The Secret

Patrick Keppel

Later, when it would be time to make something of it all, Manuel would see the circle of stone arches veined with roses as none other than the garden gateway he’d imagined in the opening of “The Diary.”  This first published work was a piece of juvenilia really, but worthwhile in its way, an announcement of better things to come, like a hot blast of summer in late September means a more vibrant Fall, because then the leaves will die more slowly.  In this first of all first scenes, an adolescent boy finds himself peering one spring morning through the circular gateway of a rose garden near his home.  He’d scarcely even noticed it before, but now he enters and wanders along its key- hole-shaped path, spellbound by all the magnificent new colors and fragrances.  Then at the far edge of the garden’s grassy lawn he comes upon a marble sculpture of a nude woman in the throes of despair, weeping into the rough white stone beneath her as though yearning to get back inside it, her face shrouded by thick, wavy locks, her forearms chopped just above the wrist.

Dazzled by her tragic beauty, the boy walks slowly around the sculpture, examining it from every angle, and then spies hidden in the bushes ringing its base a tiny diary belonging to his sister.  Hiding himself in a bower, curiously, one might say voraciously, he reads all about his sister’s secret loves and lies of passion—and here she had seemed so pure!  Then suddenly he comes upon his own name in the most recent entry and in this dramatic way learns he is dying of the mysterious disease that had previously claimed an older brother, whom ironically, the story went, he had been conceived to replace.  The boy reads that his mother has pleaded with the rest of the family to keep the illness a secret from him; she can’t bear to cast a pall over the little time he has left—or rather, his sister reflects, their mother can’t bear it herself, so racked is she with guilt for bringing this soul into the world only to die, “like a butterfly that flutters out of the cocoon into the spiderweb; when the disease begins its punishing torments, the taste of life she has given him, the greatest gift she could offer, will seem like a dose of the most bitter poison.”

The boy closes the diary in tears but bravely decides to preserve the secret; he loves his mother dearly and can’t bear to see her suffer; and besides, he’s always had a sense that his life was evanescent, even somewhat unreal, created in large part to fill a void.  For a year he lives a perfectly radiant life, every day an infinity of sparkling discoveries the healthy tend to ignore.  Ah, there’s a poet in him all right, others say—no, a priest, the real kind, the kind that heal the sick!  And the boy is happy to see his mother beam at these compliments, and happy himself; only in occasional moments of weakness does he steal away to the garden to check the progress of his illness, always amazed that his sister seems to discern his symptoms—the blotched palms, the protruding blood vessels, the darkening blue around the eyes—a day or two before he himself does.

Finally the boy is taken ill with fever, and though it appears the end has come at last, on the third day the fever breaks.  Bewildered, even somewhat disappointed, the boy presumes this is but the eye of the storm, and, anxious to get a hint of the torments he will next have to endure, he sneaks out after midnight to read the diary for what he’s certain will be the last time ever.  There, to his infinite astonishment, he finds that he died in the middle of the previous night, that the house is loud with grief, and that his little body is lying in his bed, smothered in roses.  In a daze, the boy looks up from his bower and gazes transfixed toward the sculpture, in front of which he sees, or imagines he sees, his sister writhing naked like a crab atop one of her lovers, “ . . . her head tilted back in the moonlight, her face an icy, transparent blue, her lips parting with the silent secret of creation.”

Thus did Emmanuel Serres announce himself to the world, passing through the gateway to pure artistic space, to archetype, hosanna in the highest.  And so later, when it was time to make something of it all, he would say, Right, the gateway—of course it was leading me back to that time, of course it would lead me right back to her.  But at the time, he’d actually been disappointed to come upon the circle of arches veined with roses.  An old fieldhouse used to stand on the site, and Manuel had looked forward to retracing his familiar paths through it, closing his eyes halfway and pretending he really was back there in that old time.  It was an activity he’d always taken some slightly morbid delight in, but these days even more so.  A few months back he’d parted from his wife of almost eight years, and to ease the pain of a severance he still didn’t fully understand, he’d taken to revisiting places from his supposedly happier past, as though to make sure it had really existed.  It was a bit desperate perhaps, but he didn’t think so; he felt that he was merely getting his bearings and genuinely enjoyed the sensation of putting on his past like an old jacket.  Sometimes, if only for a fraction of a second, the results were astonishing, but never more so than last month when he returned to that first apartment he and Sara had shared years before.  As he walked down the sidewalk to the back door of the house, he lowered his lids to blur his vision and said to himself, as though in incantation, I am now walking home, and there on my right is that old black lab on his pillow, and in the window that gauzy curtain flecked with tiny red tears, and here is that screen door that creaks just so, and there— Manuel recoiled; there on the door to his old apartment was the bright red print of a woman’s lips, and beneath it a hastily scrawled note Sara herself might have written (as though he were some kind of monster keeping her in!): “Got free. Goodbye.”

It was a chilling moment, and Manuel had felt rather sad and even mocked by it. But afterwards he was strangely elated too; it was a moment that was larger than life, more like something from one of his fictions, and he’d eagerly recorded the scene in his notebook (in the third person, of course) where it would sit for years like a bottle of wine in the cellar, until one day he would pick up the notebook and idly thumb through it, looking for an idea or image he might be able to use in whatever he was currently working on, and there this little moment would be, precisely the right thing.  And he’d toss it right in, the moment transformed by the fiction and transforming it too, taking it in a direction he hadn’t really planned, or had planned unconsciously, planned years ago the very moment he’d actually come upon that lipstained door . . .

That’s the way Manuel thought.  So now, in search of some such electric moment—or of anything really, the slightest inspiration would do just fine, since for months now he’d been hopelessly unable to work—he was proceeding backwards to the time before he’d ever dreamed of Sara, returning to the old university where ten years ago his artistic vision had first sparked.  Unfortunately, however, for the most part this little excursion had simply bored him.  Most of the people he’d have wanted to see had died or had fled; the desolate coal fields he used to trudge through on misty nights had been replaced by a fitness center; and now, the old fieldhouse—was there nothing sacred?  It had been a crumbling structure even then, the building in which the university had hidden all its visual artists (thereby shrewdly minimizing the public outcry should the building collapse).  Manuel had often liked to stroll late at night through the labyrinth of studios along dirt paths littered with scrawled, dusty fragments of canvasses and broken shards of pottery. All of the paths led to the building’s prime space, a large circle in the center raised on a little platform, and on the plane two days ago Manuel had remembered how the sculptor who had ruled it back then was obsessed with what he’d called the Principle of Asymmetrical Symmetry.  He’d made hundreds of these lumpy clay crosses, the great trick apparently being to make sure that none of the four stems were the same size or shape.  To make each one “unique,” the artist painted a design in the center; on one he drew rows of little buttons and called the piece “Computer Jesus.”  He couldn’t sculpt the simplest pair of hands to save his life, but he could make hundreds of these.

One night at four in the morning, delirious from having struggled for hours over a single sentence of “The Diary,” Manuel couldn’t bear this pathetic masquerade and had cried out into the empty fieldhouse, “What a con-artist!”  He started to laugh and felt compelled to smash at least one of the ridiculous pieces, but then all at once fell silent. There, hidden behind a screen, was the sculptor himself, sitting on his high-backed throne (or was it an electric chair?), peering through the arch of his hands, glowering through dark brows at the floodlit lump of clay on the pedestal in front of him.  The poor young man was not a fraud but simply trapped in his own web, a prisoner of his own absurd principle; and so Manuel had bit his lip and passed on by in a respectful silence as one might through a cemetery, which is likewise heavy with the ponderous weight of disappointed dreams.

And later Manuel would write, Yes, and that memory too was part of the chain, because she too had been there that night, watching us both through the doorway, the decision to leave him for me being made for her. But again, at the time, Manuel was merely irritated the fieldhouse had been razed, replaced by this absurd gateway (not yet the gateway), this circle of stone arches surrounding a dancing fountain and a bronze sphere—a war memorial of all things.

Manuel shook his head in disgust and passed through the arches to the back entrance of the old Fortune Student Center, another favorite late-night haunt of his; in fact, he’d written most of “The Diary” over countless coffees at one of its splintered wood tables.  However, as soon as he entered the building, Manuel at once became lost in a bright maze of snack bars, television lounges, and video arcades that had been added to placate that new generation of students, already visible in Manuel’s time but now clearly dominant, who needed to be surrounded at all times by evidence of mass-production and flickering attention spans.  Even the main room, in the old days alive with talk, with people trying to figure out as much of the world as their meager experience would allow, had been taken over by this strange, silent crowd of glazed young men and women sinking into fat red-orange chairs, gazing up at one or all of the three large, blaring television screens or at either or both of the electronic message boards trailing clipped red streamers of news and sports.  It was like a crowded hospital ward, an entire generation receiving intravenous inoculations against any individual thoughts they might have in those moments when they found themselves unavoidably quiet or alone.

Suddenly overcome by nausea, Manuel lowered his head, steamed out the front doors, and leaned on an iron railing to steady himself.  It had been bound to happen; at last he’d gone in search of his past and turned up nothing, not even the ghost of an image he could use in a story.  He felt empty, weightless, as though he’d fallen into the hole in his life and was too exhausted to climb out—perhaps that had been the goal all along, not to get his bearings, but to bottom out.  Manuel breathed a dismal sigh, his gaze fixed on the pavement.  Right, he should just get out of there, go home and do his work, start some new project entirely—advice he’d given countless times to friends and relatives who had found themselves in similar situations.  He knew it must be good advice because he was loath to follow it; like everyone, Manuel longed instead for a good miracle, the clouds breaking open and his life suddenly flooded with crisp new light, and the path ahead clear and easy to follow. . .

So Manuel didn’t just go home and follow his good advice, but instead looked up and gazed absently at the many tall pines flecked a startling green by the autumn light, followed the web of crisscrossing sidewalks, one leading straight across to the old turret he’d lived and worked in for a couple of years; and before he knew it Manuel had fallen under the dreamy spell he’d been hoping for, thinking, I am standing here between classes.  In a second I’ll turn and meet Rosa and we’ll have coffee and then maybe take a walk by the pond so I can tell her my new story.

Manuel smiled to himself, turned and looked up—well, they hadn’t changed the facade at least, the stone relief of a pair of smiling sphinxes that looked more like puppies by the fire, nor those wide splintering castle doors.  And so to prolong the illusion as long as possible, Manuel quickly took hold of the door handle—and here is that old brass loop with the crack down the center—and re-entered the lounge.

It worked much better to come in this way, through his usual entrance.  Manuel stood in the center of the place and beneath all the garish changes recognized a great deal more of the old layout—to the left, the arched window through which the afternoon sunrays poured in a gauzy stream; straight ahead, the atrium bathed in a sea green glow; to the right, the fading portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Fortune they’d always laughed about in the old days, they were so badly done, making the philanthropists look like they were harboring some awful family secret, and between them there she was, the end of the long, twisting thread I’d been following for months, elevated above the crowd on a wooden stool as though to make sure I wouldn’t miss her!

Or so he would write; but at the time Manuel was simply stunned; in fact, he was sure he was mistaken.  For a moment he stood gazing at the woman, trying desperately to make the pieces fit, yet at the same time taking them apart:  the hair was right, thick curly brown strands, though considerably shorter than he’d known them; the pale skin tone too, but since the woman was bent over reading a book, most of her face was obscured. But then someone was trying to step through the anaesthetized crowd without spilling his coffee, and the woman on the stool sensed this and looked up from her book, and the way she smiled, got up to give the stranger more room to pass, even helped him with one of the cups though in transition a little coffee splashed over the rim and burned her hand—in short, the way she cheerfully obliged—no, there was no denying it now, the woman was none other than Rosa Keyes.

. . . as though I’d willed her into being, he’d write later, but still Manuel hesitated a moment, for how did one approach a miracle?  He drifted around her in a wide loop like someone suspiciously eyeing a waxwork in a museum, then finally crept up behind.  He stood one last moment staring at the familiar earthy beauty of her face and hair—was she real?—then at last reached out and gave her shoulder a gentle tap.

Rosa whirled, there was an instant of something that seemed close to terror, and then she recognized Manuel and beamed, as though she too had anticipated this chance, had longed for it for years. They embraced, they began to talk in rapid little bursts; both found it necessary to verify at once just how remarkable this coincidence was.  It was the first time she’d come back here too, she said; Moira had dragged her up—did he remember Moira?  They were just talking about him not one hour ago, about everybody in the old crowd really, making a map of where they all were, where their vectors had shot them—wasn’t that how Manuel had always put it?—and thinking maybe it might be time to get together . . .

