“history isn't real”

from The Infinite Blacktop by Sara Gran

This passage of writing has been haunting me for months. I figure I may as well put it somewhere I can reference and share it easily.

The Clue of the Charnel House

Brooklyn, 1985

Tracy had been quiet all day. It was the aftermath of the Case of the Gilded China, and I could tell the case had hit her hard. Late that night, when the air was cold and calm under its own silence, we sat on the steps of a row house across from the projects where she lived. Our breath was cold in the night air, white against the black sky.

“So yesterday,” Tracy said. “I mean last night. At the hospital. I was talking to the man—the witness.”

Tracy paused and didn’t say anything.

“What’d he say?” I asked.

“Well, that once—before all of this happened—he was at the end of his rope. That’s how he put it. Like there was an actual rope, and there he was, at the end. Under that rope—you know, it was just nothingness, I guess. Just blackness. Anyway, he had a rope, and he was at the end of it. And he didn’t know what to do anymore. He said he couldn’t keep living and he couldn’t die. He was frozen. So he went and he lived in, like, a rooming-house-type place. He had a room in this place and for a year, he didn’t leave his room. Every night he would stand at the window and try to will himself to jump, and every night he couldn’t do it. Every night, he didn’t have the courage to jump.

“And then, one night, when he was looking down, doing his usual thing, his little chat with death—that was what he called it, his nightly little chat with death—he said he realized something. He realized that you can try as hard as you want to escape who you are, but eventually, you realize there is no escape. There’s nowhere to run, and nothing to run to. Nothing ever really changes. The state of life on earth is exactly what it is, and the only chance of a happy life is accepting that. Accepting life as it is. And knowing that there is no escape. And that’s the only freedom he’s ever been able to find.”

I didn’t know what to say. I put my arms around her and told her I loved her and told her we’d feel better tomorrow. We never felt better tomorrow. But I said it because I didn’t know what else to say. Accepting life as it was, without rage, seemed maybe possible for some enlightened other people, in another place, with a better reality. Not for me. Not for us.

Less than a year later, Tracy would disappear, taking with her all our best tomorrows.

A year and a half later, Kelly and I analyzed every memory, dissected every clue she had left behind. I reminded Kelly about the man in the rooming house.

We were in Kelly’s apartment, sitting on her bedroom floor. Kelly frowned. She didn’t say anything for a while—she was already starting to speak less, frown more. She went digging in her boxes of papers, clues, and notes; she dug until she found what she was looking for—a scrawled hieroglyphic note on the back of a paper menu from the Kiev Diner: Open all Nite. We Serve Pierogi.

“No, no, no,” Kelly said. “She told me a completely different story. A completely different version. It was a woman, not a man. And she didn’t live in some kind of a halfway house—”

“Rooming house—”

“She lived in the Plaza Hotel. Like in the book. She said—”

Kelly read the woman’s words off the back of the menu, where Kelly had written them eighteen months before.

“‘After the fire, I was staying in the Plaza, across from the park. At first I pretended I was looking for a real place. A place to live. Then I stopped pretending I wanted to live. I couldn’t pretend anymore, and I just stayed there. I had a suite. I wanted to die, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

“‘I spent a lot of time looking out the window. I tried to miss life. I wanted to want to live. Or to have the courage to die already. But I just couldn’t do either. I didn’t want to live and I didn’t want to die.

“‘I told myself I was hibernating. Healing. But winter passed, and then the spring, and then, soon enough, it was winter again, and I was still in the Plaza. I still didn’t want to leave. When I felt restless I would get dressed and roam around the halls, take the elevators up and down. Sometimes I’d go to other floors and walk around there. Mostly it was the same, but some floors were different.

“‘Then one night I was sitting by the window—I had a kind of a window seat I would sit in—I was sitting in my seat and the moon rose up, there was a big white moon and I realized: history isn’t real. It isn’t real. Maybe it happened once, but it wasn’t happening now. That who I was yesterday was not at all important to who I could be today. That every day the world was born again. I could walk out of that hotel and change my name, change everything about myself, and never look back unless the mood struck me to do so.

“‘Escape is possible.

“‘So I escaped. And that’s the only freedom I’ve ever been able to find. To give up the past, and create a new life. To start again.‘”

I looked at Kelly. She didn’t look at me.

“But they’re complete opposites,” I said. “They can’t both be true.”

Kelly turned and looked out the window, thinking.

I didn’t know what to say, and we never talked about it again.