Marc S. Cohen

 
 

HYPERREAL

 

When Geoff first met Catharine, they were both midway through their senior year in college. He was attending a play downtown with another girl, whose name is no longer certain, just a hollow intonation from another age, hardly worth the utterance. A petite drama major, attractive in a Walking Dead sort of way; achromatic skin, dark hair with an even darker wardrobe, and a siren’s voice—not the kind that lures sailors to a blissful demise, but the other kind, that shrieks and wails through the nocturnal streets and induces night terrors. But we’re not here to talk about that girl.

We’re not?

No. We’re here to talk about Catharine. A French major with a Western New York accent. Studious, well-bred, courteous and prim. The sort of girl who wears dresses on Sundays and marries silver-haired gentlemen twice her age.

Wait, says Alex. Alex shares Geoff’s Borough Park studio, and is eager to hear more about the actress.

I’ve told you about her already, Geoff says. Cute, but irritating as hell.

He takes out an old sketchbook and brings it under the skylight. Opens to a page with a drawing he made of Catharine. Alex’s throat twists into a butterfly knot.

Yeah, Geoff sighs, that was my reaction too when I first met her.

So, did you hit on her?

I don’t think so. No.

Why the hell not?

That’s a question Geoff hasn’t been able to answer in over 17 years. Ever since that first introduction, in fact. All his college friends were crazy about her. Smitty, the Shakespeare nut, who sang her praises in florid iambic pentameter. Boyd, the film major, who wanted to cast her as his wife in a biopic of his future self. (His films were very experimental that way.) Carl Ray, the charismatic classicist, who nearly choked to death from coughing fits whenever she crossed his path. And then there was Prescott: the manic pre-med from the upper east side, accepted to Albert Einstein his junior year. Fell for Catharine the first time they shook hands. Said he’d quit med school, move to the end of the earth for her. You may have to, Geoff told him; she’s from Buffalo. Fine, Prescott said, I’ll move to Buffalo then. I can commute to the Bronx from Buffalo.

Alex tells Geoff he should look her up. Geoff replies he already has. Googled her, and found her on LinkedIn, then on Facebook. Only could see a few pics, but enough to confirm his worst fear: she’s still gorgeous.

So, Alex says, are you going to friend her?

I have. Even worse, I’m going to meet her for lunch . . . . 

           

So now Geoff’s behind the wheel of a rented Nissan, heading west on I-90. Coursing past exit signs to all those ancient city-states dotting central NY State. Troy. Rome. Utica. Syracuse. Athens. De Pew. He’s been up since dawn; stayed over at a friend’s place in Catskill before hitting the Thruway. Hasn’t had anything to eat except a coffee and a Dunkin’ Donut, which he downed at a roadside rest just past Amsterdam.

The entire 400-plus miles he drives in total silence. Not because the 3000 stations on the Nissan’s satellite radio offer insufficient listening options—hell, there must be over 20 different bluegrass sub-genres alone—but because, as he will later explain to Alex, he needs the time to quell the gazillion questions capering inside his skull. Questions like What the fuck am I doing? and Am I really driving to Buffalo? and What do I expect to accomplish here? (The obvious answer, being What I failed to do seventeen years ago, instantly engendering a profusion of doubts and misgivings that can all be summed up under the singular rubric of: What’s to say that I’ve come far enough not to fail again?)

These are important questions, but none so much as the real issue. Which is that, for quite some time, Geoff has been afflicted by what some TV doctors would call Emotional Lethargy Syndrome (ELS), or what Dianna, his golden-tongued ex, prefers to describe as emotional laziness. Its symptoms aren’t unlike a moderate form of depression—there’s the persistent anhedonia, true, but none of that dark heaviness that accompanies the sensation of lost hope, since there was never any sensation, or hope, to begin with. But he would never confide so much to Dianna, she who harbors a more than adequate supply of emotions, which she wouldn’t hesitate to lay bare to a partner (something which, to the emotionally paralyzed, can be both an appealing and alienating quality simultaneously). It isn’t because he was afraid of her, which he was (is). He simply had no interest in explaining himself.

And so now he’s on his way to Buffalo, in quest, it appears, of some sort of inner reawakening. As though this avatar from a brighter past might help revive something he thought to have euthanized long ago, that may never have been alive to begin with. When he first reconnected with Catharine in cyberspace, there was good reason to expect things would transpire like so many other online reunions. A few casual sentences summarizing what each had been up to the past two decades, then nothing but the occasional like or smiley-face under a banal status update or a cute pet photo. After all, Geoff hadn’t known Catharine that well. Aside from the actress with the blaring larynx, they didn’t have any common friends, didn’t share any classes or even favorite hangouts. It was fair to assume that, after the play, he would never see her again. But then he bumped into her at a convenient store on 8th St. Her eyes lit up as soon as she recognized him. They crossed paths a few more times, then started having coffee together. But it was hardly like they were dating. Hell, an outside observer might have wondered if they weren’t more like a couple of temps on a coffee break.

He joined her and some friends of hers for a book reading in the East Village. She came along to watch his roommate’s band play at a Soho café. She may or may not have gone with him to the Chuck Close show at MOMA. He may or may not have once attempted to order her a croissant using his grade 9 French.

After graduation, she returned to Buffalo, he remained parked in idle in NYC before starting his MFA, and they completely lost contact. Presumably because they lived too far apart to run into each other anymore. But then 17 years later, she not only remembers him and accepts his friend request, but PMs him repeatedly. Sure, mostly group messages at first, with attached links to websites she’s been following. A wellness blog written by a motivational nutritionist named Trish (Follow your soul, not your gut.). A page about life restoration developed by a reformed convict. Dozens of tumbleblogs offering truisms on healthcare, skin care, lifestyle design, crafts. Pinterest.

She asks him if he has a Pinterest page. He replies that he does not. She tells him it might help him promote his work. He doesn’t tell her that he’s been doing okay, that his paintings have been selling steadily for some time, that he’s shown at some of NY’s finest galleries. Robert Miller. David Zwirner. Matthew Marks. That he’s exhibited at the Scope Art Fair three of the past four seasons, and at the Armory twice. He just thanks her, says he’ll consider it. 

Then, when he gets the invitation to meet a curator in Toronto, it’s she who insists he stop by on the way. The school where she teaches is having a furlough day. They can do lunch at the Albright-Knox, then check out the collection. Maybe he’ll be inspired.

Oh, he replies, that would be wonderful.

 

The mid-day traffic beyond the Lackawanna toll is mercifully light. The Nissan’s GPS instructs him to take I-198 to Elmwood Ave, then head south. He pulls into the museum parking lot a little before noon.

He waits at the information desk for almost 25 minutes. Noisy school groups crowd in and out of the lobby, the children shouting and tussling and preening while their teachers stare forlornly at their phones. A few dozen mothers stroll by carting their squirming toddlers. Thankfully, not one of these women even remotely resembles Catharine.

Then he spots her. That familiar pre-Raphaelite face, with its pithy lips and a smile that will deny him no amity. Those September eyes that shimmer with sincerity. Those orchestral contours. Jesus.

(Later, at an altogether different luncheon with Alex, he will relate how startlingly beautiful he found her to be. That is the modifier he will use: startlingly; as if her beauty somehow snuck up on him unawares, giving his dead heart a sudden start.)

She is no longer a photo on a touch screen, or a blurry memory. She is real. Even hyper-real.

She also has a ring.

Jim and I met about eight years ago, she tells him after the server takes their order. A mutual friend introduced us. Actually, it was the mother of one of my students. Normally I don’t mix socially with parents, but this was at a fundraiser where Jen’s (or should I say, Genevieve‘s—all the kids use French soubriquets) mom was one of the organizers. She was talking to this very handsome gentleman, who turned out to be an old colleague of her husband’s . . . .

Geoff doesn’t ask what charity they were raising funds for. He is still staring vacantly at her left hand, his brain having pretty much crashed at the words very handsome gentleman.

It isn’t until she asks him a second time if he’s attached to anyone that his stupor lifts. Shaking his head, he explains that he recently broke up for good with a woman he’s had an on-and-off relationship with for more than a decade. They met during his MFA, but didn’t start seeing each other until later. They had a child together, his daughter Ashleigh, who just turned eight.

Ashleigh’s the main reason we stuck it out as long as we did, he says. We pretty much lost our affection for each other long ago.

He holds out his phone to show her a picture. Catharine smiles, commenting on how much the girl’s eyes resemble her father’s. He thanks her. Most people tell him the girl looks just like her mother.

