N Judah


When I graduated college I knew nothing in particular, nothing of use. The good part was I did not know that. For four years I’d been reading novels, smoking hash, and buzzing around Berkeley in an aimlessly receptive way, like a radio tuned to no particular station. Twice a week I waited tables at a Russian place in North Oakland, serving up borscht and pierogies to malarial-looking graduate students. The rest of my nights were almost mystically free. Since breaking up with Tina, I had some unused parts lying around, some idle sexual machinery wallowing in the grass. But I didn’t mind a little loneliness. The writers I admired were lonely too; it seemed the very source of their authority, their conviction. So great, I had that going for me already. Soon I too would be on my own, martyring myself to the pursuit of some intense, miserable, solitary truth. But which one?

“How about do first, think later,” my friend Ivan offered. “That might make a nice change.”

I told him I’d think about it. We were down at Café Depresso, plotting our glorious campaigns, while vapor clouds belched from the coffee machines and junkies swanned in and out of the bathrooms. Our prospects looked good: that was our analysis. The minimal investments we’d put in—the commas I’d spent the evening laboriously reinserting, the canvases he’d thickly impastoed, the books we’d read, the humiliations we’d endured—were already accruing interest. Back in Ivan’s studio, on the second floor of the art building, there were rags in the sink, brushes in silver coffee cans, books of Kabbalistic commentary, Russian poems. Through the windows you could see the dark clefts of the campus groves. Above them, like a ship beset by fog, rose the lofty, immaculate outline of the Campanile. Never mind that Ivan had no discipline or industry as a painter. He had the look, the temperament. Arguably he may even have had the talent. They say talent is a form of intelligence, and in Ivan’s case maybe it was. The faculty talked him up in galleries, awarded him prizes; when they jetted off to New York or Rotterdam, they left him the keys to their Craftsman-style bungalows up in the hills. All he had to do was feed the cats and take in the mail, and he rarely remembered to do that. The gardens up there all watered themselves.

The only snag when it came to Ivan’s paintings was that they were not very good. Nobody noticed this but Ivan and me, and of course I didn’t count. But Ivan absorbed the doubt into his belly like a parasite. At night he squirreled himself away, warming cans of soup on his hot plate and splattering paint around hopelessly. I was going through roughly the same thing at my own desk, where the shadow of expectancy around writing—around everything—had grown so bloated and misshapen, it pretty much obscured the need to write altogether. Soon we began to work a lot less, and go out to the Depresso to complain a lot more. We told ourselves we were creatures of habit, which was a nice way of saying we mistook our capitulations for achievements. But who doesn’t?

Anyway, out we went. In the halo of the streetlight Ivan’s blue eyes lay hooded, his stubbly cheeks in shadow. He’d been raised in L.A., had strolled shirtless through gardens of earthly delights while I, back east, was still clipping on ties and studying my haftorah. But now his breath was labored. His hair, blond and frizzy, was already receding from its vertical dome. He looked like an asthmatic junior rabbi on a field trip through the Sinai. Every so often he’d slip out his inhaler, fit it casually to his mouth, and squeeze. The violence of it was a shock. But Ivan was one of those people who wear their vulnerabilities like adornments. Afterward his eyes gleamed, enlivened by this little brush with the void. Where to next, they seemed to say.

It was Ivan’s idea, the night before graduation, to sneak up to the top of the Campanile with our guitars. There, under the Venetian arches, we warbled some secondhand Dylan, gazing down like cherubs over the pageant of sorrow below: the black shadow of the bay, the moneyed peninsulas to the north and south, the cars streaming senselessly up and down the freeways. Gulls were wheeling over the landfills of Emeryville, making thin, inconsolable cries. The beauty of it! The waste!

Then Ivan gave out one of his prodigious yawns. “Let’s go back. Miki may be dropping by.”

“Again with the Miki?” I was still feeling more or less transcendent up there, clutching the neck of my 12-string. “I didn’t realize you were still seeing her.”

