That night at the window, looking out at the street full of snow, big flakes falling through the streetlight, I listened to what Anna was saying. She was speaking of a man named Karl. We both knew him as a casual acquaintance—thin and lanky like Ichabod Crane, with long hair—operating a restaurant down in the village whimsically called the Gist Mill, with wood paneling, a large painting of an old gristmill on a river on one wall, tin ceilings, and a row of teller cages from its previous life as a bank. Karl used to run along the river, starting at his apartment in town and turning back about two miles down the path. He had been going through the divorce—this was a couple of years ago, of course, Anna said—and was trying to run through his pain. As you probably know, rumor has it that his wife had left him for a product designer, a guy who designed toothpaste tubes, product containers. Anna paused, as if to let that rumor rest between us, and I saw in my mind’s eye one of the newer toothpaste tube designs, shorter and stubbier than the long tubes of my youth. It seemed important that Karl’s wife had run off with a man who designed everyday products, whereas her husband had spent his evenings behind the bar, or at the maître d’ station, moving from guest to guest, touching shoulders (he was big on that) as he leaned down to chat, smiling and keeping his diners happy, running back to the kitchen to check on the cook and, in the late evening, when everyone was gone, staying to close up, making sure everything was tidy, clean. Then sometimes—I knew because, coming home late at night, driving through our dark town, I would see him there—he would sit alone at his restaurant bar, nursing a drink with all of the lights off except the dim ones he left on until dawn. So, Anna was saying, he was going through that horrible divorce, battling in the courts over custody of Ethan and all of that, and he was running along the path in the park late in the morning and stopped at the end to catch his breath, and he sat down. (At the window, we both imagined, I imagine, the spot in the woods, with the old stone structure that had served as a bathhouse years ago when folks came up from the city to enjoy a day in the country. You looked at the remains of that stone building, just an outline of the foundation, and felt the intense geographical and psychological shifts that had taken place when the automobile and parkways made a tripup the river feel too close, not far enough from the city.) Anyway, Karl sat down and began meditating, following his breath as it moved in and out of his body, clearing his mind, brushing his thoughts gently away, Anna said—pausing to gaze out the window—and then when he opened his eyes everything was clear. He said that to me, Anna said. We bumped into each other at Coffee Klatch last fall, and he sat down and began spilling his guts. I hardly knew him, but he told me about how he loves that sensation of opening his eyes after meditating, when everything is suddenly in focus, sharp and new. In this case, the river and the leaves on the trees and, across the river, Croton. When he opened his eyes he saw, through a break in the trees, something red out in the water. A red dot, he said, she said. He stood up—I’m imagining this part, Anna admitted—and watched the red dot until it grew—he said materialized—into the shape of a red kayak moving toward him from the middle of the river. Something about the way it moved—it was still too far out to see clearly—or its speed, something captured and kept his attention, or perhaps he was still in a meditative state and simply felt compelled to make the kayak part of his process. Anyway, what’s important is that he kept an eye on it as it slowly closed in on the shore, coming closer, and then he decided to walk down to the shoreline—the tide was out, I assume, Anna added—and he got down to the sand and watched as it got closer and closer.
Now do you want to hear the weird part? she said. (We were still at the window, looking out, watching a car move slowly down the street, pushing through the snow and slush. She had moved closer to me. I looked into her deep brown eyes and watched as she hooked a strand of hair behind her ears. Yes, give me the weird part, I said.) Okay, at this point, before going on with his story, Karl interrupted himself and made a huge deal out of telling me that his wife was horrifically afraid of water, didn’t know how to swim, and was even afraid to go aboard boats and had refused, one summer, to get on the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard. He told me a story about how she had to be sedated, taken on deck in a wheelchair, and kept asleep until just before they were docking in Oak Bluffs. (Can you imagine that? she said, and I said, Yes, I can imagine it.)
So you can probably guess what’s coming, she said, and I said, No, I can’t guess, I have no idea, and at that point Anna moved a little closer, sipped her drink, smiled, and said, So when this red dot, this kayak got close enough, he saw it was being paddled by someone who looked a lot like Debbie, his ex-wife. At first he thought: Wow that kind of looks like Debbie. But when she got even closer, he saw that it was Debbie, and seeing this freaked him out and he ran back up the path and into the trees. He told me he went back up into the trees. There she was, his wife, who was scared of water, in a kayak.
We stood quietly for a moment sipping our drinks and staring out the window at the snow, the black trees scratching the snow-clouded sky. I’m sure we were both imagining Karl’s ex, Debbie, and her straight blond hair, and her eyes—set unusually wide in her face—a washed-out blue with threads of white like an old pair of jeans. Then Anna went on with the story: Karl stayed back in the trees and watched as she came ashore, unstrapping herself, getting out, putting her legs in the water, pulling the boat onto the sand, standing next to it for a minute, looking up into the trees and then turning back to the water, crouching down, spreading her feet out a bit (Karl said that), putting her hands on her knees, closing her eyes, and going into what seemed to be a meditative state for a few minutes, stretching her arms straight out toward the water. In the trees, Karl was totally freaked out, remembering the many times she had refused to walk along the shore, to get close to where the waves were breaking, and a particular time when Ethan, at Coast Guard Beach on Cape Cod, waded too far out, his little legs swept out from under him, and, frozen in fear, unable to go into the water, she had screamed for a lifeguard to come to assist her. They had talked often about this fear of water, Karl explained, and had traced it to an origination point, I guess you’d call it, Anna said, all the way to her days as a little kid in Madison, Wisconsin, sailing with her parents on Lake Mendota, zeroing in on one particular afternoon when a sudden gale came out of the blue and her father didn’t ease the sail, or whatever you fucking call it (Karl said, she said), and the boat went over; or maybe the fact that her sister had nearly drowned in a similar incident, years later, sailing in a race off the Yucatán Peninsula. He recalled how for a few months after Ethan was born she refused to bathe, or shower, and her fear of water seemed to be—and he admitted that it was just a theory she got from a therapist—amplified as part of her postpartum depression, a desire to dry herself up after all that womb moistness (he used that exact, weird phrase, Anna said, using her palm to wipe a bit of frost off the window). Oh, and her water had broken when she was in the supermarket. (He told me that, Anna said.) She was at the Stop & Shop, at the cashier, when it broke. Anyway, he stood in the trees and watched while she finished meditating, if that’s what she was doing, got up and stretched, working her neck from side to side and then, holding the hull of the kayak, wading into the water and splashing her legs to get the sand off, and then, carefully, using the paddle to establish balance, she got back in the kayak and began to paddle out again. At that point Karl panicked and shouted to her from the trees, saying Hey, or Hey you, or something, and she paddled around and began to start back to the shore, and when she got close enough he walked down the path to the waterline and they had a brutal argument that went on for fifteen minutes (he said that, fifteen), shouting at each other and weeping. He wouldn’t tell me what they fought about, said they were both crying, but he admitted that he did say, near the end of the argument: Who the fuck are you? What the fuck are you doing out on the river? And Debbie said, I’m enjoying water sport, that’s what I’m fucking doing, and then she turned and began paddling furiously, and he watched until she was a red dot again, far out in the middle of the river, and then he sat on the shore and continued watching as the current drove the dot north, out of sight where the river turns. (We continued to look out the window. There were a few guests behind me—I’d used a similar scene, I thought, in a short story—the shush–shush of the cocktail shaker, the sound of Andy the filmmaker talking about his documentary about Neil Young. Neil let him hold his guitar, Old Blue, or Old Roy, whatever he calls the thing, he was saying, his voice booming over the din.)
Weird, I said. That’s a weird story. So first he told you about her fear of water, and then he continued the story and told you about seeing her from the shore?
Well, actually, I’m gonna have to explain something, she said, lifting her glass to her lips, tapping it to get an ice cube to slide into her beautiful mouth. You haven’t heard the twist yet. I have to give you the punch line.
Give me the twist.
