I’ve been having these egg-headed thoughts about non-linear time and a parallel universe. I’ve been having these thoughts for 20 years, and lately they’ve been coming between me and my wife. My wife believes in one world, one time, one perfect moment. My wife believes in making the decision, because, she says, looking up from the PBS documentary Life of Baby, “right now is all we’ve got.” I’m standing on the fire escape of our one-bedroom sublet at 85th and Columbus, working the grill, conversing with her through the open window. She’s rubbing her belly in a wistful manner. There’s this baby on the TV screen, newly delivered, a tiny glistening bundle, and my wife is looking at this baby like it is just about the most beautiful thing on the planet.
My wife defends murderers for a living, and she means it when she says that stuff about right now. One minute you’re buying beaded purses from a vendor on 34th Street, and the next, poof, you’re dead on the stairwell, skirt hiked above your knees, neck twisted in an unnatural way, a black cord around your throat, some guy’s wet dream. Sometimes at night she brings her work home, spreads photographs of the victims across the kitchen table and studies them, trying to figure out why, given the evidence, her guy can’t be connected beyond a shadow of a doubt to this particular body. Sometimes, out of grotesque curiosity, a fascination with the horror that is my wife’s bread and butter, I glance at the photos, which more often than not make my stomach turn, and I wonder what kind of bastard could do that. Then I’ll look at my wife looking at the photographs, lost in thought, her long brown hair trailing the table, her quick fingers tracing the shape of a corpse, and I’ll think, this is my wife, who believes there are no absolutes.
“Just look,” she says now, pointing at the newborn, which has somehow been transformed and is swaddled up like the baby Jesus, all clean and pink, resting in its mother’s arms. While the camera was covering the lower regions, somebody thought to put orange lipstick on the mother, who now lies there, staring alternately at the baby and the camera, making kissy faces. Then the camera pans to the husband, who is also making kissy faces, and my wife looks at me as if I’d just strangled a kitten or been caught with a hooker. “Some men want to be fathers,” she says.
My first instinct is to be mad, but then I see that she’s crying, and to top it off she’s trying to hide it. The only thing worse than my wife crying is my wife trying to pretend she isn’t crying, or maybe, come to think of it, Mrs. Shevardnadze, our upstairs neighbor, leaning out her window and shouting, “I’m going to call the fire department on you!” which is exactly what she’s doing right now.
Then my wife stops pretending she isn’t crying, she just lets it all go, so I shut the lid on the grill and climb through the window and sit on the couch beside her and put my arms around her and say, “Baby, I’m just not ready.”
“What’s there to be ready for?” she says. “You and that dialectic philosophy.”
She says “dialectic” like it’s a dirty word, half whisper, half curse. She’s good at bandying the term about, but she doesn’t buy it — the connection between dialectic philosophy and my fear of procreation. She likes to say I flunked out of the Study of Either-Or, and I like to remind her that I didn’t flunk out — I dropped out — and there’s a big difference. One year away from a Ph.D. at what is often referred to as a venerable institution, and something happened. I didn’t lose interest, exactly. I didn’t lose faith. I just couldn’t bring myself to open another scholarly journal. When I sat down at my computer to work on my dissertation, more often than not I ended up playing solitaire, or opening the “outdated correspondence” file on my hard drive, reading old letters I wrote years ago to girlfriends whose faces I couldn’t exactly remember.
“I can’t do this,” I said ten years ago, looking at pages and pages of small text scattered across my desk, the floor, the kitchen table. The truth was I had outdone myself. The more complex my argument became, the less I understood. I began to feel I was losing my grasp of the subject. All the threads were coming apart.
“So don’t,” she said.
Case closed. We got married in the Hamptons, where her parents had a place, and I became a high school teacher. My wife became, over time, a high-powered defense attorney. She gets people off the hook for crimes they may or may not have committed.
“But what if he’s guilty?” I sometimes ask, standing over her at the kitchen table while she reads through stacks of legal documents. “What’s guilty?” she says. “Aren’t we all guilty? Is anyone really guilty? Guilty’s a matter of perspective, just varying shades of gray.”
