Northward into the Night

by rthieme on April 1, 2010

Old men sometimes try to tell the truth. But no one listens.

No one listens because no one wants to know.  People prefer to sleepwalk through life. They use the trance logic of a hypnotic subject, walk around chairs they insist are not there.

Old men’s words fall to the ground like birds hitting windows. If you believe that not a swallow falls but someone measures and mourns, then please, keep on believing. Your beliefs strengthen the trance. That makes my work easier.

We hang back in doorways, look down the street, and wait. We have a story to tell if anyone wants to hear it. But no one comes, no one comes, and if someone happens to pass by, they don’t even glance at an old man,  his collar turned up against the wind, waiting it seems for someone. Anyone.

Waiting in fact for nothing.

While wisdom is folded, one aching sigh at a time, into our bitter hearts.

Sometime during that winter, I called Cass and suggested we meet for lunch.

Cassandra is a social worker type which means she would do what she does even if she weren’t paid to do it. She can’t help taking care of people. Long ago, when we were young and I went more often into lecture mode, I told her about Nietzsche’s will to power, and she shrugged. Origins and sources are irrelevant to Cass, while they underlie my work. She responds in the now to the poor and distressed drooping in chairs on the other side of her desk. The roots of their misery aren’t her concern, not as long as they blossom.

I’ve known Cass for years. Like all benevolent workers – clergy, therapists, social workers – Cass has a night side. The shadow is the source of the energy of caring. She’s always been ready to listen, always ready to love. But once someone leaves, her emptiness returns – until another comes her way. She feels complete only when one of those needy people is present. And no matter how many she tends, they always add up to less than the sum of the whole.

As a profession, social work is open-ended. There are multiple routes to making a living, just as there are multiple routes to the data points of our lives. Therapy means rearranging the points in a different pattern. That’s my work too, in a different way.

A craving for novelty frustrates Cass’s yearning for wholeness, and both are equally strong.  She exchanges men and jobs like some women change hats. She worked at first for community services, moving around the departments. She did lots of home visits, engorging herself on the gritty lives of the destitute or abused.  Then she did a stint at County, where trauma doctors got lots of gunshot wounds, knife wounds, torture burns, and Cass got the interviews. She thrived for a time on transcribing their pain. Then she worked at New Horizons, a counseling center, mostly with addicts.  Now she works with women who get beaten up. She has done all that for so long, she has learned how to use her persona as a tool and go home at the end of the day, kick off her shoes, and watch TV the rest of the night.

Litter mates, I always believed. We must have exchanged DNA at an early date. But I was the only one who knew.

We ate at a trendy restaurant on the near north side. We laughed when we read the names of the arcane legumes that had migrated through the Rockies and over the plains to the Midwest.

“California cuisine,” I said, looking as a waiter set down a plate of white and pale green stalks and leaves on a neighboring table. Curly greens, something that smelled like licorice, raw white things that looked like they grew in a vat.

Cass ordered a sandwich with three kinds of cheese, asparagus and a red paste on yellow bread with lots of seeds. Her side salad was full of curled greens and shaved coiled roots. I wanted something hot. My leather coat was zipped up the whole time. I hadn’t warmed up despite walking all the way from my car in that wind. As usual in the city, I had to park blocks away. I was lucky to find a space at all.

Cass looked good. She looked and sounded solid. She was into a new relationship so she was hopeful, again.

She always picked horses that came out of the gate strong but faded in the stretch.

I listened a lot and seldom spoke, nodding to indicate what she called  “empathetic listening.” Through the plate glass window the gray sky had lost all definition. The discoloration became rain as we ate and then the rain turned into snow. There was sleet too and slush on the sidewalks by the time we finished eating, ankle-deep and cold. Cass had parked in front of the bistro using her disability tag and offered to drive me to my car.

She turned on the heater and the sleet squeaked on her worn wipers. She turned all the way around to pull out and moved slowly down the narrow street.

“There it is,” I said.

“What, that? Where’s the Ford?”

“Long gone. I even had a Mazda for a while.”

She pulled in behind the old Toyota next to a hydrant and turned off the wipers. The end of the scraping was a relief. Sleet ran in thick rivulets down the clean windshield.

Cass continued to talk about what she wanted to do next, wondering was it too late, should she look for another job? should she give this guy a chance? Elmer was his name of all things. Maybe it was made up, I suggested. Maybe you have no idea who he really is.

She lowered her window an inch or two, letting the car idle and keeping the heater on. Warm air flowed from the vents while a thin stream of cold air from the open window felt like white icing on a cake.

