Wednesday
Mar132013

Woke Up Lonely

By Fiona Maazel


Graywolf Press
April 2013
978-1555976385


 

They were together. In their way. Dad on a bus, gaping out the window at a little girl and her mom. The pair not five feet away. He swiped the glass with his palm. Stop the bus, he said, though no one heard him. Stop the bus. His wife and daughter tromped through the snow. His wife? His ex-wife, bundled in down, soldiering on. His daughter, whom he had not seen in nine of her ten years. She jumped a puddle of slush. Wore a hat with braided tassels. He told himself to get up. Get up, Thurlow. But he couldn't. He was stuck being someone else. A man to whom life had become a matter of seconds, to whom a bus was the universe, and the instinct to watch, all that there was to being in love.

Ida yanked her tassels like she was tolling the bells. Esme kept eyes on her footing. The bus stalled in traffic. Thurlow willed his wife—his ex-wife—to turn his way. If she could just see his face. He squinted and winced as if to enlist those muscles in the recruitment of her attention. She said something to their daughter and then, poof—she looked right at him. At her ex-husband. Thurlow had many epithets of notoriety, but this was his least known. Ex-husband. How about: Cult leader. Fanatic. Terrorist. On a bus in D.C., staring her down with those eyes. Not the pellucid blue of men who compel for being unreachable, but the crepuscular blue of day into night, a transition as reliable as it is fleeting and, for these twin qualities, emblematic of the thing you'd love all your life. She was rooted to the ice like he'd staked her there. Her heart was like corn in the popper.

He put up his hand to wave and then to knock on the glass and then to pound on the glass, when she grabbed their daughter's arm and began to run away.

No, no, don't do that. Don't run. Why are you running? He'd seen what he had seen. Esme's face registering its thoughts up front, as if she'd forgotten all her training, forgotten how to lie and conceal. Forgotten, even, how to vanish successfully. A few years ago, he'd gotten word they were living in the U.S., but with no way to track them—God knew which government agency was protecting Esme now—he'd accepted the news like a guy at the peep show, minus the part where you get to look. After that, he heard they were in Tucson. Portland. Detroit. Every year a new city. But now: a sighting. And not just a sighting but a reason to live. Because what he'd seen in her face? It wasn't all dread and loathing, which were vestigial, anyway, but rather a vacancy where some other feeling could bed down.

At last, the bus came to its stop. Thurlow pushed his way out and climbed a bench. It was just past eight in the morning. The sidewalk was packed; Esme must have been taking Ida to school. Think, think. How many elementary schools could there be around here? He was about to ask someone for directions when he remembered himself. He'd left his hotel on foot. Broken about four other rules that were especially paramount now: never take public transportation, never carry ID, always use the driver, never be alone. He bought a baseball cap and sunglasses from a gift store. Stopped the first person he saw, who said, "Sorry, not today, pal," because the cap was pink and sequined and the glasses were opaque, as for a blind man. Someone else said there wasn't any school within twenty blocks.

Thurlow spun around. The good news was, he had narrowed the terrain of his loss to one city, when before it had encompassed them all. The bad news? Just because you know where your arm is broken doesn't mean you know how to fix it. Even if he found them, what would he say? Character is fate, my name is Legion, but love me, anyway? He'd been running his organization for ten years, and it was huge. The Helix, a therapeutic community he'd banked to stardom. Scientology in America claimed eighty thousand; the Helix would double that by year's end. But who actually appreciated his work? He tossed his sunglasses in the trash and headed for a Laundromat across the street. A good place to think and summon faith in the possibility of a better future for himself.

In the Laundromat, where the redolence of spring—of flowers and grass, in essence, of renewal—was central, he felt his pulse slow down. D.C. wasn't that big, was it? He walked the colonnade of washers and dryers and settled in at a table piled with rainbow gunnysacks.

Suds tided up the glass of a machine nearby. The Laundromat owner asked him twice if he needed anything. Perhaps just to wash the clothes he was in? Thurlow's hair was up and out like thistle. He'd slept in his sweater, which felt like a blanket because he had gotten so thin. He sat there for an hour. He was just looking at a sock discarded in a basket and thinking, moodily, about its better half—Where are you, better half?—when he saw a parting of dress shirts hung on the line and Esme coming at him like a guest on tonight's show.

