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A Window Across the Riverby Brian Morton
SOMETIMES YOU LOSE TOUCH with people for no good reason, even people you love. Nora had lost touch with Isaac five years ago, but he kept coming back to her mind. He would appear to her in dreams (usually looking as if he was disappointed in her); things he'd said to her long ago would bob up into her thoughts; and sometimes when she was in a bookstore she'd drift over to the photography section to see if he'd put out another book. Through year after year of silence, she carried on a conversation with him in her mind.
Every few months she would pick up the phone with the intention of calling him-and then she'd put the phone back down. She wasn't quite sure why they'd finally stopped talking, but something prevented her from reaching out to him again. Maybe there was a good reason after all.
BUT TONIGHT SHE WAS IN a hotel room in the middle of nowhere; it was one in the morning; she'd been trying to get to sleep for hours and she was still bleakly awake; and it was one of those insomniac nights when it seems clear to you that your life has come to nothing, that you've failed at everything that matters and there's no point in trying again, and you know that it might help to talk to someone but you're not sure there's anyone who'd be willing to listen, and you lie there thinking Is it possible to be any more alone than this?
And the only person she wanted to talk to was Isaac.
But do you want to get back into that? She didn't know.
It had taken her so long to forget him. Not to forget him-she'd never been able to forget him-but to reach a point where the thought of him wasn't troubling her every day.
It was three in the morning where he was. He'd always been a night owl. He might still be up.
She called Information for the suburb where she'd heard he was living, and she got his phone number.
For all she knew he was married by now. It would be incredibly rude to call him at three in the morning.
It was the kind of thing she used to do all the time. She would call him at midnight, two in the morning, four, and he'd always be happy to hear from her. Once, when she was just getting to know him, she'd called him at midnight when he had another woman there; he was happy to hear from her even then. The other woman hadn't lasted long after that.
But that was a long time ago, when they were psychic twins, sharing every thought. It would be rude to call him now. It would be bratty.
She dialed his number.
After three rings, he picked up the phone. She could tell from his thick hello that he'd been sleeping.
She didn't say anything. Maybe this was all she'd wanted. To hear his voice was enough.
She didn't hang up, though.
"Hello?" he said again.
She just kept breathing.
"Nora?" he said.
After five years.
HOW DID YOU KNOW it was me?"
She heard him laughing softly. "I recognized your silence. It's different from anyone else's."
This might have been the most romantic thing anyone had ever said to her.
"How are you?" he said. "My Nora." His voice-his middle-of-the-night voice, his half-awake voice-was washing over her. He was the only person who'd ever been able to make her name sound poetic.
"Well," she said, "I've been better. Your Nora's been better than she is now."
"What's happening is that I've been going down the wrong road."
This sounded pretentious to her, or it would have sounded pretentious, except that talking to him, somehow, freed her to talk in an exalted way. Somehow he lifted her out of daily life.
"And now?" he said. "You're planning to change roads?"
"Yes," she said. "I want to. But I'm not sure I have the strength."
She didn't want to give him any specifics. She didn't know if this phone call was going to be a turning point for her-the inaugurating act of a new life-or if she was just going to burrow under the covers, get to sleep, and go back to the life she'd been living, the old inadequate life. In either case, she didn't want to clutter up the moment with details.
"Of course you do," he said. "I don't know what it is you need to do, but I know that whatever it is, you have the strength to do it."
This was one of the things she had always treasured about him: the faith he had in her.
She didn't say anything. For a minute or two she simply listened to him breathe.
She felt as if she was teetering between love and phoniness. The love was evident in the fact that after five years, they hardly needed to speak: they could just breathe into the phone and be satisfied. The phoniness was evident in the fact that she didn't want to speak. The problem with talking in the exalted lyrical mode that was available to them only because it was after midnight and he was half asleep and they hadn't spoken in years-the problem was that if she said something mundane she'd feel like a dope. She didn't want to relinquish her poetic foxiness.
"Maybe we can see each other someday," she finally said.
"That would be beautiful, Ruby," he said. "That would be beautiful."
He'd sometimes called her Ruby in the old days. Neither of them knew why.
There was another long silence, during which she began to feel comfortable again.
When they were younger, they sometimes used to talk late into the night and then fall asleep on the phone. It was one of the most intimate things she knew.
"I want to sleep on the phone with you," she said, "but I'm afraid that would be going too fast."
They both laughed-laughed at the absurdity of this; but at the same time, she meant it.