She doesn’t mention whether she herself has any children. He doesn’t ask.

Soon after, the server comes with their food. They eat in silence for several minutes. Then Catharine asks about his Toronto show. He explains that it’s the first time he’ll be exhibiting in Canada. He doesn’t mention that his work has been seen (and purchased) in three different countries in Europe. She asks him if he’s brought the paintings with him. Oh no, he says, they’re being shipped separately. Courtesy of the gallery.

He opens a file on his phone with samples of his work. Immaculately rendered images of shiny, luminous objects. Still-lives of silverware and pewter candlesticks. Chrome bearing balls, marbles and billiards. A series of paintings devoted to perfume bottles. Another, to an array of antique gumball machines.

Wow, she says, they’re really good. They look like photographs.

Thank you.

I mean it. Those jewels look so real. Are they? How do you get them to sparkle so?

His pulse rises as he explains his technique. How during his MFA, he learned to paint reflected surfaces. How you first mix your paints together until they are almost completely de-saturated. That is, they appear to release almost no light of their own. These are for the reflected objects. How you then gradually add undiluted color, then highlights, using your brightest whites, your titaniums and zincs. The tension between the muted and bright tones creates a push/pull effect, which adds to the illusion of depth. How he perfected this method over the years until he was able to conjure an almost photorealistic version of reality. A hyperreality built of simulated light.

But why candlesticks? she asks. Why not landscapes, or gardens and flowers?

He explains how he is interested in the beauty of the ordinary. Of our everyday surrounds. Anyone can paint a mountain or a river scene. But how many artists find inspiration in an arrangement of pickle jars?

She smiles and nods, then glances at her phone. A problem? he asks. She shakes her head. Just checking for messages. Sometimes a parent will email me. Questions about exams, that sort of thing.

A big exam coming up?

Not for a couple weeks.

His heartbeat deadens.

Well, she says, putting her phone away. Shall we go take a look at the collection?

 

Ours is a time where unusual psychic phenomena, e.g. precognition, say, or déjà-vu, no longer seem to unnerve. Maybe it’s because, in a post-mystical age, we’ve simply lost our ability to process mystery. The way something hints at a higher reality, a hyperreality, strikes like an epiphany, yet can vanish as fleetingly as a Snapchat photo. Or maybe it’s the existential implications of the thing that eludes us, the sensation that you are stuck in a cycle of recursion from which there is no hope of escape. This implicit awareness of placeness, of forever being in a state of being-there. In a museum, say. Where you find yourself escorting a woman so faultless that she might attract more attention than the artwork. A situation in which you are certain you have been in before. Unless you are in fact succumbing to the not-so-hidden recollection of the countless exhibits accompanied by a former lover, the mother of your child, whose running commentary might evince the same dismissive tone she normally reserves for your own work: They’re all pretty on the surface, but where’s the depth?

He is now standing in front of a large portrait by Chuck Close. The face of a woman, larger than life yet highly pixilated. Fragmented almost beyond recognition, yet still discernible as a subject. Like an old recollection struggling to cohere.

Didn’t we see him once, at the Modern? Catharine asks.

Wow, Geoff replies, you have a good memory. I almost forgot about that.

Oh, I haven’t. It was the first time I’d been to an art museum, other than on a school trip. It was fun.

Her first time. Of course. When afterward, she’d invited him over, to the 10th Street apartment she shared with three other girls, girls she’d known since freshman year. Left alone in her room while she went to put up some tea, normally the time a guy reviews his plan of action—and yet instead, he sat there, examining her walls. The poster of the Van Gogh Sunflowers. A work you could find hanging in nearly every college girl’s dorm room in the country. Then his Starry Night. All that was missing was a copy of Monet Water Lilies. Oh yes, here it is. Beside her closet. Above her collection of stuffed animals.

As it turned out, he didn’t make a move that night. Or anytime thereafter.

They step into a gallery hung with enormous, jaggy color fields by Clyfford Still. Geoff tells Catharine how he’s always loved these works. Their monumental dimensions, counter-balanced by an almost disingenuous minimalism. How Still seems to practically tear color right off the canvas, only to expose layers of ground hidden unexpectedly beneath. His works invite you into a violent confrontation with planarity, and yet it’s a beautiful violence. You feel literally swallowed up by his colors.

Catharine is not impressed. Really, she says, I just don’t get it.

 Get what?

Abstraction. Pictures without content.

Isn’t that the whole point of nonrepresentational art? To be free of content?

But your works are representational. You don’t seem to have a problem with painting what’s out there, in front of you.

This is true. Dianna used to pester him incessantly about this. Why don’t you try going abstract for a change? He’d resort to the usual litany of excuses. That abstraction is harder than it looks. That it’s hard to judge whether a work is successful or not. With realism, you know you’ve hit your mark if the painting looks like the thing you’re trying to depict. But with abstraction, a search for a terminus, for a resolution, can be excruciatingly indefinite. Then there’s the problem of authenticity. The challenge of finding your own voice in a nonrepresentational field. You will always be compared to the minimalists (Newman, Mondrian, Martin) or the maximalists (Pollock, De Kooning), the geometricians (Kelly, Stella) or the new expressionists (Schnabel, Richter). At least with realism, you can only be judged on the basis of verisimilitude; no one cares who your antecedents might be. What he didn’t say, would not admit to, is that he just didn’t have the imagination for abstraction. He didn’t have to; Dianna would have already reached that conclusion herself.

(By comparison, his ex is a photographer who specializes in photographic abstraction. That is, she will take a photo and blur or manipulate it until the image becomes unrecognizable. For her, resolving a work offers no difficulty whatsoever. She knows exactly when to stop— right at the moment boredom sets in.)

Catharine sniffs. It still seems a bit too easy, she says. I mean, you know, even I—

Don’t do that. Please don’t.

Do what?

Evoke the commonest cliché about modern art: that anyone can do it.

But it’s true! How can you be so sure I couldn’t paint that?

Because you can’t.

Why not?

Because you’re not Clyfford Still . . . .

He tells her an anecdote about his 8-year-old, who last summer discovered Jackson Pollock. She’d been thumbing through one of his art magazines when she saw a photo of a drip painting, and asked her dad how it was done. He explained the process to her. Then this fall, she made her own drip painting at school, which ironically earned her an A for originality. The painting however, it must be said, was no Pollock. Geoff himself had the idea of creating a background using the drip technique during his MFA year. For about 5 minutes, he experienced the same, exhilarating feeling of liberation Jack the Dripper must have had that day he first poured house paint toward the floor of his freezing cold Hampton barn. But the exhilaration dissipated soon after, for when he looked down at his work, he had to admit that what he had produced was something which could only be recognized unequivocally as an imitation Pollock.

Catharine shrugs, then checks her phone. When, moments later, they are standing in front of the Albright-Knox’s own prized Pollock, his 13-ft wide Convergence, 1952, she stays silent.

 

It’s a problem of mimesis. This woman, whose image you’ve been carrying around in your head for more almost two decades, positioned at the periphery of your field of vision, perceptible only from the corner of your mind’s eye. Who may be the most complete person you’ve ever met, and yet still evades materiality, an essentialness, even as she stands here admiring one of the most treasured works in the museum’s collection: Monet’s Les Glaçons. Modernity’s misty dawn, harbingering the end of classicism, of certitude. Of the hyperreal.

And when the museum closes, of course she invites you over to her house. Stay for dinner. There’s a nice Greek place up the street. We can order take out. Of course the house is as spacious as it is spotless. A Pier 1 showroom. The matching Carmen sectional sofa and loveseat. The Allerton dining set. A coffee table book on the Falls. Another about the Erie Canal. And her husband. Of course there is a husband. And of course he has silver hair.

Her husband. Slim, blue jacket, matching tie, glasses. Pale grey eyes. A disingenuous grin positioned between dimpled cheeks. He could be the governor of any state south of the Ohio, east of the Mississippi. A minister at a Baptist church. Or a mutual fund salesman.

And he’s seated in a wheelchair.

Actually, it’s consulting, he says. As in business transformation. Right now, I’m working with a pharmaceutical firm on Grand Island. Ever been to Grand Island?

Not yet, says Geoff, staring at Jim’s slack, seemingly boneless legs.

Most people haven’t. Or they just pass through, on their way to the Falls.

Geoff sits back in the love seat and nods. Jim is parked beside the sofa across from him. The Niagara Falls coffee table book lies open between them, its giant, high-def colorplate of the cataract being both a boundary and a nexus.

