I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
There’s a place past breathing, I’ve heard somewhere, discovered by deep-sea divers who swim ten stories down on a lungful of air. Past the pain. If you ignore the body’s screaming, call its bluff, you enter a plain of stillness and light: the heart’s tantrum passes, the lungs take back their shape. You swim on. Unlikely things begin to appear, serene and irrefutable. Eventually, according to those who have lived, dragged to the surface with ropes, you begin to laugh, which means you’re finally dying.
A month ago I walked into the living room just in time to see the house, my house, go by on the evening news. I recognized it right away: the mossy awning, the garage, the small black window behind which I stood, presumably, watching my house go by on the news, and then it was gone. I hadn’t seen it in 16 years.
For a moment I felt something move, like in a dream when you can hear things—other things—through it. I changed the channel. Young people in torn clothing were turning something on a spit. A fat woman wept. A judge pounded his gavel. I kept switching. When the electricity went out, I sat in the dark and ate. Every few seconds the world lit up—a soft flash, no thunder. I could see everything: the bureau, the entrance to the kitchen, the plate on my lap. It began to rain.
It’s not what you think. I’m not like the ones you find sitting on piles of filthy bedding after a row house fire in Allentown. I’ve kept myself in good health. I don’t smell of cat urine. It’s just that I prefer my own company. It’s not unreasonable. I live in Florida. Ten minutes away, unless it’s moved, is the bus stop where Ratzo Rizzo came to die.
Things happen the way they do, or did. My mother and father immigrated from Berlin soon after the war—nothing sinister; father was in air conditioning, so … Florida. Now I’m the one in air conditioning. When they died—it’s been so many years now I can’t recall their faces—I moved into the house with my husband, Stanislav, where we lived, happily shaking the dew from our days until one night he rolled off me and said “I can’t do this.” He was looking up at the ceiling as if reading a message someone had written there. “I’m seeing someone,” he read, and I said, “Seeing?” and he sighed and said, “All right, I’m fucking someone, I’m in love with someone,” and that, as they say, was that.
Did I love him? Maybe I did. It doesn’t matter. I took it badly, I’m not sure why, exactly. People are like bones—they break differently.
I stayed on after he left. The world felt loose to me suddenly, like a table you can’t quite lean on—myself, I could trust. Eventually I grew used to things, like everyone does. It’s our great strength—no outrage on earth we can’t make our own. And that’s it. The mail comes, the mail goes. I have the food delivered to a small refrigerator on the front porch. I pay the bills. I’ve been blessed, it seems, with quality appliances; repairmen come rarely.
Do I ever wish that things might have been otherwise? I’m 62 years old—I’ve made my bed. I prefer it, given the choices. And anyway, it comes to the same thing: everything ends, and sooner than we’d like. The half-life of love is not that long.
I can tell you this: aloneness does things. Your face in the mirror becomes her face, too. The furniture comes out of its shell. After a year the bureau, the vanity, the worn chair in which you eat your meals, all have a point of view. After two, they can make you angry. Dreams flare, then die. You want to be still. To be left alone. To not have to move until you don’t have to. I know how it sounds, but trust me—there’s some peace in this.
All of which explains why these things that have been happening to me lately have affected me the way they have, why the sight of my house, for example, gliding by as if on a conveyer belt, troubled me as much as it did. You get sensitive—I won’t deny it. When you’ve spent 16 years looking out, you don’t want to think about looking in. When you’re sitting alone in a room, a room you’ve spent 16 years emptying of everything, of time, of dust, until it roars like a shell, the sound of someone clearing their throat can stop your heart. It’s reasonable enough. You make your place, draw your lines. It should be your choice, who comes in, who crosses over, who doesn’t.
Two weeks ago I dropped my glasses behind the couch, but when I tried to pull the couch out from the wall, it wouldn’t move. It seemed stuck on something. There were no nails. I checked the rug to see if it was in the way, then tried again. Nothing. A slight tearing sound. I went into the kitchen for a flashlight. At first I couldn’t understand what I was looking at: there was some kind of cord wrapped around the hind legs; the undersides of the cushions had sprouted leaves.
I cut the legs free with a knife and a pair of pliers, but even afterward, with the couch lying on its back in the middle of the room and the vine in pieces on the rug, I couldn’t understand what it could have wanted. It had come through a crack in the wall, pried its way deep into the springs and cushions. I kept pulling and pulling, sickened by the sound of ripping from inside. A pencil-thin shoot, strong as twine, had crawled around the back of the bookshelf; when I yanked on it, the shelf began to tip forward. I followed it up to a hole in the backboard. Behind the top row of books I found a wiry little nest, like hair.
