scifi.com navigationscifi.comnewsletterdownloadsfeedbacksearchfaqbboardscifi weeklyscifi wireschedulemoviesshows
 
 
 
     
 
Willowy and tall, with creamy skin, ice-blue eyes, and short, spiky black hair streaked (at first) with pink, blue, and pale, metallic green.
 
     
 
The silence was tangible, profound, spooky. The air had acquired a mythic density, as though I'd crossed into a fairyland of dreams and nostalgia.
 
1   |   2   |   3
Left of the Dial
by Paul Witcover

The summer my mother died, I spent more time in Reston, the northern Virginia community where I grew up, than I had since college. My mother still lived there, in the townhouse she'd bought after her divorce from my father. Although I was thirty-eight, with college and graduate school long behind me, it felt like summer vacation, a break between semesters. A period of waiting—in which days and weeks blurred together, giving the illusion of timelessness so familiar from childhood—for an interrupted life to resume. Not only mine, but my mother's, for she was determined to beat her disease, acute myelogenous leukemia, or AML, and I had enough experience of her willpower to fully believe she would do it.

The sense of in-betweenness was enhanced by the fact that I'd recently lost my job as a content provider for one of the Internet start-ups ubiquitous at the time. Fortunately, unlike many who wound up with nothing when the bottom fell out of the boom, I received a modest severance package—enough to finance a few months of back-and-forthing from my apartment in New York to my mother's place. I would stay for a week or ten days, visiting her in the hospital or caring for her at home after the completion of what became a series of failed chemo treatments, then jump on the train back to Manhattan. After a while, it came to seem that I was living in a house whose rooms were not physically contiguous: one in New York, two in Virginia (the hospital and the townhouse), and one on board whatever train I traveled by. I began to feel like I was leaving bits and pieces of myself behind in those rooms, ghostly remnants that languished, half-forgotten, until I reclaimed them like checked baggage. My sister, Ellen, who lives in Richmond with her family, was usually able to drive up to Reston when I couldn't be there. Despite the divorce, my dad chipped in, too. But he was remarried, with a new family, and had responsibilities of his own. Besides, my mother didn't like feeling beholden to him. So it was mostly down to me; in the circumstances, losing my job turned out to be a blessing.

My days in Reston followed a comforting routine. I got up early, worked for a few hours on a novel I was trying to write (a satirical dot-com exposé, since abandoned), then went for a run along the bike paths before the heat and humidity grew too punishing. The bike paths of Reston are famous in the D.C. area: more than fifty-five miles of paved and unpaved trails snaking through thick woods and along rushing creeks while skirting baseball and soccer fields, playgrounds, highways, parking lots, and people's backyards. In the summer, when the foliage is at its fullest, it can seem like you are miles from human habitation … except for the stream of joggers, bikers, dog-walkers, and Roller-bladers. I varied my route each day, always aiming for about five miles. I had picked up a map of the paths, without which I would have become hopelessly lost; the network had branched and tangled considerably since I'd moved to New York. Even with the map, there were times I lost my way in its mazy meanderings.


· · · · · 


Reston is one of those planned communities, like Columbia, Maryland, that were supposed to be the wave of the future back in the sixties. Experiments in enlightened social engineering meant to provide civilized, even artistic, alternatives to the bland conformity of suburban sprawl. Advertisements for a better, saner, more fulfilling way of life; places where you could feel that every time you stepped onto a tennis court or dove into a pool, you were making a moral statement, setting an example, helping to bring the American dream, or one of them, closer to reality for everyone. Once upon a time, people really did think that way.

Built around a man-made lake, there was little about Reston that was not artificial … including, or so it seemed to me after we moved there in 1976, when I was eleven, the people. Especially the adults. There was a kind of Stepford utopianism about them; they saw themselves as pioneers in the brave new world of daily commuting beyond the D.C. beltway. Like my parents, they were liberal, highly educated, ambitious, and so determined to enjoy the cornucopian amenities of Reston—swimming pools, tennis courts, golf courses, shopping centers, affairs—that they did not merely pursue happiness: they stalked it. My father wore the same grim grin whether pushing a lawnmower or pulling a golf cart. It didn't occur to me then, nor would it for many years, that it wasn't happiness he was seeking, but escape, not pursuing but fleeing what pursued him: what, in one form or another, pursues us all.

As my friends and I entered the wilds of adolescence, we viewed our parents with cynicism, seeing them as ridiculous, deluded, hypocritical. Reston held no wonders for us. We hadn't asked to be brought here. To be brought up here. Trapped between playground sandboxes and senior citizen centers, there was nothing for us to do, nowhere to go. We were bored.

Some of us turned to drugs and sex … more like our parents than we knew. There was always a house with absent or uncaring adults; if not, once the sun went down, the bike paths opened to us like ley-lines leading to another country, a shadowy, lamp-lit land of adventure and refuge. Or were themselves that land. I smoked my first cigarette there, squatting troll-like under a wooden bridge as a creek burbled by the toes of my Converse All-Stars. I gulped down my first cans of Stroh's like some bitter magic brew, toked on my first joint, wriggled my hand for the first time down the front of a squirming girl's tight bluejeans (her name is long gone, but the perfume of her sex clings to my memory, and always will).

