Panic

2

Mrs. Noi had turned down a number of advances. Probably dozens. I’d repeatedly touched her hand provocatively and tried to hug her at the end of our conferences and offered to take her to Serpent Mound, which was no euphemism—it was a real place, a mound in the shape of a snake, that the Indians around here had built about a thousand years ago for some god or for their dead or to keep their people busy so they wouldn’t get bored and revolt. I forget which. I don’t think I ever knew, actually. My class went there on a school fieldtrip when I was eleven, but I remember being pretty fixated on Tabitha Dilger then: her brunette curls, these light green terry cloth shorts she wore. I think I might’ve missed a lot of the content of that trip and several others from the same period. I remember nothing, for instance—not the Washington Monument, not the White House, not even the Air and Space Museum—of a trip to Washington D.C. except for a sweaty slow dance with Tabitha at the cheap motel in Breezewood, Pennsylvania our chaperones crammed us into on the way home. I’m pretty sure it was to “Open Arms,” from Journey’s Escape.

I would now guess that it was a sadness, a kind of loneliness, that drew me to Mrs. Noi, though at the time, I assumed otherwise. I assumed, in fact, that this thing was some kind of a joie de vivre she possessed. I don’t know. Obviously it’s strange that those things could be confused in my mind. I can see that. But she had lured me somehow. One time early on in our sessions, I had fallen down the stairs—someone had left a tray of cups on the landing, but I had reading a poster advertising a poetry reading—and I’d cut my head pretty good, a gash running from my hairline, down my temple to my cheek bone.

Mrs. Noi had taken me into the women’s bathroom—after she made sure it was empty—and pulled some Korean first aid materials out of her purse and bandaged my head in three places, with the little butterfly bandaids that you don’t see very much anymore. While she did this, I felt very comfortable, very much in the hands of someone expert and in control.

It seems strange, too, that I didn’t seem to care ultimately that Mrs. Noi was married. This was really the surprising part, actually. I hadn’t been raised that way. I’d gone to Methodist youth group and had gone door to door to get pledges for the annual Crop Walk when most of the other kids just got their aunts and uncles to sign on. And, even beyond the abstract right and wrong, I knew adultery was not cool, because when I was thirteen, my best friend’s mom had an affair with some guy named Trent Dawson at the mill where she worked in the office, and my friend’s dad had to go on medication. After that—his parents had stayed together, I guess because of my friend and his little sister, Rebecca—his dad was always sitting around watching bowling and golf. It was sad. That was obvious to me even then.

At least part of my problem, I think, was that I had too much time on my hands. Sometimes I wandered around the branch library looking for old jazz records to make cassette tapes of. Who, my housemate Seth asked me, has time for that? This was from a guy who had a meth addiction and no discernible means of income. But it was a valid question to which I had no answer, except, Well, me. I do.

And I would also spend hours on the couch at the dilapidated apartment imagining Mrs. Noi’s life. Not her life now so much as the one she’d left behind: the neighborhood in Busan where I imagined her to have grown up, the young Mrs. Noi—though she’d never told me her first name, I imagined that it was Cora for some reason, though that obviously doesn’t make any sense—coming home after school, haughty interactions with her parents over the friends she was choosing, the scooter she rode around at The University of Seoul, where I knew she’d studied economics—because we’d worked a lot on the vocabulary of school— and where I guessed she’d met her husband.

Mr. Noi—that’s what she called him at first, until I explained that since he had a Phd., we used the title “doctor,” which confused her for all the reasons it confuses everyone else—he was nothing more than a theoretical being for me, at least until the viburnum business. Part of the equation, for sure. I knew I had to contend with him in some way, because he had what I wanted. But to me, Dr. Noi—he was some sort of postdoc in the biological or earth and atmospheric sciences—he was not so much a person as an invisible force, like Neptune’s pull on Pluto.

Mrs. Noi showed me a picture of him once, but I looked away. That’s okay, I told her. You shouldn’t show that to me. It’s rude in our culture to go showing around pictures of your family. It’s like saying, I wish I were with these people right now instead of you.

But I did in fact look at it, quickly, taking in the man’s slim, handsome features. He could’ve been an actor in a movie about stem cell research, I thought. The Good Scientist, maybe. In it, Dr. Noi’s character would overcome the insidious backroom data fixing of his rival, Dr. Zhao. Even this thought, I know, was weird. And was, as my sister later pointed out when I told her about it, maybe a little racist and reliant on hurtful stereotypes.

That afternoon, a confused Mrs. Noi watched me for a long minute, the picture still in her hand, as the strange content of my English, in its broken up little shards, slipped clunkily through those unworn neural pathways. She was trying to determine if I was making a joke at her expense, which of course I sometimes did.

You joke me, she decided.

I nodded.

