The last time I went overseas the passenger next to me asked if I knew about the plight of the Icelandic pony. It was as if we’d been talking for years.
When they go abroad for competition, she said, they’re not allowed to come back. The purity of the bloodline. They might pick up a cold and infect the entire population. Of horses, I mean.
I hadn’t heard about it. Was it for real, I asked, with all the advances, inoculation and the like? And if it were true, and those horses could never reenter, they must long for their own chilly turf. They must be depressed mooching round Wales, or wherever.
You’ll make me cry, said the woman. I swore I wouldn’t cry on this flight. And now I’m going to cry about your fucking little ponies!
Hang on. They were her little ponies. She had introduced them, and I told her so.
She twisted away to the window. She came back to say sorry. The ponies’ predicament might have been true back in the day. She wasn’t sure if it still obtained.
I’ve been on a short fuse, what can I say? I resigned from my job, she said, I sold my house less than market. That’s how much I’m not coming back. I love the country but I can’t stand the scene. Leonard Cohen.
When it came time for me to leave this country forever, the logics of travel were blasted and I made many tries and false starts. On one call, my wait time was eight hours, so I mixed and proofed and baked a loaf of bread and read a short novel in which an Austrian man lived his whole life in 160 pages. I had just gone back to reread the most heartbreaking part when someone answered my call to say they couldn’t put me on the route I wanted. But there was another, involving four stops and three airports, two of which were in the same city, which I could thread by taking a taxi, as well as a fee in the five hundreds for having to pass like an apparition through the bigger of those airports. The man on the line sketched the route optimistically, saying other travelers had made the trip just fine.
A bit tired on the other end, but hey!
He said all was forgiven because they got to where they most wanted to be.
I said no, I would try again tomorrow, and I did, and the next day. And during and around all those calls, I worked to cut off old connections.
The old connections weren’t too many and my circumference was limited. Everyone’s circle had shrunk. Henry James said real-life relationships didn’t simply stop dead, but a writer could draw a selfish circle and decide what was in and what didn’t matter a damn. A writer could make it look like friends and lovers fell over cliffs and were done with. It was callous, but truer now of life than of books. A person had to fight to keep familiar faces in mind, and I hadn’t. I felt more bereft of books I boxed for the library shop than of people I hadn’t seen in years.
So I got a more chestnutty color for my hair and sent text messages to people in cities and towns. Friends and colleagues, people I’d left for jobs in other cities and towns. We had all done the due diligence of trying to stay in touch, until one month became six, one brutal heat wave the next year’s polar vortex. From there the years piled up like dense galactic time. We were growing older and more wan, like endives, or the fat Belgian asparagus. I still wanted their approval, all of those people. I wanted them to know I’d done well, or fine, or tolerably. I might still do, given time.
I gauged their interest in getting together online. Nobody truly got together that way, I said, though dating and teaching and counseling were getting accomplished in the LowBlue light. Most of them responded, but they didn’t know the urgency. They said they’d love to, asked to kick it forward a week, were so glad I’d gotten in touch. My hair turned out like goulash, but I kept washing and rinsing until it toned down to something less alarming. In the end six people wanted to get together soon. Open to any day of the week, any time, they sounded avid as the unemployed or the brokenhearted. None of them knew the others. Still, I scheduled them all in one meeting.
At five in the afternoon, I sat at the screen and waited. My posture was healthy, my distance from the screen approachable. I’d gotten used to working remotely. The word had northerly extremes. I could set up a syllabus in the boreal forest or run a meeting on an oil rig. Remote work just called for honorable perseverance and the well-timed gushy routine. It meant being the first to flick into action. I was a light in an office block stairwell and I longed for the bulb to pop.
I waited for the shivering light of six people’s entry. They materialized, cautious, hopeful, faces in good light and bad. There were glitches and hesitations, apologies, logging out and back in. Some were more practiced and looked straight ahead like friendly newscasters. Others hunched and gazed down, the screen a missal being pored over.