Being back in Reston, running each morning along some of the same paths, brought these and other memories to the surface, sprinkled with the pixie-dust of nostalgia. It seemed to me that I'd been happier in those days than I'd ever realized—happier, in some ways, than in all the years since … though I wouldn't have lived through them again for anything. My parents were still together then, my mother was healthy, and I didn't have to worry about finding a job. Life was simpler, events less consequential. Of course, my experience was altogether different at the time, with the import of every thought and action magnified and distorted out of all proportion through the paranoiac lens of teenage hormones.


· · · · · 


After my morning run, I would shower, pick up the New York Times and the Washington Post from the nearby Harris Teeter, and either drive to the hospital to visit my mother, or, if she was home, return there to fix her breakfast. Getting her to eat was a struggle; from the first, the chemo afflicted her with almost constant nausea, and frequently the best she could manage was a few spoonfuls of oatmeal or Jell-O or sherbet. She was weak, emaciated, with the gaunt and haunted look of an anorexic. She joked that this was the best diet she'd ever been on, but her failure to gain back any of the weight she had lost was an ominous sign, as she fully recognized.

After breakfast, my mother would lay back in her hospital bed, or I would help her to the living room couch, her bones birdlike, her blood count so decimated that her white skin bloomed with bruises, a neutropenic garden. Settled in, she closed her eyes, and I read to her from the papers until she fell asleep. When she woke, we would go for a walk around the neighborhood or up and down the halls of the hospital ward; her doctors had impressed the value of daily exercise upon her. She remained an early riser; often, I would arrive at the hospital in the morning to find her already up and about, trudging stolidly down a corridor in her ill-fitting green gown, hospital-issue slippers, and the dark blue headkerchief she wore to cover what she called her "fifty-thousand dollar haircut," pushing Sisyphus-like the wheeled tree of her intravenous medications. I was in awe of these exertions, my heart torn with pride and anguish at the sight of that failing body driven by a will as fierce and indomitable as ever.

Our lunchtime routine was similar, except I read to her then from her favorite magazines, New Scientist and The New Yorker, or from a collection of essays by Stephen Jay Gould; she was fascinated by the biology of her disease, the Darwinian battleground her body had become. The leukemia had started with an error in just a single cell—one her immune system, for reasons the doctors couldn't explain, had been unable to weed out. Free to reproduce, the cell had spread its genetic flaw with astonishing speed, a blitzkrieg in the blood. But for all her interest in the microscopic war being waged within her, my mother was not detached from the world. She followed current events with her customary keen interest and sharp-humored cynicism, engaged her doctors and nurses in political as well as biological discussions. She remained involved in the lives of her children and grandchildren. If there was a tennis match on TV, she watched it, cheering on her favorite players and cursing their villainous opponents.

She was used to being independent, and it was painful to see how humiliating it was for her to have to place herself in the hands of strangers. With family it was even worse; to be cared for by her children seemed to go against the natural order of things … though she knew, of course, that the very opposite was true. Still, at seventy-two, she didn't feel ready to accept that role-reversal. Until the sudden onset of the AML, she'd been in perfect health. She bowed to the reality of her situation but was determined not to let its indignities—and they were many, both small and large, physical and otherwise—diminish her own dignity.

Even so, she apologized to me more than once for, as she saw it, thrusting me prematurely into the role of caretaker, forcing me to put my life on hold just when, jobless, I could least afford it. I didn't see it that way; it wasn't her fault she'd gotten sick. Nor, I told her, did I feel put upon. Thanks to my severance pay and unemployment insurance, I had enough money to tide me over until she was back on her feet, and with the Internet, I could look for a new job just as easily from Reston as from New York. All true. All utterly beside the point.

"You're a good son," she said, patting my hand, "but I know this is tedious for you. You need to get out a little, have some fun. Look up your old friends. I'm sure Eric would be glad to hear from you. And Lisa."

I said I would, but in fact, I had no intention of doing so. It had been years since I'd seen or spoken to Eric or Lisa, though I wondered what had become of them, whether they'd escaped from Reston like me or were still there. I could have easily found out, of course. Looked up their names in the phone book or searched on the Internet, but I'd burned those bridges, and there was no sense in looking back.


· · · · · 


Eric, Craig, and I had met in junior high, bonding over Avalon Hill military strategy games, science fiction and fantasy stories, and comic books. By our sophomore year of high school, our interests had expanded to include Dungeons & Dragons, rock and roll, drugs, and girls … though we were beginning to suspect that our obsession with the first term of that series precluded significant experience of the last. Most girls shunned D&D like they did the Three Stooges, and those that didn't were about as attractive to us as Moe, Larry, and Curly. They were the kind of girls who made you cry if you kissed them, as Eric once put it. Of course, we'd closed our eyes and kissed them anyway whenever we could, and sometimes done more than that; Eric even boasted of having gone all the way, though his refusal to identify the girl convinced Craig and me that he was lying. Either that, or she was truly hideous. But we wanted more than furtive gropings in dark places that stank of spilled beer and bongwater with girls who did not meet the high aesthetic standards inculcated in us by the voluptuous paintings of Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo. We wanted girls with whom we could walk hand in hand through the halls of our high school. Girls we could kiss while lounging against our lockers or lying on the front lawn of the school during lunch period. Girls who shared our obsessions, who were just like us … only less so. We wanted girlfriends. We wanted love.