We had a pretty good relationship, me and Mrs. Noi. Her English was coming along. I think that had a lot more to do with her will to get along here than anything I was doing, but she believed it had to do with me, which is why she continued to employ me, in spite of my odd behavior and steep rate. So I was not about to explain to her how unimportant I was to her success, what the literature—it’s true I’d done a little reading about language acquisition—had to say about how people learn languages and how unimportant to the process people like me are.

***

This café where I met with Mrs. Noi, El Grotto, was a bit of a dump, the kind of place that time had left behind. In there, you were not going to find freshly roasted, organic, fair-trade, shade-grown coffee prepared with Italian-style processes. You were going to find large, twenty five pound bags of already-ground coffee from someplace in upstate New York called San Souci. Its package was silver and orange and I’d watched the staff there dump countless bags of the stuff into the industrial sized filters used by the large coffee urns.

But El Grotto was cheap, and cheap is what I needed, because I had only four students, three of them Korean and one Salvadoran. I needed a public place to meet them, because people don’t want to come to your sketchy neighborhood for their language lessons. They also don’t want to deal with your drug-addicted housemate at the door.

So I went with cheap. Because in addition to a sore tooth situation that had been developing over the past couple weeks and the aforementioned housing and housemate problem, I also had a bit of a food problem, in that I was mainly living off of Spaghettios purchased for thirty-nine cents a can at Sam’s Club. That was more of a G.I. problem than a food problem. I also had student loan problems, since I’d dropped out of school and breezed through the deferment period.

I had other, bigger problems, though they were less economically rooted—namely, debilitating panic attacks that had started during my very first quarter of college, as I confronted the fact—which was in evidence as my first exams and papers starting rolling in with red Cs at the top and stapled attachments explaining the many things about the assignment that I hadn’t gotten right—that not only was I nothing special when stacked against kids from the suburbs, I might in fact not be cut out for college at all.

In any case, I would have to become a much better student than I appeared to be, and I would have to do this in a hurry and at a time when I was feeling pretty shaky all around. My high school girlfriend and I broke up that first term, which was her doing. She was up to Bowling Green, apparently having a ball. We’ll never get this time back, she told me. We need to celebrate right now. We need to embrace our new lives, our youth.

Who could argue with such a thing? But it made me miserable anyway.

Also, my parents had abdicated Ohio pretty much the week I moved into my dorm; they’d bought a place down in Alabama and sent me postcards, most of which were of sunsets. None of this made me feel much like I had familial support.

These attacks found their purest expression during my sophomore year, coming then on an almost daily basis. When I woke in the morning, they were there. Actually, they weren’t there at first. There would be a brief, blissful period as I came into consciousness, when I had in effect forgotten about the problem. But then, my mind—my idiotic, C-getting mind—would think, I wonder if my panic attacks are gone? Voila. Panic attacks.

The final straw came in, of all places—and I’m sure this is fitting, though I don’t know how—a Shakespeare class. I’d been sitting back there listening to Professor Shaw explain the historical significance of the “This England” passage in Richard III when I noticed my heart beating and an acute pain in my left side that, for reasons still mysterious to me, I took to be an incipient heart attack. It was everything I could do to collect my things and leave the classroom, Professor Shaw eyeing me suspiciously as I went; he’d already had me in his office the previous week to sort out my dismal performance on a Lear and Hamlet midterm. In the Gill Hall snack room, I slunk into the ratty, nicotine-encrusted couch and awaited death. Twenty minutes later, classes let out and the students from Shakespeare filtered past, looking in at me like I was in the tamarin cage at the zoo.

When I finally dropped out after a couple rocky quarters—academic leave, my advisor wrote on a form I had to fill out—I left behind my prized single dorm room and moved off campus and into the shabby place so far east of campus it was really west of someplace else. Several boring and terrifying months later—a time during which I would loiter in buildings around campus, not knowing what else to do—I found myself increasingly isolated. I had been drifting from my friends for a while, so I suppose it wasn’t so surprising that I could wake up one day to discover that literally no one knew where I was exactly, not even my parents.

Trolling one of the engineering buildings somewhere during this time—what I was looking for, even day to day, was rarely clear to me—I saw an advertisement for an English tutor in the basement, down there where the unbathed engineering majors were simultaneously doing differential equations homework and playing RPGs with kids in Bangalore.

Tutoring, I thought. What about that?

