k i n e s i s
N I C H O L A S M O N T E M A R A N O
She told me it would make her brother happy to be on the dance floor with lights flashing and bodies pressed close and sweat that was not fever sweat on his face. She said this might be the last time he would have the strength.
Lisa introduced me to her brother Jimmy as her friend, not as her boyfriend. I said hello and offered my hand: her brother sat with his legs crossed and said nothing and looked around the room (I didnít think rude, I thought not here) and after an uncomfortable moment he reached out his hand and we shook. He removed his glasses and laid them on his lap; with one hand he rubbed his eyes, with the other he played with his beard (light brown, as was the thinning hair on his head). When Lisa walked into the room he did not stand but shifted forward in his chair as if about to stand: his glasses fell to the floor and I picked them up and tried to give them back to him, but Lisa took them from me and wiped the lenses on her shirt and then gave the glasses to her brother; he put the glasses on his face and played with his patchy (I no longer care enough to shave) beard.
Lisa asked her brother if he had all his pills and he said, What pills?, and she said, Will you need to take your pills while weíre out?, and he said, Screw the pills, I donít want to take any more pills, and she said, Let me go get them just in case, and he said, Lisa, and she went to get the pills.
Their mother came into the room wearing a house dress and said hello, it was nice to see me again, and then she asked where we were going and I said, Dancing, and she said, Where?, and I said I didnít know, and Jimmy said, Somewhere around here, and she said, Oh, thatís nice. Their father came into the room and said, Hey, and I stood up and shook his hand and he squeezed my hand and looked at his son who was looking around the room—at the ceiling, it seemed, at the walls—and then he, the father, asked me how I was (Fine) and where we were going (Dancing) and he said, Oh, and then Lisa came back into the room and said, Letís go. She kissed her mother and stood on her toes and leaned forward so that her father could kiss her head and then Jimmy stood and we walked to the door and I shook Lisaís fatherís hand and half-waved to Lisaís mother and said it was nice to see both of them again and they said, Have fun, be careful.
Lisa drove and smoked. Her brother asked for a cigarette and she gave him one and he turned and asked me if I smoked and I said, No.
Weíre going for the dancing, she said to her brother. I know this place wonít be like the places youíre used to in San Francisco, but weíre just going for the dancing, right, I mean, as long as thereís good music and you can get a drink.
Her brother said that was fine, he just wanted to get out of the house.
As long as thereís good music, she said, and he said it was fine and she said, Can you drink with all the pills?, and he said, It doesnít matter, and she said, You should be careful, and he said, It doesnít matter, and I said, Have you been to this place before?, and Lisa said, Years ago, and then she looked at Jimmy next to her and asked him if he was O.K., and when he didnít answer she said, Jimmy are you O.K.?, and he said, Huh?, and then, Yes, fine.
We danced with her brother with lights flashing on his face; he held his drink in one hand, then in the other. He danced with Lisa, really, and sometimes he turned to dance with someone else—some stranger who happened to be dancing next to us—but he didnít look at me, and after a while I left the dance floor and stood near the bar and watched.
Lisa came over to buy more drinks and said, Isnít he great?, didnít I tell you he was great?, and I said, Why did you introduce me as your friend?, and she said, What do you mean?, and I said, You told your brother Iím your friend, and she said, What was I supposed to say?, I mean, thatís just something people say, he doesnít care who you are, heís my brother for Godís sake.
She paid for the drinks and gave one to her brother and they danced, and a short while later she came over and ordered more drinks and said, Hey, come on, and I said, What?, and she said, Come on, and I said, What?
Why donít you dance?
Iím just watching.
Weíre having fun.
It looks like fun.
Isnít he good?
Sure—heís better than good.
Come on, she said, and then I pointed to the dance floor where her brother was hunched, hand on his chest, a young woman holding him up.
Lisa pushed through the crowd to the dance floor and stood between her brother and the woman and said something to him and he nodded and she led him to the bar. She told me to ask the bartender for a glass of water, Hurry up, someone get the bartenderís attention. Jimmy said, Take it easy, Iím just a little out of breath, forget the water, letís just go, and Lisa said, Youíre O.K., youíre O.K., just have a drink of water, and to me she said, Would you please get him some water, just push your way through and ask, and Jimmy said, Forget it, Iíll be fine, letís just get out of here, and I said, What is it?, and he said, Just my breath, it happens, and I watched people watching us as we pushed our way to the door. The bouncer said, Whatís wrong, is he sick or something?, and Lisa said, Weíre leaving now, weíre going, and the bouncer said, Is he O.K., do you want me to call a cab?, and Jimmy said, Iím fine and Lisa said, Heís fine.