Manuel nodded and smiled, said he supposed that’s why he was here, then trailed off.  Their initial outbursts had subsided, and the moment seemed about to be flooded with an equal and opposite silence.  But Manuel swiftly dammed it up, asked Rosa what she was reading.

Rosa averted her eyes, laughed in embarrassment, and held up a book that was currently very popular—a lively, quirky novel filled with zany grotesques and maybe half a point.  Manuel didn’t hate it.  Oh, just this dumb thing, she said.  It was kind of funny, not nearly as good as what he was doing, of course.  She’d liked Manuel’s stories, by the way, though some of them were a little . . .

“Hard,” he said with a weary smile.  He’d heard that a thousand times and still wasn’t sure whether he should be flattered, annoyed, or depressed.

Rosa smiled back, then thought a moment.  Well, his characters were so isolated, she said, so abstract, the settings so harsh and barren; it was like everybody was trapped in a model of the world!  But the stories were obviously good.  “The Diary” was still her favorite, maybe because it was a little softer, more like a fairy tale, or maybe because she’d been there when it was written, already knew what it was all about, so it seemed more real to her.  The novel was impressive too, though she confessed she hadn’t had time to finish it yet; that is, she wanted to give it the time it deserved, and . . . .

Manuel smiled halfway, a little hurt.  He remembered how once their relationship had almost come to an absurd end when Rosa had confessed lightly (as though it didn’t matter!) that she sometimes skipped the descriptive passages in stories and novels.  “You do what?!” he’d shouted incredulously—he’d had a rather frustrating day at work, the worst kind, sweating over a passage he couldn’t get right because he knew as yet it lay beyond his powers.  “They’re the most important part!”  But it was impossible to be the slightest bit angry with her now; the best, the freshest, part of their old childish intimacy had washed over them both like a fine mist, and every glance, every word, seemed to glisten with it.

And the wind blew, and this blessed little cloud of two tumbled out of the anesthesia ward and settled in a corner of the basement lounge, which was almost empty because it was still under reconstruction and as yet featured much less to plug into. Manuel and Rosa had coffee and breathlessly filled in the years since they’d last seen each other with the bare outlines of their lives.  Rosa said it had taken a while but she was finally content with her life.  She’d taken a job as a Case Worker with the state Human Services Dept., dealing mostly with cases of abuse and neglect; it was difficult to take such a heavy dose of reality every day, but she wasn’t yet burned out and was determined not to be.  She got married a couple of years ago to a man named Peter, who managed a video store.  They’d bought a little house not too far from her parents in Rockford and were very happy. She had a picture if Manuel were interested, she’d brought it up to show Moira.

Manuel looked at the photo—Christmas by the tree, big smiles; Rosa’s arms were hooked loosely around Peter, like a life preserver around a buoy.  Peter was a somewhat slight, cheerful-looking man with a neat brown beard and glasses.

Manuel smiled, said he seemed like a nice guy.  Then suddenly it was his turn: right, the rumor Rosa had heard was true, he too was married, to a woman named Sara. “But I don’t have any evidence,” he said with a wry smile.

“Sara Serres?” Rosa laughed, and Manuel nodded, suppressed a grimace.  His last name was the first thing Sara had shed three years ago, who could blame her?  Manuel hadn’t cared one way or another and had even suggested half in jest that as long as she was changing her name for the sake of identity, it seemed a pity for her simply to reassume the last name of her father, whom she despised; if he were her, Manuel had said, he’d make up something new.  “But I’m not you,” she’d said coolly.  He might have heard more in that tone had there been any real reason to.

“Sara Stone actually,” Manuel said and paused.  He considered telling Rosa his situation, but it was such a long story, and he didn’t feel up to it.  Besides, it didn’t seem to him that that was what this meeting, this developing story here, was all about, not yet anyway.  They were both still trembling with the charge of this remarkable coincidence, dissolving the boundaries of time and space, plunging them into the sea-changed reality of lyric and symbol, and all at once Manuel was possessed by a sense of urgency.  He glanced up at the clock, which read three.  Rosa had said she was meeting Moira here at five, and that then they were going out to dinner with Moira’s family.  Two hours then.  Manuel downed the last of his coffee and suggested why break with the original plan? that they go for a walk by the pond.

Rosa laughed—she’d just had exactly the same idea!—and at once they swept out of the Student Center and into the bright autumn afternoon.  There was no question which way to go; at once they simply stepped onto the familiar path that headed right to Manuel’s old turret room, then curved around and picked up the path to the pond, and then around the pond as before, around the whole campus as always and ever, completely absorbed in that still, balmy quality that coated one’s perceptions like a clear film as soon as one passed through the university’s gates, so that it was inconceivable that just beyond that dense grove, those grassy links, lay a squalid city throbbing with corruption and blight.

Manuel and Rosa began their walk by exchanging the chapters they’d missed in the lives of mutual friends, but as the dreamy quality of the place gradually took hold of him, Manuel found himself drifting out of this conversation and into another that he now knew lay just ahead, becoming clearer and louder as they drew ever closer to it, like the screams from a distant carnival.  The conversation was going to happen, there was simply no way around it; it was no doubt the whole point of this fantastic coincidence, this hole in the fabric of time into which they’d fallen . . .

Because during their last six months together something very disturbing had happened to Rosa, and a result to Manuel too, something he’d never understood.  All of a sudden, as though somewhere behind the scenes a switch had been thrown, Rosa had fallen through a deep hole in her psyche and couldn’t for the life of her get herself out.  She’d stopped eating, cried in torrents, and lived in constant dread of becoming possessed by attacks of fear so paralyzing she could scarcely breathe.  At first, Manuel had tried to get her to talk it out with him—Yes, right here once by this old battered oak—but she wouldn’t or couldn’t, he never knew which.  At times it seemed she didn’t want him anywhere near her, yet other times she clung to him like a child unable to swim grips the ladder at the edge of the deep end.  By coincidence, her first attack had come the day after he’d finished “The Diary,” and as a result he’d always wondered if he’d had anything to do with her condition.  She always reassured him that he certainly wasn’t the cause, but then at times when her disorder flared up and she sought to wound him or anyone near, she’d cry out just the opposite, that it was all his fault, him and his depressing stories!

Manuel had never been more confused in his life.  He and Rosa, deeply familiar with one another for nearly three years, had begun creeping around one another like total strangers, both looking out of the corners of their eyes for the slightest clues that would tell them not only what the other was thinking, but what they themselves were thinking. Meanwhile, Manuel had accepted a job in New York, and though when he’d applied he’d rather hoped and even expected Rosa would come along, that was out of the question now, it couldn’t even be discussed.  But Manuel found this mere drifting away intolerable and so just before he was about to leave, he’d made a rather desperate, awkward attempt to get Rosa to draw some definite lines over their blurry situation.  At the end of their friends Steve and Christine’s wedding reception, Manuel and Rosa found themselves dancing the last dance, or to be more precise, found themselves on the dim edge of the floor locked in a silent swirl, slowing down despite the music (what music?), approaching a complete inertia into which they would simply disappear but never quite reaching it—even this release seemed to elude them.  Manuel began to feel an acute vertigo, and before he’d even thought of what he was doing, he’d said quietly, as though to prove he at least was still alive, “Shouldn’t we do this?”

He’d often thought of that question later—was that supposed to be a proposal? God knows what he’d have said or done if she’d said yes!  But there was no danger of that; instead Rosa had merely hushed him, looked away, and whispered into his shoulder, “Don’t say it.”

So now as they walked that balmy circuit around the college, Manuel understood that it was time for those old questions to be asked and answered directly this time.  They were nearly ten years older now, more aware of themselves, more articulate; surely Rosa could at last reveal what had happened back then, could at last express what it was she’d been thinking, and then he could say what he’d been thinking, and together they could assemble a coherent mosaic of their past, but for the sake of our present too, our new intimacy developing right then, which would rise to new heights because freed from the relentless pressure of the physical. Meanwhile Rosa, with uncanny precision, was hovering near the subject like a hummingbird, talking merrily about Moira and Ben now, and Manuel nodded, staring hard at those fluttering lips, as though Rosa held the keys not only to my past confusion but to my present, and as soon as she paused he stepped into the void and lifted the first veil.

“What was it like for you, after I finally left for New York?” he asked, then added quickly, determined to be clear.  “We spoke for six months, but . . . didn’t speak.”

Rosa averted her eyes, then smiled vaguely and nodded—right, she’d glossed over that whole time.  Well, there were some pretty painful years in there; several times—once last year, in fact—she’d tried to write him the whole story of everything that had happened, but each time she’d broken down in tears in the middle and thrown the letter out. . . .

Rosa trailed off, and Manuel rushed in to prop her up.  “Can you talk about it now?”

Rosa paused, then gave a light shrug.  Sure, she’d learned to, there was no other way.  Then all at once she looked at Manuel and smiled.  “But I’m afraid you’d put it in a book.”

Manuel groaned.  During that last chaotic year, she’d sometimes dodged his questions this way.  Also, it was the last thing she’d ever said to him at the end of that awful telephone conversation in which he told her he’d moved in with Sara.  Rosa’s violent tears in response had stunned him, since for months after he’d left she’d seemed so cold and distant he’d thought sure she’d found someone else to lean on.  Finally, in parting she begged him to promise her one last thing—please never, never to put her in a book.  Manuel had shrugged, said okay—one of the easier promises he’d ever made, he’d thought, since Rosa’s life had never really struck him as all that interesting as a story, probably not even if he’d known the precise origin of her disorder.  The great irony was that he already had used a few pieces of her—that wry crinkle at the corner of her mouth; her slender hands like trowels—for the sister in “The Diary,” and she hadn’t even noticed! Likewise, the keyhole-shaped rose garden itself was in part a play on her name, a little gift he’d hidden in the text for her, but again which she’d never spied.

So in truth Rosa’s anxiety that her life would be laid bare in one of his stories had always struck him as absurd and even a little embarrassing.   But now, the both of them still glistening in the mist of their intimacy, both old and new, Manuel simply laughed it off.  It just didn’t work that way, he explained cheerfully, not for him anyway.  For instance, that secretary in the novel, Connie, had a basis in reality—Kelly or something, maybe Cathy—but only when the character was on the verge of dying out of the book did he realize, through a single image he used to describe her, that all that time he’d really been writing about his sister, that in part he was playing out a fantasy . . .

Manuel paused; he feared he was losing Rosa in all this talk, so he shook his head and aborted his psychoanalysis. “The point is,” he said, “neither the real inspiration for the character nor my sister would ever recognize themselves in this Connie, who was at once like both and like neither, who existed in some other realm entirely and—”

“People would know,” Rosa broke in with a skeptical smile.

Manuel rolled his eyes and grinned, then threw his arms out wide.  “Well, don’t you want to be immortal?”

Rosa gave a short laugh, then pursed her lips that wry crinkle at the corner and shook her head.  “No.”

Manuel fell silent, forced a smile.  They’d completed their circuit and were approaching the circle of stone arches, incredibly not even then seeing the place for all it was, the gateway of The Diary overlapping the very spot where we’d met, our vectors adding up to zero, where they drifted to a stop and sat down on one of the stone benches just inside.  He shrugged and said quickly that anyway all that was neither here nor there, since he had no desire to write a story about her secrets.  Isolated characters, remember? Trapped in a model of the world.  That was very good by the way; obviously she hadn’t lost her knack for coming up with clever phrases like that, and without even trying!  No, forget the stories, he said; it was for the sake of the present they should talk about the past—surely she too felt the same way.

Rosa gazed into the babbling fountain, then nodded.  “Maybe, but it was very painful . . .” she said and took a deep breath, the first words of her secret welling up behind her lips, the levee cracking.

But just then they were interrupted by a loud cackle just behind them.   It was Moira.  “Look at this.  It’s like a bad movie.”

“You’re early,” Rosa said.  She was right; it was only four.

Moira laughed.  “Looks to me I’m just in time.”

Manuel forced a smile and greeted her.  Rosa’s friend Moira had never really liked him all that much, or if she did she’d had an odd way of showing it.  Whenever she used to see him, she would laugh and shout out something absurd like, “Shield your eyes! The Artist has emerged transfigured!”  Moira was a lawyer now; some fates were unbearably inexorable.

Rosa stood up in a bit of a daze and suggested faintly that maybe she and Manuel should get together for lunch the next day, but Manuel shook his head, said his flight left tomorrow at dawn.  (“At dawn!” Moira laughed).  Rosa nodded; she was driving back tomorrow as well.  (“At dusk!” Moira laughed).  Manuel shrugged, and after an awkward pause, he and Rosa scribbled out their addresses, but joylessly now, like traffic cops writing out tickets.  After the exchange was completed, Rosa said cheerfully that maybe that get-together of their friends would really happen now that they’d received this boost, maybe just before New Year’s in Chicago, where most of them lived—how did that sound?

Manuel said he wouldn’t miss it, then sighed and said, “Well

. . . ” and embraced Rosa one last time briefly but as though there were nothing else in the world, because how do you let go of a miracle? and Rosa backed away flushed, so she saw it too now, and called out after him that maybe she’d try to call him at his hotel after dinner, maybe then they could finish their talk.

*

Manuel grabbed something to eat and went straight back to his hotel.  Feeling more animated than he had in months, maybe even in years, he got out his notebook and recorded the whole scene with Rosa, and that was when it all made sense, when every piece fell into place:  the garden gateway, the fieldhouse memory, the two passages through the Fortune Center, a twisting path to the subterranean world of pure meaning, truer than true, in which his stories too are submerged, and out of which they arise. Even Moira’s apparently annoying interruption made sense now, because Rosa hadn’t been quite ready to reveal herself just then, not entirely, and now when she called she would be.

So Manuel spent the next several hours writing and staring at the walls, carefully laying out the series of questions he would ask her and occasionally glaring at the phone, as though to squeeze a ring out of it.  Finally at eight o’clock he noticed the red light on his phone was on.  He picked up the receiver Hello? Hello? but there was no one on the other end.  He phoned the desk, but the clerk said there hadn’t been any calls.  From that point on, the hours dripped by like a water torture.  Manuel passed the time discovering still more startling connections and meanings buried in his chance encounter with Rosa and scribbling them in the margins of what he’d already composed; but at last he grew impatient with waiting for the next scene to begin and tossed the notebook aside.  He paced around his cage, cursed Moira, and shook his head at Rosa—how could she let this chance slip away? But still he waited, recalling the promise in that last embrace.  He never really gave up, but around two o’clock his body began to cave in to fatigue, and not long thereafter Manuel faded off into the dreamless sleep of the forgotten.

On the plane the next day, unforeseen delays and re-routings absurdly taking him west before he could go east, Manuel sipped coffee after coffee, reread his notebook pages of the night before, gazed out the window at the endless film rolling backwards, at the porous, marbled skin of the great lake, a curve of hips, at the harvested fields, the people in Minnesota farm in labyrinths and spirals, then flipped to a new page, and began a letter to Rosa.  He wrote that he was sorry they hadn’t had a chance to speak again that night (right, don’t be vexed now) if only because now he felt in a bit of a swirl, disoriented by both the iridescent coincidence and its too-soon fading.  In any case, it was worth catching a glimmer of their old intimacy even for a little while, worth it even just to see her handwriting again on the slip of paper she’d given him!  He hoped (strike that) felt certain that they would resume their conversation if and when the planned reunion took place later this year—perhaps sooner if she liked, by phone or letter.  Incidentally, she shouldn’t feel that she alone was on the spot here; he too had glossed over a few things about the intervening years which were worth telling, if she were interested in hearing them (oh, that alone should do the trick).  He closed that he was anxious to meet Peter (an important inoculation against any suspicions that Manuel sought to threaten their happy home) and hoped (strike that) looked forward (strike that) was anxious to hear from her soon.  And then of course, a postscript, a kind of signature, a personal little gift—found this and thought of you:  The people in Minnesota farm in labyrinths and spirals.

Manuel read the letter over a few times and found it perfectly answerable, passionate but sane. He posted it as soon as they landed in Minneapolis—how strange to leave behind such an important little piece of himself in a place that didn’t even really exist except in the rarefied time and space of air travel, a place connected to the familiar world below by only the faintest filaments, like this little blue box.  It seemed an ideal place to continue his sublime correspondence with Rosa, and delay after delay Manuel sat watching this wide, crisscrossing world people in Minnesota are tall and read Canoe magazine cover to cover with a powerful sense of belonging.

However, once on the plane pointed properly east this time, propelling him relentlessly home now, Manuel began to feel the whole dreamy hour with Rosa draining from his head like blood after a hot bath.  He went over the meeting again and again, and for the first time saw some of the flaws in the performance, cursed himself for wasting so much time in idle chatter, cursed Moira.  True, their renewed intimacy was powerful— sharp traces of it lingered even now—but he couldn’t help but fear the moment was gone and could never be revived.   He might sustain the vision, it was essential to him—but would Rosa?  And the more Manuel confronted the probability that she wouldn’t, the more strenuously did he attempt to deny it, until at last, back home in his empty apartment, surrounded by all those familiar objects which serve to fortify oneself against plagues of uncertainty precisely like this one, Manuel felt the greater portion of his concern sink into the mud of a forced detachment—Well, it was all out of his hands now anyway, and so what if that’s all there was to it, what real difference did it make?  A posture which he knew from experience would harden and leave him sluggish and disinterested for at least a couple of weeks.

But two days later, when he saw the strip of red through the slit in his mailbox, that thick crust began to crack away like a plaster cast.  Rosa’s letter was unsealed, as though mailed in haste before she could change her mind, and was clearly written in haste as well.  Her familiar scrawl fanned out wide like the ridges of a seashell, riding a high wave up the page, then leveling off and plunging to the lower right corner.

The letter began with a little cloudburst:  “I feel like my arm was cut off and the bleeding wasn’t stopped!”  Then it ebbed a bit, lightly scolding him for not having returned her call.  She wrote that after she’d phoned the hotel and found that he wasn’t in, she’d gone on a crazy search of all the old places.  Each time she was sure she’d find him, and one time she thought she had, sitting alone on his usual stool at the Apollo.  She’d crept up behind and almost tapped him on the shoulder, but just in time she saw he was an impostor.

“. . . So there was no fateful meeting again,” Rosa concluded, “I guess we used up our fate quota earlier.  Still, I’m a little surprised you didn’t call.  But I already said that. Well, my thinking’s not too clear in the present.  It’s two in the morning and I’m starting to fade.  Hopefully our New Year’s plan will become a reality, so that we can talk again.”