Tutoring second language speakers, I have to admit, was not as easy as I had imagined. Its chief virtues were the scheduling flexibility and the lack of necessary qualifications. All you really needed was to speak English. You just posted a sign that said, English Tutor, $15/hour. You needed some other things, though. You needed to have the immodesty to put down a fictional number of years of experience on the sign. You needed to have a phone that was not disconnected, which was an intermittent issue. You needed, probably, to have few other options. The recession we were in the middle of helped out. It helped, too, to have just dropped out of college. So did the panic attacks, actually. At that point, I was starting to avoid social situations altogether, because of the increasing number of episodes, one more terrifying than the last. In every one of these moments, I really believed that I was dying, my mind throwing lightning bolts down upon me like Zeus, always at the most inopportune moments. As a tutor, I could excuse myself at anytime, which I found incredibly useful, even necessary.

***

My sister Jill, with whom I was not particularly close, lived out in the suburbs. She was seventeen years older than me and had been out of the house by the time I came into consciousness.

Growing up, I had been routinely referred to as a mistake by my parents. They joked that I had seriously delayed their retirement, which was funny to a point, except that, as I say, pretty much the week I finally left for college, they’d sold about eighty percent of their possessions in our town’s large Labor Day yard sale, and moved down to the Alabama coast—the Redneck Riviera, I guess they call it. Probably another great joke if you’ve ever been there. I have not. They were done with the Ohio winters, they said. I myself could’ve used some time on the Gulf, or at least a light box. My therapist, back when I still had one, had mentioned this possibility, but my insurance, back when I still had some, didn’t cover it.

My parents’ joking did no real damage that I could discern. I don’t blame them for any of my strange behavior and strange ideas about the world. I always took the “mistake” stuff as good-natured ribbing, a sort of apology for there being so many years between me and Jill.

This talk did, though, highlight the fact that Jill and I had a whole generation standing between us. We shared little, culturally. When we tried to talk, it was as if we were from two ends of some loosely confederated empire whose mores and languages had the thinnest overlap. And then there were the differences between our material lives. All the way out there, it was all plastic-mold toys and signs for school levies. Nearer to home, it was shoes hanging on power lines and uneven sidewalks and, on occasion, the thin crack of nine millimeter handguns not quite far enough away.

But we tried to communicate, or were starting to.

Jill’s husband, Stewart Hollister, a nice enough guy, was muy ocupado, working in one of these buildings downtown with a view of everything. He was heavy, Stewart, because all he did was work—I think it was sixty-five, seventy hours, most weeks; it was all about billable hours for him, I guess—and then he would come home and drink beer and eat nachos or pizza or ribs, all of which appeared to give him heartburn. Not that I blamed him for his diet. I think he rightly felt like he deserved whatever small comforts the world could offer; the heartburn was just an unhappy side-effect of those comforts.

But it was a hell of a life. I mean, my life: I could see the dead spots in it. I understood that, a certain charm notwithstanding, my life had quite a bit to be desired. For starters, who wanted these fucking panic attacks? Who wanted a drug-addicted roommate? Who wanted to have no real income?

But what I did have was time and Stewart never failed to mention it. Stewart and I were sitting in front of the TV once when Jill was upstairs getting the kids ready for bed. They had three, I think. No. Of course there were three—Caleb, Siobhan and Ryan were their names, despite the absence of a single Irish gene on either side.

Time, Stewart said pensively. Holy shit. Enough time, now. That’s a fucking idea.

He had the Cavs on their giant TV—he was from Cleveland and everything was decorated in Cavs and Indians and Browns colors—and he had a giant beer in front of him—in a stein specifically designed for this particular beer—a Belgian beer, he told me, from this one little town near Bruges or some other place that started with a B, where all they did was make really, really good beer. I didn’t like beer, which was a bit of a sticking point for the two of us getting on, because Stewart was the kind of guy for whom beer was a bit of a religion; it was also his only means besides the Browns for communicating with other social classes.

But we managed, Stewart and I. We were family after all. I managed to get along with just about everyone, actually, even Seth, my drug-addicted housemate. I could talk to him about his day as if it hadn’t been one long craving culminating in the theft of a car stereo down around campus, which he then sold to the guy he knew at Whalers Appliance in order to score. Afterwards, Seth would sit there on the ratty couch the place came with and watch cable news, almost all of it about the war in Iraq. He was obsessed with this stuff and had pulled some books about the region from the city library. He had nightmares, I knew, of going there, of getting drafted or whatever. Seth was a real waste of space, but he was good natured, if you didn’t count all of the theft and the drugs.

Man, I can’t even imagine anymore what it’s like to just dick around all day, Stewart said. Nobody even knowing where you are.

It’s not as great as it sounds, I told him.

Someday you’ll see what I mean, he said. I spent a year before law school that way, living out in Seattle, working at Pike Place. I would serve coffee or Danishes or whatever three days a week and the rest of the time, I did nothing but smoke about a thousand pounds of pot and wander the city, sometimes take a ferry out to the islands. He smiled, laughed. I didn’t have enough money for food, but I always had pot.

Yeah, I said. I’d never mentioned that I didn’t like pot.

