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Incigul Sayman

Accumulation in
Ypsilanti, Michigan

When I was twenty-three I hit a man on a bicycle near the Kroger's grocery on the college campus. He was twenty-five and blond and athletic, his calves solid with muscle. I had been watching this muscle, not noticing the spatial distance between us, not understanding the incongruity of our positions—me in a large Buick LeSabre, him on a skinny racing bike. He could not walk for months. He still limps, will never be as he was before he met me. In the hospital, I visited him almost every day, until he asked me not to come so often. His father told me that his son had came in fifth in the Michigan all-state championships last year, fifth out of two hundred and thirty-five. That's great, I said. I went to some guilt-management meetings.

My mother makes me call her on Tuesdays and Thursdays. She thinks I should leave Michigan, get a job someplace nice like Boston where I could have a career and a night life. But I can't think of starting over. At least here I recognize the streets, the houses, the frozen hedges on the lawn of my apartment building in winter. Every day I can pass the uneven asphalt where I hit Philip. On weekdays I run the reception desk at the Y. On weekends I just want to sleep all the time, so I don't have to go out without a purpose. Boston just has more space to be alone in, more places that I will never go.

In my apartment, I get ready to see Raymond. Every Monday we meet to discuss guilt and the self. I put on a long dress with a pattern of red bells. I put on the Russet Sunset lipstick my mother gave me last week, saying that I should at least try to behave like a woman around Raymond. Two years ago he kicked a soccer ball into a little boy's face, partially blinding him in one eye. My mother likes Raymond. She says that he's humble, that his experience has taught him to be sensitive and mature. She thinks Raymond has done all the wrong he will ever do in life already. Now, he will be perfect, she tells me. Raymond looks like the man I ran over; he is muscular and blond. He races bicycles.

Philip moved away last year. I got him to tell me where he was going and sent him flowers, offered to pack his things. I joked on his answering machine that he will have to give up his wild lifestyle now that he's moving to Normal. Then I volunteered to hire the moving van or drive him to Illinois. But he didn't return my calls and one day his phone was disconnected and he was gone.

Raymond comes over with a bottle of tequila. "I've discovered tequila shots," he says. He also has two lemons and a salt shaker.

"I have salt," I say.

He puts the bottle on the kitchen table and turns on my television. I help him cut the lemons into thin slices and spread them in circles on a glass plate as though at a cocktail party. He shakes the salt and does a little dance around the table. "Mambo," he yells.

After we do the shots, Raymond slouches on my couch and puts his head on my shoulder. I watch Inside Edition and he falls asleep, muttering about how the retina can become foggy.

He wakes up to an infomercial by a famed relationship expert. "Don't file for divorce," she is saying, "until you see this video." I like watching her because I can create a whole scenario of distress. Fantasy tragedy. I pretend that my husband is in the bedroom asleep and that we've been having problems, that we look away from each other during dinner, that we have unresolved issues. I like that phrase: unresolved issues. It suggests a complicated, busy life. A life of meetings and dinner dates.

"Only losers watch this stuff," he says. His chin is on my shoulder and he strokes my arm. "We've known each other for a while now."

I can tell that he wants to talk about Priscilla again. Sometimes after he's been drinking, he likes to snuggle up to me and talk about their life together. At first I was flattered that he wanted to let me into his most private thoughts, that confidences came so easily out of him. I tried telling him about my fantasy tragedies, but he didn't understand. "Why would you wish for a failed relationship?" he asked. "It feels like you're dying every day."

Now he tells me about the time they took a trip to camp on the ocean in South Carolina. "The camp was filled with old people. Nice old couples in RVs. Priscilla made friends with some of them, said she wanted us to be like them, traveling around, rootless. She wanted to wake up early and spend the day in bright jogging suits." He leans his head on the back of my couch and stretches his arms in the air. "I found out that I hate camping. But I never told her; that's something she doesn't know about me."

When I talk to my mother again, she is worried about me. "Have you been taking care of yourself?" she asks. My hair is in a knot on top of my head and I am wearing the red bell dress; I have not taken it off since last night, and it is wrinkled and moist. I close my eyes and feel as if I am going to fall down. "Raymond wants to take me camping," I tell her. "But I don't want to wear a bright jogging suit." I am pacing the kitchen, letting the phone cord twist around my waist. I know that I sound tired and sarcastic, a woman unable to get a handle on her life.

"What's wrong with you?" she says. "Have you gone to see that boy again? What's his name, Philip?"

I did not tell her that he moved away. "Yes," I say, "we're having a mad affair."

"You stay away from him." She doesn't do much since my father died. They used to grow tomatoes in the windowsill. It had become a kind of obsession, and they began ordering seeds from exclusive gardening shops. The ones with color brochures printed on recycled paper. For a while they taped tomato Polaroids on the kitchen walls. Close-up shots of their best plants. Tomatoes they were proud of. The pictures came down when my father got sick; the plants disappeared soon after he did.