THIS IS WHAT IT'S LIKE to see someone you haven't seen in years. First, you recognize him instantly. Then, a moment later, you realize how much he's changed, and you wonder how you recognized him in the first place. Then, a minute after that, the past and the present begin to cooperate, and he doesn't look very different after all-in fact, he's always looked like this.
Isaac was sitting in a booth in the coffee shop. He stood up as she came toward the table, and they embraced. Isaac was a tall man and Nora was a small woman; he had to fold himself up in sections in order to embrace her.
As she held him, she searched for his scent. He smelled just like he used to: like good, warm, fresh, wholesome bread.
"I see you came straight from the bakery," she said.
She knew he had no idea what she was talking about, but it didn't matter. He was smiling.
She sat across from him. "You're looking well," he said quietly. Which meant he thought she looked beautiful. The more intensely Isaac was feeling something, the more understated he became.
"You are too," she said, although it wasn't true. He looked skinnier than he used to be, skinnier and bonier and balder. And even more frail.
For a minute or so, they didn't say anything. They didn't need to. The flow of information between two people who care for each other can be close to overwhelming. She could tell that his feelings about her hadn't changed.
A waiter appeared-male hipster with earring-and broke the mood. Isaac ordered a salad and a cup of tea, and Nora ordered a cheeseburger and a milkshake. In the olden days, she remembered, waiters always mixed up their orders: they'd put her steak and onion rings in front of Isaac, his pasta salad in front of her.
They were in a coffee shop on the Upper West Side that used to be one of their favorite spots. But it had changed. It used to be called the Argo, and it used to be filled with old people eating alone-people who looked as if they left their homes once a day to have a cup of Sanka and a bowl of soup. But now it was called the New York Diner, and its old shabby friendliness was gone. It was chic now, or retro, or something like that-it had been renovated to look like an imitation of the kind of place that it had once actually been-and it was filled with young people drinking microbrews, and it made Nora feel that the two of them would be foolish if they tried to recapture the past.
Isaac had called her that morning. He had to be in the city for work, and he'd asked if she was free for lunch. She worked at home-she worked as a freelance writer and copy editor for medical journals-so she could make her own hours. If he hadn't caught her off guard like that, she wasn't sure she would have said yes. She wasn't sure it was a good idea to see him.
"So what's going on with you, Nora? You were very mysterious on the phone."
"What's going on with me?" she said. "I guess you could say I want to transform myself."
"You told me that already. From what to what?"
"Back into a writer. From whatever it is I've become."
"Don't tell me you're not writing. I wouldn't believe it."
He actually looked shocked. Which made her happy. No one else in the world would have reacted like this. Hardly anyone else would have cared.
"I am still writing. But I'm not getting anywhere. I've been working on things I don't care about and avoiding the things I do. And I'm turning thirty-five this year. I feel like I'm too old. I feel like I'm finished."
"Oh, come on," he said. "Whatever your problem is, it's not that you're too old. A lot of people-"
"I know, I know. George Eliot was forty before she did anything decent, and Wallace Stevens was fifty, and a while ago there was that little granny who published her first novel when she was eighty-eight. I know all that. But I feel like if I don't turn my life around soon, I'm going to lose my chance."
The waiter came back with his tea and her milkshake.
She took a sip. "Midlife milkshake," she said.
"You're not in midlife," he said. "You're just a kid."
That was nice of him to say.
To him, she probably was just a kid. He had just turned forty.
Nora had been writing as seriously as she knew how for almost fifteen years now. She wrote short stories-she'd never attempted a novel, never written a poem. Because she was a slow writer, and because the short stories she wrote were actually pretty long, she'd only written about thirty or forty during all that time. Of that number, she'd published only five. But of those five, one had been selected for the annual volume of The Best American Short Stories and another for the Pushcart Press anthology Best of the Small Presses. As one of her old boyfriends had told her, she was like a ballplayer with a lousy batting average who'd gotten two clutch hits in the World Series.
Lately, though, she'd gotten stalled, in a miserably familiar way. She was a ballplayer in a slump.
Just seeing Isaac was a relief, just seeing his face. He'd always believed in her; he had a faith in her that bordered on the irrational. And even though he wasn't a reliable judge of her prospects, because he was somewhat crazy where she was concerned, seeing him made her feel better.
Isaac wasn't a lover of literature; he was a photographer who knew little about the other arts. But he understood the beauty and the nobility of giving yourself fully to a pure and disinterested pursuit. Even after years of being out of touch with him, she'd felt sure that he was the one person who could understand what she was going through, the one person to whom she could speak freely about the frustration of not being able to give herself to her vocation with the full-heartedness it deserved.