Shit, he said. I loved that. I shoulda stayed there. He chugged the remainder of his stein and put the glass down on the table surprisingly gently. He looked at me. Shit, he said again.

***

Something I loved about Mrs. Noi was the way she breathed in just before she spoke. It was cute. Really more like delicious. But I also liked the shape of her hips, which I know is conventional of me. I liked to watch her form beneath her sweaters as she went to the coffee urn or to the ladies room. She had brought three sweaters with her from Korea, a black one, a red one, and a blue one. The blue one was my favorite, a little tighter than the other two.

There is nothing to quite compare all of this to except a junior high crush, who is in your head as you drift to sleep at night, and all you can think about is what she will look like tomorrow, what she will wear, what color her eyeliner will be, what you will talk about during seventh period study hall, but even before that, what sort of gesture will you make toward her between first and second periods, as you cross paths after English, and then again, if you leave biology on time—if Mr. Cox lets you out on time, that is—and you don’t dally, and you’re able to cross paths again between third and fourth, before she cuts off from the main building to the home ec. wing. And there is also the walk past her locker after eighth. It was like that, my thinking about Mrs. Noi.

On occasion, I contrived reasons for her to walk across the room. I might say, Would you mind filling up my coffee cup, since you’re sitting closer?

I always sat further away from the coffee just in case.

A few of the male staff members in El Grotto—I’d gotten to know them some because I spent a good bit of time there—caught me staring at her as she walked across the room. They usually nodded, gave me a thumbs up. I felt weird about that, so I would raise my eyebrows in response, suggesting something ambiguous, I hoped. Yes, indeed, this look seemed to suggest, on the one hand. Or, alternatively, don’t be a sexist creep. I believe, though, that they always understood this gesture as signifying the former, and they wouldn’t have been totally in the wrong to do so.

But in these meetings, I taught Mrs. Noi many things about American English. I like to think that my services were useful in some way, like a good coach getting the most out of his best player. One day, not long before the thing with Dr. Noi, we were meeting at our usual table at El Grotto, and she was asking me a whole slew of questions she had written in a tablet.

Movie star Tom Cruise is scientist also? She asked, holding up a news clipping about Cruise. She was frequently trying to make sense of newspaper articles, which we all know is folly.

No, I said. Look here at the word. He’s a scientologist. It looks like “scientist,” but is slightly different. It’s really a religion.

Oh. Okay. She was obviously completely confused by this explanation, confused by the stupid ways in which English sometimes did not make sense. I myself did not speak another language, though I’d studied Spanish for seven years. But I did understand that frustration, even from my limited experience with it.

What else you got? I asked.

She looked at a list she had in front of her, which was written in Korean.

What do you call room where we pee?

The ladies room, I said, if you’re a lady. Or the bathroom. But the truth is, I went on, we have a lot of words for the place where we, um, pee, and some of them are polite and some of them are the opposite of polite. I searched for the word: Impolite.

Impolite? she said and then thought for a minute. Why not unpolite?

She was a sharp one, which was definitely part of her appeal. She was far from the geeky wife of the geeky Korean scientist I might’ve imagined her to be.

Yeah, I told her. That’s weird, isn’t it? These prefixes. They must be from Greek or Latin or Hebrew or, God, I don’t know where they all come from. But they don’t make a lick of sense. I mean, they probably do, if you’re like a Biblical scholar. The prefix “im” I guess means “not,” I told her, making this up on the spot.

You have good examples?

I hated when she pressed me like this.

Probably, I told her. We could come up with some good examples. But let’s not get too focused on that. It’s better to just push forward. Plow on through, I said. You can’t learn a language by learning its rules, I told her. Look at robots. They know all the rules, and yet, they can’t speak any language at all. Any language.

She nodded. This was my robot defense, and it wasn’t the first time I’d had to deploy it with one of my students. I’d found it to be highly successful in fending off rule-based attacks. All cultures had robots, I guess, and it was apparently common knowledge that they couldn’t speak in any meaningful way. I myself had learned this from a linguistics article, but my students seemed to get it without that.

***

I was dealing with my many problems—or trying to—mainly, at this point, by keeping a journal. It was a remnant of something Dr. Lowe had me doing when I was still in school, still in therapy. I’d had to stop using the university counseling center when I dropped out, of course. Dr. Lowe pointed out that there was a sliding scale for some therapists near campus, but I figured that I could just use the journal she’d started me on to get myself through this rocky stretch. I was aware that she would not have condoned this practice. Your means of dealing with the issues you’re facing are insufficient to the task, she would’ve said.

I wrote for hours some days, most of it circular and melodramatic. For instance, from October 30 of that year: “I feel crappy today. I wish…I could start over. What do I mean by that? Life? College?” Then a bunch of white space followed by, “Man, I don’t know. Things would be different if I did, right?” Looking back on it, I feel like it was someone else entirely who wrote this stuff. I literally had no memory of some of what I wrote in the pages of that notebook.

Like this bit from late January, not long before the thing with Dr. Noi: “I can see now that I have to stop thinking about her, that I have other things in my life that I need to deal with. My tooth ache has gotten worse for one. I should look into going to the dental school to see if I can get one of the students there to look at it for free. But I did some research today—I called in a favor from a friend in the registrar’s office, a former student from Bogotá. Javier, a nice kid, anthropology major, the son of a general, I believe—and discovered that Dr. Noi (and presumably Mrs. Noi) lives at 482 River View Terrace. I guess I probably shouldn’t have done that.”

A few days later, I caught myself driving around up there. It’s anyone’s guess what I thought I was I doing. River View Terrace, I saw, was one of these apartment complexes along the river north of campus. Up there, it was all foreign nationals. In the spring or summer, you could ride your bike on the path along the river and rarely hear an English word spoken. Tons and tons of Chinese and Koreans and Malaysians. And Indians. India Indians. I’d never had an Indian student, of course, because mostly they all spoke English already.

I was just driving and listening to some jazz on public radio and imagining the many things Mrs. Noi and I would do in her bedroom while Dr. Noi was off working hard on his clever global-warming experiments. It was pathetic, obviously. After some hours of this, in the mid-afternoon, I got hungry and pulled over and dug around on the floor mats and found ninety cents, which I took to a nearby Wendy’s and got a junior cheeseburger. I had to borrow three cents from the take-a-penny dish for the tax.

Eventually, nearly out of gas, I went home. When I got there, there was a message from my sister inviting me to dinner, and I thought, Okay. This is better than sitting in my apartment with Seth or sitting in El Grotto or driving around Mrs. Noi’s neighborhood some more. I ate some Spaghettios to tide myself over until then and I found a few dollars at the bottom of my bag for some gas.

When I arrived at Jill’s later that evening, her kids were at their indoor soccer league and then going on to a sleepover with various friends. Who knew how Jill kept track of all of that. You’d practically need a spreadsheet. She had the place cleaned and I guess Stewart was out with his workaholic buddies. It was just the two of us. Jill poured me a glass of rosé, which I also did not care for. Briefly, I wondered (an ungenerous moment, I know): do these people have anything to drink not made to blot out your memory?

The whole thing was a setup, I saw almost immediately. Jill wasn’t being big sisterly. She had a mandate, I guessed, delivered by phone from the coast of Alabama. My parents were worried and needed to know what I was doing and what my plan was. They knew only that I was on academic leave. They couldn’t, I supposed, be bothered to come back from Alabama and check into the matter for themselves. To be fair, they couldn’t really call, because they didn’t have my phone number.

So, Marcus, Jill said. What happens now that you’re done with school? Is this tutoring thing something you’re looking at doing long term?

I eyed her. I’m not actually done with school, sis.

I called her sis, but it wasn’t friendly. I’d never actually had a chance to come up with pet names for her.

Oh.

I’m on hiatus. Academic leave. I still have about four or five quarters left. At that moment, I was sure I would never go back.

Oh, she said again.

Do you want to know why?

My tone was too hostile, I knew, though she didn’t really seem to notice. I tried to scale it back a little.

Yes, of course I want to know.

Psychological issues.

Psychological issues, she repeated. She sipped her wine. I could see that she knew nothing about any of this. Of course she didn’t, because my parents didn’t know anything about it, or not much anyway. I think they thought I was taking some time off to get my head on straight, which I suppose, seen in the right light, is one version of what I was doing.

What’s going on? She asked.

Panic attacks, I told her. I have these panic attacks and they’ve made it impossible to focus.

What’s a panic attack? She asked, scooting forward on her stool. The kitchen was massive and incredibly clean. A small TV had been built into the wall just above the refrigerator and it showed silent images of some European city after, based on the quality of the film, World War Two.

I guess you’d call it a state where you start worrying about something really intensely—for me it’s usually that I’m dying; I think that’s the case for a lot of people—and you just keep getting more and more ramped up, to the point that you can’t really move. You’re literally panicked and it’s a feedback loop. You start to worry and then you become hyper aware of your body and you feel every little twitch very profoundly, which is more evidence that something is wrong.

Oh my god, Marcus, she said. Really?

I nodded. It’s terrifying.

I think I’ve had those.

Really?

I used to have something like that all the time. My doctor gave me something. This was some years ago. I haven’t had one in a while. Nobody ever called them panic attacks.

Wow, I said, feeling closer to her. Then you know what I’m talking about.

It’s awful, she said. I really thought I was losing my mind.

We were quiet for a very long time. She poured herself some more wine and I even took a sip of mine.

