Fiction by Jonathan Phinney
I left after our baby was asleep in her crib and you were lying on the bed reading. I drove for a long time. The night was warm. You know from the way people look at me that they recognize me. At least, you should. You say it’s just because I have a fire in my eyes, but it’s more than that, I could show you. I’ve been on the band’s web site. People I will never meet know my face. When I figured out where to meet him—at the airport, it wasn’t hard, it’s all there in the songs—I knew there was no time to delay. He wasn’t going to wait forever.
I stopped for a bottle of red wine and spent an extra ten minutes walking through the convenience store looking for a corkscrew and that may have been my mistake. By the time I made it to the airport—so small it only has chartered flights and a few private planes—I must have missed him. He seems to enjoy remaining tantalizingly close.
Is this his way of making sure I’m really ready to commit? Yes, I think it is. He’s testing me. He watched me. He wanted to watch me look for him. He’s been waiting for me a long time and I suppose he has to be sure I’m ready. For now, he’s just out of reach. I imagine that’s the way music feels for most people. That’s the way it used to feel for me, until I broke through all the bullshit of pretending and found my way to the electric ringing of tones. You think you can change my medications and just reel me back in. Hit the reset button. Just so you know, he knows I will only travel with him if he takes Alice, too. We are a packaged deal. I’m an amazing mother. You’ve said so yourself.
I omit his name, but you know who he is. You know how he hates the press digging into his private life.
The terminal was dark. There were few lights except for the orange streetlights that seem to get dimmer the longer you try to see by them. He wasn’t anywhere obvious. But then, that’s not his style. I walked all the way around the building. Shadows hid inside other shadows and turned out to be hiding only the darkness itself. The grass was wet on the side of the building. The tarmac still warm from the day. On the side facing the runway, several planes sat, angled for motion, but utterly still. I looked for a sign out along the dim-lit strips of tarmac, but nothing moved.
The beacon swung its silver arm though the sweet, damp, early fall air, though no one seemed to be there. But that was my first clue: why would the beacon be lit if there was no one there?
My second was that the side door to the hangar was unlocked.
I stepped inside and could only see by the red glow of the exit signs. I could feel that someone had been there recently: it was in the air, the feeling of the dust having just settled. I walked around the first plane, a silvery thing with its cockpit door open. I walked around it again, peered inside. It smelled chemical and harshly clean. I took two steps up and the plane tilted slightly. This wasn’t his plane. I know things quickly and with a certainty I can’t explain. The second plane was orange and closed up like a trap, or a riddle, another test. I spent a long time devising a solution, looking up and down the plane, its smooth lines, its seamless fusions. The light cloyed at the plane, trying to get closer, to reveal something. My Dad was in the CIA, a fact I’ve recently come to know. He had a mind for this kind of thing, which he passed, indirectly, to me, though of course he could never tell me. The light was red, which meant the plane was actually yellow. Bingo. His voice, his aching falsetto, starts as yellow and comes from the sun, screaming down the sky. Now was the time to study the skin of this flying machine, to find an imperfection, an irregularity to lead me forward. That’s when I noticed the lights through the high windows that had been playing at my eyes and breaking my concentration. Like your questions do and how you never listen. Lights have been hard for me lately, especially at night. I’ve gotten so used to the fact that most people don’t perceive what I see, that I start forgetting myself to note what is plainly obvious.
I walked quickly out the door and slipped behind some bushes until whoever it was left. But they weren’t the type to leave: police. The fact that they were there told me I was getting close. He had set this all up. It was a teaser. Part of a grand romantic gesture: have me picked up by the police only to swoop in and take me away. I’m still a sucker for the dramatic entry. You could learn a thing or two from him about romance, with your insipid calm and linear reasoning.
The wind moved blocks of darkness around behind the police and across the parking lot. Officers Bland and McSimple had nothing to say that I needed to hear. They stood leaning each on their cruiser, parked in a kiddy court yard with my car. I told them I was meeting someone and they said, “Who?”
“He probably sent you, though you’re just pawns and wouldn’t know.”
The woods were the source of the dark shapes. Someone hiding in there. The dark blinked at me in uneven intervals. That’s how I knew he was still watching. Music exists in everything, if you’re alert to it.
They wanted me in the cruiser, but I told them I wasn’t going anywhere. I told them I was meeting him. They asked me who he was, and I laughed, expecting them to laugh too. They kept it straight. They were in character. I turned to look at a noise across the street. It was him, I’m sure. He felt close. I turned back, and McSimple had been making a face, and tried, laughably, to snap back into serious police-face-mode. Milquetoast coughed, but I just flashed a smile that told them it was okay either way. They had jobs to do.
