“Dispersion” is a short-story by Rob Swigart.
The family seated on the black leather couch - a neat small man with a neat small mustache, a woman with gently curling hair, two teenage girls - appeared to be Japanese. The younger girl wore cartoon pajamas, Roadrunner, fast bird racing Coyote. Mark could almost hear the beepbeep as she turned to say something to her mother. Because sunlight flooded the room and she was wearing pajamas Mark thought she must be ill. On the wall behind the group was a hanging scroll. He recognized the Chinese character for “Longevity.”
He closed his eyes and shook his head. When he opened them he was seated at his dining table again, a forkful of fettuccine lifted halfway to his mouth. He’d been thinking about calling Clarise, see if she wanted to go to a movie, but there were clients with serious problems in need of immediate attention. Tomorrow was Saturday. Monday the clients would be clamoring again, so he decided he should work instead of going out.
That’s when the Japanese family appeared, staring at him.
He blinked and, avoiding the living room, deliberately looked into the kitchen through that coy arch with wrought iron filigree in imitation of the entrance to a formal Italian garden. His ex-wife Marilyn had called the kitchen her “orto” because, she said, it meant garden and was the place of food and they had spent some time in Italy early in their marriage.
The clock in the kitchen read exactly 6:14.
He shuddered. He hated the clock, yet had done nothing about it in the months since Marilyn had moved back to Florida. Why didn’t he get rid of the clock?
The dining nook wallpaper was aggressively patterned with Easter lilies. A brass and crystal chandelier hung over the table where, when he wasn’t eating, he worked. This was the base from which Mark circled the globe. The nook was a kind of cave, a warm, safe haven from self-imposed wandering. He looked at his fork.
They hovered in his peripheral vision, though, an ordinary Japanese family seated on a black sofa, looking at him.
He did not own a black sofa. Since Marilyn left he rarely used the living room, but the sofa was a delicate rose, her favorite color. He just hadn’t gotten around to changing it.
The fettuccine arrived at his mouth and the family - father, mother, two girls, black sofa - abruptly vanished. Mark chewed absently, trying to remember if he had ever seen them before. Maybe the last time he was in Kyoto, that would have been March? It was snowing and when he walked in the streets he kept his head down against the hard flakes.
He and his partner consulted for an entertainment company not far from the Kyomizu Temple and sometimes in the morning early he would run up there. Middle-aged Japanese businessmen did Tai Ch’i on the wooden deck overlooking the city. Their arms lifted and subsided in languid waves as they twisted, bodies draped in garish jogging suits, faces remote, clear, intent. Had the neat mustache been there, turning slowly toward the sun in the seventh movement of the Yang sequence?
No, the face was completely unfamiliar. He did not recognize the family. And now the vision was gone and his memory of the apparition began to fade.
The phone rang as he was carrying his empty plate back to the kitchen. The cat, Caramel, writhed around his leg and hop-limped over to the dish, meowing. Caramel had three legs and a torn ear. Mark hadn’t really wanted the cat, but he won the bitter custody fight when Marilyn decided she preferred Ft. Lauderdale.
He dumped some canned salmon into Caramel’s dish with one hand and picked up the phone with the other.
“The weirdest thing,” Steve said.
“Yeah,” Mark agreed, grunting a little as he stood up. “I saw this family, Japanese, staring at me.”
“Um-hm,” Steve said. “The software went down for about five minutes this afternoon, took the whole network, then it started up again and we can’t find anything wrong at all.”
“Like I left my house, was back in Japan somewhere, just for a minute.”
“Probably Kyoto,” Steve said. “You did a good job. They haven’t complained. Everything’s fine, don’t worry about it.”
“All right,” Mark sighed. “I won’t worry about it. Did you hear what I said?”
“Said? Yeah, sure. You saw some people in Kyoto. It’s what I’d expect, wouldn’t you? March, when you were there.”
Mark nodded and hung up. Well, he thought it was weird.
Two days later, on Sunday, he went for a walk on the beach with Clarise. She skipped along the very edge of the ocean, letting the small waves wash over her bare feet. He was looking at her footprints vanishing as the wave went out again, her heel lifting as she stepped forward, and suddenly he was staring at another family.
They weren’t Japanese. He wasn’t sure what they were. Europeans or Americans, though they didn’t really look American. There were six, three kids, an old man with a mustache, not small and neat like the Japanese man, but huge and pure white, and a couple of women, very thick looking, with bright red cheeks. They were seated as if for a family portrait.