So Mom and Dad put you up to sussing out my situation? I asked her.

Huh?

Mom and Dad, I said. They ask you to figure out what my plan was? Is that why you invited me out here?

God no, she said. I haven’t talked to them in over a month. They’re on a cruise to Antigua.

Really.

I invited you out because I wanted to tell you that Stewart and I are getting a divorce, she said.

Divorce? I said dumbly. I was floored and felt miserable for my assumption about her motive.

I know. It’s such a fucking cliché. He’s been sleeping with some paralegal or something, I guess.

I’m really sorry, Jill.

Thanks, hon. I think it will be better without him though.

What are you going to do?

I don’t know. I guess I’ll go back to work. Stewart will move into the city, I think, and I’ll keep the house.

Will you get alimony or something?

I don’t know why I asked that. I didn’t really understand what it meant all that well.

I don’t know yet how all of it will work. There will be a bunch of lawyers involved, no doubt.

What kind of work will you do?

I’m a teacher, Marcus. Did you not know that? I taught fifth grade for like ten years.

Oh, I said. Really? Ten years?

She nodded, but didn’t seem offended, just surprised.

Do you mind going back to it?

No. I like teaching. But it’s going to be tough with the kids.

I could barely even comprehend the dimensions of her problems, nor did I want to, such was the profundity of my sense of my own problems.

We ate some chimichangas that she made, which were delicious. And afterward we moved to the living room, which was also spotless. Because she’d been so forthcoming about her own life, I got up the nerve to mention the thing that was undermining me in those months.

Can I ask you opinion about something, Jill?

Of course.

I’ve got a bit of a situation going on with one of my students. I don’t really know what to do about it.

What’s the situation?

I’ve sort of got a thing for this woman.

Oh. Yeah, it’s not a very good idea to be involved with your students.

I know. And it’s not just that she’s my student. She’s also married.

Not good, she said.

Yeah.

Who is she?

She’s Korean. Her name is Mrs. Noi. I guess she’s the wife of a visiting scientist.

You don’t know her first name?

She’s pretty formal.

And this interest is reciprocal?

Not really. Maybe. I don’t know.

Oh sweetie, Jill said. You need to let that go. Probably you need to stop being her tutor, too.

She was speaking as someone whose husband had just cheated on her, I figured.

I know. But it’s harder than that. Honestly, I was driving around in her neighborhood today, looking for her house.

Don’t do that, she said.

I know.

She looked at me hard.

I can see that thing in your eye. You used to have it when you were little. Mom would say, Don’t touch that outlet. But you never took your eye off it. And the minute she turned her back, you would be over there trying to stick your finger into it. The whole time you’d be saying, No, No, No.

That sounded right.

Maybe you need to get away for a while, Marcus.

Yeah. That would be helpful, maybe. But I can’t really afford it.

Where would you like to go?

I don’t want to go to Alabama, I said.

Obviously, she said.

I want to go to the Navajo Reservation. I’m not sure where that came from.

What is there on the Navajo Reservation? She wanted to know.

There are these old National Geographics in the basement of my apartment, I told her, from the sixties and seventies. I was down there looking for something and found them and I sat down and read an article about it. It sounds amazing. The pictures, I said. It’s just this sun-drenched place, with sheep and shrubby pinions. Mountains in the background of everything.

Listen, Jill said, getting up. I’m going to give you some money to go to the Navajo Reservation. If I give you this, will you go out there? She pulled a false bottom off of a drawer on a small decorative desk they kept in a corner of the living room and pulled out a massive wad of cash.

That’s okay, Jill. You’re getting divorced. Money is going to be an issue for you guys.

Look, Jill said. I feel like I hardly know you. I feel like I’ve missed out on so much. On our relationship. On lots of things. You’re young. Yes, things are a mess. But you can always fix them. If going away from here will give you some start on fixing things, then this money is the best investment of my life, bar none.

I watched her as she pulled $1000 out of the wad. I hadn’t seen so much money at once since working the cash register at Sizzler during my junior year of high school. I wanted to cry. I almost cried, actually, because the gesture was so pure and full of love and a desire to help. There wasn’t anyone alive I loved like that but myself, I knew.

Of course I had no intention of going to the Navajo Reservation. What would I do on the Navajo Reservation? You probably couldn’t even get onto the Reservation without some sort of Indian passport.

I can’t take this, Jill.

Marcus, she said. Please take it. Please. Take it and go to the Navajo Reservation.

I watched her. Okay, I said. Okay.

We went back to the kitchen and she wrapped up the leftovers for me to take home.

Thanks, Jill, I said at the door. I don’t know quite what to say.

Go, she said. And leave the girl alone. Do not go to her house. Leave her to her life.

