Image of a man in a business suit walking into a crowded electronics store with bright lights and rows of computer equipment.

What did she look like to him? She was thin, very thin. Even sitting, she looked fragile enough to hurt herself. He noticed her fragility first and her youth second. He could not say immediately what it was about her that disturbed him, but it didn’t matter. He had come in to purchase a computer-machine, and she apparently was the person to help him. At the display table, he found rectangular gadgets spaced at precise distances from each other and shackled to the table. Three or four leaning figures pawed mechanically at the objects. He had no intention of dirtying his hands by mimicking them. He would ask about the specifications of the machine, as a preliminary. He would then, regardless of the answer, ask to purchase the machine. He preferred the soft sound of “machine” to the hard sound of “computer.”

What did he look like to her? She noticed him first from the periphery of her vision. She had thought him a lanky girl in an oversized blazer, but when she looked over—and for some reason she did—he was neither lanky nor a girl, but a middle-aged man with a face closed as a cul-de-sac and a stomach so distended it poked out from his blazer like lumber from the bed of a truck. His hands, though, were beautiful. Long, like feathers. The fingers responding to the air as if they were falling, each moving individually, continually. He stood there humming and looking up towards the wall behind the computer display — at what? She had no idea. Maybe the whiteness of the ceiling?

When he spoke, his voice sounded like the radio. He was asking for assistance, but he was not asking her. He was asking no one in particular. He simply said, looking up at the wall, “Perhaps someone could enumerate the distinguishing specifications of the latest machine.” There was something about the way he said “specifications” that reverberated strangely in her ear–a metallic loneliness that made her think of a teaspoon falling in an empty room.

She came over wearing one plastic glove while putting on the other. The gloves were small, but her hands were smaller. The gloves looked worn. He, too, was in the habit of wearing gloves, but not plastic gloves, leather gloves, and never when he was inside, only when he was outside, no matter the weather, always. His hands were a human treasure. Everyone knew that. They were insured. He didn’t know for how much. A lot. A lot. But she was wearing gloves for entirely different reasons. What were they, these reasons? A fragile girl. And thin. Immunocompromised? Or psychologically compromised, a hypochondriac? How he hated those types, with their imaginary prisons, though he had often been accused of being one, of living in one. How he hated that. Though it was true, which he also hated. She had a limp. He noticed the limp and thought, “Well…” because he found her attractive, but less so with the limp, and was in the midst of deciding whether to continue finding her attractive, when the limp evaporated with the steps she took towards him, and he was spared the choice. Her foot must have been asleep, he thought, from all that sitting…lazy, lazy…and he found her attractive, still/again. He was smiling as she approached. She said, “I’d be happy to assist you.” The words “lazy, lazy” pleased him, as did she, with her sometime limp. He closed his eyes to feel more keenly the pleasure of the sound “lazy, lazy” in her proximity. It did not go unnoticed that she had used the word “assist,” rather than “help.” It spoke to her upbringing and perhaps her discipline.

The thing that concerned her most that morning was that the world was not as stable or as good as it had appeared to be not so long ago, and that at any moment, as she was now aware, awful things could happen that neither justice nor fairness would stop from happening, and actually they were already happening and continually, all over the world: people dying slowly and in agony from curable—easily curable—ills and ailments and wants, made worse by capitalism, but also fundamental human selfishness, and greed, but also indifference. Yes, indifference was the biggest killer of all, not to mention the environment, which was also killing people. And her job, which sucked, contributed to it: the electronic parts piled in landfills, poisoning the ground and water, which was awful, awful, but did her co-workers care? No. Of course not. They just took their cigarette breaks and chewed their lunches and talked video games, as if the world were not coming undone. But it was.

She thought this as she looked at the man, at his cold, expressionless forehead, and his oddly animated, even manic mouth, and she wondered if he understood, if he was on her side in all this, because his blazer looked expensive, and even though his hair was thin and his scalp nearly bald, there was something about his look that seemed…nice, but nice in that distant way, the way fancy buildings in a nice neighborhood are nice, or the sky can be nice when you’re feeling lousy. And she was feeling lousy. Lousy. There was no good reason. Everything was fine. She had had a nice day on Sunday, exactly as she had wanted to have it: walking a little and reading a little and having tea by the window of her new apartment. A nice day. She had even gone to bed congratulating herself for it, her first nice day in a long time. A nice day after many attempts and many changes. Big changes and small changes. Like, for instance, she was now drinking seltzer water, which was a small change. Or the new apartment, which was a big change. It was the small changes that led to the big changes, she thought. But when had she started drinking seltzer water? Before or after her move? Before or after Almost Baby? The silver buttons on the man’s fancy blazer seemed to hold the entirety of her life for her: its past, its future, and whatever this now was panning out to be.