Here’s the twist. When the kids were little and I was on leave from the firm, I was going insane with boredom, so I started swimming at the Y in the afternoons, doing laps, and there was a woman who always swam with me, usually in the next lane, and she was this amazing swimmer, I mean she would lap me again and again, working those amazing shoulders that were like a yoke, just huge, and one afternoon after I finished I took a shower and then got in the sauna. I was in there for a few minutes and then she came and joined me and we sat and didn’t say anything for a while and then she turned and we started talking and she told me she was married to the guy who runs the Gist Mill, and I said, Hey, yeah, Karl, and she said, Yeah, and we talked a bit and I got around to joking about how she laps me and she explained that years ago at the University of California she made the Olympic team, was on the secondary squad, or whatever they call it, and from that point on, when we swam together, we ended up in the sauna talking. Anyway, we became close, you know, in the way you do with someone in the sauna after working out, talking about kids, about A.D.D., about the school board, the P.T.A., and the town planning stuff, and I remember we talked about the Ferber method—she was trying to get Ethan to start sleeping on his own, I remember that, Anna said. She was letting him cry, counting the minutes. Then you’d increase the minutes and the crying would keep going. She told me Karl freaked out, tore a few pages out of the Ferber book. The kid cried for two hours and they huddled out in the hall, barely able to stand it, but eventually the kid fell asleep on his own but then started this weird thing of not wanting them around at all at bedtime, no tucking in or any of that. But before Ferberizing the kid—that’s what she called it, saying, We had to Ferberize the kid—before that he was coming into bed with them and they were going crazy, and here’s the thing that I remembered after Karl told me his story. I remembered that she had mentioned once, in the sauna, that she liked to kayak in the mornings. She got up at the crack of dawn and kayaked along the shore while Karl and the baby were asleep. I remember because she told me that once the kid had been Ferberized she had a chance to sneak out and kayak. She used that word, sneak. I remember that.
As we stood at the window, someone was laughing loudly behind us, deep snorts and guffaws, and someone else turned the music up, Bob Dylan snarling and choking his way through “Here Comes Santa Claus.”
Okay, so why didn’t you interrupt him in the Coffee Klatch and say something like, Hey, I thought Debbie loved to swim, something like that? I said, and she said, I don’t know, perhaps it says something about my personality that I didn’t interrupt him, that I was so intrigued—I mean he was practically sobbing into his coffee—that he seemed to be making shit up, or perhaps he really thought she was afraid of water. Perhaps she hid her love of swimming and water from him.
She paused and we both nodded, looking out at the snow, and said, Yeah, yeah, at this idea. Maybe she snuck off to the pool while he slept late in the morning, or past noon into early afternoon, and faked a fear of water at the beach to get out of the fucking tedium of taking care of the kid, or maybe it began as her way of not dealing with those horrible few months after the baby was born, the jet-lag exhaustion, the nails-on-a-chalkboard of the crying baby, maybe this fear was originally fake and then overcame her and became real, something like that.
We turned around and, still talking, went to the kitchen to get another drink, and then we went back to the window. Perhaps Karl just had to bullshit his way through his pain, one of us said, and then, in a joking manner, we agreed that the version I’d come up with was the best: this fear of water was something she conjured up to manipulate Karl, some manifestation of a deeper problem in their marriage, arriving out of the long afternoons of tedium and the loss of your sense of self that comes from being with a child all day—and now I see how strange it was that we both agreed that this perverse version was the one we liked the best: betrayal and deception on the part of Debbie instead of Karl being in a weird place, mourning his loss, making up bullshit to explain himself. Now, to be honest, I think maybe Debbie really did fake a fear of water and Karl, from his point of view, was being truthful about everything he said in the story he told Anna at the coffee shop, and I even think, now, after all this time has passed, that somehow both of us at the window that night were foreseeing—or having a prophetic vision, or something like that—that Karl would, as soon as spring arrived and the ice along the shore melted, attempt to swim across the river to Croton, digging in with his stroke as the current in the middle of the river drew him north until, presumably, he ran out of steam, or got hypothermia, and let go—and he was taken, or rather his body rode the tide, all the way past Bear Mountain, to Cold Spring.
I still think about that story. Not the beginning or the end, not the sense that I had—the perplexity—when I held the entire thing, but that time at the window just before Anna filled me in on the second part, told me the twist about the swimming and the Y and all of that. She had restrained herself from telling me that part up front. She could have told me her side of the story first, giving me the pool and the swimming and then the sauna and then getting to Karl’s story at Coffee Klatch second, putting an emphasis on how strange he was that day in the coffee shop, and her inability to interrupt him, to say, Hey, wait, I thought Debbie loved the water. Looking back now I remember more than anything the feeling I had as we stood at the window that there was some elegiac beauty in the scene, however delusional it might have been, of visionary Karl as he finished meditating and opened his eyes to the bright reality of the world he was in—no matter how horrible he felt, after the court battles, the alimony, the fight over Ethan and the house and his restaurant—to spot the red dot. Why can’t we simply honor his befuddled, mind-blown bewilderment? The strange way the world can turn inside out? The majesty of his wife’s phobia!
