We have nothing. Out here, we have only ourselves.
This is all new to us. Once upon a time, we were in the big city, and the population of our neighborhood—a small district in a large borough in one of the nation’s largest cities—the population of just our neighborhood was ten times bigger than the population of our entire city today. If you can call it a city. Everything here is called Village Something: the Village Laundromat, the Village Stationery, the Village Tavern, the Village Pizza, the Village Freez (an ice cream stand), the Village Idiot (a bar). It doesn’t pretend to be what it’s not.
It is not a lot. We left everything behind. I had nothing to do with it. I had nothing. It was Azita; Azita had it all.
She secured the university job in this village the spring before, the spring when she was very white in the face and black in the head, the spring of the yellow and green pills, the spring of padlocked knives. She applied one night in the early morning hours, and even that was done suicidally—the furious cutting and pasting of the old script, the stringing along of the seemingly-dead resume and the generic cover with some recklessly pieced together writing samples and what she called a “practically plagiarized” old teaching philosophy, plus the promise of references, to the university employment database. In spite of the “poor effort” (again, her words), she was called back the next day and then interviewed over the phone, by three professors in the department and the department chair (a phone conversation she swore went absolutely wretchedly, as she’d spent the morning before in tears with our landlord, who was—truly—doing absolutely nothing to cover all our holes in spite of that season’s onslaught of mouse infestation, which she claimed was making her depression worse and worse, all the dying baby mice, squealing on those glue pads, not to mention all the waiting, waiting for me to come home and pop them in a bag, toss them in the dumpster, and make her forget it ever happened), and of course she was a finalist.
We don’t understand how animals become a thing to do out here. Back in the city we saw mainly pigeons on the sidewalks, rats in subway stations, roaches in dark cracks, mice in every corner.
They were candid with her: “finalist” meant she was one of two, and really by picking her to be the one to visit the campus, they meant it was hers unless of course something was “terribly off.” Those words of the chair haunted her. But she took my advice and treated herself to a brand new blazer, some shiny heels on sale, and an extra half a milligram of the mood stabilizer plus a crumb of the old anti-anxiety pill—little extra somethings for the very special occasion.
I drove the rental car, while she cried all the way over while running through the job prep flashcards that she had so diligently assembled the night before, the right answers so slippery in their bogusness, so resistant to her in their somebody-else’s-unctuousness: Because I sincerely believe that I’m the best person for the job; Within five years, I see myself with another highly acclaimed book published; in ten years, I would hope I’d have tenured status and at least another book; I would say my greatest weakness has been caring too much about my job, my overwhelming perfectionism; My greatest strength is “fucking hating myself—pull over, I need to throw up or myself out of the car or some fucking thing, Ed!”
But she got the job.
And we got the village. Three hours from our old home, three hours from three different big cities, close to nothing except the state’s capital, an hour away, a place known for its motto “It’s all right here!” Our village’s motto, according to their new website—with every section under construction except the home page that had a loaf of bread, a wheel of cheese, a flower of some sort, and a Model T—was “A State of Mind.” I never understood it.
I didn’t have a job set but it was okay. I would get one. I could take a few months off even, after that merciless year in finance, overtiming my life to half its size. Here, I could try to gain some of it back for a while at least. I could paint, I could garden, I could take walks. I could help Azita, cook for Azita, organize Azita, talk Azita down.
Azita never said a word about it because Azita was too busy thinking about Azita. And who could blame her. Her biggest break had come just on the heels of her biggest breakdown. Azita had to think about Azita, and, of course, so did everyone else.
Everyone else: me.
I didn’t mind. It was a peaceful place to be for a time. I could think out there. I could sleep. The only sound at night was crickets and some other loud insect that made a motor-like burrrring sound, and sometimes the screaming of neighborhood cats, which I, never having owned a cat to know for sure, think meant fucking.
They tell us to do things. There is so much to do out here. There is nature. The river valley at this time of year is gorgeous they say, at every time of the year. Do you like hiking, biking, fishing, canoeing? We do none of that, know none of that. The two branches of the river merge just two miles away, the eighteenth-longest river in the United States—does that not interest us? Twenty billion gallons of freshwater flow into the bay—what do we think of that? We don’t. And the hemlock in the hiking loop is supposed to be among the tallest in the state, and George Washington called the mountain range the “crown of the country” supposedly, and still we are not impressed.
Do you like hunting? Birding? We don’t understand how animals become a thing to do out here. Back in the city we saw mainly pigeons on the sidewalks, rats in subway stations, roaches in dark cracks, mice in every corner. Here more than our old city house mouse, they have all sorts of mice and mouse-ish beings here: deer mice, white-footed mice, meadow vole (this is not exactly a mouse but close, I learn), southern red-backed vole, rock vole, meadow jumping mouse, woodland jumping mouse, the Norway rat, the bog lemming. There are even bats! The Indiana bat, the small-footed myotis, the big brown bat, the evening bat, the hoary bat. Bats like humans, they tell us, have low reproductive rates—a single young per year—and they live long lives, but the main difference—this is what they say, the main one—is that they can fly, the only mammal that can. The skies they say are full, here, with peregrine falcon, barn owls, warblers, bluebirds, over 200 species of bird just in our part of the river valley—a “birding hotspot” in the nation, they say. And on the little bodies of water there are swans: tundra, mute, trumpeter. Underneath, we are told, there are lampreys, sturgeon, bowfin, eel, herring, catfish, salmon, trout, bass, sunfish, darter, and drum—mostly fish we’ve never heard of even. And there are animals I hate: porcupine, raccoon, fox, wolf, coyotes, weasels, skunk. There are animals she loves: turtles, salamanders, hares, red squirrels, chipmunks, woodchucks, beavers. There are rattlesnakes and copperheads somewhere, but mostly gartersnakes (although there is a huge exotic zoo called Reptiletown, which sounds like what it is, and for $100 you and your ten friends can throw a birthday party there for two hours, with a reptile show and everything; I hate reptiles and Azita is just so-so on them, so we never go there).
