The Storm

Hannah was in love with the city, she was in love with democracy, she was in love with an abstract concept. She read the phone book to see her name in print. She went to see a film that featured Nicole Kidman's naked body. Someone in her row was masturbating. She fell in love with his gumption.

She lived alone in a studio apartment filled with books leftover from when she was in college. She used to read whenever she pleased, but it was different now. Now she only had time to read at night.

Many years later I called her on the telephone. Her voice had changed, but her opinions were the same. When I knew her, she'd always thought the world was in a continual process of going wrong. She thought we would all have to go with it or be left behind.

Once her dad went missing from the retirement home. She spent the day scouring the city, and found him in his friend's apartment. He was high on heroin. She took him back to the home and told him to stay there.

Hannah was a beautiful redhead with green eyes, long legs. Tall, thin, like a model in Elle, although she'd never been to France. She wanted to go far away, to Spain or Italy. She'd never been to Europe before. She had a job in a coffeeshop, and she had some money saved.

She wanted to have an operation. She wanted bigger tits. She knew a man who'd fallen in love with her. He came into the coffeeshop every day. He wanted to take her away to Sweden. He wrote novels, thrillers. He gave her one. She stayed up all night reading it. The novelist wanted to have children with her, he wanted to marry her. She made him his lattes and smiled when he put tips in the jar.

She wrote a sentence in her diary: I am the vampire's prey. She wrote another sentence: I am the werewolf's moon. A week later, she read these back to herself. They didn't make any sense to her, but she knew she'd been lucid when she wrote them. She could feel herself slipping into fever. She could feel the hallucinations coming. She called in sick to work. She vomited in the toilet, it felt like acid in her throat. It felt like god's message voiding itself from her body. She felt like Moses, burning up, in flames.

Many years later, on the telephone, she said she never feared insanity. She liked slipping into dreams, it provided democracy for her mind. She always thought logic was the chink in mythology. Reason threatened psychosis. The world was too political. Mirrors should be outlawed.

After her fever broke, she started walking the streets past midnight. She liked that world, lit up by the lamps. She hoped she would be attacked. She hoped she would be struck by a car. She never believed in god, except when she was small. She believed in democracy. She believed justice was more than a game. She believed in the Supreme Court. America was her absolute, she believed in Horatio Alger, but she thought she needed bigger tits.

When she went back to work, the novelist asked her where she'd been. He'd come in every day hoping to see her, he said. He hadn't been able to sleep. He wanted to take her out to dinner. They went to a restaurant downtown. He told her he believed in god. He knew evil existed, but there were righteous men in the world. He told her he was one of them. He wanted to take her to Sweden. He told her he would take care of her. When he dropped her off, she let him kiss her.

She went for one of her nocturnal walks that night. She hoped someone would murder her. She hoped the cops never found him. She knew she was crazy. She knew she should talk to someone, a professional. She'd seen a counselor before, but he hadn't helped much. She still felt without volition, unconscious, trapped in the spiderweb of reality waiting to be eaten, but calm. She felt like a cautionary tale, a parable. She hoped someone would kidnap her, torture her, leave her body in a river. She didn't believe in god. She didn't believe in purpose, or even beauty. She didn't believe in the future. She came home and took a shower. She scrubbed at her hair, pulled out a few strands.

When she was twenty, she'd had her heart broken by a man. He left, came back, then left again. He'd loved her from afar, indifferent, poignant. She'd loved every inch of him. It was an experiment, they'd been each other's first lovers. Sometimes she wanted to shoot him. Sometimes she wanted to wave a knife in his face, fill his guts with poison. She believed betrayal could be beautiful. She didn't go out with anyone for over a year after he left. She was afraid of everyone, she was afraid they were collecting information on her, filing it away. She lost twenty pounds. She nearly slit her wrists, but decided not to at the last minute.

The novelist gave her more of his books to read. She could never put them down, but she only had time to read at night, so she always had bags under her eyes at work.

Her dad went missing from the retirement home again, but she didn't go looking for him this time. He eventually showed up on his own, but he left again soon. They didn't know what to do with him, they really didn't. Hannah's only concern was that they would kick him out if they figured out he was shooting up. He used to be someone important—he had a column in the newspaper, he made a lot of friends all over town. He told Hannah he'd be an idiot not to shoot heroin at his age. There wasn't any risk anymore, what could happen? It just didn't matter like it used to. She made an effort not to worry about it. She tried not to think about it.

The novelist stayed in the coffeeshop every evening until it closed. Sometimes Hannah let him take her out to dinner. Other times she said she was busy. One night as he was driving her back to her apartment, he asked her to go down on him in the car. He unzipped his pants and put his hand around her head, gently pushed her down. She did nothing to stop him. Dignity failed her. It didn't matter. Nothing mattered.

The novelist told her she could quit her job, she would never have to work again if she'd marry him and come to Sweden. They could have children together, they could make a life. Sometimes he'd start crying. She never knew what to say. She liked kids, sure, but she was still a kid herself. She wanted to go to Spain, or Italy, she wanted to have her operation.

Hannah went for her midnight walks, she thought about the brief, eternal evenings that she spent on earth, trapped in reality's spiderweb, waiting for a storm to come. She felt like a lost swimmer, struggling against waves. She felt like a swimmer caught in a net. She paused under a streetlight and looked for her shadow. She thought about getting a tattoo. She wondered what meaning she would ascribe to it. She wondered if she would ascribe it any meaning at all.

The novelist came every day to the coffeeshop, even when she didn't work. He had serious blue eyes, like a storm brewing. He scared her coworkers. They couldn't say why. It was the way he looked off into nowhere, thinking about anything. It was the way his face glazed over, it was his look of contempt for everything that lived and died.

One night Hannah was mopping the floor, getting ready to close. She and the novelist were the last two people left in the coffeeshop. When are you going to quit your job, he said. When are you going to come with me to Sweden? Maybe tomorrow, she said. Maybe never. Goddammit, he said quietly. What's wrong with you? He got up and took her by the shoulders. Why can't you give me a straight fucking answer? Why can't you make up your mind? Let me go, she said. Please. Let me go. He didn't let go. He slapped her across the face. She slipped on the wet floor and fell. She hit her head against the mop bucket. Get up, he said. Get up and look at me. Please go, she said from the ground. I don't want you here. Please leave. I don't want to see you anymore. You fucking whore, he said. He walked out of the coffeeshop.

Hannah had enough money saved by then for a ticket to Italy. She knew some people there, people she'd gone to school with. She packed her things, gave her boss her two weeks notice and went to Europe. She never got her operation, but she never stopped believing that she needed it.

Many years later, I called her on the telephone. She was back in the States then, and she hadn't changed her number. Her voice was different, but her opinions were the same. We talked about the novelist. He had hit her, yes, but it was all right, she said. Everything that happened after was a dream. No one ever broke her heart again. All the ways they punished me were worth it. You have to enjoy life, you can't be afraid of everything. I regret nothing. We talked for an hour, then said our goodbyes and hung up.  

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