Which is where we diverge whole-heartedly. I believe in black and white. Guilty or innocent. You love someone or hate her. I’m not ashamed to confess that I swallowed all that stuff hook, line, and sinker back in college — how the universe is made up of polar opposites battling against each other, how this constant conflict between good and evil, light and dark, fuels the whole world. My belief in that system never wavered, and this is at the root of my problem with babies.
A man can be either a good father or a bad one. I had a good one. My wife had a bad one. And if I were forced to choose dialectically my own fatherly potential — whether I’d be good or bad — I can’t say how I’d vote. I’ve tried to explain that to my wife — how, until I can know with one hundred percent certainty that I would make a good father, I can’t bring myself to be one. This, to me, seems fair.
“That’s ridiculous,” she says. “You’re building a trap. You can’t know until you try. But you won’t try until you know. Just admit it. You hate kids.”
“Not true,” I say. “If I didn’t like kids, would I be a teacher?”
She goes into the bedroom and slams the door. I can smell the steaks burning on the fire escape. Mrs. Shevardnadze is stomping around upstairs. Some kids are rapping on the street below. The M-11 rattles by. It’s May, so the alley below our window smells like dog piss.
I teach at a prep school for boys out on the island. For years I’ve been lobbying the Curriculum Development Committee for a class in dialectic philosophy, but each year they refuse, labeling such modes of thinking outdated and irrelevant. So I teach American History, European Wars, and Intro to Philosophy, coach water polo, and every now and then the headmaster railroads me into moderating the chess team, even though I can’t remember the last time I won a game of chess. I feel ill at ease with the other teachers, who all have masters degrees in education — and who seem to believe that teaching is a calling, rather than an accidental vocation. My own aborted Ph.D in philosophy feels somehow inadequate. Sometimes in the teachers’ lounge the other faculty talk about pedagogical theory, or about the spiritual rewards of teaching, and I just dig into my burrito and look down at a stack of papers, pretending to prepare for class.
But one day a year, things are different. One day a year I get to teach dialectic philosophy, and that’s when I really come into my own. This year, my big day happens to fall in the same week as the baby argument.
So it’s the morning after the big fight, 6:30, and I’m driving to work. I want to get there early. Usually I make the trip in a zombie state, but today, I’m totally awake. I’m feeling good, really confident, thinking about how I’m going to explain dialectic philosophy to my students, how I’m going to shake them out of their indifference. Usually this drive just kills me, because Queens Boulevard goes on forever. You might as well be driving across Europe or Asia, the boulevard’s so diverse. One minute you feel like you’re in China, the next you’re in the Middle East, at some point you hit the good old U.S. of A. The girls walking to school in their miniskirts and platform shoes look like they know a great deal more at sixteen than you’ll ever know in a lifetime. Today I’m cruising through every light, one green signal after another, and I’m not even surprised, because this is the day I hit my stride, my one day a year, and you better believe the universe is working in my favor.
As I’m coming up to 42nd the green clicks over to yellow, and half a second later it’s red, and I’m sitting here, slightly perturbed at this unexpected intrusion on my perfect morning, but still feeling good, because it’s just one light and it’ll be over with before the optimistic guy on the radio finishes predicting sunshine. It’s 6:45 in the morning but the taxis are already out in full force, the newspaper stands are open, all along the boulevard people are stepping out of shops and apartment buildings with paper and brief case in one hand, coffee in the other. It’s noisy as hell, like it always is on Queens Boulevard, but today I don’t so much mind the noise because it’s just background music for the lecture I’m playing in my head. There are four lanes on this boulevard, all going one direction, my direction, and I’m in the fourth lane from the morgue, which is what I call this massive rectangular building made entirely of pocked gray cement that spans the length of an entire block. The building has not a single window. The subway cars run on top of it. Where Queens Boulevard intersects 42nd, a bridge arches over the street, and below the bridge is a tunnel.