It was one of those conversations that you can’t make happen, but when they do, you don’t ever want them to stop. First, there was the meal, hot chowder and crab cakes for me, fresh hot bread with drizzle to dip, a delicious sauvignon blanc from Cloudy Bay, the chatter and clinking glasses around us at precisely the right level. We hadn’t seen each other for a long time, more than a year, and it felt so good just to be with her again, eating quietly, taking our time, letting the ambient noise cushion the conversational pauses. Like real community filling in blanks so we didn’t have to do it all ourselves.

Beyond Cass at the next table, a young couple was playing footsie, the movements of the draped cloth betraying their game. The tablecloth dimpled and they looked at each other with little smiles. It made me nostalgic. She turned and looked and smiled too.

Outside, the snow and sleet were really coming down, the snow blowing slantwise across the window and people hurrying through the mess, holding their coats closed at the collar, dipping their heads into the wind when they had to wait for a light. But we were inside, warm and dry. Cass talked on and on as she often did about her life. I had heard a lot of it before. But I didn’t mind. It made my job easier. And it wasn’t what we talked about as much as knowing one another all those years that plumped up comfy cushions around us.

Elmer was much on her mind.

“You’re attracted to broken pieces, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” she said with the confidence of one who has endured therapy and knew her ins and outs. “Yes, I am.”

“Why is that, do you think?”

She smiled, looking at the cold thing on her fork. “I see my own face more clearly when I look into—“

“—fragments of broken mirrors?’

“Yes. A puzzle that will never be complete. As if the wrong picture is on the box or pieces are missing.” Cass shrugged. “I don’t mind. Not any more. Isn’t that the fun of it? Aren’t you like that, too? The research you do is so complex, it never ends. It always goes in new directions. You publish and publish, but there’s always more. Isn’t that the academic game too?”

I smiled and took her hand and removed the fork and set it on her plate. Her body was a little broader which happens to women in middle-age but her hand was still slight. A sleight of hand:  I pressed it ever so slightly, then released. She picked up her fork. Her train of thought had vanished. Something else, apparently disconnected, would inevitably surface and our orthogonal approach to coming to know one another imperfectly over the years would continue.

That’s how I did it. That was my work.

Sitting in the car afterward, I thought I was still doing OK, nodding a lot as I said, paying attention most of the time, when she abruptly leaned and turned the heater lower and gave me a look.

“You haven’t said much about your work. Or anything else, in fact.”

“Oh?” I shrugged, looking away. “I told you some things, what I could, what I thought you might find interesting.”

Cass shook her head.

“Paul,” she said, her eyes not letting me off the hook. “Paul, you told me you were talking to people who had been tortured. You talked to the people who tortured them too. You told me about it. How it affected them, their strange behaviors, their living as if they could escape their own histories, always bolting through the bushes onto side trails away from the main. Then you talked about what you called the real history of the planet which no one knew or only a few people and then you talked about other kinds of life and ancient civilizations far away and God knows what. I couldn’t follow it all. I remember most clearly what you said about the Turks and the Uzbeks. It was chilling.”

I shivered. I leaned over and turned on the heater. The hot fan blast felt better.

“The techniques don’t matter much,” I said. “They’re pretty cut and dried. Different ones prefer different tools, I think it’s cultural thing—“

She looked at me for a long time.

“Paul,” she said, reaching and taking my hand. Her slender hands looked so graceful against my big mitt. “Do you remember what you told me once? About people going over the line?”

I did, but forgot that I had.

“I guess.”

“Paul—listen to me—Paul, you’re over the line.”

My chest hollowed abruptly and I felt like I was sinking. I looked down at her hands. They were slender, yes, but they also showed her aging most.

“You told me, you don’t know how to talk to normal people anymore. You don’t share their points of reference. You begin at some point so far off the track they don’t know what to say.”

I turned to look outside. “Did I say that?”

“Yes,” she smiled, getting inside. “You said you live in a world that people would rather not know. You didn’t want to talk about it either, but you did, some. You had to is what I felt at the time. Do you think I would forget something like that?” Her eyes narrowed. “Do you think I can’t see what’s going on?”

“Why? What’s going on?”

“Paul,” she sighed. “For someone so smart, you sure can be dumb. You may be a professor but … do you remember the books I gave you about trauma? How it affects people?”

“Sure.” I nodded. “They were interesting.”

“Why do you think I asked you to read them?”

I shrugged again. “Because what with the people I talk to in my research, people interrogating others or the ones worked on, or the guys who manage perception, my unusual sources, they all show signs of trauma, right? You wanted me to understand their symptoms, yes?”

“Yes, and why else?”