It wasn’t so unreasonable, I told myself; strange, yes, but not unreasonable. This was Florida, after all. All sorts of aggressive things grow in this climate. Over the next few days I pulled the couch out, reassured each time it slid across the floor, to check the spot where I’d sawed the vine flat to the wall. It looked like the scar after a mole is removed. It seemed dead. To make sure, I forced it back out with the tip of a screwdriver, then covered the crack with duct tape. I didn’t think about it again until the evangelists came.
Usually, you see, I’d see them coming up the drive, wiping their faces with their handkerchiefs, and just go into the bedroom until they left. They never lasted long. For some reason they’d always come by around midday, and it’s over a hundred on the porch at midday.
This time I just looked up and there he was at the window, looking at me. I couldn’t move. There was something grotesque about him, something slack and distended, as though he’d been bigger once and some air had been let out of some places. He just stood there, staring at me. I couldn’t move. I could feel my blood thickening like tar, filling up my throat. And then he stuck out his tongue, licked two fingers, and began to rub something on his cheekbone. Turning his head slightly to the side he rubbed some more, then wiped his face with his tie.
I don’t know what it was—relief, maybe—but at that moment I felt a short, sharp spasm, vague as a memory. I could see the sweat trickling down his face and neck. It must have been some quirk in the glass: When he looked at me, all he could see was himself looking in, or the books behind my chair. I began to wonder how long he’d last, and why he’d bother. Had he heard something? At some point he took a coin out of his pocket and tapped it on the glass and I could see the wet matted hair on his arm.
He was stronger than I thought. When he finally stepped back and looked up at the roof as if he might find me sitting there, then threw his jacket over his shoulder and walked away, I felt sick to my stomach.
By the time the hurricane came, I’d started dreaming again. I hadn’t asked for it. The men from the grocery store sank everything the wind could take in the pool, then nailed the boards over the windows, quickly dimming the house into dusk—and left. That night I watched Abel coming on TV—the heavy, swinging traffic lights, the horizontal rain, the young newscaster leaning into the wind, his clothes trapped against his body like birds—then sat in the dark when the electricity went out and listened to the wind scream, the rolling, hammering sound of things torn loose … The night before I’d been in a house crammed with tables and dressers and doors, leaning against each other like cards, and as I walked down a hallway lined with well-lit rooms like a train going by at night I saw my father sitting in a wingback chair, staring out into the hall at the spot I’d just walked through.
I want to be very calm, very precise when I say this. The day after Abel left the men came and took the boards off the windows. The rain had stopped but the wind still gusted up now and then, shaking the palms, turning the puddles to iron, then back. By evening it was dead and beautiful, every point dripping water, huge, man-of-war-purple clouds growing to the west. I went out after dark, as I always do, to take out of the pool whatever had fallen into it. There wasn’t much—a few palmetto bugs, one of those splinter-thin lizards that nod and jerk in the shrubbery, a small white moth … I scooped them up carefully so they wouldn’t come apart and walked out the screen door. As I threw them into the dark I noticed a round depression in the soaking grass, as if a statue had recently stood there, and realized I was looking at a cat print the size of a plate. I just stood there, holding the frying pan spatter guard I’ve used ever since a guinea pig I once found in the pool broke my net. Then I started to shake.
For a moment I thought it might be a joke—some kid with a plastic tiger-paw on a stick. It was what it was. There was a ridge, like a miniature cliff, where the weight had pressed the upper part of the heel into the dirt. I ran my finger over it. I had to. Then I walked back to the house and turned on the outer light to see if I could find another one and did, a bit harder to make out this time, because the grass was better there, but as real as anything between heaven and earth. I looked around. Nothing moved. I wanted to laugh. I could see the ovals of the claw pads, the triangle of the heel. Then, only a few feet from the hedge, I found a hairy pile of stuff specked with bits of bone, and knew. You could imagine tracks, I thought. Nobody imagines shit. I went back inside.
I knew what it was, of course. It had happened before; a hurricane had come through, some animals had escaped from their enclosures … I started watching the news to see if one of the big cats had escaped from the zoo, but there was nothing, nothing at all, and then it occurred to me that if one had actually gotten out, they might try to get it back inside quietly to avoid a panic. It seemed plausible.
