The storm was coming. The storm was coming. For days that’s all we heard. How big it would be. How the colliding systems might encounter each other. How long power could be out. Towers would come down and houses too. Lives would be lost (about that we heard less). About how to protect ourselves we heard a lot. Residents stockpiled candles, batteries, and canned food, cleaning out stores. Critical patients were flown to hospitals inland. Those who could, left. Most stayed. They had nowhere to go. And could they leave every time, could they make it a habit? Train and bus stations were mob scenes. Flights were canceled en masse. Grounded fliers camped out in airports, amateur survivalists. We saw them on TV. Going nowhere in an airport was now news. I was still brash and foolish enough to wait for the day of the storm to drive south. I had a car, the storm wasn’t due until evening, and I had no interest in cutting my visit short. It wasn’t often I saw my old friend Mark and his wife, who had once almost been my wife long ago.
So, brash and foolish, yes, but not quite young. Nor was I well-off. I was okay, I was doing okay. I taught filmmaking and video art at the college in the small southern city where I lived. I had two kids, three and five, and a wife I loved who no longer loved me. I drove an old Nissan Pathfinder that was, like the rest of us, doing okay. It had four-wheel drive and I thought it could handle the trip even if things got wet. That was how, Monday morning, I found myself walking the thirty or so blocks north from Mark and Celeste’s to the cheap lot near Penn Station where I’d left the car. The sky that morning was clear and pretty, a violent, indecisive wind the only sign of the storm to come.
It was on my way to the lot that I saw Susan. The streets were a mess but I picked her out at once, and then, because it was so improbable to see her, I convinced myself it wasn’t her, couldn’t be, watched for another minute wondering whether she hadn’t said something about a conference, ducking and pushing through the crowd to catch her face (she was in front of me), only to realize, unbelievable as it was, that it was her, and I called out, half in jest, I suppose, ‘Dr. Duranti,’ and when she didn’t respond to that and yelling ‘Dr. Duranti’ sounded ridiculous, I called out ‘Susan,’ which she responded to at once, turning and seeing me, and then we had to acknowledge each other’s existence as people outside the rarefied context in which we habitually encountered each other.
‘Ben,’ she said, a bit the way you say hello to an ex you’ve run into on a date. At times she seemed tense around me, I thought, as though worried I might bind her to my distress, but Susan was a therapist and you would have been forgiven for thinking she was prepared for this.
‘Of all the places,’ I said.
‘Yeah, this is funny,’ she said, like it was maybe the least funny thing ever.
‘You told me you were out of town, I forgot. What was it?’
‘Conference,’ she said. ‘APA, or last week. I saw my sister over the weekend.’ People streamed by us, an island with our luggage in the middle of the sidewalk. ‘Actually, I was supposed to head back yesterday. My flight got canceled.’
It came back to me then, a conversation the week before, the schedule juggling. I was teaching three classes and trying to keep a few of my own projects afloat. I was preoccupied. Maybe I preoccupied myself to keep from being alone with my thoughts. Susan’s eyes were red, I saw. Her hair unwashed. She looked like she hadn’t slept.
‘So what’s the plan?’
‘I don’t know, I don’t think I can get anything,’ she said. She took a deep breath. ‘I’ve been bouncing between Penn Station and Port Authority all morning. It’s a nightmare. People are paying five hundred dollars for bus tickets. Five hundred dollars! I can’t even withdraw more cash from the ATM. I’m just really –’
She stopped herself. I was so used to telling her things while she listened quietly that this speech surprised me. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d heard her string as many sentences together.
‘Well,’ I said, knowing it would make her uncomfortable, but still myself, a person who doesn’t believe in rules or in standing on ceremony, life’s too strange, ‘I’m just on my way to the car. I’m driving back now.’
We had moved onto Thirty-Fourth Street to stand aside the flow of pedestrians. Susan’s bag kept slipping from her shoulder. She looked small next to the rolling suitcase in her hand.
‘I don’t know, Ben. It’s what, an eleven-hour drive? Do you think that’s such a good idea?’
‘These are pretty exceptional circumstances,’ I said. ‘I think we need to triage the bad ideas.’
I wouldn’t go so far as say I was invested in her coming with me, but I thought it would be silly of her not to. And I liked her, I liked her company. I thought it would be fun.
‘It’s the kids, though,’ she said. ‘They’re at Karen’s, and I told her I’d be back last night. I told them I’d be back. They were upset on the phone . . .’ She wasn’t saying it to me. ‘It’s all such a disaster.’
‘Literally,’ I said. ‘Look, this is stupid. I’m driving back right now. We can listen to music the whole way if you like.’
‘Okay,’ she said. ‘Okay.’ She smiled, but her smile seemed mostly to convey that she was too tired to say no.
