Elise is standing right there in the foyer as I enter, talking to Jimmy again. She looks like a caged rat, chewing gum furiously as he faux-casually leans his arm against the side wall. I go over to the drinks table in the other room, take a shot of vodka, then come back and grab her by the arm. “Hey, Elise, I need to talk to you,” I say, trying to insert as much urgency into my voice as possible. It’s not hard. I do need to talk to her.
Elise’s expression of relief is all the confirmation I need. “Sure. Talk to you later, Timmy.” She mistakes his name, clearly on purpose. He is opening his mouth to correct her but I have already whisked her upstairs to a quieter bedroom, where a few people sit in a circle on the floor playing Boggle. These are the intellectuals, socially adjusted but not socially comfortable, with no obvious role in Minnesota society, which is played by intuition with no need for optimization or careful planning. They are the people who would ordinarily make their way into technical fields, as lawyers, policy planners, or the like, but these things are greatly reduced in number here. So they hang out at parties where they are uncomfortable, finding each other and playing Boggle in back rooms. They hardly notice us as they walk in, crow-like brows furrowed as they stare at the sixteen cubes, trying to decipher the message:
Years of training in the Minneapolis social scene melt away as I open my mouth, and the college Harold comes out. He is perhaps my natural self, witty and clever but hardly polished. “Hey, Elise. I have a confession to make. I don’t really have to talk to you about anything. It just seemed like you needed rescuing.”
As I walk in, a bespectacled nicely-dressed man is writing down “BIDET” on his sheet of paper, clearly very proud of himself. Their pattern-recognition skills are on the loose. Elise and I sit down on the bed. She is slightly flushed from the getaway, recovering her composure with the aid of the chewing gum in her mouth. It is the first time I have ever been alone with her. The vodka burns in my stomach.
“Well, aren’t you my Prince Charming,” she smiles. It’s a smile of relief, not a smile of falling in love. She is not falling for me and I am panicking.
“Hey, I’ve been meaning to ask you. That day in the coffeehouse. What was going on? You seemed pretty agitated. Who was that guy?” Uh-oh.
Elise frowns. “You were there? I thought you came in after he left,” she says. She does not think. She knows. She narrows her eyes.
“No, I was there. I couldn’t help but overhear some of the conversation. I’ve never seen that guy and I’ve seen a lot of people.”
Elise is yelling at me in her mind. I can see the wheels turning. She knows I’m lying, or at least knows that I was lying then about pretending to come into the coffeehouse. I am panicking again and I need another drink.
“Anyway, I was just curious; if there’s anything I can do let me know.” My voice is weak; I sound kind but altogether impotent. Elise looks furious. It’s not the trapped rat that she was with Jimmy; it’s a woman on the verge of taking off her stilettos and beating me with them. I keep digging myself deeper and deeper.
“Do you want to go for a walk? It’s pretty nice out.” Elise looks at me like I am crazy. I hear “divine” coming from the gamers as she sizes me up, trying to figure out how much damage I could do to her. She nods slowly, as if she is surprised that she is doing so. “Yeah, I need some air,” she says, face in an expressionless horizontal line, impassive. She barely looks at me. The Boggle people are arguing about whether or not “vibed” is a word as we walk out the door.
Kandinsky once told me that falling for a girl is like lying in a flowing river. You might get some nicks and bruises from the rocks, but you feel at peace, you feel like nature will take care of everything. I laughed at him repeatedly, but I feel at least part of it now. I feel like I’m not really in control of my own destiny. The vodka is still burning a bit in my stomach; Elise is still looking at me agape and confused as I tell her how much she means to me, this girl who I have never really talked to before tonight. I veer off into my life story as we continue walking, telling her about Courtney, telling her about my family, telling her everything she has no interest in hearing. She looks at me, impassive, astonished that I am pouring my heart out to her.
We walk for a block, saying nothing. Elise is taking deep breaths. I realize that I have pre-empted her, without realizing it: intuitive groupthink. She needs this walk, she needs to settle down; she needs it so much that she is doing it even though it requires being with me. She stares straight ahead and her gait is quick, hardly the slow bonding experience I was hoping for.