Mark took a step and stumbled. One of the thick women lifted something from a plate in her lap, something small, oblong and orange. Perhaps it was a dried apricot. Mark hoped that’s what it was. She put it in her mouth.
The other woman lifted her hand and pointed at Mark. Her mouth moved, and a series of sounds came out, but they were just noise. The woman chewing the apricot said something in return, and the old man with the thick mustache shook his head and laughed. The woman must have said something about Mark. Whatever it was, there was no doubt, the old man was laughing at him. Mark was suddenly suffused with shame.
Clarise was shaking his shoulder. “Mark. Mark. What is it, Mark?”
He opened his eyes and looked at her. “Clarise?”
“Clarise. Jesus. Who were those people?”
“Laughing at me.”
Clarise looked at him for a long time. He ran his hand over his thinning hair. He grinned sheepishly and told her it was all right. For several days after that she made some excuse and didn’t return his voice mail messages.
Tuesday at the travel agent Mark went over his itinerary for his next trip to Milan, Bologna and Florence when he was suddenly looking at a man in undershorts drinking from a bottle of foreign beer. Mark could clearly see Indian script on the label. Besides, the man looked Indian; he was dark and overweight, the flesh along his sides slopping over the band of his shorts, which were green. He was looking around the room. Finally he tilted his head back and finished the beer, shook the bottle a couple of times, then, without glancing in Mark’s direction, stood up from the floor where he had been seated and disappeared through a dark opening in the back of the room. Mark stared for several minutes at the spot. He started nodding at the travel agent.
“Three star hotel,” the agent said.
“Fine,” Mark answered. “Fine. Three star. Good.”
“Yes?” the agent asked.
Mark nodded. “Yes, yes.”
The rest of the morning he carried his plane tickets in his hand like a weapon. When he was on the phone talking to the Paris client he held the folder up as if he could cut down an attacker with the stiff paper. “Yes, yes,” he said, waving the tickets, parrying imaginary thrusts and attacks. “We’re working on it… It’s under control… I’ll be in Paris on Friday… Yes, yes, next Friday.”
The telephone was a messenger, the distant twitter of the other’s voice like surf or like birds. He was afraid the Indian would sit on the floor again right there, in front of his desk, and look at him. The expression on the Japanese family’s faces haunted him too, as if they wore Noh masks, expressive but unchanging.
The afternoon passed without further incident and he began to relax. It would be all right. His office was safe. He glanced at the window as he reached for the file folder. For a long moment could not make out exactly what he saw, only a vaguely defined oval with indefinite edges.
“A migraine,” he said aloud.
“What?” Steve was standing in the doorway.
“I’m getting a migraine. Field of view, you know. Concentric circles, dark in the middle, no, black, maybe, or a kind of a brown with flecks.”
“Brown? With flecks? What the hell are you talking about, buddy?” Steve stepped into the room.
“You know what it is?” Mark stared toward his window. “You know what it is?” He tore his eyes from the window to look back at Steve.
“No.” Steve put his hand on Mark’s shoulder and gripped it. He was about to say something when Mark interrupted.
“An eye. A huge fucking eye, Steve, staring at me.”
“Calm down, buddy. Take it easy.”
“It’s OK,” Mark muttered. “It’s gone.” He was looking at the window again and saw only the bright light over the almost-empty parking lot.
“You better go home, Mark. Honest, this is a little scary. You have to go to Paris tomorrow. Go home.”
“It’s OK, Steve. It’s all right, really, don’t worry, I’ll be fine. Really.”
Of course it wasn’t fine. He couldn’t sleep and at three-thirty in the morning he finally got out of bed. Clarise was snoring lightly. He padded into the living room of her small apartment and sat in the Lazy Boy. He listened for a long time to the bubbling of her aquarium pump. He could see small red lights on the front of her electronics equipment in what she called her ‘entertainment center.’ Clarise seldom watched television and ordinarily listened to only one of her small collection of music disks, Rhythms of Arabia, but she had an entertainment center. He once asked her why she didn’t listen to anything else, and when she told him she thought Rhythms of Arabia was built into the player he offered to show her how to eject it. When she declined he realized she was putting him on.
The clock on the VCR said 4:37. This time he wasn’t looking at anyone, he was just suddenly and absolutely aware of the fact that he was not himself.
It was dark, of course, so the change in the room was almost undetectable. The shapes - the sideboard, for example - faded, as if they had morphed into other pieces of furniture, vague outlines. Something was wrong with the room, though he couldn’t say exactly what.
