See No Longer
His name is Curtis. His eyes are green. He’s almost gone; I see it. Sometimes Curtis and I work graveyard shifts together in the airport restaurants, or else trade off solitary shifts in the dishpit. The dishpit is underground and smells like hot mold.
The dishpit has a pair of commercial dishwashing machines shaking and churning on the far side of the room. For each machine there is an industrial sink. Conveyor belts jut through the wall in several places and feed filthy dishes onto their warm awaiting surfaces.
Today, as I am trying to sweep the lunch rush sludge off the sink tops, a pristine white coffee cup tumbles out of the chute. Inside, there is a bright-blue sticky note. I’m curious and bored, so I carefully unfold the soaking wet paper.
The ink is runny but I know Curtis’ handwriting, all loops and no space. The note reads: “Where were you last night?”
Usually I don’t think about anything as I work. Today, I cannot think of anything else. Until recently, this was not like him. Passive-aggressive notes delivered strangely. We were friends. But he has not been thinking clearly lately. Neither have I.
I once met his daughter, Jenny, and his wife, whose name I forget. Another time Jenny looked at me and didn’t know. She was looking at somebody else.
And then later I remember looking down at his wife, her jet-black hair gathered on the white sheets beneath her, dark eyes half-closed as our naked bodies pressed together. This was a strange thing – Iwould never have fucked her. Yet I had seen skin, felt hipbones and heard somebody’s laughter. I liked it. No one knew, not even her.
Each time the faces of Curtis’ family look at me, I feel whole. Often, I go back again to see these things, at night and in the day. I go back at work. I reach inside myself and go to him all the time.
Until about a month ago, after our night shifts, Curtis and I met for a drink at the bar on Terminal C. I would drink several lite beers and he would sip a single shot of whiskey with remarkable temperance, staring over at me with those exhausted eyes that never lost their understated confidence. The kind that see down into everything. I wanted to see like that, and often did.
The last time Curtis met me there, a couple weeks before today, he arrived late. He always came early to get back to his family as soon as possible without slighting me. On this particular Friday, instead of taking his customary stool, he remained standing and shifted from foot to hip to foot. When I asked him what was wrong, he glanced up and down the bar, behind us. Leered suspiciously at the bartender, a tolerant college kid we both knew well. Then Curtis leaned in and whispered:
There was another member of the staff, a new guy I’d never met or even seen. He was specific about that fact. I could never have met him. This guy, he said, was moving things around inside his locker. He believed that the new guy was stalking him. Claimed to have seen a figure out front of his house. Curtis said that he often heard the new guy behind him when they worked together, whispering strange comments, and he was always gone before Curtis turned around. And the new guy whispered things in Curtis’ ear that no stranger could have known. Things about Jenny, about his favorite drinks. What it meant when Curtis narrowed one eye and smiled at a person. I loved that.
Then he leaned in closer, and I could smell vodka on his breath — not his drink.
He said, “I know it’s you.”
When I asked him how it could be possible, a shadow passed across his face. He froze. The TV from behind the bar lit up the whites of his eyes, spread so wide that you could see strips of white along the bottom. He dashed out of the bar. So you see why I prefer to look out from his eyes, and not from mine.
Since that day he won’t meet or speak with me. I peered around the corner of the break room last week and spotted him at my locker, jiggling the combination lock. When I replay our conversation in the bar and think about the note, I wonder what might be happening to my friend.
All I do is dream my dreams – it’s pure fantasy. Nobody could know where my mind goes when it’s dark. I am safe and innocent.
I work six more hours in the pit, and next to my station a millipede lurks above the trash. I am not authorized to take it to the dumpster, or even leave through any door except the elevator I entered from. Security purposes, of course, you understand. The room is windowless and the vents, although powerful, are clogged with grease. After a first hour of blistering hot water, and the steam generated by droplets against half-eaten shrimp cocktail and empty cups of ice water, all the walls begin to sweat.
My palms get slippery. I drop a cup. The shattering sound is what a person does after an injury, before they realize there will be pain. A sharp-edge inhale. I think of Curtis’ face. I hear the glass this way and am blaming him for my mind and hating him for his fucking note.
Where was I last night? I was here. He sawme here. I am always down here and I do not admit to leaving.
Usually somebody comes through the elevator to cover me for lunch. The person always used to be Curtis. His face was the first thing I understood on any day. Since the bar, he changed shifts. We don’t see each other anymore. Now I don’t see anyone I can understand. I crave the feeling of a shared glance between friends.
And today, of all days, the coffee cup note day, nobody comes at all. Why won’t somebody come? My break comes and goes, and my eyes begin to float over my hands, their work. I must eat.
I claw back to the surface of the airport and take my 30 minute lunch alone. I sit over a wet ham sandwich: rye bread with a swirl and a tepid lettuce leaf dangling from the side.
And beyond the plate glass windows of terminal C, I watch the planes glow neon beneath the false dawn cast by downtown Denver. Although I want to give up, I look around for a new employee that could be the one Curtis mentioned. Of course, there is nobody like that. Curtis is working the greasiest breakfast rush in the airport, at Fiesta Taqueria, so I cannot ask him about the note until later. I buy and slam a half pint of vodka, return to the dishpit, and finish my shift submerged in a throbbing liquid silence.
When the work is done, I find Curtis in the locker room. My hands are shaking. He’s at the far end, changing out of his black uniform polo.
He turns around and greets me. “Hey, my dishpit friend!” I am shocked by his friendliness, and I am relieved we have seen each other’s faces and not looked away.
I ask him how life is, how his wife is doing, where does that shitty neighbor live again? And we talk. I mention it: “I got a note earlier,” I say.
