Conjunctions:44 An Anatomy of Roads: The Quest Issue

“Nothing sorts out memories from ordinary moments. It is only later that they claim remembrance, when they show their scars.”
—Chris Marker, La Jetée

We never meet. No, not never; just fleetingly: five times in the last eighteen years. The first time I don’t recall; you say it was late spring, a hotel bar. But I see you entering a restaurant five years later, stooping beneath the lintel behind our friend Andrew. You don’t remember that.

     We grew up a mile apart. The road began in Connecticut and ended in New York. A dirt road when we moved in, we both remember that; it wasn’t paved till much later. We rode our bikes back and forth. We passed each other twenty-three times. We never noticed. I fell once, rounding that curve by the gold course, a long scar on my leg now from ankle to knee, a crescent colored like a peony. Grit and sand got beneath my skin, there was blood on the bicycle chain. A boy with glasses stopped his bike and asked was I OK. I said yes, even though I wasn’t. You rode off. I walked home, most of the mile, my leg black, sticky with dirt, pollen, deerflies. I never saw the boy on the bike again.

     We went to different schools. But in high school we were at the same party. Your end, Connecticut. How did I get there? I have no clue. I knew no one. A sad fat girl’s house, a girl with red kneesocks, beanbag chairs. She had one album: the Shaggs. More sad girls, a song called “Foot Foot.” You stood by a table and ate pretzels and drank so much Hi-C you threw up. I left with my friends. We got stoned in the car and drove off. A tall boy was puking in the azaleas out front. 

     Wonder what he had? I said.

     Another day. The New Canaan Bookstore, your end again. I was looking at a paperback.

     That’s a good book, said the guy behind me. My age, sixteen or seventeen. Very tall, springy black hair, wire-rimmed glasses. You like his stuff?

     I shook my head. No, I said. I haven’t read it. I put the book back. He took it off the shelf again. As I walked off I heard him say Time Out of Joint.

     We went to different colleges in the same city. The Metro hadn’t opened yet. I was in Northeast, you were in Northwest. Twice we were on the same bus going to Georgetown. Once we were at a party where a guy threw a drink in my face.

     Hey! yelled my boyfriend. He dumped his beer on the guy’s head. 

     You were by a table, watching. I looked over and saw you laugh. I started laughing, too, but you immediately looked down then turned then walked away.

     Around that time I first had this dream. I lived in the future. My job was to travel through time, hunting down evildoers. The travel nauseated me. Sometimes I threw up. I kept running into the same man, my age, dark haired, tall. Each time I saw him my heart lurched. We kissed furtively, beneath a table, while bullets zipped overhead, beside a waterfall in Hungary. For two weeks we hid in a shack in the Northwest Territory, our radio dying, waiting to hear that the first wave of fallout had subsided. A thousand years, back and forth, the world reshuffled. Our child was born, died, grew old, walked for the first time. Sometimes your hair was gray, sometimes black. Once your glasses shattered when a rock struck them. You still have the scar on your cheek. Once I had an abortion. Once the baby died. Once you did. This was just a dream.

     You graduated and went to the Sorbonne for a year to study economics. I have never been to France. I got a job at NASA collating photographs of spacecraft. You came back and started working for the newspaper. Those years, I went to the movies almost every night. Flee the sweltering heat, sit in the Biograph’s crippling seats for six hours, Pasolini, Fellini, Truffaut, Herzog, Fassbinder, Weir. La Jetée, a lightning bolt: that illuminated moment when a woman’s black-and-white face moves in the darkness. A tall man sat in front of me and I moved to another seat so I could see better; he turned and I glimpsed your face. Unrecognized: I never knew you. Later in the theater’s corridor you hurried past me, my head bent over an elfin spoonful of cocaine.

     Other theaters. We didn’t meet again when we sat through Berlin Alexanderplatz, though I did read your review. Our Hitler was seven hours long; you stayed awake, I fell asleep halfway through the last reel, curled on the floor, but after twenty minutes my boyfriend shook me so I wouldn’t miss the end.

     How could I have missed you then? The theater was practically empty.

     I moved far away. You stayed. Before I left the city I met your colleague Andrew: we corresponded. I wrote occasionally for your paper. You answered the phone sometimes when I called there.

     You say you never did.

     But I remember your voice: you sounded younger than you were, ironic, world-weary. A few times you assigned me stories. We spoke on the phone. I knew your name.

     At some point we met. I don’t remember. Lunch, maybe, with Andrew when I visited the city? A conference?

     You married and moved three thousand miles away. E-mail was invented. We began to write. You sent me books.

     We met at a conference: we both remember that. You stood in a hallway filled with light, midday sun fogging the windows. You shaded your eyes with your hand, your head slightly downturned, your eyes glancing upward, your glasses black against white skin. Dark eyes, dark hair, tall and thin and slightly round-shouldered. You were smiling; not at me, at someone talking about the mutability of time. Abruptly the sky darkened, the long rows of windows turned to mirrors. I stood in the hallway and you were everywhere, everywhere.

     You never married. I sent you books.

     I had children. I never wrote you back.

     You and your wife traveled everywhere: Paris, Beirut, London, Cairo, Tangier, Cornwall, Fiji. You sent me postcards. I never left this country.

     I was vacationing in London with my husband when the towers fell. I e-mailed you. You wrote back:

     Oh sure, it takes a terrorist attack to hear from you!

That was when we really met.

     I was here alone by the lake when I found out. A brilliant cloudless day, the loons calling outside my window. I have no TV or radio; I was online when a friend e-mailed me:

     Terrorism. An airplane flew into the Trade Center. Bombs. Disaster.

I tried to call my partner but the phone lines went down. I drove past the farmstand where I buy tomatoes and basil and stopped to see if anyone knew what had happened. A fan was there with D.C. plates: the woman inside was talking on a cell phone and weeping. Her brother worked in one of the towers: he had rung her to say he was safe. The second tower fell. He had just rung back to say he was still alive.

     When the phone lines were restored that night I wrote you. You didn’t write back. I never heard from you again.

     I was in New York. I had gone to Battery Park. I had never been there before. The sun was shining. You never heard from me again.

     I had no children. At the National Zoo, I saw a tall man walking hand in hand with a little girl. She turned to stare at me: gray eyes, glasses, wispy dark hair. She looked like me.

     Two years ago you came to see me here on the lake. We drank two bottles of champagne. We stayed up all night talking. You slept on the couch. When I said good night, I touched your forehead. I had never touched you before. You flinched.

     Once in 1985 we sat beside each other on the Number 90 bus from North Capitol Street. Neither of us remembers that.

     I was fifteen years old, riding my bike on that long slow curve by the golf course. The Petro Oil truck went too fast, and I lost my balance and went careening into the stone wall. I fell and blacked out. When I opened my eyes, a tall boy with glasses knelt beside me, so still he was like a black-and-white photograph. A sudden flicker: for the first time he moved. He blinked, dark eyes, dark hair. It took a moment for me to understand he was talking to me. 

     “Are you OK?” He pointed to my leg. “You’re bleeding. I live just down there—”

     He pointed to the Connecticut end of the road.

     I tried to move but it hurt so much I threw up, then started to cry.

     He hid my ruined bike in the ferns. “Come on.”

     You put your arm around me and we walked very slowly to your house. A plane flew by overhead. This is how we met.

Elizabeth Hand is the coeditor of Conjunctions:67, Other Aliens. The bestselling author of sixteen novels and five collections of short fiction and essays, she has received multiple Nebula, World Fantasy, and Shirley Jackson awards. Her many books include Glimmering (Harper Prism), Saffron and Brimstone: Strange Stories (M Press), Generation Loss (Small Beer), Hard Light (St. Martin’s), and most recently, Curious Toys (Mullholland Books/Little, Brown). The Book of Lamps and Banners, the fourth novel in her acclaimed noir series featuring punk iconoclast Cass Neary, will be published in 2020 by Mulholland Books. She splits her time between the Maine coast and North London.