She told me her brother waited for her to get there before he died. Her mother called and said Jimmy was asking for her and Lisa said, Whatís wrong?, and her mother said, Heís asking for you, and Lisa said, Whatís wrong?, and her mother said, I think heís ready.
Lisa drove to her parentsí house and did not stop at red lights or at stop signs and secretly wished a cop would try to pull her over so she could ignore him, make him chase her: she would get out of her car and tell the cop that her brother was dying and that was why she didnít stop for red lights or stop signs or sirens or anything, and what would the cop say then, she wanted to know—what could he say?
But this was just a fantasy in her head as she drove to her parentsí house, there was no cop, no siren, no one she could tell where she was going and what was going to happen when she got there—or maybe before she got there, she thought, and drove faster.
She told me she was in the room with him no more than five minutes; he was in bed with the sheets pulled up to his chin; he wanted to be alone with her. Their mother and father left the room and she sat next to him on the bed and held his hand and told him she loved him and he told her he loved her and that she was his favorite person and she told him he was her favorite person and she said she was sorry for not visiting him in San Francisco in the five years he had lived there and he said he was scared and she said she was scared and didnít know how she would keep going without him. He hardly had the strength to speak, she told me, but suddenly he threw the covers off him and sat up in bed for the first time in days and began reaching out for something in front of him. Look, he said, do you see them?, and she said, Who?, and he said, All of them, do you see them?, and it looked like he was looking at the closet on the other side of the room and she looked where she thought he was looking and said, What?, tell me what, and then he almost laughed and said, Theyíre all there, and she said, Who?, and he kept reaching out and then a shudder and a look on his face as if someone had struck him (she said) and then he fell back and closed his eyes and in a matter of minutes of Lisa saying, Jimmy, what was it, Jimmy?, can you hear me, Jimmy?, he was dead.
She told me she was hearing voices at night and I said, What kind of voices?, and she said, I donít know, just voices, and I said, What are they saying?, and she said, I canít make anything out, just voices, you know, whispering, right when Iím about to fall asleep, I get scared at first, but then I know itís Jimmy.
How do you know itís Jimmy?
I just know.
Itís the way after a while Iím not scared.
She said she was sure she had locked her car door.
She had had, she said, a miserable (Nothing in the world can make me happy) day, and had to stand in the bathroom at work for a half hour waiting for a panic attack to end and finally had to take Xanax, then more, which I would rather not have to do because it makes me feel like Iím falling apart and will never feel better.
She said she was riding the subway home and was talking to her brother (she had been talking to him every day during the two months since his death, she told me)—asking him if he was O.K., could he please give her a sign that he was O.K. and that she should keep going, that she should try to find a way to live rather than find a way to die—and she got off the train in Queens and walked to her car and unlocked the door and found on the driver-side seat a small piece of paper folded in half: typed on the paper was a poem in which the I of the poem said that even though the You of the poem might be worried and sad, the I of the poem was in fact O.K., and the You should find a way to go on living, and the I was going to give the You a series of signs, starting with this poem, by which the You would know where to find happiness.
She wanted to keep every person and object that came into her life in her life: everything she saw, every person she met, every sound she heard, could be, was probably, a sign.
Everything was connected, she said; everything was ripe with meaning.
She told me she was trying to eat a piece of toast for dinner when it happened.
She could not swallow; she gagged; she was afraid she would never be able to swallow a bite of anything ever again; then she was no longer afraid and saw herself dead (her body emaciated as her brotherís had been) and it was a letting go; then the fear returned and she was stunned by its return and shoved the rest of the piece of toast in her mouth and chewed and tried to swallow and gagged.
She was watching (not really watching, she said: it was more that she was afraid of the quiet) a new game show wherein T.V. stars from one decade compete against T.V. stars from another decade, and the actor who played the title role in the 1960ís show Batman looked into the camera before answering a question and said, I want to say hello, if I can, to someone very dear to me who hasnít been feeling very well lately—her name is Lisa—and I want to tell her Iím thinking about her, and then the host of the show said, O.K., our best wishes go out to Lisa as well, and by this time she sensed that something important was happening, and it had to do with this actor who had looked into the camera as if looking at her and had said her name, and she tried to remember his name, but could not, and kept watching to see if the host might say this actorís name—she was certain his name was part of the message her brother was trying to send her, which she knew was about what she was supposed to do next, where she was supposed to go—and then she heard it: Next question goes to Adam West . . .
