That Ancient Lake

I’ve forgotten most of that year: the hospital’s confusing architecture, the nights I woke and wandered the house to find my wife wandering the house too, like two ghosts surprised and even frightened to find the other haunting that same space. It’s lost the power of its particularity and become something else. A thing I sometimes talk about, finally, but only to say, yes, that happened, and now I am here. It has softened to a blur. It has found its place.

And yet I remember that the television played the news, and that the news described the murder of a family by their own son somewhere thousands of miles away in Arkansas. I remember that too—the place where it happened and the odd way the newscaster pronounced the word, Arkansas, as if he had never heard of such a place before. I even remember the image of the boy on the screen, and his name, although none of these things are very important. And I remember wondering what he felt—not the boy, but the man telling the story—and if it was anything at all like what I felt as I sat in the waiting room.

I was not at the hospital. That place had come and gone, and we had already said our good-byes. It was late February and the sun had returned so decisively that the whole town glowed. Outside people covered their eyes as they walked with their coats unbuttoned, hands shielding faces and heads bowed. Inside the floor was wet with dirty snow and all the chairs were full either with people or coats, mittens, hats, bundles that reminded me of sleeping children.

The silent comradery was familiar. The resentment too, at having to be stuck with these particular people and their particular smells and voices and nervous techniques for holding themselves apart from the rest. The light from the plate glass fell across the faces and made each one seem knowable, but I had been through this each year and knew it was nothing transcendent. I was just waiting for a mechanic to change my oil. The man on the TV had moved on to something else, if he had ever been talking about it in the first place. The story could have been something I heard about later, and then matched it to that place, fit them together because they seemed to belong side by side like a fork and knife.

Directly across from me the old man’s lip was split and I remember wondering if he even knew, if he had somehow moved past registering small pains like that; and I remember the younger woman, not the one who would show me the photographs, but the other one, the half-asleep one who I decided was beautiful. Three of them sat in a row across from me, the old man, the woman, and then the other woman, the one who pulled out her phone and moved across the room to sit right up next to me. “Do you want to look at some pictures?” she asked. She was the one still wearing her coat. In fact, it was still zipped up, and spotted with patches of duct tape to cover the pinholes caused when you stand so close to a bonfire. I had seen that before, lots of times, but never quite so many. I imagined her standing so close that the heat caused some suffering.

She said, “Look at this one.”

“I think my truck is almost ready,” I said. It was right there, through the window in the mechanic’s bay, with the hood open. I had been driving it around for a month with one of the dashboard lights blinking and decided, finally, that enough was enough. It had probably been the sun that had done that—reorganized things in my head, given me a conviction that this was a thing worth doing. But also I didn’t want to go back home. I had told my wife I was going out, had slammed the door and then stood in the cold sunlight without an idea of where to go and what to do. The garage had been my salvation.

“This one is a cat,” the woman next to me said, but I couldn’t see a cat. It was just a single eye and maybe not even. Something had happened to the colors too. She had been messing with it, reversed it. To me it looked like some kind of geographical feature, a slate grey ocean with an island in the middle of it, taken from some crazy machine circling the earth. It made me feel small as a bug, but not necessarily insignificant. After all, I was floating above all of it.

“Her name is Tabitha,” she said, but it looked like a place you could go to if you had enough money.

The other two people sat as if on the subway. The old man folded his arms. The woman let her eyes fall completely closed. Water collected around their boots. It was clear that I was on my own in this.

“And this one,” she said, “this one is the cat again.”

“Tabitha,” I said, because I was worried I had already forgotten. I wanted to hold onto that name for some reason.

She flipped to the next picture with a casual flick of her thumb. Her fingernails were bitten raw and there was something shrill, almost hysterical, in her voice, as if she were trying to prove something to me. Maybe she thought I wasn’t listening, wasn’t looking, but I was. I was trying pretty hard. It’s just that I wasn’t seeing what she was seeing.

The torqueing of the air drill occasionally interrupted us and we’d stop and look out at my truck up on the lift. Whatever they were doing was beyond me, but I knew they would finish up soon and then I’d sign the paper and pay my money and tell them thank you and that very small part of my life would be all right.

“This one is a good one,” she said.

“A cat,” I said, a question and a statement both. I expected her to say something smart-alecky, but she didn’t. I could tell she was trying hard to keep her hands still, the phone steady. It shimmied a little bit in her palm. Tattoos spiraled from her wrist to her elbow. They reminded me of vines, an invasive species.

“Right,” she said.

“I don’t have any,” I said.

“What?” she asked. “Pictures? You don’t have any?”

“Cats,” I said.

“You don’t look like a cat person,” she said, and she seemed to consider me. “You don’t look like a dog person either.” She smiled a little. “You look like a person though.”

“I am that,” I said. “You’ve got me.”

“I knew it,” she said.

My eyes fell back to the phone.

“It’s all about framing it the right way,” I said.