So I’m sitting at the light, and I’m watching the E train go by on my left, passing over the morgue, across the bridge, and onward. It’s moving along at a pretty good pace, but I can still see the sad sleepy faces of the people going to work. And that’s when I hear the screeching. You know the arc of a screech, how it begins at a high pitch, becomes even louder and higher, then somehow winds down as the moving vehicle slows, then comes to a halt. So I’ve got my ears tuned in and I’m listening for the wind-down, but it doesn’t come; the screeching just suddenly stops, and I know something’s wrong. Just then I see something coming out of the tunnel — not just anything but a Jeep, and it is literally flying, four feet off the road and wheels to the sky, and it’s not headed in just any direction, it’s headed straight for me.
But what is more alarming, perhaps, than the aborted screech and the upside-down flying Jeep and the horrified faces of the people on the street is the speed at which all this is happening. The Jeep isn’t flying so much as it is hovering. The flying Jeep, the passing E train, the pedestrians on every side of me, are moving at a fraction of their regular speed, and here’s the rub: I happen to be switched into 5th gear. While the rest of the world goes freeze frame, my brain is clicking along faster than it ever has before. As the Jeep gets closer I’m planning my next move, which is to get out of my own car, which I do, and the Jeep’s still coming, and it’s only about six feet from me now — the Jeep drops out of the air, skids another few feet on its roof, and stops inches from my car. And I’m thinking about how I’ve never been prepared in my life, not once, and as I’m moving toward the Jeep, I’m seriously doubting that this is what I should be doing, thinking maybe I should let someone else do it instead, because, let’s face it, I don’t know the first thing about car crashes — like how to open a jammed door, or how to tell if the thing’s about to blow.
So I’m jogging over to the car, sort of a fake jog because what I’d really like is for someone else to take over. But no one else is moving. In addition to the screech there was, at the moment the Jeep landed, a sickening crunch, and now everyone is looking alternately at me, and at the Jeep, and waiting for something to happen. I experience what I can only describe as a moment of clarity. For the first time in my life I have in front of me a purpose with which I cannot argue, a clear course of action.
Suddenly there is a strange coolness on my nose, and the coolness is the glass of the back window of the Jeep against which my nose is pressed, and someone is looking at me. It is a girl of about five, maybe six. This girl is hanging upside down, suspended in the Jeep’s interior, her small bright body held fast in a car seat. Quite clearly she is surprised, and she is waiting for something. No, she isn’t just waiting for something, she’s waiting specifically for me, and because my mind is working at about ten times its normal speed while the rest of the world inches forward like an ice floe, I know she is waiting to be rescued. I open the door, which opens more easily than one would expect, and I say, “Don’t worry, sweetheart.” Very carefully I unbuckle the car seat with one hand while supporting the child with the other — I can do this because she is very light, I am struck in fact by how light a five-year-old girl can be, she is not much heavier than the blue-gray cat I reluctantly share with my wife. I take her out of the car and stand her upright, and she says, “Where is my lunch box? I lost my Peoples of the World lunch box.” I look inside for the lunch box. A woman in the front seat turns and says to me, “Good morning.” “Hello, ma’am.” I immediately regret calling her ma’am, since she’s no older than I am.
The lunch box is lying on the ceiling of the Jeep within easy grasp. I pick it up and hand it to the girl. This lunch box has drawings of people of different colors and sizes and facial shapes; secretly I applaud the artist who is spreading such good vibes to the children of this great and ridiculous city through the overlooked medium of lunch box art. Standing there with her brown curly hair arranged quite properly and her lunch box clutched in her tiny fingers and her face a bit cross, this child looks like any five- or six-year-old girl on her way to school with her Peoples of the World lunch box, and not one bit like a child who has just flown upside down in a Jeep through a tunnel and been rescued by a stranger in a stupid red baseball cap that he wears every time he teaches dialectic philosophy.