“What can I say? I have seen the future of rock and roll, and it’s a tiny Asian-American person from La Jolla.” We got back in the elevator. “We’re looking for a place in the city for next year,” he announced casually on the way down. “How about you? Still weighing your options?”

“Something like that.”

“Remember what the Buddha says. There are two mistakes a man can make—not going all the way, and not starting.”

“You mean there’s only two?”

“Best to keep things simple,” he said. “Addition by subtraction and all that.”

Among his other subtractions, he’d begun to lose interest in painting by then. The first thing he’d done was take out the figure. Then he’d taken out the line, the color, and the brush strokes. Pretty soon he’d be down to bare canvas, he said. Then he’d get rid of that too.

“Why don’t you just stop painting?” I asked. “Wouldn’t that be easier?”

“But I don’t want to stop painting. I want to stop wanting to be a painter. I’m sorry you can’t see the difference.” He didn’t sound sorry; he sounded maddeningly serene. Was he about to subtract me too? “Face it, friend. It’s a small planet. We can’t all keep pretending we’re major and unique.”

“What if that’s how it works though? What if you have to start out pretending or it never becomes real?”

“Pfft,” Ivan said. “Wishes don’t wash dishes.”

Probably this was one of Miki’s expressions: I’d never heard him use it before. Miki, it seemed, was not like the rest of us. She did not spend half her life blackening canvasses or parchment bond with portentous gestures and incontinent emotions. No, Miki was pre-med, 4.0. She’d read The Histology of the Nervous System of Man and Vertebrates, both volumes, in the original Spanish. She worked 30 hours a week at the bio lab, she went to Panama on spring break to build houses for the poor, she read picture books on Sundays to children with cancer, and once in the shower after her neurochemistry final she got down on her knees and he was pretty sure he met Jesus. By then I’d stopped listening. I was thinking about my own love life, which had been bitterly theoretical since Tina, and about the novel I was writing, which ditto, and also about my overpriced apartment lease, which was up for renewal, along with everything else in my life. At some point Ivan paused, squinting up at me warily, as if my face was a fluttering departures board in some poorly illumined terminal. “What?”

“Nothing. It’s just I should probably get moving at some point.”

“Ah,” he said. “The lonesome pilgrim, off into the night.”

“No, I mean in general,” I said.

Plato, in the Symposium, talks of compound beings whom the gods in their impersonal wisdom divide in two, fileting them like a fish. Afterward they wander the earth, flattened and pale, mourning their losses. I only mention this because it’s more or less how I felt in that moment, listening to Ivan talk about Miki, with the diaspora of adulthood upon us. To be done with theoreticals! To be loving a single woman! Feeling a single feeling! Addition by subtraction: it was like some wonderfully catchy pop song you hear through a window.

I saw less of Ivan after that. He was off doing his thing with the Good Woman of Sichuan—his phrase—and I was busy down at the restaurant, appeasing other people’s appetites. Apparently the East Bay was full of people for whom the presence of balalaikas and samovars, the words balalaikas and samovars, stirred aching, vestigial hungers. And it had fallen to me to attend them. I was not much of a waiter, but I fancied myself a humanist. I knew what it was like to sit alone at a window, nursing a glass of tea and frowning thoughtfully into space as I waited for someone to come nourish me. On nights of heightened sensitivity, I’d give away food to people eating alone—cups of borscht, carafes of house wine, almond cookies dusted in sugar—then slip off to the kitchen feeling noble and large-hearted. As a consequence of this, my tips were good. Still, I’d have preferred to be down at the Depresso with the other humanists, airing poetic sentiments over foam-topped drinks and sodden baklava. I was into sensibility and aesthetics, or as my father called it, arts and farts. I’d look around the balcony at the other pale young men slunk in their seats, lank-haired, dubiously dressed, writing torpid pensées in their Moleskine notebooks. My people! I thought with munificent tenderness, as if from the deck of a ship with the engines rumbling.

