Jess Row
POETICS
 
Nobody Ever Gets Lost

PATERSON, NJ: A coroner’s inquest has found that significant corrosion was the cause of death in an accident involving two sisters, ages 7 and 11, who were crushed to death when the roof of the elevator in their apartment building collapsed Tuesday. Linda and Micaela Hernandez were the daughters of the building superintendent, Martín Hernandez, who had been hired a month before. Paterson police said that no criminal charges have been filed in connection with this incident.

            She raises her eyes from the paper. Broadway is strangely quiet: a few taxis swishing by, a jet’s rumble, a baby wailing somewhere down the block. The Indian man at the newsstand jingles a handful of coins absentmindedly. For a moment the world seems to hesitate—an expectant pause—and then speeds up again with a soft pop. She clasps the newspaper under her arm and grips the handrail on the subway stairs, light and dizzy as a ball of twine unraveling.
            Once she’s found a seat, she turns back to the front page and starts again: New incursions in Ramallah. The stock market falling. Tuberculosis on the rise in US prisons. Her eyes slide across the paragraphs like egg yolks over glass. No criminal charges. As if that’s all there is to it, she thinks, as if that’s the end of the story. In connection with this incident. No criminal charges.
            How does an elevator roof collapse?
            It must have been on the ground floor, or in the basement. Otherwise the cable would have kept the roof in place and the car would have fallen to the bottom of the shaft. Did the cable break? Did the pulley fall?
            She looks up and down the car. It’s 9:45: the busy people, the commuters, the newspaper-readers, have disappeared.Across from her a glassy-eyed teenaged boy nods to the beat from his headphones, picking at his braids; two seats down a young woman in hospital scrubs sleeps with her head tilted back against the window.
            Life goes on, she thinks, in its unquestioning, unsurprised way. Barely glancing at the headlines. Only now it’s a calling, an obligation: go about your business. With relief, and gratitude, savoring the preciousness of the moment, etcetera. It has gone on. It will go on.
            Innocent little verb, she thinks, it isn’t your fault you turn my stomach.

            These little tragedies are inevitable.
Lately Roger’s voice has been coming out of nowhere, in little bright flashes, half-second migraines. She closes her eyes and rubs her temples. The statistics require it. If you take eight million people and pack them together in a few square miles of concrete and glass, what else could possibly happen? He liked to say things like that when he was fixing one of her window slides, standing on a chair and leaning out over the sill, eleven stories up. By rights, he would say, if you break this thing enough times, eventually I’ll slip and fall out. We all take chances.
            And she would say, don’t think that cynical crap works with me. I’ve lived in New York longer than you have.
            Then what else can you do? He always sounded so calm, so unflappable. Just don’t sit there paralyzed. Turn the page. Every day is a test of your strength. She hated his little Nietzschean proverbs. he knew that; he knew better than to bring one up in the middle of a serious conversation.
            Always, when they were lazing around her apartment on those Sundays, he wore the same pair of jeans, which he kept there for that purpose. The crotch was ripped open, the cuffs disintegrating. During the week she kept them folded at the bottom of her underwear drawer. She wanted to walk around impregnated with his scent. Even during their breaks, their lacunae, he called them, the jeans stayed in place, like a sachet.
            And so: it’s September again. She hasn’t opened that drawer in a year. Her new underwear stays folded in neat stacks in a shopping bag in the closet.
            Now that he’s gone, she thinks, does that mean he was wrong? Does that mean he lost the argument?
           
            At work she folds the newspaper with the article facing up and lays it to one side at her desk, on a stack of journals she’s been meaning to read for months. It isn’t a particularly busy day. She’s just finished the business plan of an Italian pharmaceutical company, and her inbox is briefly, blessedly empty. To look busy she shops online for the latest edition of the Translator’s Dictionary of Weights and Measures and tries to open the Romania Libera website, which has been shut down for days. 
            Who were crushed to death. Crushed to death. Crushed.
            Lately she’s been thinking about going back to graduate school, picking up where her master’s thesis left off: a translation of the correspondence between two sixteenth-century Jesuits, one in Barcelona, one in Bucharest, who believed that Catalan and Romanian were evolving, rather regressing, back to the spoken Latin of the late empire. A topic so obscure no one would fund her to pursue it further. But now, she thinks, I’ve got savings, I could carry myself on that for awhile.
            What she wants most desperately is to have her carrel back: that cubicle on the twelfth floor of the library, with its tiny key and flimsy lock, and all around it, on every side, the infinite network of possible knowledge, directions, propositions. El jardin de senderos que se bifurcan, Borges called it. For that she’d gladly give up her pension plan, her weekly manicure, even her office, with its window that faces the dusky brick wall of the building next door, a color that changes as the light changes. In the late afternoons, when the rays of the setting sun fall into that gap, the bricks glow, a deep, rich, purplish shade, and she could almost weep, almost.
           