We got Lisa.

She appeared suddenly one day a week after the start of sophomore year. Her parents had moved to Reston from South Korea, where her father, who worked for the State Department ("You mean CIA," said Eric smugly when she disclosed this factoid; "Whatever," she replied, rolling her eyes), had been posted to the embassy. Not only did Lisa play D&D—which is how we met; she noticed the Dungeon Master's Guide I carried around with me everywhere and introduced herself—her comic collection put ours to shame, and she opened our eyes to the strangely retro yet undeniably cool and sexy world of Japanese anime: Speed Racer on, well, speed.

Plus, she was hot. Willowy and tall, with creamy skin, ice-blue eyes, and short, spiky black hair streaked (at first) with pink, blue, and pale, metallic green. Her fingernails, and very often her lips, were painted black. She favored short skirts and fishnet stockings and Doc Martens, wore a battered old leather jacket even in September, rolled her own cigarettes, and carried a perpetually disintegrating backpack covered with patches and buttons of bands, a surprising number of which we'd never heard or even heard of before: Spaceman 3, the Residents, Hawkwind. Surprising because, thanks to WHFS, a local left-of-the-dial radio station, we prided ourselves on being ahead of the curve when it came to cutting-edge or just plain weird music. Needless to say, the three of us fell in love with her immediately.

Friendships have foundered in less stormy seas. And for the next few months, as we strove against each other for the prize of Lisa's affections, it seemed like that would be the fate of ours. Real malice crept into the casually obscene insults we'd always traded as surrogate terms of affection, and we found ourselves remembering a host of old injuries and resentments that had somehow kept their sting, or even sharpened it, across months and years. We were sullen, tense, edgy. We never spoke openly of the true cause of our contention; instead, every day became a minefield it was impossible to cross, however carefully we stepped, without triggering an explosion. We exchanged shouts, shoves, and even, on a few memorable occasions, punches. None of us wanted any of this, but (as we later discovered, comparing notes) we felt helpless to break free of the destructive pattern, swept toward disaster by a force outside ourselves. Was Lisa the cause of our misery or its cure? We scarcely knew or cared; we were too far gone for that. Only in her defense would we band together willingly, the three of us staunchly denying the malicious rumors that sprang up around her, as they did around any new kid in school: how Lisa had put out for the football team, how she was really a lez, that sort of thing.

It all came to a head one Saturday afternoon in December. We were playing D&D in the moldy-smelling basement of Craig's house (our usual spot, thanks to his parents' benign neglect), when an argument erupted between Eric and me over a roll of the dice. This was, of course, merely the pretext for another display of testosterone-fueled chest-thumping. We stood up, shouting across the table. Craig was quick to join the fray. It was nothing Lisa hadn't witnessed a hundred times before, rolling her eyes and waiting for the storm to pass. But now, suddenly, she'd had enough.

She slammed her palm down hard on the table, sending dice flying and knocking over the screen of books from behind which, like a priest in a confessional, I carried out my dungeon-masterly duties. "I am so sick of this shit!"

"Jeez, Lis," said Eric. "Take a chill pill, why don't you!"

"This isn't fun anymore," she persisted. "You guys are always fighting. You don't even know why, do you?"

"Sure I do." Eric blinked. "Dweeber rolled a six-sided die when it says right there in the fucking DMG to roll an eight-sided!"

"I can roll whatever the fuck I want, whenever the fuck I want," I responded. "I'm the fucking dungeon master!"

"Jesus Christ," Lisa said, shaking her head and leaning back in her chair. "It isn't about dice, okay? You idiots are fighting over me."

Nervous laughter was the best we could manage.

"I thought maybe boys would be different back in the States. But you're just the same. Your heads are so filled up with romantic bullshit that you let your dicks do your thinking for you."

"What is with you today?" Eric demanded. "That time of the month or something?"

"Fuck you, Eric," she said coolly.

"So, what are you saying?" I asked. "Are you dropping out of the game?"

"You know, that's all sex is, really," she said. "A game. It's not some big, serious deal all full of love and tragedy and suffering. It's not about happy ever after or till death do us part or any of that crap. At least, it doesn't have to be."

I sat down. I felt like she'd punched me in the gut. "What they're saying about you at school," I said. "It's true, isn't it?"

She shrugged. "Maybe. Some of it. I don't pay attention to what people say."

Eric sat down with a groan. "Fuck me!"

"What?" Craig's wide-eyed gaze bounced between the three of us. "You mean …? Are you saying …?"

"I've been with some boys, if that's what you're asking," Lisa said without a trace of shame. "They wanted it, and so did I. It's no big deal. Like I said, a game."

Eric began to chuckle softly, while Craig actually burst into tears.

"Oh, for Christ's sake, grow up," I said, biting back my own tears.

Lisa shot me a glare and moved to his side, putting her arm around his heaving shoulders. "I'm sorry it hurts, Craigy," she said.

"Why?" he asked, turning up his lumpish, tear-streaked face. "Why them and not us?"

"It's easier that way," Lisa said. "I don't give a shit about them, and they don't give a shit about me. No misunderstandings. I care about you guys. I didn't want to come between you. I didn't want to hurt you."

"But you are between us," Eric pointed out, dark eyes glittering. "You have hurt us."

She had no answer for that.