But they were not Ivan’s people, not anymore. He had already moved to San Francisco by then, where he was going to Hastings and living with Miki. He had car payments to make, drugs to buy; his hair would soon abandon his scalp altogether. All he wanted was a job with some small firm in a beach or college town where he could wear sneakers to work—he called them tennis shoes, though he did not play tennis—and still go out to concerts at night without developing some chronic stress-related condition. Was anything wrong with that? What the fuck was wrong with that?

I assured him there was nothing the fuck wrong with that. We were speaking over the phone, not altogether soberly.

“Don’t patronize me,” he said. “Admit it, you think your own worldview’s superior.”

“What worldview? It’s all I can do to find my face in the mirror when I brush my teeth.”

“Well, maybe I can help with that.”

Then he made his proposition. He and Miki had settled into a nice two-bedroom flat on Carl Street, across the bay. They had furniture and linens—Miki’s—they had woks and toasters and spatulas and blenders—Miki’s—they had an annoying Persian cat—Miki’s—to which he was profoundly allergic, but never mind. All they needed now, he said, was some amiable nonsmoker for the second bedroom, someone with no pets or quirks or needs who wouldn’t mind splitting the expenses down the middle; wouldn’t mind living like a third wheel, in short, while paying rent and utilities for a fourth one too. “Any income these days to speak of?”

“It depends how verbal you’re feeling.”

“Never mind,” he said. “We’ll work it out.”

When I showed up at the door, however, on the agreed-upon date, with my boxes of books and my skinny accordion-neck desk lamp, Ivan eyed me warily, if not hostilely. “Look, June,” he called, “it’s the Beaver. Where have you been? I’m pretty sure we said 6:30.”

“Where are we, Wisconsin?”

“Okay, point taken. C’mere, give us a hug.”

I stepped forward, ready for a little profundity of feeling, a recognition of this new, winning convergence in the lines of our fates. But Ivan was a tepid hugger at best. He patted my shoulder once or twice—he might have been frisking me for a concealed weapon—then stepped back to allow Miki, who’d just emerged from the kitchen, her turn. It was all very awkward. Her hands were wet. Her hair was up in a bun, her eyes darkly glazed, as if baked in a kiln. She had on gym pants and one of Ivan’s old Bullwinkle T-shirts, which fit her like a burnoose. She did not move toward me so much as incline her cheek vaguely in my direction. “How great,” she said. “You’re here.” Already I was imagining how much greater it would be to be somewhere else. What I saw of the apartment from the foyer looked cramped and dark, with pea-green carpets and pasty stucco ceilings. I hated it on sight. Ivan waved his arm around in an expansive gesture, as if welcoming me into some elaborate conspiracy. The previous owners had lived there, he informed me proudly, for 37 years.

“In other words they died here,” I said.

Miki did not look charmed by this mordant little remark. I had only met the woman a few times in the past, and had not yet formed a firm impression, or made one either for that matter. Nonetheless I sensed an instinctual antipathy between us like a preexisting condition.

“Sorry I’m late,” I said, though I was neither particularly late nor particularly sorry. “I got stuck in the tunnel, for one thing.”

“That’s the N Judah for you,” Ivan said, after I failed to produce any second or third things. “Capricious.”


“Anyway it’s good you’re here. Face it, you’re not cut out to live by yourself. God knows I’m not either. But you? You’ve got a melancholic disposition. You’re a bird in search of a cage.”

“Sometimes cages search for birds,” I said, “too.”

“Interesting.” Ivan swished this around in his mouth for a moment, like a sour lozenge. “See? Been here two minutes and already we’re knee-deep in runes. If that’s even the word.”

Miki for her part just stood there observing us through the impenetrable symmetry of her features, an anthropologist studying the discourse of an odd, remote little tribe. Then an imaginary phone, or possibly a real one, began to ring deep in the bowels of the apartment, and she padded off to answer it. The cat, who’d been weaving sinuous arabesques of welcome around my ankles, fled away after her.

“She may be a little tired, poor thing,” Ivan said. “Took her three hours, that bucatini. Made it from scratch. You have no idea the labor involved.”

He stood there beaming obscurely, his eyes swiveling toward the other room. Then I saw it, the little crime scene they’d left behind on the table: the smeared plates and dripping candles, the drowned lettuce leaves in their balsamic pool, the crust of a ravaged baguette. “Wait, you guys already ate?  

“No offense. But you know what they say in Italy: you wait for the pasta, the pasta never waits for you.”

“That’s what they say in Italy, is it?”

“There may be some asparagus left.” Ivan frowned. “Hey, now look, I realize it’s not ideal, but there are other imperatives involved besides your little hurt feelings. Tomorrow’s a work day for Miki. It’s not like college—these people actually expect you to show up and be accountable. No offense, but you have no idea what that means.”

“No offense, but you have no idea what no offense means.”

“Yeah,” he admitted. “That’s what Miki says.”

“Oh? What else does Miki say?” It sounded like Miki said quite a lot around here, actually. Though not to me. “She’s cool with me coming to live here? Have we at least established that?”

“Why wouldn’t she be? Although,” he added, “all things considered, it probably wouldn’t hurt if you paid first and last month in advance.”

“For fuck’s sake. You said first or last.”

“And so it begins,” he said.

Now that I had a place to live and work, it proved impossible for some reason to live and work there. Some days I’d go off to a coffee shop; some days the library; some days the park; some days I’d just ride around on the N Judah with my notebook, watching the jumble of shops and bars give way to the rows of tidy and immaculate houses, and then the houses give way to the vast, undifferentiated ocean, which of course did not give way to anything at all. It was like a lesson in scale. Wherever you went in the city, you felt futile and small, like you should really be somewhere else. You could make a pretty good argument, it seemed to me, for not going anywhere, not doing anything. And in truth I did some of that too.

And yet despite this, or because of it, I actually wrote a great deal in those days. I wrote a great deal in the sense that a drowning person might be said to swim a great deal: because only a tremendous quantity of clumsy, repetitive exertion would save me. Somehow the pages accumulated. It seemed an impersonal and irreversible process. Their actual content—something about a young man like myself making mistakes like the ones I myself was making, or about to make—I hardly remember, but then I made it a policy not to read them too closely. Looking back turned you to salt. Looking back plunged you in doubt. And what was doubt but the traitor who lost you the good you might otherwise win, or whatever the hell it was Shakespeare—or someone—once said. And then what would I do with my days? Hang out on Haight Street with the other potheads and indolents? Wait tables? Go to afternoon movies?

Nonetheless I hung out on Haight Street and smoked pot and waited tables and saw a lot of afternoon movies anyway. It couldn’t be helped. One could only write so long. Every day there would be new double features at the local rep houses—French New Wave, Italian neo-realist, Japanese samurai flicks, drizzly German angst-fests—and such was my commitment to the arts of global cinema and time killing that I’d always stay for both. Four hours later I’d reemerge, squinting like a vole in the sudden light, with a headache so penetrating that it seemed to originate in my chest. The world looked busy and garish, a conspiracy I wasn’t in on.

At home I’d find Ivan sacked out on the sofa, the tongue of his belt lolling lewdly to one side. He had his own headaches to deal with: namely the eight-pound copy of The Law of Obligations splayed open on his chest, which worked on him like a Nembutal. The Nembutals he was taking worked on him like Nembutals too. As a result, he often crashed in the late afternoons, waiting for Miki to come back. Then later we’d all head off to our respective rooms, and I’d lie there listening to their terse little murmurs as they climbed into bed, and the eruptions of laughter from the comedy club across the street, and the sigh of the N Judah as it slid in and out of the Twin Peaks tunnel along its inlaid tracks, and every gasp and thrash that came shuddering through the plaster got absorbed into my bones like a blow of hard truth. I remembered that line Ivan had in all likelihood misquoted from the Buddha, the one about the two mistakes you can make, not going all the way and not starting. Maybe in the end they both came to the same thing. Which might account for what did and did not happen next.

