A collection of short pieces written by Rumpus readers pertaining to the subject of “By Chance.”
Edited by Susan Clements.
* * *
Ten years ago, at a gig in New York City, I first heard these lines inserted into a familiar song:
Being in love means you are completely broken
Then put back together . . .
Being in love means you are completely broken
And not put back together
I lost my peripheral vision.
“What is that?” I asked the singer later.
Songs: Ohia, he scribbled down for me. “You gotta check them out.”
I found the tune. It was impossibly murky. The vocal was warbly. The last line wasn’t how I’d heard it sung. The ‟not” was missing. That’s wrong, I thought. Since when does it put you back together?
I tried other songs. I didn’t get it. I knew I should get it.
Jason Molina sang, his voice unshrouded, unedited, of the most crippling sorrow from the deepest known depths. It was a level of sorrow I understood. It was a level of sorrow that killed him.
When he died, that initial connection, however slow and creeping, fully took hold. It was like I’d never really heard him until then. In its purity, its vulnerability, the imperfection of his voice became heart-wrenchingly gorgeous. I found myself subsumed.
‟Farewell Transmission.” ‟Hold on Magnolia.” These were the songs. This was my own well-worn hopelessness.
You might be holding the last light I see
Before the dark finally gets a hold of me
I went to Chicago to see the singer who’d recommended the music. In tribute, he sang the entirety of ‟Being in Love.” He sang ‟Hold on Magnolia.” Colors swirled around him and in that moment a small part of me crumbled. I woke up to the news that my grandmother had suffered a stroke. Nothing would feel okay again for quite some time.
At some point, when singing your sorrow, unmasking its deformity, drawing to it the attention of air, space, and light, it becomes transfigured into something of unimaginable beauty. I believe that’s what Jason was doing.
I have come to hope, equally, that perhaps it can itself repair you. That by staring darkness down, by walking into it unbound, we eventually arrive somewhere other.
He didn’t, though. Not intact.
Did you really believe, come on,
Did you really believe
That everyone makes it out?
Almost no one makes it out
Almost no one makes it out.
What if, by chance, he’s right?
* * *
Let’s say you’re walking down the street one afternoon and there, just at the corner of your vision, you spot someone you used to know. And when I say know, I mean loved. Every detail about the former self that loved that person is vivid again: where you lived together, that basement apartment next to the train station that rattled every thirty minutes, the coffee shop you used to go to on Saturday mornings, the music you listened to then, years ago now, one particular song surfacing suddenly and playing on repeat in your mind. But you don’t say hello. The sidewalk traffic, swirling like an ocean eddy, opens then closes just as fast and that other person is gone again, returned to the impossible crowd of strangers. All in a matter of seconds.
This is one person out of billions on the planet, thousands in your city, hundreds on the street. Her name might still be in some of the books on your shelf because they were actually her books, but you couldn’t even say which ones anymore. The randomness of the encounter might haunt you all day, possibly longer. You might go to your office and google her name. You might calculate the odds of seeing her again, change which way you walk to lunch. Or maybe you don’t think about it five minutes after it happens, because why would you? It was a former life. Maybe you mention it to your best friend casually, like an interesting article you found online about something that happened to someone else. There is no correct response, only the one you have when it happens to you.
In the meantime, it’s more common to be hit by lightning than to win the lottery, more common to be in a car accident than to fall in love. Those are the odds. Your current lover was a stranger once, too, among many. And maybe she occasionally passes by someone she used to know, and by know I mean loved, or someone she will love one day in a future life. But it’s best not to think about that. It’s better to think of life the way a passenger thinks about flying, which is to say rarely if at all. Yes, it’s dangerous and improbable that a mass of steel and glass can be kept aloft by unseen forces, but it happens. It happens every day.
* * *
In college, Joey called me often to wring his hands. When I answered, I always said the same thing: “I’d like to follow those thoughts of yours down their dark alleys so you can sit in the kitchen drinking lemonade and watching the dogs, but you won’t tell me what their coordinates are. I’ve got to look for those places you can’t find if you’re not alone, you know?” As friends, we stewed in that paradox over cafeteria Tater Tots and ketchup while he recovered from his hangover or humanities seminar. Biochem was his thing—biochem and fly fishing. He didn’t trade in binaries, and he burned for it. He didn’t say he loved me, but he burst in my room at 5 a.m. one morning to put my hand on his chest.