All the next day I kept expecting to see something, police cars, men with rifles and nets, the sound of helicopters beating the air, but there was nothing. I couldn’t explain it. By late afternoon I’d begun to doubt myself, as anyone would, so I went out again—in the daylight this time. The tracks were just where I’d left them, along with new ones from the night before. I could see it perfectly. I could see where he’d come over the fence, unstoppable, where the huge front paws had touched down. The neighbor’s irritating little dog, I noticed, was not on its chain. Sure enough, when I looked I could see where he’d stopped the night before, suddenly sensing the dog on his chain, where he’d moved along the fence, trying to find an opening, where he’d pivoted, gathered and leaped—here were the big stripes of dirt where the claws had dug in—effortlessly clearing the fence, the hedge, the shrubs …
There was nothing else to do. To try to sleep would have been insane, truly. I was 62 years old. When would I ever have a chance like this again? I wanted to see him. I pulled a couch under the big screen window over the pool. I worried for a while about what to wear—something dark seemed the obvious choice, but the couch itself was almost white. I finally decided on a dark top, which wouldn’t show against the wall, and a light pair of slacks. I ate a small dinner, then went out to the veranda, into the heat, and arranged the cushions. It had started to rain again. You could hear it here, pounding on the tin roof. I knelt on the couch, my arms on the sill. It was quite dark, and now and then I could feel something small and tight move in my chest.
He came an hour or two before morning, an unbelievable thing. One moment there was just the spellbound yard, still as death, the next he was there, touching down, right foot, then left, soft as a cloud, mountainous. I’d never seen anything like him. I never will again. He didn’t move so much as flow over the ground, his huge head down between his shoulders … I could see the stripes, sinuous as smoke—he seemed boundless, uncontainable.
I watched him sniff like a dog at the rusted sink that my father had put out by the fence, then move in a heavy, gliding trot to the outside screen. There was something presumptuous about the way he went from spot to spot, disdainful, methodical; he was looking for something. At the corner of the screened enclosure, a few feet from the door, he abruptly stopped short and I felt my bladder give a little. He’d smelled me, I thought. For a long time—ten seconds, maybe more—he didn’t move; then, slightly raising his powerful hindquarters, he gave a kind of convulsive jerk, then another and I heard the thick, obscene jets hitting the stones of the patio. Finished, he walked to the strip of grass between the screen and the fence and settled himself on the ground, haunches first. My god, he was beautiful. He lay on his side for a while looking over the grass, then turned on his back, and was still. An hour passed. At times I could barely make him out—just a huge black shape against the grass. He seemed to fill the yard.
The next thing I knew he was up and pawing at the screen door to the pool. He got a claw in and the door swung open. For the first time I began to be afraid. I was kneeling, completely unprotected, on a sofa behind a screen. I couldn’t seem to draw a full breath. My thighs were jerking uncontrollably. I watched him walk to the pool past the deck chair, past the place with the missing tiles, the pile of rotten carpets. He was right there. I could see the muscles in his legs, his billiard-sized balls swinging in their velvet sack. He stopped, listening, then dipped his huge head to the water. He was so close now I could hear the soft slap of his tongue touching the roof of his mouth.
I didn’t move. I couldn’t move. I watched him drink, then wade slowly into the warm water at the shallow end, only his head and shoulders showing above the water. The window, the screen, were nothing—I knew that. These things were like air to him.
And then he looked up from the water and rose in a great, ripping gush and suddenly he was there in front of my window, his head like a boulder, the huge bulk of his body moving up against the wall like a ship coming into port, searching … and then he stopped and I knew he’d seen me. He froze in place, magnificent, arrogant—he was so close I could hear him breathing—and then he started rubbing his chin and the side of his face against the wall. He wanted me to touch him. I’m as sure of this as I am of anything in my life: He wanted me to touch him. Ten seconds later he was gone, gliding out the screen door, up and over the fence—gone.
I spent today in the garage. I’ve never known it so hot. In the back corner I found some half-inch copper pipe. I cut seven pieces with the metal saw, each two feet long, then put them in the vice and filed the ends sharp as razors. I mixed some cement.
I can see where he takes the fence. Where the big paws come down. Where that great striped belly just strokes the dirt. I’ve planted them all in a row like a crop. A bed of pikes. Of copper teeth. The cement will take in three hours. I’ve gone out to check it twice. You make your place, draw your lines.
It’s only three o’clock. I can hear the air conditioners roaring in the back rooms. You know it’s bad when the glass on the doors feels hot to the touch. Some days I imagine it getting hotter and hotter till the sky turns red and the grass starts to smoke and the phone lines glow like hair in a fire.
Mark Slouka’s Essays from the Nick of Time will be published in October by Graywolf. The author of a collection of stories, Lost Lake (2002), as well as two novels, God’s Fool (2003) and The Visible World (2008), his stories have previously appeared in Harper’s, The Paris Review, Granta, and other publications.
This issue of First Proof is funded in part by the Bertha and Isaac Lieberman Foundation and the Thanksgiving Fund.
Additional funding is provided by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, The New York State Council on the Arts, and readers like you.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee