A Storyby Susan Minot
Riding back from her studio, Ivy thought, I’ll just stop for a minute.
She didn’t have the time, but already they’d been here a month and she’d not gone. The sitter had to leave at five-thirty, there was supper to make, but it was pathetic she’d not checked out what was being broadcast all over the world. At an earlier time in her life she would have been here—righteous, smoking cigarettes, stubbornly dug in. She had the time then to be a volunteer, stuffing envelopes for Oxfam, canvassing for the Vietnam vet running for office.
She found a parking sign, propped her bike wheel with a boot, and wound the chain around the hole-studded signpost. She fiddled with the padlock till the shackle clicked.
She stood. Wind barreled down the skyscrapers, tilting in over the small patch of park. A canopy of fluttering orange leaves hovered over polished marble slabs descending in steps. A bank of lumpy sleeping bags and blankets compressed like trash was covered with blue plastic patchwork. The park itself looked crisp and new, smaller than she’d pictured, and less ramshackle.
Hair blew across her face. She felt for her hair elastic. Gone. Probably on the studio floor, stuck in glue. That was annoying. She always kept her hair tied back. Tucking loose strands into her jacket collar, she crossed the street, to pace the perimeter first.
The images she’d seen in the press and on the screen were decidedly more monumental than what was before her. Of course, it was always that way. Things in front of you turned smaller and seemingly less substantial than in a beamed photograph, despite the fact that the real thing was three-dimensional and more substantial and more complex. In front of you it was actually real, and what was more compelling than real? Images of real, apparently. As a painter, she was hardly surprised at the thought. But one could always be struck newly by old things if they came at you a different way.
She strode down the tilting concrete, walking, as usual, alone. She noticed that for some time now she was either alone or with her son. It was one or the other. Walking with Nicky she never ceased to be amazed at the unquestioning acceptance of children, this one holding her hand, wholly united to the fact that this was where he was meant to be, beside her. He was eight, so you’d think she’d have grown accustomed to it by now. But no. Alone, however, she was never amazed at that, at being alone.
Plywood barricades rose up at the end of the block, hiding the perpetual crater of construction. Rebuilding was still going on, Jesus, after, what was it now, nine years? One couldn’t pass through this neighborhood without thinking of that day. If you’d been in New York, you had your story. Hers: out in the morning exercising, the crisp sunlight, a September sky smooth as blue glass, and the strange sight: the high, pale building with a plume of white smoke furling out of a black hole torn at the top. How could an airplane have been that out of control? And then the mounting awareness, as fire trucks sirened southward and shopkeepers stood with crossed arms outside their doors, that this was not an accident. Then someone at a bus stop—everyone stood staring—saying a plane had hit the Pentagon. On the strangely traffic-less Lafayette Street, she watched men in dark suits with briefcases and women in skirts walking rapidly by, manic, stiff-kneed. After they passed, she saw their whole backsides down to their feet powdered white. Later in Washington Square she stood among milling people facing down West Broadway to the towers engulfed in foggy smoke. Strangers muttered to one another, How many people were in there? How many floors did it—? when in an instant, the building in front of them dropped like a soufflé, sending off a giant puff of white, vanishing before their eyes. A moan emanated from the crowd. People stood frozen, then they looked down, they looked back, they didn’t move.
The park sidewalk where she walked now was empty, the uninteresting outside of the encampment. Across the street alongside the base of the skyscrapers busy working people were scurrying up and down the undetected hill, entering mammoth entryways, coattails flapping, their shopping bags twisting in the October wind.
The vision had been like a hallucination. That was the phrase everyone used, You couldn’t believe what you were seeing. And yet while her brain immediately recognized that it was unworldly, she also knew it was something that would never leave her. Out of the thousands of images she afterward saw of that morning, none were from the precise place where she stood, as her knees buckled, dropping as the building dropped. That was one time when what was in front of her didn’t come close to what she saw depicted later.
The sun was no longer visible behind the buildings though the sky would be light for another few hours. She wondered, as she paced down the slope of the sidewalk, how many people had actually witnessed it, the murder of thousands of people, and how many kept the vision of it inside them and if they felt a custodian of it and how it inhabited them.
It looked like a statue, then she saw it was a man, draped in a black cloak with a Darth Vader helmet, standing unmoving on one of the polished beige platforms. Around his neck was a sign: I am one of the 99%.