More than anything though there is deer, white-tailed deer, everywhere. We complain that we don’t see them, but people tell us they are there, all over.
Just no mice, please God, no fucking mice, Azita mutters almost daily, invoking a God she doesn’t believe in—I: floundering agnostic, Azita: devout atheist—one of the only times she puts God in the picture. One time back in the city she told me she would hang herself if she was alone with another dead or dying mouse again. I had not left work early that day to tend to the mouse disposal, and hanging herself was what she could come up with for me.
I become one of those men who chats too long with other guys at the coffee shop, that asks men pumping gas on the other side about the weather, that greets the postman warmly, that once in a while pops by the pub for a beer just after 5:30 and talks to the bartender in a too-loud voice.
One thing I will say about the village is that Azita improved so much since we got here.
The first few weeks, Azita, slowly tapering off any remaining meds, including her sleep medication, started having very vivid dreams—particularly a reoccurring one, involving horses. At least a half-dozen times, I can recall waking up to Azita, sighing, “Not again, another goddamn horse.” I ask her about them the first few times—what color? Running or still? Alive or dead? Stallion or mares, if you had to guess? A stampede or a single one? Are you riding it?—and it seems like every time it is a bit different, but most of the time, it’s a single brown horse just running off in meadows.
This disturbed me. I recalled hearing once that horse dreams mean you want to run away from your life, that you want to break away, jump ship. I made the mistake of telling Azita this.
She became irate at the suggestion. I wasn’t the one last spring! Don’t you forget it, I wasn’t the one with all the all-nighters, the missed calls, the Alannas! Every time she says her name, my old coworker, she bares her teeth in a way I have never seen her do, in a way that makes her face look frightening almost.
She always thinks I think there is someone else. But I know there isn’t. Azita is always, always accounted for.
I become one of those men who chats too long with other guys at the coffee shop, that asks men pumping gas on the other side about the weather, that greets the postman warmly, that once in a while pops by the pub for a beer just after 5:30 and talks to the bartender in a too-loud voice. It’s often fruitless. So I look for male friends in the unlikeliest places; once I even went birding.
They tell us we have to buy a car, that a personal automobile is absolutely necessary for life in the center of this state that we live in. Everything is about three hours away. There is no public transport. The cab company is just an old man and his son who barely ever pick up. We start to look for “For Sale” signs.
Azita spots one one day. She calls me over and over one afternoon, when I am watching a popular women’s afternoon talk show, when I would rather not pick up. The show is about husband-beaters, which is naturally fascinating—many of them are surprisingly petite, far smaller than their patient, sad, slightly ashamed husbands.
It rings eight rounds until I can’t stand it anymore.
“Azita,” I say, in the same voice the last husband-beater has just said I forgive you, with a bit more bite than the words traditionally require.
She is talking breathlessly, a mile a minute, about a car—“real live, For Sale car!”—at the bank parking lot.
I tell her to write down the number and that we will call, but of course she has done this. She wants me to call, so it can be “man-to-man. My dad always said it’s the best way with cars, that they try to rip off women.”
I sigh. Another husband on the television is showing not just a bruise like the others, but a huge long scar—something about a letter opener. I agree to call.
“But don’t wait—call now! This is our chance. It’s an old car, but not in bad shape!”
“Old? How old? And what type?” I ask her, imagining something sleek and stylish, the stuff of old movies, probably the only old car I can envision, not being a car person: a ’69 Mustang.
“I don’t know, let me see. Oh, Cadillac! Maybe an Eighties Cadillac? Please just call the number!”
Cadillac: car for old people, poor people, this much I know. I took down the number. I watched the rest of the show first—three out of five husbands cried, one woman did also. The talk show host made them all hug, saying over and over, “More of that!” The ladies nodded. When the talk show host told me to “Have the best today,” I picked up the phone and dialed the number.
As expected, an older guy who talked very loud and spoke rather joylessly. He quickly got to the point: “A grand. Look it up in the Blue Book, ’82 Cadillac Cimarron, runs just fine, new tires, oil change, A/C’s dead but has heat and fan, and I dare you to find a dent.”
The guy met us that evening. He was in his late sixties, I guessed, white hair with no sign of balding, jeans, white sneakers, white polo shirt, very slow walker. But he meant business. He pointed to the dark red car in his driveway immediately.
We nodded, Azita with an exaggerated excited expression, all smiles and big eyes, and me, well, with a more honest calm one. It was “just fine” as he had said. It was not a beauty, not even with ironic charm, but it would do for this life in this village, where no one really had to see us.
We went with him on a ride. I did the driving. Apparently he was retired from thirty years of work at the local federal penitentiary in town. That was all he said about himself, other than he had a wife named Rose who mostly drove the car, who couldn’t really drive anymore.
It wasn’t until we returned and parked it back outside his house that I noticed three bumper stickers: “God Bless America,” “Support Our Troops,” and “Equal Rights for Unborn Women.” Azita’s eyes were also on it, but so was that polite thin smile she had worn quietly the entire ride.
“Sowhat will it be?” the man said.
I looked at Azita. She gave this wifely nod that said, Oh, sure, honey, if you want to. So phony.
“She’ll take it,” I said, offering my hand.
The man took it gingerly and Azita took out her checkbook.
“Make it out to Trev Mifflin. One, zero, zero, zero.”
She wrote it and handed it over.
“When it clears, I’ll call you,” he said, still looking at me. “Then you come and take it.”
I wanted to protest, but I didn’t. I just slowly nodded and looked at Azita who looked neutral, totally for once neutral.
We began to walk home. Azita was quieter than I imagined she would be.
“You know, those stickers will probably come off with some, water, soap, maybe some salt—I’ll look it up,” I told her.
“The bumper stickers. You saw them. They’re, you know, fucked up.”
She shrugged, looking straight ahead, the same neutral faraway look in her eyes. A whole minute, I swear, passed before she said, “Well, it’ll be nice to have an out.”
And then: an out. I saw on the calendar her fall break was coming up and I thought it might be a good opportunity to get away. I felt, of course, a bit awkward suggesting a full vacation—since I couldn’t pay for it—but wouldn’t a trip back home, the old home, do her good especially? It maybe could even make us appreciate that city that we had so hated in our last few months there, that we had cursed again and again in favor of a life we really knew nothing about.
And I really didn’t know about Azita, but the country was doing bad things to me. Somehow with all that air, all that space, all the time, I felt trapped, more than ever. I worried about death more than ever—while usually, in the city, I was always thanking that higher power that put us in this mess for eventually taking us out of it. Anything that could make the city stop seemed merciful.
The city, good or evil, was home.
Azita wasn’t averse to it, but immediately she focused on the problems. “I really can’t afford a hotel there—a hotel anywhere really, but definitely not there. And we’re getting too old to sleep on a floor or a crappy crouch of some random friend.”
“I can ask Chris,” I suggested. “Remember his futon couch? Still a couch to you? Geez. What about Sam’s”
“His girlfriend hated me,” she said. “Look, none of your friends have the type of place we should be in—”
“We don’t go to the city to sleep! We go to go to nice restaurants, museums, concerts, theater, the fucking ballet!”(Azita, a former ballet kid, just loved the fucking ballet).
But she did her usual thing: shook her head and just walked away. She had begun grading papers upstairs in her office, a dark musty space she originally said she couldn’t stand.
But to my surprise, just an hour or two later, she came down to my office—the loveseat by the television—and put her arms around me.
“I know just the person, the only person we know with a WHOLE spare bedroom!” she said, her voice sounding all chirpy, almost champagney, suddenly. “Guess!”
I, still a bit in shock over her quick change in mood, threw my hands in the air, dramatically. Whenever I saw her like that, all smile upon smiles and sparkles in eyes and wiggles and squirms and curls—for even her hair suddenly seemed to twist and turn in joy—I wanted so badly to freeze-frame the moment and put it in my pocket, like in a perfect glass orb, and pull it out the next time I saw her in her underwear bawling on the bathroom floor, waving a women’s pink razor in the air, just above her wrists, pull it out and say, Baby, listen, you will be okay, remember, you were okay, you hear me, you can be okay, I see it with my own two eyes, don’t you trust me, there’s nothing wrong, I promise, there doesn’t need to be anything wrong
“Billy!” She said it again and then again even, like she was hoping it could become an incantation: “Billy! Billy!”
Billy. Bil-fucking-ly. Of course, the joy, the cheap shitty happiness had to be cheap and shitty. Of all people, she had picked Billy Clibborn, the one friend of hers I couldn’t stand, the fucking leprechaun who would have no problem in the world, I was sure, giving us this supposed extra bedroom—and how the fuck did she know about that?—in his rumored fucking uptown palace.
I did not like Billy. For one thing, he was in love with her. She never dated Billy, but I’m positive he asked her out. She denied this all the time, but if you saw Billy and saw the way he looked at her, the way he clung to her arm, the way he sometimes even held her goddamn hand, it was obvious. I always told Azita, I know men. Especially loser men.
Then, there was his height or lack of it, rather. I would have called him “midget,” but once, right after I met Billy, I went on the computer and looked up the technical definition of midget—I think they called it “little person”—and it was 4’10”. Billy, as Azita pointed out, was not that much shorter than her, but I’d say more than a couple inches. If I had to bet my life on it, I’d say Billy—and I’m being honest and maybe even generous here—came in at around 5’1.”
Plus, the guy did something to women, something perplexing. At his birthday party when I first met him a couple years ago, all the girls—and good-looking ones too—were fawning over the little guy nonstop. He got more hugs and kisses and coos and cuddles than any fucking guy I have ever seen. The guy turned girls into mothers. They wanted to protect little Billy. Not fuck him, but breastfeed him in that baby way, and of course Billy uses that to his advantage and just sucks their tits. They rule him out as a man, but give him quite a lot of the manly benefits and then someexcept the big one of course.
Also, to add a bit of insult to huge injury, the guy was a redhead. A leprechaun, essentially. And his name was Billy— why doesn’t he go by Will or William or even Bill? I ask Azita, Why does he make it so much worse for himself? But Azita is not sure Billy is short for William. Billy may just be a pure Billy.
God fuck his parents then. For everything, but mostly for mating, with their itty bitty genes all going to town just to make that.
My face fell into my hands.
“Listen, going to the city was your idea!” Hands on her hips, smile upside down in an instant.
“I should have known, is all,” I tell her.
“Billy is always inviting us,” Azita tells me.
“Whatever, he knows you exist! Look, it will be nice. Billy’s rich.”
That was a sad but true fact. Billy the midget happened to have money—his parents’ that they threw on him like crazy, because like everyone else, they felt sorry for him, no doubt. But money can’t buy you height.
I wanted to keep arguing, but Azita had that look in her eyes, the dark liquidy look, the one that made it look like her brain was at the bottom of a deep dark well, her soul a tar pit. There went her shoulders next: both quivering and scooping forward. She ran a hand through her hair, and I saw that even her hands were shaking. These days, I reminded myself, stressing Azita out was not an option. I wanted to get us out of the country in many ways just for Azita, I remind myself. And if Azita began to feel better, I had no doubt I would. I might even consider looking for a job.
“Whatever you say,” I told her, trying hard to be the ultimate angel, the bigger man, the biggest man ever. I envisioned killing little Billy with the entire girth of my great big kindness.
She looked up, surprised for a second, then looked down. I went over to her and put my arm around her and tried to kiss her neck, but she pushed my face away, like she’d been doing for months without fail, and disappeared from under my grip, as if she was never there, a ghost shell, just a stirring of dust, a hint of fragrance, a perfect memory, my poor, poor girl.
We have no choice but to leave in darkness. It’s mid-October, so the sun has been setting earlier and earlier, a negative minute a day. By the time we get moving, it’s 6:30—sunset—just a half hour after Azita’s last class. There is, as usual, no talk of Azita driving. She immediately settles into the passenger seat, with a lap full of printed-out directions, her cell phone (should Billy call, of course), dried apricots, and a bottle of water she does not offer me. Her neck is craned towards her window, and because there aren’t proper highway lights, she and I both know well she is looking at nothing. Darkness. Hoping to see something maybe, anything probably, to avoid looking at me.
The night before we fought again. I don’t remember what it was really about, but I do remember how it started: the doorbell had rung while I was napping upstairs, and Azita had run down to get it and found nothing but a flyer on our doormat. The flyer had been a simple black and white copied one with an American flag on it and the words “Help Keep the DEATH Penalty ALIVE in Our State: Pro-CAPITAL-PUNISHMENT Rally in the CAPITAL on All Hallow’s Eve!!! 10/31 Because LIFE is a PRIVILEGE! Don’t Let Your SILENCE be your CONSENT—Support You and Your Family’s FUTURE!”
She told me she had stood there squinting out into the evening dusk, looking for who had left it there, but other than a little girl on a pink plastic tricycle and her grandmother rocking on her porch, she saw no one.
She had called for me and I had woken up and she had waved the flyer in my face and exploded, “We can’t stay here, Ed! This is too much.”
I had shrugged, unfazed by the whole thing. The stuff on the flyer was just the politics of these people. Nothing more than politics.
But it had made Azita upset and somehow she had blamed it all on me. How she made the connection, I can barely understand it, but I remember her saying, “It’s you more than anything! I am not afraid to leave in the middle of the semester anymore! I mean, I can only take so much. Eventually, if it’s between me and this life, I’ll take me!”
She had accused me of siding with the town somehow. Somehow.
“I mean, all along, I know I said the kids were what was holding me back, but you know what?” She was in tears suddenly. “Fuck the kids.”
I remember for a second imagining us as married and with a family and her saying that about our own, rather than her students. It made me hate her for a second. I was suddenly siding with the town, telling her it was all fine, that it was her, not it, how could it be it?
“We have nothing here!” she had raged, tearing the flyer, letting all but one piece with some star and some stripe shake in her hand. “We have this! But we have nothing. We have ourselves! And that, Ed, is nothing!”
I remember I had stopped reasoning with her and somehow the fight grew louder, more twisted, stickier, and I suppose, as all do, eventually it fell flat. At times, it seemed like Azita was worse, and this was one of them. I remember how it ended: I did what I usually did those days and just walked away and said my last word in a barely perceptible volume, “It’s the same everywhere.”
But we had slept in separate bedrooms and I woke up in the morning to see that Azita had taken the last piece of toast. It had made me unreasonably angry.
So the trip to the city couldn’t have come at a better time, I told myself. This is the storm right before the calm, she is letting it all out now, because she knows it’s coming. She wants to go home, even if it is what she used to call hell sweet hell.
It was possible every home became a hell for Azita soon enough. Home might have been part of the problem. And I could try to imagine Azita like one of those wives, in a white one-piece with fingers full of diamonds and cruel red plastic smile, lounging from one poolside to another in different continents that all might as well have been the same, her life a perpetual vacation, time just that month’s issue of Vogue, weather always sunshine, sustenance always beverages that bubbled, and accountability ultimately just a room number and a signature
But that wasn’t Azita, no matter how hard I tried to make the picture fit. So I could try again: imagine Azita finally with two feet on the ground, a foundation different than this home or that home or the other one, Azita transported just three decades back to that country, that country the shape of a cat—she always noted this with a peculiar sadness—on that continent, that old empire—sometimes she rolled her eyes when she said that word—in which she was born, that she always said was—with an otherwordly sweetness that was sometimes too much for me to take—well, almost always said was, at least for her family, something of a homeland
But who am I to go there. I was here: 188 miles to the city, but more hours than made sense, thanks to two-lane highways and twists and turns up and down mountains with simple names of colors, through villages that either ended in “-ton” or “-burg,” all little hamlets essentially with a single main street, just barely sprinkled with a chain eatery or common discount outlet. The billboards were few and locally-concerned, boasting pastries and sweet corn and antiques, whereas the gas stations had unfamiliar names, and rest stops dropped in and out of the thick black wilderness with oblivious abandon.
Azita fell asleep a few times, and each time, rattled herself back to life with a gasp. “It’s not good,” she finally muttered. “I have to stay awake. You need someone to talk to, to hear, to make sure you are awake.”
As if she didn’t want to be that person, she quickly turned on the radio and searched for reception, but it was pure static through and through.
“It’s fine,” I told her. “It’s early for me. I’m not tired.”
But she knew exactly what would keep me awake. She took out her phone and dialed. I knew it immediately, from that overly congenial, totally un-Azita-like hello-oo.
“Oh, we’re not even halfway,” she said, still that singsong voice I barely ever got to hear—only when she talked to her few friends on the phone. But really just Billy. “What are you up to”
Here it came: the laughter, the gushes, the coos. Oh, a movie! That would be just the thing, Billy! I imagined the midget on his couch, his department store living room set home—the kind nobody in the city had—sitting all cross legged in front of his no doubt huge Plasma TV flipping through the cable channels, maybe the DVDs too, planning his night with Azita, the one I would get to just chaperone, on a dad recliner while they putzed about like overgrown children in a playpen. I mean, Billy, what about me screams “city?” Is it my ears, two holes or something? I don’t know, but it’s got to be something! No, I was just wearing a sweatshirt—okay, it was an old college one, but still! Oh, please, you know I don’t own that! Giggles, giggles, giggles. It was sickening, and it was hard not to take it out on the gas pedal. I put the car in cruise control, just five over the speed limit and stretched out, restless. And what could Billy possibly know about America? Oh, we will definitely want to go! Well, let’s just go right when it opens! Oh, who needs sleep—all we do is sleep here! But I wouldn’t want to miss that show for the world! God, I miss art! There it was: our entire vacation, the one I had planned, slipping away from us, in cell phone small talk with a nothing guy, my girlfriend with her voice sounding like fucking bells, my girlfriend giving it all away, to a guy whose little paws just might be paddling the little contents of his little pants, the motherfucker.
I turned on the radio. I found a human voice finally on the AM dial, an old man, an elderly old man, reading from, what else, but the Bible. The echoes told me he was in a cathedral maybe. Ezekiel 34:2-4, his brothy bellow went. Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not the shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you did not take care of the flock! You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally
Azita punched my forearm and made a “lower the volume” gesture with just about the most malignant scowl she could muster. I turned it down—just a tiny bit—the man’s words have a strangely soothing and mildly hypnotic effect. At the very least it was drowning out whatever junk Azita was spoonfeeding to Billy. I tried to focus on the simple beauty of the tarry moonless sky, the placid vigilance of the reflectors, the blameless never-ending backwoods roads. I tried to listen, to something bigger than her and me and the situation, even through all her Aw, Billy, awww; her Don’t worry, I’ll be there soon enough, dear; her I love you, Billy!
Ezekiel 34:10, the man went on as if stopping just in time for me to get on board again, O shepherds, hear the word of the Lord. This is what the sovereign Lord says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock
At some point I noticed, it wasn’t much past eight and yet it felt like the middle of the night. Minutes felt like hours. With all that black on black, and no more markers of anything, it made sense in a way. Gone were the diners, gone was the gas, gone were signs promising girls and pies in a few more exits—this was a clean stretch of nothing. We were suddenly the only car on the highway, which felt impossible to me; Friday night, road from country to city, didn’t anyone out here care about the city? Didn’t the city mean anything to them out here?
But who was out here? No one, nothing.
At some point she must have said goodbye to her dear, her love Billy, because that last time I looked over her head was leaning against the glass, her eyes closed, and her cell phone clutched tightly on her lap. Maybe she was pretending to be asleep. Who knew. I took that as an okay to turn up the volume just so—and listen to the man say something, something that to some people, people out here presumably, meant something: Is it not enough for you to feed on good pasture? Must you also trample the rest of your pasture with your feet? Is it not enough for you to drink clear water? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet?