One night in December, Ivan and Miki showed up at the restaurant. Apparently they were celebrating something they had forgotten to tell me about. Most of my good tables were occupied, but I made room for them near the window, where they would have a nice view of the encroaching fog and of our resident wacko street person begging for change under the bougainvillea. They sat there, draped in thick folds of silence, glancing half-heartedly over the menus. Ivan was futzing with the candle, trying to liberate the wick from its bed. Miki was twisting her onyx bracelet back and forth, like someone opening or closing a valve.

“Everything good here?” I said when I arrived, like a parody of a waiter. They nodded without looking up, a parody of friends. “Okay, so let me get you some of our truly mediocre house wine. My treat.”

“No thank you,” Miki said quietly, politely. “We prefer to pay.”

“Oh, let him bring the wine,” Ivan said. “It won’t kill us to have some pleasures in our lives.”

When I returned to the table five minutes later, they were gone. Maybe it had killed them, I thought. Or maybe it was too draughty by the window, too dark or too light, too something. Whatever it was, they’d gone to the trouble of gathering their things and plopping themselves down at a back table still festooned with dirty plates from the seating before. You could see smears of sour cream on the wine glasses and horseradish on the napkins; the tablecloth was confettied with dill. This was no great surprise. Tina was working that station, and Tina was famous for her stately and meditative pace and her seamless way of not giving a fuck, especially when she was subbing for someone, which—given that we generally tried to avoid working together—she probably was. Between that and finding me there and whatever drugs she’d just huffed down in the bathroom, she’d assumed for the evening her most vacant and implacable game face. Toward Ivan and Miki she did not so much as condescend to glance; she merely sailed past their table with a bland little wave, like a visiting royal in a motorcade. And she liked Ivan and Miki.

Meanwhile the carafe I’d brought them was now severely depleted. Before I could fetch another, several mid-shift irritations arose—a credit card refused, a bug in someone’s glass, a pierogi congealed to mush under the heat lamps, a three-person party cramming, in an aisle-obstructive way, into a two-person table—and when next I looked they were gone again, this time for real.

“Would it have killed you to be nice to them?” I asked Tina later. We were counting our tips at the back table, which for a number of reasons took her longer than it did me. “Did you have to embarrass me like that?”

“Is a window open?” she said to no one in particular. “There’s this weird wind.”

Riding the train home that night, jittery and enervated and reeking of dill, I watched the enigma of my own face hovering in the black window, that phantom companion I could neither avoid nor see past. He was there in my dreams too, fielding orders for things he couldn’t carry in a language he couldn’t understand. I remembered Donnie, the guy whose shifts I’d inherited when I started at the restaurant. Donnie was lean and intense, a black belt of some kind, strung tight as a bow. Once a customer grabbed his wrist in the middle of a lunch rush; he looked down at her incredulously, his eyes like nails. Touch me again, he said, and I’ll break your arm.

As it happened one of the owners was watching. So that was the end of Donnie’s bad dreams, it turned out, and the beginning of mine.

“Admit it,” Ivan said the next day. “You didn’t want us there. You got this horrible manic look when we walked in. I said to Miki, he’s embarrassed to see us. She said no, it’s the opposite.”

“Don’t be silly. I always look like that when I’m working.”

“That’s what I told her. And by the way, it’s not just when you’re working.” He yawned. “What can you do? Miki felt uncomfortable. She said we should move to another table.”

“What you should have done is stay right where I put you. That’s what you should have done.”

“Well, get used to it. This isn’t one of your little stories where everyone goes where you want.” He scratched his beard thoughtfully. “Tina’s sort of a compelling figure, don’t you think? She exudes this amazing calm. Remind me why you guys broke up again?”

“There were compatibility issues, put it that way. Anyway, you’d be calm too if you took that many meds. Not that it’s her calm we’re even talking about.”

“Okay fine, there’s her ass too.” He sighed. “Why am I lowering my voice? I’m 22 years old, for Christ’s sake. Can’t I make the occasional jerky remark?”

“Where’s Miki? I haven’t seen her today.”

“Do you ever see her? My sense is you guys’ve sort of worked out ways to avoid each other.” He scratched his beard again. Maybe his jawline was infected. “Anyway, you know Miki. Early to bed, early to rise. It’s like living with a ghost.”

This was true. Miki worked in a lab down at UCSF; she came home late, went to bed early, and left before we got up. In idle moments, of which there was never a shortage, I’d make an effort to imagine my way into her life, reconstructing her routines from the traces she left behind. The damp footprints on the bathroom rug, the neatly upturned juice glass in the dish dryer, the amber curlicue of honey that dripped off her toast and onto the counter … Miki was everywhere and nowhere, a nonfictional character of the most stubborn, unyielding sort. I liked to fiddle with the vials lined up on the vanity, the pale blue-green gels and lotions, moving them around like chess pieces, just to see if she’d notice. But Ivan was right, we’d made ourselves invisible to each other. Ivan was the visible one, the illuminated eye at the top of the pyramid. In his shadow we moved softly, going our own ways.

I didn’t mind. I had given myself until March 1st, a year to the date after I’d started, to complete a draft of my novel, and it was beginning to look like I might make it. I had never been so regular in my habits, so purposeful and focused, never concentrated so well for so long. Maybe this was why it took me a while to recognize something astonishingly obvious: that on those few occasions when Miki was around, I was never in a bad mood. And I was known for my bad moods.

Ivan, however, was still new to them. The law having proved a more demanding discipline than he’d bargained for, he’d taken to sleeping through his morning classes and then gobbling up huge quantities of speed in his library carrel late every night. His eyes grew puffy, his cheeks vertically creased. Dark oils leaked from his pores. Miki tried to wait up for him by balancing her checkbook or calling her sister or prepping for the MCATS, but she invariably fell asleep at the kitchen table. That was how I found her one night in January—nodding off over her blue study guide in an oversized nightshirt, the cat draped bonelessly over her lap like a pietà.

“Sorry,” I said, when she startled awake. “Just looking for the Tylenol. Seen any around?”

She blinked a few times, contemplating the table before her, the number-two pencils, the wrinkled pages of the study guide, the crumbled health food crackers even she didn’t like.

“It doesn’t have to be Tylenol of course,” I said. “Any old drug will do.”

“You get a lot of headaches,” she said. “You must have a busy mental life.”

“That’s an interesting theory.”

“Mmm.” She yawned and stretched, her breasts swinging freely under the nightshirt. “You know what else is interesting? The way some people need to find interesting theories all the time. Is that why you guys are still friends?”

“I’m not sure we are still friends,” I said.

“Anyway, it’s not so mysterious, these headaches of yours. Get a pair of reading glasses. They’ll go away, I promise.”

“They will?”

“I can see you’re disappointed. Ideally it’d be a brain tumor, right? Something tragic and interesting. But maybe you’re not as interesting as you think.”

“You’re probably right.” I sat down beside her, clutching the Tylenols like worry beads in one hand. The cat took off at once.

Neither of us spoke, but I could hear Miki sighing repeatedly across the table. Maybe I did need glasses—only now could I see the napkin balled in her fist, the puffy red rims around her eyes and the dark definition of her lashes. I lit a joint and passed it to her. She shook her head no, then took it anyway. “Where’s Clarence Darrow, by the way?”


“I don’t know. You sound a little angry. Not that that’s a bad thing, necessarily.”

“I have no idea where Ivan goes. I have no idea where you go either. What do you do when you’re not writing or being a waiter at that horrible restaurant?”

I grimaced a little. The word waiter had begun to take on the sound, even to my own ears, less like an occupation than an indictment.

“Mostly I just go to the movies,” I confessed.

“By yourself?”

“You should try it sometime. It concentrates your attention, going alone. You get more immersed.”

She frowned a little, thinking this over. There was something earnest about her, something bland and dutiful and guileless. I could see how Ivan might get tired of her someday. “When?”

“Whenever. There’s some Truffaut films at the Roxy this week. You might like them.”

“I don’t like French films,” she declared. “Too talky.”

“Maybe it’s just a matter of exposure. An acquired taste.”

“Right,” she said. “What do I know? I’m just some dopey sheltered Asian chick from La Jolla. I can’t plumb the depths.”