"Look," I said. "Let's just forget it and get back to D&D, okay? It's none of our business anyway."

"I don't feel like playing anymore today," sniffled Craig, and since it was his house, that was that. We went our separate ways without bothering to schedule our next gaming session. I think we were all wondering if there was even going to be a next gaming session.

But there was, of course, and many more after that. Things had changed, though. Eric, Craig, and I were no longer at each other's throats. We looked at Lisa differently now. It was as though a glamour had been dispelled, revealing her to be more like us than our clouded senses had been able to perceive, subject to the same desires … if less inhibited in satisfying them. For Eric and me, the liberating effects of this disenchantment extended beyond Lisa to girls who had always seemed out of our league. I realized suddenly, with the force of a revelation, that whatever barriers existed between me and these girls were largely in my own mind, of my own making, as if I had needed to put them safely out of reach. Now I began to find girlfriends, as did Eric; not right away, but gradually, over the following months. Some of them even joined us in D&D sessions, but they never cracked the core of our clique; they were like comets whose orbits carried them close for a time, only to escape our gravity in the end. Nor did we try to hold them. We had adopted Lisa's philosophy of sex divorced from love, sex as game, and it had set us free. Not that every girl I went out with slept with me, or even most of them (this was, after all, still high school!), but the possibility was always there, or so it seemed, just as every hitter who steps up to the plate envisions a home run no matter how many times he's struck out. And a surprising number of the girls I went out with—surprising to me, anyway—turned out to be as relieved as I was to dispense with all that love business. We enjoyed each other without jealousy, without expectations. We were using each other, of course. But at least we weren't lying to each other about it. It didn't occur to me until much later, after college, that this was itself a kind of lie.

Perhaps the strangest, or at any rate most unexpected, result of that December afternoon was that Lisa and Craig became an item, joined (as the high-school saying went) at the hip. His tears had melted something in her heart, and she had abandoned her hedonistic philosophy even as Eric and I became its adherents. As for Craig, he had achieved his heart's desire and couldn't have been happier. There were times, even in the midst of my own happiness, that I found myself envying him. What he had with her. But I felt sorry for him, too, as though in advance, wondering how long Lisa would be satisfied, and what would happen on the day she was not.


· · · · · 


Eric, Craig, and Lisa went to the University of Virginia, while I attended the College of William & Mary. I'd been accepted at UVA, too, but decided in the end not to go. The others thought I was nuts. Or pissed at them for some reason. But I wasn't. I couldn't really explain it to them, or even to myself—not at the time. I just knew that if I joined them at UVA, I would wind up drifting through my college years the same as I had through the last two years of high school: drinking, partying, playing D&D, never really emerging from our snug cocoon. I wasn't sure why this prospect suddenly struck me as something to be avoided when up until then it had satisfied me completely. And it still did satisfy me. But when I looked ahead, trying to imagine my future, it was as though I could see a variety of paths leading to different destinations, and the path that went through UVA disappeared into a thick, dark, tangled woods, and I couldn't see it come out again. So I didn't go that way. It was the first, but not the last, time I would experience this kind of vaguely premonitory impulse, not so much toward one thing as away from another. Or perhaps it was only a fear of becoming stuck, trapped, nothing more than a flaring up of the instinct to escape that impels every hunted creature, for I've felt that, too, more often, and more strongly, as I get older.

There with my mom in her hospital room, waiting at her bedside as death drew near, confident and unhurried in his approach, a huntsman whose prey had run itself out, I felt that fear crawling over me so intensely—though I knew he hadn't come for me, not yet—that it was all I could do not to bolt, leaving her to face him alone. Of course, in a sense she was alone; we all are. But it was precisely because of that fundamental, irreducible aloneness, hers and mine, that I was determined not to desert her. To bring what comfort I could by my presence, the sound of my voice, the touch of my hand. Even if there was no way to tell for sure that she knew I was there. I believed that she knew. It was a kind of faith, the most I was capable of. And talking to her, reading her favorite poems aloud, stroking her warm, waxy skin, dribbling water into her mouth with a straw or moistening her lips with a sponge, studying her face (her features sometimes as innocently expressive as a sleeping infant's, other times so ancient and wizened that it seemed I was not looking at my mother any longer, but at some eternal archetype of motherhood shining through translucent skin and bone), brought me comfort and gave me strength enough to face her death, which was also a foretaste of my own.

In the end, it was a case of the cure being as deadly as the disease. My mother's battered system began to break down under the onslaught of chemo. There was damage to her heart and lungs. Her kidneys were failing. And the AML, following the last, ineffective treatment, had come roaring back stronger than ever. Literally overnight, her options narrowed from more chemo and various phase-2 clinical trials to a choice of where she preferred to die: at home or in the hospital. She chose the latter—more, she admitted, for our sakes, my sister's and mine, than her own, wanting to shield us from any small household disasters, such as a broken bone in a fall, that might add immeasurably to whatever burden of grief and guilt we would carry through the rest of our lives. Her mother, recovering at home from surgery, had died following a fall, so she was especially sensitive to this possibility. Ellen and I knew our limits, and we did not argue … which only added to the burden my mother wished to spare us. But not even a mother's love can spare her children every burden. Isn't love itself a burden, however willingly we bear it?