As I am trying to figure out what to say, she begins in a flat voice. “That guy in the coffeehouse is a friend of mine. He’s gay. His bisexual ex-boyfriend left him for my bisexual ex-girlfriend. I’m a lesbian.” She does not even glance over for my reaction at these words I knew in principle to be true. She does not see them ripple through my body, the weight of the anvil I’ve been awaiting the fall of finally crushing my spirit. I search for an opening in this impenetrable visage she is avoiding me with. I can’t think of anything to say.
“So you should probably stop flirting with me,” she continues. “First of all, I’m emotionally destroyed right now. Second of all, I’m a lesbian.” I notice some unsureness in the second comment, but my mouth is already moving. “Elise, I know. I know I have no chance. But this is where I am in my life. I have thought about you for the past two months. I can see the Elise in Elise…” what am I talking about? Why do I think this will work?
I don’t know why I’m doing it. It isn’t constructive. I just feel that if I keep talking to her and never let her go I can be with her for the rest of my life. We are at Point A, and I can see Point B, and all I need to do is keep walking until I make it around the fence in the way. If I can be with this idea of Elise, this sharp, out-of-the-box person who I have already proven her to be, everything will be okay. Everything else in my life right now is wedged deeply into the back of my mind, Elise seeping through the tissue, a snowballing political movement that threatens to turn the rational democracy of my mind into emotional totalitarianism. So I keep talking, I keep holding onto this vision of Point B, of us being destined for each other, the same vision that we sneered at Kandinsky for. If I stop she will cast the same sneer at me and leave. I am filibustering.
The next day I wake up to rain on the window at a rest stop along I-35 south of Des Moines. This is unusual. It is New Year’s Day, well into winter, yet somehow it is just warm enough outside for it to rain. The rain hits the ground, freezing against the cold drifts of snow and ice in front of the windshield. Elise Snow has driven me into the middle of America, her face still stuck in my head from the night before, a solitary image replacing all of the internally generated attributes. I turn her face over in my mind, but I cannot see behind it. It is just a face. There is no person there.
We arrive back at Sarah’s, our two-dimensional random walk having returned to our initial destination by the laws of mathematics. I continue talking to her as we are on the steps. Her expression has not changed in an hour, staring straight ahead, listening, waiting for my lunacy to end. I am in the middle of a story about Maria when Cara comes out of the door, clearly very drunk. “Elise, come in, it’s 11:55, ball’s about to drop.” Again, on recorded tape, New York’s cultural influence passing throughout America.
I am surprised to see that Elise does not have the same look of relief as she did when I whisked her away from Jimmy. Her face is still stony, drunk Cara oblivious to it, as she gets up and walks in without saying goodbye. I hear the rowdy noise of the partygoers inside as I walk back to my car, get in, and start driving.
I lie back in my seat watching the rain fall. A car pulls up two spots away from me and a woman with two children gets out. She is yelling at them to stay dry as she roughly pulls them towards the bathroom. One is crying and the other one has chocolate all over his face. The woman is haggard, the lines on her face unmistakable even through the refracting drops. She walks towards the new, improved building that contains tourist information, shelter, and urinals. She has an air of anger about her, of tension in her shoulders. There is no father in the car.
The woman and her children come out of the bathroom and I register on her screen as she is whipping her head around to see what has happened to her second child, who has stumbled and is crying. In that instant, I see her life flash before my eyes. She is not an old woman, maybe twenty-six, with a five-year-old and a seven-year-old to show for all of her arduous battles thus far. Pregnant at sixteen, a controversial abortion, running away from home, finding a man who wouldn’t beat her, the only thing she wanted, shelter. I see him in the emotional scars on her face, the lines from years of emotional abuse before he finally decided that he wanted a less screwed-up girl and left. The two children are the only thing tying her to her past, and she alternately cherishes and resents them for this bond. They are coming back from an aunt and uncle’s New Year’s get-together, the only aunt and uncle who still support her, although even with them she screams at the parents they represent. The kids wanted to stay longer, but she needs to get back to her waitress job. New Year’s is one of the best tipping days of the year. It is nine in the morning and she has tried to placate them with chocolate, but this has only resulted in smears across their faces and across the seats of the beat-up 80’s Civic she bought in a brief fit of rebellious liberal internationalism, a final “fuck you” to her parents who always bought American.
I miss Elise already. I try as hard as possible to hold onto the face, but it is losing clarity with each minute I am awake, a dream melting away. I struggle with it, but the rain keeps coming and the woman keeps screaming at her children and I let it go, starting to cry. I try to wonder what she is up to, realizing instead that I don’t know anything about her life at all. Cara Broadway and Katie Olafsen work at the Blue Moon. This is the closest thing I have to a connection to Elise. I try to hold onto this fact until it, too, melts away, seeming like nonsense, the “blue” and “moon” starting to seem like ridiculous non-words through constant repetition.
All of this I see in her face as she turns to slap the child only to find that he is already down and in tears. She relents for a moment, lifting him up, wiping the tears from his eyes with the rain, holding him tightly to her for an instant before resuming her jerky walk back to the car. The momentary hug reminds me that, without Elise, I have nothing in my life as important to me as this child is to her. I stare her back to her car, she conscious of my gaze, her pace quickening with fright at this strange man. She loves her children.
Iowa in the winter is bleak and barren, like my mood, and it lasts forever. I drive through seemingly endless miles of snowy fields, seemingly making no appreciable dent in the mileage signs that taunt me: “Minneapolis 275,” “Minneapolis 272,” “Minneapolis 268.” The whole thing is shut down, people huddling around wood stoves, recovering from New Year’s hangovers and watching football, technology only serving to reinforce nature’s blanket. The people inside are glued to their chairs, fossils caught in freeze-frame by the sudden onset of an ice age.
I try to fall back asleep where I can be with Elise, but it’s no use. So I rev up the car again and continue down I-35 as the inexplicable morning rain turns back into snow. My pocket of warmth, with memories of Elise melting the snow, crumbles in my rearview mirror. Further along the freeway I pass the woman with the children. She has Elise’s gaze, impassive, staring forward, as her kids joyfully pelt each other with coins in the back seat. I stare at her as we pace for a minute, but she does not return my glance. She has the unmistakable look of a person who just wants everything to be over as soon as possible.
At the next rest stop I pull in and realize I haven’t breathed for a while. I get out and breathe in air that is now more snow than oxygen. It coats the inside of my lungs and burns, tiny crystals of hypothermia forming with each inhale, coming out like the icy breath of a snow dragon with each exhale. The temperature is rapidly dropping and I am rapidly forgetting Elise. I turn the car around and head back to Minneapolis, but not before the woman pulls in again and spies me shooting ice pellets at her, drawing her children close as she storms into the bathroom. I leave before she can come back out and murder me.
The reason the Midwest seems so old-fashioned is because of this freeze. It’s not very complicated: for five months of the year, society stands still. Society having foolishly migrated here in the late 1800’s, it currently stands at around 1960, complete with traditional family structures and conformist morals. It is like an isolated island culture on Papua New Guinea, trying to ward off the supposed advances brought by the outside world, but ultimately failing. Television has moved in, becoming a fixture, integrated into the wintertime isolationism. Advertising is coming.
I haven’t left my jacket at her house, but I need someone to talk to. So I go over to Sarah Calflower’s and I tell her about Elise and I tell her how in love with Elise I am even though by now the image has faded, the perfect Elise in my mind has drowned in the Iowa rain. She can tell that my heart is not in it, I think, and talks to me patiently as she serves me tea. She doesn’t know Elise very well, and so the story is fascinating to her as she tries to get to know Elise through my warped image, trying to read between the lines, figuring out what is conjured up by my active imagination and what is really there.
For a moment I feel important. I am the new front, a New Yorker heading to Minneapolis to apply my special talents of psychology, the talents which allow me to extrapolate the life stories of the people around me, the couple to my left each having secret affairs, the family to my right who is really quite happy with their mundane existence, lucking out in the genetic lottery by not getting any black sheep. And I see an opportunity here, an opportunity foisted upon me by my family’s connection to Charlie Villa. I am the future, and this last enclave of old-fashioned conservatism will eventually fall.
I arrive back in Minneapolis to three voicemails on my cell phone. One is from Kandinsky, wishing me a happy New Year and saying I should call sometime; listening to it reminds me only of Elise Snow, and I try very hard to not throw the phone across the room, eventually succeeding. Another is from a college friend who I didn’t know every well but who I have surprisingly stayed in touch with, Jason Liu, just saying hi. The third is from Sarah. “Harold, you left your jacket at my house last night, I think. Come on over, I’ll be around all day.”
And by the end of the conversation I realize that I have just spewed out the party line of the last few weeks, and I tell her that I don’t know what I’m thinking now, that I don’t know what to do with myself, that I’m trying the introspection thing but I have no idea how to do it, that I’m twenty-five and have no idea where my life is going. And Sarah listens and she understands and she takes me upstairs for the love I desperately crave as the snow continues to fall outside and afterwards she tells me that I’m a beautiful person, that’s funny, I never thought of myself as beautiful. And she sketches me lying naked in the afternoon light filtered through the falling snow, her lips pursed as she tries to capture my lines, her naked body peeking out from behind the easel every so often, and I fall asleep, a deep sleep where there are no dreams of Elise, only childhood memories and inexplicable talking animals.
“Harold! Guess what?”
I am woken up around seven by my phone ringing. Sarah is nowhere to be seen; I am lying in her bed in a fetal position, curled up against the comforter. It has stopped snowing. I look down at the phone and see that it is Maria, who never calls me. A new scenario enters my mind: Maria is panicking, she is in the same position as I am, and I can be a big brother to her. I answer the phone, excited about being the helper rather than the depressed, but the voice on the other end is excited and joyful.
“You got engaged?” Maria is speechless; she is not as much of a reader of people as I am. She is deflated by my ability to guess exactly what is going on from her tone of voice; it’s really quite an easy one, since this is possibly the third time ever that she has called me. I have managed to make her uncomfortable; I can see her blushing. Eventually she admits defeat.
“Yeah.” I’ve never met Maria’s boyfriend, who she has been dating for around ten months.
“I’m happy for you, Maria,” I say, trying to put some excitement into my voice. It is difficult; my mouth is filled with sleep, and my mind is groggy from the unexpected nap.
I get up and go to the kitchen, where Sarah is reading a book on the fusion of Eastern yoga and Tai Chi with Native American arts of meditation. It looks suspiciously unscientific, one of the reasons I broke up with her; she prefers to believe things that are beautiful rather than things that are true. But she is happier believing her beautiful things than I am believing my true things, something which keeps me up at night occasionally: I have a talent for sniffing out the truth, but it doesn’t really make me as happy as Sarah’s fervent passions for holistic theories of inclusivity. Sarah feels at one with the world; I simply interact with it.
“We’re having an engagement party next month. You should come, you should meet him. He’s really cool.” Maria sounds rational and unconvinced that I will actually like him. She is afraid of my intuition, this thing that has an opinion about everything, more often right than wrong.
As I lie in bed half-awake, I think about this attribute of mine, this supernatural perception that has been further honed by my time in advertising. It’s my greatest strength as a person, and this is part of why the Elise Snow thing bothers me so much: it represents my irrational side taking over, obviating this perception, this ability to understand situations. I’m not sure if this is a good or bad thing, really. So much of life ends in mistakes: relationships first and foremost, but also more mundane things like staying up until five in the morning or crazy road trips. I see the ends of these things clearly, and I don’t do them, and sometimes I wonder if my life is horribly unbalanced because of it.
In other words, I stay away from Elise Snows. Except this time. I’m not sure what’s different about it. Perhaps it represents the culmination of twenty-five years of bottled-up craziness, all coming out in the form of this woman in my mind. And as my head clears, she comes back, that face which I can’t see behind, images from last night rushing through on this January 1st.
It’s not clear how to get from Point A to Point B, though. I usually have little desire to do so; part of seeking truth instead of beauty is the appreciation for the truthful approach rather than the beautiful approach. And the truthful approach, of course, is to seek truth. But in Sarah Calflower’s kitchen, my clothes softened by the sleep, my hair tousled and my mind a bit groggy, Sarah smiling beatifically at my disheveled appearance, it’s hard to see the virtue of the scientific method, which is responsible for the apartment now contaminated by the unbalancing influence of Elise.
My head is filled with my sister’s life until I get home and step into my apartment, and then Elise comes back into it. I wonder how I can find her in this city; the irrationality comes rushing back, as I am convinced that if I can just find her and keep talking to her everything will be okay, she’ll realize how important she is to me and how much actual work I am willing to do for her. I cook dinner absent-mindedly, burning the vegetables and undercooking the pasta. After dinner I put my coat on and head over to Blue Moon with the architecture book Sarah my head in a daze.
Sarah offers me my choice of tea, a blanket, and a book, and we curl up in surprisingly comfortable chairs around the kitchen table as the snow continues to stream down outside. The book is something she thinks I might like, a history of architecture from a technological point of view. It is interesting, but I find myself unable to concentrate, and eventually I bid goodbye to her. She looks at me, face full of concern, and I see that she will call to check up on me sometime in the next few days.
On the way home what Maria told me, or, rather, what I told her, hits me. My little sister is getting married. I play back what she said – she is convinced she wants to get married, but a little unsure about the man she is marrying. Maria, as far as I know, has never really bought into this romantic idealism business; she views marriage and love as an optional part of life, but one that she apparently thinks is worth it. And so, to her, she has found something that will improve her life, and she is doing it, simple as that. I think I’m going to go to this engagement party.
Katie Olafsen is working the counter. Cara Broadway is nowhere to be seen. I head over to the register and smile at Katie. Two men have entered behind me and are anxiously waiting. “Hey, Katie, how’s everything?” I put on my best smile. Katie returns it as we share a moment, the evanescent wisp of our connection amplified against a backdrop of complete strangers. I read her face and order a smoothie, which she approves of with another smile as I take the book over to a side table where we can share glances occasionally, shedding my scarf along the way.
I bide my time until the place quiets down, which takes surprisingly long; the snow has stopped falling, and like slugs after a rain people are entering the café. When all patrons have been taken care of, I head over to the counter. Katie smiles as I walk up, and I notice that she is, in fact, very attractive. “Hey, Katie. Thought I would come down and check out this place. Pretty nice,” I comment, my eyes casually scanning the décor. “Yeah, I like it. I’ve been working here part-time six months, it’s a good job, very pleasant.”
“Are you in school?”
“Yeah, comparative literature grad school at the U.”
“No way. Do you know Judith Haskins?”
“Oh my god, yeah. Judith is one of my favorite people. She’s so smart and fun to talk to.”
“I dated her for like a year and a half.”
“Really?” This clearly piques Katie’s nascent crush on me. She raises her eyebrows and slants a bit to her left, adopting a saucy pose.
“So you must be pretty awesome yourself, then,” she laughs.
“Yeah, I do my best. Did you have fun at the party last night?”
“It was pretty cool. It’s nice to have a chance to get out during the winter.” Her eyes betray her; she is thinking, where did you and Elise go all night? I don’t know how well she knows Elise, and in particular whether she knows that Elise is a lesbian. I can see in those eyes that she spent some time at the party looking for me, and I can feel my Elise thing evaporating against the much more pleasant backdrop of this vivacious girl who is crazy about me. Perhaps I am becoming a Kandinsky-style romantic idealist after all, or perhaps it’s just the biological clock.
A group of five teenagers enters and I have to move quickly. “Looks like you’ve got company. When do you get off? Do you want to go get a drink?” Katie smiles. “Eleven, and sure.” She turns back to the counter where the teenagers, another generation of Midwesterners, are waiting studiously, respectfully, talking about sports, the tobacco scent on their clothes the beginning of a lifestyle. I see Katie wrinkle her nose and I want to lean over the counter and kiss her, my heart filled with empathy. I guess I’m taking my sister’s marriage harder than I thought.