I Will Be There But I Will Not
by J.E. Reich
My dead wife’s voice resounds from Terminal B of Logan International Airport in all of its lively candor, from Terminal A, Terminal C, and Terminal E. I wonder if it’s syncopated, the voice activation – whether the doo-hickey, or program, or whatever they use to trigger the voice – is hooked up to a certain schedule, or if they let it reign with a certain sense of chaos.
There is no parking permitted within the drop-off site –
A police officer approaches my vehicle – a fine unit, a beige hatchback, very practical. It speaks of outstanding citizenship. Without any nous of welcome, he leans on the car door sill.
Sir, he starts, with a menacing benevolence, you’re not allowed to park here. I tell him that I wasn’t aware.
He gesticulates, waving his hand in the air and wiggling his fingers as if it were a routine perambulation. Can’t you hear or something, he asks, his Bostonian accent coming on thick with all of the deluded r’s and slab-like ahs.
I hear her voice over the intercom. Alma. She makes hearts weep and teeth grind themselves into delicate remnants.
I never listened to her when she was alive, I tell the cop, so why should I listen to her now?
I live in New Hampshire, and lately I’ve been spending most of my time in the sound studio in the basement. My primary haunt used to be my study, with all of its creaking leather-backed tomes and dependable dark-wooded bookcases, none of which had anything to do with my actual profession. Lately, I’ve taken to listening to my wife’s old recordings – her debauched attempts at jingles and Public Service Announcements. Alma had a perfect voice, the kind that sounds synthetic, computer-generated. I was born this way, she used to apologize. Excusing herself for her profession. It wasn’t her fault that she had a knack for nuance, for empty accents, for neutral zones of articulation. To tell you the truth, it was the aspect that would have put me off, if we had met under run-of-the-mill circumstances – or rather, if I had not known her occupation prior to any sort of arrangement. It can be somewhat intimidating to admit to falling in love with a voice that you hear in Logan Airport, De Galle Airport, Heathrow and Gatwick, instructing you where to go to find your baggage, find your gate, find your way into distant places and unfamiliar temperatures. A voice like an omniscient superimposition for g-d.
Her discarded tapes are landmines all over the floor. If I stepped on one, her small mistakes – those little guttural coughs of her clearing her throat, or perhaps small, exhausted sighs – would spool out, irretrievable. Alma would scold me, if she saw the dystopic state of her studio. The empty coffee cups, sugar coagulating at the shallow bottoms, forlorn cartons of takeout stained with the memories of their eaten contents. All of this would send her into a delirium.
This is. This is. This is. This is. This is.
The takes I’m listening to now were probably meant for the MTA contract. She used her voice for the subway system in Manhattan and its surrounding boroughs. We only took the subway there once, disquieted by Alma’s precise declarations. This is Christopher Street, Sheridan Square. This is 14th Street, Union Square. This is 34th Street, Penn Station. After that she insisted on taking cabs, avoiding herself as much as possible. I suppose escaping reminders of yourself is something we all do. She just had to do it a bit more than the rest of us.
But when I first met her, she ran away from herself in the normal ways, the culturally ritualized ways. I met her at a party. It was an office party. We both worked for a recording studio in Boston – more of a company, really. I was an audio technician and she was a secretary. I found out later that her job was only meant to be temporary, that she was studying at nights for a masters degree in art history, that her true passions weren’t for speech or song, but for sly, O’Keefian floral topographies and the handsome terror of Goyan murals. She had a strong prejudice of one sense over the other. But I didn’t know any of this quite yet.
It would have been fortuitous to say that I first saw her in one of the studios at this company; that I came upon her absently rolling EQ knobs on a sound board back and forth, making invisible sound waves frantically jump and plunge in the air while her open eyes dreamt of the cobbled blue streets and soft light and cotton ball stars in Van Gogh’s “Café Terrace at Night.” That the air was undisturbed and that the windowless studio gave one pause for the thought of conventional time – or what I’m really trying to say, that time could stop and soak in moments it knew could change people, that it could let them crash into each other without relying on dooming physics.
But to say that this is how it happened would be generously fictive, the kind that coats your throat in a sickly syrup. That night, the studio doors were locked and all of the employees of our firm were being hot-housed in one of the staffrooms. Chairs were pushed to the sides and against the walls like a parade of creeping, desolate lovers. Despite these attempts, the party space remained uncomfortable and forced. We made ungraceful hops around the blunted corners of the hors d’ourves table and substituted oops, so sorry, excuse me for normal salutations. Did I also mention that this was the seventies? Maybe ’77, ’78. We were wearing flared corduroys, paisley ties in tropical colors. G-d forbid, we had wide brimmed lapels. The room was flushed with these atrocities. In retrospect, these weren’t attractive years for me.