“Oh, from Jenny? A note from Jenny, eh?” he asks gleefully, with a strange high-pitched cackle that I’ve never heard from him. An uncharacteristic joke, too, both because Jenny is his daughter’s name and we both know Curtis wrote the note. Or is Jenny his wife’s name? This happens when I panic; I forget the details I want to know the most.
“No,” I got a note from us. I got a note from you. You got a note from me. You got a note from me. I got a note. “I got a note,” I manage.
He asks, “What do you mean? What kind of note?” even though he knows the answer already. Narrows one eye. Smiles crookedly. The expression does not mean what it used to.
My head thrums, it is speechless, jaw locked in place until he walks. Away.
When he is gone I, myself, walk toward the escalator, pursued by the buzzing and the shouting of the world. Each footfall is an accusation, and every mumbled comment a shout directed at me. I run through the crowded terminal, bouncing off families with their baggage, pinballing out into the parking garage. I slam my car door and with a last furious thump, my door muffles all the rage and anxiety of the world, and it pounds down ceaselessly.
As I drive home, the sicknesses of the world begin to fizzle back in through the gaps. The wind gusts, an assault. There is only one way to escape. I go away from my mind, reaching out with thin blue tendrils from the bottom of nothing, the jellyfish tentacles which flail in the void like I am drowning in air. Then relief: the gauzy sound of Curtis singing in the car, “Bad company, and I won’t deny.” I found him. He is driving 90 miles per hour, going the wrong way on Highway 36 South. I pull in closer.
“Bad Company, until the day I die.” I feel the dial as he turns the music up. I smell the coke in his cigarette – I taste the smoke bitter, like a corroded penny.
Behind us, blue-red-white-blue-red-white light leaps onto the highway and Curtis panics, I feel his panic like a rapidly expanding balloon in the throat, popping, shredding, and he kicks in the gas. The back end of our car slips left to right, he overcorrects, we are losing control and the wheel tears out of the other hand. Inertia is spinning them into the concrete barrier, slamming into it. A tearing sensation. We are separate. I float into dark, all abuzz with colorless white noise. The nothingness behind eyelids.
I wake up in my own bed. Dull morning light filters weakly through the blinds. The apartment stinks. Take-out containers, trash, two cardboard boxes that have stayed taped for five years.
First thing I feel is alone and I try to find the other presence. Curtis is not there, not beside me, perhaps not anywhere at all.
Why should he be? What a fucked up dream. That was not me; I was not there.
The sheets press on my arms. I must rise. Get down the hall. Twist on the shower. The water stings my forearms, speckled purple and red with bruises under the skin, like a grotesque new tattoo. Stumble out of the shower and look in the mirror. My chest is purple. A flat, diagonal, impossible bruise runs from my left shoulder to my right hip. Seatbelt. I was not there. It happened to him, not me. It didn’t even happen!
I want to wake up, wake up again, so I get back under my sheets. They stick to my raw forearms. Stand up. White sheets have streaks of blood. I look down at my arms and they are seeping, bleeding without cuts. Dizzying darkness presses me down onto the bed again. I sleep the static.
When I wake up, sweating face-down in the hot afternoon, light is filtering through my fifth-floor window. My sheets are crisp with blood, and my right collarbone sticks at the pillow. I have to know what we did the night before: the man with green eyes, Curtis, and myself.
I drive up Route 36 North from my house for fifteen minutes and back down Route 36 South, but I don’t see any signs of a crash. I turn around to drive North again. I am late for work. Five minutes away from my exit, I am pulled to a stop.
A plastic shard glitters on the pavement just a few yards ahead of the car. Looking closer, I see a shard of reflector from inside a headlight. To the right, down the steep embankment, a youngish tree stands ahead of the rest with a massive gash in its side. The fresh sap bleeds.
And further beyond, hidden in the shadows that gather in forest dusk, there is a low moaning. My first thought: roadkill. A dying deer or dog, maybe, hit so hard that its haunches tore apart the impacting headlight and sent shattered pieces flying along with the carcass down into the trees below.
But then there is the gash in the tree. Too deep a cut for bone-flesh impact. I walk down the hill, drag my fingers through the sap of the tree’s cut as I pass by. A smell cloying, like honey. Not at all pine sap. Something else is wrong, too, first felt. Then the moaning I heard grows quieter. Stops.
I begin to run, my feet crackling along the pine needles. The sound of the highway disappears in the irreconcilable stench of honeyed sap that now permeates the forest. I see another shattered piece of reflector, a splinter of plastic buried in the ground, and a dark tear through the pine needles that cover the rest of the forest floor. Tucked beneath a cluster of trees, I see the still-smoking remnants of the car that Curtis wrecked last night. With me.
Curtis is draped over the warped front bumper, hanging aloft the wreck like so much dripping wet laundry. His eyes are green and pure and dead. I know he was in the driver’s seat because the steering column bent back over itself and extends from the crumpled windshield beneath his body, like another broken limb.
Curtis’s forearms hang down over the bumper, bloodied like mine, scabbing over in almost the exact same places. I take his hand and I look into his face. I saw it all happening. I had been with Curtis as he drove. And I had been there before, behind him as he worked, slept with his wife, loved his child. I was his new guy, standing not behind but beside his mind, a passenger. And now I am whispering to his body about Jenny and his wife and the drinks at the bar and all the beautiful ways that only his face could move.
I only wanted to know every angle of you.
Carefully, leading with my fingertips, I lift Curtis down from the bumper and lay him in the pine needles. His head rolls left.
Down here, among this wreckage, there is nothing for me. I have it all inside. Back to the highway. Listen to the traffic scream past. Wash the dishes, scrub the floors. I will hide myself in the sub-basement, surrounded by the rhythm of airport byproducts. I won’t promise not to do this again.