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.
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 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.
“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 Flash, kaffe in katmandu, Blue 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.