The hitchhiker, who eventually became her roommate, said she picked him up somewhere in New Jersey: when he asked her where she was going she said she didnít know; he said he asked her in what general direction she was going and she said she didnít know and he said, Well youíre heading west now, is that where you think youíll be going for a while?, and she said, Yes, for a while, and he got in.
He said she asked him questions—his middle name, his motherís maiden name, his fatherís name, the name of his first pet, where he went to school, the name of the street he lived on, the name of his first lover, the first word that came into his head when she said the name Jimmy (Cricket, he said, and she said, Thatís Jimminy, and he said, I know).
She kept driving west, he said, but sometimes she would pull to the side of the road and write something in the notebook she kept on her lap. Sometimes, he told me, they would pass a sign with the name of a town on it (Erie) and Lisa would ask him if he knew anything about the town (Yes, it was a city, not a town) or if the name meant anything to him (No), if any words popped into his head: he would tell her a word (Squall because he had been caught in a snow squall in Erie a few years earlier) and she would write the word in her notebook.
They stopped not far from Cleveland: she asked him if he wanted to crash with her in a motel on the side of the road and he said, Sure, and they went in and she paid. She asked him to sign his name and he did.
She got into bed with her clothes on and lay on her back with her eyes closed and her hands folded on her stomach and looked like she was praying or talking to herself, he couldnít tell which, and then she asked him—he was in the other bed—if he wanted to sleep in bed with her, and he asked her was she sure and she said, Yes. He got into bed with her, he told me, and got under the covers, and after a while put his arm around her and put his head on the pillow next to the pillow her head was on and kissed the back of her head and moved his hand under her shirt; he moved his hand up, he told me, but she pushed it down; he moved it up, she pushed it down; she said, No, the way you were before, just like you were, thatís all, and he moved closer and they fell asleep with their heads on the same pillow. Her hair smelled nice, he told me—something fruity, strawberry maybe—and she talked in her sleep, or maybe she was awake, he wasnít sure, and so he went back to the other bed and fell asleep there.
He woke a few hours later and saw her standing above him in the dark telling him it was time to go, she got a sign from Jimmy, and he said, Whoís Jimmy?, and she said, I had a dream and in the dream—, and he said, Who is this Jimmy, is he your boyfriend?, and she said, No, and he said, Is Jimminy Cricket your boyfriend?, and she didnít laugh or even smile so he put on his pants, he told me, and rubbed the crust out of his eyes and they drove west.
She left a message from somewhere near St. Louis to tell me she was O.K. and that she knew what she was doing and that everything was quote coming together and that she could see her brother in everything and everything was fitting together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. It was uncanny, she told me: she had never felt more excited, more alive, nothing could stop her, she was afraid of nothing. She wasnít sure where she was going but she knew Jimmy would be there and she would be happy and at peace and the I canít go on feeling she had been having would be completely wiped out and the meaning behind everything would be—.
Months later, when I went to San Francisco, he told me that Lisa would stop on impulse, sometimes driving across two lanes to get off the highway because she saw a sign (Expect Delays) that meant they were supposed to stop. They would sit in the town library and she would walk up and down the aisles, run her fingers along the spines of books, stop, pull out a book about physics (the word kinesis on a seemingly random line on a seemingly random page she would interpret to mean, Get back in the car, keep moving, youíre not there yet, because nothing, she told him, was random, nothing would ever be random again), or they would get coffee at a diner and a word in the menu (sleepy in sleepy time tea, for example) meant they were supposed to rest, spend the night in this town, look for more signs; she would ask him to sleep in bed with her and he would put his head on the pillow her head was on and smell her strawberry (though not as strawberry as before) hair and a few hours later she would shake him awake and tell him it was time to go: he would put on his pants and follow her out to the car.
By the time they reached Denver he was convinced she was a little bit crazy, or if not crazy then touched by something (which he later found out was grief).
At some point just past Denver she said, I know where weíre going, weíre going to San Francisco, thatís where all this is leading, would you like to live in San Francisco?, and he told her he hadnít thought about where they were going, he was just going wherever she was taking him, and she said, Youíre going to live in San Francisco, and he said, O.K. (Can you believe that, he told me—she said, Youíre going to live here, and I said, O.K., no questions).