When I first saw Alma, her voice was clambering with the room, with all of those libation-soaked co-workers, so I had to rely on other factors. She was holding the cigarettes of friends carelessly close to her face, to assert her beauty. Her pale throat was too long for her turtleneck. I was holding overly-mulled rum in one hand and running my fingers along the exasperated patches of ingrown hairs at the parts where my beard ebbed into my tonsured neck. I was indifferent to blunt razors.
She’s groovy, isn’t she, Gondelman?
Greg Marsden sidled up next to me, bumping into my arm, his face webbed with the warmth of gin. No one at the studio called me Frank. I suppose my name, Frank Gondelman, is slightly reminiscent of eponymous virtues, names like Patience or Constance or Goodie. In those days, I spoke when I thought it was necessary and meaningful. I thought this gave me an air of mystique, an alluring quality where my prominent nose and fevered, wiry hair failed. They said my nature and name was both Frank, but I think the same would have held fast and true if my name had been Sidney or Wallace or Robert. Or Harry.
Yeah man, I replied. I think this was the first conversation I had with Marsden. He was a back office type, the kind that passed like brown shadows to the cigarette machine. I think there were rumors about him, that he couldn’t help himself from regurgitating Tom Jones lyrics when he saw a pretty girl in the elevator, that he called pretty girls specimens, that someone caught him masturbating to a magazine cut-out of Farrah Fawcett in a cubicle that was not his own. But that could have been Goose Grayson, or Perry Lawless, or some other lonely eligible office bachelor.
Yeah. Yeah, she is. We watched her talking to some of the other secretaries and administrative department managers, her comrades-at-arms. It appeared to me that she was always holding the cigarettes of friends carelessly close to her face to assert her beauty.
Marsden muttered something in the manner of drunk men who speak aloud in cryptic susurrations, half-hinting that their dialogues are only with themselves. It was about Alma, I know now. Moments later, the room was overtaken with the dark wave of discordancy and of people behaving badly. I was drunk and it was hard to remember names or to distinguish faces. I still remember my walk home that night down Marlborough Street, but only in vague patches. Rather than adhering to the sidewalk, I strode in the middle on the well-trimmed mall with my hands in my pockets for the purpose of miming sobriety. The evenly placed statues were turbid mirages. Even then, Alma had begun to rime the chambers of my eyes, crystallizing the meat inside of them, turning the optic nerves into rose stems. She was turning my body into an instrument of captivity for love.
The cop is not amused with me or my cryptic one-liners, so I roll up the window and start to pull away from the terminal. I watch his mouth contorting, reprimanding no one. My idea is to loop around the concourse and back. With hope and luck, the policeman will wander away to apprehend other terminal degenerates.
It’s like amateur drag-racing or Go-Karts – such is the luck of the notorious Massachusetts driver. Shuttle buses teeter on their old haunches. On the periphery, there is confusing scenery: the metallic Boston skyline interlaced with unnamed, secretive industrial plants, moldering wharf docks, and hologynic airport hotels. A smell perforates the hatchback, something akin to yellowed saw grass and stilled green water. I circle back towards Logan Airport and the odor is replaced by rubber and singed tarmac. I’m going back, back towards the intricate tubing of the connecting terminals, the long shadows and rectangular orange lights of the tunnels. Playing games with the dark.
There is the typical vehicular congestion once I hit the first terminal, and my car unwillingly slows. The core of the traffic is due to yet another shuttle. On the flat, concrete divider – a skinny sidewalk, really – someone is loading a man in a wheelchair onto the bus. My window is a transparent shield. I pretend the world is silent. The man in the wheelchair is black, obese, with a blue baseball cap and un-tucked shirt. His tongue, pink and fat, lolls to the side, reaching for words. A woman, also black, watches in a starchy sundress, as if she is overseeing the makings of a funeral pyre. The flat honks of unaware cars repeat themselves.
Modern fanfare, I think.
As was expected, she went home with Marsden that night. Alma who was not-yet-Alma. Not-yet-Alma to me, not yet. And it was Marsden, not me (who then was not the Gondelman I am now, so appropriately not-yet-Gondelman – making us quite the not-yet-pair) who herded Alma into her last profession. It was a succession of opportunities falling into assorted laps.