I had opened my mouth to give her some kind of vague compliment, but now it was all fumbling away from my intention. “Like, you can control it all. By you I mean the photographer. I guess what I’m saying is that what’s left out is important.” It seemed very crucial that she understand this and I wondered if maybe I was the crazy one, the one forcing myself on her. She’d tell this story to her boyfriend or mother or something: the man choking up in the gas station as he talked about technique.

“I don’t know about that,” she said, “but isn’t he cute? You can see me in his eyes. The shadow of me.”

I looked closer and yes, there it was, the outline with her hands raised to her face. I would not have noticed it without her pointing it out. She flipped to the next and the next. Another cat, or maybe the same one. She wasn’t explaining them anymore. In the background a couple of lawn chairs rested on their sides, as if blown by the wind or knocked down by someone stomping around. That’s what I was interested in: all the debris in the background. The filter made it look like the trees were on fire. The cat was in one of the trees. And then it was gone because she had flipped the picture again to something I couldn’t recognize.

I could hear the mechanics yelling happily about something or other and then the air drill again. It sounded a little dangerous, like you could put it through your hand if you weren’t careful. I was trying really hard to concentrate.

“That’s my vag,” she said.

I sat looking at it. It didn’t seem like anything at all.

“A different kind of pussy,” she said, but she wasn’t smiling anymore.

“Really,” I said.

“Yes,” she said. “Can’t you tell?”

If she had told me it was a stream or water or the close-up surface of a table top I would have said, oh sure, fine, and been ready for the next one. The people across from us were doing their best not to look, to appear not to look, and I had the oddest feeling: that it was us and them, me and this woman against all the rest, including my wife, who was probably in bed at home on a Saturday afternoon. I thought about driving through the snow on my way here with my hand blocking the sunlight, how it had seemed to swallow me up until it felt like I was dissolving. The drives back and forth to the hospital had all been in the dark and that had made them a little easier, to do all of that submerged in the darkness.

“So okay,” I told here. “Here we are.”

“Insightful,” she said. “Perfect.”

I thought of my wife waiting for me, how changing the oil might prove something to her and maybe to me. It might open a door, so to speak. I liked to imagine her doing something similar: boxing up all that stuff in the back room, maybe, although it was too soon—I thought then that maybe it would always be too soon. Reaching across the bed to touch me. I thought about how you could sit across a kitchen table from someone and see the same exact thing in them as you saw in yourself, the same mess, and then decide casually, with a kind of shrug, to hate them with all the effort you could give. That’s the kind of thing that would happen late at night, when one of us would find the other. “You don’t believe me,” the woman said.

“I believe you,” I said.

“In the tub,” she said.

Maybe I was staring. I’m not sure. Or maybe I was focused on my truck. But a little irritation had found its way into her voice. “It looks like nature photography,” I said. I could see roots splitting in all different directions. “It looks underground.”

Because I had thought of the permafrost ice caves and how it had felt in there looking up. Supposedly it was the remains of a prehistoric lake. A frozen snapshot, my brother-in-law had called it. We had traveled down there once and seen it all: the ice and fossils and giant slabs of exposed rock. The lake was long gone, but you could see the underside of it still, and you felt like it all might come crashing down on you too. At least that’s how I had felt, but I think my wife had felt that too. She had held my hand while we navigated the terrain.

The lake had probably covered the entire ridge, made the whole landscape one vast long plain. He belonged to the Army Corps of Engineers and seemed to know what he was talking about, had named the bones and the rocks as we moved deeper inside. As he talked about the lake he had spread his arms to show how big the thing had been, but all it had done was show off his own strength, his broad chest and arms. I remember being impressed by that, and the way he spoke, as if this were a secret he was sharing. He stood with his arms spread apart and smiled. Water, he said, was the great equalizer. I remember my wife and I nodding at that like it was wisdom we could use in the coming months. You could see the fossils in the walls standing out white and ethereal in the lamp radiance. For some odd reason it occurred to me that this woman, the woman next to me in the waiting room, should know all of this—that it was selfish of me to keep it to myself. But I kept it to myself. She leaned in closer and said something else I didn’t catch. Or I don’t remember it. She was trying to pull her phone back, but I had a hand on it too. Just to steady the picture.

“You’re lying,” I said. For some reason I was laughing.

“No,” she said. She was laughing too, although maybe not.

I was sure the other people could hear every word and I wanted to hurt them. Or rather, I wanted them to hurt. I didn’t have the energy to do it myself. “Really,” I told her. “You’re pulling my leg.”

She looked at me like I was the crazy one. “No,” she said. “See?” She touched her finger to the screen to show me and I felt like a child. I could hear them talking out there with my truck. The way they talked seemed like they were friends.

“I can see it now,” I said. “Right there.”

“You’re good-looking,” she said, “but a little slow.”

I didn’t know what to do with that. Neither of those things seemed true. Both seemed true. I wanted to tell her that she was jumping to conclusions, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the lake covering everything and us underneath it looking at the evidence. My wife’s brother explaining everything in his relaxed way, like he had been there thousands of years before and seen the lake himself. It made me want him to hurt too, right then in the waiting room, as I was remembering it, but I didn’t see him anymore, didn’t know him. And he was hurting anyway. I didn’t have to do a thing.

“I’m just a little on drugs,” I said.

“Did you bring some for the rest of the class?” she said.

I couldn’t stop my knee from shaking, or my mind from settling on the lake, like it was right in front of me. Not in front but above, and I was underground, looking up at where it used to be.

“Hey now,” she said. “Take it easy.”

“I’m fine,” I said.

“You don’t look fine,” she said.

“Well, I am.”

She flipped back to the cat. I think she did. I remember looking at the cat anyway. Maybe I was the one holding the phone by that point. Using my own thumb. Maybe she had handed it to me or I had taken it. I could imagine my wife putting all the little clothes in the drawstring trash bag, taking them out again because it was too soon. I could see how she might fold them again, sleeve over sleeve or pants neatly in half at the knee. “I was just looking for some fun,” she said.

“Sure,” I said. “Nothing wrong with that.”

They were lowering the truck. I could see one of the guys in a little slot, coming up from down below, and it looked like he might get himself crushed, although of course that was impossible. They had a whole system. They knew what they were doing. He was saying something to the other guys, really loud so they could hear his voice above the sound of the machines, and the other guys were shaking their heads.

“Good luck,” I said.

“Thank you,” she said, and it sounded like she really meant it. She wouldn’t stop looking at me.

I stood up. Maybe I was still holding her phone because she stood up too.

I don’t think she was waiting for anything, except maybe someone to bring her home, to bring her somewhere. Some fun, she had called it. I could have told her to leave me alone, but I didn’t do that either. She followed me out into the snow, the sunshine, where my truck stood idling with the keys in the ignition. Scrapes ran down the rear quarter panel from a close call the summer before. I covered my eyes and squinted back at her. She said, “Wait,” but I wasn’t even walking. I was just standing there.

She said, “There’s nothing so bad you can’t beat it.”

“Sure,” I said. I had said similar things to my wife and hated myself for saying them.

She was dancing a little in the snow and that’s when I realized that she wore a little skirt and heels, bare legs with gashes on the knees. “Whatever you’re thinking,” I said, “it’s worse than that. Okay?” Although maybe those were just words in my head, everything I wanted to say. I thought about grabbing her and pulling her to me. It was a passing thought, like when you look out from a high point and wonder how the river below you might feel.

“No,” she said. “Listen to me. Really listen.”

“I am,” I said.

“I’m just nobody,” she said, “but what I know is problems. That’s the one thing. So you should take my advice.”

But it didn’t seem like advice. She had raised her voice. It seemed like any second she might start throwing little punches against my bulky coat, against my face.

I knew that feeling. I wanted it to happen.

“Just look at me,” she said. She held her arms apart a little, showing herself off as a perfect example of something. Maybe she was thinking the same thing, it’s worse than you can imagine. “I can’t do anything for you,” I said. They were watching us from the big plate glass window. I couldn’t see in there, but I figured it was true.

“I’m trying to do something for you,” she said.

This was all familiar to me too. And my turning to go. That was what had brought me here, after all.

“Don’t walk away from me,” she said. She might have been yelling.

I couldn’t stop thinking about the one photograph, the one she had lied about, and about the spheres of solid ice in the ceiling of those caves, so perfectly round. As the flashlights slid over them they burned and then receded back into the ice and earth. Up ahead of us her brother talked about the weight of the prehistoric glaciers, how they had cut through the land and birthed the whole valley. His voice came back to us down the tunnel. He had three children himself and now his kid sister was pregnant with her first and because of that the cave seemed just the latest in a long line of wonders.

I was driving home, or at least driving somewhere, and I decided that yes, the engine definitely sounded better. It didn’t matter that there was nothing to be done, or that the heavy weight of my own body was returning to me, or even that the cave could not have been as beautiful as I remembered.

If you believe in miracles then you have to believe in their opposite. I ran the truck into a tree, that day or the day after or the day after that. My wife moved in with her brother at the army base and they wouldn’t clear me at the gate when I tried to go by, so I spent most of my time arguing with myself instead of her. But sometimes that other woman, the photographer, entered my mind and I’d hope she was okay. Not enough to do anything about it, to hunt her down and make a fool of myself. I had done enough of that already.

The year continued to pass, and then two and then three and shadows grew around the edge of that experience. I made it up from the muck at the bottom of my own imagination. Maybe I threw her phone into the snow before climbing into the truck. Maybe she landed some punches against my face and shoulders, or I carried the photographs with me and watched her running body grow smaller in the rearview as I drove away. And maybe the people watching through the window thought, he’s crazy, or she’s crazy, or they’re crazy. So let them watch and wonder about the two of us as we push and pull against the other. In that moment, in their minds, we’re enemies, we’re animals, we’re lovers, and they’re thanking God they’re warm inside instead of those two out there fighting in the snow.

But years later the scene might come to them again, called up from deep in the down below place at the bottom of their brains. Maybe while they’re driving that same road, or far away in a new life doing some boring thing. It’s just there, and in a flash they are jealous in a way they can’t explain, because they are bored, and whatever pain they do feel is drab and tedious, and they are certainly not those people howling and then receding again into the dark.