Then it occurs to me that a)my work is not done and b)having saved the child the logical next step is to save the mother and c)the rest of the world still seems stunned into inaction. I walk quickly but not too quickly — I do not want to inspire panic in the child — to the other side of the car, where the woman is hanging upside down in front of the steering wheel. Her hair is very short. I open the door. “How is my daughter,” the woman says. She says it as a simple command, unquestionably authoritative, although her voice is a bit shaky.
“Your daughter is standing over there. She’s all right.”
She blinks once. “Okay,” she says. Her eyes are extraordinarily green, so green that they cannot possibly be natural. For a moment I am in love with her, but the feeling quickly passes.
“Could you please place your hands on the ceiling,” I say, “like you’re doing a hand stand. I don’t want you to fall on your head.” She does so, and I unbuckle her seat belt, being careful not to brush up against any places that she might not, for reasons of modesty, want me to brush up against. Then I help her crawl out of the car, and she goes around to her daughter and tucks her daughter’s shirt into her bright overalls, and the two of them sit down on the sidewalk.
Suddenly, the second hand moves forward, the minute hand clicks into place, and real time is restored. “Mrs. Fernandez,” a boy is saying. The boy is about 14 and he is wearing an orange vest and holding one of those signs that says Slow Children Playing. “Mrs. Fernandez, it’s me, Jose, the crossing guard. Are you okay?”
Mrs. Fernandez looks up at Jose. “Oh,” she says. “It’s you. Hon, have you seen my dog?”
Just then a woman in a svelte black suit and smart heels walks up. She is one of those New York City women who could be anywhere between 25 and 47 years old and who would be wearing a svelte black suit at any hour on any day, one of those women who I am not the least bit surprised to see clutching a rather large black lab to her chest at 6:49 on a Monday morning. This woman’s hair is long and perfect. It shines alluringly in what passes for sunlight on this rather dismal morning. This woman’s hair is, in fact, the exact same color as the dog’s coat — and it strikes me that this is a skill that only this very particular type of New York City woman has — the ability to pick up a dog that has just been tossed violently from a moving vehicle and make it look like a well-planned accessory. She walks up to Mrs. Fernandez and says, “Is this your dog, Miss? Is this black lab the dog you are looking for?”
“Oh yes, thank you,” says Mrs. Fernandez.
The whole street has sprung into action now. There are suddenly a great number of pedestrians crowded around Mrs. Fernandez and her well-adjusted daughter, and they are all very concerned, and at least a dozen of them are dialing 911 on their cell phones. I walk back to my car, which is blocking an entire lane, and of course the lane is backed up and the light is green and a lot of people are honking at me. The whole thing has taken no more than three rotations of the light.
I pull away. I go to school. I give a brilliant lecture. And then, standing there in my red baseball cap, right in the middle of my brilliant lecture, I begin to doubt dialectic philosophy. I begin to sense this gray area, in which things do not have to happen one way or the other: you do not either love someone or hate her, you do not necessarily play either the hero or the fool, you are not either a great or terrible father. A new possibility occurs to me, the possibility that, in each case, the truth lies somewhere in between. Is it possible that the accident had nothing at all to do with a parallel universe? Is it possible that, at the moment the Jeep came hovering out of the tunnel, I did not click over into some hitherto hidden world in which I behaved in a manner exactly opposite to how I would expect myself to behave? Could it be that my heroic actions on Queens Boulevard are a true representation of the man I am, and that, until now, I simply have not been tested? I have always considered myself to be a man lacking courage and conviction, but perhaps I never before encountered the appropriate situations. Is it possible that, all these years, I have insisted upon a parallel universe as a sort of crutch, a rationale for all my own weaknesses. “Yes,” I say. “Here, today, I am like this, but in that other universe, the mirror opposite of this one, I am courageous, decisive, brilliant, witty, entertaining, compassionate, extraordinarily good-looking, and, above all, virile.”