The movement had been both criticized and praised for its lack of definition. No leader, no clear agenda, simply a forthright expression of dissatisfaction with economic inequality.
She continued along the perimeter. The wind funneling down the building crashed onto the sidewalk like a waterfall, spinning leaves in its turbulence.
If he were here, she thought, he’d be here.
She felt a small triumph that she’d not thought of him for—how long was it? Well, a few minutes at least.
Now the thought of him was back. She didn’t know if he was even in town. He was more likely away, on assignment. He was usually somewhere else, never staying in touch, at least not with her. She had not entered into the media cloud till now, being of an earlier generation, and for the first time she learned what it was to peer into the portals and get great jolts to see his face—interviewed in a radio studio, whistling over a woman walking as he filmed her, and her eyes glittering toward the camera. It had been three weeks since she’d—
Jesus, that person must be freezing.
She’d reached the bottom of the park, where in the open half shell of it a man without a shirt was dancing, his hands miming a giant braid. A drum beat dully, a tambourine banged a hip, and women twirled long ribbons. A sign propped on a bucket said Make Music Not Money. As if unsure how much she was ready to engage, Ivy swerved from the circling arms of a woman in a pom-pom genie top and entered the park.
Between planted squares where thin trees shook, the paths were choked with boxes and bundles roped down like ship cargo. Plastic tarps were scattered all around, some curled like wrapping paper, some sloppily folded. It had been raining the past few days and things looked damp. Ivy passed a small lean-to and saw inside a girl with dreadlocks, arms looped over a bearded dog, and a young man with knees pink in the cold, sewing what looked like a pouch.
Yellow police tape draped like garlands over low box shrubs. A gray-bearded man in a lumberjack coat sat in front of a blue-flamed Bunsen burner, stirring something in a small pot. He gazed through Ivy when she passed, as if admiring a distant valley. He could have been anywhere. Ivy took note of other faces, these people who had managed to suspend their lives in order to express their disapproval of the unjust ways of the world. They shared a purposeful expression. The look said, I have a cause, a conviction, I entertain no doubts. It said, I am united with others. Ivy envied it. Could things be that simple? She’d thought so once, but now . . . she thought of Nicky. He had that simplicity of expression. But, then, he was eight years old.
A plump young woman with a pink sweater slipping off her creamy shoulder regarded Ivy with startled eyes beneath high-arched penciled brows and muttered something anxious. She looked crazy. Near her were two young men on wire crates. One stuffed a wad of chewing tobacco in his lower lip, listening to his friend, who was saying, I told her, Hey, I’m not here to fuck you either . . .
She stumbled against a hand-painted shingle wedged between plastic bags: This Is So Not Over. There was a variety of signage: What would Jesus say? Fuck Google. Greed Is an Addiction. REVOLT. Eat the Rich. Beside a sad-faced man in a battered parka was the explanation: Fired for Not Being Rich Enough. She picked up a theme: outrage with a core of fury. Or was it fury with a core of outrage? Next to some cold crimson chrysanthemums a poster with the cut-out letters of a ransom note: I am here because I am scared for my country. Beside it, another perspective: Sex Workers Against Capitalism. She looked with interest for the custodians of this sign but saw only a man in a Lapland hat, flaps over earbuds, head bobbing to music.
Here was a fellow in army fatigues with dark glasses, so she could not tell where he was looking. Around his neck hung a roped piece of cardboard with uneven letters in Magic Marker:
They sent me to
war and made me
Kill Then shipped
me back and gave
me the bill
Another sign: Enough is enough. Can’t argue with that. Again came the thought of the man. Because she, of him, had not had enough. She would, of course, at one point. Anyone could see that. But not yet. Not enough yet. A few times already she had shaken him off in frustration. In the vacancy following her decision, the frustration became paltry in the strange quake of his absence. Problem was that the thought of him, or anything connected to him, was the most pleasant thing in her life. It was at a remove from her life and had sex in it and unstrung feeling.
The pleasure was different from the voluptuous and rooted sense of well-being she felt as Nicky’s pajama-ed weight increased on her upper arm as he fell asleep, twitching like an electric wire shorting. That was another pleasure. But thoughts of the man were contained apart from the world, nothing affected them, it was as if they were in a glass room, alone. Thoughts carried shreds of the earlier life she’d had before marrying—of sleeping on floors with terra-cotta tiles, of waking at dawn to the sun behind lines of smoke rising from beds of ashes, of riding in open cars over plains of cracked mud.
She heard someone speaking German and saw a Japanese woman in white being trailed by a man with a camera holding a mic. Other places in the world were often more interested in certain American things than Americans were.
In her brain there always was someone. She would look to that shadowy area in her mind, and there the someone would be: the man she was thinking of.
For years her husband was the one in residence. Since their split more than two years ago, the place he’d been was now a singed crater, with his ghostly figure hovering over it like a hologram. In her mind’s eye, their son, Nicky, stood peering down into the scorched hole, baffled and bereft. It was killing. She did her best to distract him from the giant hole in their lives, as if there were any act that could keep a boy from noticing that his father was no longer around. Regardless, much energy and attention went into the effort.
Then in crashed the man. He had no intention of crashing in. He merely appeared, interested. As far as he was concerned she was simply another girl who, when he gestured with his hand to come sit closer to him on the couch, sidled obediently over to his firm, round shoulder. But to her it was monumental. The surprise of being close to the face of a man other than Nicky’s dad was so massive she could barely breathe. He kissed her, having no intention of making an impression, merely liking to kiss, and being rather good at it. He liked the rest of it too and was good at that as well.
She wove through the maze of bundles and plastic bags, the occasional lean-to, the fidgeting squares of Tibetan flags. He would surely have been here already, filing a report. People wanted to hear from the man, the photographer kidnapped in Iraq who’d escaped after three years. That he was handsome was part of it, that he escaped by having a woman fall in love with him added to the cachet. She pictured him here, weaving among the protesters, sitting with them on their bundles, filming the signs shaking in the wind. She somehow felt like him, being here. He had a sharp, slow take on things, earned through endurance, and it made her feel sharper when she was near it. She wondered if he would have found something less than heroic here . . . Wait, what did she think? Forget about him. She thought, At least they were trying. At least they bothered. At least they were showing up.
For indeed, what had she done all day? Hovered over her canvas, like a hawk searching the shallows far below for the shadow of a fish. In the morning, pushed little socks over little feet, thrown out the uneaten cereal, stuffed down impatience, and then once she’d left her son, even more concerned about him in absentia, hoping he was engaged, happy, fed, safe . . .
Still, she did note the people here had the air of people on vacation, of people waiting for a bus. They did march, so she was seeing them in a lull. This was their just being, yet there was a decidedly ironic atmosphere of the unengaged. No one except the crazy girl had even looked at Ivy as she walked by. It was like being on the subway in close quarters and not making eye contact. They were smoking cigarettes, picking at sandwiches in tinfoil. One girl lay asleep with an open mouth, unguarded and trusting, her presence statement enough.
A blast of wind sent the leaves spinning, minnows on the stems, some at the right moment for letting go. Ivy’s hair scribbled over her face, blinding her. She gathered the strands back into her collar and flashed on a hand gripping her hair like rope. Thank goodness people couldn’t see the visions in one’s head.
She passed a child’s chair and thought with relief of Nicky. He was among the toys on the living room rug. He wanted her to make the sound of the ambulance, he wanted her to describe again who she was rescuing. No, you said that he broke his arm. Do that again, Mumma. You forgot the person coming out of the store, he has to listen to the heart. Scenarios had to be kept to form. Ivy kept the spirit of it up, till, worn down, spirit fell into robotic performance, and she felt her head divide like an orange into sections. This, the same brain that would go white when she was shoved against the wall inside his door, still in her winter coat.
Through the trees she saw containers covered in tinfoil and a man in a hat pouring oil into bottles. Much had been written about the fluid mode of organization. Again she wondered what the man would think, and of his unusual take on things. Again she stopped herself to avoid meeting the cul-de-sac of indifference he inhabited. Instead she focused on his actual room, where he did not act indifferent. In the day it was white with black accents; in the night it was black with white, and in it she found radiance.
Initially he’d been an interesting conversation for the girls. She had to tell someone about it. This blaze. Wow, they said, shiny-eyed. Fun. Good for you. Then, as things with the man became less forthright, the girls, stalwart and married, squared off against him. On her behalf, they decided he wasn’t good enough. You don’t want that, they said. But she did, she did want it.