Of course, he had no use for a machine. Buying things was just a way to break up the day. Break up his walks. Every third day, he would buy something from one of the stores along the wide avenue that led to the park. He would buy a pair of trousers (his mother was from Wales, and he had adopted not only her accent but her vernacular, as well) or he’d purchase toothpaste or a couch or a car or a newspaper, and then have it delivered, always delivered, even if it were small enough to put in his pocket. Most of these items were sent to storage. The apartment had all it needed, with the piano at the center. Anxiety his therapist had said. A rebarbative word, with an awful sound, anxiety inducing in itself. He was feeling it now; the little woman was making him anxious. There was something intense and frightening about her, as if her fragility had transformed itself into a sharp, cold, piercing force, which hurt. It took all his vanity to maintain his composure. “I would like a machine,” he said, noticing the smallness of her feet and feeling faint.

“This one on the left is the latest model and the lightest. Will you be using it for anything that might require extra processing speed?”

“I’m sorry?”

“For example, gaming or editing?”

“Ah. No. I’ll take it. What are the colors?”

“Black and chrome.”

“Black.”

“We don’t have that in stock, looks like, but we can order one. Would arrive in two to three days. Is that okay?”

“Three days, please.”

“I’ll just need your information, then we can process your payment at the counter, and you’ll be set.”

“What would you say is the most resonant word in the English language or at least in your idiolect?”

“Just one second. I’ll get the form.”

She left and went to the stockroom. Her heart was beating loudly enough for her to hear it in the quietness of the stockroom. She checked again for a black computer on the shelves. She’d taken inventory that morning; she knew there wasn’t one, but she wanted to check again. If he could have his computer now it would be better, she thought, and felt an agitation at the possibility of his returning in three days. If he returned in two days that would be her day off. That would be better. She leaned against the stockroom door. She was tempted to lock it.

Why would he ask her such a question? Who asks a stranger such a question? It wasn’t only weird, it was personal. Too personal. She had long been in the habit of checking with herself each New Year on her favorite word. This year it had changed to “canopy.” Last year, and for the last three years, it had been “gossamer.” She had taken the change to signify something, something mysterious, and significant. That he would ask her, just like that, this weird man with horrible ear hair, silhouetted at every angle, was invasive, like an assault, she thought, an assault. There should be a rule. Personal questions should be forbidden. For a second she considered asking her boss for a break. He could take over the sale. She could tell him that she needed to go to the bathroom bad, or something like that. He still thought she was pregnant. She hadn’t told anyone yet, not even her mom. When she changed apartments, she thought about disappearing—not going back to work, tossing her old phone, dumping her old email, etc. It actually wouldn’t be that hard. She didn’t really hang out with anyone as it was. Her mom was the only real and consistent presence in her life, but maybe they needed a break. That kind of relationship wasn’t healthy, she thought. Though probably no relationship was healthy, because people aren’t healthy. A break from people then. All people. It would be easy to disappear. She had gone to bed determined to wake up to a new, solitary life, disconnected from everything that had come before. But when she woke the next day, even though she remained resolute about not going to work, she went to work, and when her phone buzzed with a text from her mom about an upcoming sale at Baby Gap, she responded with a jumping bunny emoji.

He left the store and came back again. Three times he stood in front of the door and did not open it, then he left and did not come back, until the next day, and the day after that, without going in. A panic attack was imminent. He popped two pink pills. His blazer pockets were full of them. Already, he was feeling his right foot going numb and his heart…his heart was hurting…a sharp pain…it was difficult to breathe. He repeated his rescue phrase. Every day it was different. Each day required a new sound. He rummaged through his books for them and kept a list. He couldn’t remember where this one came from: Permanently raised eyebrows over agate eyes. Permanently raised eyebrows over agate eyes. Permanently raised eyebrows over agate eyes. Permanently raised eyebrows over agate eyes. Permanently raised eyebrows over agate eyes. Permanently raised eyebrows over agate eyes. Permanently raised eyebrows over agate eyes. Permanently raised eyebrows over agate eyes. Permanently raised eyebrows over agate eyes. Permanently raised eyebrows over agate eyes. Permanently raised eyebrows over agate eyes. Permanently raised eyebrows over agate eyes. Permanently raised eyebrows over agate eyes. When he noticed that he was being grinned at or sidestepped by pedestrians, he opened the door and entered the store. There was a cigarette in his mouth. Someone with a nametag told him he could not smoke. “I am not smoking,” he replied, as he took off his gloves. This had been a bad idea he thought, to come into the store. A bad idea. And yet. He looked around for her. He did not want to ask after her.

The next day he returned. He could see her small frame partially obstructed by two customers. They were huddling around her. How horrible to be so close, he thought, to be forced to be so close to just anyone who happens to come by off the street. Their breath. Their hidden diseases. Their crudeness. He had the urge to rescue her. He had come with a bar of chocolate he had bought at the supermarket. He wanted to give it to her. It was Hershey’s milk chocolate. He didn’t like chocolate. But he had heard of Hershey’s. Kids would drink Hershey’s chocolate milk on the commercials he had seen on television growing up. He didn’t have a television now. He hadn’t watched in years. But people liked chocolate. People like sweet things, his mother had told him. Why don’t you? his therapist had once asked. He didn’t know. He just didn’t. But his mother was gone now. As was his father, who had owned a fur coat outlet and came home on Christmas with a new mink for his mother each year. They were both gone. At three in the morning, when he couldn’t sleep, and he could never sleep, he would call his childhood home, which was empty, and let it ring. He still owned the house. Everything was preserved as it was when they still lived there. He paid to have it cleaned once a week. The cleaner was instructed to stock the fridge with the staples his parents enjoyed. He had given the cleaner a list. He would call, and he would see the house in his mind: the light on in the living room, the television on—there were instructions about that, too—and he would imagine his father leaning over to pick up the phone, saying, “Oh, hello, son,” and calling for his mom, and he would feel better. Then he would go back to the piano and play. That had worked until now. Now, he was here, with a bar of Hershey’s. He motioned to her that he wanted to talk to her. He raised the chocolate with his right hand and pointed to it with his left hand. He made sure to hold it right side up, and with none of his fingers obstructing the letters on the wrapper. She was assisting another customer now, a woman in a yellow hat. He felt hatred for yellow and mellow and Jell-O. Two men with name tags came over. They made agitated duck noises. He told them to go away. The chocolate felt strange in his hands, rectangular and edgy, and the paper cover made a rustling sound against the aluminum wrapper inside. He put it down on one of the tables and left.

At home, she put the chocolate in the fridge. She didn’t like chocolate, but…was it strange?… Yes it was strange…but…how nice, she thought, and opened the fridge to take another look…how nice. She stayed up all night reading Enid Starkie’s biography of Baudelaire—“the value of the imperfect image”—was the only phrase she remembered in the morning. This was a common thing recently. She would read and remember almost nothing of what she had read. Sometimes she would understand nothing too, even of books she had read many times before. It didn’t alarm her. It was pleasant. To read this way was similar to listening to music or looking at an abstract painting. In fact, she enjoyed it so much that she had stopped sleeping. This kind of reading was its own kind of sleeping. And lovely. It could be that she was gradually going crazy. She had thoughts she didn’t recognize and memory lapses that were a little frightening. That very morning, for example, she had just taken the butter out of the fridge when she found that her bread had already been buttered. Of course, she had buttered it herself and forgotten, but for a moment she thought that someone else may have done it, someone who was now hiding somewhere in the apartment, and it frightened her. The baby was on top of the broken television in the living room where she could look at it when she lay on the couch sleep-reading. It was in a jar. She felt like the baby was the only thing she was not going to have a memory lapse about. Everything about it was still so clear, like yesterday, though it was not yesterday, but 38 days ago, June 18th. She had gone to the ER bleeding, so much it was embarrassing. A nurse named Tanya told her to lay down on a gurney. Now it was here. The baby ashes. She had never given it a name, though she had many in mind. She just called it Almost Baby. They wouldn’t let her keep it. She asked and was refused. She yelled and begged and cried and kicked a chair onto its side in the hospital hallway but still went home alone, without it. The jar was from World Market. The ashes, just sand from the local playground. She doesn’t know who the father is. There were months of uncharacteristic flings with strangers, plus one or two people she knew. But that is another matter. And it doesn’t really matter. Given the circumstances.

There were three places that were his. He liked the number three. He tried to organize his life around it. The three places were a room at the Waldorf, the penthouse on Park, and the family summer house near Lake Ontario. Once every third week for a week he would travel to the lake and stay at the summer house, as it was, alone. Once every three days he would stay at the hotel. Otherwise, he was at the penthouse, which was unfurnished, but for the piano, a chair for the piano, a reading chair in one of the bedrooms, a mattress in another bedroom. Even the kitchen appliances had been removed. He was a great practitioner of take-out. A maid came every morning, early, while he slept, to clean the apartment. She was not to enter his bedroom, nor the rooms with the books. He had three rooms dedicated to books. They lay in long horizontal or vertical lines against the walls, very often tumbling, for there were no bookshelves. He never read in those rooms, but carefully selected a book and read it in another room. Separation. Separation was sacrosanct. Time, objects, people, thoughts—he was fanatically committed to their separation. But lately, the maddening need for contact had resurfaced: to mix, to touch, to be with. Especially people. It was, he thought, like a recurring rash, an allergic reaction to too much solitude. He had the itch for company. Oh, that was good, the itch for company, yes, the itch, and like an itch it needed to be scratched, oh, very very good. And yet, it seemed that this girl….He had not stopped thinking about her. At the Waldorf. At the apartment. Even at the lake. The only consistent and extended periods in which he was not thinking of her, or orbiting thoughts of her, as it seemed to him he was doing, was when he was at the piano, then nothing, beautiful nothing. Nothing and the notes rising from and into nothing. There were still realms untouched by the ugliness of life… or by this girl. The untouched realms made him think of Plato’s forms, and he thought of perhaps grabbing the Parmenides and reading from it his favorite line, which spoke to both the forms and aloneness. But he didn’t because he was tired, and for now sitting as he was on his mattress, with one shoe off, the sock down past his ankle, he wanted to remain in orbit of the thoughts of her.

On her phone during her lunch break, she looked up “early onset dementia.” She was 23 years old, but she had always felt ahead of her years. The search results were too serious looking to begin reading, but from a quick glance she saw that the youngest age for dementia was 30. She was sitting in the stockroom. Employees were not supposed to take breaks or eat in the stockroom, so it made for a good place for taking breaks and eating. It was a windowless room that went pitch dark with the door closed and the light turned off. She would sit in the dark and eat. No one knew. Or maybe they did. The others didn’t really care much what she did. They liked that she did her work and often theirs, as well. “Conscientious,” her boss had called her, pausing to make sure she absorbed the full implication of the compliment, which appeared to be that he was smart enough to know the word.

But there was another reason she was in the stockroom that had nothing to do with her coworkers. It had been five plus weeks since the man had come into the store. The last time was with the chocolate. And every day since, she had been waiting, though she didn’t want to admit it. Hiding in the stockroom was a way to hold in check her continued hope that he would reappear. She’d eaten the chocolate, too. All of it. The first night. When she had put it in the fridge, she told herself she wouldn’t eat it. But she did. Reading Baudelaire’s biography. All of it. All of the biography and all of the chocolate.

In the dark in the stockroom, she tried not to think of him. But she did. She imagined him arriving at the store. She saw him standing awkwardly by the entrance. She approached him. He asked for a mouse for the machine. The way he spoke to her. It was as if. It was as if he were trying not to recognize her. She thanked him for the chocolate.

“Ahh, yes.”

“It was delicious. I don’t like chocolate.”

“No?”

“No.”

“But it was delicious, nonetheless?”

“Yes.”

She could tell from the movement of his left foot that he was about to leave. His weight was gradually shifting away from her. She reached out and took his elbow. Instinctively, she knew not to reach for his hand. He responded to her touch as if he had been expecting it. They left the store together.

When they reached the street, they walked quickly arm-in-arm along his usual path, saying nothing to one another. They were both scared and walked with frightened speed until they reached the park. There, under the gentle shade of the swaying trees, they slowed their step. Whatever this was, she thought, it was worth it for this. They were sizing each other up, she thought, each gauging a tolerance for the other as an intrusion. She let go of his arm and swung hers, taking a deep breath of the quiet balminess of the park.

“How much does a mouse cost?” he asked.

“$14.99,” she said. 

And the leaves would fall ahead and behind them as they walked.


Photo by mroach, used and adapted under CC.