Authors: Ben Dolnick
“Jesus Christ, this is idiotic.” She wrapped herself in a towel and left me lying on the floor, looking at the underside of the sink, my back stuck to cold porcelain, surrounded by the smell of blown-out candles.
We had one of our only bad fights that afternoon, storming around the house in our towels, unable to wave our arms. She said that if I was calling her a slut then I should just go ahead and say it, and I said that if she was looking for some
dumb Texan fuck buddy then she should find somebody else, because that wasn’t who—
“How do you know he’s Texan?”
“No, I didn’t.”
On most days my strategy was less direct, if not any more successful. I’d started doing push-ups (which required clearing a space on the floor of my room and waiting for Joel to leave for work in the morning, so he wouldn’t ask me what I was doing). Whenever I sat around I squeezed a tennis ball, switching hands every couple of minutes. I tried, when Anna and I were together, to cultivate an air of … mysterious masculinity. Sensitive cowboy-hood. I let stubble grow on my cheeks. I carried her up the stairs and laid her on the bed as gently as if I were launching a raft. I let her know that I was thinking of spending a month this summer driving across the country alone.
I should never have tried. My appeal, what appeal I had, was of a different type—tousled and sandy haired and slightly soft around the edges. Women wanted to mother me, not be ravaged by me. I’d known that at various points, but in my state that spring I’d forgotten it. And so I was on a campaign to ravage; like a caveman assailant I dragged her to the floor in that gloomy front room. I lifted her up onto the workbench in the basement. And on the hot night in May when everything ended, I led her, kissing and shedding clothes and stumbling, directly from the front door where she met me to the kitchen in the back of the house, where, in only my socks, I swept aside a bagful of junk mail and laid her on the same small table where we’d sat drinking tea four months earlier.
In my defense, it was a Sunday, which was one of the nights that Peter had the boys, and it was eight o’clock, which meant that it was too dark outside for neighbors to see in. I’d thought about these things, which is probably an argument
against my being the sort of person who should have his way with people on kitchen tables.
… yes … yes … oh my God, you’re so … Oh my God, there … yes …
There was often a point, when I was a teenager masturbating in my room, when I would think:
If someone were to walk in right this second I don’t think I could stop
. The orgasm gravity was such that all considerations, even ones about not masturbating in front of my mom or Frank, were out the window. At the time I’d never had occasion to find out if this was really true.
It turns out it’s never too late to stop, really. Gravity can be reversed in the time it takes to snap your fingers. Or in the time it takes to hear someone rap his knuckles against the glass in the kitchen door.
It was strange, in retrospect, how immediately I knew that the sound wasn’t made by a squirrel or a branch or by anything other than someone watching us. Peter’s face was about a quarter inch from the window (he had to hunch slightly to look in, and he held one hand like a visor to his forehead). Beside and behind him were the tops of two little brown-blond heads. Thomas used to think it was funny, when I fell asleep watching a movie, to wake me up by putting his face as close to mine as he could and waiting. This felt like that, if instead of Thomas’s face waiting when I opened my eyes I found a lion’s. Only because a chair was behind me did I not turn and race out of the room.
chemicals that were dumped into my bloodstream made everything seem fine-grained and slow. It seemed to take minutes for Anna to grab a dish towel from the faucet with which to (sort of) cover herself, minutes for her to unlock and open the door, minutes for Peter to enter and begin to shout, minutes for me to pick up the red oven mitt and settle on a way of holding it so as to minimize my exposure. My penis hung there dumb as a diving board. Luckily, if anything in this scene could be called lucky, Peter was so fixated
on Anna, grabbing her by the arms and shaking her, that he seemed hardly to see me. And he’d apparently sent the boys (I could just hear the littlest bits of their voices) out to wait on the patio.
Peter and Anna were like two dogs that needed to be separated.
You selfish bitch—
“You motherfucker, come into my house—”
You slut, fucking this piece-of-shit tutor—
“Spying on me—”
You ought to be in jail—
“I hate you—”
You will never see the boys again—
“You just fucking try—”
Oh I will—
“You make me sick—”
At some point I realized that I was inching my way backward and that I was now practically in the kitchen doorway. Peter noticed it too. “And just what the fuck do you think you’re doing?” he said, stepping toward me.
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t have any fucking idea what I’m going to—”
I didn’t know if he was going to stab me or tackle me or just keep walking toward me until he had me against the doorframe. So in one terrible butt-baring instant, I made a run for my pants and shirt (I’d have to do without my underwear) and, dressing as I fumbled with the door, bashing my shin on a bench, I escaped. I didn’t look back to see if he was behind me, or if a butcher’s knife was spinning toward me. I just wanted never to hear from or have anything to do with any of these people ever again. Close the door and change my phone number and change my name and be done.
I felt as if I were crazy. The street seemed so calm and springlike and ordinary as I limped down the steps that if my pants hadn’t been unbuttoned, and if I hadn’t been carrying my sneakers, I might have believed that none of it had really
happened. I ducked into the coffee shop on Wisconsin where Anna and I had gone that first afternoon and hurried past the hostess to the bathroom, where I locked myself in and waited long enough—at least fifteen minutes, sitting on the toilet tank and dabbing at my face with wet paper towels—to be convinced that Peter wasn’t out looking for me with a gun.
