I’m driving back from the airport beneath a tall green sky. A woman on the radio has been going on about how she was born able to see in only two dimensions and how, after years of staring into flatness, she’d coaxed forth a third. Then she goes: “My husband is an astronaut,” and explains that of the several systems that tell our bodies we’re upright, the inner ear needs gravity. “When my husband went to space his inner ear adjusted,” she says. “This is common with astronauts. When he returned to earth his ears had to re-learn which way was up. This is how I knew I could do it.”
I am already thinking of Cecily during this drive because minutes ago, while I was seeing someone off, she left a message saying, “I’m ending the marriage. I hope you’re not disappointed in me.” She hasn’t called in more than a year and hasn’t returned any of my messages. I am already thinking of Cecily who, coincidentally, can also see in only two dimensions. I am thinking of the first time we spoke which, coincidentally, was on a flight. A return from a high school class trip that began with a vertical take-off. Necessary, the steward explained, because the affluent neighborhood below had an ordinance barring air traffic. “Just a little bumpy!” he assured her as he strolled away touching overhead compartments.
The cabin soon shook, and she shut her eyes and grasped my wrist. She had never touched me before; she was a teacher. I watched the pools and gleaming freeways shrink and tried to pretend it was not a big deal, her soft grip. Sipping her seltzer a while later, after the hand had departed and the eyes reopened, she explained why she’d been so afraid: “I was on a flight once that had to make an emergency landing in a sunflower patch.” Her story plummeted, a scream of smoke and petals. She told me others. Like how she’d been raped in college beneath a flickering campus walkway light, had sued the school and won her diploma. Like how only four other people in the world had survived the cancer she’d had at thirty; it took a lot of her money, half her womb, and an eye. I couldn’t tell which was fake because her father, a famous doctor she no longer spoke to, had gotten one of the world’s best fake eye creators to make a replacement before her real one was removed. Like how she had made six figures as an engineer until the year her schizophrenic mother took her own life. Her mother’s last act was to take out credit cards in Cecily’s name, ruining her credit. I curled my tongue inside a ring of ice. I produced for her a summary of my hardships; compared to hers they were two-dollar underwear.
This other teacher, a giraffe and an idiot, walked around campus that year with her swollen, taunting belly. Once in her classroom over lunch Cecily asked me, “Why does that woman get a baby?” She swallowed vitamins and stabbed her abdomen with needles and left cooing messages for her husband’s answering machine. “Don’t repeat that,” she said to me.
Another woman on the radio talks about her mother’s brain injury. Before the brain injury, her mother was cold and mean. She did clicheÅLd things like never telling her children she loved them. After the brain injury she wore purple stockings and picked flowers in public. “I miss my mother,” the daughter admitted, even though she liked this new mother more. The new mother dreamed she saw heaven. Heaven, she said, was a rice field in Vietnam and she was a man with a plow.
Cecily told me once about a letter my friend Mani had written her the fall that he and I started college. He’d given it to a forgetful friend to deliver. She didn’t receive it until January, after Mani’s brains were being cleaned off his parent’s bathroom carpet. She said, “If only it had been delivered before. Who knows.”
During the funeral, she read a eulogy on behalf of Mani’s destroyed Iraqi mother, having explained that, “She isn’t confident with her English.” Before the room of seven hundred in black, Cecily, in lavender, talked about the last thing Mani and his mother ever discussed. Siddhartha. He had been reading Hesse. Mani never finished books, though he liked to walk around with their pages caught about his fingers, ranting and laughing. He and his mother spoke about Siddhartha’s departure from home, and about whether one can ever diverge from one’s path. Cecily shut her eyes and recited the novel’s opening: “In the shadow of the house, in the sun on the riverbank by the boats, in the shadow of the sal-tree forest, in the shadow of the fig tree, Siddhartha, the beautiful Brahmin’s son, grew up…”
Other details of the day of his death didn’t make it into Cecily’s eulogy. It was a spooky bright afternoon in California January, the night before he was supposed to drive back to school. It had rained for a week. Mani woke up from a nap, said he was hungry, called a Chinese restaurant for pick-up, told his parents he was running downstairs to grab his keys. These details, they’re annoyances: his last living afternoon was spent asleep; his last action was ordering a meal he wouldn’t pay for let alone eat; his last statement—‘I’ll be right up’—was a lie. Then a loud sound.
His mom wondered if something had fallen.
When Cecily finished her eulogy, she returned to my side, buried her face in my neck and cried. Her post-Chemo hair was scratchy on my cheek. I wondered whether anyone noticed this display of our new adult friendship. Next they played a video Mani had made for his own funeral. Mani, his friends, with skateboards, with bongs, in batman capes, piles of smiling girls. He’d composed and played the song that accompanied the images. That day, though, few contemplated the implications of Mani the Editor, Mani the Composer, Mani the Killer; we were Mourners mourning Mani the Dead. Every organization, I’ve read, exists primarily to ensure its own survival and only secondarily for its stated purpose, be it making a profit, evangelizing, inspiring a revolution. People are this way. Though maybe it’s narrative survival that matters most. We’re stories we tell ourselves, and all that.
I’m looking out at this steep green sky, reminded how moments after he received the news, this now-world-famous author I once knew trudged up the stairs, took off his aviators, unlocked his office door, and said only, “Now I know how my obituary will read.”