She left a message from somewhere in California to tell me she was fine, the pieces were coming together, she could see everything clearly now.
They told me she introduced herself to people she had met at her brotherís funeral (they already knew her name and who she was), as well as to people who had never known her brother (and would therefore say, Who?, and give each other Is she crazy or something? looks), as Jimmyís sister. She asked them questions: Where did my brother like to walk to think?, Can you take me to his favorite bar?, Where did he get his hair cut?, Where did he buy his groceries, his clothes, his music?, Did he leave anything behind, any keepsakes, a note? They took her to the bar they used to go to with Jimmy and she asked them where he sat and they said, Anywhere, and she said, I mean usually, and they looked at her and someone pointed to a chair at a table in the back and said, There, and the others knew that Jimmy had sat in this particular seat no more than he had sat in any other seat in this bar and that this had been said only so that she would stop asking, and by this, they told me, they didnít mean to imply that she was annoying, only that they felt sorry for the grief she was obviously feeling, which they were also feeling, though perhaps not to the extent she was. She sat where they told her her brother used to sit; she wanted to know what he drank.
What kind of beer?
Any kind of beer.
I mean usually.
I donít know—sometimes he drank gin and tonic.
What kind of gin?
She ordered a gin and tonic, a second, a third, and then asked if her brother said anything strange to them before he moved back to New York, did he tell them anything to tell her, and they said, No, and looked at each other and she said, Are you sure?, and someone said, Are you O.K.?, and someone else said, How long are you staying?, and she said, What do you mean?
How long are you in town?
What do you mean? she said. Iím not leaving.
She wrote: Iím happy here. Really. Every day there are new signs. I wish I could make you understand. Iím sorry for bolting the way I did, but in a way Iím proud of myself for taking this leap—for just going without thinking. Iím not trying to hurt you. I think I was dying there.
Later she wrote: I guess now Iím one of those people who believes in something. Iím not sure how to explain everything. What I thought I knew I no longer know.
I donít understand whatís happening. Iím worried. Your mother calls me crying.
I donít want you to come. This is something . . . Listen—I have a job in a bookstore, I work during the day, come home at night, meditate, talk with Jimmy—not to him, with him—and yes some people think Iím crazy. But for the first time I donít care—do you see? Iím in touch with something. My fingertips are tingling. My lips. I see things in the dark beneath my eyelids. There are signs all around me, inside me, and theyíre telling me I need to be here.
Can I visit—just to make sure youíre O.K.? I promise I wonít stay longer than you want me to.
There are no signs that tell me youíre supposed to be a part of this. I have to go with my instincts. No more thinking. Iím sorry. Everything is working according to a plan. There is a very delicate alignment of things, and nothing can disrupt that alignment.
Iím trying to understand, but I donít understand.
Thatís what I mean. You canít see what I see. Something is going to happen to me here, and Iím waiting to find out what it is.
To her parents (they showed me the letter) she wrote:
Iím sorry if what Iím doing hurts you. I wonít be in touch for a long while. Please donít try to come here or send anyone to try to bring me back. Sometimes Iím happy. At least more than I was. I can breathe. Jimmyís friends are with me. Through them heís still with me.
Her mother said: Sheís not missing, what can we do, sheís not actually missing.
Her father said: Sheíll come home. I know sheíll come home. This is just something she needs to go through.
He told me they became friends after she drove him to San Francisco. They stayed in a hotel the first few nights, then found a place together. He told me she told him stories about her brother: how when they were kids her friends made fun of him, called him: Sissy, Faggot, Queenie from Queens. She told her brother that if he would pull down his pants in front of her friends they would like him, stop calling him Fairy: when his pants were at his ankles (He looked so happy, she said) one of her friends, as planned, pushed him over. She told the story of the first time she caught her brother kissing another boy (leaning against a mausoleum in the cemetery behind their house). She told him she was going to tell their parents and made him beg not to tell, and he said, It was nothing, a silly joke, just a dare for money, and she said, Well then give me the money, and he did, and more, and she told anyway, and the look on her fatherís face, and how her mother left the room and would not listen, and the fear in her brotherís voice when he told their father the same lie he had told his sister—A joke, a dare. She told how after her brother had moved to San Francisco she wanted to visit him and her father said, No, we canít afford it, and she said, But I have my own money, Iíve been saving, I want to go see him, I spoke to one of his friends, I think Jimmy might be sick, and her father said, No, I donít want you going there, I donít want you around his friends, and she said, Why not?, and he said, If your brother wants to see you why doesnít he come here?
