He wants to go a year backward. The evidence of this desire is the date he writes on all of the release forms. It’s as if writing last year’s date today will set him back to where he subconsciously wants to be; when he notices that he’s written the year wrong on several sheets, he frowns for a moment, then tries to reshape the number so that it looks as though he’d put it down correctly all along, but it never looks right no matter how hard he tries to clean it up. It doesn’t occur to him that his fingers are manifesting a hidden desire with each careful pen stroke.
Hidden in temporal storage, last year demands attention. It is a Caribbean island he visited, and beaches where he discovered happiness in the form of sunshine and a cool but sultry breeze before moving to New York City. It is a memory laden with the aroma of coconut suntan lotion and the pip-pip-pip of plovers calling into the wind, far better than the sepia-toned present, the noxious smog of the passing hours swirling around him and making his skin itch.
He’s signed and dated a million papers today. Sighing, he looks across his sterile hospital room and out the window, at the trees clinging to life in the cold sunshine in the courtyard below. The scene looks beautiful — almost peaceful — but it isn’t real. The trees are ornamentals and don’t belong, looking as though they were weeping red, leafy tears. Like him, they have been brought here against their will, and he imagines that in some Asian country the friends and relatives of these mournful trees are spending sleepless nights seeking their woody kin. He feels for them, understanding as he does the nature of forced displacement.
Well, someone must be excited to be going home today, the nurse exclaims as she bursts into the room, blasting away the relative quiet. She’s all smiles and bombast, red lipstick and coffee-mug teeth as he turns in irritation towards her. He looks at her bushy brown eyebrows and her dusting of freckles while trying not to hate this woman. It seems to him that her face is like a plate full of crumble cake. He wishes, not for the first time, that he still had his morphine pump. Christopher Raymond Jacobs just wants to sleep.
Instead, he winces as the nurse yanks out his IV and chatters away in her Carolinas accent. She keeps calling him Chris, and he smiles instead of correcting her.
My name is Ray, he thinks to her. Everyone calls me Ray. No one calls me Chris.
But it doesn’t matter. He’ll never see this saccharine nurse again, God willing — if there is a god, that is, which Ray is no longer sure about. As soon as I walk out that door, he thinks, I’ll go home, pack my car, and head as far south as I can get.
Are you sure you don’t want us to call anybody? she asks with a practiced look of mock concern. Ray wants to slap her pouting face, certain that he’s a joke to this woman. Instead, he just shakes his head.
I’m sure, he says. It still hurts to talk, so that’s all he manages. Later, when the hospital gives him permission to do so, he leaves. He exits the room, refusing to look at anyone or meet their eyes. He avoids the elevator and instead takes the stairs, walking down all seven stories with his right shoulder pressed to the wall. On the ground floor, out in the open, he feels a moment of panic, but swallows it and leaves the hospital for good.
Ray doesn’t turn on his cellphone until he gets home. With the gentlest of sounds it goes through its boot cycle, and then he’s slammed with the torrent of text messages and voicemails that lurked in the ether these past ten days. He has no desire to attend to these communications, so he distracts himself by going through a hundred-plus emails from every marketing arm of every product he’s ever purchased, looked at, or thought about at some point in his life. He glances toward the door periodically to make sure all the locks are engaged. They are.
When he gets around to listening to his voicemails, he’s unsurprised that most of them are from Regina. They start out chipper, but devolve into selfish concern, followed by anger and accusations, and end with a drunken half-apology reeking of emotional desperation. He closes his eyes, caught between guilt and revulsion. Then he reads her text messages, the time stamps filling the spaces between her phone calls. They follow the same pattern.
What did I do wrong? they protest, and he can see her face swollen with alcohol-laden tears. I’m really worried, they continue, though nowhere, not once, does she ask if he is okay.
He and Regina haven’t been together long. Maybe just a month or two, really, and she’s the first New York Girl he’s ever dated. He thinks to call her, to tell her what happened, but the more he stares at her texts and replays the voicemails in his head, the more he feels a growing animosity. It isn’t lost on him that her last text and voicemail came through on the third day of his ten-day hospital stay, which also happened to fall on a Sunday.
Ray ignores her messages and puts his phone face-down on his sofa cushions; he doesn’t feel bad, just … weary. It wasn’t like their relationship was going anywhere anyway, just like the rest of his New York experience. Later, he sends a generic, cheery text to his mother when it occurs to him that this will keep her from calling. He hates lying to her, but he can’t bear to tell her the truth either.
