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VIRGINIA HARABIN


PRONE

At this moment I would like one thing-the small liberty to free my hands. The soft cords binding them outside the sheet hold them in exile away from me.

I know this place by what it is not; it isn't familiar, it isn't home. I meant to get home and this seemed a simple matter of moving from Point A (not home) to Point B (home). It's possibly my penchant for abstraction that's got me in this fix.

From my point of origin the furthest I could travel was only halfway there. Like climbing the stairs of an escalator flowing down, pursuing the series of intermediary points collapsed my journey inward. No wonder I was lost.

Whatever happened might have been an interior phenomenon which carved my perceptions and enmeshed me in its logic, or else it was an event of such magnitude that it did its work and erased itself at precisely the same instant.

I remember only that I wanted to go home. This was so obviously the thing to do that I had only to mention this to Mark, my host, and he instantly agreed. The irksome tension which had crackled between us evaporated as we considered this plan, whose rightness was as plain as dough.

The train, I thought, I'll get to the train, but then I remembered to phone for the schedule and then I needed to find a phone. I said, "I want to go home," Mark said "Fine," I nodded too, and we set off in opposite directions. Something wrong with the trees made them look sick-bulbous and knotty and gnarled.

I remember a street paved with sheets of buckled slate. It was all I could do to navigate this cracked path while trying to get my bearings. Some handmade flyers described a dog who'd got lost: "Possibly Injured," some of them proposed. I tried to fight the impulse, such a tiresome habit of mine, to inhale and inhabit this plaintive detail.

In the chill of a mossy underpass a brood of matrons blanked out graffiti with rollers drenched in reddish brown. "Hea-Ash-eat" disappeared beneath their furious swipes. It was twilight; a fine mist was falling. Though I was safe behind the highway fence, the hissing glare of each car made me flinch.

I had come to see my old friend, Mark, who surprised me with a phone call, an invitation. You never know when he'll turn up-such an active, mobile person. My childhood friend described for me his prestigious new position which he had achieved effortlessly, easing along his glittering web of associates and familial connections.

Embedded in Mark's molluscan sofa I was able to peep out at him from either side of my knees. After the first gymnastic feat of sitting up for my coffee cup, I virtually tossed it back on the table and sank back down again.

Time had passed since Mark and I shared a world and the friendly competition through which we'd vexed each other into achievements. I had the light sensations of looking through a window at a passing train. Mark's narrative swept me through several continents by means of small craft and helicopter-he described a life now so large that everything and everyone, it seemed, welcomed him. His only complaint was that he was too much in demand. I'd been taking time off from school to catch up on the reading.

Mark admitted his own surprise that a couple of little oils he had painted had been given tribute at a Soho gallery, and he casually mentioned the dazzling sum of money he'd received for his contributions to the lighting of a Broadway production.

Here I betrayed my dismay. I had always been the artist of the team, and my work had stood out unmistakably next to his distemperoid Snoopys levitating above their ramshackle roofs.

"But," I ventured, "I thought you were color-blind?" A characteristic chortle was his only answer.

"Since when have you been the technical type? What about that lamp you stomped to shards after the new bulb wouldn't go in?"

Mark smirked. The eloquence of brows. "Ah, Matty, Matty, Matty," he sighed, shaking his head.

Here is one time I wish for a tiny vestigial head to bring forth from beneath my collar. That sort of drama might provide an occasion to upend this irksome condescension and hurry us away from this excruciating Saki-esque tone.

The surface of my coffee was striated. I had hoped to sound wry, but my tone was raw and poignant as I said, "Clouds in my coffee."

"S'got cellulite, I'm afraid," Mark sniffed, looking down his fine nose.

I ventured a few fractured anecdotes about the activities I'd observed in the Hotel Kesmon across the street from my apartment but I found that my stories, which I'd been hoarding with a kind of glee, were telling in ways I hadn't anticipated. Mark was settled with debonair ease in his leather recliner, watching me with an expectant half-smile, but I saw a shiver of discomfort cross his face. He glanced around as if searching for something, one shiny wingtip rhythmically swaying in midair.

The subject of my stories, I began to see, was not the fires, the brawls, the late-night raids, the parade of tragic comedy I meant to portray, but the lonely view from a third-story window, a life peered at through glass. We were relieved by a colleague or friend of Mark's, his arch but weary double, who acknowledged my outstretched hand with a brief pinch from his own soft claw. When Mark introduced me as "Matty" I attempted a smile.

A dining place was mentioned, more acquaintances threatened. The staircase was steep and lit only by a lazy bulb. Mark sprinted ahead, talking in a faintly British, aristocratic lilt. "He's coughing up blood!" he called cheerfully, but I had missed what came before. I feared he meant our mutual friend Ted, who had been near death for nearly a year. We had watched by his bedside for many bitter months, urgent with assurances that there was no reason, no reason at all, for him to be, as he wrote, "so humiliat.''