As we drove up to the hospital for the last time, my mother—hunched in the front seat, where Ellen and I had, with difficulty, maneuvered her and strapped her in—said in a voice as reduced as the rest of her, "Back to where my journey started." I thought at first that she was referring to the AML, for it was to this hospital that she'd driven herself months before when she thought she'd contracted pneumonia, only to learn from emergency room physicians that her disease was far more dire, that by rights she should have been incapable of driving herself anywhere in her condition, and that if she'd delayed coming in by even an hour, it would have been too late. Later I wondered if she hadn't meant the whole course of her life, birth to death, a transit from one hospital room to another.

That was the longest sentence she spoke until she died. The doctors said it could happen at any time, but she continued to surprise them, holding on for another ten days. But the power of speech ebbed rapidly from this articulate, well-read woman, a former English teacher and professional editor who delighted in the play of language. By the second day, she could reply only in monosyllables to our questions. Are you comfortable? Would you like some water? Do you need to use the commode? Are you in pain? Her replies slipped over the threshold of coherent speech, into grunts and moans and sighs that for a while still communicated intent and desire. Then that threshold, too, was crossed and left behind, and she entered a country of silence.

My mother's accelerating deterioration was painful to watch, all the more so because she was conscious of it. At least it seemed that way to me. The knowledge was there in her eyes, which at various times glittered with a cold, hard, gemlike fear, or melted with compassion and love, or flashed with anger at her inability to make herself understood … or at our inability to understand her.

It was there, too, in the language of her body. In the naked expressions that flitted across her features. And in her restless, repetitive, and sometimes violently agitated movements. There most of all, and most heartbreakingly of all. She would kick her way free of her sheets, pluck at her hospital gown as though trying to remove it, slip her wasted arms out of the sleeves or pull with fierce determination but scant strength at her collar. She would raise her hands to touch the slim, transparent tubes carrying oxygen to her nostrils, seeming to remember, forget, and remember again what they were and why they were there all in the space of moments. She explored her features with her fingertips like a blind woman puzzling out the mystery of a strangely familiar face. And over and over, for hours, days, at a stretch, like a zoo animal caught in some behavioral cul-de-sac of instinct, she would hoist herself into a half-sitting position, grasping one-handed and with all her strength the raised side-bar of the bed, and hold herself there until her arm, her whole body, shook with the effort of continuing the motion, swinging her legs around, pushing herself to her feet, standing, walking out of the room, out of the hospital, leaving her sickness behind and returning to the life she knew, picking up right where she'd left off on that spring morning, months ago, when she'd driven herself to the emergency room. But however far she progressed down this path in her mind, her body would at last sink slowly back onto the mattress and pillows, where, exhausted but undefeated, she would rest for a time, gathering herself for the next attempt.

Were these efforts indicative of pain and suffering? The nurses and doctors couldn't say, but advised morphine anyway, just to be on the safe side, and to smooth away her evident distress. But Ellen and I were wary of acting to ease our distress, not hers. It was torture to watch my mother's futile struggles, knowing they were foredoomed. But who could say what purpose they served for her? Perhaps what seemed futile to us, young and healthy as we were, was crucial to her, an experience we had no right to rob her of. Besides, she had made it crystal clear over the years that she didn't want to spend her last days in a drugged fog, bound body and mind in a pharmaceutical straitjacket. As long as there was no obvious pain, we would not permit morphine. This proved an unpopular, indeed incomprehensible, decision to the hospital staff, and I think they saw us as deluded or even cruel. But at this point in the long march of my mother's illness, the path that Ellen and I were on diverged from that of the doctors and nurses. Once we had been united in our desire for a cure. Now their goal had shifted to a peaceful death, in comfort and dignity … as they defined those terms. But as guardians of my mother's ever-dwindling autonomy, we had to take her wishes into account, as best we understood them, and balance those wishes against the medical advice we were getting. If they didn't like our decisions … too bad. As for my mother, her path had taken her ahead of us all. Soon she would cross the final threshold and pass beyond the reach of any decisions we had the power to make.

For days her eyelids sank lower and lower as though heavy with drowsiness, until at last they closed for good, leaking gummy tears as if her body were sealing itself shut, becoming a cocoon. But behind those fleshy screens, thin as rice paper, her eyes rolled and darted, responding to our voices, the sounds we made, or to memories, dreams, visions. Again, the doctors couldn't say how conscious she was. All they could tell us was that hearing was the last sense to go. And so, as her struggles weakened and finally stopped, her body lying still at last (and how precious those struggles seemed to us then, how we mourned their passing; for every new stage in my mother's journey, because it brought her that much closer to its end, and took her that much farther away from us, filled us with a kind of nostalgia for what had gone before, no matter how awful it had been, and they were all uniquely awful), I began to talk to her as I hadn't before.

