The Original Impulse
The Original Impulse
He appeared in her sleep like a regular. Sometimes she saw the actual him on the street, then he appeared two, three nights in a row; on the street, because he remembered her vaguely or well enough, it was awkward.
Years ago they’d done a fast dance. Back then, when she studied photography, she believed artists were constitutionally honest; but his thrill had its own finish line. She missed classes, stayed out too late, ate too much, and dormant neuroses fired. She expected a man to love her the way her father did, explosively, devotedly. Months later, near where they’d first met, she ignored him; he rushed after her and apologized. Maybe he knew how bad it felt, but she never said anything. He phoned sometimes, they drove around, drank coffee, talked, not about lies, and two years passed like that, haplessly, when something obscene must have gone down, because he didn’t call again. What words were there for nothing. Nothing.
Her time was full, adequate, hollow, fine, and she felt content enough with love and work, but no one lives in the present except amnesiacs. Her history was a bracelet of holes around her wrist, not a charm bracelet like her mother had worn; that was gone. Someone had stolen it as her mother slipped away. It might be on that woman’s wrist now, the gold rectangular calendar hanging from it, a ruby studding her mother’s birthdate, a reminder she wouldn’t want. It would weigh even more with blanks filled in by anonymous dead people.
Insignificant coincidences—the actual him in a hotel lobby, a bookstore doorway, crossing a street—made loose days feel planned. She moved forward, a smart phone to her ear or its small screen to her face, and anything might happen. She read a story he’d written about an accidental meeting with a woman from his protagonist’s past. First he didn’t recognize her, she’d changed so much from how he remembered her; then he felt something again, maybe for the woman, mostly for himself.
When he spotted her, she wondered if he felt sick alarm too. One Saturday, she didn’t notice he was walking by, watching her, and when she looked up, aware of something, she half-smiled involuntarily. That could have meant anything, there was no true recognition from either of them. Without it, she couldn’t perform retrospective miracles, transform traitors into saviors. When ex-friends’ faces arose, stirred by the perfume of past time, they looked as they did back then. One of them, she heard, did look the same, because she’d already been lifted. But some things can’t be lifted.
Abysses and miseries called down their own last judgments upon themselves. Katherine could recite many of her bad acts; it would be easy to locate her putative wounded and apologize like someone in AA, but what substance had she abused. Love, probably. Most likely they’d claim they had moved on and forgotten her. Besides, they might say, you never really meant that much to me. Or, let’s be friends on Facebook. When the 20th-year reunion committee of her high school found her, she didn’t respond. Formal invitations, phone messages. They insisted her absence would destroy the entire reason for the event. The date approached. She wondered if showing up might help adjudicate the past, and curiosity arched its back. She caught a ride with a popular girl who’d gone steady with a future movie star who’d had a pathetic end. The woman wore the same makeup she’d worn then, her eyes lined slyly with black. Startling, what gets kept.
The reunion was held in the town’s best country club, and in front of the table with name badges, she sank, just the way she had growing up. Someone called to her, “Kat, Kat,” and another, “Kat,” while another fondly blasted “Kat” into her ear, someone whose name she didn’t recognize even looking at the name badge. Indignant, the girl/woman pronounced her unmarried name as if the tribe were extinct. “And I’m called Katherine now,” she answered. Throughout the night, they called her Kat as if she were still one of them.
Faces had been modified, some looked aged; all the boys looked older than the girls. Provincial, well-off, neither sex could believe she wasn’t married, and she encouraged their bewilderment, eventually admitting she lived with someone. But no, no, she wasn’t married. The girls especially looked at her pityingly, the boys lasciviously. One had been her sixth-grade boyfriend; he’d been pudgy but now his girth wasn’t boyish or expectant. During cocktails, she huddled with the black kids, the minority in town, and sat at their dinner table, still a minority. Days later, some of her former friends telephoned. One announced gravely, “I told my daughter to be like you, not me.” She didn’t ask why. Her pudgy sixth-grade boyfriend decided he’d ruined her life, that’s why she hadn’t married. He thought because she hadn’t married, she must be a tormented lesbian. Katherine remembered breaking up with him for a seventh-grader.
On an accidental corner, the night-time man’s spectral presence tugged at her, a leash pulling in the wrong direction. If she existed as a translation from an unforgiving past, he must, too, but translation was too dainty for what had happened to her, or him, she supposed. Words weren’t patches, and the nights didn’t let up, repetition after repetition, but how many ways could he appear, in how many iterations: his cheek pressed against hers, his glance, like a pardon from their past, his sexy compassion—they both had been alive then.