"Real blood?" I asked, all my questions mashing into one.

On the street I kept up with him, urged on by a rush of angry pride. Such a display of haste and importance-all calculated to belittle me and to mock my small ambitions. The iron fences we passed were tipped with rusted spikes which pricked my hand. How awful to have to fall on those, I was thinking. A small tufted dog was trotting past, listing sideways. The plane which it seemed to consider the ground was dangerously askew.

Mark was describing a tennis match he had played with J. D. Salinger. "Enough now!" I said to myself, quite sternly. "You certainly are successful," I remarked evenly. "But he doesn't come out at all, does he?"

I had to step out of the path of an oncoming bicycle. The rider had his head encaged.

"That dog BIT me!" Mark shrilled. He stopped to examine his ankle. I sighted a phone booth on the opposite corner, which, by the time I reached it, was long gone.

My boots had got wrong. Their toes, bent inward from long wear, now curved away from one another. I would have stopped to correct the mistake but was instead borne by my elbows down a searing white hallway back out into the night.

I have a persistent, ugly memory of having done a sort of spasmodic dance, and it is possible that I was unencumbered by clothing at the time. I may have tried to fit myself through a small and unyielding space, all the time watched by many pairs of eyes. The pointsmen of consciousness return panting with news: Shame waits at the peripheries. A rollicking slide show of my unguarded moments. Unblessed by amnesia, my memories await ready to come home to me with all their lurid candor.

"Wild one," an amused person said from the other side of the gate.

"Pressure," someone warned. But it was a long thin pain in my arm, a crescendo of pain as something of mine was siphoned away.

I shook my arm loose. A woman said, "We'll all need extra heads now with the way it's going."

If the door had been locked I might have been warned, but the lone brick house I approached seemed familiar. A clutch of artificial fauna on the lawn posed some slight challenge though I cut through, confident they had no business there.

"I'll just go home and phone the station from there," I thought, relieved, since the woman with whom I shared my apartment and my life was the obvious person to turn to for comfort and clarity. After all, it was from missing her that some of this terrible confusion arose. Away from her I felt diminished, only half myself.

The door yielded and I stepped gratefully into the gloom. Too dark for me to find the elevator and furniture hulked around me in big vague shapes. "The hell with it," I muttered and bounded up the stairs.

I elbowed through the corridor and found that everything in my place was windblown or earthquaked into strangeness. A bed with slick sheets in my dining room and a limp bag of a chair and alien foliage all conspired to confuse me. The sound of a waterfall was close and pressing.

The telephone had adopted a new sessile state, and would not be pried off the wall. "Big damn limpet," I muttered to it, doubly annoyed now by the tapping on my back. "Shut up," I muttered to the ridiculous person, dressed only in a towel, who was hanging on my arm jabbering away.

"What are you doing? What are you doing?" the man in the towel demanded. His skin was damp and the hair on his chest was washed into glossy points. He annoyed me, but I felt somehow tender toward him. "It's really none of your business," I told him sadly.

My head was wet and something sticky was smeared on my cheek. The cement glittered with smashed glass and gravel. The weight of my fall concentrated on my brow and prominent cheekbone (of which I have harbored furtive pride). They were not gentle with me. "Stop pushing, it doesn't want to go in," I tried to say, but they held my hair like a handle and were grinding my head (my own head!) into the ground. Someone stood on my ankles making me weak with fury.

It seems one cannot be deferential enough when one has been denied the use of one's arms. "Sir, if at all possible, might a phone call be arranged?" He was a young man, but with a brutal neck, and he'd had enough of me. Even in movies now people don't get their phone calls.

A reverse striptease, he eased himself into a white laboratory coat while the others stood by and laughed. "John Doe's feeling a little under the weather," he called out with dubious solicitude. Then the light again glaring in my eyes. "My, my, my, but his eyeballs are all aquiver!" I decided to adopt tolerance and resignation as my strategy, although I suspect this decision was made a bit too late.

I observed in the backseat of the cruiser how the German shepherd paced so rapidly, crazily spinning in endless small circles, a dizzy organic echo of the revolving light on the car's roof.

The French windows are open and a strong breeze is fluttering the gauzy curtains. Sunlight glints on the glassware and pools on the shining floorboards. A bird lights on my body. There is another, and another, a flock of speckled birds-starlings, most likely.

I think, "I am a field," and this seems resonant, perhaps as a joke. I giggle, pleased with myself. If I could say this aloud, test it out, I would be able to tell if this were wit or just nonsense.

More and more oily iridescent birds swarm over me, hopping, listening, pecking. Their hard swift little beaks stitch away at a surface roiling and gleaming with a thousand tiny creatures. My panicked hands are arrested in mid-sweep and buried once again.