We got the car. We braved Hell’s Kitchen and the Lincoln Tunnel, which was clogged many blocks back. At last we dipped beneath the river, lurching forward and stopping, watching the taillights of cars paint crimson streams on the white tile. For a time it seemed that the rest of our lives would take place in that tunnel, but finally we emerged. It took maybe two hours to reach 95, and 95 was a mess too. By then the clouds had begun gathering. A breath of luminosity lit them, but you could tell the thickening would continue, that the sky would turn brown-gray, then gray and darker, that the rain would come. And still it felt okay in the Pathfinder, which was warm and dry, it felt okay to be driving into the storm.
We were in stop-and-go traffic among the oil refineries of northern New Jersey when I said, ‘You mentioned that the kids were unhappy on the phone last night?’
‘Yes, well, they’re young – what do you expect? They’ve been at a friend’s place for five days.’
‘I’m just asking.’
‘Sorry,’ she said. She seemed to mean it. She had two kids, a boy and a girl. Alice, the younger, didn’t talk much, which worried her. Like certain other people I know, I thought, realizing how easy it had been at points to take Susan’s inscrutable silence as tacit approval of me, of my life and my decisions, and how in many ways this assumption was the basis of our relationship.
‘Is your husband worried?’ I said.
She looked at me. I thought she almost rolled her eyes. ‘You’d have to ask him.’
In the river of cars ahead an ignition of brake lights rolled back to us like a wave. I told her it wasn’t really fair, how I told her such intimate things and she conceded so little. I hardly knew what was fair game to ask.
Our eyes met and she gave me that look I knew so well, which said that just because I had stopped talking didn’t mean she was obliged to speak.
‘What’s fair game?’ I said.
‘Ask,’ she said, a hitch of exasperation in her voice. ‘I can tell you if I don’t feel like discussing something.’
‘Okay, your childhood then. Tell me about your childhood.’
She laughed. ‘Now you’re just fucking with me.’ It was playful the way she said it, playful and warm, and with this lightness the drive seemed to open out before us as faceted and lovely as a long descent into a twinkling valley. Was Susan pretty? Sort of. Not extravagantly, not at first. But she grew on you. Maybe anyone who listens to you attentively for seven years will.
‘Start at the beginning,’ I said. She played along. ‘This is where I come from,’ she said and spread her hands to include the scene before us.
‘You were born in an oil refinery. Continue.’
‘Don’t be crude,’ she said, and when I didn’t respond she said, ‘Oh, that was bad, wasn’t it?’
‘Pretty bad,’ I said. But it made me happy – the silliness, the lapse.
‘No, a little farther down the turnpike and to the west. One of those nice suburbs without any ‘urb’ to really do the whole sub-dom thing with.’
‘That was a little better.’
‘I guess I’ve said that before.’
I switched lanes and the lane I’d abandoned, of course, pulled forward. ‘Shit,’ I said.
‘Do you really want me to do this?’ she asked.
I said I did. She was my age or thereabouts. It had been a long time since I’d really investigated my choice in her, but her being my age and a woman surely mattered. I didn’t need someone who would explain me to myself. I wasn’t in the market for psychological insight, really. I may have wanted a little mothering. A sense of stability, attention, a place to be heard. I am not too old as a man approaching forty to admit it. I wanted the warmth and understanding a mother teaches you, wrongly, to expect.
‘I come from a big family,’ Susan said. ‘There are four of us kids, I’m the oldest and – let’s see – my mother’s kind of this all-American mom. Soccer practice, dinner on the table at seven. Dad’s a real guy’s guy, owns a drilling company. Wells, abandonment, pumps, irrigation . . . I guess he’s doing exploration for gas companies now too, the whole fracking thing.’
‘I saw that family in a truck commercial.’
‘It was a little like that.’ She smiled at the memory. ‘When we were little, Dad used to say he could drill through anything – rock, metal, you name it. We’d ask him if he could drill to the center of the earth and he’d say, “With enough pipe, sure.” Silly.’ She shook her head. ‘He was Jersey Italian, you know. I told someone at school once that he worked for the mob. Maybe he did.’
I couldn’t recall the last time I’d seen Susan this way, lighthearted, gushing a little. It gave me a warm feeling even if her father’s machismo got on my nerves. I seemed to remember having once read about a Soviet attempt to see how deep they could drill into the earth, how around seven or eight miles down the pressure, or maybe the heat, had become too great to continue, but that nonetheless it had confirmed how little we know about what lies even a short way underfoot.
‘We were a close family,’ Susan went on. ‘We did everything together, as this big family unit. Our house had this huge communal room and meanwhile our bedrooms were like closets. Our parents wanted to see us, you know?’
I said that it must have been hard – omertà, the lack of privacy. I was joking, but Susan didn’t laugh.
