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Just after the Fourth of July, my mother called to tell me she thought her hair was on fire. She lived in Nebraska, alone since my father drowned in the Platte River two years earlier. I hadn’t seen her since Thanksgiving and, for the last month, hadn’t returned her calls.
“What do you mean you think your hair is on fire?” The apartment my husband and I shared was near the L and the floor shuddered beneath me as a train passed.
“I can smell the smoke,” she said.
“Do you see flames?”
“I can smell the smoke,” she said again.
“Maybe you should call the fire department.”
“I think I’ll go outside for a while,” she said, and hung up.
I walked down the hall and sat in the linen closet.
• • •
I didn’t tell my husband about the latest call. Just last week my mother had phoned to say my father had come home for breakfast, that his clothes were just a little wet and it looked like everything was going to be all right. But I did tell Dean, one of my summer school students. Since the beginning of June, he’d been visiting my office every Thursday evening. He was a senior in college, an art history major; my etymology class was an elective he needed to graduate early. I’d been an assistant professor at the university for three years and always reminded Dean to ride the elevator to the eleventh floor, then take the back stairs down to my office on the seventh. I’ll be up for tenure in a few years, I’d told him.
Dean was standing on the other side of the room, leaning against my desk, wearing only a pair of white tube socks.
“Have you ever smelled burning hair?” I asked.
He shook his head. I was naked and sitting on my office floor, the blue-gray carpet rough against my legs.
“It’s terrible,” I said. “It smells like disease.”
Dean was standing on the other side of the room, leaning against my desk, wearing only a pair of white tube socks. He had a swimmer’s body, lean and broad-shouldered, though he tended to slump. Sometimes I pressed my palm against the small of his back to correct his posture. After I told him about my mother’s call, he dropped his chin against his chest and sighed.
“It sounds like you should go back to Nebraska for a while,” he said.
Since the drowning, I dreaded going home. In the nights before my last visit, I was kept awake by memories of traveling to Nebraska for my father’s funeral, of the plane landing and looking out the window and seeing the Platte cutting across the state like a huge scar. My husband had come along, but spent the whole trip nagging me about visiting the Cretaceous fossil exhibit at a nearby university museum.
“My mother’s neighbors have been bringing her dinner every Sunday night for the last year, and she has a cousin nearby too,” I said to Dean. “They’d tell me if something was really wrong.”
“She doesn’t scare you when she talks like that?”
“Of course,” I said. “Of course she does.”
It was then he walked across the room and held me, without desire, comforting me the way I imagined he might comfort his own mother. His skin was soft. He smelled like summer, like grass and sweat and white bar soap.
“It’s time for you to go home,” I said.
• • •
I found my husband lying on the living room floor, holding a photograph above his head. The sofa and glass-top coffee table were cluttered with newspaper pages, editorial cartoons from the Chicago Tribune, the science and technology sections from the New York Times. I asked if he’d remembered to buy more coffee filters and pick up my dry cleaning, and when he didn’t answer, I nudged him with the toe of my pump.
“What are you doing?”
“Looking at a picture.” He flipped the photo toward me. It was black and white. From where I stood, I could make out small, peaked waves.
“Is that a picture of Lake Michigan?”
“No,” he said. “It’s a picture of something in Lake Michigan.” He sat up and pointed at a dark speck in the center of the photograph. “Right there. The monster is what I’m looking at.”
“What kind of disappearances?” I’d asked, still thinking about the dream he had described, of being trapped underwater, but not drowning.
My husband’s career was going nowhere. In the spring, he’d left his job at the Lake Michigan Federation, where he’d been the assistant director of habitat management. After he’d been passed over for a promotion for the second time and dozens of academic presses rejected his book on the lifecycle of chinook salmon, he started spending weekends in his bathrobe and waking me in the middle of the night to discuss the injustices of academic publishing. He sent anonymous hate mail to the Federation and burned an issue of American Scientist in the kitchen sink after reading an article about a PhD drop-out who had recently discovered, quite by accident, a new species of anemone.