"I'm sorry it's been hard for you," Isaac said. "But look. You're gifted. That's a matter of record. All artists go through difficult patches, and you're going through one now. But you've written some wonderful things already, and if you just keep going, you're going to write a lot more. There's no doubt about that."
It was nice, what he was saying, but it didn't comfort her. He didn't know the whole story.
When she'd left her apartment, on her way to meet him, she thought she'd tell him everything, but now she realized that she wasn't going to be able to. She didn't want to tell him about the other dimension of her unhappiness. She didn't want to talk about Benjamin.
"Excuse me." She got up, went to the women's room (trying to walk gracefully, because she knew that he was watching her), went into a stall, sat down, put her head in her hands, and cried.
She wasn't even sure why she was crying. It wasn't just one thing. It was that she'd started out so strongly but had let her chance slip away, and now she was afraid she was too old. It was that she wasn't happy with Benjamin, but hadn't been able to leave him. It was that she was a weaker creature than she'd ever imagined she was.
She made a fist to punch the side of the stall, but then she decided that that would be melodramatic, and anyway she didn't want to hurt herself. She thought of maybe writing some graffiti on the wall, something as simple as fuck you. She searched in her bag for a pen, but she couldn't find one.
There was a spider making his way along the floor. She thought about stepping on him.
She didn't step on him. It isn't the spider's fault-she told herself reasonably-that you don't know if you have the strength to change your life.
She sat there watching the spider proceeding on his solitary mission.
"Hello, Spide," she said sadly.
In one of Chekhov's letters to his brother, who wanted to be a writer, Chekhov suggested that he write a story about a man who "squeezed the slave out of himself drop by drop." The phrase had stayed in Nora's mind; she sometimes used it against herself, when she felt she was living a kind of slave life. Now, she thought, she had her chance. She had the chance to squeeze the slave out of herself. But she didn't know if she had the strength.
She got out of the stall and washed her face and put on some lipstick.
When she rejoined Isaac, the food was already on the table, but he hadn't started eating. He'd been waiting for her.
Maybe he would have waited for anyone: he was a gentlemanly man. But as he sat there in front of his untouched food, he looked so bony and spectral that she felt that it was a metaphor of his life: she felt as if he hadn't taken any nourishment of any kind since she'd left him. As if he'd been doing little but waiting for her.
Poor Isaac. She saw how selfish she was. She had come here to talk about herself; she'd barely asked about him.
"What's it like working as a photo editor?" she said. "What's it like having a real job?"
He used to make a living as a freelance photographer. He'd taught a little here and there, he'd been on some sort of contract with the Village Voice, but mostly he'd kept his time free in order to take the pictures he wanted to take. She'd always thought of him as a model of how to put your art ahead of everything else, and she'd been surprised, a few years back, when she heard that he'd taken on a full-time job.
"It's nice to get a steady paycheck. If I want to buy a pair of shoes now, I don't have to ponder the decision for a month and a half."
"Do you still have time for your own work?"
"Not as much. But it sort of concentrates the mind. If you know you only have an hour, you can get as much done in an hour as you used to get done in a day."
"And what's it like living in the suburbs?"
"It's not bad. It's clean. It's quiet. The supermarkets are amazing, if you care for that sort of thing. Everything's just easier out there. It's a semi-perfect life."
Semi-perfect. That seemed like a cue for her to ask a question: What do you mean by that?
But she didn't ask, because she thought she already knew what he meant. He meant that the only thing that was missing in his life was her.
She moved things around on the tabletop, which was composed of large black and white squares. The hot sauce captured the pepper, and then the ketchup put the mustard in check. "Are you still in touch with Meredith?" she said.
"Yeah. She moved to Texas."
Isaac started to explain why she'd moved, and Nora didn't listen. Instead, she wondered why she'd asked. Meredith was a mutual acquaintance of no great importance to either of them.
"And then she decided Austin was more like New York than New York was, or something like that," Isaac was saying. "Austin is what New York was in 1962. I think that's what she said."
Nora reached across the table and put her hand over his. "I'm sorry. I don't really want to know about Meredith. And you probably don't want to talk about her. I'm sorry for asking."
"Then why'd you ask?"
"It was like our conversation was getting too real. I was trying to hide out in small talk. But I don't want to do that with you. If I can't be real with you, then I'm finished."
"I'm glad you're not finished," he said.
Copyright © 2003 by Brian Morton
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