As soon as she'd gone back into the hospital, Ellen and I, along with her husband, Greg, had divvied up each twenty-four-hour period into four-hour shifts, so that one of us was always with her. As the days wore on, and this grueling schedule began to wear us down, our father took a shift as well. We rotated the schedule so that no one had the same shifts twice in a row. We slept when we could, sometimes at my mother's house, sometimes in the hospital. We left the orderly rhythms of daily life behind, the regimented structure of seconds, minutes, and hours that we humans have laid over the wilderness of time to make ourselves feel at home there, safe and civilized, the future predictable, the past conveniently labeled, the present visible on our wrists, captured in the circular sweeping of a second hand, the morphing of one gray number into the next. All of that is a kind of grid, a prison so comfortable and internalized that, most of the time, like the beating of our heart, we never even know it's there. But it's possible to slip through the grid, exist for a while outside it. Drugs can do it, and illness, and sex. Religion. Art. Any number of things. And that's just what happened to us. At least, it felt that way to me, as if I were standing on the fringes of an ancient, untamed forest, into which my mother had wandered, and where I longed to follow but dared not for fear of becoming lost myself, unable to find my way back to the warm and well-lit village still close behind me.

So I talked to her from the fringes. Told her I loved her. Reminisced about vacations we'd taken, experiences we'd shared, people we'd known: friends, relatives. All the sad and funny landmarks of our lives. And spoke of the future, too: my dreams of making it as a writer, of finding a woman to cherish and share the rest of my life with, of bringing children into the world, grandkids she would never know but who, I promised, would know and love her through all that I would tell them. Most of all, I read to her. Shakespeare's sonnets and soliloquies from his plays. The poems of Dylan Thomas, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Yeats, Auden, Eliot. Stories by Lawrence, Fitzgerald, Joyce. I felt that these old, well-loved friends might bring more comfort to her now than anything else I could tell her, that the combination of their words and my voice could still reach her, give her something useful to cling to, like a flashlight she could hold as she followed her lonely path.

The intravenous tubes were removed from her arms. The clip feeding oxygen to her nostrils was replaced by a clear plastic mask covering her nose and mouth. Her breathing grew labored, arrhythmic, interspersed with microseconds in which it ceased all together, or seemed to—a pause that lasted just a fraction of a beat longer than normal between breaths, as though some mechanism were resetting itself. Her motions stilled. Her pulse fluttered visibly beneath the lily-white stem of her throat, mesmerizing in its fragility, a butterfly's shadow. I dropped my voice to a whisper, afraid of startling it away, though I knew there was nothing I could do to hold it there.

And then it was as if the butterfly shifted position, partially obstructing her windpipe in its efforts to lap up every last drop of nectar. I listened for a while before it occurred to me that I was hearing her death rattle, that old literary cliché proved true, like so many of them. I called in the nurse, who verified my fears; when she had gone, I phoned the others. Minutes later, Ellen and Greg arrived from my mother's house. My father showed up shortly thereafter. Then my mother left us. It appeared as simple as deciding not to breathe. A burden laid down after seventy-two years. Was this a power everyone possessed, a choice we could make at any time, if we only knew it? Later, Ellen told me she had felt my mother's spirit depart in a great whoosh, like a vacuum imploding, but I felt nothing like that, only a gentle absence, as if the butterfly had taken wing while I blinked, leaving behind an empty husk that bore a striking resemblance to my mother, but was not her, was not anyone anymore. A doctor came to verify time of death; nurses descended; this was their place now, their time. We left them to their ancient ablutions.

I saw the body once more, two days later at the funeral home. This was a legal requirement, to ensure that no mix-up had taken place at the hospital morgue and we did not bury a stranger. And yet, I thought, as I looked at the painted, doll-like features, the arms stiffly arranged over the drab brown dress that Ellen had picked out, the hands cupped one atop the other, positioned as I had never seen them in life, the hands of a modest churchgoer posing for a formal portrait, that was exactly what we were doing.

I was reentering the world of normal time. It was to be a gradual process, a slow and painful awakening … or a slipping back into sleep, depending on your point of view. Perhaps it has not yet fully stopped; perhaps it never will. It had commenced when I glanced at the clock in the hospital room at the moment of her death and saw the second hand jerking steadily forward; until then, my mother had been drawing away from us with a similar fitful motion; now it was we who were being carried farther and farther away … though again, depending on your point of view, drawing nearer to her, too. I felt both at once, a dizzying sense of in-betweenness that lingered through the sweltering, mid-August funeral two days later and the open house we held at the Reston townhouse immediately afterward.


· · · · · 


Later that evening, when everyone had gone, Ellen and Greg returning to Richmond, my dad to his family, I wandered through the townhouse. The task of sorting through my mother's possessions lay ahead, determining what to keep, what to sell, what to throw away. But that grim festival was for the coming weeks and months; in the meantime, I had to catch up with my life. By this time tomorrow, I planned to be back in New York. Now, though, the emotional toll of the previous days and months hit me in waves of desolation and loss and grieving.

Everything was as she'd left it—the furniture, paintings, photographs, books all in their accustomed places … Yet they were different, existentially askew, like Christmas ornaments displayed out of season. Some were drained of significance, emptied by my mother's death and become mere objects, while others were like emotional mirrors, reflecting back everything I felt in distorted ways, so that they seemed to be aware of her absence, and to share my mourning, or to blame me.

Finally, I had to get out. I got in her car, a Toyota Corolla, and drove, the windows down, the muggy night air buffeting my skin, drying my cheeks. I had no destination in mind; I didn't want to be around other people; even the sight of other cars, the flash of their headlights on the winding, darkened streets, was intrusive. I found myself in our old Hunters Woods neighborhood, near the house where I'd grown up, which my parents had sold after the divorce. I drove past; the lights were blazing; other lives filled it now. Just so would my mother's possessions find new owners, new uses; we treasure our things, but they are not faithful to us.