They asked me if I had a doctor and I said, “Not that that has anything to do with it but I do,” and I told them about Johanna. One of them made a phone call. McSimple tried to get me into the cruiser again and I told him to fuck off. He was about to get mad when his partner got off the phone and said something in his ear. Finally, someone was getting the message to them. Only a matter of time now.
“My Dad was a cop, too,” I said to Officer Bland.
“Oh, really? Where?”
“All over the world. CIA. I just found out.”
“He died when I was young and naive, but he has made sure I’m connected to some very powerful people.”
He got quiet and said something I couldn’t hear.
“You know, he pretended for years he hated the Beatles, but all the while he was bringing their music to the four corners of the world. That’s how he met your boss.”
They asked about you and wanted to call you, but I told them not to bother. I’m a big girl. I didn’t give them the number, but they got it somewhere anyway.
I think he might have had something to do with that. He’s such a little shit.
A short time later Johanna got there and gave me a big hug.
“Oh, Honey. I’m just glad you’re okay.”
“This is some grand romantic gesture he’s got in store for me,” I said as she nodded.
“What? No, Jason wouldn’t know romantic if it licked him on the teeth. I’m talking about him.”
She knew who I meant. Recognition on her face. She nodded slowly. “Oh… yeah?”
She went over to the police and explained it all to them. They relaxed a little and I could see they were getting it. They just left me alone after that. Good cop, here’s your doughnut.
When you got there you said, “I had to call my mom to be with Alice so I could come here.”
And you said, “Do you have any idea how exhausting this is all getting to be?”
And you said, “However high you get you’re going to crash just as low, so you’re better off—”
“Better off…” I said.
“I think you should just—”
“I should just…” I said, and you rolled your eyes and got that look on your face that says you think you know more than me.
You sighed and said, “Just cut the shit, okay?”
I can’t sigh for you anymore, so I slapped your face. I thought you needed someone to jar your brain a little and make you see everything. In its right place. Finally.
And you did seem to change your tune after that. The cops would only let me ride with them or with you. I told them I wanted to ride with Johanna. She was the only one there who seemed to get what was going on, but they played their puny little power game and I relented. Music is the spell that unites all improbabilities together. I thought you might get this soon.
You drove and didn’t talk, so I thought maybe you were thinking it through, starting to get it. I put the CD in, thinking you were ready to hear it, finally ready to hear what he was saying. But you didn’t listen for more than a few seconds when you turned it off and said, “Jesus, not this.” This would all be a lot easier, Jason, if you would fucking listen.
I knew you were getting it on some level because I could see that you were threatened. You drove like you were threatened. And you should be threatened. He sends me messages, even in here. We’re just biding our time. When we are finally united I will be fully cared for.
I asked you what you were thinking a minute later as we pulled through the light from South Main onto route 101.
“Seriously?” you said.
“Seriously,” I said, knowing what you were thinking, feeling the building of its inevitability in the shear vibration of your being, the potential you feel in the air before a lightning strike.
You looked at me before you spoke, and in that instant hatched a lie, a storm cloud of omission, a gray mass of denial, because you said, “I’m thinking about how I’m going to get the car back home from the airport. I don’t know how long it can stay there.”
You’re a better actor than I thought. You looked at me with that self-serious gaze. I threw fire from my eyes, daring you to flinch, but you didn’t blink.
You pulled up in front of the ER entrance. Officers Vanilla and Dumbfuck pulled in behind to make sure I got out. Johanna was already there. The parking lot was well lit. He wasn’t anywhere.
Inside there was a woman who must have seen me on the band’s website because she looked at me with wide-eyed recognition and buzzed me right in. I waited in a little eight-by-ten examination room. Phone calls to someone who was supposed to be there to do my intake. He was obviously the puppet master behind the scenes and had left this little detail out to fuck with us all. I couldn’t wait to see how it would all come together. You were in the office next door talking to Johanna. I waited. One of the nurses walking up and down the halls was surprised to see me. I didn’t recognize her at first. She was in the mother’s group I go to. The one I went to until last week. She wasn’t going to be involved with my intake, I could hear her thinking, or maybe even saying. She wasn’t supposed to be there that night. That’s when I realized something had gone wrong. I wasn’t supposed to be there either. He might have been waiting outside for me to make my move, but he wasn’t coming in for me, not tonight.