As Manuel read the letter, the cast of his detachment fell away in big chunks, so that by the end his connection to Rosa seemed even more fresh and smooth, even more vibrant and new, than it had three days ago.  Of course, he cursed the hotel for such an obscene mistake, as if they’d conspired against him—such outrageous incompetence, they ought to be sued!  But then just as quickly he turned his attention to the present, to the main point—which was that Rosa could sustain the vision, they could get that moment back.  And at once he dashed off another letter, this time rather less restrained, matching her emotion—yes, yes, the bleeding unstaunched, the thinking unclear “in the present,” he felt precisely the same way! And as for the fate quota, well, the gods were just making them work for it now, apparently they found this sort of thing amusing on Olympus. Certainly, they’d meet again, just tell him when and where; but until then maybe they should begin the conversation right away, maybe they should start with what they would have said that night.

Manuel sent the letter off and thought with immense satisfaction that Rosa was probably reading his first letter now too, that maybe she’d already begun to answer it. And if she happened to break down in the middle, this second one would arrive and provide the spark she might need to finish it this time, to finish it and send it off.  Manuel looked at the calendar and smiled—right, Wednesday of next week.  Rosa would remember that it was his birthday, she was always good at that sort of thing, and that would provide still one more spark, and Wednesday of next week it would come.

But that Wednesday passed, and now Manuel was thirty-one, let the countdown begin.  Then the next Wednesday ticked by, and the next, and Manuel fought his anxiety with the vain hope that once again some twist of fate had intervened, that the letter had been lost or that Rosa had misplaced his address, except he knew that letters just didn’t get lost and that if anybody really wanted to find him it wasn’t hard at all.  Finally, it was mid-November, the trees were stripped bare, icy grains of snow were spitting through his window, and Manuel had crusted over so hard with contrived indifference he could barely breathe.  Rosa’s phone number wasn’t listed, but look how easy it was to track down, and after a few days, giving her one last chance, he made the call that he dreaded to make, because it meant that he was no longer living and breathing inside that shimmering moment of connection, but was instead giving the first kick to its lifeless body.

When Rosa realized it was Manuel on the other end, she wrapped her voice in cheerful clear plastic.  She apologized for not getting in touch; she’d been real busy at work, and besides, she didn’t have all the details yet about the New Year’s gathering. Manuel gave a light scoff (as if their intimacy had anything to do with “work” or “plans!”), and Rosa picked up on his vexation and made a vague joke about it; and all at once it was like old times all right, the bad times just after he’d left for New York—the long silences, the constant misunderstandings, the speaking without speaking.  Finally Manuel began to close the door, said he wasn’t sure he could make it out to Chicago anyway; he too was busy with work, and the cost, you know, it was a little extravagant. But suddenly Rosa insisted that he had to come; everybody was expecting him, he was the main attraction, him and Sara too.

While this soothed him somewhat, it wasn’t enough.  Manuel was determined not to go until Rosa showed the slightest hint of that reawakened tone of a month before.  And perhaps she sensed this, because a few days later he received a note from her saying it was all set now and please, please come.  Manuel was still reluctant, but then at last he decided what the hell, he might as well play it out to the end; besides, he didn’t have anything better to do over the holidays, didn’t have anything at all to do, in fact, for the first time in eight years.

So on the twenty-ninth of December, Manuel flew to Chicago.  Winter lay spread out below in pages etched with jagged black and white symbols he didn’t even try to decipher, because Manuel had no thoughts on the way, not even this one, it was as though they’d all been drained out of him.  It was just after ten when he landed.  Rosa and Peter were staying at her sister’s, and since Rosa had given Manuel the number, he phoned, just in case.  But her voice was in that awful plastic again—have a good time, it said, they’d see him tonight at The Terrace.

Manuel shrugged; he didn’t feel much like talking to anyone anyway.  He preferred to disappear into the city streets, the colorful holiday delusion just starting to lift.  He fell in step with the crisscrossing crowd, their breaths shooting from their mouths in little forked bursts of white fire, then peeled off and stood alone by the vast lake and stared up at the smooth, blanched sky.  Sometimes all at once a patch of gray palmed the one bright hole in the clouds, and in the next instant the city was hidden behind billowing veils of snow, the whole skyline reduced to a filmy silhouette, a cardboard cut-out.  But then just as suddenly the trick was over and the curtains vanished; the familiar details re-emerged, but brighter now, coated with a slick, shiny skin.

This happened seven or eight times, and each time Manuel felt a little more in equilibrium with the haze, with the vanishing, so that at some point during his day-long wandering he more or less forgot about the gathering of his old friends; in a way, it was inconceivable that he would have any reason at all to be at any particular spot on the planet at a particular time.  So it was either by mere chance or unconscious direction that Manuel ended up pausing to stare at one window as though the name shining on it in a wide arc were something vaguely familiar from long ago, until at last he was distracted by something flickering inside, some wild waving at one of the tables; and out of all those red-orange arms and faces one face broke loose and floated right up to the glass.

“This is it!” the face said, smiling.  “We’re all here.”

Manuel wiped the window clear of his breath, but the face had disappeared to his right.  Manuel pressed his hands and forehead against the glass and peered in after it, but just then the face poked out the door.  “Manuel? Are you all right?”

The face was paler in the cold night air.  Manuel stared at it until the image burned through the icy glaze that had formed over his eyes.  “Rosa!” he said suddenly, as though about to ask, “What are you doing here, in my dream?”

Rosa laughed and led Manuel to the door, and as soon as he stepped inside, the little crowd at the table erupted in a loud cheer.  Manuel greeted these faces from his past as best he could, his head swimming, spiraling, like an ice cube in a cup of hot tea.  An awkward pause threatened; something wasn’t quite right.  Then George said, “Manuel, you realize you’re almost blue!”  George was a doctor now.

Manuel smiled, rushing to rewire the circuitry, making a conscious effort not to be a lunatic.  “Well, it’s cold,” he said dryly, then did what everyone was hoping he’d do in order to prove beyond a doubt he was sane—he ordered a shot of whiskey.  Finally everyone relaxed into laughter, poking fun at his strange entrance.  Well, Manuel always was more eccentric than they were, they said; he was the real thing after all, the rest of them were just in disguise, playing in that old fieldhouse sandbox!  Then those few who had managed to make it all the way through Emmanuel Serres’ literary corpus—gluttons for punishment, they called themselves—began to compliment him, asked him how he’d come up with this or that character, and by the way why hadn’t he ever used any of them?  After another drink Manuel had almost completely thawed, almost felt warm and loved among these old forgotten friends, God bless us every one.  And Diane took a good look at him and said it was amazing but Manuel was the only one of them who looked exactly the same as he had before.

