By Michael Benedict
Howard Woods is alone in his office. He sits turned away from the e-mail he should be writing, looking out the window and down to 27th Street, trying to decide if the woman crossing against the light is attractive; he is studying her sandy hair, her broad shoulders (he admires broad-shouldered women, he decides), when a surge of light fills his field of vision. It’s as though sheet lightning has struck inside his office, and the afterglow lingers for some time. Howard forgets the woman. He leans back into his chair and squeezes the armrests tightly. He remains so posed for a long moment, only realizing the sensation has passed when he finds he can again read the fine print on his “Inspirational Quotes” desk calendar: “Every successful person has a painful story. Every painful story has a successful ending.”
By the time he walks out the front door of Provisional Insurance at 5:15, Howard has decided to forget the incident. It will most likely, he thinks, prove to be one of those inexplicable moments that one construes as menacing only at first, and later forgets entirely. He tells no one about it.
The next day is an uneventful Saturday, the next a standard Woods family Sunday: a breakfast of raspberries and Costco muffins, newspapers in the breakfast nook (Howard and his wife Angela have long kept two subscriptions to The Seattle Times to allow for simultaneous reading), their daughter Rebecca’s soccer game at noon, and finally an evening with the whole family—sixteen-year-old Rebecca firmly encouraged not to go to dinner with her boyfriend, nineteen-year-old Rochelle down from the University of Washington for the night.
Howard has just asked Rochelle to pass the mashed potatoes when another burst of light comes, this time overlaid with a cross-hatched pattern. It is something like staring at the sun through a heavy net.
“Dad?” Rochelle says. Howard blinks and looks up from the table, tries to focus on her through the lingering haze. He can just discern her wide-eyed smirk, an expression she often turns on him these days—when he asks how she’s getting along with her two roommates in McCarty Hall, when he tries to hug her as they say goodbye after occasional dinners in Seattle. Howard’s vision is still fogged, but he manages to take the heavy bowl. Again he says nothing, not wanting to disrupt the evening—it isn’t often they get to have dinner as a family, after all.
The third flash occurs in Howard’s office again, this time only an hour after he’s arrived for work on Monday. And when it’s faded, the world grows dim. Howard slowly lifts his right hand and covers his left eye—his vision seems normal. Then he moves his hand to cover the right eye—pitch black. Just one eye, then. The left. He remains so posed for a long minute, and slowly the world looms back up into the light. Howard picks up the phone. He punches the key for the front desk. He says, “Tim. Come in here.”
“It could be a visual migraine. My roommate gets those.”
“Do you think it’s possible?”
“I don’t know. Sure. You said it was like you looked at a bright light—that’s how he describes them.”
Tim is several years out of college, has already worked at another office and has now been at Provisional for two years, but to Howard he looks precisely the same age as his daughter Rochelle. With the glasses and slightly upturned nose, Tim even reminds him a bit of one of Rochelle’s old boyfriends.
“Is there anything else I can do for you, Mr. Woods?”
“What? No—no, that’s fine.”
He should be studying the calendar and making decisions on vacation requests from the sales staff—it needs to be finished by the end of the week, and he’s barely started. But Howard finds himself staring at the forms, simply contemplating the shapes of the letters and numbers, not comprehending in any way their real-world referents.
Again he swivels to face the window; he watches as someone repeatedly tries to parallel park in a tight spot, then gives up and speeds off down 27th. He opens his email and deletes some spam. He takes a book of Sudoku puzzles from his desk and works on them for thirty minutes. He works slowly, methodically, using a pencil to allow for the erasure of mistakes. He starts many but finishes none. He is no good at them.
Finally he grabs the phone again and wedges it between his shoulder and ear. He punches the four digits firmly. Decisively. “Caitlin. Will you come in here?”
“I’m interested in the white and black in these visions.”
“Yes,” Howard says.
(Visions! he thinks.)
“The bright light. And then the dark.”
“Yes. It was a sharp contrast.”
“I have some books about this kind of stuff. Visions and that kind of thing. Do you maybe want me to bring them in?”
Caitlin is a temp Howard brought on for the end-of-the-quarter rush. He could have sent her back to her agency weeks ago, but he keeps inventing tasks to keep her busy. She is very thin, with light and freckled skin, frizzy hair, a bony nose. She wears glasses. She is vaguely witchy, Howard has found himself thinking, but not like an evil witch—like a friendly witch, one who might help you on some journey. She’s probably not much older than Tim, but she doesn’t remind Howard of his daughter. Not one bit.
