Notable Essay of 2004, The Best American Essays. Published in The Saint Ann’s Review, Fall 2004.
I’m somewhere under Manhattan, heading home on the F train. Across from me a mother reads a story to her daughter, who looks about six. It’s some fantasy about an animated household appliance. A toaster. And this toaster goes through his day, misunderstood and unappreciated by the other appliances in the kitchen. The mother turns the page. The child’s engrossed. So am I. We’re pretty happy to hear about this poor misbegotten toaster until he does something that rubs her the wrong way.
“I don’t believe that,” she sniffs. “He’d never do that.”
The girl dumps her book on the seat, jumps on top of it, and boosts herself up so she can look out the window. She sees her face superimposed on the image outside, the support beams a reliable blur holding up the tunnel, her reflection the only constant image she sees.
* * * *
In a classroom above us an art student squints at a nude model reclining in a chair, looks down at her sketch pad, and scratches her head. The seat of the chair and the model don’t quite line up, so it looks like the model’s ass is levitating over the seat. The teacher, an aging hippy with a braid over his ear, wanders around the room and nods sagely. He’s taught “Drawing From Life” for years. He stops when he gets to her sketch.
“You can’t correct that,” he says. “At some point, you got to let the drawing take over and make what’s on the page make sense.”
He punctuates his comment with a grand gesture and continues his orbit around the class. She has no idea what he meant, though it occurs to her that once you make that first line it’s hard to go back, and if you’re not careful you might look down at your sketch one day and realize you created a room without gravity.
Beside her a classmate steps back and examines his drawing. The shinbone dangles from the knee at an impossible ankle. The hips are misaligned. The face connected to them should grimace at the violence he’s done to her body, yet she looks on unaware, even bored by her deformity. It’s not the impossibility of her limbs but the disjunction between her expression and her body, the suspicion that she has no sense of herself, that makes the image so jarring.
* * * *
In an office nearby, a lawyer stops taking notes. She glances at her shoes, at a run in the carpet where it’s begun to unravel, anything but her client across the conference table. He’s a middle-aged man whose beard’s been trimmed for the first time in years. His jacket’s one of those polyester double-breasted things bought at Good Will, the lapels wrinkled beyond recognition. There’s something jarring between his regal bearing and attire. He looks out of context. He doesn’t quite make sense.
“That’s not me,” he says, pointing to the monitor.
Funny. They’ve just watched a surveillance tape of a guy who looks just like him robbing a bank. His lawyer presses him – “How are we going to deal with this? That tape’s not the only evidence the DA has.” – but he doesn’t change his story.
“I’m not that kind of person,” he insists. “I’m a good man.”
He probably was a good man. Maybe he still is. He just can’t find his way from that wholesome memory of himself to a decision he made one day, which led to another decision, and another, until finally he found himself in a strange land where robbing a bank made sense. He keeps returning to those four words – I’m a good man – repeated like a mantra in his head, until he can see only one explanation for what happened.
“I’m being framed.”
The lawyer, an ex-girlfriend of mine, takes off her glasses and rubs her eyes. It’s going to be a long day.
* * * *
“For any drawing to be convincing,” the art teacher says, “it has to be internally consistent.”
The students have finished their drawings. He’s pinned the girl’s sketch to the wall.
“The parts have to relate to each other. The connection between this drawing and the model? Heck, we don’t care. We’ll never see her. Instead, we draw on our memory of what bodies should look like. We stare at the drawing and say, ‘If a woman had that face, surely she’d have a body like that, a right elbow like that, a mole there. Yes, yes it looks real to me.’”
We even judge things this way that could never happen anywhere, like moving toasters.
The teacher hands the sketch back to his student. “We’re in the business of telling realistic lies,” he tells her. “Make that lie more real.”
* * * *
In a woman’s clinic, a medical resident leans over an obese woman on an exam table. A stethoscope rests on her abdomen. He looks away so she can’t read the concern on his face. He moves the stethoscope again. And again. He can’t pick up the heartbeat of the fetus. He walks the woman down the hall for an ultrasound, which reveals another surprise.
She’s not pregnant.
Not only that, her uterus shows no sign of a recent pregnancy or the traces of miscarriage. The resident wonders how that’s possible. She’s been coming for prenatal checkups for six months; she’s supposed to be in her last trimester. Every resident’s picked up a heartbeat before now – even the attending physician. Apparently, they heard the mother’s heart instead.
The resident leans against the wall outside the exam room and stares at the results, hoping they’ll rearrange themselves on the page. He tries to piece together how this could happen. The woman skipped her previous ultrasounds. The initial pregnancy test was done at another hospital, which couldn’t find her records. Does she know on some level she’s not pregnant? Is this an attempt to hang on to someone, like a boyfriend? He tries to understand her behavior by drawing a connection to … to what exactly? He hasn’t seen anything like this before.
He asks my sister, a social worker, to accompany him, and enters the exam room.
“Sometimes we can pick up the mother’s heartbeat by mistake,” he starts. He goes on to tell her, in so many words, that the past six months have been a lie. The woman squints, as if she hadn’t quite heard. He explains again. He tries not to fumble for words or betray his bewilderment that a team of doctors and technicians could participate, unwittingly, in an illusion for so long. The woman stutters, struggling to find a motive, something that will make him seem human again, because right now he looks like he’s sprouting horns.
“You killed my baby!” she explodes. “You killed my baby!” She sways as the floor shifts beneath her.
When I first heard about this woman, her sudden dislocation seemed familiar. My mind returned to a time I’d pestered my family for details about my dad – He died when I was two – and the moment of vertigo that resulted.
A few years ago my uncle told me about the red GTI my dad drove in high school. My uncle recalled what it felt like when my dad drove him around, and how it made him the coolest guy in the neighborhood. It reminded me of a picture I have of my dad in a white t-shirt in a pose that might’ve passed for cool in suburban Boston in the 60s. The picture and the story made sense together. He wasn’t just the guy who studied piano and took the T to attend open rehearsals of the BSO. He took on a hint of depth. Some added shading. An urge to break free, yes, that’s it! There was something fast, something alluring about him now.
A few months later I sat at my grandparents’ kitchen table in Maine. My grandmother does most of the talking in that house, and she doesn’t talk much about my dad. When she does, she veers off course, recalling the time they all toured Europe, and soon she’s recounting the hotels they stayed at and the restaurants they ate at, and the waiters – don’t forget those! Soon I’m listening to a homily about how waiters in Europe are just so much better than they are in the States. Any mention of my dad disappears in the first 30 seconds. She shifts topics so effortlessly it was years before I noticed her doing it.
“Grandma, I heard dad had a GTI in high school. Whatever happened to it?”
“A GTI?” she sputtered. “Where’d you get that?”
“Uncle Rob told me.”
She mulled it over and shook her head. “I never would’ve let him have a car,” she said. “I wasn’t that kind of mother.”
I glanced at a family portrait on the wall, her children groomed and seated around the piano, backs erect, hair combed, in descending order of height. Even the dog had good posture. She didn’t run her family in a way that could accommodate a GTI, so the car didn’t exist. My grandmother kneaded the table cloth with her fingers, smoothing out wrinkles that weren’t there. She does this when she frets and has nothing else to do. She was trying to figure out how my uncle could be so mistaken.
“The car must’ve belonged to Rick,” she concluded. “The kid across the street. He was more that kind of boy.”
She’d come up with an explanation that seemed reasonable to her and put the matter to rest, but I felt the floor shift beneath me. I’ll never know the elusive details about my dad, but I thought they could agree on whether three thousand pounds of metal sat in the driveway. I suppose, if I’m willing to deal with the archives of the DMV, a piece of paper might settle the question. If it exists. Or I could lock my family in a room till they sift through their recollections, cross-examine each other, untangle, assess, bully, compromise – whatever you do when someone’s memory doesn’t conform to your own. But if they reached a consensus would it bring them closer to the truth?
In a courtroom, at least, the question of what happened seems beside the point. The defense attorney may grimace in frustration at her client, but she’ll never ask him if he’s guilty. The DA tries to construct a compelling story, the defense tries to poke holes in it, and the jury sits in a box, looking back and forth between them, trying to figure out who to believe.
The process grows murkier when witness testimony is involved. I came across an article in the Stanford Journal of Legal Studies by Laura Engelhardt, who explores how difficult it is for juries to assess other people’s stories. She refers to a study in which participants are shown slides of a car crash with a yield sign in the background. When investigators refer to a stop sign instead, the memories of many participants change accordingly. When they’re asked to guess how fast the cars were going when they “hit” or “smashed” into each other, they judge the speed of the vehicles differently depending on the word that was used. Some even remember seeing shards of glass; the problem, of course, is there wasn’t any. If we look for gaps in a story, they may not exist, because the storyteller unconsciously invented details to understand the experience even as it happened. They redraw lines again in response to the slight pressure of our questions and the current circumstance. This evolution of meaning, how it comes together and shifts with each retelling, is what “making sense” really means. There’s a GTI out there somewhere, sure, but what color it was and who drove it may be beyond our reach. The ground keeps shifting beneath us.