They didn’t know the cliff of him when he arrived in her doorway. They didn’t know how her body dissolved into his as she lay alongside him. The thing of him was lodged somehow in her chest, at the same time like a bat flying about in the unilluminated cave of her head. After she left the cool and the hot hours in his rooms, she would find herself in a hypnotic state, moving zombielike. It was so—
Her knee knocked something to the ground. Whoops. She picked it up. A book. A woman in a plaid coat briskly thwonking paperbacks into stacks glanced with irritation over her shoulder. Crates surrounded her with the labels Politics. Philosophy. Novels. Women’s Studies. Would there ever be a box that said Men’s Studies?
Sorry, Ivy said and held out the book. Always so quick to apologize! Sorry.
Don’t mind me. It was always the first reaction. The people here—wedging their signs with water jugs in the wind, leaning their heads on each other’s laps—weren’t apologizing. That was refreshing. If you were a protester it was the last thing you did: apologize. Twenty years ago Ivy had been knocking on frozen doors in the suburbs of Boston, interrupting people having warm yellow dinners with televisions colorfully swimming behind them, asking for money to protest the slaughter of seals in the Arctic. She believed in what she was doing. Even then, though, when the door opened she began with, Sorry to bother you but we are trying to stop—
The book in her hand was a popular novel everyone had loved. Everyone except herself. She had given up on it early. No, no, people said, it gets better. Keep with it! Why did people want you to read a book you didn’t like? They were the same people who wanted you to try the dessert you didn’t want. Really, come on, try, they said, holding up a fork. Maybe they wanted what these protesters were after: the consolation of consensus, the feeling of being united.
The librarian took the book with mustard-colored fingerless gloves. She had lustrous hair piled in a bun on her head and looked like any shopworn clerk. Her attitude said, Go away. It was not, Ivy thought, a very accepting-of-common-humanity attitude.
This a lending library? she said, grateful to address something outside her head. She hadn’t spoken to another person since noon, when she’d left Nicky—school, half day—with the sitter. It was always like popping a bubble to speak after the silent hours in the studio.
The woman sighed with irritation. Ivy continued on.
A fellow in black retro glasses typed on a computer set on a cardboard box the size of a washing machine, now covered with black Xs around a large O, presumably for Occupy. Inside the O was a smiley face. A sign beside his computer said: Available for Interviews.
You want to interview me? Ivy said.
The fellow did not smile. No, he said.
Did he get the joke? She couldn’t tell. She couldn’t always read this generation. It made her feel old, not a feeling she liked.
In the days after she saw the man, everything she looked at would take on his perspective, or at least the perspective she imagined, as if his face were a mask on the inside of her skull and through it she saw a new, vibrant angle on things. He had a more savvy way of looking at things; he was decidedly less of a fool.
Trees, for instance. She loved trees, but now since she’d met the man, trees were more fascinating than ever. The thick trunks with crusty bark and those trippy rings of wood, and all of it born of a tiny seed. And those branches splaying out, governed by nothing but the need to reach, then as if that weren’t enough, sprouting one veined leaf after another, at perfectly placed yet random intervals, then dropping when the cold came, but not dying overall, etc. The miracle of trees! And even here in this concrete and tar, out they grew from bucket-sized areas of earth. He never mentioned them, and yet this man had shown her the miracle of trees.
A gust blew down like the smack of a hand. Blue pamphlets swam past her feet like rays in shallow water. In front of her she read a small sign in orange neon: We Want Our Country Back, Bitches. She turned to leave down the mildly sloping hill.
On the far side of the park through curling spaces she saw another hulking guy with a camera, this one wearing a hoodie and vest. When he moved, she saw next to him a familiar line of neck and shoulder in a brown fatigue jacket. Her heart beat crazily. Jesus, she was even hallucinating him. Instinctively she adjusted her torso to the side. Then, like a bad spy, she pretended to search her pockets for something while glancing over her shoulder. He was on the other side of a row of trees, his back to her, talking to a woman in a pink baseball cap. Ivy moved and nearly stepped on a person lying under a cloud-printed fleece, curled up like a shell.
The man had on a black wool hat, and she’d never seen the shape of his head in a hat. It did not look familiar. No, it wasn’t him.
This man was thinner and his shoulders were narrow and his head was bigger for his body and he had the beginnings of a beard. The man was clean-shaven. At least, he had been when she last saw him. The beard had a reddish tinge.