In the four years I knew her—in the two years we were together—she didnít tell me any of these stories. She told a stranger she picked up on a highway in New Jersey; she told her brotherís friends. She never even told me her brother was dying. I found out when she said she wanted him to go dancing one more time, and I said, What do you mean one more time?, and she said, Before he no longer has the strength, and I said, Why wouldnít he have the strength?
Her mother told me how when she first suspected Jimmy was gay—after Lisa said she saw him kissing a boy (With open mouths and tongues and everything)—she felt sorry for him and prayed to God every night to make it not true—not for her sake or because she thought it was morally wrong, but for her sonís sake—to spare him. Her husband, she told me, never talked about it: he questioned Jimmy that one time (A stupid game, a dare) and looked at his son in a way that made it clear: he knew the truth but wanted his son to pretend (not to be straight, but rather to be sexless), and in pretending spare them both unnecessary conflict. He was never mean to his son, she told me: he was quiet, distant, yes, but he was never afraid to hug his son; there was never that kind of meanness. There were phone calls to and from San Francisco, she told me—she was usually the one to call: to see how her son was making out, did he need anything, this person died, that person is sick, so-and-so got married (she wondered only after her son was dead if he had resented this kind of news: but she had meant nothing by it, she told me). When they were finished she would say, Do you want to speak with your father?, and her son would say, Maybe next time, and she would say, Are you sure?, heís right here, and her son would say, Only if he wants to, and she would turn to her husband and say, Do you want to speak with your son?, and her husband would say, If he wants, and she would say, Here, just for a few minutes.
The first two Thanksgivings he came home, then not for three years—until he came home this last time. Lisa called them and said, Heís coming home, heís sick, his flight gets in tomorrow night, and her mother said, What can we do for him?, and Lisa said, Whatever he wants, and her mother said, Is he coming alone?, and Lisa said, Yes, he doesnít have a partner, he doesnít know where he caught it, and when he came home his mother cried and his father (When he saw how Jimmy was all bones) sat next to him on the couch and said, Weíll do whatever we can for you, O.K., you tell us what we can do and weíll try, O.K., and they set up his old room upstairs with everything he said he needed and Lisa came over every day to see him and mostly they sat in his room and talked or sometimes did not talk, just sat, he on the bed, she on the floor, and knew the other was there, and this was enough.
She told me she looked in books before shelving them; she closed her eyes and opened a book and touched the page and read the word beneath her finger: the word onion—because Jimmy hated the taste and smell of onions—meant she did not need to look further in the book; the word contact she took to mean she needed to read through the index, or if there was no index, the table of contents: any person listed in the index with the first or last name James she looked up, found his or her other books, closed her eyes and opened each book and touched the page and read the word beneath her finger.
She took notes; she kept a notebook and pen on the chair beside her bed; she set her alarm for three oíclock in the morning and after she woke she wrote the first word that came into her head: ripple, she told me, and collapse, and one morning aqueous. She asked me if these words meant anything to me, and I wrote her, No, and asked her if I could come see her.
Everything she saw she saw as if for the first time—lines formed grids on the backs of her hands; the veins beneath the skin of her hands formed letters. She saw open mouths on the trunks of trees, faces in the wood of the door to her room. Her knuckles, when she lay her hands palms down, were lips, sometimes eyes.
I told her parents that I did not understand, and they looked at me and I sipped the tea they had given me and together we did not understand.
Sometimes she felt the air around her nose and mouth—before that air could become breath—sucked away from her.
She told me she could understand the language of insects: they told her, Yes, here, yes, here, and she could breathe.
Some nights her sleep was unlike any sleep she had ever fallen into: there was no difference between her body and the bed beneath her body; there was no difference between the bed and the floor beneath the bed; every object in the room was connected to something else in the room, and the room itself was connected to other rooms, and the building she lived in was connected to the street, to the earth, and the earth to other buildings and other rooms and objects and people, and there was no end to this web, everything was connected to everything else, the entire world was one breathing shape, and she was just one part of it, and her brotherís ashes and the energy that made up his body when it was alive were a part of it, and she was simply watching for signs, waiting for Jimmy (through the world) to tell her what to do next, where to go.
She told me the chimes outside her window, when the wind blew through them, said, Here.
They told me, when I met them, that yes, they thought she was a little out there, but they had decided it would be best to let her go through whatever she was going through—Denial, one of them said; another said, Fuck denial, sheís having a big fat nervous breakdown—and they agreed that to not welcome her into their lives, to not listen to her stories (often repeated) about Jimmy, to not answer her questions, might do more harm than good, and though they wanted to tell her to go back east and get some help, a shrink, drugs, they decided: Who the fuck are we to tell her how to deal with her brotherís death?
One of Jimmyís friends said—and shook his head when he said this, as if not believing it—that he found himself on occasion seeing and hearing what Lisa was seeing and hearing. He told me that one night Lisa had him close his eyes and cover his ears with his hands and take deep breaths until he hyperventilated, and then she asked him to write on a piece of paper the first word that came into his head, and she did the same; she gave him her paper and he gave her his: they had written the same word, which wasnít a word, really, but more a sound, but he could not remember what the letters that made up the sound were because Lisa took both pieces of paper and put them in the notebook she was always carrying around and that was the last they spoke of it.
I could tell you how I felt about her—go through our two years together in great detail, how we met, what she looked like, our first kiss, how her lips pressed harder than my lips pressed, how she did everything harder than I did, laughed harder, cried harder, and how sometimes she would try to make me laugh harder, and how she didnít understand why I never cried. I could even make things up. I might even risk sentimentality—I might even use the L-word—all to make it clear to you how I felt about her, and why I am even bothering to tell this story.
But I will tell you instead that in the morning, when rain dripped from the drain pipe outside her window, and during the day, when she said she could hear the people browsing in the bookstore whisper words she had never heard before but somehow knew what they meant, and at night, when she sat in the dark of her closet, breathing the bottoms of her brotherís shirts she had saved and moved with her, she believed she could hear her brother speaking to her . . . Itís going to be O.K. . . . then nothing, and in those moments when the rain was just rain, when whispers were sounds she could attach no meaning to, when the dark was the dark and the quiet the quiet and her brotherís clothes smelled only of the cold of her room, she shook, she told me, and could not help shaking, and waited and waited, and, after hearing nothing beyond nothing, she went to bed and was not sure who she was or where here was.
Iím writing this one year after I last heard from Lisa, one year after the night she called in a panic and said she was shaking and couldnít breathe and didnít know where to go.
I would like to write that Iím writing this one week after hearing from Lisa because I want there to be hope in this story.
One week ago I found pinned beneath my carís windshield wiper a piece of paper, and written on the paper was a poem in which the I of the poem said that even though the You of the poem might be worried and sad, the I of the poem was in fact O.K., and the You should find a way to go on living, and the I was going to give the You a series of signs, starting with this poem, by which the You would know where to find happiness.
She called me and told me she couldnít breathe. She woke with the word radio in her head, and she thought, AM or FM?, and then in her head in Jimmyís voice: AM. In her notebook, in the dark, she wrote what the radio said, and minutes later (after she couldnít breathe and then could breathe again) read to me what she had written, and asked me if I could make sense of it, and I said no, I was sorry, I could not.
The radio said:
No one has ever seen a dog produce a non-dog.
Some things that were good for you yesterday are not good for you today.
If the cat upsets you, you feel inferior to the cat.
Approval should mean nothing to you: itís dust.
You would not be fallen if you were not intimidated.
The chaos around you has been put there by design.
Can you survive to see a new tomorrow? The answer is: perhaps.
Call the station and get a copy of my latest cassette and book.
She told me she picked up the phone and dialed the number the radio told her to dial; then she put down the receiver because her eyes had adjusted to the dark and she did not recognize the room she was in and was afraid that fifty years had passed without her knowing it and she was an old woman who had never found her brother, who had never gotten to where she was sure he (through the signs he had been giving her) was leading her, and all at once her throat closed up. She put down the receiver and ran to the window and listened and heard nothing (there was no rain; no wind blew through the chimes) and then she called me and told me she was scared she was dying and was frightened that that was how she was going to find Jimmy, that that was what all the messages she had been receiving meant, that she was going to die and through death be with her brother, and then she told me she didnít want to die, and then I lied to her and told her she wasnít going to die, and she said, But sometimes I think I want to, and I lied again and told her she wasnít going to die.