Then one morning he got a call from the director of the Mishegenabeg Discovery Group, who wanted to offer him a position as expeditions manager, since he had extensive knowledge of Lake Michigan. Initially, he was skeptical of the group’s practices, but came home from his first meeting impressed by their equipment and organization. And then, only a few weeks after joining the Discovery Group, he told me the mishegenabeg had come to him in a dream.
“I was underwater,” he’d said. “Stuck there, but not exactly drowning, and I saw these huge eyes staring back at me. When I woke up, I thought about the sightings and disappearances that were reported to the Federation and how we always ignored them. I realized how wrong I’ve been.”
“What kind of disappearances?” I’d asked, still thinking about the dream he had described, of being trapped underwater, but not drowning.
“How about the fishing tug that vanished near Port Washington a few years ago,” he’d replied. “No distress call, no debris. Just gone.”
“There are dozens of wrecked boats at the bottom of Lake Michigan,” I’d said. “It probably just sank.”
“Don’t forget the scales the size of dinner plates that ichthyologist found floating in the lake last summer,” he’d said. “They were never identified.”
“Don’t forget the size of some of the sturgeon and carp living in Michigan,” I’d said. “You of all people should know.”
“Laugh if you want, Diane, but I finally know what I’m looking for.”
As an etymologist, I had tried to tell him the word “mishegenabeg” translated into “water snake,” that whatever people had seen in the lake was probably just a big fucking snake, but he wouldn’t listen.
From the floor, my husband reached for my hand. He had a bad back. I held his wrist and placed my other hand on his elbow. He pulled hard against me as he stood, his dark hair flattened to reveal the bald spot on the crown of his head. After the mishegenabeg dream, he threw out his bathrobe and started dressing well again, in pressed slacks and polo shirts. In exchange for his work with the Discovery Group, he was getting a small monthly stipend and had told me salaries and benefits were just things that kept us trapped in soul-killing jobs.
He tucked the photograph into a manila folder and placed it on the mantle, next to pictures of our wedding and a long-ago vacation to Mount St. Helens. He started in again on the sightings he’d heard about at the Federation, how most of them occurred late at night, how some said the creature was at least fifty feet long and the color of moss, how others described it as looking, from a distance, like an overturned boat floating in the water. He told me the Discovery Group had scheduled their first official expedition for September. They were trying to get a reporter from the Tribune to cover it.
“But you haven’t been diving since college,” I said. He’d gone to school in Maine and been a member of the college scuba diving team; during our courtship, I heard countless stories about traveling to the Gulf of Maine with the team on weekends to plunge into freezing waters.
I had tried to tell him the word “mishegenabeg” translated into “water snake,” that whatever people had seen in the lake was probably just a big fucking snake, but he wouldn’t listen.
“I was pretty good back then,” he said. “Plus, Ada and Stephen have raised enough money to buy the group new regulators and air tanks.”
“Who are Ada and Stephen?”
“Members of the Discovery Group,” he said. “There are ten of us, which you would know if you took more of an interest. We already have three motorboats, and we’re pooling money for new underwater cameras.”
“So you’re just planning to remain unemployed?” I pinched the bridge of my nose. At the Foundation, his salary had been comparable to mine, and our rent had gone up a hundred dollars last year. “Perhaps it’s time you started looking for a real job.”
“Your hair seems different.” My husband reached toward my head, then pulled his hand away, as though I might shock him. I realized I’d forgotten to brush my hair and sweep it back into the customary ponytail after leaving Dean.
“Don’t change the subject,” I said. “And don’t think you’re going to dip into our savings, either.”
“What are we really saving that money for?”
“We could buy a house one day,” I said. “We could travel more. We could spend next summer in the Yucatán.”
“I’m going outside.” Our little balcony had an iron railing, across which we’d strung white Christmas lights last December. After the holidays, I kept bugging him to take the lights down, finally giving up in March. He left the door open and gnats streamed into the living room. I was about to ask him to close the door when he shouted my name from the balcony.
“I forgot to tell you that your mother called,” he said. “I took down a message.”
In the kitchen, I found a note scrawled on the back of a grocery receipt: not a fire, just smoke.
• • •
All summer, I’d been trying to write a paper on the etymology of misunderstandings. I hadn’t published much since my first two years at the university, when I placed three well-received papers with Etymology Today. Whenever the chair emphasized the importance of contributing to our fields at meetings, I felt her gaze falling on me. My background was in systematic comparisons, the study of which words had originated from their common ancestor language and which had been borrowed from other languages. What happened, I wanted to know, during the process of foreign words being adopted by another language—surely there must have been misunderstandings. At the start of the summer, I went to the department chair with my idea.
“Sounds more like theoretical linguistics to me,” she said. “What happened to your paper on the etymology of corporate language?”
“It’s going to take more time than I’d realized,” I said. I had lost interest in the project months before.
“Too bad,” she said, pushing a mess of brown ringlets from her forehead. “It’s a timely subject.”
That same afternoon, I went to see a professor in the history department and asked him to tell me about a significant misunderstanding between historical figures, thinking I could start by researching a story. I’m not interested in facts and hard data right now, I said, just talk to me. He looked up from a huge leather book with yellowing pages, told me a brief and unhelpful story about Napoleon, and then went back to reading.
• • •
One night in August, Dean wanted to watch the meteor shower he’d heard about on the radio. It was supposed to be the best one in years. He sat in the armchair behind my desk, naked save for the tube socks. He had once told me he wanted to be an architect, like Carlo Scarpa or Kevin Roche, and that he was already preparing applications for graduate school. I had taken this to mean he’d be moving away after graduating in December. In Dean’s presence, I saw myself as I was in my twenties, the perfect, pale softness of my skin. But more than anything, I had come to appreciate how transparent he was, how easily understood: his excitement, his fear, his attraction, all put forth without reservation. I felt a jolt of relief whenever he talked about graduate school; he would leave on his own, I imagined, sparing me from having to become an instructor in suffering.
“When’s it happening?” I was sitting in the chair across from him, still naked, my skirt suit a dark mound on the carpet.
“Tonight.” He checked his watch. “In just a little while. We really should go see it.” He stretched his arms over his head. “Have you heard any more from your mother?”
I told him that I’d given her neighbors a call and they’d said everything was fine.
“Still,” he said. “You must be worried.”
“Meteor comes from the Greek word meteorus,” I said. “Do you know what that means?”
“Will this be on the next test?”
“It means high in the air.” It had rained that afternoon, though the sky cleared at dusk. I picked up my red raincoat and wrapped it around me, tying the belt snugly at my waist. Dean rose and pulled on his shorts.
He would leave on his own, I imagined, sparing me from having to become an instructor in suffering.
“So let’s go up high in the air.” I opened my window and pointed to the fire escape. Damp heat gusted into my office.
“Wouldn’t that be dangerous?”
When Dean finished buttoning his shirt, I noticed he’d done it crooked. I walked over to him and redid the buttons, looking into his face, taking my time. “It’s the only way to reach the roof,” I said. “We have to get above some of the lights if we’re going to see anything.”
We climbed the side of the building like thieves. It was risky; security guards patrolled the campus at night and there was a chance we’d be spotted, but right then I didn’t care. When we reached the top of the building, the winds were strong and my raincoat kept blowing open. My thighs hardened with goosebumps. I saw parking lots and a soccer field, the open wound of a construction site, a bright yellow pipe jutting from the hole like a robot’s finger. In the far distance, Lake Michigan was black as a pit of tar.
“There’s still too much light,” I said. “We can barely see the stars.” It dawned on me then that I should have been terrified. The fire escape was narrow and slick; I had no idea whether we’d be able to get down safely, and there was a chance I’d be caught with a student, at night, wearing nothing but a raincoat. I told myself that Dean would be moving on soon, that the end of summer was in sight, but none of those things explained the calm I felt on the roof, or why I was living as if these were the last months that would belong to me.