Here’s what I learned, when I got home that night to an email from Anna:
Peter had come to drop the boys off because his mother had gone into the hospital after a dizzy spell. And he’d come to the back door because no one had answered at the front and because Anna had taken his keys. And he was planning on calling Barbara, my boss, to tell her that he was going to sue her and sue me and that every fucking parent in D.C. was going to know that her tutoring company …
And that Anna wasn’t going to see me again. It was crazy and self-destructive, what she’d been doing, she said, and she needed to focus now on rebuilding her family. Luckily the boys hadn’t seen anything, or hadn’t understood anything they had seen, but it would be crazy to count on that kind of luck again.
I was too much in shock from the afternoon to know what I felt about anything, really. I wanted to write to Nicholas and tell him I was sorry I hadn’t gotten to say good-bye. I wanted to confess my sins and become a monk.
The next day I got a message from Barbara that I could only stand to listen to the first few seconds of.
Adam, I don’t know where you are right now or what’s going on, but you really need to call me,
need to call me, because I just had one of the most disturbing conversations of my life and I am freaking out because …
I spent the rest of that week in the apartment, in my bedroom, like Saddam Hussein in his spider hole. I gathered, from the quality of light in my one high window, that it was
beautiful outside, but I had no real idea. Eventually I turned off my phone. I told Joel I was fine but I needed to be left alone for a while. Every couple of hours I worked myself into a panic that I was going to be in some kind of legal trouble, which would send me to the computer, where I’d lose myself in dozens of pages of useless, panic-worsening discussion threads about people with distantly related, or not at all related, problems.
On one of these afternoons I opened my computer and there was an email from Claire.
Hey you. Is this totally awkward? I was all convinced that I definitely shouldn’t write to you and that you might still be mad at me, or that I should be mad at you or something, but I’m kind of hoping all that’s passed. Has it? I definitely feel on my end like there’s been some kind of clearing up. Or maybe I just miss you? Or maybe the weather’s just nice? Hard to say. But if you’re still around and if you feel like getting a cup of coffee, consider me up for it.
I understood that I’d been waiting for a note like this for a long time, that some important emotional buttons were being pushed, but for the moment the wiring in me all seemed to be disconnected.
Hard to say
. My adult life, which I’d thought I could build over the mess of my teenage life, had collapsed around me with a kind of beautiful speed. Sometimes I thought I was going to end up in jail, sometimes I thought I was going to end up driving into the Chesapeake Bay. My forearms were noticeably bigger. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had a glass of water.
Barbara sent me a letter on Capitol Tutoring letterhead telling me that I was in no way associated with the company,
and that if I sought contact with Peter or Anna or any of the Raffertys, she was leaving open the possibility of legal action.
Claire sent me another email, this one saying she should never have reached out to me and that she wouldn’t make that mistake again.
My mom called to say that they hadn’t heard from me in ages and they were making flatbreads on the grill for dinner if I felt like coming by.
All of a sudden I had plenty of room in my life for thinking about Thomas. Room for thinking about everything.
I didn’t sleep the night of the accident (one of the very few nights in my life about which I can say this unequivocally), and the next morning, under a sun like a bare bulb hanging just overhead, I had to walk down to Connecticut to get to the Metro to go to work. It was just after nine and it was already ninety degrees; throwing up seemed like a possibility that my body was just barely able to keep from becoming mandatory.
You’d think that coming upon the actual scene of the crash for the first time would have been momentous and horrible, but one effect of not sleeping is that everything starts to feel gauzy. Even if I’d slept eight sound hours on a feather bed, though, there might have been something dreamlike about it: hundreds of cars obliviously pushing their way toward work, sealed against the heat, getting honked at by buses.
Here was all the evidence I could see, in the few seconds I let myself slow down on the corner: an inside-out surgical glove in the gutter and a forked maroon trail in the middle of the road, about which my first thought was:
Isn’t it weird that someone would have spilled something here that looks so much like blood?
Because you’d think that actual blood would have had to announce itself, it would have had to be cordoned off
or cleaned up or at least somehow set apart from the flattened 7-Eleven cups and Lotto receipts. Otherwise what was to keep someone from mistaking it for raspberry syrup or for the kind of fake blood that comes in a white tube and that we used to squeeze onto the corners of our mouths before the Halloween parade? What was to keep a dog, like the German shepherd now walking past with its nose to the ground, from licking it up?
The worst of my suffering in those next few days—which felt like being poisoned, a freezing empty charge moving through me—came over me maybe once an hour, whether I was awake or asleep, helping to stack the nap mats at work or standing in the corner of my bedroom talking to Thomas on the phone. Each time I’d think:
I can’t tolerate it, I’m going insane. This must be why people turn themselves in for things
. But then it would … not pass, exactly, but slip back into some more inner part of my nervous system, leaving me sore and shaken, and I’d think,
OK, I’ll survive, it won’t ever feel that bad again
, and I’d try to more or less go about my life until it happened again.
That the woman hadn’t died was the thing I clung to, the fact I muttered thanks for when I was lying clammy in my bed at night, waiting to fall asleep. Thomas had had to hunt in the back pages of the
for any mention of it (I’d pictured three-inch front-page headlines, global manhunts). We called what happened, when we talked about it, the “Occurrence at Owl Creek,” and we both understood that he was going to have to be the one who monitored the news; within an hour of the accident I’d realized that he wasn’t in as much danger of falling apart as I was, that his coldness or his detachment or whatever it was that made him him was going to be the vessel that got us through this.
The first story was on page A27: