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A Person of Interest (a novel excerpt)

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November 18, 2007

It had been several years since Lee last had a straightforward answer for the “next of kin” slot on a medical form, but before that he had long been used to variation and doubt in this realm of his life. His next of kin was his grown daughter, Esther, but Esther frequently changed her address without letting him know and only infrequently had a phone. It was also true that for these purposes, the “next” referred less to blood tie than convenient proximity. Knowing this, Lee had always been relieved to give the name of a spouse, when he had one. He had two marriages in his past, the one very different from the other, not just while they endured but in the way in which each was inscribed in his mind once it ended. His marriage to the second Mrs. Lee had lasted four years and had felt like a marriage from beginning to end—his life had changed for her—but once it was over, he didn’t recognize himself in his memories of it. The man he had been—admittedly happy, prone to impulsive travel, eager to embark on large projects and able to finish them—bore little resemblance to the man he had been all his life. The second-marriage Lee seemed like an idle daydream of himself, a projected ideal that was destined to always recede, not a chapter of his past life, now closed. For a long time, almost a year after that marriage ended, he had been paralyzed by his unhappiness, because he suspected his second marriage to have been the one time he’d realized his potential for human contentment. But slowly, perhaps in self-defense, perhaps with genuine recognition, he had been able to recategorize the marriage as an episode of dangerous delusion. In the course of those four years, he’d accomplished almost no mathematical research, squandered great sums of money, and allowed his already tenuous relationship with Esther to decline even further. The happiness he had felt with the second Mrs. Lee had resembled intoxication, a fraudulent loss of himself based on something as shallow, perhaps, as her relative youth and her beauty.

It was his first marriage that persisted, not as a shadow so much as a ground; as if in the house of his life Lee had changed everything but the carpet, which continued to underlie all his steps without his consciously noticing. The second Mrs. Lee hadn’t minded; Lee and his first wife, Aileen, had shared Esther. But more to the point, Aileen had been dead half a decade before the second Mrs. Lee came along. The second Mrs. Lee had no reason to suspect that Lee, in ways of which he was both conscious and unconscious, felt that his marriage to Aileen was in some way ongoing. She could not have known that Lee still thought of Aileen when he faced a crisis, so that when she, the second Mrs. Lee, left him, he’d been upset to realize he could not call Aileen for advice; and when the bomb squad found him and was lifting him onto a stretcher, he’d said senselessly, of Aileen, “I need to call up my wife.”

At the hospital for once he wasn’t bothered with medical forms. It was the only hospital their town had, the same hospital in which Esther had been born and in which Lee had undergone sundry minor procedures in the course of the decades. Lee arrived in his own ambulance, in Hendley’s chaotic wake, but once there he neither saw Hendley nor heard anything about him. After the shocking, ghastly coincidence of having so closely felt the blast that had scorched and torn Hendley’s body, and after the intensity of self-examination the blast had occasioned, this separation from Hendley felt imposed and mistaken; Lee felt Hendley’s nonexistent presence like a phantom limb on the far side of the wall of his hospital room, and he wanted to go to Hendley, to speak to him, even speak for him. By the time the interminable battery of tests and observation periods and medical interrogations had ended and law-enforcement personnel were at last set upon him, Lee was bursting with unexpressed sympathy for Hendley, as if he and Hendley were one. He enthusiastically launched on his part of the story and as a result overtold it; it was true, he had to admit, that he could not be one hundred percent positive the package containing the bomb had been delivered that day, though he felt it had been. It was true he could not be one hundred percent positive Hendley had been alone in his office the whole afternoon. But he wanted everyone to understand that he overheard Hendley, that the sound track of Hendley’s daily life underscored Lee’s life, too. Hendley’s frequent and lengthy and jovial phone calls, his loud visits from students, his bleeping and honking computers. Everything as it always was, day after day, until the thunderous boom.

“It was terrible,” Lee said, his voice unexpectedly breaking. The retelling of it had made his skin crawl. “It must be a mistake! Who would do this to him? Who would do this? Only sick people, animals—”

“Could it have been a mistake?” one of the policemen asked keenly.

“Maybe there’s someone else at the school you think might have been the real target for this?” This was before the FBI had arrived and brusquely shunted the locals onto the sidelines.

“Who would want to kill us?” Lee asked weakly. “We’re only professors. We don’t do anything.”

Before the interrogation began, Lee had felt a raw force piling up in his gut—rage at the attempted murder of Hendley? belated fear for himself?—the pressure of which just increased as the questions wore on. Lee had thought that talking would help, but with the policemen he found himself under constant restraint, required to add qualifications to every assertion, so that by the time he was free to go home, he was quaking. “Are you sure you’re all right?” said the doctor who’d come to discharge him. “I wonder if we ought to keep you another few hours.”

“I’m all right!” Lee practically shouted. “I want to go home!”

Released at last, he floated down the hospital’s hallways and through its main doors in surreal anonymity, but once he’d arrived on the sidewalk, he felt the atmosphere shifting. It was past nine o’clock; he realized he had not eaten dinner. The sidewalk approaching the hospital entrance met the curb in a T, and that T was outlined on both sides by crushed tufts of snake grass and recent tulips already losing their petals so that they looked like gapped teeth. Lee stared at the plants; they glowed a chill, livid white, as if blasted by rays of the moon. Their shadows were too long, and so crisp that their edges looked razored. He realized that the T was congested with people and lights, the harsh bluish white lights of news cameras. He stopped walking and squinted uncertainly.

“Professor Lee!” he heard someone cry then, in a voice like his daughter’s. Lee swiveled his head in confusion. But before he could find her, the crowd surged toward him, stroboscopic with shadow and light.

“Professor Lee!” said a new, sharper voice. “Can we ask a few questions? You were there when the bomb went off, weren’t you?”

“Yes,” Lee said, on instinct pulling off his glasses, as he did when he lectured. “Yes, I was,” he repeated.

Later on, many people—colleagues, students, his neighbors; Emma Stiles, whose voice he’d first heard calling him, from where she stood in the arms of her roommate, attempting to speak through her sobs to reporters—asked Lee with amazement if it was really his first time on TV, because he seemed born to it. Lee had had no trouble staring into the camera, his eyes blazing with rage. He had delivered his side of the story without pathos or exaggeration—in this way the questioning by policemen had been a useful preparation for him—but then he had launched into riveting, righteous invective. “Whoever did this,” he said, “is a monster, a person—I don’t even think you can call him a person—with no feeling for life!” His hand was clapped, fingers spread, at his heart, an indignant starfish. “Professor Hendley is one of the great thinking men of today. If he loses his life, we all lose—not just those of us who are his friends and colleagues, but this country.” Lee almost spat at the revolting waste of it. “Here’s a man who’s the future, and this sonofabitch tries to bomb this man out of existence!”

Lee himself was surprised by his eloquence; the volcano within had erupted, and he’d hardly been conscious of the column of fire that poured out of his mouth. They used it all except the part with “this sonofabitch,” and they had probably wished they could use that part, too. Of Emma Stiles’s interview they used nothing, showing only a quick shot of her crying and being hugged by her roommate. When Lee had finished with the cameras, he’d walked over and hugged Emma tightly himself. And she’d come to him all in a rush, like Esther when she had been small and he’d had to awaken her from a nightmare. A gesture so natural to him, and yet so unexpected of him by the people who thought they knew him. Many of his younger colleagues weren’t even aware that he had a daughter, although framed pictures of Esther—as a toddler, at six, at sixteen—always sat on his desk, as invariable as his green-shaded lamp or his fountain pen.

Stepping away, giving Emma with care to her roommate again, Lee had tried to forget what she’d said raggedly in his ear: I SAW him—

Lee watched himself that night on the eleven o’clock news, squirming with not entirely pleasureless discomfort at the strange sight of his own downturned mouth, his own vertical furrow like a knife wound between his eyebrows, betrayals of age he could hardly believe he possessed, and the messy white thatch that apparently passed for his hair. Seeing himself on TV was like seeing a stranger perform a harsh version of him, under the merciless lights, and then hearing his voice, the strong accent that still stained his English despite decades of rigor, was its own agony. Yet his words sounded good. The vain suspicion that had sustained him through unbroken disappointment at every stage of his career—that he was at least a good lecturer, charismatic and bracingly scary—now found new confirmation. He moved from the ottoman—where he’d been squatting like a true Oriental, elbows on his knees, focused motionlessly on the screen of his blizzard-prone Zenith—into the tattered La-Z-Boy, with his bowl of fried beef and green peppers and rice and his can of Bud Light. At least the second Mrs. Lee, in her rapacious divorce settlement, hadn’t wanted this hideous chair, in which he’d probably spent twenty percent of the past twenty years. The chair’s upholstery was some kind of supposedly wearproof, stainproof, punctureproof miracle fiber of the mid-1970s. He remembered the mentally unstable salesman at the La-Z-Boy store, leaping onto the chair like a hunter onto a felled elephant and stabbing it again and again with a silver nail file that he gripped in his fist. “See?” the salesman had shouted, panting with effort. “No . . . holes! No . . . holes. . . . The weave of the fiber just bounces right back!” “Oh, my God,” Aileen had said, as Lee pulled Esther behind him protectively. But it had worked, hadn’t it? They’d purchased the chair, on installment.

Now the chair was worn, and stained, and its hideous black-and-white plaid was dark gray overall. But there weren’t any holes. Instead the coarse weave had grown less and less like a fabric and more and more like a net, barely restraining the chair’s fl esh of crumbling foam rubber. A chair after my own heart, Lee thought as he made it recline—and it still reclined effortlessly. Worn down so it looks like garbage, but at least no holes.

The next morning Lee read his remarks in the local paper, the Herald, and that afternoon, to his shock, also had them pointed out to him where they appeared in the New York Times. The Times story was small, from the Associated Press, but seeing himself in its pages gave Lee a more harrowing jolt than had seeing himself on TV. At least his newly discovered ill-feeling for Hendley was not just concealed but made to seem inconceivable by his eloquent outrage. And in truth, with the onrush of sympathy and admiration from colleagues and students and even strangers Lee was amazed to find lavished on him in the wake of the bombing—and with Hendley out of sight in the intensive-care ward—Lee was soon able to conceal from himself his own poor sentiments. He could even imagine he loved Hendley, and yearned for his recovery.

Susan Choi is the author of three novels: The Foreign Student(1998), recipient of the Asian-American Literary Award; American Woman(2003), a finalist for the 2004 Pulitzer Prize; and the forthcoming A Person of Interest (2008). She lives in Brooklyn, New York with her husband and sons.

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