Story — From the June 2018 issue

I Do Something That I Don’t Understand

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Today I did something and I have no idea why I did it. I followed someone, two people actually, but it was the woman I was really following, the man just happened to be accompanying her.

It started on an airplane. I had awakened at four to catch a six-forty flight, so perhaps there is some explanation in the fact that I was very, very tired. It was a six-hour trip and I had slept for only two of the hours. I always wait to be one of the last to leave the plane if I have a bag in the overhead compartment because I’m afraid I’ll fumble the bag and injure a fellow passenger and have to endure the lifelong consequences, or at least the temporary embarrassment. So I was standing, literally at the edge of my seat, when I saw her. I paid attention because she was almost brained by a young man carelessly flinging his bag from the overhead compartment. It was the look on her face that got me: she expected him to apologize, she believed she had a right to an apology, and he did not make even the slightest gesture toward apology. She was surprised, really surprised, and I understood that she was used to being apologized to, that she believed it was her right that her life go smoothly. I noticed that her posture was very good for a woman her age—she was at least in her seventies, though it’s getting harder and harder to judge: nonagenarians are becoming increasingly sprightly. She was dressed much too warmly for that July day, and I couldn’t imagine why she was wearing that hat, a softened squashed-down version of a top hat. I had seen hats like that for sale on Broadway, laid out on rickety tables beside pashminas and fake Louis Vuitton fanny packs.

Photograph © Robert Holmgren

I could never imagine why anyone would buy those hats: their fabric so proudly inorganic, the colors acidic or muddy. This one was cerise or fuchsia, and the words are much prettier than the color of the hat deserved. Here was this woman, who had not been apologized to, whose carriage suggested only two possible words—“well bred”—wearing this hat, which would have been a mistake in December but in July was nothing short of a calamity. I noticed a finely wrought leather purse strapped across her body like a bandolier. Her hands were extravagantly free, and she swung her arms much more vigorously than the narrow aisle warranted. I have never seen hands so free.

The freedom of her hands made her companion’s burdens seem more extreme than perhaps they were. She was all in black, her pantsuit soft wool, and the abovementioned hat. He was wearing a short-sleeved shirt with a print of parrots. He was pushing one suitcase on wheels; in the other hand he carried a plastic bag that was obviously lunch, and looped over his wrist was a cloth bag with a print of three more loud parrots, each monochrome: one red, one yellow, the green one the color of an industrial-strength cleaner.

They were heading toward a connecting flight. I had a car waiting at curbside to take me home. I should have headed straight for the exit; my phone said the driver would leave after four minutes. Instead I followed them. They stopped for a moment to watch a plane take off. I stopped a few feet in front of them, then walked a few more feet so I could turn around and get a good look at them from the front. She walked several steps ahead of him. I’m not sure whether to call her handsome or hatchet-faced; he could only be called a schlub. His hair was stringy and much too long; his shirt didn’t quite close over his potbelly.

I let them pass me. All I knew was that I had to follow them. I needed to know where they were going. They stopped at the gate that was marked for a flight to Manchester, New Hampshire. I sat across from them. They were entirely silent. My phone pinged, warning me that I was going to have to pay a hefty penalty for standing my driver up. I sat, pretending to read something on my phone, until they rose to board their flight. They disappeared through the door and they were gone, gone completely, as if I had never seen them, as if they had never been.

I took the train home to the city in penance for my folly. It was crowded and took more than an hour and a half. I had to stand, I couldn’t read or sleep or do anything but let my mind wander. I tried to understand why I had followed the people in the airport. And I could come up with nothing. I tried to remember other things that I had done for which I could provide no explanation.

I remembered something that had happened the summer between first and second grade. A new girl had moved next door. Her name enchanted me: it was Leonie. I had never heard of anyone named Leonie. And I was riveted by the fact that her mother seemed to pronounce her name two different ways: sometimes she would call out Lay-oh-knee and sometimes Lee-own-ee. I knew it wasn’t that she had two names, but I was jealous that she could appear to have two—it seemed a largesse to which I would never have access. She had tight, brass-colored curls; her sandals always looked immaculate.

This is all I remember about her.

She knew more children in our class than I did, that is knew them well enough to invite them to play, and this day she had collected four or five, six perhaps, on her screened-in back porch. Then we moved into the garage, but she, the unquestioned leader, grew tired of that very quickly. Why did I go back into the garage? Had I left something there? I don’t remember. I went back in, and there, lying on the lower rungs of a ladder that was propped up against the edge of some kind of storage loft, was one of my classmates, whom I will call W in case he reads this and will be embarrassed, though I can’t imagine he would read it and I don’t actually know why it would embarrass him.

He was lying like an odalisque, one hand behind his head, his legs crossed, one foot making small circles in the air. His head was turned to one side, as if he were studying something on the opposite garage wall. I thought he might be asleep, but no, he was making those small circles in the air. He was wearing black-and-white basketball sneakers.

I walked over to the small window that was on the wall opposite the one at which W was staring. I stood there, still, silent. The light came through the window in straight thick bands. A beam of light fell on his neck, which was exposed, as he had turned his head away. I thought his neck, exposed, the light falling on it, was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I tiptoed over to him and kissed his neck where the light fell on it. Then, slowly, I walked out of the garage.

Soon Leonie moved away. W was in my class for another seven years, but we never spoke. I remember once all the boys made fun of him because he came to school with a tie too long for him; it hung below his belt. He was close to tears. He said he couldn’t find his tie, and had taken one of his father’s because he knew he’d get in trouble for not wearing a tie. I did not come to his defense. I wasn’t even tempted.

I was eleven when I did the other thing. It was the end of August and in a few weeks I would be entering seventh grade. I hadn’t yet gotten my period and I was longing for the event. I remember that I was wearing orange-and-yellow-check Bermuda shorts. I knew they were hideous, but I had chosen them so I was stuck. It was the last evening of my mother’s and my vacation. We were visiting old friends of hers in Elmira, New York. My mother was forty-one when I was born, old enough to be my grandmother, and the people we were visiting had a granddaughter a year younger than me. It was assumed we would like each other; but I had crossed some line into preadolescence and she was moored in late childhood. Because of this she looked up to me, and because I had never been looked up to, only looked down on, I naturally became sadistic. For the first time I had a real friend at school, a best friend, and I resented being separated from her even for a week, having to spend my time with a “child” or listening to the reminiscences of my mother and her friends. I wrote long self-pitying letters to my best friend, a new one every day. I reported that the child didn’t even read, that her mother packed a suitcase full of books for her and she never even opened one. Every day after lunch, the adults left the child and me alone at the town swimming pool, where I left her to her own devices at poolside while I swam laps.

My mother’s friends took us all for a farewell dinner at an outdoor restaurant at the foot of a mountain. At the top of the mountain was a blinking light, perhaps a television tower. I was seized with an urge to climb the mountain to get to the flashing light. I was reading a lot of biographies of heroic women at the time, and it seemed to be the time for me to climb a mountain. The adults were lingering over coffee. I grabbed the child’s hand and told her we were going to climb the mountain. The late-August sun was setting earlier than it had a week before.

There was nothing lovely about the climb. The terrain was all scrub: rough weeds and thorny branches covered with burrs that stuck to our shorts. It was starting to get dark. The child held on to my hand. She didn’t say a word. Up and up we went, and there was no joy in it. If I had imagined exhilaration, there was none. But I kept my eye on the winking light. And then, suddenly, it was dark, and I was frightened but I couldn’t admit it. The child started to cry. I pretended to be annoyed at her pusillanimity and agreed to head back down to where the adults were waiting at the table. We hadn’t even made it halfway.

The adults, even my mother, were so relieved to see us that they forgot to scold. At no time did my mother even bring the matter up, although I knew I had shamed her. Both of us feared the strangeness in me that could inspire such ardor.

The train entered a long tunnel. The darkness was complete. Always when I am in complete darkness I have the sense that it is possible that I am not alive: everything has the clarity that could only be open to the recently dead. It came to me then. Some things are not understandable. No understanding is possible. I will never understand.

And then the tunnel ended. The train pulled into the station. I could see people—porters, conductors, passengers—standing on the platform, none of them too near the edge. We all seemed real, alive, and living lives beyond our understanding.

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