It started with de Gaulle Airport, which was completing its modernistic renovations that year or the next. An airport of unspeakable innovations in ground-based aviation efficiency, is what they told Marsden. An airport to ascend as the bastion of bastions, an airport of perfect terminal circuitry. And de Gaulle, with all of its French grandeur, approached us, a little firm in Boston, to assist with its auditory capacities. They were most interested in the quality of the announcement system and the announcements themselves. The agent who represented de Gaulle (who had his hair slicked back and donned a slim suit, who looked more American than the Americans in that meeting) wanted a seamless voice to traffic their bumbling customers to and fro in a certain set of consecutive languages all reciting the same fundamental instructions, followed by a trademark chime composed by Bernard Parmegiani. Marsden thought of Alma in the dark, tutting into his ear.
Alma agreed to this with the notion that she would finally get to see Paris. She thought of the airplane she would take, circumambulating around the city on a cloudless day in descent. Alma imagined her nose pressed to the rattling Plexiglas pane, her mouth hinging open, as if to devour Paris whole. She thought of the Louvre (the Louvre!) and the brambles in Cimetière de Bagneux. No such luck. She was given a script in English, transliterations in French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Japanese, told to approximate the enunciations, and be a slave to the groove, babe.
Alma did this – she was locked into a contract, after all – and was then scheduled to record in one of our studios. With me.
So I lied in certain respects. Our meeting at its most boring, literal level was officiated by the presence of her voice. But I contend that to have a meeting in its fullest form you don’t necessarily have to touch. The image of her in that first studio – the memory of an incident that never happened at all – was that not a meeting, too? I saw her without really seeing her, but a vision that made my ears sing, that intoned a note with the tinge of something real. It’s still enough for then, and for now.
We shook hands first and told me her name. Alma. I gave her mine, and she recited it twice, using what I would later know as her surefire mnemonic device. Frank Gondelman. Gondelman. She smiled and revealed her mouth’s only flaw, a slightly snaggled tooth that seemed to add, for me, a human soupçon; it would have otherwise been indeterminate.
And that was that. We went to work. We were in the studio. She left and entered the live room, and I stayed behind in the control quarters.
But there is something to that dynamic, no? The tension that strings itself like the whine of a too-tight guitar string or the palimpsest of white noise. It works like osmosis; it makes asking for drinks after recording sessions seem charming, or heightens sympathies from droll complaining to poignant commentary. And that is how a man like me woos women, with those kinds of introductions and scenarios.
Loving Alma was tangles of paper on the ground like fallen birds. There are no new ways to describe happiness, I suppose.
We never had children. I don’t know why. Perhaps my seed had an astringent make about it, the quality of tannin. Perhaps she took birth control and never told me. You didn’t ask questions with Alma. Her voice commanded it, even when she was frail and unsure. This was a voice that ordered like a Roman emperor or a retail manager.
At our wedding, she was adamant about the songs the band played. She wanted Ethel Merman, of all people, and Billie Holiday. Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. She would put a spell on you, if you weren’t looking. Throaty pieces that coated your mouth with the nimble sap of honeysuckle. The song we first danced to as an officiated couple was from a musical: Small world, isn’t it? Funny, isn’t it? Small and funny and fine. When she spoke into the microphone to thank our friends and family for stopping by, she almost outshone the band.
Looping and looping and looping, like a projector without a maestro. This is what my life was – for let’s be honest, this wasn’t necessarily the life I had pictured. Alma, yes, a definitive, resounding answer, but not the self-proclaimed, injurious banishment to the remoteness of rural New Hampshire. My career was not well-suited to me, though I had brought it upon myself. Observe my office, for instance, that space of useless pursuit. It has nothing to do with my beatific endeavors. The stacks of spavined book spines, so easily cracked with loving use. In another time, I would have been some sort of writer, but technology has relegated me to soundboards instead of typing machines.
In another time, in another place, Alma would say, and smile with accompanying gestures. For I was trapped, with an appealing cellblock mistress as my guard.
Tell me that you love me, I would say over Spanish omelets, the one luxury she afforded me on Saturday mornings (the coffee was bitter, a taste I despised).
I would tell you, she would say, and trail off, the words resonating from the ceiling, craving emptiness to fill.
So it was not a joyous marriage, per se, but it was not un-joyous. It was thatches of bright, mosaic light and caulking shadows. It was safety, or the idea of safety, for Alma. And for me? For me, it was holding a photograph of my younger self in a mirror and savoring the duplicity. It was a way of eluding time. It was an audio tape that would not wear.
The police officer has disappeared, and in a way, I miss him: now I am consigned to make due with myself. It’s almost embarrassing, how I have yet to find a way to cope; how I have not learned to distract myself from myself, doubling my ineptitudes, how I suspect that my peers must also suspect and talk about it over rosemary-roasted lamb and gin blossoms at dinner parties. I switch on the radio: it tells me that there are ninety-nine problems, but that a bitch is not one. I turn it off.