That’s all I really remember from that—a line asking whether you had to muddy it all with your feet or something—before it all went bad, very bad. In the seconds before, in all that thick sable, I had thought I had seen something move, just a slow slight wave of something, like a garbage bag set in motion by the night breeze, but then the lights of the car caught something brown and white and black, something of fur and flesh and wood, and the second I realized what it was and what was happening, there I was in eye contact with it—if you could call that great big black marble an eye—and then there it went, as if detonated, legs like tree branches up in shocks cutting through the air, like those trick cans that would explode plush toy snakes when opened—how they popped, and snapped, not without a splash of something inky, and then a burst of sticks, a tangle of hard gnarled wood—antlers, my god, the size of them—a male certainly, but what beast really could bear to carry a thing like that and on the head, riding on the brain, what a prop, like the fingers of trees, as if nature upon nature, brown on brown, had graced it with harmony, a thing of dirt and autumn and trunk and sunset sky like everything that isn’t green, and sounding also like every other brown thing, a cardboard box even, a heavy cardboard box filled with a stuffing of plastic bubbles and foam eggshells and paper, carved and undone in one go, like a post-apocalyptic future’s idea of our Thanksgiving centerpiece, all gone everywhere And there we were almost overturned, perched on our flank, at the mercy of a grassy embankment, a rustling something that had kept us alive, that even wiped off what I hoped was most of it, the ink the color of my blood, the insides I could only guess were the texture of mine.
It took a second after all the chaotic sound, the screeching of futile brakes, the crushing of metal, the shattering of glass, our bodies even, until it all registered and then I looked around and screamed like a child would, a scared tiny child who thinks he knows how it goes but has really, really seen nothing.
And then I stopped.
I remember, before looking over, too scared to look over, thinking, being ready to say even, But, Azita, we made it. We have ourselves.
My therapist recommended the support group to me but at first I thought it was a misunderstanding.
“It’s not the deer part,” I said, softly, embarrassed at having to point this out. “I mean, I’m not even a vegetarian. Yes, it’s terrible killing an animal, but it’s the rest. Azita, of course.”
My therapist started to chuckle, then caught himself, and nodded, I swear. He said, “I know, of course. The DVCSSG deals with that of course. People are never just dealing with the deer part. That’s bad but it’s nothing compared with the other stuff. Yours is a particularly traumatic case, but even when it’s not as bad, people’s lives change. That is what they say. I’m of course not a specialist in this stuff, but rather just trauma. Which is why I think it would supplement your therapy nicely. Just try one, is all I ask. If it doesn’t suit you, it can go back to just you and me.”
Just you and me, I thought. For over two months now, I had seen my therapist twice a week—one week, three times even. The only person I really saw was my therapist.
So for that reason alone, I went to the DVCSSG one Monday night, when the meetings took place. Apparently there were two in my area—DVC’s or “deer vehicle collisions” were apparently the nation’s highest around these parts—and I chose the one that was on a Monday randomly.
It was at the rec room of a church, a big badly lit room with ping pong tables and darts and board games and even a few arcade games. We sat in a circle in fold out chairs. An older man in a red turtleneck—the leader, it turned out—passed around a tin of butter cookies.
I cleared my throat quickly and jumped right in. “Well, yes,” I began. “I had a deer accident—a DVC—a couple months ago and my therapist sent me here.”
“My DVC does not own me,” were the first words out of his mouth, uttered with closed eyes. He opened his eyes and blinked brightly and smiled wide, big bright teeth shining against the leathery tan face and Christmas-toned sweater, matching his windswept generous white mane of hair. “Welcome, all. I see by the sign-in sheet we are two richer today.” He squinted at his pad of paper on his lap. “Miriam?”
A tiny woman, with a dark bowl cut and glasses waved at everyone.
“Welcome,” the leader said.
She nodded with a smile.
I raised my hand. “Here,” I said, hoarsely. “Hello.”
“Welcome,” the leader said. “Let’s start at the very beginning then—a very good place to start, no?”
There were a few chuckles.
“We hear your stories once and then we move on,” he said. “Please, Miriam, share with us if you will, what brings you here.”
Miriam looked very flustered suddenly. She looked down and her lower lip trembled. “I would rather not right now. Can he go?” She had a thick accent from a country I could not place.
I cleared my throat quickly and jumped right in. “Well, yes,” I began. “I had a deer accident—a DVC—a couple months ago and my therapist sent me here. It was a bad one. The car, my car, rolled off the road. I was okay, but”
I paused and immediately a few sighs filled my silence. The man walked over tome and put a hand on my shoulder, behind me. “We know this story. I was okay, but. But you lost someone you loved?”
I paused and looked up at his big blue eyes that scanned every single eye in that room. I nodded.
“Who did you lose?”
I felt a heat on my face, like it came from the man’s touch, maybe via his fiery sweater. “My girlfriend. My true love. It’s a little complicated though”
The man shook his white mane and went back to his table. “It is not complicated. The DVC makes us feel life is complicated. It is not complicated. Life is beautiful. Take Natalie’s story—Natalie, go ahead. Natalie has been with us for years and this I consider the worst. Natalie?”
An obese woman with a white-blonde ponytail stood up and said stoically, as if reading off a script, “I was driving and my daughter was holding my baby on the passenger seat. It was a sunny afternoon in November. Suddenly the thing comes at us. It breaks the windshield and crushes my daughter and the baby. They both perish. Before the trooper got there, the body of the deer was gone—someone got the fresh venison. November 13, 1989.”
That was the last anyone talked about deer or DVCs at the meeting. The leader—Byron—read a passage from the Bible, a woman named Maryanne shared a sonnet she wrote, a guy named Peter whipped out his guitar and did a John Denver cover, and an old lady took donations for the Salvation Army. Then the meeting was adjourned and everyone drank tea and had more cookies. I tried to look for Miriam, the foreign lady, but she was gone. I saw Byron walking up to me, and I pretended not to notice, and instead quickly left the building.
I never went back.
Not to that chapter anyway. I went to the other one near my house, one last try, two weeks later. It was in the dance studio of a YMCA. Better than a church, I told myself
When I walked in, the first person I took notice of was little Miriam from the other meeting group. She did not recognize me, looked right through me, but I reminded myself of her traumatized state and no matter—her just being there told me the place was better.
The leader was a young muscular woman named Nan and she seemed safe. She still opened the meeting with “My DVC does not own me!” but said it with gusto and energy, giving it the feel of an aerobics mantra. Already, I felt like I was breathing easier.
Some of the same things happened here though. There were cookies in a tin being passed again (chocolate chip, this time). She also asked me to share my story.
So I did. I tried to take in all of those half a dozen people of all shapes and sizes, connected by a similarly horrible tragedy that they lived through to tell, and I told the story.
I even got to the part where the real trouble was, when Azita decides she has to go back to New York, when she packs her stuff, leaves—by airplane—and moves in with Billy in New York, and three weeks after she is there, I get that call from Billy. That he found her, all slumped up, in full clothes, in his bathtub, with a container of Tylenol PM and a plastic bottle of vodka, and that she must have been like that for hours, the EMTs said, hours and hours all by herself like that.
“So she did it in the day?” I had asked Billy, weeks later, again. “They are sure it was in the morning?”
“It seems like it,” he said, sounding a bit annoyed. Fuck his annoyance. Who was he to be annoyed? But I reminded myself to calm down. Azita would not have liked that.
“She was usually okay in the early day,” I muttered.
“Yeah, I don’t know,” Billy said, his voice cracking a bit. “I think she was a bit different, you know? I mean, she was a mess the second she got here. She wasn’t in her right mind, like I told you. I think she slept one full night in all those weeks.”
“Did you guys do anything?” I blurted out, awkwardly. “Then or, um, ever?” I had to know. Every few days I’d called Billy to get to that same question, but I never could do it.
“She was my friend, Ed,” he said, with some anguish in his voice, the type of whine of young, young boys when they’ve lost a ball game or something. “She was just my friend.” It made me wonder for a second if he was gay, even.
I felt a fluttering in my stomach, claws and beaks-feeling instead of butterflies. This wasn’t nervousness, this was some inbreeding of terror and misery.
“Well, keep in touch,” I said. “Really.” And that was the last time I spoke to him.
I tried to call him once more, but he had changed his number.
“I would never blame him,” Miriam once said, during the mingle part of the DVCSSG meeting, when all the round-tabling was over, as we grabbed some hot cider. “But I will say, he sounds awful. A narcissist, I suspect. The wrong type of person for a person in trouble to be around”
I wanted to mention he was short, but I didn’t. Miriam was very short and I could imagine she was married to a very, very short man.
“But who knows, maybe it was all for you” she went on and smiled.
Miriam was the only person I had told that part of the story to: how Billy had told me the first thing Azita had asked for once she got there was a loan from him, of $50,000 or whatever he could do. He had given the full amount to her after he saw what a wreck she was, imagining it was for her to live on for the year, to find an apartment and live without working for a while. He had no idea it was for me (wired to me the day before she died) and in fact claimed he was shocked to find out she only had $160 in her bank account when she died.
“I’ll bet she donated it all to charity,” he had said.
“I’ll bet,” I said. “It makes sense.” And I was happy with that interpretation because I thought it was true in a sense.
But Miriam told me it wasn’t just that—it was because she loved me.
It embarrassed me to hear that partly because it sounded like such a lie, so incorrect. Azita of those months could barely stand to look at me. I had ruined her life. In trying to make her life better even, I had even ruined it worse. Ruined it for good.
My therapist would cut in and say that is unproductive thinking, as well as a fallacy. He liked to say that. Another thing he liked to say, after I asked him about it a few times: Let go of the brown horse in the meadow, Ed. Remember: it really doesn’t mean anything.
We talk about county fairs, food drives, bake sales, soccer games, potlucks, and picnics. We talk about divorce, unemployment, abortion, bankruptcy, date rape, lay-offs, sexual harassment, lawsuits, incest. We talk about ourselves, our neighbors, our coworkers, our friends, our families, our dead relatives, our crushes, our affairs, our flings, our exes. We fight, we laugh, we argue, we cry, we hug, we slap, we nudge, we kiss, we scream, and we whisper. We remember we are just a bunch of humans put into a room, any room, any bunch of humans. We have everything; we have ourselves.