“Yes,” Howard says, leaning forward in his chair. “Bring them. Anything that seems relevant.”
Caitlin leans forward too. She rests just the tips of her fingers on the edge of his desk in a manner vaguely feline. “You know, I’ve always found that with visions—like when I was experimenting a little with soft drugs in college, for example—I’ve found we have a sense of what they mean. That, you know, it’s important what we think they mean. Have you had a feeling? Like a guess what it could be?”
Howard leans back. He looks out the window, to the robin’s-egg blue sky festooned with clouds. “I wonder if it’s some kind of prescience.”
“Some kind of what?”
“Prescience. A sense that something’s coming. Like a premonition.”
“A premonition that what?”
Howard touches his glasses at the temples. He takes a deep breath. “I don’t know—it’s hard to say, exactly. But it doesn’t seem good. It seems to portend something bad.”
And Caitlin nods solemnly, eyes wide. Howard notices they are hazel in color. She leans in closer still, hands entirely on the desk now, palms down.
Twice a month, every other Monday, Howard and Angela have a date night. They climb into Howard’s Acura. They often get on the freeway and drive the one hour from Tacoma to Seattle. Sometimes they go to a movie, sometimes to a museum, and almost always they’ll settle at a restaurant of Angela’s choosing. (There always seems to be some new restaurant she’s excited about.) During these last months, the early stretch of what he knows will inexorably become the “empty nest” stage, Howard has often suggested that they call Rochelle and invite her to join them. “Since we’re in the neighborhood,” he’ll say. Each time Angela has rejected the notion: “You have to give her a little room, Howard. She’s at that certain age.”
The date nights were proposed by their marriage counselor a decade ago, a man whose help they sought when their marriage veered into labyrinthine doldrums. The tradition has persisted since. They are to focus intently on enjoying one another’s company. They are to concentrate on what they like about one another (even recording these traits in a journal, if they want, which Howard did for a time, though he’s fallen out of the habit in recent years). Angela always plans the dates, chooses where they’ll go and what they’ll do, which isn’t to say Howard doesn’t enjoy the outings. He does.
Tonight they attend a performance of Stravinsky’s Firebird suite at Benaroya Hall, then drive to La Spiga on Capitol Hill. It’s loud in the high-ceilinged, cabinesque restaurant, and all around Howard and Angela swirls a mob of twenty-somethings—lithe, loud, pierced, tattooed. When the server has taken their drink orders and disappeared again, Howard sits contemplating the youths.
“Howard,” Angela says, and he returns his attention to her. “I said I’m going to the restroom. If she comes back, order the cheese plate, okay?”
Angela leaves. The server returns shortly—a Captain and diet for Howard, a half bottle of champagne for Angela. Howard orders the appetizer and, after the server leaves, he sips his highball and slides his glasses up the bridge of his nose. He’d like to approach the bar, to sit next to the young, heavy blond woman and compliment the brilliant vines tattooed on her arms. He’d like to take the empty seat at the table of loud, well-dressed homosexuals and ask questions about the neighborhood.
Howard checks his phone and finds a text message from his old friend and college roommate, Rocky. Rocky’s real name is Ronald, but no one calls him that. He lives in Humboldt County, works as a dentist, surfs in the evenings and drinks away most of his nights. Howard is confounded by the protocol of text messages and almost never sends them, but he does enjoy receiving them from Rocky. This one says, “New assistant. Huge ones, man. I have dreams about banging her in one of the chairs. But she’s religious! Mormon, I think. Can you beat that?”
Howard slides his phone back into his pocket. “Rocky says hi.”
She smiles as she spreads her napkin carefully over her lap. It perplexes Howard, but Angela genuinely likes Rocky. She always has.
The server returns with the cheese plate. They order entrées. They sit picking at the bread and crackers, the small cuts of blue and very sharp cheddar and some gooey type Howard doesn’t like. Angela muses on the playing of the violinist.
When she’s fallen silent again, Howard says, “I should probably tell you about something.” Then he explains the visions. He describes each of the incidents in detail, and finishes with his notion that they might mean something, might be a harbinger of some dark future.
As he talks Angela continues eating in small, measured bites. When he’s finished she drinks the last of her first glass of champagne, refills the flute and says, “Visions?”
Howard blinks. “Yes. Sure. What else would you call them?”
“Wouldn’t a vision mean actually seeing something, Howard? A person? Some message?” She takes another drink. “Have you talked to anyone about it?”
“Just a couple people at work.”
“No—I mean a professional. Have you talked to a doctor?”
Howard shakes his head.
“Are you going to?”
He sighs. He takes off his glasses and looks again at the other tables, but now the people surrounding them are blurred, shadowy. “It’s light and dark. I mean there’s no pain, no physical sensation at all.”
“Yes, but it might be a symptom of something.”
“Like I said, they’ve given me a strong feeling. Emotions. Premonitions. I just think it’s more likely that it’s some kind of mental thing. Like maybe a spiritual thing.”
She makes a face that’s particular to the last decade of their marriage, a cool smirk that brings to mind no one so much as their daughter Rochelle. “A spiritual thing, Howard? What are you going to do? Go become a monk? Make prophecies? Heal people with your touch?”
He puts his glasses back on. He places a small cube of cheddar on a sesame cracker. “I don’t know why you need to talk to me like that.”
“I’m just saying that you should be logical. I don’t know where you got all this New Age stuff. Use the resources available to you. Figure out what it means.”
“I am—I mean I’m going to. I’m getting some books about this kind of stuff.”
“Someone at the office is loaning them to me.”
Howard chews and swallows. They pass a few moments in silence. Their food arrives and they eat quickly. Howard asks for the check, hands his card to the server as soon as it arrives.
Angela drives home. Howard considers arguing this on the grounds that she drank more, but in the end he says nothing. Small talk resumes, mostly about their daughters. After they’ve merged onto the freeway he leans over and turns on the stereo. A blues CD is in the deck—Howard likes the blues. After one song Angela leans over and turns the volume down very low. Howard takes note, wonders whether or not she did it consciously. He turns to watch the skyline streaking by, slipping into the darkness behind them.
“But I mean, I believe that. I had this moment where I paused and said to myself, ‘Okay, how is my negative attitude maybe affecting this situation?’ And instead I visualized a positive outcome. I visualized it when I woke up, and before I fell asleep, and just at other random times. And then the next week the phone rang, and there it was: the good news, the job offer, just like I’d imagined.”
Howard nods earnestly, sipping his Diet Coke.
They sit on two bar stools pushed close together, at a crowded Tacoma pub of Caitlin’s choosing. A Tuesday lunch. The chorus of confident, barking voices. Laughter of strangers. Twenty microbrews on tap. And a stack of four books on the bar between them.
Caitlin leans over and fingers the cover of the top book. “Some of them are about the kind of stuff you’re experiencing. How to figure out dreams, visions. But a couple of them are just about life in general. Stuff I thought you might find interesting.”
“Yes. That sounds great. I’m excited to read them.”
Howard picks up the hardcover and considers the author photo: a frowning woman in a variegated shawl, the angle of the photo as though the camera was positioned several feet above her. The last time Howard read a book was in the winter, some months ago—a biography of Lee Iacocca.
Howard pays for lunch, then they ride back to the office in the Acura. Caitlin slides off her sandals and sits with her legs folded beneath her. She doesn’t wear her seat belt. She talks the whole way. Howard decides that he admires women who talk a lot.
Back at Provisional they return to their respective desks—Caitlin’s on the sales floor, Howard’s in his office. He has perhaps two hours’ worth of emails to write, a task he’s been putting off for days, but instead he opens the first of Caitlin’s books. He’s still reading thirty minutes later when she knocks quietly and enters the office. “I just thought I’d check on you. How’re the eyes?”
“Oh. They’re okay. Nothing since yesterday.”
She stands beside his desk. When she sees the book in his lap she smiles, drawing out cherubic dimples. “Finding anything helpful? I mean, are you coming to any conclusions?”
“I have this feeling. Just a crazy hunch.” Howard sets the book down carefully, perfectly aligning its edges with those of the cover below. “But maybe it’s about my mortality. Maybe it means—that I’m going to die. Like sometime soon.”
She stares down at him, jaw tightly clenched. She begins to nod very slightly. She says, “Wow.”
“I mean is that totally crazy?”
“No. It’s really interesting. It’s really deep.”