            In the kitchen, getting her third cup of coffee, she sees Donald Wu rummaging in the refrigerator, sniffing old boxes of carryout and throwing them away. Donald is an engineer, a quiet, fastidious man who translates Chinese technical manuals, who always smiles faintly at her in the hallways. Last September—she has no idea how he knew—a card from him appeared in her mailbox, a folded sheet of craft paper with Chinese characters written in lashing calligraphy across the front. Inside, it said, Susan, we are all crying. The whole world is crying. His name was not signed, and she has never known how to thank him.
            Donald, she says, I have a question you might be able to answer.
            Yes? His voice is muffled by the refrigerator.
            I’m trying to find out how elevators work.
            He stands up, opening a Domino’s box, making a face at it. An elevator, he says. That’s about the simplest kind of machine there is. Just a pulley with a box attached. Ninety percent of elevator problems are with the ordering system, the electronics. A mechanical elevator will hardly ever break down, unless it isn’t lubricated properly. He scratches the wispy hairs that lie across his scalp. Is yours on the fritz or something?
            There was this article in the paper, she says. An elevator accident in New Jersey. Two little girls were killed. The roof of the elevator car collapsed. It was corroded. That’s what the article said. I just don’t understand it.
            He raises one eyebrow, in a sort of hook-shape. You’d think the cable would have kept it in place, he says. You’d think somebody would have noticed, anyway.
            She purses her lips and nods, suddenly embarrassed, not knowing what else to say.
            Two kids, Donald says. His eyes remain on her face a moment too long.
            It would be nice, she thinks, if I could turn this into a conversation about proper building maintenance, or about why it must be so hard to raise children in the city, or about Donald’s background: did he grow up in a building with an elevator? Roger would have been able to. Roger was an expert at segues. Speaking of Peru—Matt, you’ve been to Macchu Picchu, haven’t you? But I, I, she thinks, am incapable of this. I’ve lost the ability to change the subject.

            At her desk, she searches the New Jersey newspapers, and checks El Diario and Hoy. Nothing. You’d think it would be all over the news, splashed across the tabloids. But apparently children dying in strange ways isn’t as newsworthy as it used to be. She spreads the Times across her desk and reads the article again, feeling blood seeping up her neck and across her cheeks.
            Why?
            Because it’s one paragraph in the Metro Briefing section, she thinks, where they put the news that no one really cares about, and because if the paper hadn’t flipped open in the breeze and my eyes happened to catch that tiny headline, and I hadn’t stood there out of curiosity on the street with the dogwalkers and coffeedrinkers and strollerpushers dodging around me and read the whole story in ten seconds, I would never have known. The world sweats outrage: tragedy as filler, as background music. And this doesn’t rate even a line? Girls’ Death Prompts Inquiry? There are physical properties involved, for fuck’s sake. Somebody should get to the bottom of it.
            On impulse, she turns to her computer and types the names of the girls and the words elevator accident into Google.

Policereports.com

Dates, times, addresses
All reported events by community
100% guaranteed results $5.95.

            So this is it, she thinks. Charity, in the end, is always faintly pornographic. Did Wilde say that? Well, so be it. She reaches under her desk for her wallet.

            Her car, the last time she checked, was parked in a monthly outdoor lot on the other side of Broadway. Roger convinced her to put it there. Why park it on the street, he said, when you use it once a month, at most? He researched the options, and checked out each lot in turn, demanding references, negotiating for a better deal. And then, before she could stop him, he put the first six months on his platinum card. It’s all part of the package, he said. Absurdly stingy, absurdly generous.
            On her way down 67th Street she turns into a Duane Reade drugstore and wanders the aisles, wondering what she might be looking for. Birthday cards, wedding and graduation cards, engagements, births. Rosh Hashanah, Halloween, apologies, sympathy, regrets. A display of blue and pink teddy bears wearing tiny white t-shirts: I © NY—More Than Ever. Should I buy one of those, she thinks, isn’t that what you do these days? The store reeks of some floral perfume, as if they’ve poured it on the carpets. The merchandise seems distributed almost at random: shaving cream, laxatives, picture frames, men’s magazines. Have the employees run away? she wonders. Did they abandon this sinking ship? Crossed the Williamsburg Bridge and the Holland Tunnel like rats down the gangplank?
            Finally she sees the exit at the end of an aisle and hurries toward it, hardly able to stop from breaking into a run. White sunlight splashes her face, city sunlight, refracted by a hundred mirrored windows. Gratefully she breathes in exhaust and kebab smoke. What an American problem, she thinks, what to buy when nothing you can buy will make it any better, when no object makes any difference at all.