The wind shook the leaves out like confetti. Maybe it was him. She backtracked to get a better angle. This man seemed smaller. The tilt of his neck toward the woman, listening, gathering information, that did look like him, but the man she knew was taller and wider.
Still, she stayed at a distance, up the hill, watching. Even to see this other man not him, she felt the tight stab of him being somewhere that didn’t include her. He was, she saw, choosing in each and every moment not to be with her. This line of thought shot her through with pain. Stop this, she thought. Get ahold of yourself. She redirected her mind to think of the good things. She would not be able to keep him if she did not think of the good things.
Then the cameraman in the hoodie lowered his camera so the person’s face was straight in her direction. She got another shock; it was not him at all. The person weirdly resembled him, but the features were not his proportion, as if a child had arranged him to look comic, the way Nicky did with Mr. Potato Head. This guy’s forehead seemed indented and his eyes shallow like melted wax. It was even creepy, his mouth thin and starved, not at all the mouth she knew, plump and lovely to kiss. Amazed at the eerie coincidence, she kept furtively glancing. The person appeared to be scouting around for the next thing to film, conferring with the cameraman, tipping his ear. Only a narrow tree trunk blocked his line of vision to her. It didn’t matter; he wasn’t looking in her direction.
For a split second she thought about walking near to see him close-up. But something kept her back. She wasn’t prepared to present herself to anyone, straight from the studio, pale, wind-whipped, drained. She did not have her encountering face on.
In that way, she was relieved it was not him. In the afternoons before arriving at his black-and-white apartment she would feel strangely gleaming, ready to present herself to him, ready to present her body. And there would be the rich, fluid reception. She didn’t feel gleaming now. She trudged toward the top of the park, where the police department’s blue sawhorses made a low fence marking an official edge to the encampment. She watched her legs walking but saw instead his white window and the radiant rim the daylight made around the pleated rice-paper blinds. She saw herself encased in his glass shower with the beads of water clinging and him stepping in that first time, unembarrassed, saying, Excuse me, with a matter-of-fact air, as if the rollicking, tumultuous hours just spent in bed were an everyday occurrence, familiar and regular for him, which she found both good and bad, good that he was an unhurried, zesty lover, bad in the little impact it seemed to have on him. Excuse me, as he reached past her to a bar of soap. It was easy to be unembarrassed, she thought, when one felt little at stake. She passed a dog-eyed man carrying a cardboard holder with four cups of coffee bearing the stamp of the Starbucks maiden. He gracefully swerved to give Ivy room to pass. Thanks, she said. Sorry.
The man was not the most promising person to be infiltrated by. She knew that. But once it had happened, she felt the drive to see it through. It wasn’t like putting down a book you didn’t like. That was easy. This she felt compelled to steer through, taking the explosions of light as illuminations—astonishments lit up when you became close to a person—and not as detonated bombs.
The bright sun went behind a cloud and, even out of view, darkened the buildings, altering the mood. On a bench bolted to the ground, she found a foot-sized space between cartons filled with cans of food and stepped up for a higher view. The cameraman in the hoodie and the man had not strayed from their spot but had their backs turned, looking for new victims. A shiver ran through her; it was colder up here. Her coat was too thin.
A dull rope of despair pulled her ribs. Or maybe it was just fatigue. One hit bland pockets of lethargy or exhaustion a couple of times a day and one just had to forge through them. Usually they happened at the playground as Nicky for the fifth time hauled himself up the—
She looked at her watch. Shit. Twenty-five past five. She jumped off the bench and walked briskly out the nearest exit and half ran up the road to her bike. She was going to be late. The blue Schwinn was splayed off the post; someone had knocked it over. Half the time she returned to find her locked bike dislodged by—what? A car? An angry person kicking it over for fun? The bike was pretty much trashed anyway, so it hardly mattered. Sprinkled with rust, one severed gear wire sprouting in front like an antenna was left permanently outside on the street, no room in the tiny apartment. There was barely enough room for the two of them. The coffin-sized study became a bedroom for Nicky. The apartment was meant for one person, really.
On her bike she glided down the one-way street, tire clicking against something broken or bent. She purposefully did not look in the direction of the hoodied cameraman and his director, whoever it was. Her attention was now on her son. She was the one person on earth looking out for him, and any loosening of that vigilance would result in who knows what manner of harm. Every now and then she was struck by the precariousness of her position, how much his life hinged on hers, how helpless he was without her, and one’s brain would reel thinking of all the children just as helpless who did not have someone they might rely on.