‘We liked it,’ she said. She looked out the window, retreating, I felt, a small way into herself. The traffic had eased a little, the clouds growing thicker, the sky darker. The car listed in the wind.
‘Well, I come from a traditional American family,’ I said. ‘Broken.’ She knew this, of course, but I was trying to make amends.
‘We children of divorce, we’re used to thinking there’s something creepy about marriages that last, a Mayberry fanaticism or something. Probably we’ve just confused creepy with healthy.’
‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘Sometimes it’s healthy to split up, right? Healthy.’ She shook her head. ‘God, what do we even mean?’
And who are we talking about now? I thought, but I held my tongue. I said the no-privacy thing must have given her a terrible time with boys.
‘Oh, boys! I had to wait until college, really. Dad was Catholic, you know, and owned guns.’
‘Fathers with guns,’ I said and hypothesized that we’d never get around to fixing the gun problem in this country with so much teenage pussy to protect. I wasn’t really thinking when I said it, but Susan laughed, a real laugh, not the polite one she used in our talks to let me know she understood I’d made a joke. ‘I guess so,’ she said after a minute. But as the laughter faded we found ourselves left with the idea, and behind the idea the image – of Susan’s teenage pussy – and I scrambled to move us along so that we wouldn’t have to consider the other considering Susan’s teenage pussy and the awkwardness of our shared understanding of what we were both simultaneously considering.
‘I don’t think I ever had a gun in one of my films,’ I said. What a stupid thing to say. ‘Are you hungry?’ I said, because what I’d said before had been so stupid.
‘Actually, I’m starving.’
The traffic wasn’t too bad and it seemed like a decent time to get off the highway, fuel up, and eat. It wasn’t yet noon but I was hungry too, looking forward to the junk you permit yourself on the road, when the trial of the day overtakes and obscures any thought of the future. I was worried Susan would want to find a Starbucks and I’d be stuck with a cheese plate with like two red grapes, but when we pulled off into the clutter of roadside chains there wasn’t a Starbucks in sight, and Susan suggested Denny’s, which made me want to kiss her, and so Denny’s it was.
Over breakfast Susan asked about my current projects and I told her. One involved filming violent criminals remembering happy moments from their childhoods. For another I was following around a trucker I’d met who liked to dress in drag. Susan asked what interested me about these projects and I said it was difficult to talk about them that way; it was the fact that you couldn’t summarize them that made them art and to try to capture their effect in words would only lead to my sounding pretentious and evasive. She said that all sounded pretty pretentious and evasive so why didn’t I just try, and I said, Fine. I was interested in our response to seeing people in situations that seemed to run directly counter to their public identities. Imagine a group of Fortune 500 CEOs at a petting zoo, I said. Imagine leaving them there too long. If I could get Fortune 500 CEOs to give me an afternoon, that’s what I’d have them do.
‘Do you think so? When people say “interesting” they usually mean “not interesting” or “I’d like to stop talking about this immediately.”‘
‘No, it is interesting,’ she said. ‘Just, how do you make sure it’s not gimmicky?’
I told her this was always the worry. It was why these projects took so long. You had to film for a long time before people got so used to the scrutiny that they stopped playing to the camera, before authentic moments of self-discovery could occur. ‘You can always tell an authentic moment,’ I said. ‘I don’t know how, but at some point you can see that a person has stopped trying to manage your perception of them. The true self peeks through.’
‘I wonder if I believe in such a thing,’ she said.
‘Well, forget the word ‘true,’ if that seems problematic. I mean the self that’s not an actor. The self we are in private and with our best friends, our spouses. The effortless self, let’s call it.’
She looked at me, but past me, to the point in space where the truth of words is judged against reality. She was quiet. The look on her face, as she gazed off, passed from caught-up to sad and then, I thought, to something like a premonitory glimpse of the possibilities and limits of a life. It was brief, this terror – if that’s what it was – and I longed and dreaded to know what she was thinking. In another second, though, she had returned to the moment and to picking the crusts of her chicken sandwich, which I had found and continued to find a strange order.
It was raining when we left the restaurant, light, sparse drops shuttled about by the wind, a pleasant rain that seemed to be cleaning you rather than getting you wet. The lights of restaurants and gas stations shone wetly all around, and it was lovely, in the rain, at a Denny’s, in New Jersey.
‘You don’t have to like my films,’ I said when we were back in the car.
‘It’s not that . . .’ I could feel her on the edge of an admission, having second thoughts but caught in her point’s momentum. ‘It’s . . . just my boyfriend in college, he was a filmmaker. He was always telling me about his projects. At first I liked it, I thought he was brave. But the intensity, you know, it kind of wore me down. I think I’m not smart or edgy enough for experimental film.’