“…show you something or are you just looking?” a voice said, and he realized he was probably in a showroom of some kind, though he saw no signs of other members of the public and it was uncommonly dark.
“Just looking,” he said hesitantly, experimenting.
“OK,” the voice answered. “Suit yourself.”
He tried to get out of the Lazy Boy, but he was not sitting down.
“OK,” he said. “OK.” He was standing, one heel lifted off the ground, his arms down at his sides. The palm of his right hand was facing the ground. The clock on the VCR was gone, along with all the little lights from the stereo.
“All right,” he said, and fell sideways.
Clarise was standing in the doorway, her hand on the light switch. He saw chairs, sofa, the entertainment center.
“Dreaming,” Mark said. “Dreaming.”
“Are you all right?” Clarise had a puzzled, sleepy look. Her terrycloth robe was knotted loosely, half open, and Mark could see her belly and the darkness below.
“The light’s wrong,” he muttered, looking away.
The doctor gave him some tranquilizers and he slept soundly all the way across the Atlantic. He made it through the Friday meetings in Paris without a problem. He window-shopped along the Left Bank. The streets were crowded with tourists and it seemed half of them used camcorders to record the other half. He grinned at one Japanese woman scanning the Louvre across the river with her tiny camera. She swiveled slowly toward Mark. He made faces, but she continued taping as if he weren’t there. Probably she was looking at the museum behind him and not paying any attention to what was in her viewfinder. He stuck out his tongue. He scratched his crotch. She lifted the camera slightly but otherwise gave no indication she’d seen him.
His tranquilizers knocked him out for the flight back on Sunday. “This is great,” he told Steve the next morning. “No jet lag.”
“Yeah?” Steve watched Mark’s eyes gently close.
That afternoon he went back to the doctor, who recommended a psychiatrist.
“Dr. Hyde can see you Thursday,” the receptionist said when Mark called.
“I think this might be an emergency,” Mark said. “Fugue states, hallucinations, out of body experiences.”
“Yeah, I have those,” she said matter-of-factly. “He’s got an opening this evening at nine.”
Dr. Hyde was a small man who kept his soft hands tightly folded on the surface of his desk. “What seems to be the trouble?” He spoke in flat Midwestern syllables without emotion.
“I’m fucked,” Mark said earnestly.
“Congratulations,” Dr. Hyde replied. “Many people wish for that, especially men of your age.”
“No. I space out. I don’t know why.”
“I see. Any other symptoms? Fatigue, lapses of memory, that sort of thing?” Dr. Hyde leaned forward to examine Mark’s face.
A small boy, about six or seven, as close as the doctor had been, stared at Mark curiously. The boy’s forehead seemed to bulge out a little bit as he said, “Look.”
A woman’s voice answered, “What is it, Elliot?”
“Look,” the little boy said patiently, pointing at Mark.
The woman (apparently the one who had spoken) leaned down. Her head, much larger than Elliot’s, spouted a fountain of dark hair graying a little at the temples. “Oh, yes. I remember,” she said, patting the boy on the head. “Do you remember, Elliot?”
The boy put his finger in his mouth and stared up at her thoughtfully. “Remember?” he asked.
“When we went down to London,” she said. “Mayfair. By the big store.”
The boy shook his head. “Don’t remember,” he said. He jerked his thumb over his shoulder toward Mark.
“Eh?” Dr. Hyde said.
Mark shook his head. “I’m sorry?”
“I said, ‘Eh?’” Dr. Hyde replied slowly. “You didn’t answer my question, so I said, ‘Eh?’ It was a way of urging you to answer if you were considering the answer but reluctant to provide it.”
“Oh? This is your answer? Oh?” Dr. Hyde seemed perplexed more than angry.
“Sorry. Yes, I guess.”
“Yes?” Dr. Hyde seemed relieved to move back into known territory.
“Memory lapses. I was in Mayfair last fall.”
After a long moment of moving his eyebrows up and down Dr. Hyde urged gently, “Go on.”
“A business trip. I take a lot of business trips. Fucking business trips, I’m all over the world, sometimes don’t know what time zone I’m in, it’s very disorienting. Not jet lag really, I don’t have that too much, just the travel, it gets to me, all the offices look pretty much the same, and I’m wandering the streets…” Mark realized he was babbling and trailed off.
After a few moments the doctor said thoughtfully, “Mayfair.”
“Hmm.” Dr. Hyde leaned back in his chair and looked at the ceiling, allowing Mark to contemplate his chin. It was slightly pointed, clean shaven, with a small, off-center dimple.
“Delusional paranoia, perhaps? Obsessional hallucinations?” Mark asked hopefully.
