Skip to main content

Fireback


ISSUE:  Summer 1994

In 1979, when I was for two years an instructor at the University of New Hampshire, I had a student—a bright, anxious, but always attentive student—named Charles Fortunesky. He was taller than most of the others, and seemed to enjoy a comic sense of himself as gawky and slightly ridiculous. He wore his baseball cap backwards—a style that only became fashionable years after he performed his turn-around—and once, during my office hours, he put a Swiss Army knife on my desk and pantomimed a strange routine in which he pretended to click out a blade and, say, a nailfile; he then imitated, with his body, their arrangement. This made perfect sense when you saw it, but is difficult to describe: with his arms held at particular, odd angles, they would seem to metamorphose into can openers and knife blades; his crossed legs and splay-footed stance mimicked the way the folded scissors emerged from one end of the knife. Like most comedians, he was actually something of a loner. If he had friends, I wasn’t aware of them. I was certain, however, almost from the first, that he had a crush on me. Looking back, I wonder if I acted as businesslike (the new term is “professional”) as I thought I was acting at age 25. When I met him, Charles Fortunesky was 18. He dropped out his second year and went to live in San Francisco with his older brother, so by the time I saw him again, he was a 20-year-old sophomore.

In the year he was on the West Coast, I married my high school sweetheart. By the time Charles Fortunesky returned to school, my husband had begun making the long drive to New Jersey, where he spent three days a week helping care for his father, who was dying. My husband was in law school; finally, he had to take a semester off in order to continue the commute. I was writing my Ph.D. dissertation, and had a fellowship that allowed me one year free from teaching. In spite of that good luck, my husband was depressed, and under much pressure, and I often felt rather disconnected from everyone and everything, except for—or in part aided by—the vicissitudes of Dostoevsky.

Charles Fortunesky, I soon found out, had also just passed a very disorienting year. He had come close to making it on the comedy circuit, but then had inexplicably failed— I say “inexplicably” because he, himself, seemed stunned, and at a loss for how to explain it. He said that he began to have anxiety attacks when he went on-stage: his vision would blur; chills would shake his body. The first time, he thought it must be flu. The second time, he locked eyes with his brother’s in the audience, but he still became paralyzed and could only stand there, fighting to get his breath.”Why would that happen when all my life I’ve lived to perform?” he said.”And why—after so many performances?” I could only guess and play armchair shrink. I asked the obvious questions: Did he fear success? Was he in some conflict about being a comedian? The answer to my second question was rather chilling: he said that he had no doubt about his ability to manipulate people. It was a strange word to select; at the time, I chose to write it off as bravado. Also, I didn’t quite take him at his word. He was such a good actor that I imagined he might be impersonating someone with bravado, instead of really feeling it himself. I suppose I’d always known he was insecure. I had been shy and unsure of myself, and I realized he was a kindred spirit. It also seemed that I wasn’t really being called on to give advice; he just wanted me to listen, to register his disappointment. When we parted that day, I thought that he might have regretted confiding in me.

I had been surprised when, in early October, he first looked me up. He said he had wanted to take whatever course I was teaching, and had been sad to learn, when he returned in August, that I would not be teaching. He had mailed me a note at my old address, which apparently had not been forwarded. Since I had married, the phone was listed under my husband’s name. He had finally spoken to a colleague of mine in order to locate me, though he said it had taken him weeks to get up his nerve. For some reason, he had felt sure she wouldn’t tell him how to get in touch with me, even if she knew. Of course, she had simply given him my new number. That said, he congratulated me on my marriage and inspected my wedding ring. After a careful look at the band (it had been my mother-in-law’s ring, which no longer fit her finger), he surprised me by lying on his side and curling up on the floor, knees raised, lips puckered as he pretended to kiss his kneecaps, in an uncanny imitation of my two-sided ring, which depicted two birds with their beaks pointed toward two raised, gold hearts. Today, such a strange spectacle would obviously be recognized as performance art, but that day, in my small, drab apartment, it was only odd. It was baffling and unnerving, and the reason why I was unnerved was that there was an exotic quality to the way he lay curled on the floor, approximating, quite ingeniously, my wedding band. At the time, I felt it was a seduction masquerading as a joke. And I felt that somewhere, along the way, I might possibly have invited it.

We had tea—”Constant Comment,” the luxury tea I splurged on in those days—and he told me a little about the country outside San Francisco, which he clearly loved more than the city itself. I think I reduced the subject of my dissertation to five or six concise sentences; it was an ability all of us had, who had worked in solitude too long. In January or February I ran into him at the library, and we had a few minutes of whispered conversation. In March he came to my apartment one afternoon and, as the snow fell outside, we discussed movies we had seen and reminisced about our childhoods, and our memories of snow. He said he had come to the apartment because he’d lost my phone number and had forgotten what name to look it up under. It was circumlocution: he meant to say he had forgotten my married name. This I do remember: I said I was too poor to have a calling card; he would just have to remember that I was “at home” every afternoon of my life. I was feeling sorry for myself because I had almost no social life: my husband was gone for long periods and distracted when we were together, fearing that the telephone might ring. I had spent too many mornings in carrels at the library, writing too little that pleased me. I was flattered to be remembered as an inspirational teacher. I also assumed that, because he had taken me into his confidence, we would again speak about his experience in San Francisco: it seemed to be always in the air when we talked about other things; the experience retained its ghostly aura because it had never quite taken a clear form. We began to meet every Friday afternoon, for coffee.