I turned in the cul-de-sac at the end of Fowlers Lane, made my way back up Whip Road, and hung a right on Steeplechase Drive. I continued past the elementary school, where I had attended sixth grade, across Colts Neck Road, and past Paddock Lane, where Craig's parents' house had been. I wondered if they were still there, but I didn't make the turn; instead, I stayed on Steeplechase for a quarter-mile or so, until it ended in a tree-fringed cul-de-sac. There were no houses here, no cars, just empty parking spaces beneath overhanging boughs. I stopped the car, turned off the engine and the headlights, took a deep breath.

Tall trees shook their shaggy limbs in a breeze that carried the tang of chlorine. The asphalt sparkled in the false moonlight of surrounding street lamps. I felt like climbing the chain-link fence, stripping off my clothes, and jumping naked into the swimming pool beyond. I thought of all the times that Craig and Eric and Lisa and I had done exactly that, drunk and stoned after a late-night game at Craig's house, daring the cops to catch us, which they never did. But that fence looked higher now; I doubted I could scale it with the ease I remembered. And even if I did, even if I went up and over as easily as a squirrel, what would have changed when I came down on the other side? Who was I trying to kid? Suddenly I felt old, thirty-eight going on sixty, and sad past all weeping.

I started the car, switched on the headlights, made the slow turn past the padlocked tennis courts and the entrance to the pool. Then, impulsively, in a kind of fuck you to my own timidity, as if the ghost of my younger self, disgusted, had risen up to grab the wheel, I swerved right, inching the car around the yellow concrete posts that stood sentinel to this section of the bike paths just as they had twenty years ago. It was a near thing; branches scraped one side of the car while on the other the rearview mirror slid perilously by one post. Then I was through.

I laughed, pumped my fist in the air. I tapped the gas pedal and crawled the car forward into the compact green and brown tunnel carved out of the woods and the night by the beams of my headlights. The silence was tangible, profound, spooky. The air had acquired a mythic density, as though I'd crossed into a fairyland of dreams and nostalgia. I breathed it in like a drug. Driving the bike paths by night had always been an eerie experience, like exploring the bottom of an uncanny ocean, the trees moving their limbs languidly, seaweed drifting in lazy temporal tides, quantum currents, elves and orcs and aliens and other creatures from D&D and movies and all the fantasy and science fiction I'd read seeming to spill from my perfervid imagination into the world, every ordinary object, natural or man-made—a tree, a wooden foot bridge, a lamp post—drenched in a rime of enchantment, a precipitate that only appeared in conditions such as these. Now all of that was present again, as if it had been waiting patiently all these years for me to submerge myself once more, but the familiar atmosphere of heightened perception was further glossed with memories of nights like this from twenty summers ago, memories that had themselves acquired a mythic patina with time.


· · · · · 


Impossible now to say who started it, which of us first came up with the idea of driving down those winding paths by night. A lot of the time we were bored out of our minds, or stoned out of them, or both at once, sitting around Craig's basement playing Nintendo or watching TV with the sound off and his stereo or HFS blasting soundtracks of bizarre serendipity. Reruns of Star Trek choreographed to Johnny Lydon's bitter PIL or Julian Cope's suave, psychedelic growl. Baseball and soccer games whose events seemed not so much accompanied as orchestrated by the music of Pink Floyd, like the fabled pairing of The Wizard of Oz and Dark Side of the Moon. We were starved for novelty and diversion. Taking our cars (or, in my case, my parents' car) onto the paths had in addition the lure of the forbidden, the element of risk that woke us like nothing else from our suburban stupor and allowed us, for a time, to feel free, superior to our surroundings, as if we had escaped them, not by leaving Reston for some outward destination, as I was to do later in moving to New York, but inwardly, by crossing a secret, interior border that most people couldn't cross, or even recognize, like Alice stepping through the looking glass. There was something strongly if obscurely transgressive about it, empowering; we felt that we were flouting more than just the law, chancing more than arrest or tragedy, a midnight encounter with someone's dog or kid, an insomniac jogger, or even another carload of idiots like us, mirror images colliding, canceling each other out.

I do know that it was sometime during the summer after our graduation from high school that the practice began. We were eager to escape the nominal control of our parents but also loath to leave this part of our lives behind, conflicting aims that made the summer seem endless at one moment, evanescent the next. We were anxious, impatient, a little bit afraid. We longed for the experiences of college but wondered if those experiences would lead us away from each other, though we never talked about that possibility, or anyway Eric and I never did. Craig and Lisa may have discussed it among themselves; in fact, I'm sure they did, but they kept their discussions private.

The bike paths proved the perfect remedy for what ailed us. We couldn't wait for the sun to set. We would stoke up on pot and beer, cram into someone's car, and head off to explore this fanciful new realm we had so unexpectedly, fortuitously, discovered. I think we must have driven every mile of the paths, mapping them as we went, cranking tapes or HFS on the stereo, as if we were still playing Dungeons & Dragons. We saw animals that were rarely glimpsed by day, our headlights drawing them like moths: possum, raccoons, deer, foxes, once even a coyote, or what looked like one. The usual rules of engagement did not apply; the animals did not flee from our approach; instead, they seemed as fascinated by us as we were by them, regarding us with eyes that glowed like moonstones.