            She hasn’t driven in so long she’s forgotten how fast it is, in the middle of the afternoon, crossing the Henry Hudson in a blur and swooping up the entrance ramp to the bridge, checking her watch—only five minutes have passed—putting both hands on the wheel to keep them from shaking, not looking over her shoulder, not even checking her rearview mirror, so as not to risk seeing the skyline, and in the space of that thought she’s already arrived in New Jersey and is taking the exit for I-80, working on instinct, jabbing the buttons on the radio—a lilting Lester Young solo, a blizzard of Liszt, a calm voice reciting the names of accused terrorists in US custody—and she hardly has time to look down at the driving instructions she printed out, remembering to take the second left after the exit ramp, onto Paterson Street, onto Wilkes Avenue, number 15, number 17, number 25.

            A nondescript building at the corner of a busy block: seven stories, brick, with a rusting fire escape across the front. Hampton Arms, carved into a curved stone lintel above the door. The ground floor houses a take-out restaurant that sells fried chicken and lake trout; even across the street, sitting inside her car, she smells hot oil and overcooked french fries. A group of teenagers passes her, happily shooting one another with enormous neon-yellow squirt guns.
             There’s only one Wilkes Avenue, she tells herself. There’s only one number 25. She’s left the motor running, the air conditioner blowing musty cold air against her knees. Thisis the building where it happened, and it doesn’t matter that you’re surprised to see no shreds of police tape in the street, no piles of wilted carnations, no candlewax dripped across the sidewalk, or photos bleaching in the sun. Who are you to show up after the fact with your editorializing, your pathetic expectations?
            She gets out of the car anyway. and locks it twice to make sure. The late-afternoon sun seems to propel her across the street. A man comes out of the restaurant with a stained paper bag under his arm; a young woman carrying a baby pauses on the sidewalk and pulls a tissue from the pocket of her jeans. No one is watching her. The sunlight heavy as a velvet cape across her shoulders. She mounts the sidewalk and mounts the three stairs to the landing in front of the door, with crisp, measured steps, as if she’s on an errand, and has a right to be there. Her pulse beats a frantic tempo in her wrists, in veins she didn’t know she had. The old brass plate mounted on the wall next to the door has buttons and little windows where the names are supposed to be, but only one name is listed. Figueroa. Apt 3B.
            She presses that button.
            This is unacceptable, she thinks. You can’t behave this way.
           
            Behind the door, a jangling, clashing sound, as if someone is shaking an enormous ring of keys. The door swings open a foot, and a young woman’s head appears, tilted sideways, as if she’s determined to expose that much of herself and no more.
            Si? Que quiere?
            Her face is heavily made up: foundation, rouge, lipstick the color of ripe plums. Bits of violet glitter around her eyes. Like someone you’d see in a video, Susan thinks, or a fashion ad. A professionally created face.
            Perdoneme. It always happens this way, especially when she’s rusty: in Spanish she speaks in a high, tremulous register, like a sixteen-year-old. Annoying, and utterly out of her control. Pero aca está donde las niñas se murio la semana pasada?
             The woman’s eyebrows—Susan hadn’t noticed she had eyebrows—move together, like arrows meeting in midair.
            Are you from Spain or something?
            I’m American. But I studied in Madrid.
            So you think I don’t speak English, lady?
            She swallows, her tongue dry as a sock.
            What do you want, anyway? You a social worker? If you are, you’re a little late. All those DYFS people came and went already, after the cops finished. You from the church? 
            I’m a translator, she says. A linguist. But that’s not why I’m here. I’m just a private citizen. I read about what happened in the paper. I wanted to know if there’s anything I could do to help.
            Like what?
            Well, she says, extemporizing, I’d like to set up a fund in the girls’ honor. For expenses. Maybe a scholarship. I’d like to make a donation. 
            It occurs to her, as soon as the words have left her lips, that she hasn’t yet asked this person who she is.
            I have to go to work in an hour. The woman lets the door swing open a few more inches. Below her throat, a name spelled out in rhinestones: Cristina. I guess you can come in for a few minutes, though, she says. A donation, you said? Come upstairs. Viene.