“Look, all I mean is—”

“True, I saw Jules and Jim back in AP French, and I didn’t need the subtitles either. But you’re right. How can I keep up? I’m not cool like you guys. I don’t sit around in coffee shops all day, talking about phenomenology and mise en scène. I’m just some humorless grind who in seven or eight years, if I’m lucky, will be working 60-hour weeks on some pediatric oncology unit.” She took another hit off the joint. “What about you? What will you be doing in seven or eight years?”

“I’ll be wondering, where did the last seven or eight years go?”

Miki’s mouth twitched a little, either holding back a smile or willing one charitably forward. Her breath smelled weedy; her face was smudged like a page. I watched her eyes flicker over my wrist as if searching for something important there. But no, she was only looking at my watch.

“Hold still,” I said.


All at once we were kissing. That is, I was kissing—about Miki I make no claims. She seemed in truth a little stupefied. She wasn’t moving, wasn’t talking, wasn’t even breathing, and all in a way that suggested, to me at least, she had no particular wish to stop. Blindly I grazed her face, bumping my way across her warm, fuzzy cheeks, the hollows of her eyes, the cool tip of her nose, like some somnolent honeybee intoxicated by blossoms. Miki just sat there, sinking lower and lower into the depths of her chair. It was as if part of her was falling away and another part rising sluggishly, half-inquisitively to meet me. I could feel the Tylenol dissolving in my palm, taking everything I’d planned for myself, the whole glorious, lonely enterprise, with it.

A loss and a gain, I thought.

Then something sharp raked my thigh, and I looked down and there was the cat between us, exercising his claws.

“Saved by the bell,” Miki said, drawing back into herself. Or had she ever been away?

The next night was Friday. Ivan had a potluck with his study group out in Richmond. Miki and I arranged to meet for dinner near the Roxy and catch those Truffaut films. For all I knew—I rarely tested this proposition—it was an even more rewarding experience to see movies with another person than to see them alone. Meanwhile I had to compose some sob story to get me out of my one lucrative shift at the restaurant, and another to convince my parents to let me use their credit card for a new shirt at Macy’s and some overpriced calla lilies from some rogue florist on Guerrero. Then I contrived a tall tale for Ivan about where I was going that night (a play, I said) and with whom (Tina, I said), and for what purpose (guess, I said). All of which is to say it depleted me dearly on any number of levels when Miki failed to show up.

“Let me guess,” Ivan said back in the apartment the second I walked in. “Seduced and abandoned. The oldest story in the world.”

“Something like that.” What the hell, I’d watched both movies anyway, thinking maybe she’d been detained by an emergency and would arrive at some point mid-feature, breathless and apologetic, her blood roused. It seemed as plausible as all the other scenarios I sat there cooking up on the febrile, gassy stove in my head. “Miki’s not home?”

“No sir. No sirree. Perfidy, thy name is Miki,” Ivan intoned in a slow, sonorous voice. The television was on; his feet were propped on a hassock of legal tomes; his eyes had that doglike and submissive look they took on when a bottle of Jack Daniels had been emptied. “Come sit. I just came back from the world’s most demoralizing potluck. All those sesame noodles and tabouleh, it’s like an anvil in the stomach. Let’s roll us a doobie, what do you say?”

“I thought you had exams to study for.”

“I thought you had a novel to write,” he said. “C’mon, talk to me. How’s it going with all those wishes, lies, and dreams? Still an active proposition? Why are you being so secretive anyway?”

“I’m not being anything.”

“That’s my point. Look at you—you’re pale as a ghoul. Your blood’s too thin, too far from the heart. Some artiste. I bet you steal everything we say and go back there to that desk of yours and write it down.”

“Don’t flatter yourself,” I said. “You haven’t said anything interesting since college.”

“Look, the tender flower, now he’s insulted. Hey, grow a pair, why don’t you. Get your own dramas going for a change.”