I had seen some of these people only last year. In other cases, world leaders had been and gone. Someone looked younger, someone dejected. My sense of occasion was waning. But here they were, thanking me once more for reaching out. They peeped coyly left and right, birds in the apertures of a dovecote.
It was my job to take an ax to the frozen sea. So. Had anyone read Agatha Christie lately? I said she was forever gathering strangers in a house or on a remote island. It took them days to figure out the reason for being there, but by then it was too late. A body on the shoreline, another in the dumbwaiter.
Once I got going it was hard to stop. The ice might re-form. They looked at me in dumbfounded amusement and I rattled on. Sometimes it turned out that a few of Agatha’s characters weren’t strangers at all! They knew one another in sinister ways, unspeakable events stemming from years before. So. Had anyone guessed why they were here? I rolled back in my chair. Onscreen my smile was lopsided and my left side always, always my worst.
Why aren’t you doing this for a living? one friend asked. I mean, seriously. You could. Are you?
Yes! Yes, another chipped in. It’s just like a podcast or something. Rescuing the classics and putting a new spin on them. You should be.
The two people I knew best were in the same trade but didn’t know each other. They started speaking at the same time. One professor stopped, the other waved her on. Please, please. I was untalented in this decorous warmth. I associated it with people who’d been curated for success from their potty training to their PhD. Please. No, please, you go, they insisted. Me, I trampled others to get to the line, afraid I wouldn’t get to the end of my thought.
It’s so good to see you, said the professor who’d been yielded the time. What has it been, five years, more?
Three, I said. But remember. They were bad.
I would work to keep my remarks short in this meeting. Let others do all the talking.
The other professor said I looked great.
You look younger! I mean, you always looked young. But now you look younger. How can that be? No fair!
This spurred the other professor to ask what I was eating and doing for exercise. Everyone leaned in for further inspection. I was a buffet item, diners poking round me and wondering about my components.
It’s gluten! I mean, it’s not. You’ve cut out gluten.
The first professor said nobody ever regretted getting rid of all their wheat. Except in those world-building games where it’s the next best resource to bricks and ore.
The second professor asked me to remind her of my age. She said she had recently coauthored a paper on women and aging. “An Objective Hermeneutics of Hotness.” A detour from her usual field of endeavor, but a whole lot of fun. She said she came out of the project determined never to dissemble or disguise when it came to her age.
OK, let me see, she said. She slipped her glasses down her nose and back up. Forty-five?
I made a greater-than sign with my thumb and finger. No. No. I refuse to believe that. You’re not in your fifties.
I didn’t say I was in them, I said. I’m not deep in the thicket. But I am over the threshold.
Two people still hadn’t spoken. One sent a chat message to say there were sound problems. The other relented and said it was nice to be asked to this. He used to want to be my lover at one time, and he still sent a birthday message at exactly nine in the morning on every turning of my year.
And what is this, exactly? Hi, everyone, by the way!
I said I was leaving the country for good. The jig was up. Fifteen years. They wouldn’t have known, I said, but I’d always had my limit set. A woman on the radio said she took stock in year five and really made an audit at year ten. But by then she was waist-high in paperwork and memorizing the thirteen original states. It was too late for U-turning when you went that far down the pike, she lamented. The radio presenter tried to rally her, asking which were the two longest rivers in a cheery Saturday voice.
I heard that show, one friend said, the first to the podcast idea. I answered the Mississippi but forgot about the Missouri. Hey, wait. Don’t you have the Tombigbee down there?
Sort of, I said. I flow into it at a certain point.
I was asked about work from here on out. I said my institution would let me work out my contract remotely. I’d be doing the same old thing, just with a six-hour time difference. They were pulling back my health insurance and rounding down their retirement contribution. I sounded tedious, like a documentarian narrating labor abuses. Still, attempts were made to tackle my news as though it had some vital import.
That’s not too bad. I mean, I don’t know how academia works, but that sounds civilized. Is it?
We will always go back to the sea. JFK.
I keep seeing academia called academe. Which is it?
But someone keenly wanted to cut to the meat. Why was I taking this step, after all this time, just when things were slowly turning for the better?
I thought of the weather app. Times of cloud, clearing to mud and sun. Instead I told them about the graveyard on the edge of town. It was called Memorial Park and had knee-high stones and no significant trees of any stature.
That’s not where I want to join the shades, I said. I’m leaving the country and heading home.
Their screens clouded over.
Everyone’s been thinking like that. Who’ll be responsible for my decline and disposal. But for goodness’ sake. You’re nowhere near.
That person, the deferential professor, looked left, smiled at a person or a pet nearby. Then back to the screen with full concentration.
If you and I were talking one to one, I’d be telling you this sooner. But no time like the present moment and a bunch of total strangers. So.
A head and shoulders joined her, got too close to the camera, filled the screen with stubble and collars. It was the colleague I used to call And Its Discontents. He was forever tacking that phrase on to topics and thought.
Yes, she said, tilting her head on his shoulder. We’re engaged. Re-engaged.
He lifted her hand closer to our eyes. A green scarab ring. He kissed the beetle and wrung the hand awhile. Years ago they got married so antiseptically that nobody realized they were spouses until they divorced. And then it was a public duel to the death every day. He took to wearing ascots. My group of online guests suited this man.
Now he took both her hands and kissed them separately. Then he kissed each finger. I prayed nothing more was to come, no sucking, no “Round and Round the Garden Like a Teddy Bear.” People were sitting back now. Somewhere popcorn was on the hop. I was still emcee, though, and had to keep the show going.
I wanted to say goodbye from this end, I said loftily, rather than notify you from the other.
She hasn’t heard from you in a year. A year. And she has tried. And now you bring us on, on here, for this dog and pony show?
And Its Discontents was stung and he caught on like contagion.
Very true, said first professor. I’m not sure what you need from us. Everyone’s burned out being online and trying to cope.
The would-be lover cleared his throat.
This. Is. Weird. And I’ve been to funerals this way. And weddings. I’ve taken cooking lessons. All of that was weird, but this is just weird.
The tiles were flipping against me. I found the ones that knew me best and threw myself on their mercy. I asked about their wedding plans. That beautiful back garden, maybe? They’d always loved to host.
They were clever, anxious people who used to plan potluck dinners. They persevered even when nobody brought anything tasty or pricey. Blueberry beer, the rubbery wrappers for spring rolls. Kitchen paper for cleaning up after. Nobody ever stayed to help.
And Its Discontents moved to the moment. His wine balloon visible now, he struck it with a pencil and said that remarriage to the same person was like an artist’s late style.
The idea of surviving beyond what is acceptable and normal. Adorno on Beethoven’s later work. Disharmonious, catastrophic even. And thus modern! Here’s to my dear disharmony!
He turned to kiss his betrothed’s ear and raise his glass higher, closer to us all. And to whatever else you’re all on here celebrating!
I had attended their first wedding, invited because I was new to the country and collectible. The bride’s father drank small bottles of Japanese beer and watched all the clever, anxious people get very familiar with the open bar. All night he watched them like a hunter’s dog waiting for birds to drop in the wetlands.
The re-betrotheds huddled even closer together now. They gazed out winsomely, like shelter animals who needed to get adopted together. Maybe I had done something valuable here. An unexpected, possibly hopeful event had come to people’s attention. I was ready to end the call on this note.
`Someone’s background changed to a hovering fog in which kitchen cupboards dissolved. People touched their necklaces and their collars. Someone parted their hair from left to right. Children in framed photos looked fat and thin and extraterrestrial. Lassitude was gathering. My eyes looked droopy, in need of serum cold from the fridge.
The would-be lover tried again. He asked me to summarize what had been going on in my life since last we’d spoken or spent time.
I take it back, he said. Not summarize. Synopsize is a better word, don’t you think?
He was sending out beams of old longing and I had no choice. The Synoptic Gospels, I said, to keep things ticking over.
That doesn’t come from the same word, he said, burrs in his voice like a knife halfway to sharpened.
And Its Discontents rumbled to be heard.
The Synoptic Gospels! The Jesus in those three texts is wooden compared with John’s guy. Now he’s kooky and mystic. I call him Lennon Jesus.
This released people to wind down.
We could stay on here all night, I said. The hard kernel of the party that refuses to crack. It was lovely to see you all.
When God is set to close a door, someone jams their foot to hold it ajar. And a new member joined the meeting. An old friend who’d texted that he couldn’t make it but had good reasons. The first thing I saw was how thinned he was. His eyes were wintry and his shutters coming down.
Don’t worry, don’t worry, he clamored. Hey, everyone. I’ve had my liver out and a new one fitted back in its place. If you’re wondering, the pain feels like the weight of Australia.
I said the Irish bardic poets used to put slabs of rock on their stomachs to slow them down enough to focus on their art. The pressure, the solitude, I suppose.
I don’t believe that, he said. Still, though. Buddhist monks in training were known to sleep on stone or wooden pillows. They woke up many times in the night to meditate.
He jabbed his thumb into his pillow.
This thing, though. Filled with foam. Nuggets fall out every day, but I just can’t find the hole.
It was a lousy pillow. It was a lousy room. The stuff of care and cleaning was tubed and lumped all around him.
I said I’d send a pillow. Two.
They don’t let anything in, he said. They’re fanatical about foreign bodies.
Your little starstruck innuendos. And Its Discontents sang in low barks. Inadequacies and foreign bodies.
Wait, my thin friend said. Wait. I know it! No. I don’t know the song. But I know it’s Van Morrison.
He sat back satisfied and gained some height against the feeble pillow. He said I was exactly the same. I peeled back hair and showed roots, I squinched my eyes to show all the lines. When he laughed, it seemed to hurt him blissfully.
That’s not my point, he said, his voice smoothing out, his chest settling under the covers. I didn’t say you look the same as ever. You just are.
Only two others looked like they believed it. And Its Discontents tilted things by giving a thumbs-up. Nobody could leave in good conscience because the new arrival’s cheeks were promontories, the skin polished and raw. He was hungry for an audience. I bet he finally looked like one of his uncles I heard about sporadically. They had wine cellars dug into dark hillsides. Their wives died more than they did, and suddenly, and young.
When I said I was leaving the country, he said he already knew. Like a bolt of blue from the sky. I knew. I just did.
He asked if we knew the ancient Greeks didn’t have blue. He wondered why he was thinking of it now.
It’s thought they couldn’t see it because they couldn’t make it as a pigment, he said. They were sure of red, though. And yellow and white and black.
I was wearing my reds again, and he was glad. And the Greeks would be glad of my red.
So the Greeks were color blockers, I said.
I pulled my turtleneck up and over my nose.
That’s not a bad look, he said. Monte Cristo. You have the eyes to carry it off.
He turned us toward a big window. He told us to look at the magnolia.
It’s as old and tall as a ship, he said. This place has a lovely vista. Even when I see the things in the trees. The meds, don’t you know.
He shied his head, as though listening to beautiful, heart-shaking music.
Donne sur, he said.
One of the professors sailed in.
Gives onto, overlooks, looks upon, opens to, she said. French is such a generous language. I wish I knew it better. I wish I could return the favor.
We were gathering carefully round him now, with anything we knew and could contribute.
Pillow sham, someone noticed. The stupidest of all household decor.
The pillow sham was quilted and patterned with autumn foliage. New England, long drives through tannic light. Small, self-contained towns and an unfriendliness that was still somehow reasonable.
Who needs this? He hauled the pillow out from under his back and worked off the pillow sham. Who needs as much stuff as this?
We’ll need the shams to trade with zombies when they come, I said. They love all that chambray crap.
If you go on a road trip anytime soon, he said, at least get a dog. At least grant me that. The company. And not beside you, either. In the back. With the seatbelt designed for dogs. Because if it’s a big dog, and you hit the brakes, Buster goes sailing forward and breaks your neck. Think about that.
