I am close enough to Katherine to be burned by her radiant sorrow the summer her brother dies, the summer I save her from . . . from what? In the end, it wasn’t her who needed saving. After his death she disappears. For two whole months. As if grief could be locked away.
How are we connected? Had her brother not been brought down by gravity, would she have wanted me? I can only imagine. Despite being near her hours each day at the library, and despite the fourth of July night when we ventured out too far and had to find our way back in the dark along the old railroad tracks, warped into uselessness, they say, after a blazing heat wave summers ago, I never once set foot inside her apartment. Nor she in mine, painted black and furnitureless except for a mattress, a kitchen table, a bookshelf stuffed with everything but books, and a locked metal box with two vials of battery acid inside. Some would say we always met in public places—outside the library, in the freshly painted lobby of a movie theater, even at the post office—because, in a secret spot in her heart, she feared me. But it wasn’t fear of me that kept her distant. And there is something else to ponder: she never told me anything private about her—where was she born? Where were her parents? Did she live alone? Oh I knew the answer to these questions, but not because she told me.
The facts don’t mean anything now: how Katherine’s work as a graduate student in history led her to the university library’s Black Abolitionist Periodical Archive where, in a little room on the top floor with zero humidity and a steady cool temperature, she sorted through acid-free files of the so-called rare black abolitionist newspapers of the north, published during the 1830s and 40s. The Boston Clarion. The Vine. The Free Gazette. When she began her research at the archive, I, an administrative assistant to so-and-so in the library, was the first to show her around, she with her flapper jet-black hair, her long fingers with silver rings, her sandals, her faded jeans, her blood-red tattoo that I saw once twisted around her hip when she leaned over.
Katherine, she devours other people’s history, their suffering. Her appetite for it is alarming, consuming. It looks beyond you, into another region, and right away you know that what she wants will always be just out of reach, and that to her you are the end of a link that goes back and back through a hundred people, a thousand of them, enslaved, and that when she looks at you she is really looking at them. But I am not them.
Katherine’s brother visits twice that spring. He teaches engineering classes at a college four hours south of here and does consulting work for a firm that designs transmission towers. Big antennas, basically. He and Katherine are twins—except for what’s beneath their clothes—and while she is as obscure as a woman from a Hopper painting, he has the sharp, fragile face that characterizes the weak men of our era, and he makes cruel jokes about why he ended up in the hard sciences as an engineer while Katherine softened out as a an anthropologist. (Historian, she corrects him.) He is vivid in his white shirt. God knows what it obscures. I have dinner with them both times at the same minimalist Japanese restaurant at the edge of town with dusty crescent-moon lanterns hanging from fishing line from the blue ceiling. When, at the table, he sees that I’ve not removed my shoes, her brother takes me firmly by the wrist and leads me back to the entrance. The timid help watches silently, in deference to his power. He makes me bow down to untie my shoes and take them off, and from the corner of my eyes I see a framed menu on the wall swimming with red, indecipherable strokes, a harshly elegant secret sign system.
At our table, as the Japanese waiter with a short ponytail hands us our menus, her brother asks me why I hadn’t secured a real job since graduation. He looks at Katherine while I explain, as if to say, see? Against the rules, he strikes a match with a violent, downward jerk and lights his Marlboro with fragile hands. He waves off the worried head server before he dares forbid this. Her brother speaks Japanese to the waiter in sharp, war-like grunts, and orders for us all, and tells us how the engineers he had worked with at NASA the previous summer were racists. Does that surprise me, he wonders? In private, they speak of slaves, he says, and looks at me. Then, he says, they speak of masters. They call Cape Canaveral The Plantation, he says. His cigarette glows from his mouth like a miniature sun. Oh brother, do they, he says.
During dinner, he tells us stories of Japan, of the beautiful trees with white, ashy bark in Hiroshima, and of the bone-like crunch of dry leaves beneath his feet. Her brother, he speaks of the orderliness of crowds, of the politeness of the public transportation workers, of the deference of women towards men, of the importance of tradition, of the way the Japanese respect the past, of the purity of the island.
Making a cross in the air with his chopsticks he commands our attention and says, they have none of these, you know? Not one cross in all of Hiroshima. Fucking superstition. You people and your rituals, he says.
Then he says, sacrifice isn’t just some abstraction there. Then: they accept the past as the past, rather than reinvent it to suit the politics of the day. Do you get what I’m saying, he asks. He looks through my eyes and into my brain.
I don’t know, I say.
How can you not know, he says. His words ring like a verdict.
Late into the night, after they clear our dinner away, he takes another cigarette from his jacket. We are working through many cups of sake. In the still air the smoke rises quietly, a wobbly string that disappears in the air above our heads. He leans back against the bamboo wall and surveys us, his eyes narrowing, his fingers slowly turning the cigarette into an empty soup dish.
There are no slaves today, he says. How is one supposed to feel guilt for something that no longer exists? he asks me.