“That’s cause he was frozen!” said Rich, who sold real estate and was very fat now; and Christine said, “No, he’s got a portrait he keeps hidden at home.”  Only Moira disagreed, zeroing in on him through the curls of her cigarette smoke.  “He’s lost weight,” she said, then smiled and added quickly, “But I want to hear about this wife.  Where is this mystery woman?”

Manuel laughed; the whiskey was going right to his head, and he said the first thing that came into it.  “She’s working,” he said, smiling at Moira.  “She was an actress, and now she’s a microbiologist.  She’s writing a book about parasites.”

To Manuel’s surprise, everyone roared.  Steve explained that just before Manuel had come, Pete here was talking about the people he works with, one of whom always said when she got flustered . . .

“You’re all a bunch of parasites!” Peter squeaked and bounced in imitation, “You’re all just a bunch of goddamn parasites!”  Everyone laughed at the reprise, and Peter took the stage again and continued his stories about work and all the zany characters who came in and out—it was like a TV show, he said.  Manuel watched the performance through the filmy scrim of whiskey slowly covering his eyes.  Peter was pretty hard to dislike; he was one of those easily contented, comfortable men who seemed to glide through life without a care in the world, without a single ambition, the kind who sometimes got a little tired, but never angry, because for what?  He didn’t like the video store, but he could laugh about it; it didn’t matter, none of it did.  And his stories, his voices, were mostly very funny; anyway, everyone was laughing at them, was adding to them with stories of their own.

But Rosa—Manuel leaned back and tried not to stare—was that really Rosa Keyes sitting there next to Peter, the happy hostess of this gathering, blithely coaxing her husband on and on through stories she’d heard thousands of times?  Yes, she’d always been obliging, but where was that other side of her—that harder edge, that searching, inscrutable glance?   Manuel was baffled by the change and was almost convinced, but then suddenly he saw her break out of character for just an instant, saw her eyes darken to those familiar unfathomable depths and her lips part as though she were about to bite something.  And she must have realized it had happened, because all at once she looked up at Manuel with startled eyes and resumed her character.  Manuel turned away, swallowed the last of his drink and got up to order another.

When he returned, everyone had broken into twos and threes, and the only seat open was the one next to Rosa.  Almost immediately Peter rose and announced he was leaving.  He was sort of tired and it was a long drive back tomorrow; he had to be at the video store by nine.  Waving off the group’s pleas that he stay on at least another day—no, really, it was impossible, this was the store’s busiest season—he shook hands all around, Happy New Year, then kissed his wife good-bye, and left the bar.

After a brief pause, the little circle closed up again in laughter and conversations. Christine said something to Rosa about what a sweet guy Peter was, and Rosa smiled and nodded; then after taking a slow sip of water, as though counting One, Two, Three . . . she slowly turned around and confronted Manuel.

Manuel smiled; at once he saw that this little moment had been prearranged.  Right, Moira had moved so that he would sit here—how artless they were.  Out of spite he almost withdrew from the scene, almost turned to join George and Steve, who were making a list of the limbs and appendages missing from people who had been brought into their emergency rooms, almost an entire body’s worth.  But maybe Manuel thought he might as well get it all over with, or maybe he still thought there was hope—Manuel was cursed with a bottomless reservoir of hope—because finally he just shrugged and stayed right on his mark, told Rosa that Peter seemed like a nice guy.

Rosa smiled and said he was, then paused, took another sip, and got right to the point.  She said she was sorry she hadn’t written or called; she had been busy at work, but besides that, well, she’d finally decided it was better to let the past go, not to reopen those closed doors.

Manuel took a deep breath.  It was a relief at long last to see the thing on the table, though it was but the disfigured corpse of their vibrant moment in October, and he wasted no time in calmly slicing it to pieces.  He said of course he understood how she might feel that way, but the point was those doors were never really opened to begin with; they were just walls around the truth.  Their relationship always had a big hole right in the center of it, like an elaborate frame without a painting.  In his view they’d been given a remarkable opportunity, a gift—was it possible Rosa had forgotten the incredible coincidence of their meeting?  Now that was a door, the hardest of all to break down, the door of time and space—and here it was opened for them, as though by magic, or as though by the intensity of their desires to make it happen.  It seemed a shame, no a crime, not to walk through it, to just run the other way and hide.

“Because this isn’t just about filling in the past,” Manuel concluded with a light shrug.  “The intimacy is still there.  We can’t help that, we can’t deny it—but why should we want to?  It’s a shame to dilute an intimacy; there are so few people in life one has this kind of feeling for.”

“That’s just it,” Rosa said somberly.  “I don’t think I can have this kind of feeling for more than one person.”

Manuel eyed her suspiciously.  “You mean you can’t, or Peter doesn’t want you to?”

Rosa sighed.  “Both.”

Manuel paused, glanced toward the door.  So Peter did have a care in the world—well, he too was doomed then.  Manuel finished his glass, rubbed his sweating brow.  He was fairly drunk now and so felt as though the moment were pulling him along on a sheet of ice.  “I’m no threat,” he said wearily.

“I know,” Rosa said.  “But I’d just feel uncomfortable telling you things I only tell him now.  I’d feel I was being . . . emotionally unfaithful.”

Manuel glared back at Rosa in bewilderment, as though she’d just spoken in a language he didn’t understand.  He wanted to laugh and shout, “What utter nonsense!” but he restrained himself and simply shook his head.  “It’s a mistake to hide all your emotions in one person,” he said, “It doesn’t work; one day they just explode in your face.  I know.  I’ve done it too.”

Manuel looked around the table, saw Moira talking to Diane but keeping one of her large, black eyes fixed at all times on the two of them.  He turned back to Rosa and smiled faintly.  “Sara’s gone,” he whispered.  “It’s a long story.”  Manuel flicked his hand through the space between them, as though to say, There, I’ve started, it’s your turn now.

