It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes at the movies the projectionist will accidentally thread the wrong reel. We’re sitting in the dark, happily watching a woman riding bareback through the woods, whipping the beast between her legs to go faster so that she might reach the manor house in time to warn her brothers about the impostor priest, when abruptly the scene shifts to a game of dominoes at a card table on the street in Cairo. There’s a moment of silent incomprehension and then our voices rise as one in a bloodthirsty plea to give us back the heroine’s desperate ride.
That pretty much sums up the state of my mind the next morning. Of course, the scene hadn’t shifted quite so abruptly, but something had definitely gone wrong, events had slipped out of position, and yet nobody around me appeared to notice. What could I do but assume I’d missed a beat and proceed as if one moment followed the next, as a drop of water follows another from a leaky faucet?
In fact, if I had to pinpoint the moment when my world started to look a little off, it was when I was trying to recollect a scene from a movie. In this scene, the elevator doors part, and as the hero exits he steps right over a freshly killed body. Barely glancing down, buttoning or unbuttoning his white tuxedo jacket, he steps nonchalantly over the corpse and continues down the hall. A body in the lobby doesn’t faze him in the least. Quite possibly the hero wears a mustache.
Nothing else about the movie remained in my memory. Did I see it on the big screen or on TV? Was it during my childhood in southern California, when I saw so many movies that the whole time came to feel like one continuous feature? Or in college, when the campus cinema was at least a biweekly destination? Undoubtedly the memory was 20 or more years old.
The elevator softly came to a rest on L, but the doors remained shut. Just then there was a boom in the distance, either a series of small explosions at a slight distance or a massive, reverberating explosion at a great distance, and the lights went dead. I pounded on door with my fist, shouting, “Help! Heyelp!”
In total darkness, I ran at the door from a distance of three feet, smacking shoulder-knees-forehead—damn!—into the painted steel. Finally, I found a button that made the doors give a few inches, allowing me to slide my hands between two greasy black gaskets and pry one side back.
The hero steps over the body. I couldn’t say whether this gesture was meant to demonstrate callousness or cluelessness, but the scene popped into my mind nearly every time I rode an elevator down and invariably when I rode a hotel elevator down. The doors would part, and I would glance down, telling myself that if there was a corpse, I should casually step over.
The elevator doors of the Brahms North Suites opened, and I checked, but there was nobody down there. I stood in the lobby, wondering what time it was and trying to decide whether to go back up and get the wristwatch I’d left on the night stand. I hated going back. It was unlike me to leave something behind. Staying in a hotel—and the reason for staying there—had disrupted my custom.
“Hayden Shivers, take my phone.”
My diaphragm bucked. When I turned, an uncomfortable memory came loose like a tooth.
Miyumi Park surprised me in the elevator, but most of the time I couldn’t help feeling like I was the one catching her off guard. She’d be rattling off policies and positions in a metallic voice stamped by three years of graduate school in industrial relations when she’d look up at the prescribed moment to make eye contact and a shadow would pass over her eyes as she realized the inconsequence of her quarry. Her mouth would slacken to an O, which she would expertly suppress a tenth of a second later. But there it was. The O reappeared quite predictably, each time vanishing before the rest of the exclamation could be expressed, but we both knew it was: Oh, it’s only you.
I’d smile crookedly, she’d blush, and the moment would pass. It was almost flirtation, and I tried not to take it as an insult.
She led me to a dim corner of the atrium, where a pair of easy chairs faced each other beneath the mother-of-pearl face of a grandfather clock stuck at almost noon or almost midnight. Or maybe not stuck. Without a pendulum swinging or a second hand sweeping, I couldn’t tell. My stomach told me it was closer to 3:00. Miyumi never stopped smiling, letting the winter light play a melody on her lips.
“Okay, here’s your big chance,” she said. “You’re Drixa Director Lionel Dawson, and the car you sent for your lunch companions is late. Tell them it’s not acceptable.”
I let some gravel into my larynx: “This is Lionel. The car I sent . . . Yes, no, it’s still not there. This is unacceptable.” I asked rhetorically, “How long have they been waiting there? Upwards of 20 minutes?”
“Upwards,” she confirmed.
“Upwards,” I repeated and hit the off button.
“Onwards,” she said, slipping the phone back into my pocket, a gesture more intimate than anything that had transpired before. She took my arm and walked me to the car at the moment it rolled into the breezeway. “This will all be cleared up later this evening. You’ll be right where you belong. An Executive Suite with Jacuzzi, fireplace, fluffy robes, and a riverview.” She parted her lips with the confidence of someone who had spent long years listening and could now speak effectively and appropriately: “In 1899 they changed the direction of the Chicago River. Isn’t it astonishing? Think about that next time you’re struggling to part your hair straight.”
I smiled back, wondering if I’d been mistaken for somebody else. Yet I hadn’t done anything to give a false impression. True, I hadn’t said, “I’m not who you think I am. I’m just staying at the hotel while my wife, my estranged wife, packs her things and our kid.” But nobody had asked.
If confronted, I was ready to assert that I thought she was somebody else.
“How do you change the direction of a river?” Miyumi asked. Job interviews often went like this, testing a candidate’s creative reasoning. Maybe mine had resumed. Maybe it had never paused.
“First you dam it up, I suppose, and then you alter the inclination of the riverbed. Then you sort of teach the water to flow backwards, and gradually it gets accustomed to the new direction. They’ll be in trouble if they ever have to change it back, though.”
She seemed to think what I said was cute. I wished I’d shaved.
I wished I were wearing a button-down oxford instead of a t-shirt that said 2009 Tournament of Roses.
I wished Ginelle hadn’t been awarded full custody of the kid at the pretrial hearing. My divorce lawyer had led me to believe this was the last thing that would happen, but when it did happen, he said things turned out better than expected, considering. My wife wore ballet slippers around the house, so she was always startling me. I missed that.
Ginelle never asked me to leave. She let me figure out for myself what had to be done. She wouldn’t reply when I used the word “our,” or referred to a future event: “Do you want to go the Dells for the Fourth again this year?” If I repeated myself, she’d fix me with an exasperated stare. Eventually, the drift was caught, lawyers enlisted, bags packed—mine, naturally, since the house belonged to her family.
The inexperienced driver missed obvious chances to change into faster lanes. I wondered where everyone was going and why they didn’t just walk. Traffic was terrible, but traffic was always terrible. “I still have a few questions,” I announced.
“So do I!” she replied, on the brink of a giggle. “I’m just glad you said it first. It’s all happening so fast, isn’t it?”
“In a way.”
“It is pretty funny when you think about it,” she said, checking the time on her watch before resting a hand on my knee. “But at least we’re keeping our sense of humor.”
This was the hand that had grasped the back of my legs, these were the shoulders I’d nibbled, that lock of hair had dangled in my face. There were enough of each other’s molecules on each other’s bodies that any DNA hobbyist could easily prove that congress had transpired. Acts of congress. And yet the moment was gone, and I was left wondering whether it had helped or hurt my chances at the top spot.
As we drove on toward our appointment, inching through an agony of traffic, I found myself savoring my own ignorance, the pleasure of rolling through unexplained circumstance. It pains me now to remember that peculiar pleasure, like the memory of a gorgeous bird of prey approaching. And the river ran through the city like film through a projector.
—Mark Swartz is the author of Instant Karma (City Lights, 2002). “Waters of Forgetfulness” is excerpted from a new novel forthcoming from Soft Skull Press. Swartz works in the marketing department of The Museum of Modern Art and lives in Washington Heights with his wife and baby daughter.