I didn’t say anything. I stared straight ahead. I wanted to give Susan the impression that she had hurt me, which she had a little, but that I was going to ride the hurt out stoically. It wasn’t that I needed Susan to like my work, although for what if not pockets of intensity were we in the business of living? But I was jealous of that young man, a man who now of course would be my age, but who in memory preserved something of what is lost to time. What had he done to capture her affection that I could not? And what had Susan been like all those years ago, before intensity came to seem a burden and discretion led her to hide away the treasure of herself, discovered and buried some day long ago under a soil of rotting youth? I wanted, pointlessly, to return to college, to that Susan, excitable and unformed, spilling slightly beyond herself as people when they are most beautiful do.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said after a minute. ‘I’m distracted. The storm, the kids . . . I know your films are very good. You’ve had a lot of success, right? They matter to people.’
‘Why did you become a therapist?’ I said, ignoring the dubious logic of her last remark. I remembered sitting in therapy with her, week after week, wondering if she always believed the things she said, the terse, careful words she committed to, waiting for what I thought of as her true self to peek through.
‘I guess the idea just grew on me,’ she said. ‘I like listening to people, hearing their stories. I wanted to do something that helped people. I believe in the therapeutic space.’
‘But how do you know you are? Helping people, I mean.’
She did that thing again of retreating a degree or two into herself. ‘I don’t,’ she said. ‘I do my best. I trust the process.’ I may have snorted. ‘What happened to listening to music?’ she said.
It was really raining now. I had the wipers on their continuous setting, not the really fast one, which by the time it’s raining hard enough for you to need is kind of impotent anyway. The clouds had charcoaled and thickened so that, although it was early afternoon, it was as dark as evening. The weather felt obscurely punitive, and though I knew the storm would cause extraordinary damage and harm many people, part of me longed for it to come, for it to get worse, for it to be as bad, or worse, than they said. I wanted to see it curdling the ocean and bringing waves and wind over the coast, over cities and towns, ripping up sidewalks and porches, downing power lines, traffic lights, trees. I wanted the chaos, to feel the power of something powerful, and then the still aftermath of chaos in which we get to be our better selves and rebuild. In which the challenges are simple and communal and vast. I thought somewhere in this mess of longings and contradictory impulses was a film, and then I knew why I’d taken 95 instead of heading inland to 81. I wanted to encounter the storm. I wanted to film it.
‘It’s really coming down,’ Susan said. ‘Oh, there’s my exit!’
‘Your exit . . .’
‘If we were going to my house, I mean. Where I grew up.’
‘Ah, the panopticon.’
‘You’re making too much of this.’
‘No,’ I said. ‘Let me see if I understand.’ A tangle of lightning flashed on the retina of the sky. ‘There’s no outward privacy in the panopticon – everything can be seen, right? – but inward privacy exists too, the privacy of the mind. All you really need for inward privacy is to keep quiet, to shut up. So you learn to keep quiet, keep your thoughts to yourself, not betray your emotions. That seems safe. And by the same token the idea of being open, really open, with another person seems terrifying. Yes? Tell me if I’m missing anything.’
We didn’t speak for a while after this. I knew I had gone too far, as no doubt I had at other times when I thought I saw the shadow of an emotion cross her face. I had the unpleasant feeling of seeing myself act in a way I didn’t approve of and would reproach myself for later. But it was a hard moment for me. Cracks shivered out through my marriage, threatening at any moment its collapse. And had I married my wife out of much more, really, than my own aggrieved inner plea for stability? When I thought about her, a woman I had dated in college and parted ways with only to meet again seven years ago, I supposed I had married her because I was tired of thinking about that side of life, because she was smart and self-sufficient and maternal, in her way, and because I did love her. I loved her honestly, in a reasonable way, a way in touch with her flaws, and so sober and quiet, this love, that it seemed far truer than the fevered infatuations I’d been used to as a younger man. But I also think I had the idea that we would grow together over time, that our differences would soften, and that we would erosively remake each other in the gentle spaces of domesticity and parenthood. And so I was haunted, when this didn’t happen, to see, and even more to feel, that there were parts of her I still had never gained access to and probably, therefore, never would. I wondered achingly what these parts were, because I never doubted that she was honest with me, and she could be warm too. It was not so much information that lay beyond my reach, I felt, as a sort of presence, of shared and consummate openness, a kind of psychic nudity.
And then Celeste, this past weekend, my friend Mark’s wife, whom I had dated for two years before Mark and had almost asked to marry me but instead dumped – because we were young and I thought we should part to reconnect later (maybe), because I had my first solo show (at twenty-six!) and felt powerful and important and suddenly bored with Celeste. We live with our mistakes. We regret them, we move away from them in time, and later we tell ourselves that they were necessary to create the person we have become. In time we grow to love our mistakes because we are inseparable from them and they comprise our belief in ourselves as people with access to wisdom. But all this retrospection never confronts the counterfactual mood, which of course it is beyond us to confront, though still, at times, there are mistakes that so resist our revisionary impulse that we are left wondering, When this path branched, what really did I decide? And Celeste is such a mistake for me.
An example. This past weekend Mark was called into the office on Sunday and Celeste and I went out to walk the High Line. It was cold and we cupped espresso drinks in our hands. Celeste’s cheeks burned with a rosy blush. She’d cut her hair short and it was tousled prettily. I was telling her about my problems at home, that although I dreaded the ending, dreaded admitting defeat and losing my wife, there were days when part of me longed for it to happen, longed at least to have it out, because I was sure my wife and I were both, in private, looking at the same decaying structure, and I no longer knew which was worse, the collapse of our marriage or the tacit consensus in our silence.
‘I know what you mean, Ben.’ She had taken my arm and turned to me. ‘I have days too when I look at my life, at Mark, the kids, and think, What the hell? When did this happen? And it feels almost like panic. Like, how did I get in this deep? And I want it all to disappear. I have this fantasy where I just walk off into another life and nobody comes looking. How terrible is that?’
‘It isn’t terrible,’ I said. ‘But what do we do with that feeling?’
‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘Be open to it. Feel it. Let that openness wash over you. Refuse to be ashamed of the things we feel.’
The buildings ensconced us, the hotel above, the path below with its brown vegetation and little branchings. The wind ran against us like metal, and in that moment, feeling understood, feeling her response against me like the naked flesh of a sibling soul, I had the urge to take Celeste’s hand and lead her away into that other life, to start over, the two of us. And just as I thought this, at that moment, we ran into someone I knew, a gallery owner in Chelsea who wanted to know all about my recent work and what I thought of Rist’s and what was I up to, and it was so nice to meet Celeste, she said, although she mostly ignored Celeste, and by the time she left I had more or less transformed back into the Ben who is a little crasser and more abrasive than he feels, because you have to talk to these art world assholes like you give even less of a fuck than they do, and I don’t mean to say I’m not one of these art world assholes myself, just that I left New York and decided to teach because I wanted to rope off a few spaces in my life where I could be genuine, or what I felt to be genuine, and where I could give a fuck.
And Celeste is one of those spaces. And I’d let her marry Mark, who is a wonderful man and surely a steadier soul than I. I no longer remember why I let Celeste go, except that I probably thought we understood each other too easily and would therefore exhaust each other quickly, whereas my wife kept me at a remove from the central space that I believed constituted her her-ness, which for no clear reason I believed existed, and which I longed to get to the way you only long for things you can’t possess.
‘We have kids, though,’ Celeste said. ‘That helps a little. Our lives aren’t just our own.’
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘except I took them to be the cement of our family, my marriage, and they turn out to be kids and not building materials.’
‘You’re a wonderful father, Ben.’
I could, and perhaps should, have stopped to wonder what evidence she was drawing on, but I didn’t. I could have lain down and made a bed in no more than the tone of her voice. She said it so warmly that I felt the prelude to tears gather at my eyes and wished briefly that she were the mother of my kids. We sat by the Hudson and watched evening come over it, lurid and grandiose in the fall cold, then we walked back to Mark and Celeste’s to relieve the sitter. Soon Mark came home. And there I watched Celeste as she melted back into her family and away from me, watched her laugh with love at the not-funny jokes of her small children and put a hand on Mark’s shoulder, until she was gone from me, back into her real life, where I didn’t exist.
That was all the day before.
The rain was heavy now, heavy enough that I was having trouble seeing in front of us. I had slowed to 45 and was hunched over partway, as if my posture could affect the visibility.
‘I was playing basketball the other day,’ I said. We had been driving in silence for maybe half an hour. ‘There were these kids in the park with me, high school kids, I think. Kind of the weirdos, the freaks. It was just me and them.’ I was shooting by myself, I told Susan, and they were being loud, joking around a little crudely, and at first I was annoyed. But this one kid kept looking over. A big kid, awkward, with shaggy hair and a black leather trench coat. ‘At first I thought maybe he was gay and that was why he was looking over. He kept stealing glances, giving me this shy smile. But no, I realized, no, that wasn’t it. He was trying to find his place. Do you know what I mean?’ I looked at Susan. ‘He was trying to find his place in the world, and this wasn’t it. This was the best he could do just now, but it wasn’t it. And it made me feel tenderly toward him. He looked at me and thought I was at home in the world because I’m grown, because I can shoot baskets by myself and don’t really get embarrassed by things anymore. He thought I was at home in the world, and I’m not. Do you see? I felt protective of him but also nauseated – by his mistake, by the innocence of his mistake – and part of me wanted to step into his life and make it better, and part of me felt helpless and sick because I couldn’t, because you can never do that for someone. You only have time to live your own life, and mine was falling apart.’