I have started to love our town, our little village. I cannot imagine life anywhere else, especially in the city. She made the city hers when she did what she did. I made the town mine when I went on living. My therapist explains it this way, but I think it sounds a bit like a movie trailer. All I know is, I am home.
I start to lead the meetings after my first year, a real feat, according to Nan. It’s necessary for a third chapter in our area—especially since Byron’s is becoming more and more of a cult—and as deer incidents are going up, as the deer are starving, becoming mad with starvation even, as they overpopulate and the weather rebels against them more and more in patterns they can’t understand and food becomes scarce in ways they have never seen.
I don’t say it like a fitness instructor like Nan or like a minister like Byron. I like to just look up at the sky when I say it, eyes turned to the heavens, simply, humbly, My DVC will not own me. I say it three times. I hope it does not seem too New Age, but it feels the best for me, and my therapist says that is a good rule of thumb: Imagine what feels good for you is what others also experience as good-feeling.
I look up because it’s the only way I can imagine Azita’s face each and every time. If I close my eyes, I see the darkness, that heavy starless night of the accident that has caused me to sleep with a nightlight since and never ever drive in the dark, or else my imagination takes me immediately to a recreation of her death scene, as described by Billy, something that has no reality to me. It is what Miriam also calls love, because like animals in the wild, she chose to do it away from me, so I wouldn’t have to see it.
When I look up somehow the crème roof of the bingo hall where we meet takes on that pale oat color of her unwellness those last months, and I can imagine the breakthrough smile in spite of it, pale peach lips trying their best to contort into the universal happy human position, her grey steel eyes, just a shade off the ceiling, a somber nickel, flashing sad to mad, mad to sad, in spite of whatever else the face did.
When we woke up after almost twelve hours of sleep the morning after the accident, she said, “You’re never getting a job, are you, Ed?”
“When the right one comes along, Azita. Geez, can we talk about this some other time?”
“Basically you think jobs like stray cats just come to you. This is what you think. And by never getting one you are saying ‘fuck you’ to our future.”
While I was drained and still could barely move because of all the bruises and bandages, she was up, with hands on her hips, her headdress of gauze almost fashionable in its absurdity. Her bodily energy made it look, I suppose now, as though it was just there because she liked the eccentricity.
“I think we just had a major accident and the car is wrecked and we are a mess and one thing at a time.”
“I won’t buy a new car,” she said. “And us, well, maybe we’re better all messed up like this.” She snorted to herself, with anger, with humor.
“Great,” I snapped. “A lot to look forward to. On that note, who’s making breakfast?”
For once we made breakfast together, mostly because each of us didn’t want the other one to make it our lone duty. Doing it together made it the best breakfast we’d ever had—a big brilliant feast for two, made by two injured souls trying to outdo each other. She cracked the eggs in the pan, I whisked them. I popped the bread in the toaster, she buttered them, then even sugared them. We took turns grating the potatoes rapidly, and frying them for hash browns. She squeezed the oranges and I strained the juice. I made the tea and she sweetened and whitened it. She made the oatmeal and I added the raisins and cinnamon.
We sat like lunatic kings before a giant spread like we’d never had before, just watching all the food, with barely any appetite for even a bite of what lay before us.
But we did eat. We ate and we laughed. It was as good a day as we had ever had. And then we went to sleep and she had night terrors over and over. I told her it was understandable and nothing to be ashamed of. She said she needed her old sleeping pills, but she was out. I offered to go to the store to buy her over-the-counter ones. She kissed and hugged me and sat up waiting with the light on. It was four in the morning and I had to drive twenty miles to the one twenty-four-hour rest stop to get her the Tylenol PM.
She slept with the container in her hand that night and a few other nights, but never took a single one—I always checked—not as long as she was in my arms those weeks.
Porochista Khakpour was born in Tehran in 1978 and raised in Los Angeles. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, The Daily Beast, The Village Voice, The Chicago Reader, Paper, Flaunt, Nylon, Bidoun, Canteen, Nerve, and FiveChapters, among others. She has been awarded fellowships from The Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars, Northwestern University, The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, The Sewanee Writers’ Conference, The Ucross Foundation, and The Corporation of Yaddo. Her debut novel (now out in paperpack), Sons and Other Flammable Objects: A Novel, was a New York Times Editor’s Choice, Chicago Tribune Fall’s Best, and 2007 California Book Award winner. She currently teaches fiction at Bucknell University.
Censoring an Iranian Love Story by Shahriar Mandanipour—I’ll make a grand declaration: best book by anyone of Iranian descent that has been written in the last decade. Iranians, Iranian-hyphenates, and truly everyone else will find something—even if it be different things—to love in this stunning novel by a seasoned author.
Dick Davis’s translation of the The Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings—The stuff of my childhood bedtime stories still gives me chills. If you can’t read the Persian, try this—Davis does an honorable job, I think.
Benjamin Moser’s Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector—The next best thing to her out-of-this-world fiction: her out-of-this-world life.