“You feel that?”
It was thumping like a broken centrifuge.
“My heart doesn’t beat like that for just anyone. Only you.”
I thought I might kill him, but Joey only marveled at his body’s psychosomatic truth. Pleased at the alliance between emotion and body, he smiled breathlessly.
After graduation, he called to wring his hands once more. His right ventricle had gone rogue, he said. He had passed out during graduate school. He had to get a defibrillator. He could not safely exercise or raise his heart rate. “You remember those athletes who died after fainting? That’s what I’ve got: ARVD.”
My carapace of reason crumbled like a building ravaged by limestone. A thought—a casualty of misfired memory cells—crossed my mind: perchance, it wasn’t me making his heart beat so fast four years ago. By chance, the excitement could have killed him.
“Remember freshman year?” I began to say, but he already knew: his heart wouldn’t beat like that for anyone else—he couldn’t risk it any more.
* * *
I went into high alert when I heard a knock at the door. It was 1977 and I was staying in a primitive camp in Vermont called the Deer Slayer while waiting to go to Iran as part of a team from a prestigious New York magazine company. I thought whoever was knocking on my door was the result of a desperate call to a friend to say it had been a mistake to come here. Since the rape no place felt right. Opening the door, I peered into phosphorescent eyes shining out of the bushiest red beard I’d ever seen. It didn’t seem that farfetched that a gnome would emerge from the forest and knock at my door.
“That’s a real name, Moss?”
“No idea. I’m building a house and need him to help with my roof.”
“I’ve seen some guys at the next cabin up,” I said. “He’s probably there.” We lingered, pondering possibilities, I decided. I needed to get to the airport that was an hour away, and he needed help building. That was what was going through my mind when I said “I’ve always wanted to learn how to build.”
The gnome wore a wool hat down low over his forehead, and his mouth was hidden under the unkempt beard, so his eyes were all I had to judge his sincerity and attitude by. They didn’t light up. I wish I had paid more attention to that. “Show up at seven if you mean it.” He stalked off. I wondered how much shorter than me he was. At least an inch, maybe more. And younger, I thought. Ten years it turned out.
His house was in a clearing in the deep woods, with a quarter-mile dirt logging road the only access. No electricity and no running water. He was a woodsman who wore an invisible ‟Keep Out” placard on his chest, and as wounded as I was I found out. But I had by chance landed in an oasis of safety.
I called my boss in New York a week later and canceled Iran. “Have you lost your mind?” he demanded to know.
It took a long time—twenty-seven years (and a divorce)—for me to come up with the right answer.
* * *
I once swapped trains with a stranger. I mean I mistook him for another stranger. The suitcase I had boarding the train felt stranger when I left it so I swapped it for a bit of danger. The train on the screen back when movies were new made everyone duck when it came close to the camera. Totally a game-changer. Like my ex, who became a state park ranger. I swapped him for a Hitchcock film I mistook for rom-com when it was about danger. He’d been what they call my dog-in-the-manger. By chance I became a Person Exchanger. Soon I’ll be what they call a Life Rearranger.
* * *
I only crossed the street in the first place to avoid passing the bar where the bouncer always stopped me to ask if I had a boyfriend. Without fail. Every time. Didn’t matter if I pretended I didn’t hear and kept walking, or said yes, or said no, or said you know it’s nice of you to ask but I’d really like it if you never asked me that question again, ha, ha. Always with the little laugh at the end so he’d know I was sort of joking, not that bothered, not being a bitch about it or anything. Crossing the street meant going a whole block out of my way but it was worth it and especially on this night because there was Mark of all people, standing outside the discount furniture store, staring at his phone.
“Mark!” I called out to him, happy surprise in my voice.
He looked up and his face was a total blank.
“Oh,” he said. “Hey, Mel.”
“What are the odds!” I exclaimed. It came out louder than I meant it and with more enthusiasm.
He smiled, sort of.
“How’s it going?” I added, lowering my tone considerably.
“You know,” he said. “Life.”
“Yes,” I said, “I do know,” but I was grinning like an idiot.
“I’m on my way—” he started.
“Wanna get a drink?” I said, and quietly congratulated myself on the effortlessness with which I’d said it.
“Oh,” he said. “Actually.”
“I’m on my way to my brother’s . . . I told him I’d stop by tonight.”
“Oh, nice,” I said, so casual I wanted to die. “Have fun.”
“Yeah!” He smiled for real this time. “Another time?”
“Yeah!” I said. I smiled too, to match. “Let me know!”
“Yeah,” he said.
“Cool,” I said.
“See you later,” he said.
“See you,” I said, and gave a dumb little salute.
I kept going, and as I walked, I tried to remember where it was I was headed in the first place.
* * *
Her peach blouse was split at the top; her bare arms lean and flushed.
She was on fire. She turned her chin to the right as if listening for sounds
in the distance. Her hand, high in the air, waved like a flag. Her toes,
exposed in black sandals, were inches from the curb.
She was hailing a cab.
She had been in the bed of Etienne,
a man she had met earlier that evening. She distrusted his name.
He said he was Belgian but sounded American. She couldn’t
bring herself to say Etienne aloud; it would’ve sounded ridiculous.
His body was fit, uncommonly so, and as they had sex she thought:
he feels like lumber. It made no sense to think this but the thought
repeated in her head like a hated lyric.
She wanted to slap him with the flat of her hand to hear the deep-
toned pop it would make against his taut skin. Then, she did it.
She hit his chest with such force her handprint appeared
on his shaved-smooth pectoral. He didn’t flinch.
He took her hand in his. “If you want to hurt me,” he said,
“you’ll need to hit me harder.” He meant it.
Earlier, in the bar, the bartender
placed a Negroni in front of her then tilted his head to indicate
Etienne had sent it. She took her time—two separate sips
from the heavy rocks glass. Its bitterness made her want to drink
cold water. When she looked at Etienne she knew he would do
whatever she wanted. His eyebrows were lifted; his lips barely parted.
He was unaware his face was as easy to read as a supermarket
magazine. His expression reminded her of the blank yearbook photo
of a sixteen-year-old. He would tell her he was twenty-eight.
He would mention he had been waiting for someone just like her.
In bed, she slapped him fast across the face
twice, then against his mouth. She watched him change,
as if he was filling up with something unknowable. Minuscule
blood vessels surfaced in the whites of his eyes.
When the taxi slowed to pick her up
she leaned toward it and motioned for the driver to lower his window.
She showed him her benevolent face. She felt transparent.
She opened her reddened mouth.
* * *
Sometimes when sadness becomes insatiable, we learn to stretch the dawn around our bodies like blankets. This is how we cope, crushing our eyelids shut to keep the poignancy that arrives with light at distance. There are lonely moments when we come to tell ourselves that sadness is something we must live with, like a blade to the chest that can’t be pulled out without dying. We run, we stumble, we breathe, and we carry it around with us; a perpetual ache, a void filled with hard, sharp things, and a vacancy hollowed out around the heart.
But it is still living. If we are desperate and truthful, we can find some warmth, and we can carry around the beautiful things too. No, I don’t think it’s a miracle when we decide there is capacity in our minds to hold great, terrible, and happy things all at once, because I believe that our story arcs are longer than our minds can foresee. It is not wrong to hope, and it is not wrong to change. And maybe you’re in love with miracles, but they’re just things that happen. Processes that occur at the right time. Gaps we discover that can be filled with peace, if we try.
Everybody knows that each night there are people who go to bed to the end of the world, and nobody knows it like you and me. But one morning, by chance, we shake off the dawn from our shoulders, and realize we have survived. We will survive. We begin again, that search for self-forgiveness, and it may be a long, difficult search, but at least we are searching.
* * *
When we were little, my friend’s dad would drive us north, to his college reunion. The last hour or so of the ride, he would play a game, the same one every year. Whenever there was a fork in the road, he wouldn’t turn until we picked a direction. Somehow, whichever ways we chose, we always guessed right, always got there. There must’ve been some secret, some underlying geographical sorcery of the road, but I didn’t know it.
Eventually we stopped going, stopped guessing, we all got older. But it made its imprint as a kind of magic, as elemental as the heat of the bonfire once we finally arrived, its charring, burning wood alongside the coldest air I’d ever known up till then.
I thought of those drives the other day when I saw a very old woman at a playground turning a steering wheel attached to a jungle gym. First she hung her shopping bag on a rail, and then turn, turn, turn. Her adult son was there with his dog, off the leash, giving her space but always watching.
You lose touch, that’s how things go, but you think you’ll find your way back to each other, chat about dumb little things you preserve but don’t usually get to discuss, veterans of the same past. But then one day you get a phone call and you have to figure out how to get to the funeral. I try to talk to him in dreams sometimes, but he’s mute, doesn’t say a word to me. It’s been a long time. The best I could do was put a single grey soldier from our battered RISK set on my shelf, in private memorial. Sometimes you don’t get there. Too many turns.
* * *
I was lost in the woods long enough that I began rooting for grubs under a pile of leaves. By chance, by this happenstance, lost in the woods, I found a time machine beneath a pile of leaves. There were dials and a seemingly random array of lights. There was a discernible on/off switch and an instruction manual. Rather, what I presumed to be an instruction manual, written in a language or languages wholly unknown to me. The manual was attached to the machine with a wire bolted on the sides, manual and machine, like some alt-universe version of a telephone booth’s telephone book. Not quite letters, not quite symbols, certainly not numbers, but there were diagrams, still, it took some time to figure out what it was, to figure out what to do. I tried all the known methods: elbow grease, rage, threats of physical violence, compassion, actual stick-beating violence, begging, blind rage and the scientific method.
Something was successful.
First time, I ended up on the path into the woods the day I got lost. I ran back into the woods and promptly got lost to find the machine again. A process I repeated and then repeated, lost again and then again lost. Once I gained some semblance of control (it took days to refine lost again and again lost) I started to plan. In my pocket I kept a list of wrongs to right, a list of errors to erase: MLK, Kennedy, Franz Joseph, Lincoln. “Where to begin,” the me of five minutes ago said. “Let’s not limit ourselves,” the me of one hour ago said, “to individuals caught up in history’s sweep.” Perhaps, as once discussed in Intro to Philosophy 101—go all the way back to Plato’s Cave, Rousseau’s pure state or Rawl’s original position? “Hmm,” said a choir of me’s, myself included, “that sounds vaguely familiar.” “No problem,” I said. ‟I’m on it,” right after I finish smoking this cigarette in our 1985 college bar—Plato’s Cave—when smoking is still allowed and where one of us is next up for pool.
* * *
If I hadn’t dropped AP Calculus one fed-up high school afternoon, I wouldn’t have been forced to take it in college.
If my calculus grade hadn’t sunk my college GPA, I would have gone to law school.
If I had gone to law school, I would have stayed right there in Chicago where we met instead of coming to New York, where you lived.
If I had stayed in Chicago, I might have married Phil—I know, it seems ridiculous now, Phil having gotten so serious and me, so much sillier.
If I had married Phil, I would be living now in a tiny, frozen town in Iowa, hiding my jealousy of his Classicist mind and of his pretty and homely female students.
If I had not married Phil, I would be a confirmed bachelorette, one of the bag-eyed, dark-suited grizzlies you encounter late at night if you wander the labyrinthine halls of white-shoe law firms.
If I had taken AP Calculus, I would not be your wife.
This is the story I like to tell you. One afternoon I lay in the hallway of a low-slung high school, greasy cheek plastered to an open page, integral curves inked on my skin. It was fall, still warm out, and the sun was finally gold after a long summer of flat, white heat. The thought came to me—I could quit calculus and be released. I had never quit anything before. I peeled the page back, stood up, and left the book lying there. It stayed for a week. Teenagers and teachers stepped around it, picked it up, put it back. I kept walking by, ignoring it, aware of it, thrilled.
If it weren’t for Sherri Guttman, director of student housing, assigning us to the same dorm, we wouldn’t be married either, you tell me.
And that’s true too. But it’s a little more chance than I like to think about.
* * *
I’m not sure exactly why I live here. It seems so providential, divined by the On High, that I am here and not there, with people I do not know rather than people I do know, doing things I do like rather than things I do not like. But I can’t for the life of me remember why.
That happens to me a lot. A decision—if it can even be so named—that seems logical, conscious, and significant, months and years later, upon further inspection, becomes murky and altogether not conscious. As a drunk man deciding to eat a whole pizza only has the empty box and his red-stained shirt to remember the deed the next morning, so too did I decide to attend a specific college and move to a specific place.
Can you really call those decisions? I’m a drunk man deciding what toppings to put on a pizza I won’t remember, not a chess master carefully planning my next eight moves, with my career and social life reaping the benefits of my spectacular decision-making.
Yet this drunken pizza man making all the decisions behind the scenes has done pretty well so far. The college he chose for me introduced me to my best friends, the job he chose for me brought me to the coolest town in the lower 48, and his smelly, sauce-stained shirt has so far been successful at repelling any serious romantic relationships that might unwillingly tie me to a place or position in life.
So bravo to him, he who makes decisions that I cannot remember about things that change the course of my life. Bravo, to Chance, the drunken pizza slob.
–Stephen Brice Elliott
* * *
You tell yourself, people lie. You’ve been sleeping with a pathological liar for a couple years, you should know. You aren’t invested, the lies amuse you mostly, but they’re still habitual falsehoods to questions with real answers. You’d like to think he wouldn’t lie about things like sexually transmitted disease, but who knows to what extent liars will go? I’m clean, he likes to say, of course I’m clean.
What if, by chance, that’s a lie? Who knows what liars actually believe?
And this new man, he doesn’t seem like much of a liar, but that could be his cover for the lies. This man could sleep with anyone he wants, he’s very good at it and knows exactly what he’s doing. It’s almost sad to think he’s well behaved. Not really, but you have a husband and three children, a life that’s mostly good. The baby is out of diapers and your team won the bowling league. You’re spontaneous though and painfully alone and imagine how life could be different, for better or worse. You slept with a new man who may or may not be a liar, plus there’s that other man who’s serial.
Sure, the first test was negative—you did get tested—but who knows how many women he’s slept with since then?
So now, you’ve got yourself to worry about, one person who lies, one who probably doesn’t but might. He’s worried. All this leads to the need for confirmation, you have no choice as you owe it to yourself, the man who probably doesn’t lie, and even the man who does. The test is ten-fold and includes the window period. You hear the word negative. You see it on the page. Ten times. You’re relieved, of course, but now that you know it’s negative (you knew it would be), you’re relieved because it means the liar is somewhat truthful, he wasn’t that bad, even though you’re done sleeping with him. You hate him for putting you through it even though you knew going in. Risks are risks, but being stupid is entirely different and, now that you know the new man is actually truthful, it makes you like him even more.
What if, by chance, he’ll make it all better?
You want to crawl inside his skin and live there for a while.
* * *
Josephine and her mother Sylvia were having their traditional Saturday lunch at their favorite seafood restaurant Crustacean. It was located in a predominately white and upperclass town, a place where none of their kind—the Black kind—could not visit without being under the watchful eye of every resident who passed by them. They made it their job to tip 20 instead of 15 percent so that the restaurant employees knew that “they weren’t like the rest of them”, if you get what I mean. As such, Josephine and Sylvia received top-notch service and sometimes a free bottle of Riesling to go with their meals. But one day, a older, blonde female patron could not stop staring at them. She was seated directly across from their table.
“Does she have a problem or something?” Sylvia whispered to Josephine, whose cheeks were turning red because she suspected that a confrontation was soon to come. She continued as she pierced her fried battered shrimp with her fork, “This always happens. Always happen. Mmm-mmm-mmm.”
After a few minutes, one of the waitresses went to the blonde’s table and handed back her card.
“Have a nice day,” the waiter said.
“You too,” she replied.
Then, the blonde patron stood to her feet and approached Josephine and Sylvia’s table, to which Sylvia swiveled her head around, readying herself to be defensive if need be. Josephine gripped the side of the table and clenched her feet. The blonde smiled and placed a twenty-dollar bill on their table.
“Enjoy your lunch.” She smiled and walked away before either Sylvia and Josephine could get her name. At least they said thank you. Afterwards, Sylvia sunk in her chest and Josephine slouched her posture.
“Whew. So that’s why she was staring at us,” Josephine said.
“I hope she didn’t do that because she thinks that we can’t afford to pay for our meal.”
While Josephine’s head was down, Sylvia peeked over her shoulder at the blonde who was exiting through the double doors.
Why was the woman so nice to them? Why did she choose them out of all the patrons to give her money to? What did they do to deserve it? Did there even need to be a reason for such kindness?
Rumpus original art by Christina Weidman.