It’s Saturday. The curtains are drawn shut so that only artificial light can illuminate your words—not that the words themselves are meaningful. It is the sound of those words you write that reverberate like bird song, and that pleases you; sounds that partake of the density of water, lukewarm, not cool, in a vessel made of thick, clear glass, open to the possibility of refraction.
Outside, a woman sits encased within her car. Alone, she stares at the sun or lights another cigarette despite the cancer from all those years of smoking a pack a day. She won’t give up her cigarettes. Nicotine was always her best means to cope with life, and now that same nicotine helps her navigate the fragmented nature of her damaged brain. Smoking is part of her routine. It helps obscure the cruel nature of her current situation, which she suffers in silence.
You like to think that she is listening to music, playing her favorite songs, the ones that evoke a rare, unconscious smile and that brilliant display of teeth for which she is famous, smiles that are the only sign she still feels joy. A brief joy, it’s true, but still one that has value. Her true desire is less magnanimous, but she puts it off for the sake of those would be devastated if she ended her life: her children, and maybe (possibly) a few others. Who can know for certain?
* * *
On Sunday, a cold rain falls as small drips, enough to set your wiper blades to intermittent swiping, enough to wet the grass, to dampen fallen leaves and darken asphalt streets. The boulevards lined with bare trees resemble ruined cathedrals. You feel the coolness in your blood more than in the air. You zip up your fleece, keep the heater moaning, and trundle down the road in the haze.
Coffee is no cure for the symptoms you feel prowling around inside your body. Your stomach feels distressed more than usual. You wonder if the fever is coming back, and with it that dull nausea that portends the acrid taste of dry heaves. No, you won’t let it. You have a feeling the worst will pass. Today is not the day your body erupts into another flare of the illness your doctors cannot cure.
The supermarket into which you wander has a stale ambience consistent with the whine of its fluorescent lights. You amble down aisles of multicolored boxes and cans and bottles, aisles just a little too tall. The open space around the produce and the cheese bar, the fish and the meat counter and the deli, make for a brief respite. Regrettably, the cold air of the frozen aisles, long stainless steel rectangles enclosing frosted glass doors muting what lies within, reminds you that today is one to fear.
You arrive at the pharmacy and its stark white display with only the pastel blue smocks worn by the pharmacists’ assistants to provide contrast. Your prescriptions are ready, except for two items, one called in too early, and one that is not in stock. The ritual questions the pharmacist must ask you answer as you always do. No, you have no questions about your medications. Why would you?
You drink more coffee to counter an impending light-headedness, and chills crawling along your arms and chest— roaring offshore storms that threaten to move inland. It is 11:42. Time is whatever your computer monitor says it is. Your fingers, especially the index fingers that type, complain of the damage you are inflicting upon them. It could be worse. You could be using an old manual typewriter. Now that would have put a hurt on, and how would your fingers like that?
“You are lucky, my dear fingers,” you say, “that I type slowly and the keyboard does not demand much effort.” Your fingers hold a grudge, nonetheless. Now it is 11:50. Five more minutes pass. An alarm is set for noon. You’ll ignore it for ten minutes before you push away from your desk, stand up, put on your shoes, walk down the hall and step outside, back into the rain, push aside the weeds in your path and stumble to your white car with its crumpled bumpers and other assorted scars, much like your own body in that respect. It will take you past many empty storefronts to the place where you must go. Another appointment you’d prefer to miss. The alarm rings. It is 12:01. You wonder what the woman in the car is doing.
* * *
The woman in the car recalls that Michael Jackson is dead. She remembers seeing his face because his music’s playing on the radio. She’ll hold onto those memories all day and into the night, and while others sleep, she will still be thinking of him in an empty parking lot while she looks at the stars. She’ll remember the day she sat in her house watching the news anchor on CNN speak of Jackson’s career: his early performances as child, seducing young girls with his falsetto charm, his years of super-stardom, and his great scandal. She recalls vividly, in one of those bursts of clarity of which she is still capable, the CNN anchor stating that Jackson likely died from cardiac arrest, though anonymous sources claimed he was discovered amidst a number of empty syringes.
“Everyone has a weak heart,” she says to herself, as Beat it plays over the radio. She flicks the ash from her cigarette at twenty second intervals, then returns it to her mouth each time. She inhales the smoke in short bursts. “His life was a fantastic nightmare of abuse,” said one of the people the CNN anchor interviewed, one of Jackson’s former friends. After ten seconds some infrequently used neurons in her brain fire and she gets the irony of a dead man’s with former friends.
* * *
On Monday, you will take a nap after reading a book by Jose Saramago. Not Blindness, the novel that Hollywood adapted into a film starring Julianne Moore playing the role of the only woman who could see in a modern kingdom of the blind, their sight lost by some mysterious plague. No, you’ll read his famous homage to Fernando Pessoa, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. Pessoa died young at the age of 47. He lived and wrote at a time when the fascists came to power, not only in Spain, but in Portugal as well.
Pessoa, poet, literary critic, diarist, etc., elevated the city of Lisbon to a special place in world literature in his masterpiece, The Book of Disquiet, not a novel in the strict sense of the word but a collection of fragments: part fiction, part memoir, part journal, but together a single work of the imagination, Pessoa invented dozens of imaginary personas with histories and lives of their own, each of whom developed their own different stylistic mannerisms. ‘Ricardo Reis’ was one of them. He only wrote formal, classical verses after the fashion of the ancient Greeks and Romans, and was a conservative monarchist. Pessoa is now often considered Portugal’s greatest writer, but Saramago was the Portuguese writer who received the Nobel Prize for literature. Timing is everything.
Pessoa said once: “To feel today what one felt yesterday isn’t to feel – it’s to remember today what was felt yesterday, to be today’s living corpse of what yesterday was lived and lost.”
Saramago said: “I have been successively implanting in the man I was the characters I created. I believe without them I wouldn’t be the person I am …”
Those two statements should be linked together, for they say something essential about life, yours and the life of the woman in the car. One day you will discover what they mean, but not today.
* * *
Tonight, you’ll have this nightmare:
You find yourself at a concert hall, huddled in a red velvet seat, worn out, chilled, feverish. The program is works by Debussy and nothing else. Extravagant, even for this conductor, you thought as you purchased the tickets. Two tickets. The empty seat beside you is one more piece of evidence of another disappointment, another failed opportunity.
How insincere he had sounded on the phone, backing out two hours before the concert. You’re certain now. It’s someone else, someone at the office, no doubt. Not that garish blonde secretary of his; you know she’s not his type, despite her obvious flirtations, and the low cut blouses, a size too small, which she wears, and that drip dry voice you can still hear in your head whenever you call. No, he’s not that vulgar a person. He prefers to fuck his peers.
The orchestra is playing Clair de Lune, an unusual arrangement for a full orchestra. The musicians pluck their string instruments, viola, violin and cello, to create the illusion of piano keys. The lazy pace of the piece has the effect of taking a sedative. Two Xanax and a glass of red wine—that was a favorite of yours before the change occurred. Now music is best for your frazzled mind. Normally you feel edgy the day of your chemo, because of the steroids they pump you full of, but not tonight. Perhaps it is better to be alone, for you could not tolerate the sight of him sneaking looks at you, checking to see if your pallor is too gray, holding your hand more to check your temperature than out of any romantic impulse.
Lost in these thoughts, it’s a while before you notice the music has changed. Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun has begun, at last. Such a wonder to hear it performed and so beautiful. Yet, looking around, you notice many empty seats. That’s odd. The hall was packed earlier. Where has everyone gone?
Now the conductor turns slowly, counter-clockwise, as his podium revolves. When it stops, he points his baton directly at you. What are you supposed to do? The music has ceased, and the entire orchestra is waiting—but for what? The conductor shakes his head. He’s angry.. The color in his cheeks, a dark rose, practically shouts stroke. He starts yelling, throwing his arms up, screaming your name, cursing at you in Italian. He walks off the stage and approaches you, Row GG, Seat 26. He raises the baton above his head as if he means to strike a blow, and you cower beneath him.
And just like that, the spell is over. You hear people rising from their seats to applaud. The conductor bows. The soloist returns for her reward: a standing ovation. Then the lights come up and the musicians walk off the stage, leaving their instruments behind. You hear the rustle of furs pulled over bare shoulders, and see people moving distractedly toward the rear exits and the two side exits. You feel faint, flushed. Dizzy. Vertigo hits and you can’t stand up.
Why is no one coming to help? Can’t they see that you are too weak to help yourself? Where are the ushers? You panic. You try to call for help, but all that comes out is some low hum, like the sound of a generator buried underground. A fog rolls in as everyone leaves you alone, cold, delirious, terrified. Then, through the haze, you see his face spinning around yours with that idiotic grin he makes. “Stop it!” you want to say. But you can’t. The grin continues, and his eyes, creased nearly shut, mock your distress. That’s the true horror, his fat face, laughing forever, fixed on you.
That’s when you will awaken, struggling for breath like a drowned fish.
* * *
You’re looking at a face in the mirror, more beautiful than your own, younger, triangular in shape with just the right amount of eyeliner and mascara to heighten the effect of its strawberry blonde hair, a pixie cut. It’s the face you once wished could have been yours. Not like this dreary, sagging monster of a face with violet shadows under your eyes and papillomas that erupt from your skin like random bumps on old suede leather shoes.
You have to pick up your youngest from the library. She will chatter and fill the car with a wall of sound that will reverberate inside your head. She will laugh, sing, tell stories about her day, and comment on your many flaws with the arrogance of the young woman she is, an arrogance that is appealing because it borders on an inherent self-parody. She will smile often.
You will not think of all the terrible things that could happen to her. You will let her lead you down her happy path, though you know the grief she holds inside is just beyond the mask her mocking playfulness cannot completely submerge. A grief you both share for the woman in the car.
* * *
You see the woman in the car in the rear view mirror. You share her last name, the nicotine stains on her teeth and mouth, her unpaid cable bills, the bottle of Kahlua on the bedside table. She drinks it with half-and-half over ice. She remembers a few of Jackson’s songs from Thriller, though not all the lyrics, but most of the melodies. She recalls dancing to his music when dancing at clubs was all that mattered, when each night blended together into a mixture of dancing in the dark to strobe lights. The same memories as yours, when anxious men bought you drink after drink, which you willingly accepted, shifting your weight at the bar to the beat. Later, during a lull in the music, you would sneak into the Lady’s room with friends to snort another line of coke to balance out the alcohol, to keep you on that raggedy edge.
Then you would dash quickly back out, unaware of the white powder that circled your nostrils, when Beat It blasted out of giant speakers and the dance floor was packed. You felt compelled to join the mass of people, needing the heat from all those sweaty bodies mindlessly moving in rhythm to Michael Jackson’s voice to feel alive.
* * *
Michael Jackson is still on the mind of the woman in the car. She speaks to him. “Are you happy now?”she asks. “Are you in that so-called better place?” She raises a glass of wine to her lips and empties it. Dizzy, she reaches for the TV remote, fumbling a while before changing the channel. Charley’s Angels is on MeTV, that first season when Farrah was the big star who overshadowed the other two “angels” not fortunate enough to be blonde. Farrah is dead too, poor girl, a sad, lingering death. When not in the car, she needs something as vacuous as Charley’s Angels to take the edge off. So she watches those three immaculately beautiful women with hair styles that no one wears anymore listening intently to the mellifluous voice of the unseen Charlie coming out of the speaker phone telling them all what to do. He is blind to them, but they follow his orders anyway. She doesn’t stop to think why.
* * *
You wonder: Does the woman in the car exist, or have you imagined her? Perhaps she’s a demon who possessed you, filling your mind with her obsessions and confusion, forcing you to tell her story. Perhaps she’s a hallucination and you are going mad. These are reasonable hypotheses. Yet you see her every day, car parked upon a hill overlooking the road near your home. You believe she finds some peace there by limiting what she sees and hears and smells and tastes. Her car, the music she plays, the cigarettes she smokes.
You watch the same road, see the same cars racing along and hear the same engine noises that whir past your window that she does. Maybe you should go outside, cross the road, walk over to her car and introduce yourself. Perhaps you can be friends. It might be possible. It just might.
Originally published by Ariel Chart: https://www.arielchart.com/2020/02/the-woman-in-car.html