The instant I realized this, I also realized something else. Nothing was keeping me there but the false assumption that I needed to be hospitalized. There were no straps holding me down. They thought I would just sit there and wait. So I got up and walked out. I walked quickly because I could feel your thoughts stretching out, ready to snap as you realized the same thing I just had. I passed through the door to the check-in, the waiting area, all the way to the exit.
I got through the first of the automatic doors, where you caught up to me. You tried to put yourself between me and the second door, without seeming to remember my strength, forgetting that I know how to fight back. So when I fought through, and was outside the door, you tackled me. You tackled me! I can’t fucking believe it, but you did, you tackled me! The mother of your child! You got me down to the pavement and wouldn’t let me up until Johanna got there. That is the moment I will point to if anyone ever asks me why you and I are separated. You: physically assaulting me! You threw me onto the ground, into the hospital, and called it “protecting our family.” If my Dad was alive he’d have some words for you. Yes he would.
I spent one night on level six of County Medical Center, in the behavioral ward: sterile, stale, brown and gray-green. You visited, brought me my brush, and you said you brought Alice (and your mom, to take care of her, in the waiting area outside the locked, double door). They wouldn’t let me see her, even peeking through the window.
My fucking daughter. My baby.
It all seemed pretty suspect to me, that they would deny a mother a chance to see her eight-month old daughter when they were separated by only two doors and ten feet of space.
I doubted she was even there and you must have seen the look on my face. You looked back when you went out the door, trying to be grave, sighing, so tired. You wouldn’t even bother trying to convince me that what you said was true.
You closed the door after you left, because you could. So you could avoid the blame, not wanting me to see Alice. A punishment for me. Having the staff tell a lie to protect you. I tell you, she will have a better life than this. He will see to it. You don’t listen to me or place much stock in what I say. You always just wanted me to stay on my meds and not be too much of a burden to you. You believed each time I went to the hospital would be the last. I’ve been to a lot of hospitals. No one is like the other and none is unique.
The nurses had a routine at night. They walked down the hall to peek in on each patient. Every fifteen minutes. I started closing my door after they left. The first time she just knocked and opened it back up. While they were gone I kept track of how many times I killed myself. I smothered myself with a pillow. I broke the plastic casing of my pen and using the sharp edge slashed my wrists. I stood on the footboard of the bed and threw myself down, repeatedly slamming my head against the floor. It took five tries to finally crack my skull and bleed out, my brain hemorrhaging. I unwound the coils in my mattress and used them to choke myself. I whittled the long front edge at the base of my bed to a fine blade with my nail file and used it to decapitate myself, lifting above my head and letting it fall. It only took one chop. I used the paper of my journal to slice my wrist. If I wanted merely to escape you, I would. I’m writing this now so you know.
When she came back I kept the reality of all my deaths in the room there with us. I let the foment in the air keep spinning.
“Could you stop this racket I’m trying to get some rest,” I said. I didn’t giggle because it wasn’t a joke.
I was already thinking of all the ways I could kill her when she asked me if I kept closing the door.
I rolled over and pretended to be asleep. She stayed a moment longer. Then another. Too long. I got up out of bed in one motion (I was still dressed). I told her I was going to the bathroom, and she seemed not to care, just made some notes on her board. I stormed past her, up the hall, to the nurse’s station.
I knew then that he wouldn’t come to get me in there. He wanted me to save myself. Once I did that, then he would come meet me.
At the nurse’s station I tapped on the zen bell with my knuckle three or four times, making a much more resounding sound than the little piece of wood, with its soft, gentle greens and sighing bamboos. Music can bring down governments. I tapped until one of the other nurses came scurrying out and snatched the bell away from me.
“What are you doing? You’re going to wake the whole floor up!”
“I want to leave.” I said it calmly and evenly. She looked at me as if I was asking to juggle chainsaws for activity the next day. “Now!”
“But it’s the middle of the night.”
Oh the pain in that woman’s eyes! She was dead inside. I’ve seen the type before. Lived with them. No batteries could ever get that light glowing again. She would have to face all the layers of death I had, go through all its gradations and through-portals before music or the fervor of resonant vibrations could penetrate the the fatty tissue surrounding her heart.
“I don’t care. I’m not doing anything here that I can’t do at home. I’m safe. I’m medicated. I’m awake. I want to go home.”
“Well, why don’t we wait until morning…”
“No. I don’t want to wait. I don’t need to wait. I’m not going to change my mind between now and morning.”
