I was under water.
There was a moment then, I don’t know what to call it. I don’t know what you’d call such a state. An ending, or just a transition? A suspension? Maybe lapse comes closest. For a moment time stopped, and for that moment I was at peace. I didn’t feel it, didn’t hold it anyway, I couldn’t actually call it my own but even so it was all around me, as palpable as the river’s water. It was like the time I crested the Rockies and let gravity roll me down to the Plains. This much I can tell you: the closest this world comes to perfection isn’t some kind of willed built-up thing. It’s emptiness. It’s absence. I heard my heart beat while I was down there. It was the only thing I could hear, the only thing I could sense in that dark plunge, my heart’s outward press and the water’s inward push. For the first time since I’d arrived in New York I had a clear sense of where I ended and the world began. I thought of The Well then, thought that all the water that had never come out of its dust-clogged spigot was right here: I was suspended in it. I floated in the water that wasn’t sex. And then I gave in, for the final time, to Trucker. On our last day together I’d done what I always did. I slipped my shorts off without taking off those shoes, scooted across the seat, straddled him. It was easier if I faced the steering wheel but that day I knew I needed to look at him. My ankles rode on his thighs and my knees flanked his hips. “Hey,” Trucker said as I undid his belt. “What are you doing?” I didn’t answer, just took what I knew would be there, curled my spine, bent my head so far to one side that my ear was practically touching my shoulder. Friction and the roof of Trucker’s car filled my hair with static electricity. On more than one occasion Trucker had burst out laughing at my hair standing on end—Albert Einstein he called me, Don King—but that day all he said was, “Come on now, don’t be crazy.” But I ignored him, just rocked up and down as I always did. “James,” Trucker said, “don’t you realize things have changed?” And, when I still ignored him: “James? Why are you doing this?” It never took Trucker very long and it didn’t take him long that day, and it was only after he’d finished that I said, “Because it was there for me. Because you had it to give to me. Because nothing’s changed,” I said, “and I never could refuse a gift.”
It was the flavor that brought me back. The oily stuff filling my mouth tasted like…like what? It tasted like semen, and I almost swallowed a mouthful of it. But I spat it out as soon as my head cleared the surface. I’m not sure how I cleared the surface. Maybe it was just the air in my otherwise empty stomach ballooning my body upward. Swimming had started automatically, a sort of messy breast stroke, and it was only when I looked in front of me that I remembered the man.
His white clothes glowed under the river’s surface like a submerged beacon. As I swam toward him I felt the salty water stinging the wound on my leg, and it was the only thing real to me, that little pain, but even it had the soft focus of a fever dream, as my mind filled with an image of blood inking the water each time my legs frog-kicked me forward. When I got closer he turned toward me. “Please,” he said, “keep away.” But I just ducked under the water and with seallike agility flipped myself over and came up beneath him so his shoulders rested on my chest, looped an arm around him. “Please,” he said, struggling feebly, “just let me go.” His words were in my ear along with the sound of the river, and I could feel his heart beating against my forearm. “Let me go.” I turned to him, saw up close whiskers and wrinkles, the softening profile of a man slipping into middle age. I kissed him then, on his cold cheek. Pressed my lips against his skin and held them there until he said, “Oh,” and then again: “Oh.” He stopped struggling, and with my free arm I paddled us to the shore, and there waiting for us was a slimy but still solid length of rope or root just sticking out of the earth as if it were the anchor of the city itself. I grabbed on to it, and we waited for what would happen next.
What happened next was that a couple of men scaled the fence and reached their arms down to us. The hero act is catching: there were lots of We got ya’s and Here comes the cavalry’s, but even with all the acting it was only a couple of seconds before they’d clasped the man’s limp hands and pulled him off me. He’d begun to cry, a mewl of shame and chagrin, and the sound only reinforced the idea that I’d made a mistake, that I hadn’t saved this man but condemned him. The man’s crying became a wail as the men on the shore slung him over the fence’s barbed top like a sack of animal feed, his sobs were all I could hear as they reached to help me. I tried to avoid his eyes but they were all I could see. He was hung over the fence like something already dead, but still his head lifted up and he fixed me with a sad stare and he said, “You shouldn’t have, you shouldn’t have, you shouldn’t have.”
For the first time I looked at him. His hair was dark and he was about forty and although he had his own face I couldn’t see it. All I could see was that he might have been my father, even as I knew he wasn’t and never would be. As I backed away from him I felt hands on my back and shrugged them off more successfully than the man who wasn’t my father had shrugged off mine. When I’d backed all the way through the crowd and felt the space empty out behind me I turned and, shoeless and sodden, ran for home.
By the time I made it back to Dutch Street I was nearly delirious. My bare feet were blistered and bloody, the cut on my thigh had opened again, and closed, and a long thick brown streak showed where the hairs on my left leg were stuck to the fabric of the jumpsuit. What was worse was that it was dark, and it had been just after noon when I jumped in the river. Where had the time gone? Where had I gone? My keys were missing from my pocket, also my wallet. I entered the building through the shop and screamed Nellydean’s name until she materialized from one of her secret dens. In response to my demands she walked to the box of ostrich eggs I’d found on the long-ago day I’d gone looking for a touchtone phone, and when she cracked the egg a key as rusty as its predecessor fell into her palm. I snatched it from her, stumbled upstairs, and the first thing I saw was that the computer Trucker had bought me had finally found its way to me, sprung up on the vast surface of my mother’s desk like a pox that’d been incubating for weeks. My impulse was to throw the boxes out the window. “Fuck you, Trucker!” I screamed into the empty room. “How could you do this to me?” But what had he done? What was his fault and what was mine, what had I done and what had simply happened? What had happened? It was all confusing, and it was all I could do to lift the computer boxes to the floor, all I wanted to do was sleep, to slip if I could into the lush psychedelic comfort of a fever dream. I climbed onto my mother’s desk and closed my eyes; the stone was hard but the coolness was like a pillow cushioning my hot body. Like the last, this chapter ends with a disembodied voice delivering a cryptic message. But this time, at least, I knew it came from a dream. It was just a gurgling at first—or was it crackling? Was it a fire, or was it the river, or was it the voice of the headless statue in the garden? I strained to make it out. I opened my ears as if they were my heart itself, and the words fell into my soul like medicine from a dropper:
You’re safe here.
Well. It’s what I had said to Divine, and it had been a lie then too.