She heard he treated his wife badly, but they might have an open marriage, blind oxymoron. She supposed he lied to his wife, a famous rock singer past her prime, the way he was. On an impulse, he might abandon the singer, no longer the blooming girl who’d obliterated his mortality. The singer might want to divorce him but won’t, because of their child, or because she doesn’t care about his infidelities, since she’s had her own, or none, or because she can’t bear another split when suturing wouldn’t hold after so much scar tissue. What had their life meant, and, anyway, he always returned remorseful or defiant, or both.
Sometimes, passing a building or cafe, Katherine would recollect a doorway encounter like the one on Fifth Avenue where Lily Bart was spotted by Lawrence Selden and doomed. Behind that red door, in that bodega, in that high-rise on the eightieth floor, strangers and intimates lavished attention or withdrew it, or she did. She had entertained various kinds of intercourse, and the words spoken lay redacted under thick, black lines. She retrieved bits through the interstices of nodding heads.
A delicate young man trembled at the edge of recognition, but his face was now speckled like an old photograph.
She was eighteen and lay in the arms of a married man who respected, he said, her innocence, and held her close, saying he’d always remember this moment, but she wouldn’t, because she didn’t know how beautiful she was. There was a cool slip of a rough tongue on an inner thigh and a sensational confession. There was a Southerner whose sexuality was fiercely, erotically ambiguous. He stayed in her bed too long. She roared here and soared there, dwarfed by three massive white columns as she and her best college friend mugged before a filmless camera.
People often move away from cities and towns when reminiscences create profound debt and mortgage the future. They visit occasionally and discover that the debt has multiplied. Katherine stayed where she was, in her city, along with a majority of others who resolutely called it home and became teachers, therapists, florists, criminals, food professionals, homeless, or worked with immigrants and refugees, the way she did.
Her photographs had been in two one-person shows and several group exhibitions, but Katherine stopped taking her work seriously because, primarily, she couldn’t convince herself that her images were better than anyone else’s. The decisive moment was an indecisive one for her. She earned a degree in social work and dallied with becoming a psychoanalyst, but decided she didn’t want to work with people too much like herself. The agency where she spent five days a week, with occasional nights of overtime because of the exigencies of desperate people’s lives, suited her. The agency was respected and privately funded by well-known philanthropists. Every day people entered the office with foreign-born stories of violence, terror, and humiliation; her shame was nothing compared with theirs.
Two months after the high school reunion, one of the girls telephoned to remind Katherine, agonistically, of why their friendship had ended—remember, the friend urged, senior year. The friend cited her mother’s dying of cancer, her boyfriend’s betrayals–-she married him anyway—but all this pain had forced her to abandon their friendship. “I couldn’t help you,” she said, “we couldn’t help each other.” The friend talked and talked until her voice fell off a cliff. So that was that.
Katherine never thought about that friend or her dying mother, but now she pretended to stroll from her childhood house on Butler up Adelaide Avenue to the street—Randolph—and the door of her friend’s home. The lawn was wide and green, so it must have been spring, when sad things occur ironically. She didn’t open the front door, she didn’t want to walk up the carpeted staircase and see her friend cradling her dying mother. The front door swung open, anyway. Her friend’s father had his back to her, at the dining room table, his old head supported in her young friend’s hands. Now the friend turned toward her, disrupting the image, and Katherine ran home. Did that happen?
There he was again. Katherine was sitting on a couch in a lobby, waiting for a friend. She heard his voice, he strode to the elevator, and she didn’t move, her face averted. He looked her way; she didn’t relax her pose. It didn’t matter if the night-time man knew her as she was now. He was a thorn pricking her side, that’s all. Another of his stories appeared, and she read about the protagonist’s having once received a postcard from a girl he’d been cheating with; his wife found it, and it ruined things between them for a while. He never saw the girl again. How true was he being, or could he be. He was faithless, but probably he didn’t think so, not in the obvious ways. He bore an unfathomable loneliness, and he was faithful, in his way, to that.
At the agency, she listened to stories more terrible than the Greek tragedies she loved. When she learned that some friends didn’t return to the books they’d cherished in school, she understood that some people lived as if the past were over. Been there, done that–-she didn’t know how. The Greeks would have his wife lose her voice, never to sing or even speak again. He’d suffer a downfall, realizing his hubris necessarily too late, and kill himself. The wife might kill herself too, but not harm their beautiful daughter, who would turn vengeful, without knowing whom to blame, unalterable fate swallowing her whole.