For someone who never learned to drive, he knew some useful protocols. Where am I traveling, anyway, in this picture? I asked. And Buster was an inadequate name.
I don’t know, he said. I don’t care if you’re only driving around the block or to another county. That’s what you call them, isn’t it, counties? Woman and Dog in Car in County Blah at Twilight. I can see you in it.
It was dark at his window by now. The magnolia loomed like a galleon. His eyes were lit with dark mirth and exhaustion.
I told him about an alert sign on the interstate. MISSING SENIOR. 86, LAST SEEN DRIVING A YELLOW HONDA.
Yellow! That’s a full-fledged person that can’t be contained. Go, him!
I worried the story ended in the Honda gone into a tree, its wings folded round the valiant senior.
The one who needed love and recognition conjured a different road trip for me.
If you were a missing senior, you would make it all the way to a bright beach city. I know that about you! No stops for gas and snacks.
He was dreamy in his storytelling, his head cupped in his hands.
Hey. Hey, now!
It was the professor who dabbled in hermeneutics.
She’s neither missing nor a senior.
I gammed on a moment, giving adorable, childish waves to anyone along the coastal roads. I said I would excel at being a missing senior because I’d make sure not to be found.
That is kind of sad.
She was back, more loudly, the friend with mic problems. She said it was horrible to think of anyone being missing and not being found. Her eyes were dim with concern.
I worry about people, she said. I worry about all of you, and I don’t know you. I worry about all the people you know that I don’t know.
The friend on the hospital pillow brightened with interest. Ooh, his eyes said. We’ve got a live one here.
And Its Discontents honored her anxiety.
That’s perhaps your pure altruism coming through. The concern and wish to aid complete strangers. Most people are reciprocal in their dealings. Like, what does this gain me?
He was holding his wineglass askew now, close to capsizing, and his gallant lady brought it back to rights. I’d forgotten how subtle, how elegant a person she was. Some of us got a few short grabs at grace, others held it all the way through.
The friend who worried about everyone said she didn’t want to help strangers, per se. It was just that she thought about them more than she used to.
That was my cue. I wrote a private message to the hospital. Let’s not wait so long the next time.
He bopped back at top speed.
Maybe next time I’ll have a few cute kidneys to show off!
There was an air of reluctance to call it an afternoon. Because of the high, narrow bed and the medical machinery’s little red lights, it seemed we were leaving someone to the empty room Blaise Pascal said no man should be afraid to sit in alone. Yet he was and I saw it. I sent another message.
I hope whoever’s changing your catheter is getting something out of the transaction.
You! You haven’t changed! Actually I’ve promised him all the martinis I’ll never drink again.
While I was laughing and crying and explaining nothing, I was thanked and wished well and bidden farewell. Everyone said it was nice to meet everyone else. Then, like items from a magician’s tablecloth, they all went away.
I made tea and put away things in the kitchen. I tried to count off everyone who’d spoken. The night was cooling and quieting round me. Someone hadn’t. Or had they? One spring I counted the whippoorwill’s cries, in that off-hour when the sky gets marooned between dark and light. I was new to town and trying to learn. My tally was seven hundred, though I heard the record ran to a thousand.
Then pipit, pipit from the front room. The laptop. Someone was budging around, huffing, speaking to themselves in birdlike bleats. My friend in the hospital was moving his sheets as loudly as sheafed paper, trying to find the one cool, comfortable spot everyone knows to be there. I stayed behind the lid to listen to his feedback. Anything could happen next. Believing themselves unseen, unheard, people did rash stuff during lulls in their online meetings. I waited for an indiscretion. I loitered until I heard his name spoken by a nurse who wanted nothing but ease and relief for him, who maybe even loved him. I stayed up late until his room fell fully into silence within the full and sumptuous darkness cast by magnolias. I stayed in my chilly front room at a meeting I hadn’t left or ended.