Saturday, October 27, 2012

Foolish Fire

Here's the story I mentioned in the last post. It's an early draft, rife with flaws, but so it goes.

At one in the morning Kate discovered her neighbor’s internet connection, which she’d been poaching for months, had gone down. It was a regular occurrence with no predictable rhyme or reason other than it always seemed to crash when she needed it most. She still had a few hours’ work ahead of her and needed to go online to confirm what she thought she probably already knew before she could finish grading lab reports and call it a night in time to sleep four or five hours and be at least somewhat coherent in class. She closed her laptop with a sigh, packed a bag and climbed into the car.

She pulled into the Tim Horton’s parking lot and, in spite of the usual fatigue, which weighed more heavily than usual on her tonight, and the constant discouragement of dealing with frighteningly lackluster students, she considered her good fortune at the availability of this refuge of sorts. Such nice people, the Canadians, offering a twenty-four hour a day oasis for insomniacs and graduate students and the desperately lonely.

Surprisingly there were only two other customers at that hour, both of whom sat alone far from each other, leveling identical blank looks in the general direction of their coffee cups. She chose a table near an outlet, plugged in her laptop and went to the counter.

“Medium coffee, please,” she said. “For here.”

The girl behind the counter looked momentarily puzzled, then started to walk away before turning and asking, “Cream and sugar?”

“Milk, please,” Kate said.

Half a minute later the girl returned with the coffee. “Here you go,” she said.

Kate took the cup and, holding two one-dollar bills in her left hand, waited for the girl to tell her how much it was. When the girl continued to stand there with a blank look on her face, Kate said, “Well, here,” and passed the girl the two dollars.

“Thank you,” the girl said. Kate waited another few seconds for the girl to ring up the sale and give her change, but that started to seem less and less likely, and so she gave up and returned to her table. She sat down, took a sip of coffee and clicked the icon for her web browser. The window opened, but nothing happened. What the fuck, she whispered. She stood and walked back up to the counter.

“I’m sorry to bother you,” she said, “but do you know if the wi-fi is working?”

The girl behind the counter cocked her head to the side like a pure-bred golden retriever, the sort of animal that is no more or less than half as dumb as the stick being thrown for its amusement. She shrugged.

“Could you check it?” Kate asked. When the girl didn’t respond, Kate went on, “Maybe reset the router?”

“Um,” the girl said, “I don’t have any routers.”

Kate nodded her head and frowned as she turned to go back to her table. As frustrating as it was not to be able to get online, she decided she was no worse off here without an internet connection than she had been in her cheerless apartment, and so she pushed the laptop out of the way, grabbed the stack of lab reports from her bag and set them on the table in front of her.

Although it had been months since she’d seen or talked to him, she found once again that it wasn’t possible for her to be in a Tim Horton’s without thinking about Miller. They had sat together like this with their laptops open on numerous occasions, when he was visiting her or when she was visiting him, TimHo’s being the new ubiquitous outcropping in every small city she knew. Their respective pirated internet connections were constantly going down, and so they would climb into the Flying Dumpster and find themselves drinking weak coffee and taking advantage of the free wi-fi late into the night and early morning.

As hard as she tried to focus on the pages in front of her, her mind nonetheless kept wandering back to him. The last she’d heard from him directly, he’d texted to ask if she would return some books of his she had borrowed but never read. She’d meant to read them, but as it turned out she didn’t even have time for everything she was supposed to read for her classes, and so the guilty pleasure he’d reintroduced to her life once again slipped away. The only other time his name had come up in the intervening months was when Sophie told her she’d gotten a strange text from him telling her he’d used her name for a character in a story and he hoped she didn’t mind.

“I texted back and said of course not and wished him luck with the story,” Sophie said. “Then it got weirder. He said ‘Luck’s for the Irish, Soph, but thanks.’ I’m guessing he was drunk.”

Probably, Kate thought, but she smiled just the same. Luck. Oh, Miller kid.