Stop. Leave it right there, I wish I’d said to Anna. Leave it pure mystery. I wish I’d turned from her and walked back to the kitchen to get another drink, where maybe I would’ve been drawn into a conversation with someone else, letting the part about the pool and swimming remain unspoken. I wish my wife, Sharon, had come up to me right then—she was sitting with her drink, chatting up Bruce, ignoring me because we had fought on the way to the party about a late car payment, and I know if she’d come in to refresh my drink she might’ve caught me at the window with Anna, detected some illicit conspiratorial erotic energy in our postures. Better yet, I wish Karl had been at that party that night so I could’ve buttonholed him into a long conversation about something, music, anything, and maybe somehow, just by hanging out with him and talking about his failed marriage, changed some small aspect of his life, something tiny but enough to butterfly-effect his fate in some other direction, just as I often wish that I had gone, when I was younger, when I had the opportunity to attend the funeral of my good friend’s father in St. Louis, where I would’ve also been with the writer, my friend’s other best friend, and if I’d gone, and I know this is a preposterous, egotistic thing to imagine, but I still do it, maybe we would’ve bonded and become close friends and maybe, just maybe, I would’ve done something to change his own fate.
The town showed up en masse for Karl’s memorial. It wasn’t a head-shaker, the fact that he tried to swim across the river. He’d talked about swimming the river—people confirmed that when they got up to ruminate. His chef, a young man with a goatee, said Karl was a good swimmer and a hardcore runner. A few years ago he had participated in a river challenge for charity, making the swim from Beacon to Newburgh, a narrower part of the river, to raise money for heart disease, so it wasn’t such a shock that he gave it a shot on his own, his prep cook explained. His business partner, Bruce, spoke of his love of the restaurant, his kindness, his ability to balance his duties of serving his guests with running an efficient operation, and then, lowering his voice, he spoke of Karl’s love of the Hudson River, his support of Riverkeeper, an organization dedicated to cleaning up the water. Then someone named Anna Carthright, extremely old, unfolding her body into a standing position, her fist around the end of a cane, wobbled her way slowly to the microphone and, leaning down, in a husky, smoky voice—startlingly strong—told a story about him as a teenager growing up in Yonkers above his father’s shoe repair shop, and the way he liked to stand with his father at the tooling bench, watching him at work, and, yes, he had been a fantastic high school swimmer, winning the state championship three years in a row. Then she began to weep in that sour way of the aged—consumed, it seemed, with a glut of old memories.
Many got up and spoke, each one taking a turn at filling in the pieces, talking about his wit—who else would come up with the Gist Mill as a name? The Gist Mill, “where you go to get the gist of good food,” one of the early ads in the local paper exclaimed. At the end, walking quickly to the front, Debbie, in a short black dress over her shoulders—yes, wide, really wide, swimmer’s shoulders—and her hair, brilliantly blond, brittle from the chlorine, got up to read from a poem Karl had loved by Wallace Stevens, about a blue guitar, and then Ned Patterson came to the front of the church and played his trombone, an original piece he’d written in honor of Karl, based on another Stevens poem about a jug, or a jar, or something in the hills of Kentucky, or perhaps it was Tennessee, and when he was finished—not a dry eye in the house, as they say—everyone went out of the church and stood in the blinding sun, blinking and shaking heads as if amazed that the clear, beautiful day existed, the way I imagined Karl had shaken his head and blinked in disbelief after he meditated in the woods that day, catching sight of that red dot in the water, watching as it materialized into his wife.