Rosa was stunned and cast her eyes down to the table.  She picked up his secret as though it were a playing card she needed for her hand, stared hard at it a moment, then shook her head and laid it back down; it was too late, her hand had changed.  “I’m sorry,” she said softly, as though from an immense distance.  “It must be very painful.  I’m sorry I can’t do more.”

Manuel recoiled; he was lying there at the bottom of a well, and Rosa had simply turned and walked away, leaving him for dead.  “But you can!” he called after her. “Maybe it’s hard, but so what, the worthwhile things are always hard.  If you want to, you can, and you do want to.  Don’t even try to deny it, Rosa.  I was there, too.”

Rosa’s mouth began to quiver, and as he knew from countless moments in the past that this meant the dam was breaking, Manuel softened his tone.  “It’s just that . . . we’re bigger than these barriers—”

“No, you’re bigger than these barriers,” Rosa broke in.  “Oh, I know you’re right, Manuel, you’re always right, it’s your job to be right—I mean that, it’s where you live! But the rest of us don’t even try to get it ‘right,’ we just do the best we can.  You always thought I was more than I really was, and you almost convinced me.  I almost became that person.”

Rosa paused and stared at her slender, slightly trembling hands, as though not sure even now if they were hers.  Then slowly she turned and saw that a couple of the others had started to notice the scene.  At once she shuddered, stood up, and informed the gathering that it was time for her to go.

So now it was her turn to make the rounds of farewell, and Manuel watched her in awe, wondering how on earth she could possibly be smiling and laughing and embracing people, wishing them a Happy New Year, as though nothing were happening here.  Then it was his turn, and Rosa smiled and did the same to him.  What a bizarre performance! Was she really convinced that she was this person now, this blithe woman who could shut off her desires like a faucet?  Manuel watched her wave and smile her way out the door, out of his life for good, then glanced over at Moira, who was not laughing at him now, but seemed almost sympathetic—and somehow this was even more intolerable. Outside, still more transparent veils of snow were falling over the city, draping themselves in silent waves against the front window of The Terrace.  Suddenly Manuel had a vision of the man they all must have seen outside and panicked.

No farewells from him, no hugs, no happy new years.  Manuel bolted outside, saw a brown blotch disappearing behind the veils, and ran out after it.  When he caught it, he grabbed its arm, and it shrieked and then forced a laugh.  “What are you doing?” it said. Ah, so it had been crying some.

Manuel pointed toward a patch of red shining faintly through the gauze just ahead.  “We’re going into that cafe,” he said playfully—he vaguely remembered that when all else failed this approach often did the trick.  “I’m going to tell you my sad story, and then you’re going to tell me yours, and then we’re going to live happily ever after.”

Rosa tried to laugh, but then she looked at his face with alarm, tore free and hurried past the cafe.  “I’m not, cut it out, this is insane.  I’ve said all I can—”

“You can’t just run away,” he said, grasping her arm once again.  “You have something I need, and it’ll always haunt you if you don’t give it to me—really it’s amazing that you haven’t already, because you know you owe it to me.  Did I abandon you when you were cracking up?  When you were curled up in a ball in the closet?  When your skeleton was starting to poke through your skin?  When—”

“Stop! I thank you for that, I might have died, it was the right thing to do,” Rosa said through rolling sobs.  Suddenly she stopped in front of an apartment building.  “I’m staying here.  Good-bye, Manuel, get some sleep,” she said and turned up the steps.  But Manuel ran up and clutched her arm, dragged her back down.

Not ever having done anything like this before, Manuel had no idea what to do or say next.  He stared curiously at his bare hand gripping Rosa’s soft coat, his spread fingers red and bony, brittle and cracked like claws.  Then all at once the words simply came to him, rose up from some dark, untapped well within and gushed out of him in awkward bursts.  She’d better reconsider, he said sharply, she’d better tell him exactly what happened during that time, or else . . . or else he really would put her in a book, he really would make her into a character that was her and her alone—her whole mental illness would be laid bare for all the world to see!  And as for what caused it, he didn’t care, he’d just make something up, that was his job, something far worse than what it was, something embarrassing or violent, some television trash, like she was a coke fiend or was raped twelve times by her uncle, that trusted family friend, so gentle and kind on the surface, but seething underneath. . . .

“Oh, wouldn’t that go over well in Rockford?” Manuel laughed.  His voice sounded strange, deeper than normal, shot through with gravel; but it was hollow too, never quite filling up his words, something like an echo rumbling through a deep cave, rolling on and on without him.  “Then you’ll meet an old flame—no, you’ll call him up yourself, you could never get over him—the bleeding unstaunched!  You said that!  And you’ll begin a sordid affair with him because you feel trapped in your marriage and secretly want out, and it won’t do any good for you to deny it, because everybody believes a book more than a person, that’s just a fact.  Oh, don’t think I won’t do it, Rosa.  I don’t want to, but I will.  So just tell me!” he shouted, or tried to shout; again his voice seemed merely its own cold echo, even more deeply recessed and distant.  Manuel grimaced, clenched his teeth, which were chattering in the cold like loose rocks.  He gave Rosa’s arm one last shake, but weakly this time, numbly, like a sleepy child tugging at his mother’s sleeve; then he added faintly, “Tell me.”

During most of his tirade Rosa had glared at Manuel in horror, too stunned even to cry out for him to stop.  But then apparently she too heard the odd dissonance in his voice, leaking through his threats like the icy steam of his breath.  She stopped crying and watched and listened with increasing distance and curiosity, as though from a high balcony, so that when at last Manuel’s monologue sputtered to a close, she simply tilted her head back in the gauzy snow and cracked open her mouth in a kind of rapture—how simple it was after all to break free.  Then she looked at him one last time and made a rock hard fist, not to punch him as he thought at first, but in triumph, in celebration, because in that fist was the secret, and before Manuel could pry apart those slender fingers, before he could beg forgiveness, before he could tell her he loved her still, or some other such nonsense, Rosa had stuffed the fist deep in her coat pocket, turned on the icy steps, ducked under the falling curtains of snow, and vanished into the doorway.

Manuel stood at the bottom of the steps getting wrapped in layer upon layer of the dense white fabric, his lips parted but silent, his hands extended in a futile grasp at the frigid air spilling between his fingers.  Only much later would Manuel understand that this was his release too, the end of the long thread he’d been following for months; that this was the story he was searching for, the story he’d first dreamed in “The Diary” but never really lived—not one he would ever write, but one in which he himself was written.

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