Sport 37: Winter 2009
In the Fields of Electric Light
From my lawn I can see the lights of once-separate towns, now joined into a single glimmer that rises and falls as the land folds to the horizon, dark with its trees, where I sense the continuity of the world's ongoing and unbroken surface. Overhead the stars are not blotted out by earthbound light, but stark and bright. I see two of them pull apart, my eyes adjust, and planes, coming from opposite corners of the sky, cross. Here is the world awaiting my son Miles, now eight years old. At three, he laid his head on the keys of my laptop and asked what it was I did. I remember answering that I stopped the sky from falling. Like most things I told him, it was true enough.
I'm a structural engineering consultant, and at that time when Miles asked me what I did I had just returned from Wellington, New Zealand. I had gone there to look after 28 stories of office space. To foresee what had not been. But I also came because Gabrielle was there.
Gabrielle had moved into my dorm in winter, an exchange student who loved the new feeling of bringing her boot up through a knee-deep drift. I remember she bought a black parka with some animal's fur at the collar, though this was already well into the time when it was a scandal to be caught in such a thing. The two of us skied the long, old hills of my home state. In one another's company we fell again into the easy chastity of girlhood, but our thoughts were on the future, an undiscovered country of the mind that we believed would appear before us like a new island issuing out of the sea.
I was in Wellington to evaluate the safety of a 28-storey office building. Gabrielle didn't know I was coming. On the flight over, I kept imagining her in that second before it registered who was standing on her doorstep. This was my second time in the country. Gabrielle and I had last seen each other at the Auckland airport a few years before. I was on my way to Sydney to determine why an auditorium roof page 165 had collapsed. One firm pinned it on an error in the steel coefficient, another thought the stress hadn't been calculated correctly on the reticulated dome. As it turned out, both were right. Minor errors, but one displaced load mounted on another until the redundancy was gone, and the numbers formed a new equation. A positive digit dwindled into a negative, and the law of load distribution came into line with the higher law of gravity.
Gabrielle has three girls. Three fat babies whose photos had hung on my fridge for years. She had done very well, and was coming up on a decade as the principal of a prestigious academy for girls. If that weren't enough, she'd married a man named Lewis, a forest ranger who had once piloted a helicopter into a valley of burning bush and rescued a pair of bewildered tourists.
I touched down at the Wellington airport and headed straight to the building site. They gave me the tour and a laptop with the figures. I was staying at the house of a friend of a friend an hour north of the city. The house was empty. It had belonged to a relative who had been moved to a rest home or had died. I didn't have the story straight, but what mattered was that the place was within a few miles of Gabrielle's address. It stood at the end of a cul-de-sac where my headlights brought up irises growing out of the sand. I opened the car door and the salt smell rushed into my nostrils, into my hair.
Inside was furniture. More than one or two houses' worth of it. Rooms stacked with chairs and tables, their legs making a thicket that barricaded the bedroom door. In the kitchen I found metal cots, the kind in the cabins of a children's camp, with a narrow passage of green tile down the center.
I called my husband Solomon in America. He told me he'd just gotten Miles back into bed. At the time, our son was afflicted with night terrors. Soundly asleep, he would climb out of bed and begin to play. The first time it happened, Sol went into his room and told him it was time to sleep. Miles turned to his father, eyes open, and started in with a horrible shrieking. We tried to wake him. We talked to him, yelled for him to stop, but he couldn't be calmed. Sol carried him into the kitchen, and there I saw him driving a toy truck across the table, backing it up, driving it slowly in circles around the base of a candlestick, never once interrupting the shrieking. The experts tell page 166 you not to wake a child in this state. What they don't tell you is how to go about your business while your son sits in his room in the dark, soundly asleep, stacking blocks.
Sol said, It's 5am here. He's back in bed. He's not wearing any covers, but I'm afraid to go in there.
I said, Let him be. Hopefully, he makes it through the night.
I gave Sol the number and told him to call me if he needed, but he said he'd be fine. He told me not to worry. He assured me again that Miles would outgrow this, that it wasn't happening because of anything I'd done. It wasn't happening because we put Miles into childcare, which was a fact I couldn't let go of.
I said, Maybe we shouldn't let someone else raise him. Maybe this is his way of calling out to us. Inviting us into his life.