            The elevator is in the middle of the hall, unavoidable, covered with two lengths of police tape in a haphazard X, the steel door battered and twisted half-open to the blackness of the shaft. She can’t help turning toward it and staring.
            The fire department really wrecked that thing, Cristina says. Tore it out with crowbars and then shoved it back in when they were done. That’s how they had to get them out, through there. Dios. What a nightmare.
            Are you related to them?
            Martín is my boyfriend’s cousin. They climb the stairs, Cristina’s feet shuffling in flip-flops. Mexicans. Not like me. I’m old school Puerto Rican.
            Are they here?
            Nah. Nobody’s here. I think they went to the funeral home again. The funeral’s tomorrow. They had to delay it because of the autopsy.
She keeps climbing, putting one foot over another, though her joints feel as if they’ve been filled with something viscous and warm. Light streams into the stairwell from a dusty window. The air is stagnant, layered: pizza, fresh paint, something acrid, like burned brakes. At the third landing Cristina waves her through an open doorway into a small living room, neat, a sofa-and-loveseat set, an enormous silver TV, a glass coffee table piled high with stacks of jeans, boxer shorts, a mound of underwear in black and green and red.
            I’m sorry, Susan says. She can’t look at the clothes; it’s a childish rigidity, the way she felt if Roger happened to see her in the bathroom. I’m disturbing you, she says. I’ll just write the check and go. I shouldn’t barge in this way.
            What happened? Cristina waves at the couch. Sit down. I’ve got a few minutes. I mean, you’re doing something nice. What am I, supposed to throw you out?
            She disappears into the kitchen, leaving the question hanging in the air. Nothing to be done, Susan thinks, backing into the cushions, letting her weight down slowly, as if they might be stuffed with stones.
            It’s weird, you coming here today, Cristina says. The refrigerator thumps closed, ice clinking in glasses. I mean yesterday, the day before, the police were still down there investigating, the news truck came by twice. Though they never showed the story on TV. And we had all these people from the neighborhood coming through. Now it’s just quiet. I woke up and a minute went by before I remembered it.
            She comes back into the room, pushes the laundry aside, and puts two sweating glasses of iced tea on the table. Every movement accompanied by the silvery jangling of her bracelets, like the sound of sleighbells.
            Did you know them well?
            Her face takes on a strained inward attentiveness, as if she’s working a loose tooth with her tongue. Sure, she says. I mean, we’re family. Rita and Martín don’t have PlayStation 2, so they were in and out of here all the time. We’d be shooing them out at ten so we could go to sleep, you know?
            Susan allows herself a little half-nod, a dip of the head.
            Micaela was the smart one. Cristina picks an ice cube out of her glass and rubs it against her forehead. Smart and chubby. She got a blue ribbon in the science fair. Her project was about sands and Africa, and how there’s more desert all the time—
            Desertification.
            She wanted to be a biologist, that’s what she said. A marine biologist. I said to her, listen, gordita, just don’t grow up to tend bar and I’ll be happy.
            I was a waitress in college, Susan says. I barely lasted six months. After a shift I couldn’t get out of bed till noon.
            Yeah. It sucks. Cristina leans back on the sofa and smoothes out her jeans. But at the same time I’d never be happy sitting behind a desk all day. I got to be active. That’s my personality. Moving, always moving.
            They sit in silence, as if contemplating, she thinks, the lengths women will go to create the illusion of intimacy. A man would be in and out. Better yet, a card in the mail. A man, she thinks, any man, by which, not to generalize, I can only mean the men I’ve known, by which I mean Roger, would not attach himself like a leech, would not put himself at center stage, would not make it about him, him, him.
            You said you’re a translator, right?
            A linguist. A book translator. 
            And you’ve never done this before? Counseling? Visiting people? You’re—I don’t know. Kind of professional.
            Maybe it’s just my personality. She smiles, half in apology, half as a joke. When I lived in Veracruz one summer the guys there called me blanca fria.
            Cristina manages a wan smile and scratches the corner of her mouth.
            She takes a sip from her glass: strong tea, no sugar, just the way she would have made it, so cold it produces a pleasurable tightening at the back of her throat.
            You’re not married, are you? No kids?
            She holds up her bare left hand.
            I don’t mean to be rude. I’m just talking.
            It’s OK, she says. Something about the apartment, how clean it is, how ordered, the spotless cream carpet, is making her feel, despite herself, almost relaxed. If I were in her position, she thinks, this is the kind of person I would want to be: calm, clear-headed, sensible. The underrated virtues.  The ones not taught in graduate school.