“Yes, but how are you going to get home?”
I had to be careful what to say next, not to tip my hand.
“I’ll call my husband. I don’t really need to be asking your permission.”
She looked at me as if there was something she knew she could say to change my mind, somewhere inside her, but she couldn’t for the life of her summon the clarity, the mental fortitude to form words out of the ether. I stood between her and what she wanted to say. She took a deep breath. “Why don’t we just take a minute…”
“I’ve taken more than a minute just standing here waiting. I want you to take your job seriously and do it, and respect what I want.”
She said nothing.
“You can’t hold me here against my will. I’m not committed.”
“No, but if you keep behaving like that you’ll get yourself committed.”
I walked away. I didn’t even justify that with a laugh in her face. I just ignored her. A person can’t be committed in this state unless she’s a danger to herself or others.
“You’re making decisions that will negatively complicate your life. Why don’t you just sleep on it?”
Was she reading from a script? I called over my shoulder that I was getting my stuff together.
A minute later she presented me with a clip board.
I signed my name X and then blew her a kiss.
When I called you from the lobby pay phone to come get me you asked how I got out. You said, “This is what I was afraid of,” when I asked you how long it would be. You said you would not wake up Alice at four in the morning to put her in the car to come get me. You said that I had to fend for myself on this one.
Just to prove a point.
Well, what did you prove? You are in a power struggle with him, but he has already won, and you have proven nothing. Every song he has written since I was sixteen years old has been about me.
I walked from the main lobby to the water fountain. I tried to read a magazine but they’d scrambled the text up in most of them. He would have done that. Why? To keep me focussed on getting the hell out of there.
There were only a few night staff walking through occasionally, and once, a cleaning lady. The woman at the registration desk watched me, uninterested at first, then with more and more suspicion. Finally, after talking to someone who was in the office behind her, she came over and, very much like an airline employee, asked if I had a ride soon. I smiled a little to myself, knowing what was up.
I said no. She went back and talked to her friend. She came back and asked if I would like a hospital voucher for a taxi. He sent me a taxi. That sneaky bastard. I couldn’t wait to hear what music would be playing in it. So I followed her to the desk where the other woman had a binder with something that looked like large, paperboard checks in it. She asked me how far I lived, and I told her, understanding it was just a pretense. Then I said that actually I live all over the world. She had that smile that understood. He was probably just going to have me brought straight back to the airport.
But when the taxi pulled into traffic and I saw the way the driver looked in the rearview, like a stupid, obedient operator for a system he doesn’t understand, I knew he was taking me home. He listened to talk radio. I took a deep breath and got over it.
Though it was light by then I still held in my head the image of the airport at night. The way wind seemed to rise imperceptibly from the dark and carry with it whispers of unvoiced song, lyrical scraps I am still deciphering. Most of the world is just screaming light and muffled sound trying to distract me from the larger plan. The music was trying to come through me but got choked. I’ll have a chance to catch my bearings when at home, I thought, but your mom was there with Alice. You had gone to work. God, why can’t I ever just be alone?
She seemed afraid of me, and suggested I take a rest. I went into the bedroom and laid down a while. I couldn’t stay still so I went into the bathroom. I heard your mom talking on the phone and knew you were coming home from work. There is so much you don’t understand. Such a rat’s nest of complication I can’t unravel for you. It would be like explaining a symphony to a deaf person. So I went back into the bathroom and cut my hair.
You came home a little later. When you came into the bedroom, after speaking in low, conspiratorial tones with your mother, you entered as if expecting to find a helpless, baby giraffe, not a fucking human being. It was just then that it occurred to me that this whole affair, this grand drama, might be just an effect of the music. But I know to be wary of such thoughts.
You saw my hair. And in all that bewilderment, all that anger and disbelief, was a look of recognition. I sought that look in your eyes when I said, “Yes.”
You said nothing, so I said it again. “Yes. Yes, Jason, this is real.”
You said, “Holy shit,” and shook your head, searching for something outside your ken.
“Yes, do you see now?” I nodded for you. “This is for real.”
And I think then that you started to get it.
[This piece was selected by Frances Gapper]
Jonathan Phinney lives on a lake where loons call in the summer and shifting ice in the winter shakes the ground. He has published fiction inThe Saint Ann’s Review and received his MFA from The University of New Hampshire. He has worked as a landscaper, painter, logger, bookseller, archaeological field tech, barista, dishwasher, cook, and substitute teacher. He teaches at a small independent school in southwestern New Hampshire.