For an hour or more she willed her eyes to follow the lines of text on the pages in front of her, commanded her brain to follow the eyes’ example. The students, of course, were no help: every misplaced modifier, dangling participle, random smattering of commas, and sentence that was not a sentence recalled for her the night he tried to help her grade, correcting their abysmal grammar while she graded the science. It was one of the last nights they had spent together. No, it was the last night. It didn’t seem possible, but just then she understood that it was true.

She felt herself beginning to slip toward the sad, dark place in her head that particular realization was bound to take her, when the girl from behind the counter walked up to her table.

“Can I get you anything else?” she asked.

“No,” Kate said. “I’m fine. Thank you.”

The girl fidgeted, attempting to slide her hands into the pockets of what she quickly remembered were pocketless pants, and shifting her considerable weight from one foot to the other. “Are you sure?” she asked.

“I am,” Kate said. “But thank you just the same.”

“Well,” the girl said, “they told me if people sit here for more than an hour not ordering anything I should tell them to leave.”

“I beg your pardon?” Kate replied.

“Because of the internet,” the girl said. “People just use the internet and don’t buy anything.”

“But your internet isn’t even working right now,” Kate said.

“That’s what they told me,” the girl said.

Kate stared at the girl for several seconds before asking, “So you’re telling me I have to leave?”

“Unless you buy something,” the girl said. “Sorry. That’s what they told me.” She turned and waddled in the direction of the counter.

Kate stared after the girl for several seconds, watched her walk around behind the counter and busy herself rearranging cups and stirrers. Finally she gathered her papers and her laptop, stuffed them hastily into her shoulder bag, then walked purposefully to the counter. “May I have a customer comment card, please?” she asked.

The girl’s eyes grew wide and her mouth twisted in a way that made Kate wonder if she might cry. Then she realized the girl didn’t know what she was talking about.

“Right there,” Kate said, pointing to a stack of printed cards next to the register. The girl’s eyes followed Kate’s finger, and she passed over one of the cards. “Thank you,” Kate said.

She dug through her bag and found a pen – appropriately enough, the pen Miller had let her borrow the night they graded lab reports at his house so many months ago. She held the pen above the card for a moment, considering, then wrote, “Your coffee is weak, your wi-fi doesn’t work, and your employees are too dumb for words.” She paused again, held the pen to her lips, then finished with a flourish. “Go fuck yourself, Canada.”

She folded the card in two and dropped it into the box emblazoned with the hopeful words, “Tell us what you think!”

In class that morning she struggled so hard to keep her eyes open that at times she felt them crossing. Her inability to focus left her so agitated she began plucking less than consciously at her left eyebrow, a habit she’d been trying to shake for as long as she could remember. When she realized she was doing this in a room full of earnest graduate students, some of whom, she was sure, couldn’t help but notice, she immediately dropped her arm below the table and as surreptitiously as possible began pinching her thigh at irregular but continuous intervals. That seemed to keep her awake and free from the dreaded eyebrow plucking, but it did nothing for her drifting thoughts. Although her addled mind offered no answer to the question of what she wanted to be doing just then, it did seem determined to make it abundantly clear that what she did not want was to be sitting in a seminar on methods for teaching math.

“Why are you doing it?” Miller asked her once when she’d told him she thought she should run off to Mexico instead.

“I want to save the world,” she said.

“How?” he asked her. “By teaching?”

“By changing the way we teach,” she said.

“There’s your answer then,” he said.

He would say that, of course. He would always tell her she was doing the right thing, even when what she was doing was stomping mud holes in his heart. She had known all along she was bewitching him, but she fooled herself for a long time into believing he was along for the ride no less than she was. While at first she’d done it for the thrill and the attention and the satisfaction of turning a head, in time she found her motives growing unreasonably complicated, at least for her: some days she did it because she felt she owed it to him and didn’t want to hurt him; other days she simply couldn’t stop herself, and damn the consequences.