            I had five years with the same guy, she says. On and off. Her eyes wander across the opposite wall and come to rest on a window in the far corner of the room, its pale curtains drawn back, a steeple of blank blue sky. He died very suddenly. An aneurysm. No warning, no way to predict it. Painless, at least. It happened on the subway, on the way to the office.
            The room’s silence has a heavy, padded quality: all these soft forgiving surfaces. Cristina drapes a t-shirt across her knees and folds it without looking down. Imagination, you criminal, she thinks, my every weakness is yours. Crack the window and the apartment fills with soot. I shouldn’t be let out in public. What was the line from the movie? You can’t handle the truth. That’s me. I have no respect left for this world.
            That’s terrible. Cristina bites her lower lip. In a way it’s worse than if you were married, isn’t it? Because you can’t say, my husband died. I mean, my boyfriend? It doesn’t sound the same.
            She says it factually, a simple observation, without condescension, or pity. And she’s right, of course. If asked, Susan thinks, I would say exactly the same thing. But that doesn’t stop the hot drill-bit of hatred boring through the bone between her eyes. For what, exactly? Saying the obvious?
            Well, she says, brightly, it could be worse. We’re still here. You have to believe that it’s better to be a guilty survivor.
            Cristina looks at her with a polite, lopsided smile.
            I mean, you weren’t in the elevator with them. You have to be grateful for that.
            But if I’d been there it wouldn’t have happened.
            The pressure shifts now to her temples, and she feels herself wincing, as if her head is trapped in a vise.
            Why, she hears herself asking. I don’t get it. Why?
            It’s not like it was an accident. The girls were playing in there. They got hold of something sticking out and the whole thing was rusted and it just came down on them.
            The paper didn’t say anything about that.
            Who cares what the papers said?
            She can feel the metal grips of the vise, its little teeth, smashing the papery skin behind her eyes. Tiny fireworks erupt at the edges of her field of vision. She reaches out for the glass and nudges it off the edge of the table, and it lands with a soft thump, spilling a blot of tea across the carpet. Jesus. She stands up, but Cristina has already returned from the kitchen with a roll of paper towels. I’m so clumsy! she says. Shit. I’m sorry. 
            Martín had nothing to do with it, Cristina says, tearing sections of towel and spreading them out across the stain. She angles her head upward to catch Susan’s eye. It was all painted over, and nobody had checked for the rust underneath. The inspector must have been paid off or something. We just moved in here a year ago. I mean, of course they should have known better, right? But it wasn’t their fault. Kids do stupid things. You can’t account for it.
            Though at the same time, Susan says, you know what caused it. It isn’t as if it came down out of the blue. It was preventable. Theoretically. You don’t have to ask yourself, why wasn’t I there instead? You see what I mean?
Cristina sits up on her haunches and surveys the damage, sucking her pursed lips. Yeah, she says. Theoretically it makes a difference. But no matter what you have to go on with your life, don’t you? Martín was saying they’re going to start trying for another baby right away.
            Children die,she thinks. They climb onto junkpiles and get stuck in old refrigerators; they flip over the handlebars with no helmet on; they get struck by garbage trucks on the way to school. And the parents, somehow, always recover, don’t they? They have more babies; they adopt. Life fills those voids. How could it not? How would the species survive?
            You have to stop looking, she thinks. You have to stop lying your way into the right metaphor. Nothing works by analogy anymore. The act of comparing is another kind of violence.
            She reaches into her bag and finds her checkbook.
            Listen, she says, flipping open the cover, I should be going. But I want to leave something for the family. She writes the date, and his name, and quickly scratches a 1 in the box, followed by four zeros. Ten thousand dollars exact, she writes across the line below, in her slanting precise hand. She has a little more than that in her savings, but not much. To cash, she writes on the back.
            It’s Roger’s money, most of it, she thinks. All the bills he paid, sometimes without telling her; the dinners and taxi rides and vacations.
            She folds the check in half and hands it to Cristina, who turns it over, as if there’s something written on the other side, opens it, and reads it, expressionless.
            You don’t want to leave a note or something?
            What could I say, she wonders. Put it in a college fund. Save up for a down payment on a house with stairs. What can I tell him that he doesn’t already know? Who made me an authority on the future?
           
