He had sat down by the window with a cup of tea in front of him before he realized that he did not particularly want to be in the café. Did not even want tea. Life had a way of slipping itself through unnoticed and he often felt like a night-watchman when he discovered it had gotten this far, both amazed and concerned, for what else could have found its way into whatever it was he should have been guarding when he was otherwise distracted? He imagined a concrete building fenced by barbed wire and inside, past a maze of dimly lit halls cold to the touch, was a vault, door handle like the navigation wheel of a great ship. Sometimes he imagined what could be behind the vault door, what he was securing, but nothing seemed to fit. His heart? His soul? The words fell like sycamore seeds, spinning like a reverse helicopter and when you opened them there was really nothing but the inside of the outside. They were mirage words, words that gave off the persuasion of sense but when you tried to make a home there you found sand.
He thought about the city in the desert. The last leg of his time overseas was spent in Cairo, a city he affectionately called The City at the End of the World, and it had left pieces in him like splinters he was still removing when they got deep enough to be noticeable. In Cairo he rarely noticed the desert but always felt it, threatening the outskirts of the city with a reminder of what is to come, in time, what always comes in time, which is the tending of everything to dirt and sand and gravel. Buildings there were shuffled and stacked with a kind of ordered chaos found in fields of wildflowers, though without the flowers. If he extended the metaphor then the people were insects and this open wound in the desert could even be seen as something of an infestation. He thought about the word and dismissed it. It was easy to criticize the people, easy to find problems so systemic one could not see their solutions, easy to get annoyed and upset at the traffic and the pollution and the overpopulation. Everything was slower, dirtier, and more crowded in Cairo, and unless one was willing to reevaluate basic life expectations, it was an awful, awful place.
He loved it. Or, more accurately, he found himself loving everything that in the first two weeks he had decided he hated. Cairo was its dust and after enough time he saw that the buildings were tan the way he wanted them to be tan and stopped caring whether that was the color they were originally painted or if they had been steadily stained and restained by the thick air, by the sandstorms that fury ex nihilo, by the khamseen winds that blow across North Africa and buffet Cairo off and on for fifty days. And before he left Cairo he wondered – had the color in his clothes washed out into browns bleeding into browns? Had his skin and eyes taken on a film of dust that would alter his world from then on?
He was right about his clothes, but unsure about his skin and eyes – though what would it mean to be sure about a perception? Could he ever know that what he saw he saw differently than the way he used to see it? It was after Cairo that he had moved back to Spring, and it was in Spring that he had moved to Spring (a thought which, having had time away from the joke, he pointed out to anyone he could), so the green upon green upon green of the tree lines in levels rising the Appalachians paused him and his mother got a parking ticket trying to catch his attention at the airport departures lane. He spoke little the rest of the day and explained to his mother and brother that it was jet-lag. And yet he forgot to go to bed with his family, though he had not slept on the plane and so the seven hour time difference between Spring and Cairo meant that he had been awake for more than two days in a row. Instead he was sitting outside the house and he could not stop staring into the night sky, pierced through with stars he had not seen in Cairo’s infected haze.
As his eyes adjusted, more and more stars blinked into view. He imagined them not as stars but as little punctures in a pillowcase that had been thrown over the Earth. When you shine a light into a room the room becomes bright, so why would all of space, served by the always shining sun, not also be bright and clean? He saw himself climbing the pillowcase and cutting his own hole in the night before pushing himself through, and out. What light, what astounding light! He saw space like a sheet of paper, eternal and empty, and if he jumped from the Earth he would float like a single letter typed onto a page. The next morning he went into his room and slept for twenty hours.
He sipped the tea he did not want to drink. In six hours Jemmy’s plane would touch down on the east coast. In four hours, he would begin the drive to the airport about a hundred miles outside of Spring, closer to the metropolis. Coming and going, he thought, these are easy. He could see the scene: he would spring for parking in the lot instead of driving circles until she was outside the airport. He would be waiting in the exact spot where he would be able to see her before she could see him, at an awkward angle past the security doors and outside of the sightline he imagined she would naturally take. He would be leaning against a railing or a chair or something and when he knew she saw him he would stand and walk toward her with an unbroken stride. He would grab her carry-on with one hand and slip the other around her, hand on her waist, and would pull her to him. He would stop her and smile, would say good to see you or something else that he would decide best sounded nonchalant, and he would kiss her.
Since he had moved back to Spring, he had been waiting, though this is likely the wrong word. For someone who prided himself on an internal acceptance of the unwilled mutability around him, a buzzing anxiety had weeviled into his bones. He felt uneasy, like in a dream where you are in a room with a close friend across from you, telling you secrets you know you must hear and understand, but each word breaks apart in the air and you cannot piece together anything of sense. It was silly, but he felt like something invisible was speaking to him and, since he didn’t much believe ghosts would care enough about the world to affect it, he assumed it was God. In a word, he felt called, though he did not know what that meant or why it happened or if such a thing as a call existed or say that it did, did he then have to answer?
He reflected on the state of his anxiety while he thought of Jemmy: he wanted her to fit into him and snap together with him. He knew that if this happened and he could walk some paces off from himself, he would see that the new shape was the one he was being prepared to be half of for years, and that shape, perhaps it was –
“You’re wearing different shoes,” said a voice from his shoulder. He looked up and saw his brother.
“Hey kid,” he said, turning from the window and setting the tea down, “what did you say?”
“Your shoes. You are wearing different shoes,” His brother repeated, shaking his head. Gabe had the floppy hair of a high school senior because he was one. The seven year age difference gave their relationship a natural mentorship psychology, but this was tempered by Gabe’s more intuitive understanding of the way the world works.
He looked down. On his right foot was a silver sneaker and on his left was a black leather dress shoe. “Nope,” he said, “Just couldn’t decide if I wanted to run or walk here.”
“Come over for dinner tonight,” Gabe said. He saw his older brother as an alien in a strange land, some sort of near-human that finds a way to continue his existence each day, somehow, against a world seemingly at odds with its attempts. Since R- had moved out of the house two months ago, Gabe and their mother had resumed a life of relative routine, one that Gabe in his overconfident immaturity had convinced himself was better and one that his mother knew was not. Finding clothes hangers in the refrigerator and tracing dirt trails and odd smells to his room gave the family the kind of unmeditated excitement that now only television and Gabe’s athletics could provide.
“Ok, sure,” he said, and paused, “Wait. Ok. It has to be later, Jemmy comes today. So, later, and tell Mom I’m bringing her over too.”
“Fine,” said Gabe. “So she’s really moving here, just to live near you? In Spring? Can’t you two marry or kill each other and get it over with?”
“There are no other alternatives?” he said. He liked to prod Gabe’s natural wit, one he had helped sharpen. Each book that he had read he had stacked in piles in his room, and each time he returned to Spring, he noticed the piles shaken and smaller. Gabe’s young cynicism made for great entertainment, though occasionally the jokes that seemed to come on autopilot revealed something simultaneously funny and disorienting, like the perfect joke that you realize is at your expense.
“In the long run?” said Gabe, “Probably fewer.”