It’s going to happen today. He can feel it waiting to happen, because he’s wanted to know for so long. There are people who live to satisfy curiosity, and Derrick is one of them. He’s like a scientist of old, he thinks. Scientists were persecuted in the middle ages, he tells Marla, his therapist. They stole bodies and cut them to find out what was inside and people called them ghouls and monsters but they were great men, bringing light to a dark world.
Karen should have seen that greatness in him, he tells Marla. Karen is what he calls her because he will not give her what she hasn’t earned, won’t call her by some fake courtesy title, Mom, Mother. He thinks about the names she called him. He thinks about the day she found him with the turtle, the two halves of its shell neatly split. He’d been studying the membrane, lifting it with one of the strange silver instruments from Karen’s German manicure kit. It came in an orange patent leather case, that manicure set, and the only parts of it Karen ever used were the scissors and the nail file, but she loved that kit. He remembered that. He remembered the way she’d looked at him that day. And yet he’d seen her eat platefuls of clams in the Portuguese restaurant, pulling the bulb-bellied fetal shapes from their shells, dipping them in butter that ran down her fingers and chin.
In the tiny world of his aquarium he was God, gazing down at his subjects from the overarching false dome of their sky. He would watch them for hours and something would tell him which was the one; something would catch his eye: the small black spot on a lizard’s neck, the jigsaw pattern of a frog’s back, and he would know. Still, he would wait before he lifted the cover. I was watching you, he would have told them, if they could have heard. I was watching you all the time. Maybe they did hear, he thought sometimes. He liked to think that they understood. It was better for them to know, right away, how the world worked.
Rebecca has the day off, but not really. She called in sick to the law office where she works as a paralegal. A mental health day; she wants to walk. To breathe air that isn’t blown from vents. To play hooky in a vast anonymous city where no one will know that she has taken this indulgence: an early matinee at the hushed, clean granite cinema on the Upper East Side, the cheesecake lunch, the walk home past things she can’t afford to buy, but she doesn’t care. She feels, today, as if these whimsical clocks, these happy purses, these softest of chenille scarves are not forever beyond her reach. Someday she will have them, if she wants them, though it isn’t these things she wants, precisely.
Still one of the stores draws her in. The red coat in the window seduces her. It has huge buttons and a sparkly fifties-grandmother pin, a gold turtle with tiny garnet eyes. Sale! The coat says. Last In Store! Because it’s on sale, and because it’s the last one, she’s sure it won’t be her size; it’ll be some strange small size that nobody wears. But it fits. It fits her. Rebecca feels the arms, camel-hair smooth like a coat she had as a child, and the sales clerk smiles at her. You’re lucky, she says. It’s half off. They won’t charge her for the pin. And even though half off is still far more than she should spend, Rebecca buys the coat, thinking about all the ways it will keep her warm.
She leaves the store wrapped in soft red wool, her old tan jacket folded away in the shopping bag. Rebecca stops at the stone lions, turns into the Public Library because she is overcome with an urge to write her book. She knows her heroine’s daughter must die and she wants to know how, the precise ravages of a disease that will cost her heroine so many months of care. It’s 1918, in her novel. There could be influenza or consumption: did they call it consumption then? Rebecca is entangled in these questions and she spends hours at microfilm machines, hours reading indexes of books. She loses herself in worlds of her own. Like Madame Curie, her sister teased her once, showing Rebecca a childhood biography of little Marie, engrossed in reading, while her sisters and brothers stacked more books around her like a fortress, waiting for her to look up.
It’s Wednesday and Jane has no classes, so she’s at work, trying to read behind the candy counter at the movie theater, but wanting to be somewhere else. It isn’t that she hates the job. She’d been proud of finding it on her own, unable to face another semester of work-study copy machine duty. When the manager asked her if she had any experience she told him she was a film major and he laughed. Cash register experience, he said.
She thinks about leaving her dorm this morning, slipping into her new old coat from the consignment shop, a black-and-white coat that looked as if someone with a life like Audrey Hepburn’s had owned before Jane. And now it would be Jane’s life: a Tiffany life, a Golightly life. Something will happen today, she’d thought as she stepped into the cold morning air in her Tiffany coat, and the thought made her half-scared but giddy with power.
And something does happen: she sells a ticket to the goatee guy from the poetry reading at Simple Simon’s. She remembers him because his name is also Simon. He’s finishing a coffee and carrying a Village Voice, probably reading the same review she read. He remembers Jane, too. It’s so funny that you’d be here, he says, and he doesn’t say why, but Jane thinks she knows. They’re out of context here, both of them, and happy to recognize each other.
Simon stays and talks to her after the film. The subtitles are badly done, he tells her. When her shift is over they walk down the street to the bookstore Jane likes. She asks Simon if he’s a student, wondering why he’s not at work on a Wednesday afternoon, but he says no. He left school after his junior year, lived in Krakow and Prague. Simon works when he wants to. He designs web sites. He may work tonight until two, but he can see a film in the middle of the day; he has that freedom. She asks about the poem he read. It’s new, he says, but he has published other poems in journals. Jane tells him about her poetry class and somehow time passes; they realize neither of them has had lunch and it’s almost dinnertime. He tells her he knows a good place for Greek food but it’s in the Village, so they go together, into the subway. She thinks, as she sometimes does, about all the people she’s sold tickets to that day and how their lives will go on in directions she’ll never know. But not Simon, perhaps, and she lets herself imagine that fate brought him to her theater.