That afternoon we gathered at the funeral parlor for the viewing, signing the book, pretending to gaze down at his body, avoiding it, really, many of us just glancing—the long face, the powdery cheeks, the purplish lips—and then some of us headed outside to smoke, to talk about his restaurant, his ability to make us feel at home, the cozy nature of the Gist on a snowy winter night, his ability to hire and hold on to great bartenders, his subtle wit, how much he meant to the town, this and that, smoking second cigarettes, glancing back at the door, avoiding going back in because it would mean navigating the various clusters of family members, older friends from college. We stayed out as long as we could, watching a few latecomers come up the walk and enter while a few others came out, walked in the opposite direction, drove away. Gradually the conversation moved to the other big topic at hand: the death of our town’s most famous and beloved figure, the film director—who had been a good friend of Karl’s and even put him in a bit part in one of his films, the one that won an Academy Award—and how the director had somehow avoided being a snob, kept a casual involvement with the town while still maintaining a gravity field (someone said) around him, and then someone laughed and said: Hell yeah he had a fucking gravity field, no fucking doubt—and financed local art shows and as an anonymous but obvious donor built the new wing on the library. Somehow that got us talking about the second-most-famous town member, who owned a house on the river and drummed, was the drummer for the biggest band in the world, or at least the band that claimed it was the biggest in the world and probably was, although the guys in the band were a bit old, threadbare, retreading (someone said) their old sounds, having a so-called comeback every few years. I stood there smoking my third cigarette and resisted telling the story of how I had met the drummer one afternoon, walking the dog on Broadway, noticing him as he came in my direction holding his little boy’s hand, and they stopped to pet the dog and I said hello and told him I particularly liked his work on that side project, the country singer’s album, a comment I’d had at the ready for such a chance encounter, and instead of being pleased to hear it, to know that I actually recognized his accomplishments outside his super huge band, he gave me a gruff reply, with an Irish lilt, the words indiscernible, really, and without saying another word, with his kid in tow, he walked away, making me consider, for the rest of that afternoon, the nature of that kind of fame, how it formed a field around you, nobody really responding to you as a human but rather to something else, something that formed around their sense of you, something like that, or maybe the other way around, who knows, and when I was thinking about that—on the porch of the funeral home, smoking that third cigarette—I thought about Karl, how he had taken a firm, human form as one of our local notables, kind and witty without being too close, sort of a middle ground, known and yet still somehow unknown, and how that made the mystery of his story, and his wife’s story, and the fear of water or no fear of water, all the more believable because it could be slotted right into the somewhat fuzzy nature of his identity as it presented itself to the town, or to me at least, and how the famous drummer, known for being the one guy in the band who didn’t take any shit, didn’t really like the fame game, always in the shadow of the lead singer, who was a blowhard but still seemed like a man who cared about the world, was unable to be like Karl, could not find the middle ground between complete anonymity and stardom in our little town, something like that. And I thought about how he had looked at me that day, his face much older than I expected, just before he turned without saying so long, or goodbye, or have a nice day, and walked back through the electric gate at his house, which opened with a very faint buzzing sound and then, still buzzing, slid shut while my dog, who had started barking when he turned and began walking away, barked and barked and barked at the drummer and his little boy and then, after they had disappeared, continued barking at the gate itself, as if it were alive, and I supposed it was alive in his eyes, having moved of its own accord, and then I stood holding the leash and let him bark a while longer—he had an extremely loud bark for such a little dog—as I continued thinking about the nature of fame, how you must feel the sense that people have built the story around you before they really know you, making them untrustworthy, perhaps, a normal feeling for anyone in a small town but amplified somehow, so that the entire world, from China to Brazil to Poland to Spain would seem like a small town to you, everyone knowing your face and name, or at least, in his case, the die-hard fans knowing it—whereas for the lead singer everyone in the fucking world knew him, almost everyone, and his nickname was his name now. And on the porch I thought how with Anna’s help I had projected onto Karl various stories, knowing only a little bit of hearsay about his life, I thought, watching another pair of mourners leave, a short man with a hat on, a real hat, a derby, and bowed legs, and his wife, stout—maybe the correct word is now large-boned—walking about a yard behind him, and then my wife came out and silently told me, with her glance, that I had failed in my duties by coming out with the smokers, and by smoking myself, and I gave her a glance that, I hoped, said, Thank you for doing it for me, because I could assume that she had gone the extra mile in politeness with the family members.
