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July 1, 2011 | Fiction

Midair

Glen Pourciau

Midair photo

How do you see yourself? the questioner at the other end of the table asks. Stumped, earlier questions more specific, handle on the context, now an expanse stretches out inside me, glance at the glass of water near my right hand, haven't touched it, haven't needed it, now a scratch in my throat, urge to cough, grab the glass, no, pick up the glass, sip, feel the water on my throat, but the scratchy spot doesn't seem to get wet, the water passes over it without sinking in, more water, another sip, better, set the glass back down, don't let it bump on the table, don't seem to be trying not to let it bump, little finger on the table first, anchor my hand before the impact of the glass. Fluorescent lights, six-foot table, narrow room, low ceilings, no windows, hot, airless, the questioner straight ahead doesn't seem to notice, smiling and relaxed, the questioner to my left, shaved head, frozen grimace, head down, glances up at me intermittently, both of them dressed more casually than I am, me in my suit, them in their checked shirts like crossword-puzzle grids, no ties. In what context? I ask him, hoping for a thread to get hold of that can lead me out of the void in my head. It's up to you to decide the context, he says. It's a simple question. How do you see yourself? Again I pause, the question echoes, and I remember lying awake only a night or two ago and wondering where my life is drifting, where it has drifted, has it been pushed or has it been pulled and who or what was the pusher or puller? What do I see when I look in the mirror? I ask him. Is that what you mean? He looks at me as if making an assessment, and I fear he will not answer but just let me squirm in the silence. The grimacer, light gleaming on the dome of his skull, raises his eyes and looks at me as if he expects to see something in my face that disturbs him. The questioner straight ahead then asks: Can everything about how you see yourself be seen in the mirror? What do they see when they look at me, what do they want to see, what is in their heads? But I can't think about what is in their heads, my head is enough to deal with. I feel sweat coming out of me and wonder if they can see it, don't touch the dampness on my forehead, hope it doesn't form into drops and sink down my face. Does he want to know how I talk to or with other people, how I am perceived by them? Too long without an answer, no words coming, falling through midair with no parachute, so I shrug. A shrug, that's it? he asks and lets out a short laugh, unable to stop its rise from his stomach. The grimacer heaves up a faint hint of a smile, slight upward pressure on the corners of his mouth. Let's put it this way, the grimacer says, barely looking up, how do you see yourself in five years? Into the future, another void, an assumption that I can see a road before me that leads from where I am now to where I will be in five years, but who can see five years ahead? I resist the temptation to shrug again. Another simple question asked with benign intent, but I do not see a figure looking back at me from five years out, and if I did see the figure what would he be looking back at? I know that the questions and this room and the people in it have not come to me in my sleep, but I find myself trying to wake up just to be sure. In five years I want to be here, I say. Not in this room? the questioner straight ahead asks and a laugh erupts from him, upward pressure appearing again on the grimacer's grimace, this time more difficulty keeping it in place. Not in this room, no, I say, apparently joining in his humor. I want to continue to make a contribution, to work with others. Some kind of answer, maybe enough to close up the hole. Will they expect more or will they let it pass? The questioner straight ahead nods and looks at the tabletop, shrugs, perhaps mocking me but perhaps not, lets the silence endure a moment longer, then looks up and says: Thank you for your time. We'll be in touch. They stand at exactly the same time, as if they've practiced it, and I get up, trying not to let them see my throat moving, trying not to show too much relief. I shake their hands, meet their eyes, an attempt at a recovery, let them see someone looking back at them, leave without seeming to be in a rush, door handle in hand. What will they say about me after I'm out of the room, will they laugh, will they make disparaging remarks? I shut the door and stand in the hallway, dampness rising from my pores into my clothing. Should I wait outside the door and listen? Do I want to hear them laughing and then try to convince myself they could be laughing not about me but some innocuous statement one of them has made? Would I be able to hear anything but a muffled and incomprehensible version of whatever assessment they have of me and would trying to judge the tone of the muffled voices lead to anything but more questions that could not be answered? What if one of them opens the door and they see me standing here? Would they feel an urge to ask me again: How do you see yourself? How would I explain why I'm here? Wouldn't any explanation other than the truth be seen as an obvious lie and the truth be unspeakable, and in fact would there be any need to tell the truth when it could be seen without any explanation from me? But I stay near the door, trying to hear them, telling myself to get moving, don't let them see you. Can they be sitting at the table without speaking? I imagine them laughing at the silence as if I'd left it there, and I laugh to myself at myself in reaction to their laughter. I push the noise in my head back, tell it to be quiet, where was my voice when I needed it? I take a step closer to the door, but hear nothing.

image: Ryan Molloy


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