Dean glanced at his watch, the hands glowing neon green in the darkness. “It’s almost time.”
Seconds later, streaks of light moved behind the clouds, pale and swift as fish in a river. I tried to count them, but they were passing too quickly and I lost track after a few seconds. Something about all that light passing over my head, so far from my grasp, made my entire body throb. The four walls of my office felt very far away.
• • •
The next time my mother called, she asked if I’d seen my father. It was a few days after the meteor shower and my hands still ached from gripping the wet bars of the fire escape.
“Not in a long time.” I had been the one to identify his body at the morgue after he was pulled from the river. I remembered the green bruise on his cheekbone, the bluish color of his skin, the way the veins in his face and hands resembled the intricate lines of a map. He’d looked like a Hollywood corpse, a dummy, a joke.
“He was here for breakfast and I haven’t seen him since. Do you think I should start calling the neighbors?”
Her voice was calm. I pictured her standing on the linoleum floor of her kitchen, in a lavender housedress and slippers, bobby pins holding back her graying bangs.
“Dov’è,” she said, Italian for where are you? The child of Italian immigrants, she had, in the last year, started speaking the language she’d abandoned as a girl. The L passed and I waited for the shaking to stop before I answered.
“Mom,” I said. “Why don’t I come to Nebraska next weekend, just to see how things are?”
“Oh, Diane,” she said. “We don’t live there anymore.”
• • •
In bed that night, I didn’t resist when my husband slid his hands underneath my nightgown. I didn’t resist when he began moving over me in a halting rhythm. We hadn’t made love in so long that his body had become unfamiliar to me. The broad hands, the dark circle of hair around his belly button. The lights were off. He could have been a stranger. He went soft before either of us could finish and lay on top of me for a minute, a big heap of man resting between my thighs.
After he rolled away, we were quiet for a while. His breathing was deep and ragged, like someone trying to recover from a sprint. I stayed on my back, blinking at the darkness.
“Diane,” he finally said, and when I didn’t reply, he started telling me about his practice dives with the Discovery Group at Winthrop Harbor. He talked about how strange it felt to be sealed inside the rubbery wetsuit, how it took him a few tries to suck oxygen through the mouthpiece properly. When he first opened his eyes, it was the deepest dark he’d ever seen, darker than the waters of Maine, and he recalled a calming exercise he’d learned on the swim team, which was to visualize an empty white room.
“Do you realize how hard that is?” he asked. “To make yourself see only in white?”
“Haven’t tried it lately.” It was hot and, through the open window, I heard traffic below, voices on the sidewalks. That afternoon, I’d left the university and gone to a nearby park, where I intended to think about my paper on misunderstandings. But instead I read a newspaper article on people who had changed their identities. A new social security number, driver’s license, birth certificate, passport, name. It could all be bought. One person, quoted anonymously in the article, said he changed his identity every five years, so he never had to be the same person for too long. I watched teenagers kick around a soccer ball and wondered what I would choose for a new name: Betty, Raquel, Lucinda. I had planned to stay in the park for an hour and then return to school, but, in the end, I didn’t go back at all, even though I had student conferences. I called the department secretary and asked her to post a sign—Out Sick—on my office door.
“When I got to that place, to the white room, it felt like my head opened and my brain floated right out of my body,” my husband said. “I was completely calm. I could have swum for hours.”
What’s happened to you? I wanted to ask, and wondered if he would want to turn that question back onto me.
I rested a hand on his stomach. His skin was damp with sweat. That evening, I’d found another message my husband had taken down for me on a paper napkin, this one from my mother’s cousin, asking me to call.
“So let me get this straight,” I said. “Your plan is to survey all three thousand miles of Lake Michigan with this group until someone sees the mishegenabeg?”
“We have to track it first,” he said. “Pay attention to wave patterns and water levels. I am a trained scientist, in case you’ve forgotten.”
“That’s not the same as being some kind of explorer.”
His stomach tightened underneath my hand. “People can change. What we want can change.”
“I don’t think that’s true,” I said. “I don’t think we change very much at all.”
“I’ve figured out what I want,” he said. “Maybe you should do the same.”
“I’m working on it.” I pulled my hand away and shifted in the dark.
My husband turned on the bedside lamp and picked up Mishegenabeg: The Myth of Lake Michigan from the bedside table. “I’m learning the most fascinating things from this book,” he said. The earliest sighting of the mishegenabeg had occurred in the eighteen hundreds, when the giant head of a snake emerged from the lake, dousing a boating crew in water. One crew member even claimed the monster had spoken to him in Latin.
“That’s insane,” I said. In the low light of the bedroom, my husband looked different; the stubble collecting on his cheeks and chin made his eyes appear darker, more remote. What’s happened to you? I wanted to ask, and wondered if he would want to turn that question back onto me.
“Go to sleep, Diane,” he said, opening the book. “And dream your dark dreams.”
• • •
A different summer, five years earlier. My husband and I drove outside the city to see a botanical garden in Glencoe. We visited the bulb garden, where red and orange tulips were clustered around small stone statues of foxes, then the Japanese garden, which had raked gravel and gingko trees and water lilies. At the lakeside garden, we watched Canadian geese lumber from a pond, their bodies large and awkward on land, and looked for the birds listed in our guide—cardinals, egrets, warblers, wrens. We wandered the path that circled the perimeter of the property, passing a statue of Linnaeus and a little bronze bear and picnic tables stacked with flyers advertising a horticultural therapy program. We didn’t follow the suggested route in our guide, but walked without direction, my husband occasionally reaching out and squeezing my fingers.
I could not say for sure that I was happier then, though when I look back on that afternoon, the bird-watching and the flowers, the day seemed to mark a turn in the path—as in from there, everything got worse. There was so much we didn’t know in Glencoe: that my husband would be twice denied the promotion he’d been counting on and the book he spent his evenings and weekends researching would never find a publisher, that my father would have a heart attack while trout fishing and capsize his boat, that I would drop my dry-erase marker after seeing Dean in the back of my classroom for the first time. The truth was, in Glencoe my husband got impatient with me when I took too long exploring the bulb garden and, for a week after our visit, complained about the sunburn he’d gotten on his neck. The truth was, we got into a fight on the way back to the city, over an errant comment I’d made in the Japanese garden, about how it depressed me to see so much beauty all at once, as though everything good in the world, or at least in Illinois, was contained right here. The truth was, that same week, in my office hours, I’d come close to taking a flirtatious student up on his offer to go out for a drink. The truth was, I’d always had recklessness in me. The truth was, things were already getting worse. But, in later years, I would not be able to resist re-writing that day in memory; I needed the altered version, I came to realize, in order to keep hoping for something better.
The truth was, I’d always had recklessness in me. The truth was, things were already getting worse.
The last place we went was the waterfall garden, where a fifty-foot waterfall roared down a hillside and into landscaped pools. I was looking at a cluster of weeping conifers and rubbing the rough green leaves, even though the guidebook asked us to refrain from touching the plants, when I heard my husband, who was standing near the base of the waterfall, cry for help. I dropped the conifer leaf and rushed down the bank.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Nothing’s wrong,” he said.
“I thought you were calling for help.”
“No,” he said. “I was saying heron, heron. A black-crowned one just flew over the falls.” He opened our guidebook and flipped through the pages. “It was really beautiful,” he said. “I wanted you to see it.”
• • •
On the hottest night in August, I had drinks with a friend who’d come into Chicago for the weekend. She used to be a university colleague, but had married two years earlier and moved to Aurora. At the bar, she ordered white wine. I ordered a whiskey, no ice. Right away, she asked about my husband. Her eyes were such a pale blue, I felt something inside me go cold if I looked at her for too long.
“How’s he been since he left the Federation? Has he found something else yet?”
“In a way,” I said. “He’s still very interested in the lake.” I wanted badly to tell her about Dean, about what we did in my office and going to the roof, about how it frightened me that I wasn’t more frightened—for myself, for him. But I knew she would only lecture me about marriage and job security and good judgment. The life she was leading now would demand that of her. When she asked about my work, I told her I was making good progress on a new paper and expected to have a draft by the end of the summer. I considered the misunderstandings my imagination had started churning out during my office hours or when I was bored in department meetings: the rebellions that led to the Persian War started when Croesus misquoted the rate of tax increases in a proclamation; the Greco-Turkish conflict began over a misunderstanding about the borders of Crete.
“Did you know the War of the Pacific started over a miscommunication about using guano to make explosives?” I said.
“That’s remarkable,” my friend said. “Amazing, really.”
I was preparing to spin her another story when she started telling me about something that had happened to her and her husband Rick earlier in the summer. “We went to Montrose Beach for the day,” she said. “And this young man, he couldn’t have been more than seventeen, swam out too far and got sucked into a strong current. Or so we thought.”
The waiter came by and we ordered another round. My friend said the young man had been spotted by a lifeguard, but he was actually saved by someone who was already in the water—a woman who just happened to be a champion swimmer. My friend and her husband had watched the whole thing from the shore. They were there when the lifeguard blew his whistle, when the swimmer cut across the water, hooked her arm around the young man, and dragged him to dry land. My friend said it would have been a wonderful story—inspirational, even—if it weren’t for the way the young man struggled against the champion swimmer, and when she finally yelled I’m saving you, I’m saving you, he cried back, I’d rather you didn’t, I’d rather you didn’t.
“He said it just like that,” she told me. “‘I’d rather you didn’t,’ I’d rather you didn’t.’ Can you imagine?”
When she finally yelled I’m saving you, I’m saving you, he cried back, I’d rather you didn’t, I’d rather you didn’t.
“Imagine working up the nerve to swim that far out, only to have your plans botched by some do-gooder Olympian,” I said.
“I haven’t been able to stop thinking about that day all summer,” she said. “I couldn’t tell you why. I know it affected Rick too. He refuses to talk about it.”
My second whiskey was gone. I traced the edge of the glass with my fingertip.
“The boy was taken away by ambulance,” she continued. “He could be locked up in a hospital. Or he could have gone home and shot himself in the head.” She stared into her empty wine glass, as though she might find something she’d misplaced there. “I wanted to find him and tell him I saw everything and that I hoped things got better for him, but Rick was against it.”
“Maybe he made it,” I said. “There’s a chance he pulled through.”
“I know this probably wasn’t a story you wanted to hear, Diane.” She wrapped her hands around the stem of her glass and leaned in close. “But it was just so troubling. I had to tell somebody.”
“All bodies of water look the same to me now,” I said. “Places to get lost in.”
When the waiter came to see how we were, I asked for the check.
• • •
I knew my next meeting with Dean would be the last when he announced his plans to stay in Chicago after graduation. He sat on top of my desk, cross-legged, picking at the hem of his white tube socks. His pale shoulders gleamed. The young man my friend had told me about was still on my mind, and I wondered what it was—drugs? a love affair?—that made him swim out into the ocean and try to leave himself there.
“But the whole reason you wanted to graduate early was so you could go somewhere else,” I said, getting dressed.
“I’d been thinking Columbia or Princeton, but DePaul or Loyola would be pretty good too,” he said. “And then we could keep seeing each other.”
“Dean,” I said. “Where did the word marriage come from?”
“Old English. Maere.”
“And trial by fire?”
“Old English, your favorite again. Comes from ordal, meaning a trial in which a person’s guilt is determined by a hazardous physical test.”
I was tempted to take his shirt with me, a keepsake from the summer when I took my life apart, piece by piece, like someone unsolving a puzzle.
“Good,” I said. “You’re ready for the final exam.”
“The final isn’t for another week.”
“Summer’s almost gone,” I said. “Time for the next thing.”
“Why does there always have to be a next thing?”
“I blame the impermanence of existence.”
“You think I’m so young,” he said.
“You are so young.”
“You think I don’t have opinions of my own, but I do.” He stood and stepped toward me, his arms outstretched. “I have lots of them.”
“Dean,” I said. “Put on your clothes.”
“No,” he said. “I won’t do it.”
His clothes were piled in a chair. I scooped them into my arms. I was tired of the games I’d been playing with him, of the games I’d been playing with everyone. I wanted to make sure he understood me. I told him it was fine if he wanted to be stubborn, that he could just spend the night in my office, then left. On my way home, I dumped his clothes into a trashcan. When I looked down, his jeans and boxers had disappeared underneath silver shopping bags from the Atrium Mall, but his black T-shirt was still visible, splayed across a red gasoline can. It would be a mistake, I knew, to keep looking at his shirt. To touch it. To smell it. I reached down and pinched the sleeve. For the first time, I noticed the collar was faded and pocked with tiny holes. I smelled gasoline, felt grease on my fingertips. I was tempted to take his shirt with me, a keepsake from the summer when I took my life apart, piece by piece, like someone unsolving a puzzle. But instead I just kept walking.
• • •
The next time I heard from my mother, her voice was a whisper on the other end of the line. Dean and I had been broken up for a week. He kept calling, first my office and then my apartment, and approached me in our last class, after I’d administered the final exam. He accused me of humiliating him; he said that if he hadn’t dug through my office closet and found a commencement gown—which he wore home and didn’t plan on returning—he didn’t know what he would have done. He made a scene. The other students stared. When my mother called, it was the first time I’d answered the phone in days.
“Diane,” my mother said. “I think your father is going to kill me.”
“I don’t think that’s possible.”
“He’s been banging around in the basement all morning, making his plans,” she said. “Last night, he kept shouting at me about the lawnmower. I really have no idea what’s going on.”
“That makes two of us.” I walked down the hall and wedged myself into the cool dark space of the closet.
“I keep telling him that he should disappear,” she said. “But he doesn’t listen.”
“You don’t want to say that.” I found my husband’s baseball cap on the floor beside me and rubbed the brim, wondering how it had ended up in the closet, how I had ended up in the closet. “Mom,” I said. “I don’t know much how longer I’ll be able to stay in Chicago.”
“You could come here,” she said. “You could help me with your father and the lawnmower and the doorbell.”
“What’s wrong with the doorbell?”
I walked down the hall and wedged myself into the cool dark space of the closet.
“So where are you now?” I pushed the cap into the corner, underneath a stack of clean sheets. “If you’re not in Nebraska.”
“Da nessuna parte,” she said.
The phrase she’d used this time translated into get nowhere. When I started to ask my mother what she meant exactly—as in, who was she getting nowhere with—she hung up. I stayed in the closet, holding the phone in my hands, feeling on the cusp of some kind of shattering.
Later that evening, I took a shot of scotch in the kitchen. My husband had started keeping his diving equipment in the guest bedroom and, even with the door closed, an earthy, raw smell had overtaken the apartment. I had another shot, then went to look at plane tickets online. I wondered what, when I got to Nebraska, I would say to my mother, if I would learn to comprehend the language she was now speaking, if I would know how to answer her back. I ended up studying the Web sites mentioned in the newspaper article on people who had changed identities: Metamorphosis, The New Life Institute, Disappearing Acts. They all looked like scams, all asked for money up front, and yet I couldn’t help imagining myself as Betty or Raquel or Lucinda, couldn’t help dreaming up a new life: I would go to some remote part of the West, near the Mojave Desert, say, and let my hair grow long. I would live in a trailer, so I could always pick up and go. I would write a futuristic account of a misunderstanding that led to a war that raged for a thousand years, a war that could have been avoided entirely if someone had just said one thing differently. Finally I turned off the computer and stared at the dark screen. I wondered about the one thing I should have said differently, the one thing that set me on this irrevocable course.