The past doesn’t exist? I say.
How does it? he asks.
You know how, I tell him.
Where—I don’t see it. Show it to me.
Give me your hand, I say, brave because Katherine is watching, and he lays his palm open for me on the table. I practically tremble at my own idea.
I take a knife and press the point into the center of his palm.
Our hearts are really beating now. The Japanese waiters stay back in the shadows; this is our ritual, after all. Behind the bamboo façade everything is American.
I press the blade tip hard into his hand until it pierces the skin and then take the point away; he lets the blood-dot grow.
What a stunt, he says. Let me do you.
He stands up and comes around behind me and puts the knife on the side of my neck. It touches me, steely and cold, like a doctor’s instrument.
Katherine says, Come on, now.
You people, he says to me, always expecting mercy. Not this time.
He presses the length of the blade just below my jaw and slowly draws it backwards towards him. His other hand rests on my shoulder. I feel my collar growing warm, but I don’t move. I smell my very own blood. Katherine jumps up from her seat and comes over and knocks the knife away. Her tattoo is beneath her shirt, waiting to be kissed. She takes a napkin and presses it against the wound. There isn’t any part of her body that I wouldn’t kiss. There is nobody that I am thinking about except her.
A week later, her brother is dead. He jumped—they said—from the balcony of his seventh-floor condominium to the parking lot below. A crushed skull and broken back. Although they ruled it a suicide, he left no note. There was what you might call “evidence” but it was contradictory, partial, incomplete, not enough to tell a story about what happened: a suitcase was laid open upon his bed; he had recently been turned down for tenure at his university, and on the very same day he been notified he won a large and prestigious grant; he had apparently had a falling out with a colleague over research methodologies; there were no signs of forced entry or struggle in his room, although there were recent, unexplained scratches on the floor of his balcony; the radio was on when investigators arrived.
I am there working with Katherine at the library the day they come to tell her, up in the Black Abolitionist archives. She is, as usual, agonizing over some trivial, meaningless detail from the past. A young, cream-faced, soft-spoken man with a gleaming badge has been sent to tell her. Everything about him is new. He holds his hat in front of him in some fragile gesture of reverence. He is in a place of history. He wears his uniform like a curse. Perhaps this is his first time.
I’m sorry, miss, he says, from far enough away that he couldn’t comfort her, even though he strains against the somber formality of the moment and wants—it is clear—to reach out and hold her. Everyone wants to hold her, to touch her body. Especially in grief, it calls out to be touched. His walkie-talkie crackles to life, piercing the silence. With a swift motion he reaches to his side and turns down the volume.
Oh God, she says, wilting.
This was to be—I could see right away—a moment of great precision in her life, a tremendous break, a new era. A kind of suffering that matters. I steady her as she unwillingly makes the leap from then to now, from past to future. I have a chance to say something to her, to reveal myself, and I almost do. The words shoot from my brain to my mouth. But I hold my jaw shut. I miss my chance. I imagined she would fall into my arms, but she didn’t. She turned to me willingly. It is was the only time I held her in my arms, her body soft and shaking, her warm, white flesh pressed against mine.
For the next two months, Katherine disappeared from my life. She abandoned the library, she stopped riding her bike around town, and she stopped calling me. I phoned her all that summer, but always it was her answering machine, the same feathery-voiced message, referring to herself in the third person, the insincere invitation to call back later. The same message each time, a thousand times. Had she recorded it before or after her brother’s death? I sent her letters. Even flowers. I knocked on her apartment door. I called the police, worried that she had harmed herself.
She’s o.k., a pale-faced detective tells me, looking at me like I’m the devil. She just wants to be alone, he says. How can he know that? What has she told him?
Then, one afternoon in September, when I call she answers her phone, her voice distant, flat.
Can we meet? I ask.
You can’t come here, she says.
By the river, I suggest.
When I come upon her, late in the day, she looks wasted, sitting hunched on a rock by the water’s edge, the sun a low, open oven on the horizon, the dragonflies darting madly, the air filled with an explosion of white dandelion floaters. She is slight in her loose yellow shirt and faded jeans, a simple projection of her old self, a silhouette. I have never seen so much of her skin before. Even like this, it glows. I put my hand on her shoulder.
Please don’t. . . touch me, she says.
I kneel beside her. Her face is white and gaunt, the skin stretched across her cheekbones. In the near distance the low river shows the chalky flats, like some secret coming to light.
I can’t, she says, keep a straight thought like I used to. My brother . . .
Let me help you, I say, taking a risk and putting my hand on her knee.
I’m not a child, she says, taking me in her eyes for the first time. Don’t talk to me like a child. Her voice is severe with new truth.
I need to know, she says with quiet desperation. Her voice is so soft. She is so quiet. The day around us collapses like death. Then she continues: They say he jumped.
She puts her hands up to the side of her head, her fingers across her silver barrette. She rocks ever so slightly.
I listen very carefully to what she says.