‘You’re a caretaker, Ben,’ Susan said.
‘You say that –’ I wiped the windshield with the back of my hand. I didn’t mean to sound so bitter. ‘But tell me, am I really grieving other people’s loneliness and suffering, or my own?’
‘Are you lonely? Are you suffering?’
Don’t you know? I wanted to say, but it seemed indulgent of me to insist. I am, after all, a white American man with a toehold in the upper middle class, with a good job, a wife, and two kids – someone the world has licensed to express himself. A heartbeat of hope raps within my suffering, and while I am thankful for this, truly thankful, I have had to wonder at points whether the hope and the suffering were really two different things.
‘What about you?’ I said. ‘Are you so happy? Are you never lonely?’
‘I don’t know.’ Susan ran her fingers through the condensation on her window. ‘Maybe I don’t expect to be unlonely.’
I pulled to the side of the road, unable, in any case, to see. The clouds had opened up, the rain no longer seeming to fall so much as to be, there, beyond us, everywhere – a matrix suffusing the air. All we could see through the windows was a wild silver tide dashing itself on the glass.
‘That boy in college,’ I said, ‘the filmmaker. It sounds like he wanted to be unlonely with you.’
Even in the half-light I could see that Susan’s face had paled. She had a way of looking stricken and distant, wounded but unwilling to name the hurt, to let you in to soothe it. The shadows of raindrops ran down her face.
‘I couldn’t be close in that way.’
‘Because of your family.’
‘Yes. Maybe. I don’t know.’
‘Your whole family?’
‘What’s the use, Ben?’
‘Let me guess,’ I said. I was being cruel, and I’m not proud of it, I’m rarely cruel, but I was being cruel, and I’m sorry, Susan, darling, I am. ‘It was your father, wasn’t it? The guy’s guy. You were his favorite. There was a sense, in this family that was so close, that things were maybe a little too close.’
‘So you turned inward. Closed yourself off.’
‘That poor boy in college.’
Susan was quiet. The rain tapered abruptly, bronze light cutting through the clouds. Drops still fell, more the afterthought of rain than rain itself, glistening in the ocher ashes of the sky. How was your mood to keep up with a day like this?
‘I’m sorry,’ I said.
‘It’s all right.’ She had composed herself and it terrified me, her ability to compose herself like this. ‘It’s not that simple, Ben.’
‘No, of course. It’s just your job, right? Inventing these plausible little stories. Anyway, you’re too strong for me. I keep trying to break through, but I should probably just accept that you’re too tough.’
She smiled. It was not a smile of compassion or tenderness, I saw, but a broad smile of unfeigned delight. She beamed and I thought – it came to me powerfully, dizzyingly – my God, this woman is a child. She wants to be praised. Well, goddamn it, I can praise her if that’s what she wants.
The light painted her face gold, her hair, her eyes. The sky parted in flaxen sheaves, and I began with the ridiculous story, the one we have all, with each year, loosened our grip on a little more, about how we came to our parents in woven baskets, gifted from the second world, the world behind this one: how we are all sacred children.
‘Ben,’ she murmured. ‘Please. I’m just a flawed, selfish person, like everyone.’
But do you really think that? I wanted to say. Does anyone – but especially you? Her eyes were closed. Are we not all born with wings we take out only in private? Except the beauty scared you, Susan. She was still smiling. She had laid a hand in mine, those delicate fingers, leaned into me, breathing slowly. We are all failed images, earthbound under each other’s weight. I could hear the doves in the dripping trees. We are all scared, Susan, I told her. All scared no one else will find them as beautiful.
She kissed me so I had to stop talking, a kiss at first contained, but that gave in to itself until our mouths pressed together, made a seal, and our tongues sought out the depths or sought to show themselves in pursuit of the depths. We can argue forever about the meaning of a kiss. After a minute she pulled back, a hand on my chest. We looked into each other’s eyes. I wanted to see longing in hers, sorrow, any sign that she needed me, or anything, but she looked only happy, held once again gently within herself, brimming with the seraphic light of some perverse joy.
‘I fell in love with you once,’ she said. ‘You must have known.’
‘I did,’ I said. ‘It was a dirty trick. It made me love you, and now I’m stuck loving you and you’ve moved on.’
She stopped smiling and the sun passed behind a cloud. It was cold in the car. I started the ignition and pulled us back onto the highway. In no time at all warm air flooded the cabin. And it seemed almost sad to me, that warm air could flood in just like that.
On the radio we heard reports of the storm. It was flirting with a Category 4 off Delaware, gale-force winds with flooding deep into the coast. Millions of people were without power now, states of emergency had been declared everywhere, National Guards called up. The coast guard had suspended rescue operations north of Point Pleasant. A Fujiwara interaction was possible. In my mind I saw the rainbands of the storm, the falcate concentric arms, reach out across a thousand miles to embrace the coast.