“You drink too much,” she told him one night in a critical rant intended to explain why they could never be together, “you don’t care enough about the world, you don’t cook, don’t have a job, and you own a cat.”

“Nonetheless,” he replied, “I do love you.”

“You have tragically bad taste in women,” she said to that.

“Almost certainly,” came his reply.

“Besides,” she said, “They’re just dumb words anyway.”

“Dumb?” he said. “Dumb words? You say that to a writer? How would you like it if I said salamanders are just dumb amphibians? Or that moths are just dumb insects?”

“They are,” she answered.

He stared at her for a long stretch of seconds during which she willed herself not to look away. This felt like a moment to her, an occasion for making some sort of progress, whatever that might mean.

“Do with this what you will,” he finally said, “but I don’t think anything that brings you a measure of joy can be considered dumb.”

The scraping of chairs being pushed back from the table woke her, and when she opened her eyes she had the sudden sensation that everyone in the room, as they packed up their belongings, was studiously avoiding looking her way. How long could she have possibly slept, she wondered. Reaching for her things and stuffing them into her bag, she sighed and shook her head. With the back of her hand she wiped a smear of drool from her chin.

With time to kill before lab she wandered across the dreary campus to the Union for a sandwich and a place to sit. She chose a table in the corner and opened her laptop. Because she was already thoroughly preoccupied, she opted for continued meaningless distraction rather than a potentially constructive solution and logged into Facebook.

Miller’s status updates still popped up on her news feed from time to time, and when they did she would, without a moment’s hesitation, click through to his page, even though what she found there often felt like she was dragging a serrated blade across her knuckles. He had defriended her sometime before Thanksgiving, the same weekend she had come to his house and found a bag of her belongings – plus everything she had ever given him – sitting in his hallway. The next morning she had logged into Facebook intending to post something oblique on his wall, something that would show him that she still loved him, that it was completely and utterly about her own temporary loss of balance. She’d keyed his name into the search pane and, when his profile popped up, was about to type something when she noticed the icon suggesting she add Miller as a friend.

But he had an open page – so very Miller, she thought, unguarded in an unexpectedly guileless way – and so she could see everything that went on there. After she had left him the previous night, he had uploaded link after link to video clips of songs that had once meant something specifically to the two of them: “Skyway,” “Hold On,” “The Moth,” “Cello Song,” “Stay Or Leave,” “Waltz #2” and on and on. Each clip he introduced with some version of the sentiment “Fuck you.”

He went along in this vein for another two days, quoting song lyrics with a particular bite, lines of poetry he knew she’d recognize, snippets of texts and emails she had written him over the last year and a half. And then he just stopped cold. For weeks he didn’t post a single update or link, didn’t comment on anything anyone else had to say. He disappeared. When a few days had passed with no sign of him, she considered the possibility that he was embracing the philosophy she’d learned as a child from the movie Bambi, which she tried so hard to live, and which she had reiterated in his presence so many times, particularly as they found themselves more and more frequently under the stern glares of meddling acquaintances: “If you can’t say anything nice . . .” But she knew Miller, knew that if that had been his aim, his last post would have been one simple word: Thumper. No, there was something terribly wrong. She considered the possibilities and grasped for a way to check in, but she suspected the only two people who would know for certain what was going on were Peaches and Hank, and she understood without having to ask that neither of them would speak to her, about Miller or about anything. And so she buried herself in work, spent weekends with her father and, occasionally, her sister. And she held her breath.

More than a month went by before she finally saw a sign of him. It was the week before Christmas, and he posted a quote from French writer Francoise Sagan (she’d had to look it up): “I have loved to the point of madness, that which is called madness, that which to me is the only sensible way to love.” She noticed that a handful of the many women in Miller’s life “liked” the post. The lone comment came from Big Puma, who wrote simply, “Bullshit.”