Then—it must be out of fear—she asks me an absurd question: do you know what happened to him?
I’m not offended by her question, her accusation, and in an instant I see how easy it is to make it true.
I know what you know. That he jumped from his balcony.
Jumped? she asks, flashing me a cold smile, her teeth as white as fangs. Her uncombed black hair falls forward. She tries to tuck it back behind her ear.
She looks up at the darkening sky, where the moon is fast taking shape. Night birds dart, as if in panic, to their nests. The river slows down like a trap. The air is still. Katherine is quiet for a long time, as if running through some vast scenario in her mind.
Finally she says, My brother told me about seeing your license. At the restaurant. About your real name. Why did you lie to me about that?
A nickname is still a name.
No it’s not.
No one calls me by my real name. It’s slang. It’s embarrassing. But I should have told you. Should I have?
The sky is darkening fast now, the river behind us thick with the smell of mud, the bushes around us ticking with insects. A lonely night bird creaks in the distance. Its day is over.
Did you ever go to his apartment? she asks.
This is her triumphant, incoherent moment, the closest she will get to truth.
Why would I go there? I say.
For any reason.
I don’t even know where he lived.
Not even one time? Didn’t he invite you?
I don’t know. No.
If the police asked you that, would you say the same thing?
If they asked you.
Why would I go to your brother’s?
God, you fucking liar.
The night world seems to have shrunk to a pinprick, crushed down to nothing more than a tiny hole, a tiny pinhole in the vast darkness.
Are you that black, she says finally. The way she says this, it is not a question, nor an accusation, but simply a statement. Everything that she thinks about me, everything she thinks I am, is true.
Do you really mean to say that? Is it because you work up there, in your archive?
But she didn’t say anything else. That was the end of her talking to me. Who should be surprised at this? There is no natural order. There is only what we say is true. And not even that, really.
Right then, I would have said anything to save her, to bring her back from her unreckonable, abstract place.
We are there alone in the dark, by the river, the black world around us as real as a nightmare, and so many things can happen. Maybe it is just her flesh that I want. I could turn on her so fast. I take her in my arms and she struggles like a fish. She breaks free and I overtake her again. She runs into the water and calls out. I grab the back of her shirt and she tries to pull away. We are slipping in the mud now, cutting knees and elbows on the river stone. She gets up and runs out further onto the flats. I catch her. Alarmed frogs hush their croaking. Katherine spins away from me in the open flatness of still water. She runs in no direction. I follow her and seize her when she is tired. She squirms away. It’s a kind of cruel chase. In the night, there is no up or down. We could be falling. She pleads something, but she doesn’t need to. She thrashes with fists and elbows and then runs again, back toward the shore. It is so dark she’s not there. She could be covered with tattoos for all I can see of her.
She is somewhere up there with the other animals, on the shore. I am standing in the water like some creature. If only I had infrared eyes, or the ability to fly, or a way to hear her heartbeat, or smell her fear, or follow her footprints in the mud, or distinguish her breathing from the breathing of other animals. Something strikes my head. I hear my skull crack. A terrible and sharp pain. I am in danger now. Maybe she can see me. Perhaps I give off light. It’s not fair. I feel the blood come down my face, too much of it. Something else splashes next to me in the water. And then something else. She is throwing more rocks. This is her way. Something cracks against my shin. But it is my head that is opening up. I feel the wound, a gash as big as those in a horror movie. In the dark, I could be standing in blood.
The current is stronger now; the water is rising. I call out her name. I step forward, but the water gets deeper. The wrong direction. Everything in my life has tended toward this deepening water. Where is she? The water is warm around my knees and then my waist. How could the river be this deep? In every direction, deepness. I have nothing to wash off, no tattoos. I was saving that for later, or never. My blood is draining out of my head. The volume of the insects is at the highest, a kind of resurrection high. They fill the night air in Dolby. There must be bats up there, catching the fireflies and mosquitoes. Even if these creatures knew how to have bad intentions, they couldn’t organize against me. The water is everywhere now, entering my body from everywhere, while I feel myself draining out from the gash on my head. But I can’t even think about how to plug it up, how to stop it. Katherine should really see this. I call her name. I call again. But I doubt that my sound goes very far.
I lie down in the water, or maybe I fall. All that matters is that it is deep enough to cover me. The current rides up between my legs. It covers my face. It fills my nose. My memory is draining out of my head, mixing into the water. Katherine, she wasn’t one of the people I wanted to destroy. I have about 30 seconds to think of her, one last chance to conjure the sweet hope of her body falling backwards and unbelieving through watery black space into my arms.
About the Author
The stories of Nicholas Rombes have appeared in The Oxford American, Exquisite Corpse, Prick of the Spindle, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Lowestoft Chronicle, and other places. His books include Ramones (part of the 33 1/3 series), A Cultural Dictionary of Punk, and the experimental serialized novella Nightmare Trails at Knifepoint. He writes for The Rumpus.