We are in his life. He's our son.
After I hung up with Solomon, I wandered outside. A path led through wilting dunes. There was no moon, very few other lights along the shore, and I knew nothing whatsoever about where I was staying. I should have thought of my safety, but I didn't. I walked onto the wide shelf of the beach, struggling through a wall of driftwood toward open sand. I picked my way through bleached branches and stumps that had caught light from somewhere because they appeared to glow in a soft shade of gray. Starlight, it came to me. They were glowing with starlight. I walked for a long time in the corridors of washed-up trees. They looked to me like ruined statuary, torsos and outstretched arms.
The next day sun entered through all the windows, and it occurred to me that it was spring in New Zealand. I opened the windows and walked to a café. By the time I returned, the house was fresh, the wooden floors radiant. I got down to the figures. It was a joy to work like this. Throwing yourself into the numbers with the gulls hollering outside. What is required in my job is wilful not-knowing. How many eyes had already pored over these columns of data? If there were errors, they were errors encoded in the routines of checking and double-checking. What I try to bring to figures is that streak of accident that living will bring, the unforeseen, the unforeseeable. Solomon says it takes a cruel imagination.page 167
After lunch I stepped outside and I saw a green cast to the clouds. A jeep was barrelling through the surf line, its headlights burning. It began to hail. Not long after the clouds drifted out over the Tasman Sea and the house floors went brilliant again, but it wasn't the same. The turn in the weather had unsettled me. Every time the office building would become clear in my mind, I'd think of Miles. I'd see him as I had so many times, sitting there asleep and making truck sounds with his mouth. He was afraid of the dark. The thought was a finger on my ribs, brushing, as if from within.
The Wellington trip occurred around the one-year anniversary of September 11, and while I drove to Gabrielle's that afternoon the subject on the radio was invasion. I heard a British general, and he was talking about such things as zones and tonnage and range. He could have been talking about anything. But, of course, he wasn't. He was talking about a speck of light descending from the sky, about dumb matter chewing through itself and burning a channel of silence. And what would happen after would require imagination, since, I heard, it had been decided that there would be no photographs, no evidence to exhibit the next time we heard generals on the radio.
Gabrielle's place was a villa with a porch and a view over the red slate of neighbouring roofs down to the sea. Trellis and a rocking chair. What I would have expected. Lewis opened the door, and I saw the figures of the three girls moving around a kitchen table inside. To arrive just before tea had been part of the plan. I introduced myself, and Lewis came out on the porch with me. He told me that Gabrielle was in a residential care facility in Wellington.
Lewis was shorter than me. The helicopter pilot, forest ranger, was shorter. But I had the feeling he hadn't always been. He seemed to be stooping. I asked what was wrong, and Lewis' face tightened. He didn't want me there. I had come ten thousand miles, and I was going to be turned away.
I said, Can I have the address? Can I see her?
Lewis went inside. He emerged with a piece of paper and handed it over. One of his daughters was standing in the doorway now, looking on, looking concerned, like maybe her father would need her to step in. I saw Gabrielle in this girl's face. I saw her as she had looked in her black parka and fur collar. Because I felt as if I had to break the page 168 silence, because I wanted them to know that I belonged there and that I, too, had some claim on Gabrielle's pain, and because I could think of nothing else to offer them, I said, We were very close.
The daughter said her mother had talked about me. Smiled. That was all. They had nothing more to give and our conversation was coming to an end, had, in fact, already ended, although I was still standing there, still looking over Lewis's hunched shoulders at the familiar eyes in his daughter's face.
I drove to Wellington that night for a meeting the next morning. On the way it poured. The water collected on the road, and now and then the car hydroplaned. I was driving slowly, being on what seemed like the wrong side of the road. Discussion on the radio continued. The sky flashed, opening, and the surf appeared not thirty metres from the road. I saw a wave climb a pillar of rock and then disappear. On the radio, the United Nations, the United States, the members of parliament, the way forward.
I didn't think I would be able to visit Gabrielle, but, of course, I had to. After my meeting, I stopped by the address Lewis had given me. An enormous Edwardian house with a woman sitting at a desk in what had been the parlour. I found Gabrielle in a large, well-lit bedroom on the second floor. She wasn't wearing a hospital gown, but dressed and, like the woman downstairs, sitting at a desk. Only her desk was empty and slanted toward her so that if it had held anything, it would have fallen off. I saw photographs of the girls on the wall, a precarious stack of light reading, pillows on wooden chairs.
Lewis had used the word breakdown, and so I guess I was expecting something else. I'm not sure what. Gurneys, lurking psychiatrists, some lingering trace of catastrophe on Gabrielle's face. On the day I saw her she looked tired, but calm. She had aged a few years since we'd last met, but it was her laugh lines I noticed, how they were creased through regular use.
She told me it wasn't a breakdown, but more of a gentle deterioration. A long and steady decline, she said, and we both laughed. Nervous laughter. She wanted to know about me, my life, and so I told her of Miles. I told her of my fears. That something dark was inside this child, some chemical presence that had made my child its prisoner. Or page 169 that maybe it was worse than that. Maybe I—Solomon and I—were the ones who had made him this way.
Gabrielle told me Miles would outgrow it. She said she'd heard of worse conditions, and the children always turned out fine. They were never permanently affected. She told me she thought she would be going home in a couple of weeks. I said I was happy to hear she was going to be better. The phrase seemed to throw her, to take a moment to sink in. Before I left, she asked if I was thinking about having any more children.
She told me she was thinking of her own girls. She said, They love each other so much. It makes it easy to think of them when I know they'll have each other.
I said, They still have their parents.
Gabrielle said, They do, but they drift away. You don't want them to, they don't want to. There's a higher force. They drift away, and if you stay still, stay in one place, you can see it.
After visiting Gabrielle I drove back to the house with the furniture. When I return to New Zealand in my mind, I return to this house. To me sitting on its wooden floor with legs and arms and chair backs rising around me. The radio plays. A laptop and a notepad, a pen, a cup of tea are spread across the floor. The gulls go on and on outside and the joists rock in the wind as they're meant to.
My report on the 28 stories said the building was sound. I certified this with my word. Not wind nor rain nor the shaking of the earth would bring those 28 stories down. I even calculated for the weight of snow, though I was told that snow was not possible in Wellington. At least, it had never happened yet. But what is unlikely is not impossible, and so I did the calculations. They revealed that in the event of a snowstorm producing ten centimetres of snow with an unequal distribution under prevailing wind conditions, the building was in no danger. The overhang, however, projecting three metres across the footpath and bearing the load of various electronic signage, had a minuscule chance of collapse. So I made a decision. Buried the figures in an appendix and gave the building the all clear.
During those three days in the house, the radio was always on. There was so much talk then of unspeakable things. Unspeakable page 170 fear. Unspeakable rage. But no matter how much was said, the path of conversation never seemed to advance, but rather circled a centre that could not be touched, held in a pattern around this rift in the imagination that had been opened by the impact of two airplanes. I return to this image that all of us have, that all of us will always have. A plane, delicate against a backdrop of rising glass, the second it came to us what it was we were watching. Our introduction, in that moment, to the limits of the possible.
Now I'm 42, pregnant again. Miles has outgrown the night terrors, so it may be that Solomon was right. But, then, I quit the consulting position soon after I returned from New Zealand. The money's much less, and I don't have all that much more time with Miles, but sometimes I do keep him home from school when he's not sick. We sit in the kitchen watching daytime soaps and opening the sliding glass door so the cat can wander back and forth, inside to out, a slave to instincts we will never know.
I've told my son about Gabrielle. How she's been in and out of hospitals and homes, and how I don't know if she's going to get better. I say this very gently, but he doesn't seem especially disturbed. He has no memory of his night terrors and is shocked to hear he sat up for hours playing with the lights out. Like many children, he's still afraid of the dark.
My last night in New Zealand was a Friday. On the beach children rode on the beds of trucks. As far as I could see up the coast bonfires were burning. It is this scene I am returned to, its children's voices, its distant surf, as I stand on my lawn in the dark tonight and watch two planes fading back into the stars out of which they seemed to emerge. Below me, lights glimmer, and somewhere down there construction starts. I hear a night crew coming on. The sound of a drill, air hammer, snap of pavement as it is scraped away. In the fields of electric light men have gathered to raise new frames of steel.