I wanted to move back in with her then, but she wouldn't have me. "Accumulate your own life," she said.

"But accumulation is living with a goal," I told her, "getting things you need for the future."

My own life consists of unaccumulated living. A small furnished apartment, so sparse Raymond doesn't believe I own salt. I have one thin post-college photo album, absent of any real memories, the pictures looking incidental and not part of any one person's life.

"Well," my mother says, "I feel like moving. Nothing to do in Ypsilanti."

"You can't move," I say. "Our phone conversations will be long-distance."

"You only think of yourself," she says.

In the afternoon, I call information and ask for a Philip Sternthaller in Normal, Illinois. I write the address on a tiny piece of scrap paper and tuck it into a book I am reading.

I have one bookshelf, a desk littered with bills and a few postcards from college friends, a gray love seat, a television with attached VCR, a small glass coffee table, and, hanging above the couch, a picture of St. Michael's church in Prague, a blown-up copy of my own snapshot. I took the picture three summers ago when I went traveling around Europe, a gift from my mother for my college graduation. I remember St. Michael's because I tried to photograph it in every type of light, getting up at dawn and hanging around until midnight, studying the sky. It seemed like such an accomplishment then, the devotion to the aesthetic, the attention to detail; but most of the pictures didn't turn out. The one I framed is the first one I took, at midday in the heat and confusion of everything.

I sit down and start reading a short story about reincarnation. In the story, the characters talk about who they were in a past life. One man believes himself a swan, another a hedgehog. I must have been a lump in a past life.

I call Raymond the next morning, waking him up. "Illinois?" he says. "You want to drive to Illinois?"

"Please," I beg him. "I'll buy you a bottle of the best tequila when we get there."

"I have a job that actually requires me to be there," he says, "unlike some people." Then he is silent. "Don't you think it's time to get over what you did to him?"

"How can you talk like that?" I start crying. It is not a tactic to get him to agree; the crying comes from nowhere. I can't stop. I suddenly think of something I learned in high school physics. "A body will remain at rest or in motion," I say, "unless acted upon by a force."

"What?"

"Act upon me," I say. "Be a force."

He comes over that night with groceries. Pineapple and broccoli, apples and celery. He puts these on my kitchen table next to a box of Quaker Oats and saline solution. I feel like an invalid, but also strangely protected, a throwback, I think, to the era of helpless women. "Thanks," I say and kiss Raymond on the cheek.

"I thought you might need some wholesome things," he says. "Maybe you're not feeling very well."

"I'm fine, really. I just freaked out a little. It happens." I feel lost in my own uncommunicativeness. I don't think that it does happen. Just to me. "Thanks," I say again. He nods and takes out an apple from the bag. He rinses it carefully, rubbing the skin with both his thumbs, and takes a small bite.

After Raymond hit the boy with the soccer ball, he joined four support groups and did fund-raising for Kids with Cancer. He even thought about quitting his job at Ford quality control and becoming an ophthalmologist or support group counselor. His fiancée of five years couldn't take his newfound enthusiasms. She was used to the way things were, Raymond tells me, and things couldn't be like that anymore. We have potential, he says, for such harm and for such good. Everyone at our support group thought Raymond was too upbeat. After all, here was a time for depression and guilt, and Raymond was ruining it. After a drunken speech about finding the truth in our evil, he was kicked out. I left with him. That night we drank expensive beers at one of the college bars on campus. He came over afterward and passed out on the kitchen floor. Now I want that same intimacy, for Raymond to be leaning against me, without any need to confront something. He moves to sit on my couch, but stands up halfway. "What is this going to prove?" he says.

"I just want to go. Maybe I don't even want to see him." I look at him hopefully, as if this is no big deal, just a fun road-trip between friends.

"I'll pick you up Saturday morning." He turns to go but comes back and kisses me on the cheek. "No more crying," he says.

I call my mother that evening and start crying. "This is becoming a habit," I tell her.

"You are twenty-five years old," she says. "But you're sensitive. It's not necessarily bad. Your father once cried because some of his azaleas died."

"He had cancer." I wish I could remember my father becoming sensitive over azaleas. He was never sensitive when I was growing up.

"He didn't have cancer then, he just loved those azaleas. I'd like to move to Florida."

I think of Philip and how the last time I saw him he was limping out of the hospital, an ugly aluminum cane in his hand. I watched from behind my car, moving to the side to remain hidden as he walked toward me. It didn't occur to me that my car was probably more memorable to him than I was.

One night I went out to the car after midnight and ran my hands across the dent in the front fender, where it had collided with Philip and his bike. I imagined the dent in the shape of a miniature bicycle; felt the outline of Philip's head, his legs leading down to the pedals, the grip of his knuckles on the handlebars. Skinny, muscular Philip, thinking of nothing but the state championships. I don't remember what I was thinking of. Since then all thoughts return to the same place. Philip is a point of departure for everything.