The way to know things is to watch. Derrick learned that from the salamanders, the turtles, the frogs, even the slow albino crickets he tips into the aquarium from their plastic margarine tub. He knows them. He knows which one would detach itself from the mass and fall to struggle in the water or lie helpless, upended on a rock. Knowing takes patience. Most people don’t have patience. Knowing takes too long, so they ask questions instead.
Marla asks questions. She’ll wait, and he’ll think maybe she’s watching, starting to know him, and then she’ll snap one out, blunt and artless. She’s like a woman in one of his foster homes. Bad at hiding. He doesn’t hate her. The questions are annoying but she can’t hurt him.
What do you do with your anger, Derrick, she asked him last time.
I have no anger, he told her. He told the truth. Anger was for the weak.
What’s inside you? Karen had asked him the day she found him with the turtle. What makes you do these things?
But she didn’t want to know anything, not really. She rubbed her hand across her mouth, again and again. You’re a monster, she said. You should be locked up. Which was foolish because they didn’t lock people up for doing things to animals.
A monster, Karen said. And then she walked away, the way she’d always walked away from him. Even in stores. He remembered being a little kid and struggling to follow her through the mall. Her hair and her long coat swinging as she walked, the heels of her boots clicking, as if she wanted to leave him behind. As if she hoped he’d be lost among strangers forever.
He still looks for Karen in crowds, he tells Marla. Did he tell her that? He thinks he did, but sometimes he forgets. Sometimes he forgets to visit her. Today he hasn’t forgotten. Today something higher is calling him. The need to know, to see. It’s going to happen, he thinks, and he walks down the subway stairs, walks slowly as people pass him, watching the light change to a filtered underground yellow, and he thinks about how he loves that light and the wet, secret smell of this place as the walls close around him like an aquarium.
It’s dark when Rebecca steps outside again: she’s stayed out later, after all, than she would have if she’d gone to work, and because it’s dark and it’s late, she hurries down the subway stairs. She’s hungry now, and thinking of home. She pictures herself unlocking her door, the deadbolt and bottom lock, hearing the thumps that tell her the cats have jumped down from the sofa and will be waiting for her at the door, as if they hadn’t budged from the spot since she left that morning. It’s chilly in the station but Rebecca is warm in her new coat. She’s standing just behind the yellow line near the edge of the platform, in the crush of the crowd, looking into her book bag to make sure all the articles she’s printed out are there, and someone taps her on the shoulder.
Jane and Simon are waiting at the platform. All the businessmen are heading home. Jane looks ahead at rows of legs, men in suits, standing guard over their briefcases. Something has made Jane quiet. It’s the air, she thinks, the thickness of it, something in the smell that reminds her of a circus tent: stale popcorn and urine. She sees a man staring at her, a strange young man in a long black coat whose lips seem to be moving silently. His hair is dirty blond, tied back in a ponytail, and his long fingers lace and unlace, his thumbs press together. He looks down at her boots. Not new, she thinks he whispers, or is it not now? She shivers and moves closer to Simon and the man moves on, but she keeps watching him. She’s watching his hands, their patient movements. Look away, Jane tells herself, but she doesn’t. She sees him looking at another woman who’s alone on the platform, preoccupied with her bags. She is Jane’s height, hair dark brown like Jane’s but a little longer. Jane wants to warn the woman but she’s not sure why. It’s the city, a stranger who might mumble, might ask for change. Nothing to fear. She’s been in the city long enough now; she’s built immunity.
Rebecca turns her head and the man behind her smiles, an empty-faced light-eyed young man. He’s wearing a long black coat that makes her think of Edgar Allan Poe. He’s looking at her turtle pin. Does he think it’s really gold? She feels the rumble and rush of the train, turns away from him, tries to move to the side, but she’s pressed forward. I always wanted to do this, he says in her ear, and hands are on her back; she’s being lifted, thrown. The platform is gone, her feet scramble through air, pages of articles are flying in an onrushing wind. There’s a roar, a shriek, a brilliance that shakes her body like those trips to the airport, Rebecca and her sister kneeling in the back seat, holding hands, watching the airplane lights coming toward them.
Jane feels the heavy air electrify with the noise of the train. For a moment the man in the black coat is lost in the pack of bodies surging forward and then the woman with the long dark hair gives a sharp unfinished cry, she’s falling, or not falling. Jane sees a sheet of paper in the air, rising past her, and she wants to stop it, to hold it, but it’s too far away. The man in the black coat has lifted his arms above his head in blessing or in triumph and Simon steps in front of her, his arms around her, his chest blocking her view. There are other screams now, following the woman’s, and all Jane can see as she tries to look past Simon is light. A sudden convergence of light.