“It’s sort of a logical connection, isn’t it? Fading light maybe meaning death?”
Caitlin keeps nodding, eyes wide and serious.
“In a way I’ve always felt like this. I’ve always thought I’d die young. I’ve never been able to imagine myself as an old man.”
Caitlin comes slowly around the desk and stands before his chair. She takes off her glasses. She leans down, her face perhaps a foot from his own. Howard feels his pulse accelerate—in his chest and in the thick veins on the backs of his hands. His thoughts accelerate too, racing in an attempt to understand what’s happening. And following ten seconds of unblinking eye contact he finally does: she is studying his eyes, seeing what she can, if there’s some physical manifestation of this phenomenon.
Of course he studies her eyes, too: an appearance of great depth. The pupils slowly, noticeably dilating as she leans nearer and nearer.
He decides to kiss her. But in the second’s pause before he can she stands upright again. She takes one more step forward, now just inches before him, and delicately works her fingers into the thin hair on the crown of his head. Caressing, then pressing him forward. She draws his head into her bosom and they remain so posed, she massaging the back of his scalp, he breathing deeply, ear sensitive to the curves of her small breasts. She smells distinctly feminine, but like no woman he’s known before. Not like his wife’s perfume. Not like the sweet, autumn fragrance of his daughters. Something earthier, more complicated, and he wonders what it might be. A certain brand of cigarette? Incense? Bath salts?
The burst of light that comes then is so powerful it registers physically: a throbbing, a heaviness in his eye. Caitlin begins to speak, but he reaches up and puts his hands on her waist. Her skin beneath her sheer blouse is hot to his touch. He squeezes gently. “Shh. It’s happening. Right now.”
The light fades and the throbbing diminishes and then it happens again: the drawing down of the light, the fade to perfect black.
Angela does not bring up the visions after their date, though in certain tense moments Howard imagines they’re on her mind. They talk about nothing but the base logistics of their days. They touch only when Rebecca is around. At night they sleep on the far shores of their king-sized bed. None of this is deliberate, at least not on Howard’s part.
It occurs to him that this is the exact dynamic that existed before his first and only affair, almost ten years ago. Olivia was a former employee who kept her membership at the gym near the office and whom Howard continued to encounter there several times a month. She would listen to him talk about the details of his job, his life at home, his memories. He still remembers her very clearly, the faded lavender top she would wear to the gym. The steady eye contact, the affirming nods. The heat of her small fingers on his when she’d squeeze his hand hello and goodbye.
He was consumed by the idea of the affair for several months before finally pursuing it, and it was during this period that his marriage actually suffered the most. Angela became withdrawn just as she is now, stopped asking about his days, stopped kissing him goodnight, stopped suggesting they shower together in the mornings (as she’d loved to do since they’d first married).
When he finally did it, he confessed just two weeks later. Angela cried, yes, but only when he first told her and not again after, a time during which she settled into a stony efficiency. Then a period sleeping apart. Then couples therapy, the first mandatory date nights.
One year later and life was almost as it had been in the years before the affair, before he’d ever been tempted. Their daughters never knew.
He still regrets it. He does. Now there’s Caitlin, and Howard is afraid of what he might do. He avoids her at the office, broods in the evenings, lies awake at night, staring into the darkness, and imagining his head against her breasts again, this time in a hotel, or in her bed in some bohemian apartment. He masturbates twice each day, more frequently than he has since his twenties.
Wednesday night, after Angela’s gone to bed, Howard sits in the living room in his bathrobe, a glass of Riesling in one hand and the remote control in the other. “Shark Week” is on. Howard has always been fascinated by sharks.
His cell phone vibrates and he looks down to find a message from Rocky: “Unseasonably warm here. Trips to the beach cause my loins to ache. What’s the weather like there?”
Howard misses Rocky. His best friend—such youthfulness even in that title. He figures a direct question basically requires a response, so slowly, carefully, he types, “The weather is normal for the Seattle area: cloudy, with showers on many days. Warm weather sounds nice.”
Rocky’s response is sudden, seeming to come just seconds after Howard’s hit the “Send” button: “Come visit! Soon! Next week is good. Tomorrow is even better. Do not be a bitch.” Howard studies the letters of the message for a long time.
Rocky makes similar invitations perhaps three times a year; busy as his life is, Howard almost never seriously considers them. Out of habit he begins to compose a polite refusal, but with each key he presses the idea grows more tempting; why wouldn’t he want a break from all this?
He deletes what he’s written and types, “That’s a tempting invitation. I’ll talk to Angela about it tomorrow.” Rocky responds, “Badass.” On the television a tiger shark cruises along a dark coral reef.
In the morning Angela puts out a bowl of strawberries, prepares coffee cake and eggs. They eat at the kitchen island, one empty stool dividing them. Howard asks, “Where’s Rebecca?”
“She has jazz band on Thursday mornings, Howard. You know that.”
Immediately after Howard takes his final bite he says, “I’m thinking I might go visit Rocky. Soon—like this weekend. You know I’ve been meaning to forever. And it’s a good time with work because—”
“You don’t have to explain yourself, Howard. You’re a grown man.” Angela continues to eat, eyes on her plate. Then she looks up quickly, face drawn. “But I want you to do something for me.”
“When you get back, you see a doctor. Okay?”
“An optometrist. About your eyes, Howard.”
He stands up, takes his empty plate to the sink. “I’ll think about it. Okay. But I just don’t see the point. If anything, they’re visual migraines.”
“Why do you assume that?”
“What do you think it is? Some horrible condition? Some rare disease?”
“I don’t know, Howard.”
“I’m not that old. I’m not some old, sickly man.”
“Go to the doctor and you can be sure.”
“Visual migraines at the worst. That’s what Tim said.”
“Tim?” She scoffs. “Tim is a kid. It’s ridiculous, Howard, to be listening to his diagnosis. And worse: to be your age and talking about visions like some—some shaman.” She folds her arms tightly over her chest. Her skin tan (she has always tanned easily) and furrowed around the eyes and mouth. Her eyes round, blue. When they were young her hair was perfectly black, but she went grey by her thirtieth birthday and now dyes her hair blond. In this way she always looks slightly different from how he imagines her when he closes his eyes, from his first and most lasting image of her as his wife.
He remembers a night in college when she got drunk at a house party, and then—as they sped home down the freeway—threw up out the window of the beater he drove in those days. How she laughed the whole time, the chill wind ripping into the cab.
He remembers the two of them coming home from a rock concert to the apartment they shared in their first years of marriage and wrestling on the living room floor, tickling each other. How she locked herself in the bathroom (the sounds of her wild, short-breathed laughter through the door), then charged out, flung a roll of toilet paper at him as a diversion before tackling him onto the bed.
In the kitchen she looks deeply sad, curiously small, sitting there in her bathrobe, now clutching the perfect ivory of her coffee mug. Howard’s heart swells, his tear ducts burn, and he parts his lips just slightly. He wants to say precisely the right thing, wants to go to her and take her in his arms. He visualizes picking her up, carrying her somewhere very quiet, wrapping her in a soft blanket.
And yet he knows also that one gesture is not enough. That the hurt of that period a decade ago lingers, that the distance that has persisted between them and has grown in the last few days can only be closed by many gestures, in the exact right sequence. He fears that if he went to her now she would not reciprocate his touch. And that would be worse than not touching her at all.
But Howard’s emotions change quickly, and he’s most powerfully affected, most controlled, by the present moment. And so that weekend, as he sits in a first-class window seat and stares out at the tarmac—the engine rumbling, the seat belt light shining—he thinks of that intimate moment in his office. He hasn’t made love to Angela in weeks. He is tired and painfully, unpleasantly lustful, and he’s been tortured this day by an unending procession of mesmeric young women—at the coffee shop that morning, in the airport lobby, at the gates, now in the seats all around him. If the visions foretell his own death, then shouldn’t he live his waning life as fully as possible? Shouldn’t he partake in life’s pleasures? And in this state, as the plane begins its rush forward, he visualizes his return. He sees his skin tanned, his frame relaxed. He imagines going back to the office, and going to her—to Caitlin.
“But more and more often I’m finding myself attracted to tall women. Almost as tall as me. You remember Odessa? The orthodontist?”
“The last woman I dated seriously. Anyway, she was really fucking tall. For a woman. Almost six feet.”
Howard and Rocky walk over streamers of kelp, pulverized shells. They are in Eureka, where Rocky lives in a condo six blocks from the bay. The weather turned again the day before Howard arrived; it is not the tropical utopia he envisioned. Instead the temperature hovers in the mid-fifties, the sky partly cloudy, the surf buffeted by high winds. He is disappointed by this—deeply, irrationally so.
“Hey,” Rocky says, nodding toward a figure approaching them along the beach. “Babe alert.”
The woman wears jeans, a blue parka with the hood up. Howard says, “Her?”
“Totally. Don’t you think? Nice figure.”
“I don’t know how you can even tell.”
They fall silent as she passes, and Howard can discern only an alabaster complexion and a strand of strawberry hair streaming out from beneath her hood.
Rocky’s spacious, high-ceilinged condo is not far from downtown. The building is old, the furniture modern, the kitchen all marble horizontals and walls of brushed steel. The appliances and fixtures seem somehow oversized: a refrigerator in which you could nearly stand up, a sink in which you could nearly bathe.
Rocky prepares a salad with a vigor and attention to detail Howard associates with the long, solitary hours of late bachelordom. He tears lettuce by hand, slices radishes with a mandoline, blends a scratch dressing with the care of a pharmacist. He divvies the mixture up into two clay bowls and says, “We can eat these while the pasta cooks. You want a beer? I have some great local stuff.”
Howard dislikes beer, but he forces a smile and nods. Rocky stands in front of the open fridge for a long moment, making a soft clucking noise with his tongue. Finally he chooses a large, dark bottle and sets it on the counter with a flourish. “I’ve been saving this for a special occasion.”
The liquid he pours into Howard’s glass is fully opaque and viscous as eggnog. It tastes rich, dark, smoky—not what Howard would call beer at all. He coughs. Rocky smiles, eyes in a squint, as though satisfied (and not at all surprised) by this reaction.
They lean on the island, drinking and chewing. The boiling pasta murmurs. Rocky complains about work, the recent weather. About his twenty-two-year-old daughter, Brooke, from whom he is nearly estranged. He is dressed like he could fit in with the surfers Howard saw in the airport earlier that day, with the hip twenty-somethings on Capitol Hill back home: loose cotton pants with draw strings at the ankles, a light V-necked T-shirt, a tan deep and even and perfectly natural. But he looks so much older, too—the skin a little loose around the eyes and mouth, the muscles of the arms slightly diminished, hair just divergent enough from Howard’s memories that he guesses Rocky’s been dyeing it.
Rocky frowns. “What’s the story, big fella?”
“Oh. Well, you know.”
“You’re quiet, man. Withdrawn. Talk a little—tell me about your life.”
There is only one true answer to this, of course. And as Howard describes the visions he finds himself opening up, the words coming more easily. By the time he gets to the last vision (on the plane yesterday, the period of darkness after the light lingering for longer than ever before), he is actually relishing the account. A pause follows the story. Then Rocky asks, “What did your doctor say?”
Howard sighs. “You sound like Angela.”
“She keeps telling me I have to see a doctor.”
“Well,” Rocky says. He takes a long draught of beer and wipes his thin mustache with a single arched finger.
When the pasta is ready they pile their plates high, and Howard follows Rocky onto the balcony. As they eat Howard steers the conversation back to Rocky. “But how are you? How’s life, generally?”
Rocky shrugs. “Good, man. Same old.”
The evening is cool, the view is spectacular. The clouds have burned off for the day’s final moments, and a brilliant orange wash ripples above the sea. From their height and distance the water looks smooth as ice, eternal.
Howard risks a real question. “Are you happy? I mean, are you content? With the life you have here?”
Rocky looks up curiously—eyes drawn, lips slightly parted, like a child trying to decide if he’s being ridiculed. But Howard’s expression seems to relax him, and he shrugs. “Sure. For the most part.”
They eat a little more, each looking down to his plate. Rocky says, softly, “Sometimes I get a little lonely. Not always, but sometimes.”
Howard nods. He looks up to see his old friend’s brow tightly knitted, the edges of his eyes hued slightly red. “Sometimes I miss Brooke. I wish I’d done better with her. I don’t know how I could have, but I wish I’d done better.”
He breathes in deeply through his nose. He shrugs. “But most of the time it’s okay. It’s a good life. I like my job. I love living here. I have it okay. And besides: it’s kind of beside the point now, right? I mean, we’re getting into our later years, big fella. This is my life, now—for better or worse.”
The light fades. Howard grows cold. He wishes he had a jacket, his winter parka, but he didn’t think to pack it.