Ray packs a duffel bag full of clothes, then carries that and some essential items down the narrow stairwell and out to his car. He isn’t thinking, has no real plan other than to go. His TV, PlayStation, and computer make the cut along with his most treasured books and photographs. The photographs are pictures of his grandparents, his parents, his siblings, everyone he calls family, blood-bound or no. They smile out at him with Disney grins, or stare into the distance unaware of the camera, and his face burns with shame.
What would they say if they knew? He wonders… What could they say? He’s certain they would never look at him the same. He wipes his sweaty palms on his jeans and takes a shuddering, deep breath. They’ll never know, he decides. They can never know. Then he returns his focus to packing with a fierce intensity.
Ray moves slowly on account of his broken ribs, but his need to depart this place overwhelms the pain. When he gets to his car two blocks away, he takes the tickets glaring like nightmare-orange wasps from the windshield and stuffs them into his back pocket. Ray expected them, but it’s all he can do to stop himself from tearing them up in anger, from burning this new indignity into ash right there on the curb from the rage rising in his heart.
Fuck New York! he screams and regrets it instantly, not because of the judgmental stares the old Spanish ladies give him as they walk by shaking their heads, but because of the pain that grasps his torso, that shoots from his shoulders to his anus. It is excruciating and it makes him wish he’d just stayed quiet. But the sentiment? That remains.
Trauma is etched into him so deep a thousand million years of erosion could never wear it away. He feels polluted and makes a point not to look at himself in the bathroom mirror on his third and final trip while he collects his toothbrush and deodorant. The city has won. He is finished.
On the final trip down the stairs, after he has locked his apartment door for the last time, he encounters Margaret and David. Margaret smiles at first when she sees him, but her faded blue eyes register his bruised and swollen face through the haze of her cataracts and she gasps.
My goodness! she exclaims in her old German accent, which has somehow survived the post-war years in New York, all 68 of them, and persevered despite her American husband ’s devotion to his only language, English. What has happened to you?
Ray doesn’t know how to answer this question. It seems so big, so frightening, that his heart actually pounds and for a few moments, he is short of breath and can’t speak. He’s frozen; when Margaret takes his hand in her own, he’s surprised at how something so frail, so ephemeral almost, can also be so warm. She looks him deep in the eye, a grandmother’s look, willing him to confess his most traumatic pains, and he relaxes ever so slightly.
He takes a deep breath, which causes him to shiver. It feels like a suppressed sob.
I was mugged, he says. It’s a half-truth, an incomplete story, and Margaret sees through it as she studies his face. She’s keen, with survivor’s eyes. She understands unspeakable pain — she’s been through it — and her features soften as she gives his hand a squeeze.
It’ s okay, honey, she says, her voice quiet with compassion. The best thing you can do is not be afraid. Then she and David continue up the stairs as they have done every day for twenty years, David giving Ray a little wave as he passes. Raymond watches them climb, not knowing what to say. Then he turns and leaves his apartment building forever.
Last year, Ray would never have thought about running. Of course, last year had been better. Last year had been games at the pub and bro nights and swimming in good lagers. Last year marked the end of smoking and the “The Big Move” from Millinocket, Maine, to the frantic mélange of New York City. Last year was promotion and promise and accomplishment. Now, speeding away from New York at 85 mph, his desire to go back in time breaks the surface.
Philadelphia leering at him on his right, he tells himself that last year had not been drunken nights and loneliness or self-examination and regret. It hadn’t been clutching at the first girl to give him a decent blowjob, or rent-induced poverty. As he crosses into Delaware, he thinks: Sunshine and puppies, baby. Sunshine and puppies. That’s what last year was.
Headlights pointed south, moving faster than the Founding Fathers would have ever dreamt possible, ignoring the blurry indistinctness of Delaware, then Maryland, then Virginia to the left and right, this lie is so very easy to believe. Doubts emerge about last year but he squashes them. His hands grip the steering wheel and his knuckles turn red- white with the effort of belief.
He catches his bruised face in the rearview mirror and ignores the look in his eyes. It’s someone else he sees there, someone he doesn’t know. He focuses on the road ahead of him and switches on the radio. Any sound will do. Well, except for the religious stations. He bitterly flips past those.
Somewhere in the Carolinas, Regina calls him. He doesn’t mean to answer, but does so out of reflex, like blinking at a flash of light. As soon as he hears her voice he regrets picking up, but it’s too late, so he keeps the phone to his ear and tightens his grip on the steering wheel with his other hand.
What. The fuck. Is going on?
Ray winces. Her staccato delivery drips with contempt, and reminds him of the police officer who came to see him when he first woke up in the hospital to find a morphine pump in his arm. The man had stood at the foot of his bed like an unpleasant dream, reeking of cigarettes and cynicism.
We found your wallet, the detective had said without preamble. He was large, black, and in his 40’s, but with tired eyes decades older that looked at once bored and uncomfortable. Not that Ray could blame him, but still, as Ray reached for his wallet, he couldn’t help but feel the smallest resentment stomping in his chest. What right did this detective have to feel uncomfortable?
Now, with this awkward memory raw and torpid in his consciousness and Regina in his ear, Ray presses the accelerator in anger. He flushes red, his eyes squint up, and for a moment he feels the lightest touch of vertigo. Then he counts, 10, 9, 8, 7, and by 6 feels calm enough to slow down. He hears Regina’s breathing on the phone, and knows he must say something. He thinks to say “I’m sorry,” but the words die in his chest, and then he thinks to throw his phone out the open window. Highway signs whip by, and his eyes for a moment blur with unwanted moisture.
Something happened, he says.
Something happened? she repeats. It is not friendly, her tone. SOMETHING happened? And you couldn’t text or call?
Ray wants to punch her the same way he wanted to punch Detective Miles as the man explained that Ray’s phone was in his pocket when they found him. They couldn’t call anyone because of his passcode, so they simply shut it off. This man stood there looking at him, judging him, demeaning him with his calm gaze while Ray laid there with a broken cheekbone and seven stitches in his ass. Raymond could feel the detective’s contempt for Ray’s failure to prevent his humiliation, Ray’s responsibility for his own emasculation. For a moment, he forgets Regina is on the phone. Then her shrill voice lances through his skull, flooding him with hatred.
Hello?! she snaps.
Fuck you, Regina, Ray says as calm as the setting sun. Don’t call me back. Then he disconnects, puts the phone on silent, and places it facing away from him in the cup holder. She hadn’t even bothered to ask him what had happened. He boils inside.
In the hospital, Detective Miles had asked him a lot of uncomfortable questions about what had happened. Unlike Regina, Miles had wanted details. Ray wrote the answers on a pad, unable to move his jaw. Unwilling to try.
What did they look like?
I don’t remember.
Did you fight back?
Did they use a condom?
How the fuck should I know?
And so on. But never, How do you feel? Are you okay?
Ray left out the worst part as he relayed his story to Detective Miles on that hateful notepad, the part where his assailants got his body to betray him despite the exquisite pain and disorienting fear. How they touched him and called him “faggot” when his body reacted, even though he had never once looked at another man with anything like desire, even though his heart pounded with disbelief. Even though he wanted to die just so that it could all be over. That detail would go to his grave.
After Detective Miles left the hospital room, Ray opened his wallet. Only his cash and MetroCard had been stolen. His credit cards remained untouched in their designated places. When he could talk again, Ray called the credit card companies on the hospital phone, just to be sure, and confirmed that they hadn’t been used. The very last representative told him to have a great day; Ray hit the morphine pump five times and passed out before the line was even disconnected.
In Georgia, Ray stops for the night at a Best Western. It’s cheap, he thinks, but a bed is a bed. Besides, he has to take his pain medication, which he’s avoided all day. The desk clerk takes his information with a weary and practiced smile that tells him she’d rather be at home asleep, but her concern bleeds through the lines of her expression as she covertly studies his bruises. She’s pretty and blonde, and Ray thinks she shouldn’t be at the counter alone when it‘s just past midnight. He wants to tell her there are monsters in the world who will break you, leave you for dead, and not even have the courtesy to steal your credit cards. He wants to tell her to buy a gun. Instead, he nods as she talks, saying nothing as she rambles out times and costs and whatever else seems so very important. Then he takes his room key, thanks her, and leaves.
The room is cool and musty, smelling like old cigarette smoke and high school parties. Once he’s over the threshold, he closes the door and locks both locks, then makes sure the window is secure. He sits on the bed, which is as soft as a canvas army cot, and considers placing one of the two chairs in the room against the door. Just to be safe.
Ray waits as long as he can, then takes his pain medicine and lies back on the bed, falling asleep with the light on. All night he dreams that someone is breaking into the room, coming back for his credit cards after all. The third time he wakes up he realizes his phone is still in the car, uselessly cradled in the cup holder.
