The Man With His Back To The Room
They’ve seen each other only once in thirty years & that was a brief meal in a crowded restaurant in New York. Only their mothers have known them longer & yet their knowledge of each other’s history is vague . . . so many years with no connection. On this occasion, they must cautiously . . . feel their way.
Each orders a glass of wine. White. & the first tells something of his son & his daughter who are at work in California & the other counters with the history of his son who is now in Athens & then they speak briefly of their wives & something about their work & one has ordered another wine & the other coffee & . . .
In a recent dream, the second one begins, I watched you walk away in a snowstorm, you know, the kind we knew as kids . . . big drifts on either side of the road & even after I called out you kept going & I assumed you heard me but you were always intent on your own vision & I was too far away & the light had changed to dark & I remember sitting down in the snow & crying . . . knowing you wouldn’t be back . . .
& the first admits, it was just like that but I wasn’t so intent on my vision as much as I wanted to get away . . . find what I might do if I were really alone & then I just kept going & when I came around a corner there you were in the snow & I couldn’t bring myself to turn back but couldn’t face you either & spent the night in a strange room in a house just down the block & around the corner . . .
& then the second one says, there was another dream. In this dream you’re carrying a body & struggling to keep it on your shoulder & I’m walking at your side & you keep trying to pass the body to me but my hands are frozen & you offer to rub them but your hands are full so we sit down - you with your extra body & me with my frozen hands . . .
Yes! the first one exclaims, Yes! we were on our way overland to Berlin . . . it was after the second war & we were still kids but we knew enough to hide when we saw adults & I knew they’d taken my aunt & uncle & my father had dragged his mom & dad out of the way just in time & he’d given me the body of my cousin to carry & we got lost at the docks where there were so many others & I saw you way ahead & called & you came &
But, wait! Do you ever think of the time, the first one asks, when we cornered Patsy from across the street & asked her to pee for us & we would for her & she sat down & all we heard was the sound of her water running on the stones but when she wanted to see us & I ran to the back of the garage & pissed alone while you took it out & let go right in front of her . . .
& they laugh together over the story but fall silent again & the second one orders another wine while the first abstains & the second, who is becoming more animated, says, I have another dream - well, maybe not a dream but a memory of us in a canoe & we’re adrift in an eddy on a fast river in northern Michigan when all of a sudden the canoe starts to move on its own & we’re swept downstream & we’re carrying the carton of food for the rest & there’s a snake under the provisions & the canoe tips & the snake goes free but so do all our goods & . . .
Yes! Yes! You swam to shore & tossed a line & we secured the boat &... the first one is very excited & then he remembers something & stops in mid-sentence & says, Wait! It wasn’t you it was that crazy ‘Swede’ who dove in & saved the day & us but the second wants to go on with his version & says, Yes! It was “Swede” who dove in but I trapped the box & kept it from following the canoe downstream & . . .
They both sip their drinks & laugh at their childhood & decide to order their meal & the first one says, I’ve been thinking a lot about eternity. & the second one looks up from his cream of mushroom soup . . . Yes, I’m thinking of taking a trip to Israel to visit Calvary . . . maybe feel what he might have felt & maybe make my peace with my transition & the second one says, What about a Buddhist retreat or a Klamath sweat lodge or . . . the first one interrupts & says, No! That’s not my history. It has to be from my past . . . not just anyone’s. I’ve thought of other Jews but his is the most obvious . . . the most notorious . . . & I need to learn from one of my own.
& the second one nods & says, I’ve been thinking of eternity too but in another way. I’ve been trying to balance suicide with an indeterminate stay & have already purchased all I’ll need.
But what does that have to do with eternity, Says the first one. I mean, dying isn’t the issue. What comes next & how to prepare is the issue. & the second one finally pushes his soup aside & says,
I’ve had another dream. This one didn’t feature you but, when I knew we would meet, I think, after all, maybe it did. In this dream there’s a road which runs up a mountain & at the top another road which runs off to the right except, at the end of that road, there’s a cliff & no where to go but off the edge. & I raced up the mountain intent on going on & ran down as fast as I could & off the cliff & . . . I flew . . .I actually flew off the cliff &
sailed over the green fields & landed easily on another road & kept walking & thinking about that flight & how easy it was & how there wasn’t panic but more . . . a state of peace . . .
The waiter opens a bottle of red wine which the first one tastes & approves. Their entrees arrive & the first one, relishing a taste of the wine, says, Do you remember the time you had a fight with that guy from the other block. You couldn’t or wouldn’t hit him but he beat your head & If I remember you did get in a few before your nose started to bleed & we had to get you a box of Kleenex & . . .
the second one nods between bites of his quail & says, I never was any good at a fight . . . but years later, I found myself up against a drunk in the street & cool as can be I used his head like a punching bag . . . jab here, jab there & the poor guy couldn’t get away & finally we stopped & he still came around & tried to kick in the window of my car . . .
Wait, says the first one, let’s talk about your dream of the mountain & the road & where do I come in? & the second one says, I think I was dreaming of how our meeting after all these years was to be like a run up a mountain & maybe I needed to know it would all be OK.
& the first one, having finished his steak & another glass of wine says, It may surprise you but I’ve had my share of dreams these past weeks & some of them have to do with you or us or however that goes. The last one was several nights ago. I was having a hard time staying asleep & finally dozed & saw a snowball fight where you were out in the open & we were behind our homemade fort & we kept pelting you as you came across the field but you wouldn’t stop even after an ice-ball hit you in the eye & broke your glasses - you kept coming like a bear in your heavy winter coat & we couldn’t stop you
& . . . that’s where it ends . . . you’re climbing the wall of the fort with blood in you eye & the snow is turning red & I can see you but I can’t hear you . . . & there’s blood everywhere & . . .
he stops & wipes his lips & shakes off a smile & continues I think we ended up at my house with a plate of cookies but that part is lost . . . & the second one, who’s been sitting up & listening says, it never was like you to get angry - maybe it was me who made you angry enough to toss the ice-ball . . . maybe . . .
But, it wasn’t me!! cries the first one, startling the waiter, It wasn’t me! Jesus! I swear it wasn’t & you know how I helped you into the house - don’t you remember - it wasn’t me . . .
They skip desert & order coffee & a pair of inexpensive brandies & after a few minutes the first one asks, do you remember watching Mrs. Coleman undressing for her bath & how I said I bet we could see your mother too & how mad you got & there were the others hanging around & they all started to laugh & chime in & how you left & we didn’t see you for days & . . .
& the second one, looks at his watch & says, I must leave soon but I’m more interested in another time & I keep thinking, does he remember Fox River, when we both wanted to date the same girl & she asked us to chose & you said “Go ahead” & I wasn’t sure you meant it & said, “No. You!” & we started to shove each other & soon it got rough & we were hitting & kicking & . . . by then she’d gone off with someone else & the pinball machines were all that were left & we ended up not speaking & walking home in the dark . . .
& the first one lifts his hand & signals for the waiter & they sit a few minutes longer sipping their brandies & their bill arrives & they spend a few minutes more dividing up & clasp hands at the door & outside they wave good-bye & turn once more to wave & then go on.