I went into my room, shut the door behind me, and sat down at my desk—about which more later—to wait. Through the window I watched the fog advance over the ocean, steaming in like a ship. Across the street, at the Other Café, other people were laughing heartily at other people’s jokes. I could hear Ivan coughing in the next room, as he often did when he smoked a lot of dope. Come to think of it, he coughed a lot in other circumstances too. No one had asked Ivan where he’d be in seven or eight years, but in fact he would be down in L.A., working at an animation studio, drawing cartoons and making a lot of money and wearing tennis shoes to work, which had always been more or less his dream. Then he’d finally go ahead and see a guy at Cedars-Sinai about that cough.

That shouldn’t be there, the guy said, looking at the X-ray.

But all that came later. Meanwhile there I was at my desk, waiting for Miki to come home. I was nothing if not a waiter. To pass the time I counted the N Judah trains as they slid by in the fog. Nine went into the tunnel, eight came out. From where I sat, none of the passengers in the cars were visible to me. And what of me to them? What would they have made of my stick-figure silhouette, perched Kilroy-style in the window? Probably to them I too would have looked to be on the move, rumbling toward my destination through darkness and light. How many times, in the weeks ahead, would I call her at her sister’s house in San Mateo? How many messages would I leave? How many circles would I make around the hospital? Ivan was right: there would be no shortage of mistakes. I would have to get hold of a calculator.

Ivan of course endured a good deal more than I did that winter. At some point in there he dropped out of Hastings and started sleeping with Tina, though the chronology remains obscure to me. It was a confusing period for us all. And by period I mean a very long time.

I was living in New York when Ivan died. It took me a while to track down Miki to tell her. She’d gone to med school in Chicago and was now working at Children’s Hospital in Boston. No, she said, she didn’t know. Then she paused.

“You must really hate me,” she said. “I would if I were you.”

In fact I did sort of hate her at that moment, not for anything she’d done but for the theatrical note in her voice. The unquestioned assumption that she’d played a larger role in my imagination than I had in hers. “Look, I don’t care about that. I’m not into closure, or whatever you want to call it.”

“Good,” she said. “Me neither.”

No shit, I almost said. But I was taking the high road, and the sign on that road was clearly marked. “So how are you then? How’s it all turning out?”

She hesitated. When she finally spoke, it was not in answer to that question, or at least it didn’t seem so at the time. “I saw your book at the store,” she said. “It’s not the one you were writing in San Francisco, is it? About the waiter?”

“God no. I torched that one a long time ago.”

“Ah.” It occurred to me that I had never told Miki what that book was about, never allowed her or Ivan so much as a peek. “Good.”

You feckless, fucking idiot, I thought. Because all at once I knew. It was true to everyone’s character, made every kind of dramatic and thematic sense. While I was out shopping that day, buying my crisp new shirt and my gaudily expensive lilies, she had gone into my room and found those pages of onionskin paper stacked up on my desk like an indictment. She had dutifully reviewed the evidence, considered the implications, and come to the only conceivable verdict. No, not yet. It would have been my verdict too. And she had always been a very practical young woman, Miki.

The truth was, there weren’t even that many pages to deal with. No doubt she’d expected—we had all expected—a lot more.

Probably in the end all memoirs are fiction, all fiction memoir. Who knows or cares? Let’s just say at some point that night, as I sat waiting for Miki to come home, and the last of the Judah trains had gone off to sleep in the yard, I found myself leafing through the slender manila folder to which I’d entrusted my novel. Some of the pages were askew, but they were often askew; I was a little askew myself. That I had resolved when writing never to look back, only forward, seemed all of a sudden, like so many of the principles I’d been living by, fundamentally dubious, if not unsound. What if one had to look back to move forward? So I opened the folder, and began to read. I proceeded coolly, attentively, with a kind of third-person detachment, like a doctor injecting himself with an experimental drug. It hurt, but I wanted it to hurt. I required it to hurt. That was how I’d remember it, how it would feed me. Show me the story that’s been written about not getting hurt.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Robert Cohen is author of five works of fiction, including Amateur Barbarians and Inspired Sleep. His stories and essays have appeared in Harper’s, The Paris Review, The Atlantic, and GQ. He teaches at Middlebury College.


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