I look out at my students and sense their excitement waning, expressions of intense boredom settling across their faces. Before, I was the quintessential evangelist, converting new followers simply by the strength and fury of my conviction. My students were swept up in my passion, transfixed, awe-struck. Today is different. The bell rings. I am standing with chalk in hand, arm raised high, extolling a philosophy which suddenly seems flawed, when my students breathe an audible and collective sigh of relief, scramble out of their seats, and rush for the door.
I leave school immediately after the final bell. Driving home along Queens Boulevard, I scan the scene for the next debacle — hovering Jeeps, stranded motorists, dogs lost in traffic — my next golden opportunity. But the drive is uneventful. Back home, my wife is sitting at the kitchen table, the latest scene of murder spread out before her — a young victim with haunting eyes, a silver pendant dangling primly from her bruised neck. “The Pendant Murders,” my wife says matter-of-factly, canvassing the photo with her magnifying glass. I step too close to the table and see a little more of the picture than I want to. The girl is blonde and thin, and her turtleneck has been cut open at the top, her throat slashed. A silver pendant dangles from her neck. The pendant is a tiny half-moon with a jewel at its center.
Beside the photos is the evening edition of the Daily News. My wife prefers the Times, makes fun of the fact that I subscribe to the sensational Daily News, but I have always been comforted by its simplicity, its ability to see everything in terms of black and white. The Daily News lacks the muddle and grind of complexity, uncertainty, weighing of the facts. Hillary is a queen one day, a pariah the next, but never in between. I also like the visual presentation. Every day there is a huge headline, 70 or 80 point type, over an eye-catching photo. Today, the photo reveals the blurry shape of a man in jeans and a baseball cap. His back is to the camera, and he is leaning into a Jeep, which is upside down on a busy road. Beside him on the street, looking into the camera, is a small girl in crumpled overalls. In the front seat of the Jeep there is an upside-down woman, who seems to be saying something to the man. In the photo it looks as if, having saved the child, the man is having a conversation with the mother, probably telling her not to panic, not to move her head, probably asking her appropriate questions, such as “Can you feel your toes? Are you dizzy? Is your vision blurred?” What I know, of course, is that the man in the baseball cap is not saying anything medically sound to the woman; he is simply retrieving the child’s Peoples of the World lunchbox. The headline reads, “Who Is the Hero of Queens Blvd?”
I say to my wife, “Did you see the paper?”
“Yep. The usual stuff. Man saves mother and child from certain disaster.”
“You’re a cynic.”
“Actually, I admire him.” She puts down her magnifying glass and glances at the paper. “Cute girl,” she says. Then she looks at me accusingly, the way she did when she saw the father holding the infant on Life of Baby, the way she does whenever a friend of hers gets pregnant.
“I’ll be in the bedroom,” I say.
“It’s only 4:00.”
“Like I said, I’ll be in the bedroom.”
A few minutes later, she’s there, and her red summer dress is draped across the rocking chair, and she is opening the drawer of the bedside table, reaching for the condom, and I close the drawer and say, “never mind that,” and her mouth is open in a slight and endearing way, and her neck is pale and convincing, and I am Parallel Lover, a new and much-sought-after superhero — intense and nurturing, generous and rabid, strong and gentle, impeccable.
The sheets are askew. The room is hot. Down below, the phonograph man rattles by, the thick delicious sound of the blues drifting up from his cart. Mrs. Shevardnaze is screaming at her cat. The pigeons on the eaves are cooing. My wife’s breathing, finally, has slowed. Her eyes are closed, her hand draped lightly over my thigh. She looks more at peace than I’ve ever seen her.
Soon, she is asleep and smiling slightly, unaware that I am watching. In her dreams, perhaps the dead girls are receding. For a few hours, at least, she will forget the Pendant Murders; for a few hours the world will seem like a bright, inviting place. I too am willing to believe this, willing to believe that, at this very moment, there is a tiny flame alight in the dark recesses of her womb. There, in that place so far from reach, it has already begun: a slow and certain growth, some tiny glistening thing.
“The Hero of Queens Boulevard” first appeared in Glimmer Train Stories.