Catherine Davis

The Mean Time

You lurch at the top of the sub­way stairs – the flood pass­ing on the side­walk before you is teem­ing and gyrat­ing.  People get­ting ready to have, hav­ing just had.  Sex, sex, sex.  Practically right in front of your eyes.  With some­one, any­one, every­one – oth­er than their one and only.  Sex, the word, is unrav­el­ing.  Turn your face away, don’t try to catch it.  Get off the avenue onto the safe, cool side street, and slow down.  The Park is with­in spit­ting dis­tance, you’re near­ly there.

What day is today?

The day after yes­ter­day.

Yes, pre­cise­ly! Exhausted, you keep hal­lu­ci­nat­ing things out in the mar­gins – like anoth­er life, the one you had only the day before.  It’s all con­fu­sion.  If you could think, if you could form one clear thought, that old life might final­ly let you go.

 

Breathe and just keep mov­ing.  One foot, the oth­er foot.  But you’re los­ing track already, and your knees are threat­en­ing to drop you.  In fact, one half of your body is pulling you down, while the oth­er is wind­ing you up – your breath and heart are begin­ning to speed and you feel some­thing push­ing up from your chest through your throat…

Sunglasses, moron.  Simple.  You claw through your bag, scat­ter­ing pen­cils and wads of tis­sue onto the side­walk.  You nev­er had this prob­lem remem­ber­ing, say, an umbrel­la.  Even in New York, peo­ple some­times stare.  Well, shit, pull your hair in front, duck your head.  For god’s sake.  Do some­thing! 

Put your arm up, hail a cab.  A trip to the Park just isn’t in the cards today; you’re not ready to be out of the house.  Maybe tomor­row – for now just admit it, and get home.  But every­one else is doing it too, all of a sud­den, and a blonde mod­el type with half a dozen Henri Bendel shop­ping bags bump­ing around her is scream­ing at an Upper East Side matron, hold­ing a small bou­quet of flow­ers.  The mod­el must be head­ing home for a hot date – it’s Saturday after­noon.  Lots of horns.  A good time to rearrange your face, in fact.  But here is a taxi, stop­ping for you.  Dive into it, pull the door fast behind.

Before the end of the block, the dri­ver informs you that he does not want to go to Chelsea.  “Need to stay on the East Side, lady.  I thought you were stay­ing on the East Side,” he lilts at you, dread­locks swing­ing.

Why would you think that?  What would give you that idea?  Do I look like I’m stray­ing on the East Side?”  Your new-found trou­ble with words gives you some­thing like hic­coughs.  Staying, no ‘r.’  “Staying, I mean, stay­ing, stay­ing!”

It doesn’t mat­ter, lady.  I let you get anoth­er taxi.  My shift ends in five min­utes.  I only pick you up as a favor.”  He watch­es his rearview mir­ror to see if he can get over.

Let me? You can’t do that.”  Patchouli–and–something wafts from the front, nice maybe, if you had the time to notice.  You slap the vinyl seat.  “What kind of favor is it if you make me get out?”

I was just about to put the on-duty off when I pick you up.”  He has a nice musi­cal voice.  Under oth­er cir­cum­stances, that is – he seems to be a reg­u­lar ass­hole.

But you hadn’t.  It was on.  You’re on duty.  You have to take me.”  He flicks his blink­er, urg­ing the cab to the left.  “You can’t make me get out.”  Your voice is ris­ing.

Hysteria is a rude word, rude.  Made up by… twen­ty guess­es.  Not a woman.

Lady, calm down.”

It’s a law.  You are required to, any­where I need to go.  Five bor­oughs, mis­ter.”  You lay your hands on the back of the front seat.

Look, I don’t charge you.  See?”  A grace­ful brown fin­ger punch­es the meter off.

Your fin­ger­nails are dig­ging into the filthy blue vinyl of the seat back.  You can feel the cords stand­ing out on your neck.  You are, actu­al­ly, scream­ing at him.

You can’t reject me.  I’ve missed all the oth­er oppor­tu­ni­ties.”

Do not yell at me,” the dri­ver booms at you.  “I get you anoth­er cab.”  He looks around, annoyed now, at a sea of crawl­ing auto­mo­biles, rais­es his hand to sig­nal anoth­er dri­ver.

You don’t watch, but push away from the seat you are clutch­ing, thump against the one behind you. “There are no oth­er cabs, can’t you see?”  You fling your hand at the mass of cars, smash your knuck­les against the win­dow.  “Why do you think those women were fight­ing in the street?”  Your voice sounds shrill.

You sag into the seat, defeat­ed, and after sev­er­al min­utes notice that the cab is mov­ing faster and you’re still in it.  Don’t ques­tion a good thing, you tell your­self, but you don’t like the thought of get­ting eject­ed at any moment.  Reject­ed, you said.  To the cab dri­ver, a moment ago.

 

Don’t con­fuse anx­i­ety with love,” your sis­ter told you last night.

What?  What?  Who told you that?” you croaked back into the phone.

Post-trau­mat­ic stress syn­drome, it’s called,” she replied casu­al­ly, as if every­one knew this from birth.  “Forget him.  This isn’t about him, it’s about you.  Move on.”

This kind of infor­ma­tion could have saved me a lot of time, like a decade.”  Why does your sis­ter know this shit while you remain stu­pid as a cow?

Just because you threw up on your sneak­ers doesn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly mean you love him.  Anxiety, love.  Not the same.”  You lis­tened to her tak­ing a long drag over the phone.  “Think about it.”

 

The way your body caves, and keeps on cav­ing.  On, on. Past pos­si­bil­i­ty, so that you are turned inside out.  As you col­lapse, you fall, imme­di­ate­ly, to sleep.

Your dreams have been dis­turbed late­ly, like this one.  You live in a dingy ten­e­ment behind a many-times-locked door.  Mostly on the floor, often under the bed.  You care­ful­ly observe the habits of dust mice, but are too tired to record your find­ings.  You try to won­der if you will be fired for this neg­li­gence, but you for­get what you were think­ing.  Everything is grey.  Such an easy col­or.  Someone brings gro­ceries, dumps them on the oth­er side, leaves a trail of echo­ing foot­steps.  No human con­tact.  Your ears ring, a gra­cious effort to give you some­thing to lis­ten to, once the foot­steps are gone.

You are fas­ci­nat­ed by the mir­ror in the bath­room, vis­it­ing it over and over again.  When you look into it, no one is there.

 

You’re jolt­ed awake.  Woozily, you work out your coor­di­nates: speed­ing taxi, pot­hole, Forty-ninth and Lex, schizo cab dri­ver.  You lift your head ever so slight­ly, like an invalid.  “You’re not mak­ing me get out?”

No, lady.  No cabs avail­able.  I am tak­ing you.”

You whis­per, “Thanks.”  Now you’ve got a good twen­ty-minute ride ahead of you, so you can rest, and for­get about every­thing.  Everything, alas, has not for­got­ten about you – as you slip fur­ther down into the seat, you can’t hold onto it any longer, and you pull your hair across your face like a cur­tain.

Is the radio both­er­ing you?”  the dri­ver asks, rais­ing his voice and low­er­ing the vol­ume.

No, no, it’s great, turn it back up.  Please.”  Why, why, why?

He says: “I think the radio must be both­er­ing you.”

No.  I’m just rest­ing.”  The cab hits a sharp bump and you bounce.

You are sit­ting back there with your hair all cov­er­ing your face, and you are cry­ing.”  His melo­di­ous voice ris­es in pitch.

It’s just because I’m tired.”  You shuf­fle your hands on the seat to each side of you, much like tread­ing water.

You are cry­ing because you are tired?  You are cry­ing because you are tired?”  He’s incred­u­lous, he is shrill.   Wacko.

Yes, I’m very, very tired.  I just need to nest.  Need to rest.  Rest, rest!  Please, can’t I just rest?”

No, you are not cry­ing because you are tired.  You are lying.  Do not tell me you are cry­ing because you are tired.  You are cry­ing because of a man.”

Now you’re feel­ing dizzy.  The cab is going too fast for you to jump out.  You rip your atten­tion from the beads sway­ing below the rearview mir­ror, and fix it on the wheels of the cab to your right.  Grieving, heal­ing, ta da.  Don’t con­fuse anx­i­ety with love.  Say it to your­self six mil­lion times a day.  The spin­ning wheels are mak­ing you sick.

You turn and draw your hair away from your eyes, just enough to peek out at the mani­ac dri­ver.  “What makes you say that?”  you ask against your will.

Because I know.”

This cab, why, this cab?  You flash past Bergdorf’s, back on Fifth again.  People are wav­ing fran­ti­cal­ly for cabs.  You have one, but it is this one.

What did this man do to you?”  your tor­men­tor con­tin­ues.

Your breath hitch­es, your stom­ach rolls.  This guy knows things.

Come on lady, I haven’t got all day.  Do you?  How much time have you got to waste?”

Years, appar­ent­ly.   How many ten year seg­ments of your life are dis­pos­able like this, you won­der.  You comb the rest of your hair out of your eyes, and sit up.

He lied.”

Lies, a whole cat­e­go­ry of word.

 

Mary Alice Black!  Lynette Genet!  Alexandra Booms-what­ev­er!  Only yes­ter­day, you were stand­ing in the apart­ment scream­ing these names at him.  It was the one time you raised your voice to him dur­ing the ordeal.  You weren’t doing any­thing so gauche as ask­ing, you were mere­ly observ­ing respons­es.  But a blank doesn’t say much one way or the oth­er, does it?

 

Lying.  Bad busi­ness, I agree, but not so great a tragedy in itself.  I think it must be anoth­er woman.”

Several.”  You catch his eye in the rearview mir­ror.  “No – every­thing was fine.  Fine!”  You are argu­ing with your sis­ter here as well, glar­ing back at your dri­ver.  “You were fine?  You were fine?”  she had said to you.  Does every­body think you are hard of hear­ing?  Hard of notic­ing is what you are.  Hard of… liv­ing, being.  Coupling.

We were in the midst of plan­ning a vaca­tion to Cape Cod with some friends.  To check on the dates, his sched­ule, I opened up his com­put­er.  Found this string of e-mails with Nissa, his old col­lege girl­friend.”

The sen­sa­tion is so close to the sur­face, returns to you so eas­i­ly.  As yes­ter­day, your heart starts to ham­mer and trip.

I knew some­thing was wrong, and wish­ing so hard that it was just me – my mis­un­der­stand­ing – that soon I’d be laugh­ing about it and telling him the big joke, con­fess my sil­ly snoop­ing.”

The dri­ver nods.

You couldn’t find any­thing spe­cif­ic that spelled it out, and you kept abort­ing the attempt.  You knew he could be on his way home from work right then.  You’d closed his fold­ers and win­dows, shut his lap­top, before you’d been able to find out any­thing for sure.  You were ter­ri­fied that he’d walk in and you’d be the one caught.

You tried his cell, no answer.  You reopened the lap­top, win­dows, fold­ers, start­ed the search again.  Over and over – at least five times, palms sweat­ing more with each new for­ay. You couldn’t catch a whole breath, and your hands were shak­ing so you could hard­ly work the keys.  You called his cell phone eleven times in all, he said – you’d just showed him how to use caller ID and he’d count­ed.  There had been a hor­ri­ble thrill about it.  A sick fas­ci­na­tion – like fear­ing your whole life that you are going to die of can­cer, then final­ly find­ing out you have it.

I had to run through a cou­ple dozen e-mails to piece it togeth­er.  Affairs he’d been hav­ing, he was con­fid­ing to her.  She was doing the same with him.  God, wal­low­ing in it – flirt­ing, gloat­ing – and eas­ing each other’s guilt, of course.”  The cab driver’s eyes watch you in the mir­ror.  You won­der how he can see you there, since you can’t see your­self.  A clear thought?  Nev– just shake it off , go on.  “On top of it all, he was try­ing to fig­ure out how to tell me it was over, we are over.  He was call­ing her his ‘break-up coun­selor’, talk­ing to some stranger about me.”

Only for the past three years, not the whole ten.  Only the past three.  Shit – that is, if you believe him.  Why?  He has been estab­lished, proven, to be a liar, and the cheap­est sort of cheat.  But then, again, you do, because, ma cheri, you have been estab­lished, just as clear­ly, as a fool.

So you kicked him out, and now you miss him?”  The dri­ver shrugs his shoul­ders.

 

You feel so – like a worm.  You pic­ture doing it over again, this time with a thir­ty-eight spe­cial point­ed direct­ly at the cen­ter of his brain, the obvi­ous source of the prob­lem, no mat­ter what they say about that oth­er head down there.  Saying “I know!  You have been fuck­ing! Other women!  Can you imag­ine how dis­ap­point­ed I am?”  You’d’ve rev­elled in the under­state­ment, know­ing he knows you’re a crack shot, and the sud­den smell of shit in the room would come unex­pect­ed, but grat­i­fy­ing.  “Gaze deeply into the bar­rel of my Smith and Wesson,” you might have said, in an hyp­not­ic voice.

One clear thought.

Why couldn’t you have done it this way to begin with?  Here is the sto­ry you wish you could be telling this crazy Caribbean dri­ver.

 

No.  I for­gave him,” you say.  Such shame – such a lack of dig­ni­ty.  The point, exact­ly, in for­giv­ing some­one who couldn’t care less?   “But yes, he is gone.  Despite that.”

And still you love this man?”  Now he is very patient, his eyes are almost kind.

Yes.”  Anxiety?  Love? 

You want him even though he doesn’t love you, and lied to you, and treat­ed you with so much dis­re­spect?”  This dri­ver sounds as if he’s teach­ing the ABC’s.