On Saturday morning I pack two pairs of jeans and my red bell dress. I put a tube of lipstick in one of the jeans' pockets. Raymond shows up, and we drive in silence for almost an hour. "Did you bring something nice to wear?" he asks.

"My one dress," I say. "Why?"

He shifts his seatbelt. "You're treating me to a nice dinner."

I smile. "Okay. I'll buy you drinks."

In Normal, Illinois, we check into a Motel 6. One of the lamps doesn't work, and the bedspread is a curious orange color.

"Hey," I say, "I read that they never change these bedspreads, and they're filled with body lice and fluids and stuff."

"I like fluids." Raymond bounces on the bed. He opens up a vending-machine-size bag of barbecue potato chips and waves them in the air. "This is the good kind," he says. "Not filled with cat anus grindings like the leading brand." Raymond is a label reader.

We wait until evening, because it seems like something stalkers should do. "These things are usually done at night, aren't they?" I ask Raymond. He shrugs, but we sit around all day reading and listening to songs like "Dancing Queen" on the clock radio.

"When you see him," he says, "what are you going to say?"

"I don't know." I bounce on the bed and throw myself down, spreading my arms and legs to touch all four corners of the bed. "Feed me a chip."

He sits next to my hair and lowers a chip into my mouth. "You have to think about this. You can't just go there without a game plan."

"Give me another."

He drops the bag, now full of crumbs, onto my chest. "Think about this."

I grab his arm. "There's only one bed," I say, pseudo-dramatically.

He leans his face into my hair. "Priscilla would never stay in a place like this. She would say I wasn't treating her very well." He rests his cheek on my hair and puts his hand on the potato chip bag, crinkling it against my stomach.

I get up, yanking my hair out from under Raymond's head. "I'm sure you didn't treat her very well."

He eyes me as I stand in front of the mirror and comb the right side of my hair with my fingers. "Sorry," he says.

Before we go to Philip's house, I put on sunglasses and twist my hair into a bun. I don't want him to recognize me before I recognize him. We drive by and stop where we can see his window. The apartment is brown brick with fire escapes on either side. I start to feel a little sick. "Okay," I say, "this is crazy. I'm spying on a man I nearly killed. This could be on 20/20." We sit for an hour, drinking kiwi-strawberry Snapples. When it is truly dark the apartment looks massive, defined against a sky that is fast becoming black. Ominous, I think. Three second-floor apartments are lighted; the two below, including Philip's, are dark. I follow Raymond's gaze to one of the lighted apartments. A couple is eating in front of the television. "What are they eating?" I whisper.

"Tacos," Raymond says. "I think they're eating tacos."

"What are they watching?"

"Looks like Walker, Texas Ranger. I see Chuck Norris."

He looks at me, and we both start to laugh. "I'm sorry," I say. "I know we shouldn't be here."

He doesn't say anything, and we continue to watch the couple. I am sure they are secure in their own small unit of happiness. I think I would be happy if I were that woman, eating tacos, watching bad television. I look at Raymond, wondering if he sees Priscilla in that picture, if they ever spent Saturday nights in front of the television, talking about the office or the car or their friends. Completely ordinary. "What did you do before I met you?" I say.

He turns slowly to look at me. "I did the same thing I do now."

"No, but what were your days like? Did you do that?" The couple is now laughing at something, perhaps Chuck Norris.

"Yeah, we watched a lot of television. Despite all the crap I've said about changing, I'm essentially the same. Maybe worse now."

"You're not worse," I say. "Things are worse." I lean my head against his shoulder and close my eyes. I want to watch this couple, to find out what they are doing, the mechanics of the whole thing; what they have in their kitchen cupboards, in their medicine cabinet. How their kitchen is organized. What books they own. I tell Raymond that when I was twelve I used to go up to the attic and make up life stories for all the objects that were cobwebbed, in boxes, in disuse.

"What sorts of life stories?" he asks.

"For instance, I would imagine that my father used the broken lamp with the gray dented lampshade to read the fiction section of the New Yorker every week. Except that he didn't read fiction, and we didn't get the New Yorker."

He turns on the radio and starts the car. "It's all the past," he says. "We're always concerned about what happened. Well, I wanna know what's going to happen."

"Me too," I say.

We go back to the motel to change and then out to dinner at a seafood place near the highway. The tables have red tablecloths and the walls are covered with photographs of wind-tossed fishing boats. "Nice enough for you?" I say.

We order the Alaskan king crab and eat gratefully, in silence. I order a chocolate cheesecake and glass of dessert wine. On the way back, we stop at a party store to get tequila for the motel. Raymond polishes off the shots cleanly, without flinching. I spill tequila down my chin and onto the front of my dress.