At home, I didn’t put the chimichangas in the refrigerator; I kept them in a cooler in my car, because food like this was not safe in my fridge because my housemate was a loser and addicted to drugs.

***

The next morning, I decided to put the money in the bank until I could decide what to do with it. My bank account was a vestige of my former life, because, until this moment, it had been many months since I’d had more than the minimum five dollars in it. But now I felt rich. As the woman at the window counted the money, she looked up and took a long look at me in the event, I figured, that she would have to identify me later.

I stood outside of the bank—it was cold and windy, a contrast to three or four days of false spring—and went over things in my mind. I began walking idly, toward, I figured, the river. I really had no plan. I wasn’t really imagining the interaction with her. I wasn’t really intending to go to her house again. I was calm inside, in fact—my mind, for the moment, a quiet, normal machine. At the river, I looked down at the muddy eddies, the paltry winter flow. It seemed sad, because everything did to me then. Because of where all this water was heading, it got me thinking about my parents down there in the Gulf of Mexico or the Caribbean—wherever they were—enjoying their retirement. Which in turn reminded me of me and my sister, up here in Columbus fighting for our lives, my sister’s divorce and, finally—inevitably—Mrs. Noi.

Of course I turned north. Of course I did. And it wasn’t long before I found myself up there in the neighborhoods of the Asiatic substation that included River View Terrace, as well as about a dozen other similarly named apartment complexes. When I finally admitted to myself that I was in fact heading toward her house—when I thought about it as a concrete thing—I suppose I had it in my head that Mrs. Noi would invite me in. I was only dimly aware that this was a serious transgression, a very large step beyond grazing her hand.

As I stood at last on the small stoop waiting for her to answer my knock, I felt the familiar creep of anxiety move through my limbs. And then my left leg went numb. I tried to move it, but couldn’t. I looked down at it and then across the yard of the complex, past the children’s area, the slide and monkey bars, to the riparian woods enveloping the south-moving river. A jogger ran by on the concrete trail. Jesus, my leg. And now my left arm, too. I couldn’t let Mrs. Noi find me like this, I thought, and I managed to jump off the stoop and hide behind the bushes, some viburnum that someone had let get too tall.

Soon I heard the door open.

Yes? an Asian voice said. Male. A beat passed, and then again, Yes?

I waited.

Soon, I heard the man descend the small rise of stairs and shuffle along in the grass. I saw his slippers first, then his khaki-clad knees, and then a buttoned-down dress shirt. J. Crew or perhaps Izod. I recognized him immediately from his photo.

Mr. Marcus, he said.

I wasn’t sure if I was going to pass out. I had this sharp pain in my neck that I figured might be an embolism.

Mr. Marcus, he said again.

On the oak tree just behind him, I noticed a few of those leaves that hang on through the winter, shriveled and limping along, mustering everything they had against the chill and winter winds. I recognized their plight immediately as my own.

It’s just Marcus, I said.

Yes, Mr. Marcus. I can ask what you do in the forest?

Nothing, I said. Lost my keys.

I don’t think you find keys in this forest.

Probably not, I said, and stepped out of the shrubs.

The pale disc of a sun, I realized, was already high in the sky, overhead really. Dr. Noi must’ve been home from his lab for lunch, I thought, and then it dawned on me that it was in fact Saturday. When you don’t really have a job, you make this mistake more than you would think.

Mr. Marcus, he said. We have problem.

I nodded. Maybe I was having a stroke, because I still couldn’t feel anything on my left side, including, now, the left side of my face.

Jin-sook no longer student for you.

Jin-sook, I thought. What a lovely name. I wondered if maybe it didn’t mean honey bee.

You must leave. You must not come back here.

I looked at my shoes. I needed new ones.

Please tell Jin-sook that she was my best student, I said.

Maybe you seek for new job?

Maybe.

He stood there motionless for a long time.

I’m going, I said. And then, I’m sorry.

I could feel my left arm a little. Thank God. I knew of course it was a panic attack. I knew of course that my mind was running roughshod over me, that I had allowed it far too much latitude and that it had taken all that I had given and more, and what I most needed to do was get it under control, to get it off the playing field, because it was undoing me, piecemeal.

I started back toward the river and the path. At fifty yards, I turned back toward the strange higher education tenement. Movies, I guess, had taught me to do this. I searched the upper windows for Jin-sook. I thought we could share this tender moment the way couples always do, when someone is going off to war. But she was not there. Dr. Noi, however, stood on the porch pointing at me menacingly. It was galling, but then, it was fair. They had their own lives to live, and I, I guess, had mine.

At home in the early afternoon, the TV was on but Seth had a chair pulled up to one of the large windows looking out on the yard to the west side of the house. He sat there like you imagine the commander of a surrounded army doing, perhaps thinking or remembering.

Hey, I said.

