On the bus back to my apartment, I took out the letter and read it once more. So Anna was out there in some dim, sweaty room, probably drunk or high, wasting herself. I had made a point of not staying in touch after she dropped out of Princeton, and I'd had no idea where life had taken her. She could have gone through rehab, could have been living happily ever after in a distant state. But the letter proved that what I had suspected was true, and I realized I had known it all along.
The bus heaved and lurched through the dark, indistinguishable streets. I was the only passenger. Outside, the frame houses of Queens passed by, the empty churches, the brick bungalows, the muddy softball fields of my youth, all hidden in the night. When I reached my tiny apartment I tried to grade some papers, but I found I couldn't concentrate. When I tried to go to sleep I found I couldn't do that either, so I turned on the television and flipped around the channels. At some point, a dream incorporated the words from the set and I fell asleep.
THE NEXT DAY I put the letter from Carl Barrett in my desk drawer, beneath a hole puncher and a package of manila mailing envelopes, and I resolved to forget about it. I reasoned that it held no relevance to me, since Anna was simply a figure from the past. My memories of her were becoming by degrees less vivid and intrusive-although when I passed a group of feral, drugged-out runaways near the Port Authority that afternoon, I experienced a moment of panic, imagining Anna among them.
Late that night, there was a sharp and unexpected knock at my door. I did not stand on ceremony, and almost anyone I knew in New York would have been comfortable stopping by late and unannounced, but my friends didn't often wander past Sunnyside after midnight. Also, it was raining, the kind of steady and dispiriting storm that showed no signs of ending.
I opened the door and found Anna standing on the stoop in the cold rain, absolutely soaked. For a fraction of a second I questioned whether it was actually Anna. Her hair, which was wet and plastered to her head, was unexpectedly blond, supplanting the dark brown I had known and cherished. She was holding a copy of the International Herald-Tribune over her head to protect herself from the rain, but the paper had become ineffectual as an umbrella, soggy and warped.
Neither of us spoke, and the only sounds were the hissing of rain against concrete and the gurgling complaint of the drainpipe.
"Jesus," I said. It was a bizarre coincidence that she would arrive just after a note from Carl Barrett regarding her--a glimpse, perhaps, of some greater universal scheme that I could not as yet comprehend.
"Can I come in?"
"I'm sorry. I'm just so surprised."
I considered telling her she wasn't welcome, but doing so would have required a cold mastery of complex emotions and a denial of curiosity that I could not manage. I went to the bathroom and returned with a purple bath towel. She plunged her face into the soft terry and bent over, allowing her long hair to dangle. In that position she wrapped the towel around her hair, creating a purple turban.
Without a word she took a seat at my desk. I remained standing near the door, crossing my arms. She swiveled and tilted the chair, examining with casual interest the papers and pictures on my bulletin board.
"I don't want to put you out," she said. "But I was thinking it might be okay if I stayed here for a day or two."
Anna picked up the stapler from the desk and began absently unhinging and reclosing the top. She glanced up with hopeful dark eyes. She was beautiful, but also so drawn and bedraggled that I doubted someone meeting her for the first time would acknowledge her beauty. It seemed that she had grown tired of keeping up appearances, that she had taken on a disguise to render herself more ordinary.
From Empire of Light by David Czuchlewski. Copyright 2003 by Davind Czuchlewski. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the publisher, Putnam books.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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