"So we didn't see him today," says Raymond. "What should we do?"

I know that he wants to go home and that I should be reasonable, forget about everything and go back to Michigan and my apartment.

"I saw an ad for a secretarial job at the Women's Club on campus," he says. "They want English majors, perfect for you." I can't tell whether he is being sarcastic. When drunk Raymond can be as practical as an accountant.

"Hey," I say. "I don't want a decent job. I'm gonna go around running people over and then following them. I like to ruin things."

"Now you're just self-pitying." he lies down on the orange bedspread. "And you know that self-pity is one step away from self-destruction."

"Raymond of the slogans."

"Hooray." He claps for himself and then curls up into a ball and pretends to fall asleep. I lie next to him and pretend, too. Maybe I am lying next to someone I wake up to every morning. Maybe we are in our own apartment and will drink coffee and eat sweet rolls in bed on Saturdays. I put my hand on Raymond's hip and work my way up to his neck. I let my hand stop just underneath his ear. I want to be comfortable here.

"What would Priscilla do right now?" I ask.

He shifts a little. "She would want to take a walk in the dark. She liked doing stuff like that."

"I don't want to take a walk," I say.

"Yes." I feel he is thinking about her, maybe about what they did their last night together. But really I don't know what he's thinking. Maybe I'll never understand him in any way.

"You're prettier than her," he says, "but I like imperfections, a face that isn't exactly even."

I let my hand drop to the bed and close my eyes. After a while I try to turn off the lamp but realize I am fiddling with the broken one. We wake up the next morning to the light of one weak light bulb, the sun unable to penetrate the heavy orange curtains.

I convince Raymond to drive by Philip's apartment one last time. "We've come all this way," I say. We wait with paper cups of Dunkin Donuts coffee and jelly rolls. Raymond is telling me how they extract the lard for the rolls when I see Philip. He walks out of the apartment with a new cane, a wooden one with an ornate handle. He wears a baseball cap and jeans. "Do you think he's going to work?" I ask Raymond.

"Get out there and say what you have to say."

"I can't," I say. "I'm too scared."

"If you don't get out now, I'll honk my horn and tell him myself."

I feel my stomach begin to contract and ache. What had made me believe that I wanted to do this? I hadn't rehearsed anything. "What if he calls the police?" I say.

Raymond puts his hand on the horn, and I open the car door and step out. "Good luck," he whispers.

I walk toward Philip with a smile on my face. "Hey, Philip," I say. We are facing each other. He stops and looks at me long enough so that I know he recognizes me. I am thinking of all my good points, hoping for some sort of mind transference. One of the guilt-management groups had emphasized positive thoughts. If you love yourself, so will others. I am thinking of the time I picked flowers from my grandfather's weed garden and tried to send them to him through the mail. "Good intentions matter," I say to myself. "It's the thought that counts."

Philip sighs deeply. "What?" he says.

"What, what?"

He glances at Raymond in the car. "You plan to run me down again?"

"No."

"Then why are you here? You didn't move, did you?" He looks behind him at the apartment building as if movers are carrying my stuff in as we speak.

"Of course not."

"'Cause I can do something about that, you know."

"Okay." I realize that I had been thinking of this as a reunion of sorts. Almost romantic. After all, I had hurt him. Don't couples always hurt each other? But there is nothing personal between us. Just an accidental encounter that everybody regrets. He taps the sidewalk with his cane. "I'm going," he says.

"Where? Can I drive you?"

"No, I thought I'd take my bike." He squints his eyes at me and mutters as he hobbles away. I realize he says this to hurt me. I watch him turn the corner and continue down the sidewalk. I watch him as an ex-lover would.

Raymond and I drive home in the afternoon sunshine. "Are you satisfied?" he asks.

"Satisfied?" Everything seems languid outside, drooping and tired in the heat. I close my eyes and try to remember something before Philip. Raymond drops me off, and I call my mother.

"Where have you been?" she asks. "I called five times yesterday."

"I took a trip."

"I put the house on the market today."

"Really."

"Why don't you come over for dinner tonight?"

"I have things to do."

"What things?"

"I have to go." I hang up before she can say anything and make myself ginger-flavored tea. My father used to drink ginger tea and watch his tomato plants grow. Sometimes he would stop mid-sip and stare as if something extraordinary was going to happen to the plant. I called them his still moments and thought that he must be seeing something that no one else could. Something you had to wait a very long time to see. If I am still and wait, I wonder what would happen. If something will emerge from empty spaces to surprise me. I go to the living room and look at my picture of St. Michael's. The sky above the church is electric blue, swirling with clouds. I wish I had more faith in something. The church, the sky. Maybe if I stare at the picture long enough the clouds will move the way they did when I was there taking the picture, never imagining how still it would look over my couch in Ypsilanti.

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