The night-time man played his role in her romance, reciting his few lines. She told no one, because dreams signify nothing to anyone else, and their accidental meetings were psychic jokes—those sidewalk and doorway scenes, the questions they raised, when she compared her life with his, what had occurred between then and now, all to test her self-made being. Startling, what gets kept.
On a dull February morning, a man entered the agency. Curiously, he recognized her name, because ten years back he’d seen her photographs in London, when he was covering culture for an Indian newspaper. He had a work visa—he was a journalist and visiting academic—but he wanted to bring his extended family from Bangladesh. He needed permanent residency, there were political issues, he knew important people and could get letters. He was charming, somewhat coy, especially when announcing that he suffered the curse of a minority writer. She asked what that was. She never presumed anything in the office.
“To be expected to write like a minority,” he said.
“How do you mean.”
“You must write of suffering with some nobility –- you people expect authenticity. I bet you first heard about Bangladesh when George Harrison organized that concert.”
It wasn’t a question, and he may have been right. She said she expected nothing from him. It was oddly comforting to assert that, as if he didn’t exist to her the way she knew she didn’t to him. He spoke about the different meanings of displacement. He refused to consider himself an exile, even if one day he would be. Outside, the bare branches of February trees looked like what he was saying, an image she might have shot once—recognizable metaphors, a formally interesting composition—but what did it really do. What was it a picture of.
That night, she told Jack about the Bangladeshi writer called Islam.
“Remember when Christian lived on the eleventh floor,” Jack said.
They watched the Mets win their rubber game, a depressingly rare event, and sometimes she watched Jack and wondered if they really had a destiny with each other, and what if she left him or he left her. And what if she sent a postcard to the night-time man, like that girl. Graciously, he didn’t appear in her dream, a stranger did, Islam probably, who declared, “Ecstasy is a living language.” In the morning, when she spoke his name aloud, it was too big, too much. Islam had asked why she’d stopped showing her work. She didn’t know, exactly, she gave him reasons, but she thought she wasn’t an artist. She wasn’t committed enough, she told him, and not everyone has to be an artist. That’s over, that romance about being an artist. Some things were over, she acknowledged to herself.
Walking to work, she abjured scenes that had occurred years ago at one place or another, but even when a building had been completely demolished, the blighted memory wasn’t. Islam’s questions bothered her but she liked them, or appreciated them. In the past she’d documented many of these lost buildings; now, surprising new-old images were sprung free by involuntary processes. History pursues its psychic claims in disguise. She thought about photographing Islam, making a portrait of him. He had become entwined in what she’d renounced. First, Islam said he’d think about it, then he said no, and his refusal shut an unmarked door. She supposed she did have unwanted expectations. To appease her, probably, Islam invited her for a drink; Katherine said no. She wasn’t sure what she wanted from him, or he from her, except the obvious. Katherine was suspicious in ways she hadn’t been when she knew the night-time man. Maybe that was a sorry thing.
Her job involved her. She watched people carefully for unusual, even unique gestures and expressions, and listened thoughtfully. People were amazing, their stories amazed, saddened and disgusted her. Katherine was herself or wasn’t during these intake interviews. She recognized a person as a site of relationships, never just an individual, even when cut off from friends and family. But people felt miserably alone. Islam didn’t—Katherine didn’t think he did. He told her he was a beloved son, his mother’s favorite, the youngest, adored by his father and brothers, and he said it with such vivacity and pleasure, she believed him without jealousy. In the same meeting, he chided her. “You know, Katherine, you must know, I was playing you a little. I’m not really a minority, we’re not a minority, you are. You have more wealth, that’s all.” Then he smiled brilliantly, the adored son.
Sunday, Katherine was rambling in Central Park. The night-time man’s wife appeared in her path, and it wasn’t a dream. She wore an unadorned black jacket, slim black pants, slingback shoes, understated make-up. Katherine admired how well-composed her image was. The wife seemed bemused, chin held high as if loftily acknowledging something or someone in the distance. A girl walked beside her, their daughter, and when they passed by, Katherine felt a furtive intimacy with her night-time rival, like a fragment secretly attached. The daughter was taller, longer-legged, unsmiling—what had happened—her face similar to her mother’s, though much younger. Daughters manage fathers like him, and what do they tell themselves. What does he tell her. “I love your mother, this has nothing to do with you.” What does the girl feel. The daughter’s long, gold earrings danced at her swan-white neck.
Her mother’s charm bracelet. Katherine saw it flutter, a golden relic hanging from a bare branch. That would be a strange picture, she thought, not easily dismissed, uncanny even. But how would she do it, if she did. Startling, what gets kept.