Catharine is in the kitchen. She has just ordered the food. It should be ready in about half an hour.

My wife tells me you’re an artist, Jim says. So what exactly do you create?

He does wonderful paintings, Catharine calls out. Geoff, show him some of your works. They’re amazing!

 Geoff takes out his phone and opens his photo organizer, then hands the phone to Jim. Jim flips through three or four pictures before handing it back. You’re very good, he says. But it seems like a lot of work. Why go to all that trouble to make something your phone could do in a second?

Geoff fails to hold back a grimace. I paint light, he says.

What he doesn’t say is that he’s received favorable reviews this year in Art Forum, Art in America, and the Times. That viewers have told him his mirrored surfaces are so convincing, they swear they can see their own reflections in them.

Light? Jim retorts. That’s a pretty ambitious way to put it.

Over a dinner of pork souvlaki, spanakopita and calamari, they steer clear of talk about the pharmaceutical business. They don’t discuss art or the paintings at the Albright-Knox. Instead, Catharine fills Geoff in on the challenges of teaching French in a perennially economically depressed city. Of rehearsing masculine and feminine noun endings with children who may only have access to two meals a day. Of conjugating verbs for students with learning and anxiety disorders. She’s evidently quite passionate about her vocation. She is also, from the sounds of it, burned out big time.

The kids don’t know how to listen, Jim pipes in. If it doesn’t have a touch screen, or an app with lasers and zombies, they aren’t interested.

Most of these kids can’t afford phones, Catharine says.

Big deal. So they steal them instead. Like they do everything else in their possession. Is it any wonder there’s been no development here in over half a century?

Jim grew up in the seventies, Catharine explains.

And we all turned out okay, didn’t we? Jim says. Despite our mothers smoking and drinking while they were pregnant. Despite us being bottle-fed instead of breast-fed. Despite our dads working ten, twelve hour shifts. We played outside by ourselves without adult supervision, and no one worried about child abductors or pedophiles lurking in the alleys. We played army, Union vs. Confederates, Nazis vs. the Allies, Russians vs. Americans. We shot BB guns at bottles and cans and pigeons. Drank Kool-Aid and ate Pop-Tarts and Chips Ahoy and Oreos by the handful, and no one got fat. How? Because we played all the time. We didn’t sit on our duffs all day in front of computer screens. We were even disciplined with ping-pong paddles, no one called children’s services, and no one complained.

The seventies, Geoff says, also gave us the Captain and Tennille, Donny and Marie and the Love Boat, right? No wonder kids spent so much time outdoors.

What he doesn’t say is that maybe someone should have called children’s services.

It’s not all bad, Catharine assures Geoff. The city’s starting to turn things around. Look at Canalside. And RiverWorks.

It’s a beer garden, Jim grumbles.

So? It’s good for the economy. The papers are saying tourism is on the rise.

Great. More pickpocket targets for your kids.

Catharine rolls her eyes facetiously. Geoff laughs. Then he asks Jim what it is exactly a business transformation consultant does for a living.

We look for new efficiencies in an organization’s operational plan, Jim replies.

In other words—

In other words, opportunities for downsizing.

Then he swallows a fresh forkful of pork. 

 

Once, Geoff happened upon Catharine while she was dining at a coffee house near Washington Square with some girlfriends. She invited him to join them. The girls, perhaps Barnard students, didn’t appear to socialize with guys very often, and mostly stayed quiet. Or maybe it was that Geoff sort of dominated the conversation. As he would later recite it to Alex, however, he felt like an object from a curio shop.

Her friends asked him who were the biggest artists right now, so he told them. About Schnabel and Basquiat, Goodwin and Abramovic, Hirst, Holzer, Kieffer, Baselitz and Koons. He said the prevailing feeling in the contemporary art scene was that all paths had been trodden, that artists had little choice but to follow the environmentalist mantra: reduce, recycle, reuse. That theirs was an era of Neos. Neo-Expressionism. Neo-Pop. Neo Geo. Neo Rauch. When they looked at him blankly, he changed the topic to politics. Chomsky was still big at the time. So was Said and Foucault. He and his roomies went to see Michael Moore’s films in Brooklyn, and watched John Stewart nightly on stolen cable.

When he and Catharine met up the next time, he told her he didn’t think he made a very good impression on her friends. She said on the contrary, they were struck by the broad scope of his conversation. They just weren’t used to talking about such serious topics, that’s all. He didn’t ask her what they were used to talking about. He only said, I guess I just assume everyone in college is interested in serious things.

Sometime after, he made the sketch of her which he would eventually show Alex. Often when girls sat for a drawing, they would flirt a little. But Catherine spent the whole time reading her Flaubert novel. She had a paper for her 19th century French Lit seminar due in a couple weeks.

 

Inside the frame of the living room window, a leaden sun is setting over Lake Erie. Somewhere on the other side of the Peace Bridge, or Grand Island, Canadian families are settling down to an evening of entertainment produced (mostly) in America. Reruns of American Idol. American Crime. Chicago Fire. Chicago Med. The Blue Jays are playing in Detroit tonight. The Leafs are dining on chipotle in LA.

Catharine asks Geoff where he’s staying. Geoff says he hasn’t booked a hotel room yet, but figures he’ll have no trouble finding one, either in the city or in Niagara Falls, on the NY side. He’s meeting the curator in Toronto at 1PM the next day, so he should have plenty of time to get there. But Catharine insists he spend the night at their place. They have lots of space. And it’s so rare they have visitors from out of town.

She heads upstairs to get one of the extra bedrooms ready, leaving Geoff alone with Jim. An uncomfortable silence falls between them. Jim’s fingers uncoil from his lap, and he reaches for a lever beside his chair. A loud click, and then his legs suddenly spring up, extending straight at Geoff.

Geoff’s eyes wince involuntarily, as though holding back the onrush of a thousand unwanted thoughts. Thoughts and questions, like how you know you need to stretch your legs out when they can’t feel anything. Like what does physical unfeeling feel like, and is it anything similar to emotional paralysis.

Then there are the intimacy questions. Not only, Can they? but also, Can they . . . ? Surely she wanted a family. A boy and a girl to dress up and bake cookies for. To hug and squeeze and climb into bed with after a nightmare. Now it’s obvious why there are no kiddy pictures on Facebook. Why this huge house feels about as hospitable as an old prairie schoolhouse. And it’s not just because her husband’s an advocate of corporal punishment.

What must it be like for them. When she accompanies him on their Sunday strolls down by Canalside. All those heads turning as they pass, gaping with admiration before bowing in self-reproach. When he lowers himself into the tub, and she draws the washcloth over his abdomen, down along his lower parts, and he looks up into that face, his very own Jane Russell, and trembles, unable to do a damn thing about it . . . .

(You can almost hear that voice, not your own but no less familiar, reproaching: So this is how you thought to get over me? By seducing a paraplegic man’s wife? And what makes you so sure he cannot satisfy her? That he cannot be satisfied himself?)

Well, Geoff says, I guess this means I’m staying over. It’s awfully nice of you.

 Sure, Jim grumbles. No trouble.

I feel I should pay for the dinner, since you’ve been so accommodating.

Don’t worry about it.

Are you sure?

Jim lowers his eyes. Like she said, he replies in a quiet voice, there’s lots of room here.

I didn’t mean to imply—

Don’t worry about it. But what about you? Have any kids?

Geoff says he has a daughter. He reaches for his phone to show him a picture of Ashleigh, but Jim waves him off.

Don’t bother, he says. All kids look the same if you don’t have any of your own.

Sorry. Do you . . . want to have children?

It might be nice. She sure wouldn’t mind having some. And she’s obviously still young enough to do so.

You both are, Geoff carefully notes.

That may be. But there are other . . . complications.

Jim reaches for the lever again. Another click, and his legs drop back to the floor.

I suppose you’re wondering about these, he says, gesturing to his legs.

What? says Geoff, no, I—

This is the part where Geoff should be wondering if perhaps he should’ve driven directly to Canada. Jim leads him on a harrowing journey through a billowing snowstorm on the Buffalo expressway. Where unseen ice slicks can send the tires of a black 2010 Acura TSX, complete with 280-horsepower V-6, dual outlet exhausts, split-spoke 18-inch alloy wheels, and only six payments to go, into a furious skid. Right into the implacable face of an oncoming SUV. Where the next thing you know, your headlights are kissing the guardrail, followed by the rest of that formidable V-6. Followed by infinite darkness.

Until half of you wakes up to the voice of some nurse with a Caribbean accent filling in the parts you missed. The faulty crash sensors. The two hours in sub-freezing weather pinned under metal, glass and nylon. The jaws of life.

Jesus, Geoff gasps.

And Cipralex, Jim adds. Ever heard of it?

Geoff shakes his head.

Great stuff, Jim continues. Pulled me out of a deep indigo funk. Let’s hear it for Big Pharma! Supposed to help you cope with the mental anguish, to feel whole again. And it does. Makes you real chill. But there are side effects. The pills pretty much empty you out. Take the color right out of life. And the passion.

Look, you really don’t have to—

Funny thing is, it never seemed to bother Catharine. When we first started seeing each other, she used to joke that she was being courted by an old country gentleman. And she liked that. Found it a refreshing change from all those young guys with only one thing on their minds.

 Please don’t go on.

After we became engaged, I tried to get off the Cipralex. But I just felt worse, so the doctor increased the dosage. 40 mgs. Enough to turn Charlie Sheen into a choir boy. Imagine, a girl like her with a guy like me. Must make you think, Such a waste, right? I’ll be honest, sometimes I can’t help but wonder the same. What it would be like for her if she were with someone who was, you know . . . operationally effectual . . . .

Please . . . don’t . . . go . . .on . . . .

Geoff’s eyes pass through the invisible glass of the coffee table, searching for some opaque surface on which to land. A bottom to the disquietude. That inevitable queasiness that arises when you discover a connection with someone who should otherwise be your antithesis.

It isn’t rivalry that has brought these two together here, but rather something more dubious, complicit. A feeling of unfeeling. Of mutual numbness.

Even without the aid of Cipralex, Geoff can place himself in Jim’s skin. In his directionless trajectory. The way, after all those breakups with Dianna, his world divided and fractured. At once multiplied into incoherence and became reducible to generalization. Of a life viewed in greyscale. Of the insoluble taste of metal on the back of the tongue.

On Monday, when Geoff narrates this little odyssey for Alex, he will comb meticulously through its details, its ironies and intricacies, only to arrive at the same conclusion. He came out here to experience rediscovery, to surrender to feeling. But what he found instead was something akin to the experience of finally completing a painting that has long consumed him. First, the rush of elation, soon quieting to simple, liberating relief. Then, the inexorable slide into doubt and self-recrimination. When all those criticisms from your past, so expertly collated and  given voice to by your ex, resurface. Lamenting how your work is concerned only with superficial themes. How it naively contrives to perpetuate the myth of clarity. How its allegedly dispassionate, hyper-allegiance to a purported exterior reality merely disguises its provenance as just another creation of your imagination. And how impossible it is for you to fall in love with one of your creations.

(More echoes from a too recent past: This version of things, which you call realist, it doesn’t contain my reality, I don’t see myself in there at all. And: Your idea of reality is just this, an idea, or more accurately, ideal; an idealization. This quest for perfection, tell me: where does it come from? How do you define imperfect? And who determines this, the perceiver or the perceived? And again: What is it about the real world that scares you so?)

When he was showing her his work, he told Catharine he was interested in the beauty of the ordinary. She too is exceptionally beautiful, and exceptionally ordinary. She is someone to hang your myths on. A conjunction of every fiction about desire and perfection ever told. Someone you never really noticed until you notice you can’t stop doing so.

Soon after Catharine comes back downstairs, Geoff will offer his apologies, before making a quick exit. He will pass the night at a Holiday Inn downtown. Lying awake on his back through the darkest hours, blinking at highlights of a Just for Laughs festival on a Canadian network.

Partiers returning from the casinos and clubs will trickle through the corridors, their giggles and patter and hasty feet scuttling by like rapacious rodents. To the sounds of love in the rooms that surround him, he will lie insensate, until a siren from a passing EMS vehicle, responding to an alarm down near the waterfront, jolts him upright. The clock will read 3:54 a.m.

At dawn, still sleepless, he will rise, check out without a shower or breakfast, and slip away in the rental. And when he reaches the border, not at the Falls, but across the Peace Bridge in Fort Erie, he will assure the customs officer that he has nothing, absolutely nothing at all to declare.