            On the interstate, heading east, she follows one sign after another for New York, switching lanes, using her signal, trying to stay in the correct arrow-path. Paramus. Lodi. The Oranges. Hackensack. The highway floats above them, on a cushion of green; all she sees are rooftops, gas station signs, billboards she doesn’t have to time to read. The highway divides and subdivides: Upper Level or Lower Level? Cash or EZ-Pass? Whatever that is, she thinks, I don’t have it. I don’t have an EZ-anything. She moves over to the right, twice, and joins a long line of cars inching toward the toll plaza.

            Nobody ever gets lost, her great-aunt Margaret said, over a plateful of potato salad at the family Fourth of July barbeque in Woods Hole. She was telling a story about a woman she’d known forty years earlier, when they were both young brides-to-be in Boston. The woman turned out to be living two doors down from their new condominium in Delray Beach. It’s as if it was yesterday, Margaret said. We didn’t need to explain anything at all.
            Everyone was going to great lengths not to make her feel self-conscious, Susan finally decided; that was the most charitable explanation. It was all a little scripted, the total absence of drawn-out hugs, of Oh, Susan, how have things been since—. No tortuous conversations in the kitchen with the cousins. I don’t want to be a spectacle, she’d told her mother, I don’t want to be an example of what could happen. This isn’t 1955. But when Margaret said those four words, a truism she’d never known to exist, like a strange Finnish proverb, she thought, I could use a little self-consciousness here. I could use a little pity.
            Nobody ever gets lost: was it like that law of physics she’d learned in high school, matter cannot be created or destroyed, only changed in form? If so, she wanted to ask, then where is he? Where is Roger, specifically? In a clutch of goldenrod by the side of the interstate in Iowa? A cat sunning itself on a roof in Berlin?
            It wouldn’t be fair, she finally decided, to expect them to realize that despite its seeming surface continuity, the world’s underlying chemistry had been permanently altered. It would be like telling them that L.L. Bean was run by Republicans: true, but beside the point. Somebody has to remain innocent, she thought, in the café car coming back through Connecticut, toasting her escape from New England, as she always did, with a miniature bottle of Chardonnay. Somebody has to remain uncorrupted by viciousness and random horror. As if the things we clung to are still sufficient: freshly mown lawns, Great-grandmother’s damask tablecloths, the framed letter from Robert Kennedy at the top of the stairs. As if they were still alive, as if they still mattered. As if we still mattered.
           
            As she leaves the toll booth and pulls toward the right lane the traffic gains momentum, and the great cables of the bridge rise up on either side, like giant wings, like Gothic arches. She thinks, this is my cathedral. She rolls the windows down, and hot, sticky air rushes through the car, smelling of the river. Roger, she thinks, if I had your ashes I would carry them out to the middle in a Chinese takeout container, and toss them off, just casually, over my shoulder. Roger, if you could have died the way you lived, with sarcasm, with subtlety, with the Pixies on the stereo, then it would have been all right. If it had been AIDS, if it had been leukemia, it would have been OK, as long as we had twenty-four hours’ notice, enough time to call a few friends and chill a bottle of champagne, so we could drink it at the bitter end, like Chekhov.
If you had stopped at Starbucks.
If you had lingered on the 1 reading the paper instead of taking the 2.
            If you had thought it was OK to show up at work thirty seconds late.
            If you had stopped to talk to Rachel Abramowitz, who passed you on the platform at 7:49, your college friend, whom you hadn’t seen in years, instead of saying, Sorry, I’ve got to rush, give me a call, and handing her your card.
            If numbers hadn’t been invented.
            If God hadn’t been invented.
            If the word because hadn’t been invented.
            If the word therefore hadn’t been invented,
            If we understood what words meant in the first place,

            Then you wouldn’t have been reduced to a puff of smoke, a vague and unpleasant smell, not a shard, not a fleck of skin or blood, you wouldn’t have been sterilized out of existence by a ten-thousand-degree fire, and I wouldn’t be flying across this bridge with my mouth open, as if I could eat the air. She turns her head, now halfway across, and looks down the whole length of the island, through the gray-gold haze, searching for the gap. How is it, she wonders, that you’re supposed to find something that isn’t there? The pages don’t turn backward. There’s no word for that kind of love, in this language or any other.

 

           

 


TOP