At the Bottom of Everything (20 page)

BOOK: At the Bottom of Everything
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Date:
Wed, Jul 22, 2009 at 9:36 PM

Subject:
re: thank you

 … One phrase that came to mean a lot to me was “out of the woods.” When Thomas started working, and started seeing Dr. Lennard, and started talking about wanting to travel, I’d sometimes turn to Richard and ask, “Do you think we might be out of the woods?” (We never have to tell each other when we’re talking about Thomas. It’s the ongoing conversation for us, with occasional interruptions for what to make for dinner.)

I don’t know why it was “out of the woods” in particular. I’m not sure I’d ever used the words before in my life. I think it might have gotten into my mind from disease movies, you know, the sorts of things you find yourself watching a bit of on TV, crying when the doctor finally tells Sally Field that the cancer’s come back.

We were meeting with Dr. Lennard one day, Richard and I were, and he was explaining to us why he’d prescribed Thomas the medicines that he had, and how he thought a job could be a very good thing. And just before we stood up to leave, I found myself asking, just almost wriggling with hopefulness, “Do you suppose we might really be out of the woods?”

What a fool. I knew it as soon as it was out of my mouth. The look he gave me was a look he must have so much practice in giving. Just one parent who doesn’t get it after another. I’ll never forget what he said to me. His tone wasn’t cruel—he was actually a very lovely man—but you could see that he wanted to be sure that there was no mistaking him either. “Mrs. Pell,” he said, “with patients like Thomas, what we hope for is to manage the symptoms. Thinking in terms of cures is only, I’m afraid, going to lead to heartbreak. In other words, there are only woods—and we’ll have to do the best in them we can.”

So it turned out I’d get to spend a night at the Noida Radisson after all.

I led Thomas, without either of us saying another word, away from the Batras’ street and down to a taxi stand where a line of auto-rickshaws sat waiting. We were like a couple walking away from a party at which they’d had a terrible fight; I had my hand between his shoulder blades, to make sure I didn’t lose him, but there were quantities of shame and fury I needed to digest before I could interact with him any more directly than that.

We were in an auto-rickshaw speeding along the left lane of the empty highway when he started to talk. “Did you come here on your own? Where are my parents? They know everything. They’re trying to make me say it first. Have you talked to them?”

He sat perfectly upright, but he didn’t sound agitated; his voice was like someone reading off street signs. “Are you still having girl problems? Where do you live? I know you told me but I forget things. I forget everything I don’t write down. I shouldn’t have said you’re a coward. I don’t know if you really are. You might just be deluded.”

I hadn’t said a word to him yet, and at that point I didn’t know if I’d speak to him at all. My feelings, my thoughts: I figured I could keep them all on hold until Thomas and I were strapped into our seats on a direct flight to Dulles. At that moment I was trying to think just about getting us from the auto-rickshaw to the hotel, from the hotel to the Delhi airport, and from the airport to D.C. Maybe he’d put up a fight, maybe he’d shout to everyone we met that I was a coward and a traitor, but I was going to get Thomas home safe and more or less sound if it meant stuffing him in a burlap sack. I could fail in every conceivable way but not in this.

The auto-rickshaw let us out under a massive glass hotel awning (there were palm trees next to the driveway), and even though it was half past one in the morning, and even though we looked like we’d just crawled out from a pile of construction rubble, a bellhop in a red uniform raced out to meet us and to carry our backpacks into the lobby (“Please, sir, good evening, good evening”). I hadn’t felt actual goose bump–causing air-conditioning since leaving D.C. There were two-foot vases with flowers the size of umbrellas. There was, for some reason, a Montblanc store and a giant framed picture of Bill Clinton.

You can’t believe how normal an interaction it’s possible to have at even the least normal moments of your life. The woman behind the front desk (she was younger than me, wearing a dark blue blazer and a neck scarf) smiled and tapped at her computer. We’d like a room, please. Yes, I’ll be paying with a MasterCard. No, we don’t need an executive suite. Thank you, that would be wonderful. Oh, breakfast is included? OK, excellent, thank you so much.

And up we went.

I think now, in retrospect, that something in Thomas’s manner, his detachment, the way he seemed not really to notice where he was, should have tipped me off. He didn’t ask why we were checking in to a hotel, or where we were going next. I’d heard somewhere that murderers get like that, after
they’ve committed their crimes; the terrible thing is done and now everything else is epilogue. Maybe that’s what I imagined was happening with Thomas. He’d confessed, he’d done the thing he’d come all the way to India to do, and now he didn’t mind being treated as a piece of human luggage.

“What’s your mom doing?” he said. “Does she still yell at Frank? She loved you. I’m not sure if my parents did. Love me, I mean. They definitely loved you. I think you were a much more natural fit.”

Our room was fancy, in the thick-carpeted, glossy-tabled way of these places. Our window, which didn’t open, looked over a covered-up lap pool and, beyond that, a traffic circle.

“Do you remember that weekend when we went to a craft fair with my parents? Was that in Baltimore? I remember we stayed at the Hyatt. It was the first time I’d ever stayed in a hotel room separate from theirs. You called the front desk and pretended the toilet was overflowing. We tried to stay up all night.”

The first thing I said, and I said it more to the room than to him, was: “I’m gonna shower.”

I left the bathroom door cracked open, so I could keep an eye on Thomas in the mirror; he was sitting cross-legged on his bed, his eyes closed, his hands resting palms up on his knees. This was the first scalding, high-pressure water that I’d felt in I didn’t know how long. I scrubbed my entire body, rinsed off, then scrubbed my entire body again. Maybe I was the one feeling like a murderer. Every minute or two a memory from the Batras’ would pierce me like a needle hidden in the washcloth.
She counted the brushes of her hair. She would tease me for my belly
. Enough. No. I couldn’t, I told myself, have made it more than a decade if what had happened, what I’d done, was actually as awful as it just then seemed. Get through tonight, get through tomorrow, sleep; then worry about bigger things. Or maybe don’t.

“You should shower,” I said, walking out into the room wrapped in towels, pulling back on my only pair of boxers.

“No, thank you.”

“Get in the shower.”

“All right.”

What I needed, I’d decided, other than to get the two of us home, was to make sure that his truth-telling mission was over. Which is to say: I needed to confirm that Thomas didn’t intend to tell his parents anything about what had happened here. I didn’t think he would (his parents still seemed to exist for him in a reality-distortion field), but I needed to be sure, and my need to be sure was like a bad stomachache. Or I had a bad stomachache, which was somehow tangled up with my need to be sure in a way that was making the feeling even more intolerable than it would have been on its own.

I sat down on the bed and turned on the BBC, my first TV since home. Someone, or multiple someones, was renewing an economic treaty in East Asia. Someone else was no longer considering running for prime minister of Portugal. Then there were crowds and crushed metal and police barricades; apparently there had been a train accident in Jaipur. A correspondent stood outside the hospital.

“They’ve been counting the dead all night, after the most horrific accident in a year that’s had no shortage …”

I must have fallen asleep for a second, or a wire in my brain must have misfired. Suddenly there were tears in my eyes, and for some reason I was standing up. At first I thought I’d heard Thomas leaving, but he was still in the shower; the bathroom door was still closed. “And now, a look at the world markets,” the anchor said, and I noticed that I was squeezing the remote so hard that my fingertips were red.

The world markets were doing very poorly.

The human rights people who say that sleeplessness really is a kind of torture, not to be treated any less seriously than waterboarding or starvation, are right. The question of when I’d last gotten a significant quantity of sleep was beyond my computing abilities at that moment, but it had been a couple of days, at least. Pathways in me were corroding. Brain
surfaces were drying out like old oranges. There’s a level of exhaustion at which you could sleep through your own execution and I seemed, maybe because of a Pavlovian response to touching the bed, to have arrived there all at once.

The next thing I remember is lying on my bed, too tired, or too confused, to figure out how to get under anything other than the top comforter. The TV was off now. And I remember seeing Thomas on his bed, not asleep, lying on his back. Every now and then he’d say something, but I could only sort of mentally bat at whatever he’d said, like a balloon passing overhead.

“The strangest part of this,” he said, “has been that I keep forgetting who I am. That’s one way he said you know you’re ready. Someone asked me my name and I had to stop and think.”

And: “Do you remember when we used to sit out in the driveway and pretend to fight when cars passed?”

And: “The only time I ever really saw my dad so mad that I was scared was when I asked him what it felt like to kill someone.”

And, some time later: “Do you think he forgave us? I didn’t expect him to, but I think there has to be peace in knowing. What do you think?”

All throughout this, the lights in the room were blazing. Really, they were the brightest lights I’d ever seen. Could they possibly have been like that when we’d come in? It was like trying to sleep inside a bonfire. I spent minutes, like someone crawling toward a doorway, summoning the energy to beg Thomas to get up and turn them off. And then, even though I’m fairly sure I didn’t say anything, he did. Or they went off, anyway. Oh, it was so sweet, like having my brain bathed in the most delicious blue-black liquor. All is coolness.

When I woke up again, hours had passed; I was under all the sheets now, sweating copiously, and the light from the alarm clock on the table between our beds had turned the whole room the pale green of night-vision goggles. Thomas was asleep,
still in the hotel robe, holding his fists at his chest. I looked at his face, really looked at it, for the first time since I’d seen him. His beard was so long that it hung off the bottom of the pillow. His lips were gathered into the same thoughtful pucker that he’d worn to sleep when he was twelve years old. His legs, crossed at the ankles, were as thin as wrists. It was 4:09 in the morning, and my brain still shrieked for sleep but the rest of me was insistently awake, as if I’d missed a test or a flight. And then I knew: I needed to email Richard and Sally; this would probably be my last chance to sneak away from Thomas.

Unfolding the bedsheets as carefully as layers of phyllo dough, then pulling on my shorts, my eyes fixed the whole time on Thomas, I slipped out into the hall. Hotel lobbies in the middle of the night are like wax museums: so much uninhabited brightness and cheer. The business center, down the same hallway as the bathrooms, was somehow five degrees colder than the lobby; I sat at the computer all folded over on myself, my leg hairs trembling. The Internet’s another wax museum.
Looks Like You’re Signing In from a New Computer! Would You Mind Answering a Few Quick Security Questions?

I typed the email with cold blue fingers, my brain lowering a curtain every time I blinked.

From:

To:
;

Subject:
I’m with Thomas

Date:
Fri, Aug 7, 2009 at 4:16 AM

BOOK: At the Bottom of Everything
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