A herd of people poured into the crosswalk at the bottom of the street, seemingly ignorant of the campground in the park. Pedestrians also ignored each other, even as they were able to avoid running into each other. This cooperative behavior was as mysterious, really, as those silvery fish in colossal schools that swept in one direction then another, hundreds of them, so fast, so expertly in time. People were not always aware of what a herd they were.
She canoed along with her foot hitting the ground like a paddle in a lake. The traffic was at a standstill. Horns honked. A white van at her elbow inched forward, staying just far enough to the right so she could not pass.
Impatience flushed through her chest to her forehead: once again she would be late, once again it was her fault. The awareness that she’d allowed it caused more anxiousness than the lateness itself.
Ahead a wide crosswalk was made vaster by blocked-off streets. A traffic cop in the center of it, an orange-and-yellow vest over her dark uniform, was managing the gridlock. She moved her arms, proudly, gracefully, like a conductor. Cars lurched forward at her wave then were immediately stopped in the unmoving next block.
Ivy dismounted. Cars with blinking lights hugged the curb. The slivers between the cars were too narrow, so she humped her wheel onto the sidewalk, swerving urgently. People had decidedly less respect for a pushed bicycle than they did for another human, and she wove past annoyed glances and people stopping uncertainly as if she were about to run them over. A bike was not supposed to be on the sidewalk. Drivers felt the same way about bikes on the road. They didn’t belong there, either.
She got off the curb and swung herself onto the seat. She biked across when the light turned red, sweeping into a vacant area commandeered by construction. No people, no cars. There were orange cones in front of a half-built skyscraper, and steel beams and piles of wood. She pedaled furiously in the space, gaining momentum, and was startled by a construction worker in suspenders who stepped out from behind a shed. He jumped back just in time to avoid being run over.
Hey, he bellowed in a deep street voice. She sped by. No time for him.
Watch out, he yelled after her. You idiot, you’re going to hurt someone!
He was right. It was reckless. But she wasn’t going to say sorry this time, even though this time would have been appropriate. She was in a hurry, for God’s sake. She pumped at the pedals, ignoring the construction worker, ignoring her responsibility to him. This decision to ignore was uncomfortably familiar. And nearly choking her came an eruption of rage toward the man—for not being there, for having captured her attention. A wave of shame for being susceptible and a wave of exhaustion for the shame crashed over her. The construction worker was right, she was an idiot.
She whizzed past a smooth concrete sidewalk, slanting around the corner, and shut her eyes against the shame. When she opened them, immediately in front of her was a patch of road the size of a coffin, filled with sharp cubes of granite. To turn on that would be a skidding disaster, something she knew before even having the thought. She immediately squeezed the hand brake, the one that worked, and the tire halted, freezing the bike upright, pitching her over the handlebars. Arms flung back winglike, she was aware in the slowed-down microsecond of the flight that this was either going to be really bad, or it would be okay. She would be either slightly hurt, or maimed for life.
She flashed on an ICU unit with monitors beeping and a mask over her face. She flashed on Nicky grabbing the monkey bars, his tiny arms swinging his body forward miraculously, checking to see she was watching. She even saw her ex-husband, Henry, his forehead wrinkled with concern, an expression he reserved for rare important moments.
Her chin landed first, with the sound of two rocks hitting each other. A white then black strobe swept through her head. Her body crumpled on the cold tar. A fizzing numbness spiked through her body at the same time a searing burn raked her face. Then an instant of blank.
She blinked and tenderly pushed herself up on an elbow, then a hand. Thank God, she could move. She half sat up. There was a stunning ache around her jaw. Was her throat closing up? She turned her torso in slow motion and saw the angry construction worker striding toward her, his expression now a frown of concern. She touched her chin; it was wet. On the front of her green canvas coat were drips of black blood.
You okay? the construction worker bellowed.
She lifted her arm and waved it stiffly like a trembling flag, unable to speak. The wind had been knocked out of her. All was suspended, stopped. A fine vibration moved through her as if she were a big brass gong hit with a giant mallet. Looking phantomlike to her right she saw some people detaching themselves from the crowded crosswalk and moving toward her. A dark-skinned woman in a colorful patchwork coat approached. She was middle-aged, with close-cropped hair yellow as corn.