Hey man. He didn’t turn to look at me, but seemed fixated on whatever it was out the window. He was sober, I could tell from his tone. He was usually sober at this hour.

Whatcha doing?

Nothing, he said.

I mean, What are you looking at?

Check it, he said. These plants here, I think they’re forsythias, are starting to bud, because it was so warm the last few days.

You’re watching plants bud?

No, dude. I’m watching these birds fighting.

They’re fighting over the buds?

I don’t know. I think it might be a territory war. These two guys are both males. I looked it up in one of your books.

I asked you not to go into my room, I said, though this was obviously a rare harmless break and enter.

I’m sorry, he said. Last time.

I stood there for a long time, waiting for something to happen, but nothing did. I did see one of the cardinals flit into the bush and then fly away again.

Somebody called about tutoring, he said. I couldn’t tell what she wanted except I did make out the word “tutor.”

A new student? I really needed some more students if I was going to stay afloat, even with the money sitting in the bank. Especially now that Mrs. Noi would no longer be a student.

I don’t know, he said. I got the number I think.

She spoke English?

Not really. I mean, a little.

Could it have been Mrs. Noi, I wondered. Her English was intelligible, even on the phone, but when she was nervous things degraded.

I looked at the number on the table next to the phone.

And so you know, he said, I’m moving out.

Oh yeah? This is great news, was my first thought. My second thought was that I would have to find someone to take his place. And this would be a colossal hassle.

Don’t fret. I paid Arthur through the end of the lease so you didn’t have to deal with finding someone. Arthur was our shady landlord. He owned a toilet supply shop north of campus, in addition to a couple rentals like this in shabby neighborhoods.

You did what?

Yeah, he said. I’m getting it together, Marcus old boy. Going home.

I didn’t have any idea where home was, and was about to ask, but realized I didn’t actually care. I was just thankful that I had a thousand dollars in the bank and wouldn’t have to go looking for someone down on their luck enough to be willing to live in this neighborhood.

That sounds like a good plan, I said.

Time for the joyride to end, you know?

The two cardinals did appear again, one chasing the other.

That makes sense, I said.

This was the most we’d talked in months.

Probably going to go to law school.

This idea annoyed me for some reason. You couldn’t, I reasoned, just teeter on the edge of death from drug addiction and then poof, off to law school.

Really? I asked, not even trying to hide my incredulity.

Yeah. I’ve been putting it off for a while. But it’s time.

I have to say I’m a little surprised.

Yeah, it’s weird, right? Life. I’ll probably do corporate, he said.

This was getting too preposterous.

I’m sorry, Seth. I’m a little confused about all of this. You’re moving out of here and going home and you’re going to go to law school in order to become a corporate lawyer? I didn’t know you’d been to college.

You need to go to college first? He said.

I watched him.

I’m just messing around with you, man. Of course I went to college. I have a BA in American Studies from Kenyon.

Kenyon, I said. Okay. I’d seen him lie to me before about stolen stuff and I knew he wasn’t any good at it. Kenyon, I said again. Okay. When are you heading out?

That’s the best part. I’m leaving now, he said. Right now. He flicked a hand toward the corner where an apparently full internal frame backpack sat. It was from REI. And now that I thought about it, all of his stuff was top shelf, just dirty and torn.

He turned to me finally. I know, man. It doesn’t make sense. Also, there’s a check there on the table for $1000. It’s from my father. He asked me what I owed you and I told him $1000. That seem fair?

You don’t owe me $1000, I said. Just a bunch of tuna fish and some leftover pizza and milk.

I know. But the damage we’ve both incurred out here needs some kind of compensation. Some reparations.

I could only just watch him. I wasn’t even thinking of the $1000, which would double my holdings. That hadn’t registered yet. I wasn’t thinking about Mrs. Noi, either, not directly. I was thinking two things: first, that my drug addicted roommate thought of me as being no different than him. He thought that my life was as pitiful as his was. The idea that anyone, in whatever state, could see me in that light was a wake-up call. Second, I was thinking that he was apparently going to right himself. I believed him, too. I could see that it was true. All it took was a little family support. All it took was a little money and then a decision.

I could make a decision like that, I thought. It dawned on me that I had a little money and I had family and there was no more reason for me to wither away out here in the wilds near the interstate than Seth. All I had to do was decide not to.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo by ossiak

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About Author

Jerry Gabriel’s first book of fiction, Drowned Boy, was published in 2010 by Sarabande Books; it won the Towson Prize for Literature and was a Barnes and Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection. His fiction has recently appeared in Five Chapters, The Missouri Review, and Big Fiction.

2 Comments

  1. Robert Boucheron on

    What a beautiful story! Portrait of a loser? A sad, sorry tale of redemption? The tone and dialog sound just about perfect.

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