Rocky says, “I’m glad you’re here. It’s good to have you here. I love it—how well we know each other. I mean I love my friends here, but I think about that sometimes—how well can you really know someone if you haven’t known them for a long time? If you haven’t watched them live their whole life?”
Howard loses sight of Rocky for minutes at a time, but he always finds him again. Rocky wears a wetsuit with brilliant cardinal trim, and he’s very good besides, so if Howard sees a brightly accented figure slashing through the waves, odds are it’s his old friend.
Howard sits in a folding chair, leafing through one of Caitlin’s books. The weather has improved: mostly clear skies, temperatures now at least in the low sixties, winds finally waning. This morning Rocky asked several times if Howard was sure he wanted to go, and Howard assured him repeatedly that he did. He wanted to see Rocky surf, he said, was curious to see what he could do.
Now a flash. A gentle throb. The sudden descent of darkness. And even after it’s cleared, a dark fog lingering, Howard’s vision slightly muted.
Twenty minutes later Rocky jogs up the beach. He’s much shorter than Howard, and in their college days was the less attractive of the pair. But he cuts an impressive figure in his wetsuit, the look of age diminished, and Howard feels a twinge of insecurity at his own doughy physique. Rocky drops down into the sand beside Howard’s chair, rests his hands on his knees and breathes in deeply.
“It just happened again.”
Rocky frowns up at him. “Yeah?”
“Yes. Same as before.”
“And still you won’t see a fucking doctor.”
“Because they aren’t physical symptoms! It’s something deeper than the physical.”
“Well, your spiritual visions stick to a pretty regular pattern.”
“Listen,” Howard says, and flustered, thinking of nothing else to say, he flips quickly to a bookmarked page. “Man is only helped through suffering by ‘wisdom greater than his own.’ Carl Jung said that. Maybe that’s what the visions really are.”
Rocky raises an eyebrow. Howard sighs, explains the book, and in explaining it he explains Caitlin: her presence in the office, her attitude, her looks. Howard’s consequent suffering.
Rocky slaps Howard’s shin with a wet backhand. “Someone’s got a work boner.”
“You should have seen this moment we had in my office the other day. She pulled my head into her chest. She has this smell. Very distinct. Exotic, even.”
Rocky says nothing, so Howard continues. “I’ve been thinking about that a lot. Gives me something to look forward to, when I get back. I’d like to get her alone again.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I’m just saying. It’s an interesting prospect.”
“Hey, Howard—remember an interesting prospect named Olivia?”
Rocky’s lips are pressed tightly together, his brow furrowed, beads of ocean water still standing out on his face. Howard looks back out to the sea. “That was different. That time I got caught.”
“You didn’t get caught—you confessed. And no, it’s not different.”
“Am I really hearing this? From you, of all people?”
“What’s that mean?”
“With the tall women, and the busty girl at work? With all the text messages?”
“Howard,” Rocky says, pronouncing the two syllables like their own short words. “Talking is different than doing. Or talking about doing. And besides—I can do whatever I want. I’m not fucking married.”
Rocky stands. He lofts his board, takes two steps back toward the surf, then turns and considers Howard’s face. It’s not a look of anger, or disgust, or amusement, but something Howard can most accurately categorize as simple disappointment. The way you’d look at a child who’d misbehaved.
Howard’s vision remains fogged. But he manages to discern Rocky out in the surf, faded and shadowed but visible still, riding a wave’s angry plume.
That evening they make reservations at an upscale bistro with a view. Rocky tells Howard it’s the best restaurant in town. He also says with a wink that he’s invited a friend, and Howard envisions a chesty twenty-something in latex gloves and a dental assistant’s bib. This is the Rocky he knows. He wonders if their earlier exchange simply found his old friend in a strange mood.
When they arrive at the restaurant and are taken to the table, the third member of their party is already seated: a short, heavy man with a thick head of white hair, wearing a blazer a size too big. And as they’re introduced, Howard finally sees Rocky’s design. “Howard’s in insurance,” he says to the other man, and then to Howard, “And David is a doctor. An optometrist.”
It isn’t until they’ve eaten, made dry small talk, ordered an after-dinner drink and asked for the check that Rocky finally prods Howard into describing the visions. And Howard does. What else, he thinks, can he do? David listens quietly, and after Howard’s fallen silent the optometrist looks first at Rocky and then at Howard himself. He opens his mouth, but then closes it and smiles gently, the expression drawing deep rivets into fat cheeks. He finally says, “That’s very interesting.”
When David leaves Rocky walks him to the door. When Rocky returns he sits, loosens his tie, yanks open the top button of his shirt; he takes off his watch, slams it on the table and folds his hands delicately before him. “They aren’t ‘visions,’ Howard. You aren’t experiencing some mystical premonition.”
Howard waits. A tremolo of nausea in his guts.
Rocky looks away, out to the sea’s dark splay. “It’s a detached retina. He’s almost certain. You’re going blind in your left eye. And you could probably have prevented it if you’d just gone to a doctor when it first started.”
Howard looks out the window too. Looks out to see what Rocky sees.
He can make out the horizon of the sand’s fade into the sea.
(“You can be such a fucking idiot,” Rocky says softly.)
He can just make out a tremendous spire jutting from the water one hundred yards out.
He can see the first stars beginning to emerge.
“A detached retina?”
“But did you get a second opinion?”
“Yes, Caitlin. I mean a third opinion, even. If you count Rocky’s friend.”
She says nothing for a moment, and he can just discern the soft rhythm of her breath.
“Well, okay. So it’s not just a vision.” She comes around the side of his desk, rests a hand on the back of his chair. Her skirt brushes his forearm, and again he notes her exotic smell. “But I think what’s happening could still have universal meaning. I mean the way you’re going blind in that eye could be the universe communicating something to you about, like, foresight. Or destiny. Or whatever.”
Howard sits quietly. He lifts a paperweight—an agate Angela brought back to him from a trip to visit her parents in Arizona—and studies its angles. “Yes. Maybe it does mean something.” He rolls his chair forward, turns his attention to the computer’s screen.
And of course he worries about what to do, about how it might look if he releases Caitlin back to the agency now. But when he returns after lunch that afternoon he finds that she’s already gone. In his inbox, an e-mail from her agency saying she asked to be reassigned, and offering to send someone else in her stead. Howard politely declines.
He gets up and closes the door to his office. He returns to his chair and collapses into it—hands squeezing the armrests, gaze out the window and up, to the sky, to the perfectly white clouds high above the city. And he can really notice it now: the darkness that is drawing increasingly, constantly down over his left eye.
And in the weeks to come he will think about Caitlin still. And it isn’t a simple emotion, knowing he won’t see her again. He wonders if she left because she understood his tone. Or if he ceased to be attractive to her when the visions were redefined as something as uncool as a detached retina. He wonders if someone so young, so pretty, will ever be attracted to him again.
In the morning the Woods family eats a light breakfast. Rochelle has come down from Seattle, though it’s a weekday. When Howard asks about one of her classes she gives a thoughtful answer. While they clear the table he catches her watching him. And when he leaves they both give him long hugs—Rebecca, then Rochelle.
He and Angela are very quiet on the drive to the hospital, quiet again in the waiting room before the procedure. When the nurse arrives and is about to take him away, Angela shoots out an arm, as though having come to the decision to do so suddenly, and squeezes his left hand.
Later she will drive him home, and he will still be groggy. He’ll find himself thinking of Rocky for whatever reason, will try to describe his friend’s maneuvers in the surf, will swing his head groggily to the side and catch his wife smiling, laughing softly, eyes still on the road, and only then will he realize that he was being ridiculous. Incoherent. Silly.
And she’ll be there when the bandages come off. The success of the procedure will not be a foregone conclusion—in fact, the surgeon has told him that the best case scenario will still leave him legally blind in his left eye. He will most likely be able to detect only the difference between light and dark. He might lose his sight in the eye entirely. But when she stands before him as the eye patch is removed he will look at her, and he will smile, and she will smile back. At least there is that—he will still be able to see her through one eye. Regardless of what becomes of the other.
Michael Benedict is from Seattle, Washington, and currently lives in Fort Collins, Colorado. His short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in The Missouri Review, Eclipse, Barnstorm, and elsewhere. His novella “Fourth and Long” was published as an Amazon Kindle Single. He has taught writing at the University of Idaho, Lewis-Clark State College, and Washington State University. He now works at Colorado State University and is finishing work on his first novel. You can find him online at michaelmbenedict.wordpress.com.
“Visions” by Michael Benedict originally appeared in NDQ 84.3-4 (2018)