We became experts in navigating our vehicles through tight squeezes and sharp turns, experts, too, in dodging the cops who soon began to stalk us. Their cruisers were too wide to fit onto most of the paths, but they knew every exit and entrance, often lying in wait for us, their lights off, and we had our share of narrow escapes. By the end of the summer, we were stopping well back from any potential exit and reconnoitering on foot, creeping along like commandos, though I doubt commandos ever had to worry about giving themselves away by giggling. I guess we should have taken them more seriously, but to us, the whole thing was a cartoon cat-and-mouse game, part of the fantasy world of the bike paths, and not the most important part, either. Anyway, they never caught us.

The exhilaration of those nights came back to me now. I turned on the radio, stumbled across a station at the extreme left of the dial playing what a New York friend of mine called "the New Oldies" (that is, tunes from the eighties; as for HFS, it had long since been assimilated into the Borglike empire of conservative talk radio), and began to drive slowly, staying under five miles an hour. If I'd had a joint, I would have smoked it. Not that I needed one: I already felt high. My body recalled the route better than my mind did; I found myself making turns without hesitation, by instinct instead of memory, even after I'd passed beyond any landmark of bridge, playground, or lamp post that looked remotely familiar in the headlights and I knew I'd entered a new section of the paths. New to me, anyway; the network had expanded considerably since I'd last driven it. Occasionally I saw the lights of houses winking through the trees, but I had no idea where I was. Nor did I care. Being lost suited my mood perfectly.

At one point, a fat possum wandered onto the path ahead of me. It trundled along, in no hurry, showing no inclination to skedaddle. Every so often it turned its ratty face back at me as if in annoyance, its eyes splashes of emerald fire. What? it seemed to be asking. Are you still here? It looked so self-important that I had to laugh. I followed it until, with one final backward glance, it veered off into the woods and was gone. I continued on, knowing that sooner or later I was bound to emerge onto a street that would take me home, but in no hurry to get there. I would have been happy to keep driving forever, spiraling deeper and deeper into the interstitial spaces of Reston and never coming out again.

The radio station was really amazing, playing all kinds of obscure and semi-obscure bands without commercial interruption, just like HFS in its glory days. Martha and the Muffins. Romeo Void. The Minutemen. Lene Lovich. Holly Beth Vincent. Joy Division. I heard them all that night, as well as stuff by the usual suspects: the Replacements; Siouxsie and the Banshees; Gang of Four; Talking Heads; Billy Idol; Bowie; U2. I began to spin out a fantasy that I'd traveled through time, the twists and turns of the paths driving me backward to the eighties. I kept waiting for the DJ to come on, half-expecting that I'd hear Weasel or Damien or one of the other old HFS hands, but no one ever did. I figured I must have caught the beginning of an hour's block of music. Unfortunately, the reception was spotty, and the station kept fading out, until at last it slipped off the edge of the dial into a sea of static and did not return. But the static seemed to hold a buried music of its own, spacey and alluring, if only I could surrender to it, as if there were a whole other spectrum of stations there to the left, beyond the reach of conventional radios.

It was right about then that I saw an approaching headlight. My first thought was that it was the cops, that they'd finally taken to patrolling the paths by bike or motorcycle like they should have been doing twenty years ago. Backing up was out of the question; where was I going to back up to? Nor was there any convenient side path down which I could duck. Besides, my lights were on, as visible to him as his were to me. I was as good as busted. I pulled as far over to the side as I could, letting the branches scrape the sides and windows of the car, and waited.

As it turned out, it was neither bike nor motorcycle, but a car with a broken headlight. Not a cop, then, just somebody out for a late-night drive, same as me. Still, the appearance of another vehicle had shattered the spell of the paths, and I felt foolish to have come here, a middle-aged guy trying to recapture his youth, trying to escape the reality of his mother's death. The oncoming glare was blinding, and I waited nervously for the car to reach me, wondering whether it would stop or pass by. I didn't want trouble; I just wanted to go home. The swirl of static from the radio was suddenly annoying, and I stabbed it off as the car slowed and pulled to a stop beside me, an old Dodge Dart. The driver's side window was down, and even before it drew even I heard the hiss of static from inside like a shivery wind blowing through the trees. Then I was staring at a face I hadn't expected to ever see again.

"Jesus," I said. "Lisa, is that you?"

She took the cigarette from her lips and exhaled, cool as ever, acting unsurprised, as if she'd been expecting me. "Hi, Johnny. Been a long time." Blue-gray smoke drifted between us like static made visible.

I laughed, all at once aware how much I'd missed her, how glad I was to see her after all this time; it wasn't that I'd forgotten the reasons why I'd avoided her, but suddenly they didn't matter so much anymore. "Jesus, Lis, you haven't changed a bit! What are you doing here?"

"That's a trick question, right?" She raised a ring-pierced eyebrow, took another drag on her cig. "Look, I'll go down a ways and turn around, then you can follow me home, okay? We'll talk there. Catch up and shit."

"That'd be great."

She pulled away without another word. In less than five minutes, she was back, motioning with one hand for me to follow as she glided by. I pulled in behind her and let her lead me out of the maze.


· · · · · 

 
 
 
1   |   2   |   3
 

© 2004 by Paul Witcover and SCIFI.COM.