Dr. Hyde looked at the ceiling and said, “Hmm.” He was in his 30s and Mark realized he was not going to help.
“Steve, I was in Mayfair last fall.”
“Yeah, I remember. You started dating Clarise.”
“There was this kid, and a woman, his mother, by the big store in Mayfair.”
“You saw them again? That’s impressive. Who were they?”
“No, I didn’t see them again, that’s not what I mean. I don’t remember them, they just appeared, you know?”
Mark shook his head and stared at his computer screen for a few minutes. He didn’t notice when Steve left his office. He was waiting for something to happen.
Outside the sun slid above the clouds, or the planet turned under the sun and the clouds slid over the planet. Temperatures fluctuated up or down. Rain fell in places, rivers were swollen, winds blew, sand rose and twirled and fell.
There was life everywhere. Mark walked over the world in his mind, places he had been. He began to compose a list: Paris, Warsaw, Osaka, Florence, Singapore, Bangalore, Santiago, Lima, Caracas, Mexico City, St. Petersburg, Hong Kong both before and after the change, Hanoi and Vientiane, Islamabad and Delhi. He ran out of memories and pondered the empty screen. What had he done in all those places?
He had walked the streets, eaten in restaurants, loitered in hotel lobbies, sipped drinks in bars and lounges, talked on the telephone, sent faxes and e-mails and received them, watched movies and CNN in hotel bedrooms.
A vague blurred outline formed on the screen in front of him and undulated slowly. He leaned forward. This was not part of his program. He squinted. It could be a couple making love, the rise and fall, the heaving, blurred outlines leaving streaked trails in motion. They seemed to roll over, exchanging places.
He remembered Clarise. They had rolled over like that, yesterday or the day before. Was he hallucinating a memory? He squeezed his eyes shut and opened them again. There was only white noise on the screen, random flecks of electronic turmoil. “OK,” he said aloud. “Now I’m getting pissed.”
He began an elaborate Web search for out of body experience. Mark thought he was an even-tempered, nuts-and-bolts kind of guy, practical, rather serious, dedicated to his work. He believed relationships were important, especially his relationship with himself. Out of body was not something he would have wanted to experience as part of his relationship with himself, but at close to forty he was wise enough to separate signal from noise, and these weird episodes were definitely signal.
He found a vast library of material on out of body experiences. Some recommended them as a relaxing way to see the universe. Others suggested they were the work of some malevolent entity bent on the destruction of mankind. Mark reserved judgment. He downloaded for an hour and spent another hour organizing files by category, though he admitted his categories - “Burnt Ends,” “Window Dressing” - could have been more descriptive.
At home he sank onto the sofa and twitched on the television. A person was dispensing news, of which there was the usual abundance. Included in the news were statistics (numbers of refugees, currency valuations, the increase in air travel), human interest (rescued children, success-in-the-face-of-adversity), and fringe (silly season cult activity, psychic disorders, out of body experiences). He sat up and watched an interview with a woman in sunglasses with wide white frames. She reported that she had been feeling “out of sorts.” The reporter, tongue deeply in cheek, asked her what it was like to be “in sorts.” She glared. Someone was watching her. The reporter mugged at the camera, not quite making little circles by his temple with his forefinger. “Watching you?” he urged.
“Yeh,” she said. “Like sitting down, you know? Watching.”
“Like in a dream? You were naked, perhaps?”
“No.” She refused to speak any more. The reporter slogged on valiantly for a while before giving up.
Clarise found Mark staring at the ceiling. She told him about an encounter at work with the wardrobe mistress. “She came out, Mark, you know. Of the closet. See, she’s the wardrobe mistress, and… you’re not listening.”
Mark was looking into the kitchen: all he could see between himself and the corner of the work island was an elderly Chinese man bending his knees and turning slowly. His eyes were blank and impassive as he turned. They brushed past Mark, fixed on something so far behind him that Mark involuntarily turned to see. “Oh, hi, Clarise.” He turned back to kitchen. The Chinese man was no longer there.
“What’s with you?” She had that whine in her voice, the same one she’d had at the beach, that emphasis on the “with” that he had once found so ingratiating but that now, since he had no answer for her, he found uncomfortably intrusive.
“Nothing,” he muttered. He looked at her. “You look…”
“Never mind,” she said, touching his forehead with the tip of her finger. “Something’s going on in there.”
“Yeah,” Mark said. “My father died.”
“That was years ago.” Clarise sat by him on the couch. She had turned off the television, which was now blank and dead. “You were little. It must have been awful, of course, but…”
“Yes,” Mark said. “It must have been awful.”
“It’s like I’m being scattered,” he told Steve later that night in a bar on 16th street.
“Strung out,” Steve suggested without looking at him. “Dreaming?”
“Sort of. Dispersed.”
“Shit, man, you go through all those time zones, it’s no wonder, days shuffled all around, back before you left, bound to screw you up. You should slow down. Let the clients wait a little. Won’t hurt them.”
Mark shook his head. “They can’t wait, Steve, you know that. No waiting, keep going. That’s the name of the game, Steve, moving.” He fell asleep, his head cradled in his arms.
Steve sat next to him shaking his head. “Yeah,” he said at last. “The name of the game.” He looked over at Mark. “What a loser,” he said, very softly.
“Yeah,” Mark said without opening his eyes. “Dreaming, only I’m awake.”
He was moving his computer monitor from one desk to another at the office when he saw the couple. For a moment he thought she could have been Clarise, and later concluded that was when he fell, pulling the monitor on top of his arm. A breast heaved out of the chaos and she was not Clarise. Her partner’s eyes were shut, his mouth open, and he was making a deep moaning sound Mark could hear clearly. Mark had never seen him before, he was sure of that.
The woman turned with extraordinary alacrity and settled, her naked haunches in the air at an angle to the man, whose head lolled off the edge of the bed. His dark, thickly haired hand rose into the air and fell gently onto the woman’s bobbing head and a moment later his eyes opened to stare with what appeared to be some surprise straight into Mark’s.
“Who…?” At that instant an awful pain shot through his arm. He tried to sit up. The moaning he heard was a deep animal sound, more fear than pain. It was several minutes before he realized the sound came from him.
The nurse was sympathetic and told him he should file a complaint with the government. “They have rules about the workplace, you know. You could get compensated,” she assured him, and gave him an injection of Demerol.
He decided the next time it happened he would do something. He told himself that each time before he had been too surprised, too bewildered by the sudden apparitions to react. In order to be ready next time he walked through the day with his eyes darting quickly from side to side.
At one time he passed an office. Inside he could hear Clarise and Steve talking. “You didn’t answer,” she was saying.
“What was the question again?” Steve asked.
There were three naked boys playing some kind of game on a rug. The biggest tossed a ball in the air and the other two grabbed. He caught it and laughed.
“Hey!” Mark shouted. One of the younger boys looked up, straight into his eyes. “Hey!” The boy shrugged and grabbed at the ball, which tipped off his fingertips and rolled away under the ruffles of the lavender sofa.
A man walked into the room. “What is it, Arlie?” He sounded as if he were under water. Arlie was under the sofa looking for the ball.
A woman in slacks and a dark sweater crossed, hiding the boys for a moment as she paused with her back to Mark. When she moved on Arlie was standing by the sofa holding the ball aloft, and the older boy was getting to his feet.
That was when Mark noticed the mirror. The man was standing next to it, leaning back against the wall, his hands crossed over his chest. He was wearing a black leather jacket and jeans.
The mirror had a gilt frame, very wide, and the image in it was mostly dark, but Mark could just make out the corner of a television set. It seemed to jump into sharp focus. He could only see the corner, and for a moment didn’t recognize what was on the screen.
The woman stood beside the man and the two of them looked in Mark’s direction. Then the woman pointed at the screen. “Look,” she said in a clear voice. “That’s the woman we met, remember?”
Mark thought she must be looking at him, and wondered why she thought he was a woman.
“Jeannette,” the man said slowly.
“That’s right, she was buying fruit, remember?” At least they were speaking English, though it sounded as if they were speaking through blankets.
“Of course, that market, what was it called?” The man scratched his head.
Mark could hear the leather jacket rustle. He strained to see the television, that sharp bright corner where the shapes and pastel colors shifted and moved.
“Mouffe something.” The woman was frowning at the naked boys. She clapped her hands. “All right, you. Dressed! Now!”
“Aw.” They dragged themselves from the room.
“And take the ball.” The oldest came back and took it.
Once the boys were gone Mark could see more of the mirror.
“That’s it,” the man said. “Mouffe something.”
Mark saw his own face on the television. He was looking out of the screen at the couple in the room whether they were watching him or not. He could see on the screen, reflected in the mirror, a woman behind him leaning slightly forward, testing a fruit of some kind. Her dark hair was cut in bangs across the edge of her forehead. He could see her hand holding the fruit to her nose.