Can you hear me? she said in a relaxed tone. She crouched down. Good. Now don’t you worry, we’ve got help coming. A soft hand lay on her knee. She noticed a hole at the elbow of the woman’s jacket.
On her other side a portly man in a pale blue jogging suit loomed above her.
Don’t move, he said, breathing deeply. They’re calling 911. He gestured vaguely back in the direction of the park.
She was relieved of responsibility. For a few moments at least she would not be required to do anything. The left side of her face felt sanded off. How bad was it? If the faces looking down at her were an indication, it was not too good. The air on it gave the sensation of a kind of frozen acid.
Nicky, though. She had to get word to Nicky. As soon as she could speak she would get someone to call the sitter. No, she would get them to call her beloved Irene. Irene would sweep into action, knowing just what to do. She would fetch Nicky and, in her effortless way, bring him back to her happy house with the twins and the dogs and the husband, and feed him dinner because Irene was one of those capable people who knew how to look after things.
The vessel of herself seemed frozen in shock that she’d allowed herself to be so unprotected. She would never have allowed this recklessness with her son, but with herself . . . For a moment she seemed to zoom out of her body, shooting up the looming skyscraper to look down at the gathered crowd, where she saw herself in the center. It was unusual to see herself in the center.
Little thoughts came, as small as the small people below. She took in the gathering around her—the woman in a colorful coat, the jogger with his gut, the construction worker with two striped suspenders—and the corner of her brain, the space where she usually saw the man. What if he were there? She flashed on him bending down, having to help her, aware of how pathetic the thought was.
Everything seemed cleared out inside her. The usual fidgeting was gone, and a wideness stretched through, as if the accident had toppled all extraneous and unimportant things. She saw her son’s face gazing steeply up from his position on the rug as it was when she walked in, his neck vanished, his open gaze receiving her as if she were a column of light. And suddenly she realized that of course it was the man back there. The person had resembled him so much because it was he. It was not a hallucination, it was not a lookalike. It was exactly himself. Ivy’s view had always been close-up. Now from a distance she’d seen his real face, dented and flat, the face of a person she didn’t know and who cared nothing about her.
She heard the one-siren cry of an ambulance and turned to see the red light blinking on top of the white hood as it tried to nudge its way through the traffic.
She was receiving more solicitude from these people than she’d ever gotten from the man. The lines connecting her to him seemed to snap. They snapped so easily, weaker than she’d thought. Here’s your bag, the woman said, and secured the leather strap in her hand.
A deep voice rumbled at her ear, Come on, and she felt herself being hoisted from under her arms. Let’s get you up. She let herself be lifted. Hands at the end of a white sleeve helped her along, to slowly step. Over the white shoulder she saw the ambulance waiting with an open door. Behind, her crumpled bicycle was being righted by the jogger, who was conferring with the construction worker. The construction worker shot her a thumbs-up.
She heard the snap of a stretcher. Here we go, said the deep voice. She turned to see a cheek close-up, dark and smooth, the side of a mustache, and a downcast eye, which seemed to be assessing the problem of her. A firm hand on her lower back made her feel as if she were in a fairy tale, being led to a tower. Here you are, the deep voice said, and she was lowered backward onto a crinkling mattress. A figure in a white jacket stood above her, and she saw his face. His features were concentrating on determining what care he might give. She was a thing outside him that he was tending to. It needed help. Here you are, indeed.
Her shadowy cave was suddenly illuminated, with one whole side torn off. The ache throbbed in her thickening throat, but she felt a huge relief.
What it was exactly she couldn’t describe. Accidents did that: pulled things out of you, pulled you away from yourself. But the relief seemed to be located in the expression on the paramedic’s face. There was no confusion, no mixed signals. It was something one could trust. That, she saw, was the thing to keep in sight. This thing outside herself, something dignified, looking real. If she concentrated long enough maybe she’d be able to take it in.
Whatever it was, the notion made her feel clear as glass. She tried to hold onto it.
Keep this in sight, she thought. Remember this. If she concentrated hard enough she might not lose it again. She was forever wandering in fog and smoke, appearing only here and there. She could not have said what it was she was trying to keep, but she kept praying, anyway, to keep it in sight.
She gazed up at the professional face with its strong, dark forehead. Surely he would know what to do.