Michael Joyce



SOMEONE ELSE'S STORY

  (After Robert Coover)  

     

     It was the grace of her outstretched calf that he fixed upon at eighty-three miles per hour. He saw the van as he gained upon it, covertly speeding in the inmost lane of four, and tapped the pedal to snuff the cruise control, steering widely away from the shoulder in the exaggerated gesture of a good citizen and fellow traveler when, at the fullest of this veering, she stretched to close the chrome clasp of the ovoid luggage compartment above the Euro conversion van.

     They made a tableau, the woman looking back over her shoulder with an expression of only mild concern, and the family within, a fresh-faced and handsome mate in the passenger seat, map in hand and content with his wife's enterprise, the requisite two children distributed each to a bench, a still-plump preteen boy and, at the back, a mid-teen girl, her mother's stamp upon her, though more severe, staring directly at him.

     Her face, the outstretched calf, la famille en tableau, and they were gone, receding into something less than history, mere light in the distortion of the mirror, gone.

     She could not have seen him. There had been a whistling, then a ruffle, a full flap and a feeling of exposure before she eased the van to the shoulder to investigate.

     "I'll..." her husband said.

     "What mom?" her daughter asked, half concerned.

     "No," she said and was out of the van, like that, tamping the overstuffed compartment, up on her toes, pulling the railed clasp down over itself and locking it again.

     Yet she remembered his gaze, neither vague nor intrusive, however not benign. Fixed upon was as good a phrase as any.

     In the museum gallery her calf was not exposed. A white jersey dress, loose enough to allow a woman's fulnesses, long sleeved and low on the tanned mid-calf, serenely white against the white gallery walls, over gray sandals. Surprisingly red lips, red as the Nolde poppy elsewhere.

     She was leading them as a flock, the scrubbed husband fairly bored but game in khaki and a lavender polo shirt, the epicene boy clutching a gallery map, and the younger woman, thinner out of the van, also in a dress, this one denim blue linen, at her mother's shoulder, small soft breasts.

     He waited until her flock drifted past her, they being less willing than she to give a painting time to resolve itself. The boy lurched uncertainly past the nude where his sister situated herself, mirroring its breached pose, her arms crossed. The boy finally settled with his father on the low upholstered chrome bench, their twin profiles unmatching.

     The mother stood in white before a pale painting, a rather nice interior study by a Danish painter she had not heard of, winter light in the apartment, the walls like bone, and in the far shadow in dim light a nude woman, her back turned, vertebrae pearl shadows, rump and thighs wiry and poised.

     Moving slowly to her side he joined her gaze, the words exactly as rehearsed.

     "I don't mean to trouble you and I promise I will depart without question if you say no."

     For an instant she was not certain he was addressing her. Then, instantly again, she knew. His was an animal presence. She considered saying "Pardon" but that would be false.

     "Yes."

     "Do you recall me?"

     She looked directly at him, a mere crinkle of questioning at the bridge of her nose, glacial blue eyes scanning back and forth without moving.

     "I think so, yes."

     Father and son raised their eyes toward the man with their mother and wife in vague interest. Most likely she was one who often had conversations in galleries. The daughter, however, sensed something and detached herself from the image she mirrored and moved slowly toward them, as if underwater. He would have to rush more than he wished.

     "I wonder would you go away with me."

     She considered asking for how long, but that was the point. It didn't matter really whether it were a minute or a year.

     "Mom?" the girl said, "Is he bothering you? Mom?"

     The girl shot a helpless glance to the son and father who rose and ambled toward them, the tableau now involving him as well, the three of them in a thin half-circle opposing the couple, Adam and Eve confronted in the garden by God's archangels, something from another, darker gallery.

     No one spoke at first.

     "This man has asked..." She said and smiled, it was impossible to say.

     The smile had such mildness that the daughter eased her guard a little. Father and son awaited a morsel of continuity.

     "I've asked her to go away with me." The man said softly.

     There was a pause and though the world moved even more swiftly than eighty-three miles an hour then he could mark each of their expressions. The husband's face a mix of indignant incredulity and a fairly winning befuddlement. He would have to do something and in these times it wasn't clear what was appropriate. The boy had a look of desperation, as if fate were upon him, the culmination of years of bad dreams and equally bad televised dramas and cable movies.

     It was the daughter they centered upon. Her expression a beguiling mixture of questioning and recognition, a faint defiance in her eyes softened by the way she studied her mother's face as if bathing it in light.

     "Don't be absurd," the handsome husband offered.

     "No, " she said softly, "I think this is something I am doing. "

     Had he said "come with me" instead of "go with me" her answer might have been different.

     The son had already begun to cry before his father spoke and she stroked his cheek, gathering a teardrop and rubbing it between thumb and forefinger like quicksilver.

     The daughter reached and touched her mother's forearm, not holding her, and they were gone, out of the white gallery, the family behind them like a photograph of an auto wreck.

2.

     The hotel was a large business class tower in the form of a chevron, thus allowing each room a segmented view of either the clump of similar towers which were the downtown of the city, or a hazy view of distant hills beyond the outerbelt, or the Celtic knot of expressway cloverleafs dumping traffic into the thin wasteland of warehouses, truck depots, and narrow diners edging toward the waterfront. He had taken a room in the executive towers so there was little chance they would see her family who in any case would most likely still be in shock, blear-eyed in the sunlight and concrete outside the museum or more likely by now ensconced in some air conditioned family restaurant having a conference. There was always the chance that they might seek out the police but the police surely would not hear them so near to the event and without indication of force or foul play.

     "You thought of everything," she said.

     "What's that?"

     "The same hotel."

