by Sarah Odishoo
I learned that day on the corner of Wabash and Madison on an overcast spring afternoon what I couldn’t have discovered in any other way. I can recall it every time I think of him, the el train’s whining cutting the air open behind our backs, the beggar—a woman—surrounded by plastic bags and she propped against the dirty wall of a building pleading, “I’m hungry. Don’t you see me?” I heard her, he heard her, though nothing could have stopped him from telling me.
His head down, speaking to himself or to the sidewalk, he said it so quietly I could barely hear him. He hadn’t told anyone, he said, not even his wife. We had been lovers for a year, mostly not talking of our past or even our everyday lives. Our affair—a private swamp; our past—blurred shapes on either side of despair; the affair—willed by the heart and courting afterthoughts—slouching toward a dream already gone.
He talked about Mary, an earlier affair that lasted less than three months. He said she cheated, he cheated, she lied, he lied, and finally she started stalking him and called his wife. The last straw, he said, he went to her apartment that night as she was putting her son to bed. When she came out of the bedroom, she sat next to him and started crying. She said she knew he had come over to tell her it was over.
He stopped on the sidewalk, turned, and looked straight at me and said, “Then she said it.”
He paused, looking at me seemingly so determined by some instinct and undeterred by reason or by resignation to say what he was about to say.
“‘If you leave me,’ she said, ‘I’ll kill my son.’”
“What was I supposed to do?” he asked. “What was I supposed to do?”
He didn’t cry, but when he spoke again, his lower lip quivered. He loved talking about his mother and her distance. She was, he said, his idea of home and that’s where he always longed to go when he was in trouble, but because of her distance, he was unable to ever reach her. She was his first sense of terror. Mary reminded him of his mother, he said.
I didn’t talk to him for a long time after he told me about Mary. He and the boy and Mary were now joined in my memory of him. I could see her aiming the gun at the boy in his bed; he stood at the door, his hand on the door knob, trembling.
At the time he told me, I could hardly speak. I started to sob, and I hit him on the arm that had held my hand. It was his fault—driving her to an edge she couldn’t resist—those secret magnets like gravity and instincts that catch us up and press us toward our own most terrible shapes—shapes that twist us in the wind, like nooses, like gallows.
I didn’t know that at the corner of Wabash and Madison, I would discover a canopy of invisible force fields that turned her and him and me in its deep, hidden valences of our inescapable, numbered lives.
Had we met before? In some other life, perhaps, some other certainty for which we now have no words, but which we both knew—an opening in the universe of streets and heart passages—we must have known—before—that halfway through our lives, we would fall into our fatedness—dropping into the real—an opening—a possible return—what we once knew better than our name.
So I wrote him a letter—a love letter of sorts—brutally bittersweet and unending…
When you told her you were leaving her, she threatened to kill the child—the defenseless, helpless child who had always suspected that he had no right to live. The boy must have imagined he had never had a right to exist. He had died before. Saying she would kill her son if you left would be redundant for her—she had already killed him.
Saying it to you made you responsible, too. Both of you would share in the guilt of her premeditated crime. She didn’t know who she was. If you left her, she wouldn’t be able to see the illusion of herself anymore. She would have to experience the emptiness and despair inflicted on her, this time by you. The boy was dispensable, a reflection of her; he was not worthy as she was not worthy.
If you had stayed, you might have thought you could save the child—not only him, but the child that was still in you. The terror you faced with her brought your own past face to face: “My mother could have done this. And no one would have saved me.” You might have seen redemption for all three of you.
You didn’t think you would see your own boyhood in your sexual relationship with her; she led you in, but you probably suspected this possibility in her. You probably knew she could lead you back to the boy you still didn’t know. You felt her despair at the same time you felt the pain of the boy and the man. That may have been what you fell in love with. You knew you could do nothing.
Telling her you would leave her, and now the boy, renewed the crime and resurrected the illusion of your complicity. You might have debated, “If I stay, the child lives, if I leave, the child dies. If I stay, I die, if I leave, I can live again. I’ll forget—the sanctity of denial, I’ll forget.”
Either way, she had opened the deepest wound and had struck your child’s heart. Either way, the illusion would have had two sides: you kill the child, her child and the one in your past, or you torture and punish the adult who abandoned the child for a crime that had already been committed by a deranged mother being driven mad.
She had entered the dissolution and madness from which there seemed to be no hope or redemption. She had sacrificed her child as she had been sacrificed. She, too, had died once, and she was afraid. The futility of her own empty life tormented her.
But you stayed long enough to see your own drama re-enacted—your soul’s scars. You may have accepted that there are places to which you cannot return. Still the mystery is compelling. Pain makes things real—some not-yet-gathered significance.
I remember driving on a two-lane highway toward Traverse City, Michigan. A deer appeared out of nowhere and darted alongside the jam of cars, sweeping past car after car. Finally, it turned into the shoulder of the road and hurled itself against the barbed-wire fence separating the highway from the forest. Its brown body bounced off the fence, and then staggering backward, lurched forward and gaining its stride, it slammed again against the barbed wire, bleeding this time, startled, somewhat stunned but returning headlong and crashing again into its shining invisibility. On the next sprint, an opening in the fence where the wire drooped or was cut or specks of fence energy split, secret radiant sweeps of strange magnetic entropies dissolved the wire as alphabets of meaning emerged and made a way to know, so the deer vanished into its own migratory homing ways, finding its way, mysteriously.
I wondered at its repeated attempts—throwing itself at what it saw as home on the other side, not knowing the only obstacle—its own blood-blind faith in the return—not knowing the only threshold—its own blood-blind faith in the return.
The boy is alive. She didn’t kill her son. He left her. Home.
I wondered how many times he had made those repeated attempts—throwing himself at what he thought was home, the woman he had never known on the other side, and he not knowing the only obstacle was him—his own blood-blind faith in the return—not knowing the only threshold—his faith in his own blood-blind return.
Going home. To know what home is you must leave it—lose it—forget where you are, which way to turn, and no matter where you turn, that day has shrunk to the length of a ragged wire cutting open memory, wounding with its invisibility our imagined past until we find a naked opening that no human gave us, as if grace, in its own way, tried to teach the will to see what cannot be taught by sight. Home.
Category: Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing