma Ambrosia was smarter than Captain Charlie Durham. Captain Charlie Durham wasn’t smart. He had thought he was, but he wasn’t. He sacrificed a thousand people because he wanted to save one woman he never really knew. Captain Charlie Durham was a no-good djam fool bwoy.
Irie studied a small slice of the Chalfen family tree, an elaborate illustrated oak that stretched back to the 1600s and forward into the present day. The differences between the Chalfens and the Jones/Bowdens were immediately plain. For starters, in the Chalfen family everybody seemed to have a normal number of children. More to the point, everybody knew whose children were whose. The men lived longer than the women. The marriages were singular and log-lasting. Dates of birth and death were concrete. And the Chalfens actually knew who they were in 1675. Archie Jones could give no longer record of his family than his father’s own haphazard appearance on the planet in the back room of a Bromley public house circa 1895 or 1896 or quite possibly 1897, depending on which nonagenarian ex-barmaid you spoke to. Clara Bowden knew a little about her grandmother, and half-believed the story that her famed and prolific Uncle P. had thirty-four children, but could only state definitively that her own mother was born at 2:45 P.M. on January 14, 1907, in a Catholic church in the middle of the Kingston earthquake. The rest was rumor, folktale and myth.
“Where I come from,” said Archie, “a bloke likes to get to know a girl before he marries her.”
“Where you come from it is customary to boil vegetables until they fall apart. This does not mean,” said Samad tersely, “that it is a good idea.”
He thought of his wife, Alsana, who was not as meek as he had assumed when they married, to whom he must deliver the bad news; Alsana, who was prone to moments, even fits—yes, fits was not too strong a word—of rage. Cousins, aunts, brothers thought it a bad sign, they worried if there wasn’t some “funny mental history” in Alsana’s family, they sympathized with him the way you sympathize with a man who has bought a stolen car with more mileage on it than first thought.
This is worse than the Matterhorn, were you ever on the Matterhorn, Miss Fitt, great honeymoon resort.
Corinne had begun to cry silently, in that way that Marianne recalled for the first time in years: a mother’s crying, stifled, soundless, secret so as to not disturb. If you cried so others could hear you were crying to be head but a mother’s crying was just the opposite, crying not to be heard.
They say the youngest kid of a family doesn’t remember himself very clearly because he has learned to rely on the memories of others, who are older and thus possess authority. Where his memory conflicts with theirs, it’s discarded as of little worth. What he believes to be his memory is more accurately described as a rag-bin of others’ memories, their overlapping testimonies of things that happened before his birth, including him. so it wasn’t a smart-ass remark, I don’t know what I know. It was just the truth.
The terrifying possibility came to Patrick: our lives are not our own but in the possession of others, our parents. Our lives are defined by the whims, caprices, cruelties of others. That genetic web, the ties of blood. It was the oldest curse, older than God. Am I loved? Am I wanted? Who will want me, if my parents don’t?
So Corinne was a new mother: slightly touched by new-mother craziness. She hoped to dignify herself by commenting sagely to the doctor (always, you want to impress them: men of authority) about “the sucking reflex”—“the bonding instinct”—and similar clinical-anthropological phenomena. She wanted to impress this man she hardly knew, she’d been a college student after all, even if she was only at Fredonia State, and she’d dropped out between her junior and senior years to get married.
What neither of them said was that when you plan to retire, to get to the country of perpetual relaxation, and you start travelling there and eventually arrive you may find you have picked up a perpetual sense of despair and a feeling of timelessness that is not merely the abandoning of timetables and not the grand eternity ‘pinnacled dim in the intense inane’, but a prospect of desert, of fruitlessness from which death begins to appear, enticingly, as the last springtime.
Have you sensed the nothingness of my nature, that I am as empty as the carriages of the trains that pass, dusty, used, in the morning sun? A novelist must be that way, I think, and not complain of it, otherwise how shall the characters accommodate themselves in his mind?
What a dreary life an author’s life is, I thought.
“…And now she’s going to die, and there’ll be nothing left.” (the voice stopping suddenly breaking off, and Louise standing there, panting a little, as if surprised, furious at having talked so much, still staring at whatever it was that he couldn’t see—that he knew he couldn’t see, that he wouldn’t see, even if he turned around, staring in his turn over his shoulder in the direction where whatever it was seemed to be…
“No,” she repeated submissively. But she continued looking at something in front of her which he could not see.
…“Then nothing,” she said (still staring through the trees, across the fields of that calm September landscape, at whatever it was that he could not see). “Nothing:…”
But she has nothing, nobody, and no-one will mourn for her…
The diner was in full swing. Josie was in her flannel shirt, so she was invisible and enjoying a second glass of chardonnay.
“Eight thirty,” Josie said, because she knew it was probably true.
“Thanks,” the man said, but in a way that implied he was a paying guest and she was some kind of bike-path clock keeper—that she worked on the path and was in charge of time. She thought of the bicycle man in her town, the one responsible for the maiming, the furious and florid sense of themselves these men felt. I am wearing these clothes and have gone fast. Move from my path. Fix my teeth. Tell me the time.
He understood that she’d spent the day wondering why she hadn’t had happiness like this, Jesus Christ why had she made all the wrong decisions, these stupid teenagers getting married knew how to have a beautiful and humble wedding by this Alaskan river, goddamnit, why did she make it all so difficult when it could be so simple?
As a teen, during the worst years of Candyland, she’d been though a very long few years of aloneness, a brutal and wonderful and terrible time of luxuriating in her tortured mind, her suddenly heavy thighs, her growing nose, the rumors about her parents, the word Rosemont on everyone’s tongues, always implicating her parents, her feeling of being horrified at being alone on weekend nights but not wanting to be among people, either.
Child support was never discussed or contemplated. For six months he wasn’t seen at all. But when he reappeared, he acted like he’d been there all the while. “Are you sure about this school they’re in?” he’d asked last fall, the last time he’d visited. “Are they being fully challenged?”
There is proud happiness, happiness born of doing good work in the light of day, years of worthwhile labor, and afterwards being tired, and content, and surrounded by family and friends, bathed in satisfaction and ready for a deserved rest—sleep or death, it would not matter.
Then there is the happiness of one’s personal slum. The happiness of being alone, and tipsy on red wine, in the passenger seat of an ancient recreational vehicle parked somewhere in Alaska’s deep south, staring into a scribble of black trees, afraid to go to sleep for fear that at any moment someone will get past the toy lock on the RV door and murder you and your two small children sleeping above.
All day the same old record. All alone in that great empty house. She must be a very old woman now.
Rotting leaves in June. From last year, and from the year before last, and from the year before that again.
I have forgotten what way I am facing. You have turned aside and are bowed down over the ditch.