I miss my seat by the window, the round wooden table, the empty chair opposite, my newspaper, my books. The woman in the kitchen punching the hot little life out of the rising dough. With a hiss it expired, its first efforts so easily defeated. She did it so enthusiastically, with such fierce delight.

Mary among her silver bowls. But when I rose from my chair to peer inside I sensed a tension, a polar opposition which was better left unexplored.

The mirror image of me across the street: a furry arm wedged in the window, his short-sleeved undershirt and captain's hat. He leaned his head out the window when she and I were walking on the street.

"My girl!" he shouted. Which I found very puzzling.

"Is that good for swelling?" somebody asks, with annoying insistence, even a hint of pride.

Not that I wear a captain's hat, and in fact we look nothing alike. We share only our window-life, an apparent remove that creates proprietary interest in everything going on below. Perhaps on the night of the fire he got a look inside our bedroom.

Remember instead my mother's lullabies, the strong hand of my father resting on my shoulder, the velvety drowse in the car's backseat, being lulled by their murmuring. Soft plush animals, a crayon's waxy snap. I would like to. But all I can conjure is a bald man with a gleaming head holding in his two hands a cookie. Ferociously is how he attacks this confection.

I was being battered around by gusts of fierce wind. Some limbs were down and the cars had to swerve to avoid them. Someone called "Hello" as I kept walking. "Hello," the voice repeated more insistently from the car which trailed slowly just ahead of me. I was beginning to be annoyed. "Hel-looo!" the voice was screaming. Brake lights glowed. The car halted abruptly.

How crazy, I thought; they think I'm a woman.

I think of Mary, the urgency of my attraction to her, the weight of her sweet coarse hair, the smoothness of her neck, where I lose myself, the words for me falling uselessly away and I'm as much a woman as I am a man to her.

But those in the car weren't the sort of men who would walk through the door marked "Does" instead of ''Bucks.'' Dismayed by their mistake, they frightened themselves with their own whistles and jeers. Identity is so easily hurt. They needed to take something of mine. Dogs chasing another dog up a tree. But what is that to the predatory dogs as long as the one chased behaves enough like a cat? It is not essential catness that makes it chaseable but the fact that it will run. I'm sure this is not the best way to be thinking.

When did I pass the old woman with the awful deformity, a taut, veined, blue-gray bulb on her neck, like an extra head, the head of some terrible friend leaning on her shoulder? How she must wear her sadness, I thought. But then the amazing triumph of her bold fuchsia lipstick. Those who consider vanity a simple or dispensable human attribute are so very wrong.

On the other side of the white drapery there is a man with durable golden toenails cooling in the air. All I know of him is the relentless clicking of the remote control device he manipulates, the chatter and the blur.

A team of white coats straggle in pulling a shiny cart. They lift his stiff form, pale beard aloft, onto the cart and tuck him in snugly. He looks resigned, even contented with this arrangement. On the sheet where he lies, he has left his shape outlined in crumbs and ash.

The doctors seem so young. The person who rests his metal cup to my chest, he seems awkward and green and gloating. My awe before professionals used to be so crushing; I thought so highly of the world I kept out of it. Horrible to realize how I have squandered my time. Crouched jealously each day over my extravagant feast of breath and space, I have gobbled while whimpering that it isn't enough. Now mere children are filling these powerful positions, wielding these dangerous instruments.

Some of these things may right themselves. Some of this may be sorted out. Remember, my boots did come back to me. My shirt, pants and underwear, balled into a bundle, and then the boots. One hit my rib cage, the other struck my knee.

The abandoned TV screen gradually turns its face toward me, and there is a brown fatherly man with soft jowls and a lush mustache working with sweet concentration fitting pegs into a board. Prominent (where?) leader (of whom?) struggling to recover from years of solitary confinement. Some embryonic monster of appetite awakens in me, watching this man who wants himself back-his memory, his words. Every day he patiently repeats the alphabet and he prints in blocky capitals the names of his children and of his wife.

And here is a man called Item M, whose mind was destroyed when his head was grilled like a roast. They made this man's body an obscene joke. They cooked an egg, sunny-side up, over one of his eyes, and sizzled a strip of bacon over his mouth while holding his head to the grate. This much savagery caused Item M to flee. He was drawn out to a speechless world and while he was gone, they burned his house down. His one black eye stares out at me.

The narrator says: Lost to us.

I keep saying Mary, Mary, Mary, Mary until the name detaches itself from anything I remember.

With this detachment comes a lull. When the wind makes its voice into human sounds, someone whispers "Hush" and it hushes.

It is not the memory of the man who had leapt from the window lying shattered at the center of the awestruck and giddy crowd.

Instead it is the girl I once saw turn and slowly descend from the sickening height of the bridge tower and with scared angry cops before and behind her step-by-step edge back down that slick path having lost the argument with her pain and fear now holding on holding on.

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