The rain had picked up again, a hard, steady downfall. The wind too. On the side of the road it forced the trees together like lousy drunks. I suggested we get gas – although the tank was more than half full – and load up on provisions in case we passed through a large area without power.
‘Do you think that’s a worry?’ Susan asked.
I said I didn’t know, but not knowing meant it was possible and if it was possible it was a worry. Susan said she meant likely and I said that’s what I didn’t know when I said I didn’t know. We were near Philadelphia. We had missed the 295 bypass in the rain, but when we took the next exit the world we pulled off into was deserted and it was impossible to imagine a city anywhere nearby. The lights were off at the first gas station and the whole strip had an unearthly feel. The gallon prices on the sign were out of date, as though the station had been closed for months, maybe years.
‘Maybe we should get back on the highway,’ Susan said.
I said let’s go a little farther, how far could a gas station be? The road was empty, narrow, and surveyor-straight, with no more than a bleak-looking house every mile or so. The vegetation had a stunted, marshy look, like we were near brackish water, and then, out of nowhere, we were climbing a bridge, a vast suspension bridge rising up over a river – the Delaware, surely – an immense gray bridge lit at intervals along its cables and frame, where a bright fizz seemed to clothe the steel. The air was alive with water. So much water! Tons no doubt, millions of tons. The forms things take amaze me. Water in the river as waves, in the air as moisture, falling as rain; in my blood, against my skin, dissolving and colluding with salt shorn of rocks, catching light from glowing wires and breaking it into strands and shards of colored light, collecting as clouds above us blotting out the sun; water in the milk my children drank from my wife’s breasts, in the cooling systems of reactors, the turbines of dams, and the forensic patterns of rock on Mars, the afterthought of water, stagnant pools in the waning moon, and then all around us, everywhere, except the bubble of our car. We were the only car on the bridge. At the high point of its arcing roadway I pulled us over and put on the hazard lights.
‘What are you doing?’ Susan said. I was rummaging around in back for my camera and its waterproof case. ‘Really, Ben, I’m not sure this is the best idea.’
But I was out of the car as she said it, out and filming into the raging storm. The river rolled heavily below, seething with a whitish foam in which new life, for all I knew, was in the process of constituting itself.
She came out and stood beside me.
‘It’s beautiful, isn’t it?’ I said.
She stared out into the storm. ‘It’s strange,’ she said, ‘how terrible things are beautiful when you’re safe from them.’
‘Ben.’ I could hear in her tone that she was tired of this, tired of these conversations. ‘There’s a pitch you live at, Ben. It’s not a pitch I can live at all the time.’
I can come down! I wanted to shout. I can come down, just ask.
But it was a little late in the day for that. And what was I proving out here, chasing the storm, but the opposite? And yet who knows his own capacity to change, her own, or the capacity of two people to change together? Who can ever say where the line falls between I can’t and I won’t?
We saw headlights in the distance coming our way. I turned the camera from the river to Susan.
‘I was wrong before, so tell me,’ I said. ‘Why couldn’t you be close?’
I filmed her in profile, watching the car approach over the long, straight road. ‘There aren’t easy answers, Ben.’ She looked so beautiful with the rain streaking her face and hair. ‘Sometimes you have to grow tough or never leave. Sometimes comfort and independence seem to be at odds. Or maybe you get scared of your own desire to fall in too deep, what would happen if you gave in to it.’
I put the camera down. I couldn’t look at her. ‘What a stupid way to live,’ I said. The car, highway patrol, flashed its lights and pulled up behind us. A trooper got out.
‘Sir, ma’am. What’s the trouble?’
I told the officer everything was fine, that we’d been on the bridge and decided to get out for a second to look at the storm.
‘I saw the hazards,’ she said, not entirely convinced.
‘Sorry to inconvenience you,’ I said. ‘We’ll be on our way.’
‘All right.’ She had her hat off, hair pulled back like wet reeds, a plain face. She considered the storm with us for a minute. ‘Some people, you know, drive into the storm,’ she said. ‘Thrill seekers. Stubborn folks. Puts us in a bad spot because we’re on the hook for getting them out.’
I said it was selfish and the trooper nodded. ‘No great mystery what’s there – more storm. Some folks don’t know what’s best for them.’
‘But people need to be free, don’t they,’ Susan said, ‘even to make terrible mistakes?’
The officer looked at Susan. I did too. ‘I guess so,’ she said and laughed. ‘I guess so.’ She shook her head.
And I could have kissed them both just then. I could have taken their hands and jumped with them into the frothing river, I thought – would have done so happily and lived my life forever in the swollen moments of that mistake.