But I donít recognize my hands, she told me. I canít not look at them, my heart jumps when I look at the veins, even in the dark I can see the bones of my hands.
Breathe, I told her. Iím going to fly there tomorrow and bring you here.
She asked me: How old am I?
Twenty-four, I told her.
Tell me how old I am, she kept saying.
Twenty-four, I kept saying.
But when I got to San Francisco the next day she was gone and no one knew where she went. She left a note (not to me, just a note to anyone):
I donít know what happened to me last night. Iím better now. Everything is going to be fine. I know where I need to go.
Her roommate—the guy she picked up in New Jersey—said Lisa said nothing to him about leaving, and then he said he was sorry and said I could spend the night.
I slept in her bed. I set the alarm for three oíclock: when I woke I wrote on my hand the first word that came into my head; in the morning, when I went to wash my face, I saw on my hand the word wake, which at first I took to mean that someone was going to die, but then I realized that wake meant wake up, which is what any person might write when the alarm goes off at three in the morning.
My return flight to New York wasnít leaving for two days, so I spent some time with Lisaís friends (Jimmyís friends), asked them questions about both Lisa and her brother: had she said anything about me (Yes, that she had had a boyfriend), had or had had (Had had), had she said anything at all about where she was going (No), had she ever threatened to hurt herself (Never), where had she worked (they brought me to the bookstore and told me that Jimmy had worked there for about a year and that that was why Lisa had applied for a job there), where did she liked to sit to think (she liked to meditate in her closet, sometimes in the grass in the yard behind where she lived).
On what was supposed to be my last night in San Francisco, I sat for a few hours in Lisaís closet.
I closed my eyes and listened. I ran my hands along the walls.
Itís just a closet, I told myself.
The next morning I lay in what had been Lisaís bed and looked at the clock and thought, My flight leaves in two hours. I closed my eyes and breathed and felt very relaxed, and later I looked at the clock and thought, My flight leaves in less than an hour. I lay there breathing and felt that I could have stayed there forever: it was a feeling Iím not sure I can explain: the certainty that I was supposed to be there, that I too could have been the kind of person to get lost in some passion. I imagined living in San Francisco for the rest of my life. Jimmyís friends who had become Lisaís friends would become my friends.
But twenty minutes before my flight I opened my eyes in a panic. I grabbed my bag and ran outside and ran down the street until I saw a cab.
I arrived at the airport too late, of course.
That night I stayed in a hotel, and the next day I flew back to New York.
Two weeks later (postmarked Salt Lake City):
What happened my last night in SF was I drove to the water; it was dark; it was cold; there were stars. I spoke with Jimmy—said what I said that day on the subway—please let me know youíre O.K.. And then I stood there with the waves and the stars and it was very cold and I was shivering. Then, a shell. I kicked it when I took a step closer to the water. I put the shell to my ear and it said nothing beyond the swirling wind sound other seashells make, and then I said to myself: Listen. So I listened. I mean closely. I mean inside the swirling wind sound. Do you understand? How can you hear what you need to hear if you think, A seashell sounds like this, and thereís nothing else? So I made myself forget what a seashell is, what a seashell sounds like, and I listened for the sounds inside the wind, and I heard, Not here, I heard, Listen to the waves (please donít think Iím—), and what the waves were saying entered my brain as the word salt, and here I am. But Iím leaving again—not sure where Iím going. I wanted to tell you that Iím fine and that you might not hear from me for a while. Please tell my parents.
Her mother said: What are we supposed to do? The police say because of the letter sheís not actually missing.
Her father said: I think sheíll come home.
The poem I found under my windshield wiper is now on my refrigerator. One of my friends saw the poem and said, Have you heard about these—, but I stopped him, told him I didnít want to hear what he was going to say, and he said, I was only going to say that people have been finding these poems—, and I said, No, please, and he said, Whatís wrong, I was only going to say that—, and I said, No, please, listen to me, I donít want to hear whatever youíre about to say.
Sometimes I start to believe Iím waiting for a sign. Last weekend (because I closed my eyes and pointed on a map) I drove to Montauk Point, the tip of Long Island, and at night stood at the waterís edge, and listened to the water breaking on the sand, watched it roll towards my feet, heard the waves break again, watched the water roll closer.
I looked in the dark for seashells; there were no seashells.
I took off my shoes. I took off my socks. I closed my eyes and listened.
There were no surprises: I was tired. I was cold. The water breaking sounded like water breaking.