     "Pure coincidence, I swear," he turned the key in the elevator panel for the executive tower, "Or fate, if you believe in that."

     She pressed a lower floor.

     He took a breath, there was a scent of anise in the elevator. "Change of heart?" he asked.

     "I don't want to hurt them any more than need be," she said, "I'll remove my things while there is time."

     "Should I"

     "Of course not," she said, "I couldn't let you root about in their lives any more than you have. Poor Melanie."

     Melanie, then, was the daughter.

     "Send a bellman," she said, showing him the key folder with the room number. "Quickly."

     "Then you are staying for a time? "

     She studied him, a thin smile on her lips, the Nolde red fading to poster-color.

     "A time, yes. How long remains to be seen."

     After the bellman brought her things up from the other room, hung them away in the closet, and left, she removed the white dress and the sandals and her underwear, indicating that he should undress as well, her eyes studying him as he did. Her body at first was cool, the air conditioning making her shiver slightly and her buttocks chilly against his palms. Immediately though she warmed, even grew hot, and he throbbed against her round stomach.

     "I didn't expect that we would do this," he whispered, "Not at first."

     "Why ever else would I go with you? For the conversation? To build a future?"

     She had an acid tone, one which could easily hurt him.

     "I'm sorry," he said.

     They had settled into a slow and tentative rhythm with each other when there came the distant jingle of her cellphone from the canvas shoulder bag upon the love seat across the room. Riffles of bewilderment and vulnerability crossed the passion of her face and he thought it would end right then before it had really begun. Yet she said nothing when he extricated himself and crossed the carpet to shut the phone off.

     He half-expected her face to be buried in the pillow when he turned back toward the bed but she was looking straight up at him, eyes only dimly glazed.

     "Before it had really begun?" she asked.

     "Did I say that?" he said.

     "You thought it."

     In the same way she had required some immediate consummation, it was likely that he too needed evidence of conquest, penetration, consummation, closure. Would she bite her lip or moan or merely gasp and toss her head back and forth, back and forth again against the pillow, as if in a seizure.

     For awhile they couldn't find their way back toward each other, no longer strangers, not yet known to each other.

     "Do you think it was Melanie?"

     "Don't use her name!" She was insistent, protective.

     "I'm sorry, it's the only one I know. Did you think it was your family?"

     "You have no right to any of them. You've chosen this way to do things, so you have no call on my history."

     He saw how brittle she could be, like a chert knife, and for a moment thought perhaps he had made a mistake.

     "And yet it has its call on you," he said.

     "That's the price you pay," she said.

     He had seen her on the highway, calf stretched in a double curve, and met her eyes in passing, fixing the moment against the flux. Then she was there in whiteness, in whiteness again against these hotel sheets, faintly lavender somewhere, she or the bed linen.

     "And did you feel anything?"

     "On the highway? No of course not, who would?"

     "I always do. I feel these encounters."

     Plural. No.

     Afterward the orange light in the room darkened to lavender to match the scent of the bed and the woman. Evening was gaining, a certain day was nearly over. Would they linger there until night, drift in and out of each other?

     She was more content than he with silence, an inversion he knew.

     "Were you particularly unhappy?" he asked.

     She had been breathing evenly, he thought perhaps she would sleep. Yet her voice was bright, though with a weary edge.

     "What does it matter to you?"

     "I wanted to know."

     "What you want you have. You have no right to my stories. Yes, I was happy," she said, "I am happy."

3.

     She once saw a famous singer and performance artist, it does not matter who it was, who told a story about waking in her hotel room on a high floor in one of those former third-world mega-developments, maybe Sao Paulo or Shanghai or somewhere else where the hundred story towers of the hotel and associated glass-fronted complex of buildings surround an enclosed plaza far below.

     The singer was dressed in black on an empty stage before a bank of speakers standing in the radiant blue light next to a glowing computer monitor and wearing a headset with a little microphone jutting before her in an arc of black. She said when she woke she was still jet-lagged, not sure what time it was or what city she was in, because that was how it was sometimes when you toured. The audience hushed at the prospect of sharing such intimacy.

     "I pulled back the black-out curtains," the singer said, "and looked out into this square glass cylinder before me and there in the air were angels floating slowly down in circles to the plaza below."

     A few members of the audience laughed uneasily and, when the singer said she had been unable to remember whether she ingested certain pharmaceuticals the night before she saw the angels, more of them joined in. The singer shushed them gently, insisting the story she was telling was true.

     "They were swirling down in slow circles," she said again, "and I swear they had white wings that curled around behind them in a cowl like the feathers of a dancing girl from the Folies Bergere."

     The audience waited.

     "Only none of them were naked," the singer said, and she allowed them to laugh for a beat until she continued her story.

     "Instead they were wearing pastel jumpsuits," she added, "and suddenly one of them swung very close to my window, so close that I could look directly into his sad, grey eyes, and I realized then of course that they were parasailers, a group of base jumpers that the complex had brought in as a spectacle. Even so I realized that my palm was pressed against the glass where the angel had lingered and that my lips had formed to kiss him even as he sailed away from me."

     The singer sat down then at the computer monitor with her back to the audience and whispered into the microphone.

     "I closed the curtains then and cried because I wanted my angel back again." Then she began a song that Inge could not remember even though she always remembered this story, for she thought it was her own.

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Michael Joyce's most recent print novel, Disappearance, was published by Steerage Press in October 2012, with two novels, Going the Distance (SUNY Excelsior editions), the first appearance in print of his 1994 online ebook, and Foucault, in Winter, in the Linnaeus Garden (Starcherone) to follow in successive years. He lives along the Hudson River near Poughkeepsie where he is Professor of English and Media Studies at Vassar College.