Then the repetitious whirr from above: There is no parking permitted within the drop-off site –
My Alma, she continues. She explains the routes that connect the terminals, she lists the varying prices for a multitude of parking lots, temporary lots, day-long lots, an exponential amount of potential lots. She bids me a safe trip, that Eurydice.
It is the worst kind of purgatory.
Here is how Alma started dying: in a way that would be most fitting in a book. Only literary concoctions could intuit such an ending.
I use sentences as whips upon myself, flagellation as consolation, things like: at least it wasn’t throat cancer. Or mouth cancer. At least it wasn’t something as eruditely symbolic as that. And at least it wasn’t droll, or something meaningless. At least she didn’t fall off of a ladder cleaning the gutters – I would never have forgiven myself, that was always my neglected household chore, the one I always put off – and at least she wasn’t hit in oncoming traffic. There is always that to consider. I can never believe my cerebral, filter-less limits.
The voices were small at first, with precocious suggestions and child-like intimacy. She hardly even noticed them, Alma. They told her to do the laundry and clean the refrigerator in the promptness of manners – there were audio devices in these places, after all, small intricate bugs, inanimate and immovable, the best kind of listeners. Then it was the boxes in the attic, cardboard torn to shreds and then to diaphanous particles, their contents (scalloped-edged photographs of my mother’s childhood, the alternate set of good china that we never used, the old dresses that Alma could never part with, torn in awkward places that no stitch could suture back up) arranged in piles on the verge of dilapidation. I thought nothing of this, I thought this was just a way of growing older. She dismantled the dishwasher to scour its tub and cut her hand on one of the upper rack’s plastic ribs. She told me the studio in the basement broadcasted messages to the government in a codex she couldn’t control, that she was propagating nuclear warfare, that she was destroying the world with her words. I began to worry.
And then it was the usual tragedy: the conveyor belt of specialists, the trips to New York and Boston, so expressly different from the ones we had taken to those locales before, defined by the things we didn’t mention. The medication bottles, a few pills too full, their casings a halcyonic blue; the support group I attended alone, hearing my own stories, unsaid, regurgitated in the mouths of other people; how all of our stories were the same stories, the same story, how iniquitous this was, how my pain was so conventional.
Her synapses were cruel. Something short-circuited. The voices became projections, directions. Please take the moving sidewalk to the Grand Concourse. This is Fulton Street. S’il vous plait. Transfer to the A, C, E. Arigato. Mind the gap. This is, this is, this is. She stuffed her ears with aluminum foil, but nothing would help her.
Oh Alma, oh, my love, I said.
This is, this is, this is, she said.
Alma, taking her face into my hands, those eyes I had once known, that were now as indistinguishable as glass buttons.
Transfer, she said.
I gave her the pill bottle and closed the door.
I am here, waiting for the voice again. Tell me what to do, for I can’t stand this current, this reaching silence. I am always waiting.
But I have lied to you, for no one has died.
It would be easier that way, if death was the culprit, to be able to blame something else in lieu of our own portending deficiencies. But death is only waiting, with languorous, enviable patience. It is not interested, not in her, not in me, not right now.
The traffic is beginning to thaw. Soon, the police officer might reproach me again, might have me arrested for some unstipulated reason, with some loping clause. And I’ll be honest, it will be a welcome discrepancy. When your wife has left you, without mitigating factors, any spiking undulation is longed-for; when the ruinous, testimonial piles you are afforded are hidden like landmines, when you cannot turn without the vicious attacks of memory that you bring upon yourself, in places as cavernous as a familiar basement and as distant as opposing time zones.
So let me have at him, then. Let me have all of the mirages that I desire. Let me have her voice, and let me wait for her at baggage claim. I will picture her departure, as she leaves me in the most ordinary of ways, out of love with me, as her voice follows me from city to city with the diligence of a ghost. As I sit here, in the drop-off point, where I am not supposed to, where I wait for my wife in the image that I saw her first, give me this, and this: let me say that things are small, and funny, and fine.
J.E. Reich is a contributor for the online magazine Art Faccia and recently completed their BFA in Writing, Literature, and Publishing at Emerson College. Writing credits include short stories in plain china: The Best of Undergraduate Writing 2010, Underground Voices, KGB Bar & Lit Journal (affiliated with the KGB Reading series), Blast Magazine, The Emerson Review, and others. Reich was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2010 and is a 2011 recipient of the Pitler Scholarship Award. Currently, Reich is living in Brooklyn as a candidate for the MA program in English Literature at Brooklyn College, working on their first novel, and interning for the Franklin Park Reading Series.
Art by Margarita Korol.