He sprang from his chair. Over the years, he'd spent hours fashioning sentences and gestures to launch if ever they met again, but no matter: his gear malfunctioned. The words wouldn't come. But Esme—the world rested lightly on her skin. Under a tube light that glowed in spurts, her eyes were green droplets flecked with gold. Still, her look was the kind that made you take cover. They had lived together once; he knew the signs. She was about to yell at him.

She said, "Lo, just what in the hell are you doing?"

"What do you think?" he said. "Of course I'm going to come after you."

"That's not what I mean."

He looked around the room and saw it with new eyes. "How did you even know I was here?"—though the question wasn't half out before he wanted to take it back. Esme didn't work for the feds, or not just the feds. She worked for them all and always seemed to know things no one else could. "Okay, forget that," he said. "Thank you for coming. Ida's gotten so big. That was her, right? Were you bringing her to school? You look beautiful, you know. Same as always."

She was wearing a wool cloche with its brim upturned, and a lemon scarf that dangled from her neck. "I'm going to start over," she said, and she twined the ends of the scarf around each wrist like shackles.

He waited. Looked down at his pants, which were pleated at the waist. He'd actually left the hotel looking like this, in a squash-colored jersey and pants that creased at the waist.

"Let me ask you a question," she said. "Have you really become a fanatic, or do you just think there's something to be gained in pretending?"

"I'm on a mission," he said.

She tilted her head back and released a dry and protracted groan.

"I was doing this when we met. You didn't seem to mind back then. I'd say you even liked it."

"You do realize that people are rallying across the country in your name? That there's talk of real violence and uprising in your name? Have you lost it completely? Whatever 'back then' was, it didn't involve this."

He shrugged. He didn't know what to say and knew if he said something incriminating it'd be all the worse when she listened again later, because probably every washer in this place was bugged, not to mention her earrings and brooch, which were, unbelievably, of a set he'd bought her so many years ago. He put one fist atop the other. She looked so pretty. He asked if she was well. He hoped she was well because he loved her, but because he loved her, he also hoped she was miserable.

She parted her lips, though she wasn't smiling. Her front teeth were buckled. A capillary small as thread tacked across her forehead.

"Lo, I am just trying to protect you. If you carry on like this, it's not going to end well."

He nodded.

"Am I getting through to you?" she said. "If you don't stop, they will throw you in jail. Or worse. You're trying to make friends with the wrong people."

He said he understood but that he knew what he was doing.

"You are crazy making," she said. "Can't you just listen to me? People I know are all over this cult of yours. I want you to stop." By now, she was leaning so far over the table, the edge looked to be severing her in two. Her fingers were braced like a runner at the line. "I'm worried about you," she said. "Happy now?"

He was. He told her he worried about her, too, her and Ida, which gave him huge pleasure and relief. It was the best thing, really, to be able to speak your heart where it landed.

"Ida is not your concern," she said. "But thank you just the same."

"I can't believe you're here," he said. "That you live here. You do, right?"

"Oh, Lo," she said. "It doesn't mean anything, us talking like this. I came out of a decent regard for you and our past together, but that's all." She folded her arms across her chest and then muttered something about him not bothering to find out more, never mind that he'd been trying since the moment she left him nine years ago. Back then, she had given him a PO box address, which he'd been using to communicate with her ever since. Forget tracing the box or putting eyes on the box—it was in Minnesota, and seemed to forward nowhere—but he hoped she got his letters. Four hundred and eighty-two, so far.

He stood up and reached for her. "How is she, Ez—is she okay? Does she know about me? Does she even ask?"

And he thought: Please. Just bring me traces of my daughter. News of her heartbeat. And with it a small blooming inside, all colors and stars, so I can know something more of fatherhood before my time is up.

She stepped back. "Amazing. For you, it's like these last few years never happened. It's like we're still in our twenties."

"You were closer to thirty."

"And should have known better. But, Lo, it's been forever. Don't you think you need to move on?"

"I don't see a ring on your finger, either."

"There are other ways to move on. You don't know anything about me."

He shook his head. He had no tolerance for this kind of talk. He got to the point. "Doesn't it mean anything to you that I've loved you all this time? That you and Ida are my family?"

She looked away. "Sure, me and all the people you slept with while loving me. So much love, Thurlow. So much. You really are perfect for the job you have."

It was his turn to look away, but only to conceal the joy overrunning his face. Esme was bitter! And this bitterness was sourced in anger, and anger at someone you once loved can only mean you still love.

"Just so you know," he said, "the Helix is not a cult. We are a therapeutic movement. We just meet and talk. And it's not me people are getting behind but the group."

She rolled her eyes. "Yes, I know. Share and confess. Want to share something now? Tell me why your therapeutic movement is armed and talking to North Korea. Because that doesn't sound so harmless to me."

Ugh, North Korea. He nearly threw up his arms in disgust. For all of their time together, it had always been about North Korea. At least for Esme. At least until Thurlow had decided to go there himself. A month ago on a visa extended to a group of Japanese tourists, which was supposed to indemnify the North Koreans against charges he'd been coerced and to conceal from the Americans news of his trip. One ambition had panned out; the other obviously had not. He had felt the scrutiny of his life and doings intensify the minute he got home. The feds had been on him for years, but this was worse. North Korea had made everything worse. And it had accomplished nothing.

"There are extremists in every movement," he said. "Doesn't mean they represent that movement."

"You're really going to pretend you're not responsible for those people? Because last I checked, you're the one who went to North Korea."

"We're not armed. We are a peaceful, therapeutic community."

"For now. But what do you think North Korea expects you to do with their investment? Host a social in Pyongyang?"

"Maybe."

"Oh, Lo. Not even you can believe that. Unless you really have gone mad."

"Has it even occurred to you," he said, "that maybe I had a good reason to go there? That maybe I was trying to do something good?"

She took a seat across from him. She looked stricken and tired. "Maybe no one cares, Lo. I shouldn't even be here, but can't you listen? You're in over your head. And I'm not sure how much longer you have. Things aren't good on the Hill, you know that. They don't like what you're doing."

And this was true. It was a dicey time: January 2005. In December, a tsunami had overrun Sumatra, which mobilized a big relief effort that forefronted just how discrepant was the government's will to aid victims abroad and those at home. The White House had just been returned to the incumbent, in large part because his opposition was a drip. It was the highest voter turnout since 1968; the electorate was engaged and angry, and finally disappointed. The two-party system was offering up leaders no one wanted to champion. The Helix filled a niche, its membership had spiked a thousand percent, and now North Korea wanted in. To fund what it presumed was a dissident movement poised on revolt.

Not that Thurlow had given them this idea. And yet they had it. Perhaps because he was attracted to the North Korean principle of juche—independence of thought and self-reliance alongside an intermingling of people united behind a common cause, which was to be together. That, or because Thurlow had actually accepted their money in the name of friendship. Sure, North Korea was broke, but only insofar as it refused to fund anything but the military, which is to say that it was not broke but discretionary, and that diverting funds into the Helix coffer from a sale of missiles to Syria was not out of the question.

But that did not make him a militant, never mind what the North Koreans thought. Never mind what half his followers thought. There were the members, steeped in apprehensions of the forlorn, who just wanted to belong. And there were the fringies, who wanted to blow up Capitol Hill.

Dissidence and despair. Should he confess this was not the miscegenation of feelings that had birthed the Helix? That this movement's origin had, instead, everything to do with her?

He'd been back in the States for three weeks, but his sleep schedule was still a wreck. That, plus regular insomnia, and he could lose track of his thoughts for whole minutes at a time.

"Stop staring at me like that," she said. "I'm serious," she said. "Stop it."

"Did you get my letters, at least?"

"Have you been listening to me? You haven't changed at all. Always in your head. Always thinking about yourself. What am I even doing here?" And she stared at her palms as if they had an answer.

His mouth opened. His heart frothed. "No, no—" he said, but she cut him off. She had to go. Fine, he said, but would she come to his hotel later? She could yell at him all she wanted at his hotel. He said he was sorry. For everything. Just please come. He had a Helix event this morning, but how about later? Any time this week? He'd cancel Seattle and Eugene and Santa Cruz.

"I'll do anything," he said. "Just ask."

And then he commanded all the readiness and solicitude in his heart to show in his eyes, so she would know he was in earnest. After all, he had gone to North Korea for her and botched it entirely. And now North Korea wanted something in return for its investment that he was not willing or even equipped to give. What was he supposed to do? The Helix was not the Confederate Army. It was single dads, divorcées and widows, lawyers and dermatologists. It was average Americans. People with migraines and high blood pressure. People who watched a lot of TV. Who tested poorly on the UCLA Loneliness Scale and, if asked, would sooner trade the invisible companionship of God for someone to share with in this life until such time as they had to meet God on the other side.

"I might come," she said, but she frowned saying it.

He felt a trembling down his legs but hid it as best he could.

"But listen," she said. "Whatever you're thinking about North Korea, it's not too late to change your mind. To think if it's worth it." And she reached over and touched his sleeve. Then she zipped up her coat in a hurry.

Thurlow didn't say a word. He was faint with hope and fear, which countenanced each other, but warily. She was up and walking out the door.

"Don't leave," he said, and he grabbed her arm.

"I have to. Unlike some people, I actually have a job."

"Don't leave! You can't imagine the strain I'm under."

"Whose fault is that? Just think about what I said. And if that doesn't work, then okay, think about Ida."
He squeezed her arm even tighter. "I think about her all day long. Promise you'll come over later. Just to talk."

She freed herself. He tried to follow her out, but the Laundromat owner, who'd been leaning against a dryer and watching them the whole time, put out his hand, saying, "Hello, I recognize you. My name is Max Chen. I haven't paid my taxes in three years. I have a wife who doesn't love me and a girlfriend who doesn't love me, either, now that I stopped paying for her English classes." Thurlow nodded and called out for Esme, except a woman folding Incredible Hulk Underoos said, "Oh my God, Thurlow Dan in a Laundromat? You really are like the rest of us. Hey, see how big these Underoos are, my boy's going on thirteen but he's still got some issues since his father died and God knows I'm scared to raise a boy on my own and it's not like I have anyone to confide in about it." Again, he watched Esme trudge through the snow, away from him, only this time, he thought there was a chance she'd be back.

"That's good," he said to the woman. "I feel like I'm closer to you already. No wait, I am closer to you"—and he smiled because sometimes for preaching the same thing over and over you forget you also believe what you're preaching. He patted her shoulder. "There's an event later, not far from here."

"Oh, I know," she said, and pointed at the double helix tattoo inched across her wrist.

By now the Laundromat was clotted with people. Taking photos, sharing their stories. He told them all to come to the event; he was headed there himself. At last, his SUV pulled up outside, and in came the driver with such purpose of stride, everyone got out of his way without being asked. He took Thurlow by the elbow and led him out.

Dean was waiting for him in the backseat, with a coat across his knees. "Did something go wrong this morning?" he said, and sent the driver an angry look, which meant he'd chewed him out already.

"Do you really have to carry that thing around?" Thurlow said, and he nodded at what appeared to be a rifle nosed out from under Dean's coat. "It's stuff like that that's giving people the wrong idea about us."

"Sorry," Dean said. "I can put it away, just stick with the Glock," and he felt for the holster strapped under his arm. He unzipped a gear bag in the trunk and, from the sound of it, stashed the rifle among several of its kind.

Dean was head of security. Part bodyguard, part bureaucrat, and, as of late, part freedom fighter. He'd come into the Helix after his wife died, and had ascended the ranks with the hooks of his faith. But now, in his fourth year, he'd gotten overzealous in the prosecution of his work. Sometimes, in a panic, Thurlow imagined him and the thousands like him just miles away from the Helix House in Cincinnati, closing in like zombies but still under his command.

He gripped his forehead. He was sweating. He'd had a Twix for dinner last night and nothing since.

Dean leaned over to retrieve a hunting knife strapped to his calf. He cut an apple in four slices and put the plate on the seat between them. The soft sell: sometimes it worked.

"Any news?" Thurlow asked.

"We're frisking the staff every day now. No cell phones, nothing. Chances of infiltration are nil."

"Good. But I want you to do it twice a day. Morning and night."

"Check," and Dean jotted it down in a spiral notebook. He seemed glad for the orders. He scratched his neck, which was collared in green from a double helix bijou at the end of a gold chain.

They were headed to a warehouse by the airport. "We're expecting five thousand," Dean said. "Give or take. The whole country will be Helix in no time."

"Nice work," Thurlow said. "But get me a new driver."

Dean nodded.
"

And buy me a new suit. And have some flowers delivered to the hotel. Roses. And get to a toy store. No, a clothing store. Ask them what all the girls are wearing these days and buy every color."

Dean wrote it all down.

"Make that two dozen roses," Thurlow said. "Red and white"—because he wanted a bouquet for Ida, too. In the vestry of his dreams was always one in which he reunited with his child, bearing roses.

He looked out the window and tried, for the rest of the drive, to reinstate the paralysis that had overtaken him on the bus. A terrifying moment—to be so helpless—but also transcendent, because how often does love overrun your experience of life so thoroughly that it lays waste to everything else?

They arrived at the warehouse, which could probably fit five thousand, but, just in case: a Jumbotron outside for spillage and stragglers. It was twenty degrees out, but no one would care.

Thurlow sat in a small office. His nerves were like the third rail, like if he thought too much about what had just happened with Esme, he'd electrocute himself. He took a few deep breaths and focused on his speech instead. He thought of the audience, which calmed him down. Five thousand people who'd come to plead their needs. Bodies packed like spices in the rack. Faces upturned, hope ascendant. Tell us something great, Thurlow. Charge the heart of solitude and get us the hell out.

He stayed in the back for half an hour, then marched onstage. In the room: eyes pooled with light, skins pale as soap. He leaned into the mic and began.

"Here is something you should know: we are living in an age of pandemic. Of pandemic and paradox. To be more interconnected than ever and yet lonelier than ever. To be almost immortal with what science is doing for us and yet plagued with feelings that are actually revising how we operate on a biological level. Want to know what that means?"

Decor in the warehouse was bare-bones. Just a couple of spotlights trained on him and the dais, and a screen that lit up just then with a double helix. The sound from the speakers wasn't reverbed, but it was gritty. The upshot was to make this gathering lowbrow and intimate, despite how many people were there.

"It means," he said, "that loneliness is changing our DNA. Wrecking our hormones and making us ill. Mentally, physically, spiritually. When I was a young man, I felt like if I didn't connect with another human being in the next three seconds, I would die. Or that I was already dead and my body just didn't know it. Sound extreme? I bet not. I was lonely by myself; I was lonely in a group. So let me ask you: how many of you feel disassociated from the people you love and who love you most?"

He heard, from the audience, nodding, grunts, snuffles. Applause from a group cozied in the rafters. And a woman who began to cry. To wail with her head flung back, so that her arms seemed to lift of their own accord. She began to talk to her neighbors. She'd been married thirty-five years. Could you really be this alone after thirty-five years? Her husband worked for the Department of the Interior. He was about to turn sixty, was a good and kind man. And yet here she was. Someone passed her a microphone; she shared her story with the room. Sometimes, she said, she'd wake up in the night, stare at the stranger next to her, and say: Olgo, I like cheese sticks and corn in the can, and when no one's looking I wet my finger and dip it in the rainbow sprinkles at the back of the cupboard, and you love these things about me, you know me, so why can't I be reached? And then she cried some more.

Two Helix came up on each side of her. They held her hands. They said: We know.

The woman blotted her eyes with the cuff of her sweatshirt. She would join, no doubt. She might as well. It cost only ten dollars a head to be here, but the reward was priceless. The idea, thus: Come in with your best friends, whose lives are as alien to you as yours is to them, come in steeped in the tide of loneliness and despair that grows out of precisely these moments when you're supposed to feel a part of things, because, after all, you're hanging out with your best friends. Come in a wreck, leave happy. How? Start from the beginning. Start over, start fresh. Tell me something real. At issue was not just isolation born of actual, literal solitude, but the solitude of consciousness. The very thing that lets you apprehend feelings for other people also tends to keep you severed from them.

There was a Pack for her not two hours away. As soon as membership cleared five thousand in any one area, a Pack was born. The Helix was seventeen Packs in seventeen states. Fifty-two million website hits a month. Bonds nationwide.

Thurlow drank from a water bottle. He said, "Now, I know what people say. They say that extreme detachment usually means mental illness, but that the pioneering spirit of individuality just means you're American. Freethinking and unencumbered. But what we have today? When so many of us are destitute of intimacy with other people—intimacy of any kind—that's American, too. And it's not right. Now, believe me, because I know. I know firsthand. From my life and also from polling and statistical modeling procedures that corroborate a decline in frequency of every single form of social, civic, religious, and professional engagement since 1950. These stats are the God of tedium. But I've read them. The Roper Social and Political Trends survey, the General Social Survey, the DDB Needham Life Style studies, Gallup opinion polls, Mason-Dixon reports, and Zogby files. The bottom line? We are cocooned in all things, at all times, and it's only getting worse. Today we debrief with our pets and bed down with Internet porn. So what can we do?" He paused here while the crowd said, "Tell me something real!"

"That's right," he said. "Tell me something real. Talk to each other. Get back to basics. And start feeling better."

As he spoke, he managed to contact the audience with his eyes, to see people one by one, and in this way to blinker and laser his attention. When he was done, he thanked everyone for coming. He said they'd made his day.

Cheers, applause, exeunt.