I shrugged a final time. “Cassie, I don’t know.” I was truly blank.

“Because,” she said, squeezing my hand, “you’re showing symptoms too. Listening to them is almost as bad as being there.”

I guess it was obvious to her. Doing the work she does, it becomes second nature, tuning your intuition to almost silent hints and innuendoes.  But I of all people was blind-sided.

Have you ever not known something so completely that when someone says it, the recognition is like all of the air rushing out of the room? You can’t breathe, you can’t even think of breathing. Then, when you do speak, your emotions are raw like someone sank a shaft into your gut and hit a gusher, because they have been buried for so long, buried under intense pressure, and you feel a sob crying to get out but you won’t let it.

She felt it, too. She took my other hand and I looked at her lap where she cradled my hands in her own. I thought again, she had gained a little weight; her navy skirt puckered on her belly.

“Paul, you can’t not know what you know. You can’t unlearn it. But part of you must know the impact of knowing those things.”

I nodded. She was wearing a ring, not an engagement. Her fingernails were unpolished but smoothed into crescent moons.

I looked up into the inexhaustible well of her dark eyes.

And everything let go.

“Do you have any idea what we do? Or what they do? What people do? What people who aren’t like us, what they think? How long it’s all been going on? How differently they frame the same data? How insane we are, thinking our clocks calibrate the same? Cass, Cassandra, Cass, do you have any idea who we are? How absolutely we are not what you think? How the ground that supports the figure is also in a crooked frame?”

She had unleashed a beast and realized it now. The fear in her eyes was a mirror of the fear in the heart of the human race, ready to make us fight or flee. We have to breed that out. We have to breed it back into recession, into the contingencies in our genes.  We have to make a race that is fearless in the face of the genuinely terrifying.

Cass shook her head. “Do I want to know?” She had lost the offensive. She knew it. She was looking for a place to hide. I watched her cover and duck. Her soul made a furtive movement like the shadow of a bird.

“Paul, I’m concerned.” She gave it her best effort. That’s what she knew how to do. “I’m concerned about what it’s doing to you. You say you’re detached, that you keep an academic distance, but you do talk to these people, you absorb–“

“No,” I shook my head. “No, Cass, I know you think you’re concerned … but you don’t know. You don’t know. You’re concerned about the wrong things. That’s how it’s designed.”

The floor on the deep well of the night gave way. Her eyes darted back and forth looking for something to hold. During that transient glimpse into my life, into all life, she understood intuitively but without words to frame it, name it, make it stable, she went into standby panic mode.

Then her eyes shifted from my face to the window where snow was falling from the limbs of trees and she found a reprieve. Everyday people passed on the everyday walk in overcoats and parkas, a woman teetered by in four inch heels in slush that stained her hose, for Cass a moment of comic relief, watching her step through the mess. Behind the wobbly young woman, the stone of a brownstone mansion was whitened by snow blowing from the roof. The whiteout obscured but could not hide the old solid stone. Then Cass saw as she tilted her head so she could look higher an elegant doorway and above it a second story window blazing with candescent light.

“Paul—“she said.

I shook my head.

“Cass, my name isn’t Paul. It never was.”

She looked at me for a moment, then she looked for a connection. That’s what people do. They try to plug one thing into another.

But there was nothing to plug.

“I remember, it was a few years ago,” she almost laughed although nothing was funny. “Someone called you George. You made a joke of it, saying he was getting old.”

I shook my head again. “It isn’t Paul and it isn’t George. And I am not a professor. Cass, I never was. I never was.”

After thirty-seven years. Thirty-seven years.

”I’ve had so many names, Cass, I can’t remember them all.”

She let my hands loose and they came back to my side of the car. I thought she had accepted my confession and all of the things that it shattered with professional equanimity. From years of practiced listening, she tried to fit the pieces together, casting way back, but some things I had said over the years were true and many were not. Without a picture on the box, she had no way of knowing. And some of the pieces were missing.

What had begun by design in my professional life had became a habit. I hollowed out my life and filled it with inventions.

And I would never stop. It was, after all, what I had been paid to do. But like Cass caring for the distressed, I would have done it even if I hadn’t been paid. It’s what I knew how to do.

It was all I knew how to do.

The distance between us increased at the speed of light. I leaned closer, hoping to hold her in my arms. I just wanted to feel her, I wanted to inhale her earthy scent. I wanted her warmth. That was all. I just wanted to be close to another human being.

But the fracture was too abrupt. In the moment, I had thought I confessed to be real, but as she drew back, her eyes receding forever into the distance, I realized that she saw more clearly than I ever would I had simply as always needed to prevail.

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