ON THE MORNING OF THE first day of my final chance at a life, I got woken up by Einstein. My dog. I’d had three chances before, and it’s not that they all were bad, but they were false starts. They found me, were handed to me, unasked. This one I chose, inasmuch as I believe anyone ever really chooses anything. If either of us, man or dog, knew what the day was going to turn out to be, we would have tried to start it with something more meaningful, something with a little more dignity than dog saliva on my face. After all, we were both pretty smart in our own ways, though it was hard to tell from just looking. Our smarts were below the surface, invisible to the naked eye, like a lot of essential things in this world.
Einstein didn’t usually wake me up, even if she had to go out. But when I made that noise in my sleep, no matter what time it was, if I made that noise Einstein came running from wherever she was in the apartment and jumped onto the bed, right on top of me, licked me, and pushed at my face with her paw until I stopped. I heard the noise from inside my head, from inside the dream where I was making it, so I didn’t know what it sounded like from the outside. If I was with someone, the noise would wake her up and she’d shake me hard, all upset, and say my name loud. Yell it. “Jody!” I’d apologize, tell her to go back to sleep. One of my girlfriends once said it was the scariest sound she’d ever heard, like some freaked-out spirit screaming to get out of hell. To me it wasn’t even a sound, more a feeling, like I was choking, like I couldn’t breathe and I couldn’t yell, even though I was trying.
Every time, there was this taste in my mouth, my tongue was thick and my throat ached so bad, I knew there was a sound even though I couldn’t hear it. I’d go to the sink and rinse my mouth with cold water until the taste was gone and there was enough room there for my tongue again.
After I got Einstein, maybe a year after, and had the dream a few times, right near the end of it I started hearing her nails fast clicking on the wood floor, a signal to say she’s coming, that it’s okay, I’m going to wake up now. I loved that sound. Einstein would get to me faster than any girl, as if she knew when I was having that dream even before the freaked-out spirit scream hit.
I had a sneaky new version of that same dream every few months. I must have had other dreams, but that was the only one I ever remembered. It had been like that since I was nine. I knew it wasn’t normal, but I’ve always known I wasn’t normal—at least I hoped to God I wasn’t—so I was fine with it. I didn’t want to remember my other dreams. One time I tried to imagine what they might be, but it didn’t take long before my remembered dreams of dying started looking really good, and I never tried that again. I’d have preferred not to remember a lot of things, but there were still ways my mind worked that were the same as anyone else’s. So I remembered. But since everything is relative, including damage, including memory, I spent a lot of time repositioning my memories, having to figure out where they fit, relative to who, where, and when I was at the moment I remembered something.
It wasn’t easy, keeping track of myself in the world other people lived in. It was just something I had to do. I’d known that since I was nine, and was fine with it, too. It didn’t provide happiness, but happiness was just a joke and I’d stopped looking for it even before I’d stopped remembering my dreams. I read somewhere that Buddhism says the nature and purpose of life is to seek happiness, that that’s what life is, an arrow in flight, aimed at happiness. I thought that was an astonishing, even enviable, point of view, since I saw life more like a fixed-finish, pointless race to outrun annihilation. But there was another thought, I didn’t know where it came from, that since we have no clue what we’re really looking for or what we want, our best shot at finding what we were looking for was to stop looking for it. And in the end that still seemed right to me because I wasn’t looking for Tess, I didn’t know I needed her to hold my secrets, and I wasn’t looking for Ella, I didn’t know I wanted her to love me, and I wasn’t looking for peace, I didn’t know that’s what I was aimed at, but I found them anyway.
THAT DAY. I LAY THERE for a bit after Einstein pawed and licked me. Even after I understood that I was breathing and not dying, the dream always left me feeling like I couldn’t move. She waited, next to me on the bed. I had cold cereal for breakfast, Einstein some Purina, and we left for work by seven.
I walked to work, or at least to where my day started, at the office and warehouse of Citywide Glass and Mirror. I’d worked there since I came to the city at the beginning of 1989, when I was just eighteen. Nearly eleven years. The owners, Stan and Billy Dudek, made me an installation foreman after three years. It was hard physical work and I was good at it. And I was good with the measurements. That sort of stuff, math, pure and precise, I could do in my head. Many times, the other guys had me do the measurements for their jobs because I never screwed up, not even by a fraction.
The Citywide mother ship was down under the Williamsburg Bridge, at Delancey and Columbia streets, an excellent location. Queens was right over the Williamsburg; the Bronx straight up the FDR Drive; Brooklyn over the Manhattan, Williamsburg, or Brooklyn bridges. The location of my apartment was another story. I lived in a top-floor walk-up in the East Village, on Tenth Street, between Avenues A and B, about twelve blocks north of Citywide. It was one of the only neighborhoods I could afford ten years ago, but it was also the perfect place for me, packed in shoulder to shoulder with the addicts and drunks and homeless, the nuts and freaks and idiots and arty oddballs. I knew it bothered my family, my choosing to live there, but there was nothing anyone could do about that.
Once, I thought I might like to live in Greenwich Village when I made enough money. It was the East Village’s counterpart west of Fifth Avenue, the other side of the mirror. The pretty, civilized side. But when I walked through the clean streets with their fancy brownstones and window boxes full of flowers, everyone with smart eyes pricking at me, even the little kids pouring in and out of their special schools, I knew I didn’t belong there. I’d just make a mess, bleed all over their pretty, civilized world. I liked the pressure of ugliness around me, like a tourniquet to keep it all together. And there were too many men who stared at me too long and too hard. That wasn’t something I could deal with day after day. The East Village teemed with weirdos whose internal shit was smeared all over their skin and whose eyes looked in. Maybe all that chaotic psychic radiation interfered with mine, with whatever it was about me that people thought they saw, because there I became transparent.
So even though by now I had the money to live somewhere better, I wouldn’t. And besides, the East Village was sort of glacially cleaning up from its X to an R rating so it could make it into the new millennium with the rest of the city and not get turned back at the gate for Excessive Violence and Gratuitous Depravity when that ball dropped in Times Square. Even Tompkins Square Park, across from my building, which used to be three square city blocks of filth and mayhem, and where there were riots between the homeless and the police in the summer of ’88, was a lot safer and pretty these days, with a dog run where I sometimes took Einstein. It was a good place to pick up girls, the dog run, and I did it a few times, but I stopped because it just got unpleasant after I broke up with them.
* * *
RIGHT … THAT DAY. BY EIGHT I was behind the wheel of a company truck, a day’s worth of glass strapped to its sides, heading deep into Brooklyn to start the job I’d prepped for all spring. Replacing windows and mirrors in the Parkside Home for Seniors. It was in a six-story former apartment building, built sturdy in the thirties. Some of its original glasswork was still there, some of it even still good. And some had been replaced twenty-five years before, when the building was converted. But now half the mirrors were clouded over or cracked, a lot of the windows, too, or their frames leaked air and water. I did the first look-see, then asked for the job. I said to Stan, “The people who live there, they’re going to die there. They should be able to see things right.” Orlando rode next to me, Hector and Frank in the back with Einstein at their feet. I usually left her to wander around the warehouse and get spoiled rotten by the girls in the office, or with the loudmouthed, stone-eyed, mush-hearted Israeli guys, probably ex- Mossad agents all, from Sabra, the twenty-four-hour car service company next door, but, when I could, I took her with me. Mrs. Jacobs, Parkside’s administrator, saw how good and obedient she was and said as long as I was careful it was okay for me to bring her. There were almost always other dogs there. Mrs. Jacobs told me they were therapy dogs; their owners brought them to spend time with the residents because interacting with animals was good for the elderly and the sick. She was seriously eyeing Einstein while she talked, taking her measure, and I could tell she thought Einstein would make a good therapy dog. I thought so, too. I’d found her abandoned on the street three years ago, scrawny, scabby, and shaking. She was maybe eight months old, with a dislocated back left leg, broken ribs, a collapsed lung, and an infection in her eyes. She could recognize loneliness and fear.
It was funny, but after seeing Mrs. Jacobs’s face while she was looking at Einstein, it seemed to me that Einstein started looking at me sometimes that same way, as if she was thinking that I’d make a good therapy dog, too. As if she was thinking, Come on! We could do it together! Aren’t you good and obedient? Don’t you recognize loneliness and fear? But I knew it wasn’t that simple. Sure, I was good and obedient. I recognized loneliness and fear. But I didn’t recognize them the way other people seemed to, as bad things, things to be paid attention to, things that should be fixed. I simply recognized them; damp clingy particles floating in the air as familiar and natural to me as the motes of dry dust.
* * *
I LEFT THE GUYS TO unload, went to tell Mrs. Jacobs we’d arrived, then headed back to the dining room, where we were going to start. A group of women was walking down the wide hallway toward me, coming from breakfast. Old women, walking slowly, close together, a little battalion, murmuring. I was keeping close to the right side wall, but I got even closer, until my arm touched the wall, and I slowed down, so I wouldn’t startle or disrupt them when we passed each other. They looked small and frail, like you could blow them over as easily as blowing out a candle. When they went by, they turned their heads and stared at me, but in a good way, the way old people look when they look at babies. As if they were petting me with their eyes. They smiled at me and I smiled back.
“Good morning, ladies.”
One of them said, “Good morning, young man,” and the others all nodded, agreeing with her, their smiles all serious now.
They moved on, turned their heads away. Except the one who’d spoken. She was still looking at me. A space grew between her and the rest as she came to a stop and they kept going. There was a quick pang in my stomach; the lifeboat was pulling away and leaving her behind. I tilted my head and scooped my eyes in the direction of her friends, to get her going again, but she didn’t go. Instead, she crossed the width of the hallway until she stood in front of me. Up close like that, she didn’t seem frail, although she was on the small side and slender. I was just over six feet, she had to bend her head back a bit to look at me. Her silver hair was pulled into a bun at the nape of her neck, and the shape of her face, turned up to me like that, was a seamless oval. No forehead peaks or chin juts, but a perfect oval with no beginning or end.
She said, “Matt?” Her eyes were an unusual shade of brown, a living warm green-brown, like the inside of a tree. But they were strange, too shiny, off in infinity somewhere. She was clutching a picture frame against her body, so hard it was like she wanted to push it right into her heart. Her fingers were like claws around it, you’d need pliers to take it away from her. “Mattie?” Her voice was breathy. It faded away into a happy bewilderment on the final syllable.
The hallway we stood in was windowless, lit by fluorescent bulbs overhead. The light that filled the corridor was bright, bright enough for people who had to be careful how they walked. It was hard, breakable light and I didn’t want to be stuck inside it. But right where I stood, me and this woman with the oval face and spacey eyes, the light was different. Soft and gentle, and we were wrapped up in it together. It was her. Her face was lit from inside, as if she had a luminescent layer between her smooth milky skin and her flesh. I moved away from the wall, deeper into that soft light, so she could see me more clearly, see that she’d confused me with someone else.
“No. I’m not Matt. My name’s Jody. Jody Kowalczyk.”
Her eyes searched my face, side to side and up and down, and they slowly lost that strange shine. “Oh.”
She didn’t sound happy anymore, just confused, and I felt guilty, like it was my fault I wasn’t who she wanted me to be. Matt. “Yeah, I’m sorry. I’m Jody. Sorry.”
She tried out my name. “Jody. Jody.” She shook her head. “Are you sure?”
I listened to the beat of my heart, a sudden gallop inside the locked corral of my chest, before I said, “Yes. I’m sure.”
Her eyes filled with tears. “Oh, my goodness. Forgive me. What a foolish thing to say.”
She looked so sad. “Jody. Such a sweet name. Do I know you?”
She had an accent, from a long time ago. I thought I recognized it, that I’d heard it before, but I wasn’t sure, it was so faint. I should get to the dining room, but I didn’t want to leave her. Her milky skin and her sad eyes and her gentle light. Her wanting me to be someone else.
“I don’t think so. I mean, we’ve never met. Maybe you’ve seen me here before, though. I’ve been in and out over the last few months.”
“No, I didn’t see you before. But I see you now. Why? Why are you here? You don’t belong to anyone. Why are you here now?”
“I’m going to be working here for a while, putting in new windows and mirrors.”
I answered her odd questions as if I heard them the same way anyone else would hear them. To look at me, no one could ever tell that her questions didn’t seem odd to me, that I didn’t exactly hear them. I felt them, the same way I felt but didn’t hear the strangled cries that woke me from my nightmares. I felt them creep through my brain like radioactive dye hunting for a buried hot spot.
Her gaze hadn’t left my face and now her light brown eyes, completely clear, fastened on to mine. “New windows and mirrors. That’s good. We certainly need them.” She smiled.
Her voice was hushed and kind when she said, “Jody. Hai gli occhi di un angelo.”
She spoke in Italian. Hai gli occhi di un angelo. That was the accent. She spoke to me in Italian. The words punched a tiny hole through one of those walls in my head and there was a bright flash behind my eyes. My throat constricted. You have the eyes of an angel. I was aware of her walking around me and away from me. As if from a great distance I heard someone call out, “Tess? Are you coming? Tessie!” By the time I could hear and see again, the hallway was empty. She had vanished. I was all alone again in the present, in the hard breakable light. I looked wildly in both directions, but I couldn’t see which way she’d gone. Whether it was into the past or into the future.
* * *
I GOT HOME A LITTLE before seven after laboring like a convict all day. I’d worked as hard as I could and I was tired, but I wasn’t worn out. It took a lot to wear me out, so I had to keep moving. I needed to be worn out, to be too tired to think.
It was the middle of August, there was still plenty of daylight left so I changed into gym shorts and a T-shirt, grabbed my Rollerblades, and me and Einstein went out again. I zigzagged west, skating through the traffic, six long ugly avenue blocks till I crossed Fifth Avenue and coasted into Greenwich Village. I kept on toward the river down Eleventh Street, like I always did, so I could skate slowly past the double-wide red-brick town house with the color-crazy little garden in front and the piano visible through the floor-to-ceiling first-floor windows.
When I reached the Hudson and the riverside bike path, I took off, flying over the pavement. Einstein raced beside me on a long leash, panting hard, a sleek shadow at my side, her wagging tongue bright pink against her black muzzle. She ran with her head cocked, her big ears up, her chocolate eyes fixed on my face with that look in them. The sun was a huge glaring ball sinking beyond the river, behind the Jersey skyline. It was brutally hot and humid, and my legs and lungs caught fire fast. I didn’t mind; I loved it. I knew what to do with physical pain, how to use it. With each thrust and push of my muscles, each pounding beat of my heart, I patched up the hole in the wall. I skated to the Battery, past my brother Brendan’s apartment and the twin towers of the World Trade Center, jutting up into the sky like a challenge to the gods of destruction, and back up to Fourteenth Street again and again, maybe six miles each round trip. It was full dark by the time I skated home.
I detoured to John’s on East Twelfth Street and got a small pizza, extra cheese. I sat sweaty at my kitchen table and wolfed it down in nonstop little bites practically without breathing, finished all six slices in ten minutes. I still ate too fast when I was alone. I fed Einstein. I took a shower. The new book I was into was on my bed, but I didn’t try to read. The marks on the page would only slide around under my eyes, I wouldn’t understand the words. I wouldn’t be able to read for days, not until I could get everything inside my head configured right again. Instead, I watched part of Blade Runner, just started it from where I’d stopped it the last time. I could always count on its sodden gritty future world, all that rain, anger, and desperation, to blot out all the past and present worlds of my own existence. That night, it turned out to be the last part, the end. “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion … All those moments will be lost in time … like tears in rain.… Time to die.” Hai gli occhi di un angelo. Why did she say that? Of all the millions of things she could have said to me, why did she say that?
Brendan had called while I was out, left a message. “Hey, baby bro. Call me. We have to talk about next weekend.” I didn’t call him. I went to bed and because I was finally worn out, I lay awake for only a few minutes, sifting and cataloging and placing every sound and every shadow movement, before I fell asleep. And then I slept the way I usually did when I finally got there, up and down, one minute out like a dead person, the next awake watching shadows again. I didn’t dream; I didn’t scream. Einstein stayed in the living room.
Einstein lay down on her round pillow bed next to the couch, but she didn’t stay there, like Jody thought. She listened to him move around the bedroom. She heard the bed groan faintly when he finally lay down, heard the click of the bedside lamp when he finally turned it off. She waited a few minutes, then softly padded across the floor in the dimness, back up the hallway, careful that her nails not tick on the clean polished wood, and reverentially settled herself just outside his door. She wanted to be close, keep vigil, because although he didn’t often scream in his sleep two nights in a row, tonight the energy that emanated from him and encased his form, while never calm or light, was a frightening mass of dark and muddy movement, like it always was when he did scream in his sleep. She’d done this many times before, whenever he went dark like that, and like most of those other times he slept quietly after all, and in the morning came into the living room in all innocence to find Einstein passed out on her bed, twitching in the throes of a dream of her own. It was really too bad she was a dog and couldn’t understand or answer him when he talked to her in words. Because there were a lot of important things she would have wanted to say.
Excerpted from Approaching the Speed of Light © Copyright 2013 by Victoria Lustbader. Reprinted with permission by Forge Books. All rights reserved.
Approaching the Speed of Light
- Genres: Fiction
- paperback: 368 pages
- Publisher: Forge Books
- ISBN-10: 0765378833
- ISBN-13: 9780765378835