That first line follows the contours of the model’s face, but it’s off a fraction of an inch. Everything follows that first mistake until, oh, there’s another, unnoticed when it first appeared. After years spent gazing at people, we sit down, grab a sketch pad and charcoal and panic as we realize we have no idea – we’ve never had an idea – how the eyes actually relate to the face. The nose. The lips. God, how do they go together?
* * * *
A few years ago I sat in a café with a friend of my dad’s, sharing muffins and coffee, and mentioned the frustration I felt trying to get reliable details about his life. Should I do research? Go to the DMV? Do a séance?
“No,” he said. “This sounds New Age, I know, but look within yourself. He’s there. I can see him.”
Other people have said this to me. My grandparents often called me by my dad’s name growing up. Who knows why. The way I cross my legs when seated? My laugh? When my grandparents traveled to Philadelphia for my sister’s wedding, I’m sure my dad, that broken link between us, was weighing on their mind. When my grandfather saw me before the ceremony he burst into tears, thinking I was him, that my dad had materialized thirty years after he died. I watched him turn away and realized, yet again, how a powerful need alters perception, how easy it is to mistake one thing for another, how memory and identity are soft, like wax, easily impressed upon.
* * * *
I look up and see the F train sitting at my stop. I get out, walk the eight blocks home, and find a package waiting there. It’s a CD transfer of an old reel-to-reel of my dad and mom talking to me. We’d discovered the original in her garage. I finger the CD as I climb the stairs to my apartment. What an odd thought – I’m thirty years old and going to hear my dad’s voice for the first time. I’d seen photographs of him, sure, but it wasn’t until I saw him move for the first time in a silent movie that I decided I missed the sound of his voice most of all.
I walk in, drop my keys on the speaker, and sit cross-legged on the floor. When I listen to the CD, my dad’s voice sounds more alien than I expected. Maybe it’s his Boston accent. It’s so thick. Then my mom’s voice appears and I realize I don’t recognize her either. How’s that possible? I’ve talked to her at least once a week for 30 years. Is it the Maine accent she still had in her 20s? Is she anxious talking into a mic with a reel-to-reel humming nearby? When copies of the CD arrive at my grandparents’ house, they don’t recognize my dad’s voice. They write to ask who that weird guy is on Track 1. My uncle, too, frowns when he hears it. He wonders if my dad’s trying to sound funny because he’s talking to me as a baby. It’s only my mom’s memory of the day they made the recording that convinces me the voice is his, though it makes me wonder how my grandparents can hear my dad’s voice in my laughter but not recognize a recording of his voice. The mind draws connections on its own – or refuses to – regardless of our intentions.
I climb to the roof of my apartment building and look back toward the cranes in Red Hook, which never seem to move, then north, where the art teacher, a friend of mine, prepares another lesson. Tomorrow he’ll bring in a portrait of a human face cut into small squares so the features are unidentifiable. He’ll give each student a square, tell them to draw what they see, then assemble the drawings on the wall and voila! The lines at the edge of each page won’t quite line up, but the portrait, nine, ten feet tall, will be hauntingly accurate, much more so than any of them could do alone. “It happens each time I do this,” he’s told me. “Though not one of them could draw the whole face themselves.”
Why is that? We’ve talked about it on and off for years. and still have no idea. Maybe we can only see what we don’t recognize. Maybe recognition is a distraction, an excuse to stop paying attention.
Somewhere, farther out, I suspect, you’ve left the office and boarded the train. Seated, standing, scrunched with other commuters, you keep drawing connections between the unexpected and what you know until, day-weary, you drop your keys, wallet and charcoal on the hall stand, wash the smudge off your palm, and turn to bed. It’s a miracle any of us, our attention always divided, caught between sketch pad and model, can lose ourselves long enough to follow a plucky toaster through his day, get to know the little guy, and still not miss our stop in Brooklyn.
In a room near the end of the F line, the six year-old climbs into bed. She’s nervous. The hum of the refrigerator sounds ominous coming from the darkened hallway. Her mom reaches for the book she read on the subway. She turns to the last page.
“See,” she smiles, finishing. “The world’s not a scary place. Even appliances are like us.”
We hear those words, or something like them, again and again our whole lives, and still find them comforting.