“She was buying apples.” The woman frowned at Mark. Then the room disappeared and he was in the bathroom, seated on the edge of the tub, now overflowing. He was in his underwear and his feet were wet.
“Mouffe something,” Mark said to Steve the next day.
“Yeah, that market in the Thirteenth, not far from Place d’Italie. We went there several times for picnics when we were staying at that hotel.”
“I’m going back next week,” Mark said. “Tuesday. In real life.”
“Best way to go, buddy. Best way to go, in real life. Nothing like traveling for real.” Steve hated travel and let Mark do it all, even when it meant two trips to Europe in the same month.
It was warm in Paris, with heavy clouds. After Mark finished with his clients he went to the Mouffetard market and walked slowly down the narrow street peering in the shop windows.
He knew this restless window-shopping was pointless, but he couldn’t stop. Ice cream, fruit, a butcher, wine shop, produce, more meat, more fruit, more ice cream. He walked around the traffic circle at the bottom and wandered slowly up the other side of the street. Dark hair, cut short, bangs, delicate hand holding an apple. How would he know? What if she changed her hair color, it was darker, lighter, green or blonde or gray? She was about his age, but he had no memory of her except that brief vision on the television screen.
In the evening clouds choked off the sky, the crowds thinned. Women dragged away their collapsible two-wheeled shopping baskets, their brown shopping bags. One by one the shops closed.
He wandered back to his hotel, feeling like an idiot. What was he thinking? That he would see someone in real life that he saw in a vision or hallucination? Was she real, or did he dredge up the Mouffetard from memory and populate it in imagination? Was he delusional, as he’d suggested to Dr. Hyde?
He had dinner in a restaurant. The Japanese family visited him briefly during the creme caramel, this time without the two girls.
The next day he haunted the market. It rained briefly mid-morning. The air was moist and heavy with the smells of flowers and fruit, of exhaust and dogs. He walked up the street and down again, pausing to look at the sky, the drifting shapes and slow, generative motion of clouds, planes, birds.
Just after noon he saw her, halfway up the street near the wine shop. He’d been daydreaming, watching things float in the sky, and when he lowered his eyes she was right in front of him, testing a melon. He watched carefully, trying to memorize her three-quarter profile, her short dark hair. She had greenish eyes and a dazzling smile. Mark loitered on the other side of the narrow street jammed with pedestrians, watching her.
She turned and looked at him curiously, without fear. He nodded. “Excuse me,” he asked. “Do you speak English?”
“Yes.” She had a faint French accent. “Some.”
“My name is Mark Taylor. I saw you in a video.”
“Yes. You talked to a family, English or American, I’m not sure which, here in the market, a while ago.”
“English or American? I don’t understand.” Pedestrians flowed around them.
“Couple in their thirties. They have three boys. One’s named Arlie.”
She smiled. “Oh, I remember Arlie, yes. He was taking video. Not taking…shooting?”
“That’s it, yes.”
“What about them?” She tilted her head when she asked a question, appraising him.
“I must have been here the same day. I was in their video too.”
He waited. She looked at him calmly. Finally she said, “So it happens to you?”“Every time someone plays a video, I see them. Ghosts, but they’re real people.”
She nodded thoughtfully. “Yes, it’s like that. Strange, isn’t it?”
“Strange? Oh, yes. Listen,” he blurted out. “Can we talk? Do you want to have lunch or something? I mean…”
“My husband is waiting.” She held up her bag of groceries, aubergines and peaches, some meat.
“Yes, well, I just thought… I mean, this has happened to you, too.”
“Of course. Why not?”
Mark jerked his head back as if she had slapped him. “What?”
She smiled and put her hand on his forearm. “I try not to worry. We’re being… scattered. Others are taking us in. It’s inevitable. Now technology captures us too, stores our images. It steals a little of us each time, I think.”
“I don’t want to be an image,” Mark protested. It sounded weak, even to him.
She laughed, but her laugh was troubled. “It’s too late. Come for lunch. I can buy another chop.”
The three of them talked about everything but the strange dispersion Jeannette and Mark had experienced. After lunch Gérard left for his small publishing company and the two of them went for a walk.
“How often?” Mark wanted to know.
She turned down her mouth and shrugged. “Four or five times. I think it’s the market, I go there almost every day. There are many tourists.”
He shook his head. “Dozens for me. All over the world. I travel a lot. I started keeping a log of times, places, who was there. The Japanese family shows their tape a lot. Some seem to look at their video only once then put it away. Others watch over and over.”
“They’ll get tired, probably. Stop watching. Don’t worry.”