That afternoon as she killed time waiting for another pointless lab section, she went to Miller’s page and scrolled through the most recent posts. She hadn’t been here in weeks. There were the usual assorted music clips, some sad, some angry, mostly from bands she didn’t recognize. He quoted song lyrics from Wilco, Elliott Smith, the National. More than a week ago he’d written, “I give up – so go ahead, surprise me.” He took a shot at Blind Melon, a band he’d teased her about because Ben was a fan. Miller must have found himself trapped somewhere while “No Rain” played in the background. He posted a quote about moths that she didn’t recognize and wasn’t able to find when she googled it: “We were moths, and we were flames, and we could have danced like that, unceasing and curiously insistent, until the last match flared and died.” She considered the possibility that he had written it himself. His most recent post said simply, “Then keep your light on.”

She was about to click through to her own page when Facebook refreshed and a new post popped up. It was a quote from The Great Gatsby, posted seconds ago: “I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it.”

Her breath caught in her throat for an instant, and she leaned forward with her elbows on the table and held her head in her hands. She sat like that for several minutes, then closed her laptop, dropped it into her bag, and went out to the Flying Dumpster to smoke and doze until it was time to be somewhere. She rested her head against the back of the seat and watched through the windshield as a light but steady drizzle began to fall.

It felt like just her luck that the Friday afternoon lab section she instructed – her third of the week, while no other T.A. had more than two and most only one – was top-heavy with the utterly challenged. Each lab was scheduled for two and a half hours, but the requirement was to stay until you’d completed the day’s experiment, which for more than a handful of the Friday afternoon students meant a lab that started at two o’clock rarely saw her exiting the building before five-thirty. When, mercifully, the last little creep put his test tubes away and found the exit, Kate waved goodbye to the room, turned out the lights and locked the door behind her.

After lab she drove straight home to get the dog, didn’t linger in her apartment any longer than it took to gather enough clean clothes to get her through the weekend, then got on the highway and headed south to her father’s house. Fifty minutes later she passed Miller’s exit, and her eyes drifted over the familiar beacons at the edge of town: the Holiday Inn, the Volkswagen dealership, the McDonald’s arches, the big-box cluster of Walmart and Home Depot and Staples. It would have been so easy to point the nose of the car toward the exit. But she was too certain of what she would find there to take that chance.

When she finally did exit the highway, instead of driving up to the West End to her father’s house, she drove down toward the water and parked near the pier where she and Miller had sat after staying up all night talking on Elizabeth’s couch. Toward sunrise they realized Peaches and Elizabeth had disappeared, and so they gathered themselves and wandered down to the waterfront in search of breakfast. They took a booth in the back, far from the few early risers who sat perched on stools at the counter, drank weak coffee and wolfed down runny eggs and soggy bacon and burnt toast. When they’d finished he offered to walk her to her father’s, but she still wasn’t ready to leave him and so suggested they go down to the pier. They sat with their legs dangling over the edge, gazing across the bay, smoking cigarettes. She couldn’t remember which one of them saw the harbor seal first. Probably him, he was usually the one to spot the unexpected. While the seal bobbed in the swell looking back at them, she asked him if he knew about selkies.

“I don’t,” he said.

And so she told him the Irish folktale about the fisherman who came across a beautiful woman sunning herself on the rocks, about how he stood and watched her, captivated by her beauty. He was still gazing at her, enraptured, when she stood, wrapped herself in some sort of skin and then dove into the icy water. After several seconds, instead of her lovely black locks breaking the surface, he saw the head of a seal. The fisherman returned day after day to watch her emerge from the water as a seal and remove her skin to reveal the beautiful woman underneath. Then one day he crept up on her as she slept, stole her skin and took her home. He locked the skin away in a chest, married the woman and raised a family with her. She was a loving wife and mother, but always there was something in her eyes. Then one day one of the children stumbled upon the key, opened the trunk and discovered the skin. When she showed it to her mother, the woman wept, then gathered up her skin, kissed each child, and returned to the sea.

“No wonder seals have such sad eyes,” Miller said.

She loved him for saying that, loved that he understood. She tried to tell him that with her own eyes, but after a night without sleep in the midst of a stretch during which she had gone sleepless far too often, she feared her eyes gave away little if anything more than her ongoing weariness.