That night I dreamed there was a heat wave so intense, the mayor ordered all the city’s residents to take refuge in Lake Michigan. Soon the lake was packed with bodies. The water was hot. We bobbed there for weeks, all of us, even after our skin wrinkled and peeled. Then one day I looked across the lake, and everyone was gone except for some single, distant person—so far the face was a grey smudge. I felt something like relief, like recognition, and started to swim. Each time I thought I’d reached him, it was only a dark spot on the water.
• • •
I came home one evening to find the balcony door open and a strange noise coming from outside. Dean was still calling and my husband had been politely ignoring the phone calls I insisted go unanswered late at night. The department head had phoned earlier that day to schedule a private meeting with me. Her tone had been somber and clipped and after we set a time, she hung up without saying goodbye. I was in all kinds of trouble, and I knew it.
My husband was standing on the balcony, a tape recorder clenched in his hand. He’d turned on the Christmas lights; I noticed one of the bulbs had gone dead. I went outside and stood beside him. He clicked off the recorder.
“School’s out,” he said. “Any exceptional students this time around?”
I looked at him, startled, but he was already staring at his hands, not expecting an answer. I wondered if Dean or someone from the university had contacted him, or if he’d somehow known all along. I pressed myself against the railing, weak with terror and relief.
“I can apologize to you in fifteen different languages,” I said. “Where should I start?”
“I’m not interested in the languages you speak anymore.”
“Fair enough.” I looked at my husband. The bones in his face seemed to be weighing down his skin. I asked what he had been listening to.
“An audio of the mishegenabeg,” he said. “I got it at diving practice. A cryptozoologist in Wisconsin recorded it.”
“Play it for me,” I said.
A low, hollow noise surrounded us, like an echo bouncing around a cave. Or like whales conversing. Or a primordial groan. He played it again and again. Of course, the recording couldn’t have been real, was something anyone with a little imagination could have made, but I didn’t tell him that. I gazed at the lit windows staring back at us like eyes, at the glowing orbs of the streetlamps. This was the language he was trading in now, and I would have to adapt or not.
“What’s going on with your mother?” he asked when the noise finally died.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m going to have to do something soon.”
“And what is it you’ll do?”
“I don’t know that, either.” I had so many ideas of what to do, ideas that felt at once intensely possible and as intangible as fog moving across Lake Michigan at sunrise. I could go to Nebraska and care for my mother. I could stay in Chicago and try to figure out how I had gotten to this point, surrounded by people I couldn’t understand. I could finish my paper. I could write something new. I could help my husband search for the mishegenabeg. Or I could just disappear.
I looked out into the city, at the shadows between buildings, the peaks of skyscrapers. A row of people bicycling on the sidewalk below. A sombrero on a dumpster. The smog that sank against the tops of buildings like hair on a woman’s shoulders.
“Look at that,” my husband said, using the tape recorder to point out a distant building and the pair of lighted elevators rising and falling, so bright against the black of the structure.
“I want to be buried in a city,” I said. “There’s no such thing as night here.”
“Lake Michigan’s deepest point is nearly a thousand feet.” He rested his arms on top of the railing and leaned against the iron bars. “It’s so dark down there, nothing grows. It’s called the hypolimnion layer.”
I didn’t say anything more. I watched the elevators rise and fall and thought about the people inside, imagining a group of four or six—couples, perhaps—gathered in one of the compartments, the slight rush of dizziness they would feel as the elevator ascended to the top of the building. Maybe they were laughing, or maybe they were completely silent. Maybe, just before the doors opened, they looked outside and glimpsed the white lights strung across our balcony, or maybe they didn’t see anything at all.
Laura van den Berg’s fiction has appeared in One Story, American Short Fiction, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2008. Her first collection, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, is forthcoming.
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