“I can’t stop worrying. It’s not just distracting, it’s dangerous. I could get in an accident, get killed because of it.”
“Really?” She stopped, stood in front of him, very close, so he could smell her perfume. “It’s that… intense?” Her English was good. Even when she had to search for a word, her hesitation just made it more effective.
“Yes.” He breathed in slowly, aching to touch her cheek with the tip of his finger. He touched it and repeated, “Yes.” He thought there was a spark, some kind of static discharge.
She didn’t react, didn’t flinch or move away. “For me it’s not so bad,” she said. “I see them like a ghost image over the real world. I was scared at first; I thought I was crazy, of course, but now I find it amusing.”
“Amusing?” he said. “Not the word I would use.” The tip of his finger trembled against her cheek.
“I understand,” she said, and he knew she did.
That afternoon she went with him to the airport. He turned at the gate. She was watching him, surrounded by people.
“Fate,” he shouted. He knew she couldn’t hear, but someone would be taping.
He tried to resist, tried making his location in real life stay with him and the vision of people watching fade to transparency. Maybe he was fooling himself, cramming memory of his real location down hard on top of the more authentic experience of the watchers. Sometimes there was no one in the room, they were simply running the tape. Sometimes they wandered in and out, holding a sandwich, a glass of beer, a toy. Once it was a man with a shotgun. He lifted it from time to time, sighting down the barrel at someone in another room, and Mark tried to cry out, to stop it from happening, but in the end the man put the gun down and watched for a few moments before fading away. He could have been anywhere in the world.
Other times Mark couldn’t stop it, couldn’t keep from watching, horrified or fascinated by what people did in their homes. Not just wandering around naked or making love in front of their trip videos, but other things, despicable things he was forced to witness, the furtive, unnamable vices and small cruelties people inflicted on one another.
“Mark?” Clarise said.
“I can’t, not tonight.” He waved her voice away from his ear, holding the receiver at a distance. Caramel jumped on his lap but he pushed her away.
“Not any night.” Only later did he realize she meant she was through with him.
Steve came to the house. “Good buddy, you’ve got to pull yourself together. The clients are clamoring, you look like shit, get cleaned up, eat something. We need you at the office. I’ll wait.”
Mark tried. He took a shower and ate a bowl of dry cereal. Steve sat at the dinner table with his briefcase open, but he wasn’t working, he was staring at Mark.
At the office Mark nodded and smiled, but when he got to his desk he went online. Out of Body Experiences drew him. There had to be others, lots of others. He found names, stories. He sent messages, tried a few cautious probes, got a flood of responses. Someone suggested it was the new camera chip that stole your soul. Some suggested government plots, or possibly anti-government plots, or aliens, the secret Masonic cabal, the Illuminati, the Military-Industrial-Finance Complex, the International Monetary Fund. There were those who thought it was ‘cool,’ a random talent some people had that perhaps could be developed, and eventually marketed.
He found statistics. How many camcorders sold world-wide. How many million hours of videotape.
He asked questions. Where were they? What were they doing, who were they with, what time of day, season of the year?
The answers were infinite: they were everywhere, with everyone, every time of the day or night. Finally he gave up. It was happening to others, he was sure of it, but except for that one day in Paris with Jeannette he failed to determine with any confidence who the others might be, so he held on to her like a lifeline, the one person who understood.
She sent him an e-mail, said that she had seen him the last time it had happened. She was shaving her legs in the bath (so she said) when she saw the family, just the couple without the boys this time. Had it happened to him? Because he was there, right behind her, half turned away, looking at an airship drifting over the Latin Quarter. It was advertising the Tour de France, he was squinting against the sun, she was testing a melon, listening to the hollow thump when she tapped it. She thought it was just a couple of weeks ago, right before she noticed him staring at her. Now she knew it was the same day because she’d actually seen him looking at the sky and a little later he was staring at her as if he knew her. She thought maybe she was falling in love with him.
“It’s a fugue state, I’ve been reading up. I fall into them. I get captured on video, say, and I know I’m captured, so I fall into these fugues where I imagine the people who videotaped me, I imagine their lives. So many squalid lives.”
“Why do you say they’re squalid?” Dr. Hyde asked.
“They do things, scratch themselves, leer, parade around. They’re mean to each other, cutting, nasty. It’s weird, seeing these people in their homes. They don’t know I’m there. They play the tape and I’m watching them.”
“Scratch themselves? That hardly seems squalid now, does it? We all itch.” To prove it, Dr. Hyde scratched himself, making his chair squeak.