In April, I called him and invited him to dinner. He seemed surprised; he hesitated, but then his tone of voice changed, and he asked what he might bring, and what time he should come. The night before the dinner, I received a call from my husband at the hospital, saying that my father-in-law had died. I couldn’t reach Charles Fortunesky, though I called until midnight and also in the morning, until the time I set out to walk to the bus stop to be transported to the Greyhound pick-up point, where I would board another bus for New York City. There was not enough money to fly, so I made the long trip to New York, then transferred to a bus to New Jersey. In the dark, I took a cab from the bus station to the funeral home, and riding there, I thought not of my father-in-law’s death, but of Charles Fortunesky. It worried me that I hadn’t reached him. Though I’d left a note with his name on it taped to our door, explaining the situation, I had the terrible feeling he simply wouldn’t believe me. In spite of the fact that he knew my husband’s father had been ill, he wouldn’t believe me because—it suddenly came to me—he did not really believe I had a husband. Even at the time, I tried to talk myself out of this: logic told me he would find the note, commiserate, and go away; a stronger, more nagging doubt told me that would not be the scenario at all.

When we returned from the funeral, I waited for him to call. Several days passed and he did not, yet every time I moved toward the phone, I stopped myself. When more days passed, I became slightly indignant: shouldn’t he know to call and offer his condolences? Surely he wouldn’t think I’d made up such a story just because I’d changed my mind about dinner. I questioned myself: had I? In a sense, I had. I didn’t want him to come to dinner anymore, but because I couldn’t puzzle out my sudden change of heart, I did eventually phone him.

The phone rang a long time before it was answered. Though he rushed to say that he was terribly sorry about my father-in-law’s death, it was a strained conversation, as if he were a stranger to whom I’d suddenly confided bad news. Though I hadn’t been sure what I’d say when I reached him on the phone, I found, to my surprise, that I was almost immediately again asking him to dinner.

He came on Friday, half an hour late. I couldn’t tell whether his face was red from the sudden cold wind that had been rattling the windows, or whether his cheeks were razor-burned. His hair was slicked back, and he wore a white shirt with frayed cuffs and a thin navy blue tie, the tip tucked under his belt. If I ever had any doubt, I knew the minute I opened the door that he loved me. It was such a sudden shock, and so crystal clear, that I was amazed, as he and my husband shook hands, that I saw in my husband’s eyes not an awareness of Charles Fortunesky’s love for me, but that it had escaped him entirely. He was only vaguely amused that this tall, otherwise nondescript young man had remained his wife’s dedicated student, even in absentia—that this person with the unstylishly slicked-back hair was the much-talked-about maverick drop-out, the West Coast comedian.

We sat with the space heater blowing a hot draft over the table, my husband and me sitting in the two oak dining room chairs, a folding card chair set up for our guest. We drank beer and ate Chinese food I’d stir-fried in the wok. As the evening wore on, we loosened up and put some music on the stereo and told amusing stories on ourselves and on others, dutifully filling in the necessary information for the other person to corroborate our conclusions. Of course, my husband and I had begun to know all of each other’s stories, so most of our stories were aimed at Charles Fortunesky. He, too, was a good storyteller—the result, no doubt, of his being a good actor. During one of my husband’s anecdotes about working at the supermarket, he also took careful note of the evenings he was away. I was only a little surprised when he returned on the first of those evenings to knock on the door. This was real-life, not the movies, so we did not leap into each other’s arms. We said little. I looked at the floor. He (I saw, when I looked up) nipped his bottom lip between two teeth and methodically bit the chapped skin. I wish I could remember the exact conversation. Then, it did not seem particularly oblique, though later it did, so I’ve always felt any specifics I’ve remembered have just been invented, and not what was really said. I do remember his saying, “What if we’re each other’s perfect audience? What if we only played to each other?”—and then he said something about how dangerous it could be to find the person who was just like you, instead of different from you. I think he said that he could imagine the two of us performing so well that we’d never be questioned. He was talking about us as if we were con artists. He was most certainly talking in terms of our being together. But was he speaking the way he was to attract or to repel me? Why did we immediately become actors? Why was our being together suddenly something done for show? It almost gave me the stage-fright he had experienced the year before; it also almost convinced me of the inevitability of what he said. I can’t remember, any longer, how it was that he left, but I can still physically remember what it was like to be enveloped in such sadness. And then he was there, in the hallway, leaning in, and I was like some silly little girl coming up to the edge of something dangerous—a muddy pond, or some frightening precipice. I realized in the moment how absurd it was, keeping my toes on the inside of the door sill, the two of us awkwardly entangled, hugging for both too long and too short a time.

That June, everything changed. My husband decided to drop out of law school. He decided we should move to Tenafly, New Jersey, to help his older brother run the family business. In the back of my mind, I already knew academic life wasn’t for me. If I didn’t know it then, it was confirmed a few months later, when I showed the first half of my dissertation to my advisor, and it was shot down like a flock of squawking birds. My husband was enraged that I could not accept criticism. I accused him of being angry because he hated for his idea of a two-income family to be delayed while I learned to do something else. He called me hysterical. I screamed that he was too quick to judge. If I’d wanted the marriage to come apart, I could have provoked it. But I decided to retreat: it was the same instinct toward self-preservation that had stopped me from impulsively running away, that past April, with Charles Fortunesky. What had he wanted me to do, after all, but to be complicitous with him, to say that everything was sadness and confusion, that life was a game in which your body expressed one thing, and your mind another? We had sat in a coffee shop, saying little beyond the perfunctory: that distancing volley of You-take-care and Hey-don’t-forget-me, sliding our coffee cups back and forth like checkers across the surface of the grey formica table. In fact, two tables away, an old man and a young man in a bandana sat hunched over a real checkerboard, silently contemplating their moves. I felt as if I knew them—as if their mere presence was an antidote: ordinary life, as the cure for self-absorption and sadness. Back at the apartment, I had said to Charles Fortunesky that I was staying with my husband. He had shaken his head no, pinning my arms to the wall, keeping them there easily, as if they were insubstantial butterfly wings. He handed me his handkerchief, to dry my eyes. When I handed it back, he held it to his lips, closing his eyes and standing completely still, as if anaesthetized. Somehow, we walked to the coffee shop. We gazed out at the lake, occluded by algae. We sipped cold coffee, embarrassed. Finally, we paid the bill and left. I never saw him again, and in time—until quite recently—I thought of him only fleetingly, though there were times when my husband and I argued that, to my surprise, it was the remembered sight of Charles Fortunesky’s smile that would soften me and quell the argument. Once or twice he figured in my dreams. Once I lied to a friend in New Jersey and said that he and I had been lovers before I married. It didn’t excite me to pretend that that was so—it was just my way of conjuring up some romantic love of my own in order to get attention, just as my friend, having drunk one too many in order to confide in me, had wanted to let me know that in other times, in other ways, she had felt deeply.

Then, seven years after we left New Hampshire, this happened: my niece—my brother-in-law’s oldest girl— thought she might want to go to school at the University of New Hampshire. By this time my husband was doing very well, running the business on his own, so he bought plane tickets for my niece and me (our baby was so small she could fly free) to go and look at the campus.

I strolled by the library while Deirdre met the man who might be her department chairman. There were new buildings and what seemed surprisingly young faces everywhere. There were meters in the parking lot I didn’t remember, though I’d been too poor to have a car and couldn’t swear they hadn’t been there all along. Inside the coffee shop, I thought of Charles Fortunesky—I looked at the table where he and I had said our farewells—but the memory of all that might have been forever blunted by the passage of time had my niece not suddenly decided that she wanted to go to the apartment where her uncle and I had lived as newly weds. When I thought about the apartment, my last day with Charles Fortunesky came back. I had a clear image of myself pushed against the wall, and I could almost taste the salt of my tears. It astonished me, because I often thought back to my days in the apartment fondly; until I found myself in New Hampshire, I never remembered the place in association with anyone but my husband, yet that day I could hardly remember anything except that sad, unexpectedly emotional moment. I was not going to let that image take hold. I would go back, and I would remember other things; I would put that particular secret memory behind me.

Deirdre and I each held one of the baby’s mittened hands, making silly, encouraging noises as we lifted her feet into the air and plunked them down, all the way up the steep steps at the entranceway. In the vestibule, as I tried to remember pleasant things from my youth, I suddenly remembered the poverty. The dirty window in the stairwell. The cold.

We knocked on the door of my old apartment, and a pretty girl wearing jeans and a long striped sweater opened it. I smiled and we told her, in garbled unison, what we were doing there. She asked us to come in.

It smelled nice in the apartment, as if she’d perfumed it with pine cones. The windows were not yet smeared with the dirty streaks of melting snow. There was even a fire in the fireplace, and as we stepped back, I was seduced by the comfort of the place, mesmerized for a moment, suddenly secure and warm. A very peaceful feeling had settled around me, so that I was doubly shocked when a demon’s face suddenly leaped up, black and unmistakably evil, electrified by flame, a coiled serpent stacked around its neck, a horrific face squinting in the flames, turning first blue, then red, then green as color-saturated pinecones erupted in front of the fireback. What I saw was as old as the apartment itself, nothing this girl had brought in, and, amazingly, I must have always failed to see it. It must have stared out during the happy times and the sad, silent in fire or cold, the one witness of me in another man’s arms, my guardian angel cast as a terrifying monster.

Deirdre and I refused the girl’s offer of coffee. We had stayed long enough, and it was time we went outside into the darkening day, where I saw—as I had seen so many times they had become a part of me—the mountains in the distance: that ferral grey creeping up them that was neither mist, nor dust, but a unilateral darkening until the mountain’s faint violet disappeared into the hulking haze, and the frost-yellowed land faded into cinder shadows.

0 Comments

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Recommended Reading