In Key West, Ray stops at last but this is because he’s gone as far as the road will take him. He’s shocked, because he hadn’t intended to wind up here, and even though he kept on the road and read the signs, he still can’t quite comprehend that he is in Key West and cannot drive any farther south than this. Now, parked on Duval Street, he has come to road’s end, so he gets out of his car.
Twelve days have gone by since he was attacked. His only calls since turning his phone back on have been from Regina — whom he is pleased has not called him back — and his office, and his mother, both of which he let go to voicemail. He called his office back somewhere in Maryland, he thinks, but he can’t remember when he called and he doesn’t care. He has not called his mother, though he sent her a text to say everything is just fine and to give Dad his love.
As he looks around, he sees a sign for The Southern Most Hotel and miraculously is able to get a room there. After booking it, he goes outside and wanders. It’s hot, and he’s dressed in jeans, a dark T-shirt, and a flannel. He walks past the big glass window of a realtor, almost laughing at his reflection. Staring back at him is a New York hipster, magically displaced. He looks pale even through his bruises, and he can almost believe it’s not him, that it’s someone else staring back. Ray takes off his flannel, the man in the glass mimicking his movements, but it doesn’t make a difference in this heat. Sweating, he continues on.
He winds up at Fort Zachary State Park. It’s late afternoon now and most of the tourists have gone back to their lodgings to get ready for fine dinners out and vacation revelry and sunset cruises. A few die-hard beach fans and families and homeless people still mill around looking for shells, playing in the water, or just staring off into space. Ray takes off his shoes, walks a few feet into the sand, and sits down carefully. Pain flickers through him but he pushes through it.
For a long while he thinks of nothing and instead just stares out at the horizon. A grumble in his stomach tells him he is hungry, but he’s afraid to eat. He hasn’t even tried. He ignores the pangs and concentrates on being empty.
It’s no use, though. It’s there, the quiet desperation, this … thing … standing behind him and breathing heavily in his ear. Defeat: heavy and true. The shame builds in him, oozes through his pores like a cancerous stench. He hates it, hates himself, wants to vomit, but there is nothing in his stomach beyond bile and some water.
Ray is tense, looking west, realizing he has no place to go despite the anxiety compelling him to just keep moving, only a little further, out into the deep, cool water, and he’ll be in a better place, better even than last year. He sits there on the beach, ribs hurting, face hurting, ass hurting, and before he knows what’s happening, he’s crying. Huge, racking sobs are breaking free and dispersing in the sunny breeze.
Hey man, you all right? he hears above him. The voice is high and scratchy, lacking teeth and riddled with a lifetime of alcohol and cigarettes. A rail-thin old man with skin dark from the sun is standing in front of him. Ray looks up at this man’s worried face, the sunlight casting a halo around his head as though he is God himself. The tears are still crawling down Ray’s face, drying rivers in the southern sun. The crying only makes him feel worse, the pain in his torso rumbling like a thunder drum through his entire body. But there, confronted by that halo, by the one question no one has asked him, he says to this man what he can’t say to his mother, to Regina, or to his own strange reflection. He says what he can’t say to anyone, unable to stop the words, mortified to hear them out loud in the space between this homeless beach dweller and the wreckage of Christopher Raymond Jacobs languishing in the surf of life.
I was raped, he whispers.
The sound of his voice is so loud he imagines everyone on the beach has heard it, is staring at him in disapproval and repulsed shock. His face burns red, and he looks down at the sand between his legs. Now his failure is complete.
The old man regards him with a look of confusion that after a beat gives way to a different expression. He doesn’t blink, but instead looks off to the side as if he had just been told he has been denied a loan. His shoeless feet shuffle in the sand once, twice, then come to a stop.
Aw man, the man says, his voice soft with a sad discomfort. Well, you all right. Least you ALIVE. He reaches into his pocket, pulls out a single one-dollar bill, the only money he has, and hands it to Ray, who takes it as though it were a sacred thing. Then the old man pats him on the shoulder and shuffles away, quietly singing to himself.
Ray holds the dollar bill in his hand and stares at it. It is at once mysterious, divine, and just a filthy piece of paper. When the sun begins to touch the horizon, he stands up, puts the bill in his wallet, and heads back to the hotel. He doesn’t bother to put his shoes back on, and his feet soon feel burnt and raw, but he doesn’t care.
With every step, he hears the old man’s voice.
You all right. Least you ALIVE.
Edited by Joyce Chen.
The featured image courtesy of Lina Shteyn.