Story — From the September 2019 issue

Who Is She?

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I couldn’t leave. I couldn’t get up—­just couldn’t get up, couldn’t get up or leave. All day lying in that median, unable. Was this misery or joy?

It’s happened to you, too, hasn’t it? A habit or phase, a marriage, a disease, children or drugs, money or debt—­something you believed inescapable, something that had been going on for so long that you’d forgotten any and every step taken to lead your life here. What did you do? How did this happen? When you try to solve the crossword, someone keeps adding clues.

It’s happened to us all. The impossible knowledge is the one we all want—­the big why, the big how. Who among us won’t buy that lotto ticket? This is where stories come from and, believe me, there are only two kinds: ­one, naked lies, and two, pot holders, gas masks, condoms—­something you must carefully place between yourself and a truth too dangerous to touch.

A long time ago someone told me that it’s important to locate and deploy our own stories, because otherwise you’re stuck listening to everyone else tell theirs, or worse, someone convinces you of The Big One and you end up tithing 10 percent of your income to an all-­powerful and mostly loving corporation that does so much good and just a little evil, like protecting ordained child abusers from public scrutiny or jail time, but whoa there! Reel it back in, Bucko. Let’s not balance this checkbook just yet. Anyway, that’s what someone told me once.

Illustration by Katherine Streeter

Illustration by Katherine Streeter

My current paralysis seemed to have begun with a three-word question graffitied all over my neighborhood. Neat letters, white paint: who is she? It was on the back of a park bench, around a telephone pole, across a single brick of an apartment building, on the underside of many cans of beans, in every bathroom stall at the public library, and certainly it was elsewhere—­places I hadn’t gone or couldn’t go.

I began by passing this plea between my two redundant hands, but soon it was moving in my mind like a pinball trapped by ramps and tunnels and inertia, lights flashing, arbitrary numbers appearing on the little screen—­who is she?—­rattling around, racking up points, or, I don’t know, what’s the opposite of points? I didn’t seem to be accruing anything. And I was so tired. All the time, tired.

Then I was crossing this—­what is this? A boulevard? Sure. I was crossing this boulevard, crossing it right in the middle, at a place not meant for pedestrians—­no crosswalk, no sidewalk, no walk-­don’t-­walk sign, nothing at all there to protect a body, and when I got to the grassy median between the north­bound and south­bound lanes, I could not find a reason to leave it. I lay down amid the sweet weeds, the windswept trash, a nice place for me. It was early—­five or six on a Sunday—­so almost nothing in the visible world was moving. Maybe gods and ghosts were getting ready for their day, sure, but no people, no cars. Still, I had all the company I needed, or perhaps it was all the company that I could handle, and what is the difference ­really? I lay on my back in perfect happiness and wondered: Who is she, who could she be, who was she, who might she have been or who could she have become?

A lot of time passed; it will do that if you let it or if you forget to not let it. Cars began driving on either side of me and a few people would yell things from their windows as they passed. They’d ask, “Are you okay?” or “Is everything okay?” or “What happened?” Sometimes I would try to shout a reply, but none of their questions were specific enough to really merit an answer.

If I turned my head one way I could see a hospital and if I turned my head the other way I was looking at the ocean or, rather, I was looking through a spartan beachside gymnasium toward the ocean.

There was something oddly Soviet about those simple metal bars stuck in the concrete. It was such a utilitarian structure that I imagined it could have only been erected with a specific political agenda in mind. Yet the people pulling up on those pull-­up bars seemed less like Communists than like the devout customers of a capitalist system that produces two hundred varieties of isolated protein powder. I watched them for a while and found it at once incredibly moving and incredibly sad—­their tender efforts. It was difficult to witness and impossible to look away.

The men were so armored with muscle that even shirtless they seemed to wear shirts, and the women wore oddments of spandex over each lump of pubis or tit. They all took turns rubbing oil on one another’s backs. They photographed one another and were photographed by one another. Three men jumped in synchrony into the air, to the ground, into the air again, and down, repeating infinitely. A woman in a high-­legged one-­piece did several pull-­ups and screamed and I felt her fear. Another focused on improbable lunges, one leg held aloft, glutes both bulbous and flexed. It was an orgy of health, human strength taken to its promiscuous extreme.

They all cheered for one another, all smiling, all yes-­yesing, all you-­can we-­can yes-yes-you-can. They could all do all of it, and more and more. At some point every well-greased man and woman joined hands and faced my median to say, in unison, “Because we are so beautiful and because it is illegal to have sex in public and because we wish the world could see how beautiful we are when we have sexual relations with one another and because we all want to be respected citizens and, above all, parents and because none of us think of ourselves as pornographers and because we are sad that the world cannot watch us have sex with one another, because of this we have all taken a personal oath to our own health, and we have taken this very personal and private oath as publicly as possible, and so we will be here as often as we can, even more often than we can, and we will be here doing this, being seen doing this, being watched doing this and doing this to be watched doing it.”

And I thought, Gosh, they really got right to the point, didn’t they? And I wish I knew how they could all agree so suddenly and make that statement together, but by the time the entirety and complexity of their shouted oath occurred to me, they had all reoccupied themselves with their personal betterments.

It was just dusk when a large car with its lights flashing slowly pulled over beside the median. A woman got out from the driver’s side. She wore a helmet and a fluorescent vest with reflectors that flickered in the blinking headlights of her car. Beneath the vest, half the message of her T-­shirt was obscured. It said something about The Female. something is female or the female is something. This was a time in which gender was the answer to every riddle, and it was either all-­important or non­existent, a point that academics and semi-­academics and demi-academics were always tug-­of-­warring over, only sometimes realizing they were pulling the same side of the rope. But perhaps, I wondered, this woman in the Female shirt knew something about who she is or was, but before I could think to ask she’d set a circle of orange traffic cones around me.

“Are you safe?”

“I think so.”

“Do you feel safe?”

I didn’t know what to say.

“I want you to know that there’s a man in my car over there,” she said, kneeling beside me and lowering her voice. “But don’t worry, he won’t come over here unless I tell him to. I have the situation under control.”

She was nodding and looking down at me. A bird shat on one of the orange traffic cones and she looked at it with great despair.

“There’s only so much that one person can do.”

She lowered her voice to a volume appropriate for an admission of guilt and told me that the man in her car was her husband and he’s white on top of being cis and hetero, so they’d decided not to let him out of the house much anymore. Since she’d started pegging him, she said, he’d begun to understand the world better and he’d been having these personal revelations, quietly, to himself, while he cooked and cleaned and peeked out the window between split blinds. It was simply true that the very sight of him could be enough to send someone into a flashback, and did you know, she asked me, that nearly 70 percent of American females with P.T.S.D. have a trigger associated with the smell of Old Spice?

“I’m just telling you all this so you understand that we’re both safe here in this safe space.” She gestured to her traffic cones and offered me a helmet. I didn’t want a helmet. Did I want to talk? she asked. Anything I told her would be confidential, she promised, unless it needed to be reported to the authorities, in which case she would be compelled to do everything in her power to protect me and my safety. In a voice one might use with a tantruming child, she asked me how I got here, whether any violence had occurred, whether I’d been savagely left for dead on this boulevard median.

For a moment I thought of telling her about who is she?, but then I found myself thinking about what happened before that graffiti took up all my attention, back when I was, I don’t know, I was—­what was I? Regular? Something like that. Normal? I kept a nice home with a nice man. When we walked around together, the elderly were comforted and children felt safe. I know this because they told us so. Old men would lean over our restaurant tables and say, “After seeing you two I feel certain that life as I know it will continue after I’m gone,” and children I had never even seen before would sit next to us on the bus and confess to me their deep sense of security. There was always going to be a fresh sandwich in their backpacks as long as this man and I were together, holding up society, keeping everything clean and calm.

And I thought back to the day I met him while we were both buying organic milk at a socially responsible grocery store, and about how he led me into a well-­lit public area and, after reciting a trigger warning, read me an Emily Dickinson poem—­the gun one, the one everyone knows—­so I followed him home and spent several years waiting for him, a loaded gun, to fire. Instead I learned that two people can spend a long time together waiting for another person to show up, waiting for the part of the game show where someone comes out from behind door number three and the audience squeals and people instinctively cover their mouths and widen their eyes. No one knows why people cover their mouths at times like that. It is one of life’s great mysteries.

Around year eight I started to get the feeling that this man was, perhaps, a copy of the thing and not the thing itself. Maybe his reading that Dickinson poem at the start was meant to be a warning.

You know, some people get stalled in the obvious. There are times when a person has both an illness and the correct medicine in hand, but cannot take it. You must know what I mean. That feeling—­that feeling where you both don’t know what to do, and know exactly what to do.

For instance, I never wanted to be one of those people who started hanging around strangers until something untoward occurred, but then one day I was quivering on psilocybin and making out with my neighbor while listening to Dark Side of the Moon. How did it happen? I decided that since I never really got to be a teenager in that way, this experience was a kind of back taxes being paid decades too late. Then all the who is she? tags started showing up—­Well, what was I supposed to do? Now I wonder if perhaps all this confusion is just the afterglow of that darling hallucinogenic alkaloid. I have come to love nature and all its natural things.

Lying there in the median, I told a version of this story to the woman in the helmet and she began to cry. She told me that white men had to be stopped. I said I wasn’t entirely sure what she meant by that and she gave me a voter registration form and stacked all her traffic cones together and went back to her car, U-­turning to the other side of the median and leaning out her open window with a finger pointed at me.

“Listen! I’ve slept with too many white men in my life to be told that I have a problem with white men!” Then she went away.

In the dark, someone from a homeless outreach program stopped by my place on the median, but when I told them I wasn’t homeless, just resting, they went away, taking their complimentary sack dinners with them. Again in my solitude, a fresh piece of horror set in: What if the she of the question was the me of my life? What if I was her? No. No, don’t let it be me, I begged myself. I don’t want to be her. I couldn’t bear to keep living if I’d been the bug under the rock of that joke.

A young man from the beach gym unrolled an exercise mat beside me and laid himself down on it. Whatever you want to tell me, I thought, it’s too late. He didn’t tell me anything, just asked if I wanted to “do some abs” with him. By the look of him in the moonlight, there didn’t seem to be anything else he could do with his abs, but he began going at it—­leg lifts and scissor kicks and swivels and twisties and other actions he announced by name, then performed with perfect form.

Here he is, I thought, my last hope for something to happen in this story, my last hope for an explanation, an action, something, but when I looked at him nothing was missing and nothing was there. Wasn’t it true that someone or something needed to change? Wasn’t it true we needed to leave this weedy median for somewhere better? Not the gym. Not the ocean to drown in. Not the hospital, dead in our own hands. Somewhere else, some place that none of us can see from here.

I cannot bear how quickly and slowly time moves. You must be familiar with this feeling, aren’t you? Tell me you are. I can’t bear to be without company these days.

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is the author of Certain American States, The Answers, and Nobody Is Ever Missing, all from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. She lives in Chicago.

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