We waved to the officer as she pulled away and then got back in our car. I kept on to the end of the bridge. I could feel Susan waiting for me to turn around, I could hear it in the language of her body, tensing, but I refused to turn.
We heard further reports on the radio: sea levels, wind speeds, guesses at the damage wrought. In coastal North Carolina, southern Virginia, on the Eastern Shore, along the Delaware coast. Towns had been washed away. Towns. Barrier splits dissolved, swallowed by the sea. Power was out everywhere, lines and towers down. Water ran through city streets, turning streets to rivers. People kayaked through downtowns, waited out the storm on rafts. Water touched everything there was to touch.
‘I don’t like this anymore,’ Susan said. I said nothing. She had taught me the power of keeping silent, of giving the other person no shared reality to build off of, no ground on which to begin working around to a compromise. If you want to have your way, Susan had taught me, shut up.
We passed by a town, an intersection with a dark gas station, a small retail bank. There were a few other cars, old ghostly Buicks and Lincolns. They drifted by us, pale headlights dying short, swathed in the cerements of rain.
We would get to the coast, as near as possible, I had decided. Let Susan fight me, let her strike out from the bunker of her frightful composure. In this one way I was too strong for her, within the logic of the storm. I was taking charge. I could continue – continue driving, continue loving her – and she couldn’t stop me. Because I wanted her there with me at the ocean, watching its power, watching it surge. I wanted to film it, to capture it so I could say, Look, Susan, the unstoppable ocean!, so that she would have to see it and to stop pretending the ocean didn’t exist.
‘Our poor kids,’ she said.
We were past the town, in flat farmland. Silos stood by barns, wood fences squaring off fields. The water before us was no longer rainfall, I saw, but standing water. The far point of its incursion. A new beginning to the sea.
‘Why did you fall in love with me,’ I said, ‘way back when?’ We had been watching occasional cars pass the other way. I kept having the sensation of seeing people from our past in them, our parents and friends, old childhood friends we’d introduced each other to, grandparents who’d been dead for years, cousins we hadn’t seen since the wedding, old teachers and former lovers, all glancing at us with worry but glancing away quickly too, old enough to have learned that you never talk people out of their mistakes.
People are bullets, fired.
‘I wanted to be the sort of person who could love you.’
‘But you are,’ I said, seizing on the logic like it would matter, like I could twist her words into a prophecy against her. ‘Because you have.’
‘Ben, you think because you’re loving that you can’t be dangerous.’
Perhaps she didn’t mean dangerous, but something more elusive. Or perhaps she did.
‘Some women like danger,’ I said. I was being funny.
I looked at her. She smiled – in spite of herself, I thought. I smiled too. Our smiles grew as we looked at each other and then we were laughing. The wind rattled the car and something – a branch? A rock? – hit the window and sent a web of shattering through it; and as this happened the air shifted, a sudden brightening in the sky, and I felt the wind grow confused, like the tide does when it changes, bucking. And then stillness, perfect stillness. Sunlight. The eye.
I pulled us to the side of the road. It wasn’t a road any longer but a tiny river, eight inches deep. The land stretched before us – submerged, sodden, jeweled everywhere with light.
The skin of the earth, I thought. We are still just only on the skin.
The air right then was soft and moist. The sun burned on the fringes of far-off clouds, at its evening cant, glancing in. Oh, those evenings! I thought, like the first hot evenings of spring, when the air is satin and as warm as your body, as though you have descended from an airplane into some warmer place, L.A. or Tucson, say, and the breeze feels like an uncomplicated lover, and the air, that air! So full of plant life and dirt, as full of these things as the ground. That is what I smelled just then, the smell of life, the vaporous smell of life. And I had a memory of Susan, when I knew her in college, of bicycling on a night like this and watching her put her hand out by her hip to feel the breeze collect in it. And another time, of watering the lawn one evening and seeing a figure at the end of the street jogging, and knowing for no more than her awkward, determined stride that it was her, my wife. Or when I lifted her up on the kitchen counter three weeks ago, late one afternoon, and she yelped in surprise and gave me a look of lovely and time-softened lust – because time softens things, it does. If she felt I was dangerous, was it any more than this, that I threatened to pull us under in moments as small as these?
She was standing next to me. We leaned against the front of the car, smiling into the sun, letting the light explore our faces. The water ankleted our calves. Susan took my hand, took it with a kind of purpose I recognized that said, C’mon, we’re getting out of here.
We’re going home.
The air was crazy and beautiful with life. The sun, the hills, the water at our feet. Do you remember what it’s like to go home with the person you love? Do you? Don’t say yes. Remember. Stay there with me, linger. Then make me laugh while we drive home.
This story is from Jackson’s forthcoming collection, Prodigals, which is published on 7 April by Granta Books (UK) and 1 March by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (US).
Photograph © Jared Tarbell