“This,” she said, “is part of why we Irish will always be such a sad and tragic people.”

“Not so tragic,” he said, patting her knee. “You’ll always have that particular, peculiarly Irish luck thing going for you, right?”

“It’s only good if you wish it on others,” she’d told him.

“You keep it,” he said, smiling. “I’m already pretty lucky.”

Except for Peggers sniffing around one of the stanchions, she stood alone at the end of the pier, the evening already far too dark for her to see a seal or anything else floating in the water. It had started to rain again, softly at first, but rain that time of year, soft or not, always had more weight than it seemed it should. She heard a fishing boat chugging past halfway across the bay, going the wrong way to be returning to port after a day in open water, only its green starboard light visible from where she stood. She didn’t know what she thought she’d find, but there was nothing for her here. She smoked one last cigarette, then whistled for the dog, returned to her car and drove up the hill to her father’s.

They ate a quiet dinner, after which she left him alone with his wine and sad songs and retired to her room. She closed the door behind her, pulled her laptop out and climbed into bed.

The usual hodgepodge of new emails greeted her: students complaining about their grades or pleading for extensions, amnesty, mercy; an update from the department chair; a gripe about the update from one of her fellow grad students; the ever-present announcements that she had been reached out to in various ways via Facebook. There were messages from two women from the old crew who still spoke to her – the ones who had never liked Miller to begin with and so were glad to see her done with him. They wondered how she was, why they hadn’t heard from her, hoped to see her soon. As she read the second message, the one from Cakester, she noticed a green dot pop up just below her own name in the sidebar and glanced to see who it was.

Miller. She stared at the dot, checked to ensure that there was a similar dot beside her own name. She bit her lip, took a very deep breath, and slowly plucked at one eyebrow. The dot didn’t go away, and half of her wished that in the next moment she’d hear a plip and see a few words from him pop up in the corner of the screen, even though more than half of her knew that wouldn’t happen.

She was reminded again of The Great Gatsby, a book he’d recommended to her not long after they’d first met – in fact, he had let her read his own dog-eared, marked-up copy. She loved it, loved the story, but especially loved reading the passages he had underlined, loved stumbling across the notes he’d written in the margins. She loved seeing Miller’s younger self through the pages, younger even when he had first read that book than she was when he had handed it to her. She lay in bed with the laptop open in front of her and thought about Gatsby standing at the edge of his blue lawn, casting his eyes across the water to the green light that glowed at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s dock. He’d convinced himself it was a beacon of hope, but in truth it was like following the will-’o-the-wisp into the swamp. She considered how things might have gone differently for Gatsby had the green light never appeared, or if, at some point before he’d hopelessly mired himself in the morass, the light had simply vanished, flickered and gone out. Would his life have been spared, or would the sudden absence of the green light have hastened his end? Impossible to know, and because she was a practical girl, a scientist ultimately, she could only base her conclusion in this matter on known outcomes, of which there was only one: Gatsby’s hopes clung to the green light, which was never extinguished, which shone on even after Myrtle Wilson’s cuckolded husband staggered through the hedge to find Gatsby floating in the pool, and poor doomed Gatsby met his tragic, untimely death. The only concrete evidence she had was that which resulted from the green light’s unending presence, and thus Kate believed – fairly knew – that her own hope would have to rest upon an admittedly weak hypothesis that followed the opposite path. His name on the screen and the green dot beside it blurred as tears welled in her eyes. She tipped her head back and let the tears slide down her cheeks and down the back of her neck.

An instant later she sat upright again, shook her head, steadied her breath, then clicked on the drop-down arrow beside her name. With her eyes she scrolled down the status options until she saw the word “Invisible.” She inhaled a slow, deep breath and let it out just as slowly and evenly, her hand poised above the touchpad, then with her little finger she moved the cursor and pressed down, extinguishing the green light forever.

No comments:

Post a Comment