Some years after Mani died, I was on Cecily’s threshold. Her home was new and beautiful. It made me punch-drunk. I walked from room to room saying, “Oh, I love your strappy sandals, I love your fresh cut flowers, I love this stately table, I love the ease with which this lazy Susan turns. What adorable glasses. Imported water really is better, huh? What a comfortable living room, so white and clean. Do you really iron your sofa cover?” Her half-gone womb had produced a son only after she’d adopted a twelve-yearold Sudanese boy, who now ran up the stairs in cleats. She handed the baby to me. I said: “I’ve never seen a baby who looks you in the eyes like that. He’s so petite. He’s so smartseeming. How amazing to have two boys. You look beyond beautiful, you seem beyond happy.”
“I truly am,” she said, and the baby shrieked with laughter as she lifted him above her face.
After I left, I felt exhausted and sad and wasn’t sure why. Driving home along the hairpin turns through the redwood forest I let the car wander around the lanes. If I’d have crashed—say into the minivan of a vacationing family—it could have been blamed on the low fog. The cops or the press would have interviewed Cecily, and she would have assured them that nothing had been wrong with our visit. She would have spoken at my funeral. Even if I die some other way I am certain it will be she who ascends the steps to the podium and—with her real eye and fake eye closed—recite something beautiful. She’s perfect for that part.
The neuroscientist on the radio concludes, “The thing that makes us distinctly human is our ability to not only recreate the external world within our heads, but to rearrange parts of it into entirely new worlds. Imagination—” he says, and bells begin to ring behind the rumble of his voice. Take a bird’s wings and a baby’s body, and “conjure an angel.”
The fields are shaking now beneath the darkening sky.
I read once about how much, as a species, we rely on patterns. The world is full of too much and without patterns we wouldn’t see, say, a leopard face in the fauna, or a bullet, or an oncoming train. People who see more patterns than others we might call spiritual, or schizophrenic, or writers. In the wake of his death white mothers brought Mani’s mother trays of cruditeÅLs and whispered to one another, “manic depression,” and “diaspora.” His mother sat on the couch, a half-person, staring out the window into the dripping trees. The afternoon after he did it I sat down next to her and watched tears collect in her lap.
I was the one who broke the news about Mani to Cecily. She’d been his teacher too. The words had barely left my mouth before she dropped the phone with a scream, like she’d known beforehand what I was going to say. Sometime later, ironing, she told me she’d known a boy who jumped in front of a train from her own high school who’d always reminded her of Mani. Like Mani, he was Middle Eastern, the younger of two, unimaginably talented and easily popular. That’s why she’d been expecting it, she said. The iron in her hand sighed as she nosed it around the scalloped edges of a pillowcase.
That was the last time I saw her. We went out to the patio. The baby ran across the yard with gravel ricocheting from the cab of his fire truck. Her husband came back from his run. “This last year had been hard,” she said. “What with the recession, what with his job, what with the older boy starting high school.” Despite all that, she smiled, they were really doing well.
I play the message again: “I’m ending the marriage. I hope you’re not disappointed in me.” After a year, why call me to say this, like we are close friends?
I’d be lying if I said I cared that much about her marriage. Her beady-eyed husband with the famous last name was a nice man, and the hallway shots of their wedding convincing, but that’s not the point. All I know is, if it were Cecily driving this car right now, a tornado would surely stretch a finger down from the sky. Is this her doing, or are some of us condemned or lucky enough to live lives more worthy of stories than others?
Maybe Cecily is dialing through her contacts today, speaking these sentences, but I suspect not. I suspect I’m one of the few she’s called, like she was one of the few I called that January night six years ago. One of the few who’s written this story of Mani’s death over and over these last few years, but never as well as he did himself. Mani wasn’t Siddhartha; he was Tom Sawyer, smirking at us from the screen as the tissues collected at our heels.
Here I cower behind altered names and nationalities. I’ve deleted her dog. I’ve avoided mentioning the evening in a hotel parking lot six months prior to his death, when Mani flippantly declared to a friend and I that we should just wait and see what he was going to do in January. We knew what he meant us to understand. I was fed up with Mani’s need for attention and made my friend call the cops. I said, “We’ll teach Mani that’s the one thing you don’t just say.” The cops drove up to the shadow of the house, in the fog on the highway by the sea, in the shadow of the eucalyptus forest, in the shadow of the mountain’s skirts, where the beautiful son had grown up spared of the violence and poverty his parents had fought to flee. His father slammed the heavy door and barked that nothing was wrong with his beautiful son.
Pushing through the bodies at his funeral, I carried that story like ammunition. Everybody was too busy wiping their eyes to notice how hungry I was for someone to ask why, why, why so I could fire, expose how long he’d been planning it. We’d been duped. All he wanted was an audience. All he wanted was for others to pick through the brains looking for a reason.
I know this and yet here I am still picking.
As I had watched his video, all I wanted to see was some footage of myself. When I did, I smiled.
Did I smile also as I heard Cecily’s falling scream?
I lean toward the windshield and peer up the yellowed undersides of cumulonimbus at once fearing and hoping. How good would a tornado be for this essay?
Am I jealous of Mani’s mother who’ll spend the rest of her life sitting in shadow of this story? Am I jealous of Mani, the Protagonist, rotting?