Almost a year after the funeral I had a dream that I was eating at the Gist Mill and Karl was there, with a small hand towel over his shoulder, near the back, watching his diners, keeping things going, rushing over to pepper a dish or check in with someone, reaching out, touching shoulders and bowing down and leaning back—his long, lean form elegant, his beard trimmed short and neat—and he came to our table and asked us how things were and we talked briefly about the new bridge that was being constructed across the Tappan Zee, how quickly they were building it, and then we talked about the dredging that had to be done to build the new bridge, and he might’ve mentioned something about Pete Seeger, or something about the need to clean up the site upriver, or maybe it was something about the tides running high this year, or the ice that had built up during the last deep freeze, and then he went off to tend to his other guests. He was the same Karl, maybe a little bit of grief around the corners of his eyes, something like that, but basically, as far as I could tell when I woke up, the same man, same person. But then a few nights later, I had another dream, one that felt like a sequel to the previous dream. In that dream I was coming home late from the city on a snowy winter night, the streets dead and the town shut down, and I saw him alone at the bar, same towel over his shoulder, holding a glass. I pulled over and parked and tapped on the window with one knuckle, and he looked up and waved me in and I said, Is it too late, you closed? And he said, No, come in, man, let me get you something, and he poured me a huge glass of something golden, some dream-drink, and we sat and talked for a while. This time, aware that I was aware that I was in the kind of dream in which you’re aware that you’re in a dream, I tried to nudge the conversation around to his wife, to the water, to that afternoon along the path in the state park. I asked him how he was doing. I told him what a tragedy it was that he had died. I asked him how it had been out in the water. He told me it wasn’t suicide, not exactly, unless you believed that Karl Menninger shit. And yes, he said, I’m named after Karl Menninger, the shrink. Then he told me how he had a wet suit and his tide charts and had it figured for the ebb but then he realized too late, far out in the water, maybe a mile out, with a cold wintry sky overhead—a front was heading down from Albany but he figured he had it timed right—that he had used last year’s tide chart, and when he got out into the middle of the river he could feel the fingers (weird dream language) of current pulling him, a big hand. And right then my dream lost all shape, turned surreal, and he was telling me to calm down because I was in the water, too. But I was much younger in the dream, just a kid in an old orange canvas life jacket, and it was clear that we were both going to drown together because fingers appeared beneath the surface, real dream fingers, and then I saw my teenage car floating past, the old Nova with its sandblasted roof full of hailstone dents, pocked as if from acne, and I realized in that flat-out indescribable dream-logic flash that those were God’s fingers, and we had conspired together in our own delusional self-deception. Oh well, suffice it to say there was a floatation device, the pocked roof of my old car, Karl’s face, the river, the current, finger things, the sky, a sense of being in the dream, God’s fingers, and Karl next to me with a fiendish grin on his face.
Karl’s body had washed ashore in Cold Spring. That wasn’t a dream. Sharon and I went up there a few years after some trouble in our marriage to meet with what we referred to as a financial adviser, parking up the road and walking down the hill—some stores open for business, others shut down, boarded up—with the Hudson at the bottom and Storm King Mountain looming beautifully in the dusky summer twilight. We went through the tunnel under the railroad tracks and stood there in the little park, listened to the sound of distant gunfire from the West Point firing range booming off the mountain and back to us and looked at the river and, right then, I had to resist telling her the story Anna told me that night, because to even mention her name would’ve been painful, and I’d have to explain right there, with the river flowing swiftly, that I wish she had come to the window that night, interrupted Anna’s story, cut us off right then so that I wouldn’t know the entire thing but also because then, well, then one thing would not have led to another. I looked at the water and thought: she’d understand, actually, if I told her the entire thing—even the dream, all of it—but then I’d have to be precise and clear about everything and, with the beautiful scene before us, with the warmth that came from the sweet night air, a mix of the tidal salt and creosote, it just didn’t seem worth it. We were both thinking—I’m sure—about Karl and his restaurant and the tragedy of his swim in the river. We were both thinking, I’m sure, about the dangerous currents that ran all the way up the estuary, dug deep by retreating glaciers, or volcanic activity, a ridge meeting the sea so that the sea and the river battled each other twice a day, if you want to look at it that way, or, better yet, lovingly embraced each other in a mutual, moon-drawn embrace, running silently through the darkness of night and in the heat of day past all human folly and abject sadness we create when we’re here, as it would when we were long gone—just bones and earth—as it had before we were here, I thought. Then I turned and took her hand, or she took mine, I’m not sure now, and we walked back under the tracks—the wet dripping of water, the smell dank—and back into town, searching for a cozy little place to eat, anticipating that sensation we’d get, only a few miles away from home, of being on an adventure together in a strange place with strangers all around, and the polite silence of those who do not know who you are.