That’s the thing.  I know he real­ly does love me.  He’s just con­fused.  I can see that he’s very, very, con­fused.”  Instead of at the dri­ver, you look down at your damp palms, wait­ing for them to speak on your behalf.

You are a beau­ti­ful woman.  You could have a thou­sand men in this city who would love you well, treat you like a lady as you deserve.  Why do you pick this one who doesn’t?”

He–”

He does not love you, I am telling you.”  Intense black eyes glare through the rearview mir­ror.

He makes me laugh.”  So here you start cry­ing – huge sobs, ugly.  You hate your­self vicious­ly and absolute­ly.

Why do you swim against the riv­er?”  The dri­ver pass­es a box of Kleenex back, and rests it in the win­dow, wait­ing for you to take it.  “Lady, I tell you, walk away from this man.  Tomorrow there will be five guys knock­ing at your door, every one of them bet­ter than him.”  As you are honk­ing into the third tis­sue, he says, “Okay, okay.  Please stop cry­ing.  You want him?  You want this man?  This man only?”  He watch­es until you nod.  “Okay, in that case.  I tell you what to do.  You get his tears, or when he blows his nose – this is bet­ter – on a hand­ker­chief.  You bring this to me.  Next week I am going home, to Africa, and if you are so sure you want this man, I will fix it for you.”

Africa, then. Not the Caribbean. You stare at your own soaked tis­sue, fold it over.  “Is that voodoo?”

He shrugs.  “It is what I do.  You can call it how­ev­er you like.  In Africa, it will be espe­cial­ly pow­er­ful.  But I tell you lady, you should think about it.”  He pulls to a stop, shifts into park, scrib­bles some­thing on the back of a meter receipt.  He pass­es it back to you.  As you take it, he clutch­es your wrist.  “Think about it as seri­ous­ly as you have ever thought about any­thing in your life. You do that, under­stand, before you call me.”

You free your hand to fum­ble in your shoul­der bag.  “How much?”  Your voice has near­ly evap­o­rat­ed.

I turned off the meter, I tell you.  You owe me noth­ing.”  He rais­es an open hand.

You step out, and the door clos­es, shut­ting you on the oth­er side.  Apartment build­ings all around: four sto­ries, win­dow units drip­ping and hum­ming.  The taxi pulls slow­ly away from the curb, glides through the light as it changes to red.  The paper in your hand bears a pen­ciled scrawl, Olaudah, and a num­ber in New Jersey.  Beyond the scrap is the black-gum-spot­ted cement of the side­walk.  New Jersey, Africa, voodoo.  When you lift your head, the avenue run­ning south is emp­ty, the cab is nowhere in sight.  You are star­tled to find your­self back on your own cor­ner, but your feet turn duly west, trained to home.  The meter receipt stretch­es between your thumbs; you study it as you walk.

How does one col­lect tears from the unre­pen­tant?

Almost back to your build­ing, and some idiot on the side­walk near­ly runs into you.  You raise your eyes and snap “Excus–”

But it’s the voodoo guy.  He’s much taller than you could have guessed.  You see his taxi idling dou­ble-parked on the street.  He looms, you shrink.

How did you–”  You’re won­der­ing if he’s going make you sign in blood right now.

I saw you turn onto this block, it wasn’t hard.”  His fin­ger­tips trace a riv­er in the air.  “I have some­thing else to tell you.”  Olaudah folds his hands and waits, as if for your per­mis­sion.

Yes?”

I will do this thing for you, as I have said, but – to save you some time, maybe anoth­er ten years – I will tell you this.”  His index fin­ger aims toward the sky.  More ABC’s.  “This man who has no tears for the pain he has caused is like a stone which weighs noth­ing.”

Now, you get Zen koans?  Messages from heav­en?

You can bind him to you, yes, but no one can ever give him a capac­i­ty for feel­ing he does not already have.”  He watch­es intent­ly to see if you are get­ting it, absorb­ing the les­son, and now he leans in.  “More impor­tant, you can take back the pow­er he has, because you are the one who has giv­en it to him, in the first place.”

You sum­mon the last shreds of your voice to answer, wav­ing your own arms to stop the onslaught, shout­ing with a bro­ken voice,  “You’re right!  You’re right!  So what?”

Olaudah’s shrug rip­ples through you.  He won’t look at your cracked face, but turns away, cross­ing the side­walk, back to his cab.

~

Catherine Davis’s work has appeared at 52|250 A Year of Flashkaffe in kat­man­duBlue Print Review, and else­where, and has received the Joan Johnson Award in Fiction. She is an Assistant Professor teach­ing writ­ing at a small col­lege in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. In anoth­er life, she cre­at­ed sets for a bunch of films, from Blue Velvet to Brokeback Mountain. She is a once and future gyp­sy.