“Yeah,” Mark said. He was angry, but felt at the same time quite lethargic, as if protesting would take too much energy. “Then I wonder, what happens when people stop watching? Do I return to real life or do I simply fade away? What if I start spending all my time there? Do I disappear here? I’ve lost weight…”
“Yes, I noticed,” Dr. Hyde said dryly. “I’d suggest a full physical. Electrolytes.”
Mark snorted. “Electrolytes,” he muttered. “Jesus.”
Dr. Hyde tented his fingers and looked at his patient. “Go on,” he urged.
“I see her everywhere, even when the videos aren’t running.”
“Ah. Now we’re getting somewhere.”
“No. It’s not like that. She isn’t my mother.”
“Oh. What makes you think I thought she was your mother?”
Steve didn’t object when Mark said he wanted to go back to Paris, he only looked at his partner with what might well have been pity.
Jeannette was waiting at the airport. They rode the train into the city, holding hands in silence. What was there to say? They both knew what they had to do.
They spent the afternoon near the Louvre, wandering the streets. In front of the building he held her, barely aware of the tourists with cameras flowing around them. It was the first time they kissed, and to Mark it was like falling from a great height without fear.
They went inside and walked along the ancient castle foundation below the museum. There were Egyptian sculptures and massive damp stones. They kissed again in the courtyard in front of the famous glass pyramid, an island among the streams of tourists.
That evening they went to a small restaurant for dinner and he saw the faraway look in her eyes, turned somehow inward in the candlelight. He knew she was looking out of a screen somewhere, so that when she came back he asked, “Who?”
She didn’t recognize them, but they must have been a retired couple on their European vacation, and they lived in the tropics because there were palm trees outside their bedroom. They were sitting side by side on a bed, two old people in golf clothes, holding hands and watching. She must have walked across the frame as they filmed, because it only lasted a few seconds.
Mark nodded toward the entrance, and when she looked she saw the family, Japanese or Korean. The teenage boy had the camera and was taking in the restaurant. Jeannette smiled brightly, knowing now she would see this family again.
He extended his stay in Paris. “It’s not enough,” he told Jeannette.
“I know,” she said. “I know.” Her smile dazzled him, her perfume, the way she looked into space. “It’s happening more often now.”
Next day they walked in the Jardin des Plantes, long rows of green trees, flowerbeds, and other people with cameras everywhere. They looked at one another as they walked a drunkard’s walk along the gravel paths, knowing this would happen again and again. They stopped frequently and Mark clutched at her, stroked her shoulders, kissed her neck, breathed in her perfume. She pressed against him.
He said, “It’s going to start happening all the time.”
She pressed her fingers to his lips. “Shh.” Her face was tilted up to his. “I know a place,” she said. He knew she was not going to mention her husband, that this was between the two of them.
It was a hotel built around a courtyard. The lobby was crowded. The mix of languages was a subtle tapestry, harmonious and abstract. She asked for a room on the courtyard.
The bed was matrimonial, vast and white. She opened the curtains to the courtyard and looked out. He stood beside her, his arm around her shoulders. There were flowers below, row after row of windows climbing up the opposite wing of the hotel. There were silhouettes moving behind the windows. A few were open. In some there were people leaning out, looking at the courtyard below where a string quartet played Haydn.
She said, “We will always be together.” She was smiling at the man with the camcorder in the window one floor up. She took his hand and led him to the bed, and they slowly undressed each other, and slowly made love in front of the window. Near the end Jeannette helped the sheets slide away, and they cheated a little toward the anonymous camera across the court.
“I won’t be coming back,” he told Dr. Hyde.
Mark tried to be reassuring. “It’s not you.”
“No?” The doctor lifted his eyebrows.
“I gave away my cat. It’s happening more often, almost all the time now. I’ve begun to look forward to it.”
“Why do you think that is?” the doctor asked.
Mark was about to answer but an Italian family sitting around a table in a country kitchen interrupted. “Cosa? Cosa?” the old woman in black kept saying. The others shushed her and turned their chairs. “Parigi?” she asked.
“Sì, Nona, Parigi. It’s Paris,” one of them added in English, and they all laughed.
Mark tried peripheral vision, and she was walking beside him. And then she stopped, and stood in front of him and he could see through her at the Italians eating oysters. He tried to shut them out. She said, “It’s that… intense?”
“Yes,” he said. His hand lifted up and he touched her cheek, the fingertip trembling. She was looking into his eyes. He started to say something else, something like “It’s you,” but he simply repeated, “Yes.”