Escape from Oblivia
One Man's Midlife Crisis Gone Primal
And so, like some wannabe hero, I guide her through the labyrinth of bookshelves – these hallowed chambers where are locked away the secrets of the dead and mostly forgotten. Our heels clack on the polished parquet. Astral motes of dust drift on the rare winter sunlight slanting down through the high windows. This place – this realm – has alternately struck me, over the last months of my project, as both a sanctuary and a morgue.
“Here we are.” I pull out the cold metal drawer in which are kept Banal’s seven spiral-bound notebooks. Ghosts. Cadavers. They wait to be exhumed, to be brought back to life. I am Dr. Frankenstein; I am God. These thoughts always sort of freak me out.
I extract the third notebook in the series, demonstrating a reverent gentleness and care, and then hold it flat on my palms. “Now I show you my card and sign for it.”
“Oui,” she says. She knows that part. I have exceeded my helpfulness.
I fumble with my library card and sign my name on her clipboard, declaring it out loud, as if to introduce myself, as if in invitation for her to do the same. “Will Kirby.” I think that since she’s a librarian she might possibly have heard of me. She says nothing.
“I should be about three hours.”
She doesn’t care.
She leaves me alone with my fat, yellowed archive.
I sit at one of the humongous tables, open my computer, open Banal’s dog-eared notebook, and struggle to open my mind. I have a profound sense of some long dormant part of me being stirred awake. It’s distracting. I need to get at task. I need to accomplish great things.
“Okay, Kirby,” I whisper. “Concentrate.”
The faint suggestion of her lemon-scented soap lingers on the air.
The girl is quite possibly half my age.
Although I cannot see her over the many rows of shelves, I sense her there. I am completely baffled as to why this gives me a thrill.
That evening, after washing the supper dishes, helping my daughter Ava with her homework and reading her another chapter from Ivan’s Island – the story of a marooned, anthropomorphized mouse – I take a long shower and then stand before the mirror, a battered gladiator assessing himself for another fight. This is what I see – a man who has navigated life for nearly half a century. Post prime. Post full head of hair. Post – let us be frank – post instantaneous erection at every smile from a pretty girl.
I used to live in a little mountain town, skiing and hiking daily, drawing my power from the sun and wind. I was a whitewater raft guide in my college days and did some rock climbing. I was one of those rugged young bucks you see in outdoor magazines. But that was years ago, and we have since moved to the city where I am relegated to three two-hour workouts per week at the gym. Treadmills. Rowing machines. Elliptical trainers. It’s not the same as pitting oneself against Nature. It’s too civilized and calculated. It lacks that primal element of danger. City life feels like a long, slow slide away from what is essential. Somewhere along the line, life’s current carried me away from the wilds to this urban outpost – a place from which I long to escape.
A framed photo sits on the table beside the bed, an icon – an image of me as a young man in my glorious days as a river guide. In said photo, I stand shirtless and tanned, an oar in one hand and a raging river in the background. My physique is ridiculous in its perfection. The look on my face is one of a self-assuredness verging on arrogance. There is nothing I can’t do, I seem to be saying. I am indomitable. It is the standard represented in this photo by which I now gauge where I am on the sliding scale of physical adequacy.
I turn to the side and admire the bulge of muscle on my hip. A little bit of sag, kind of thick around the middle, but I still have that core strength. I’d like to think if I were dropped into the wilderness – say, abducted by aliens, or trapped in some post-apocalyptic predicament – I could survive. I could swim across an ocean full of mutant sea beasts. I could live in a bamboo hut and hunt game with a spear. A man clings to his boyish fantasies.
“How are you holding up, Tarzan?”
My wife Jane comes into the bedroom and catches me flexing.
“Gooood,” I say, and do a little jungle jig, wagging my wares at her. “I’m one hell of a man.”
She laugh-snorts and rolls her eyes, indicating that she thinks I look less like a buff Tarzan and more like George Jetson in the buff.
I am struck with a sudden inspiration. “Are you going to take a shower, too?”
(This is code for – do you want to make the two-backed beast with me? I have no idea when it became necessary to be clean for sex.)
“I wasn’t planning on it.”
(This is counter-code for – No, I have absolutely zero desire to copulate with you.)
I stand there naked and suddenly without purpose. Even after twenty-three years of marriage, Jane can make me feel instantly laughable in the bedroom. This, I understand on a rational level, is not her fault. It’s a male ego thing. Nevertheless, it irks me, even though I try not to show it. The air in the room seems to have abruptly changed; it is both warmer and more frigid at once.
Jane sits on the edge of the bed in her nightgown, shoulders slumped. “Would you like me to take a shower?" (It is her duty to ask, even though she lacks conviction. This is code for – marriage to you can be such a drag, but if you really want me to, I will purify myself at the fount so you can satisfy your pathetically juvenile desires.)
“Not if you don’t want to,” I say, selflessly. (I am every woman’s sensitive guy.) “After all, … (I can’t stop myself.) … it’s already December. Why don’t we just wait until spring?”
(This means, sarcastically – who needs to get laid more than once a year anyway?)
“Don’t be a jerk,” she says. “I had a big day.”
I clomp to the window and crack it open to let in some fresh air, then I turn out the lights and jump into bed.
Jane sighs, and slides into bed too. We lie in the dark, not touching. She is on her back; I am on my side, turned away from her.
“Aren’t you going to put on some shorts or something?” she asks.
“I swear, Will,” she laughs. “Sometimes you’re like a little kid.”
“Oh yeah, meanie?”
She reaches over and pinches my butt. “Yeah!”
I slap her hand away. “You better watch it, sister, if you know what’s good for you.”
Jane snuggles up next to me and squeezes me in her arms. “Tough guy.” She presses up close. “Nice ass,” she whispers, and yawns.
I haven’t given up hope for getting some sex. This little tit-for-tat mating ritual seems to be working its magic. It feels like things are taking a positive turn between us. I bide my time, allowing Jane’s own unbearable feminine cravings to take her over. But then, almost immediately, almost comically, she begins to snore. Her arm dream-twitches against my side. Unbelievable.
Now, resigned, I try not to wake her. When I’m sure she’s fast asleep, I disentangle myself from her tentacles. She rolls away from me, mumbling.
I lie there for a long time in the darkness. It is raining outside. A siren wails somewhere across town. I miss the mountains. That hush of snowflakes tumbling down through the pines and rarified air. In the strangeness of this restless night, I miss things I have never even known.
“‘I am unsure where are these notebooks.’”
I whisper to the dark ceiling in my best French accent, imagining the fragrance of lemons.
But then, like a burst from a tommy gun, Jane breaks wind beneath the covers.
A man’s daydreams never quite prepare him for the pedestrian details of his life.
It begins with her voice – a little island of sound arising from this vast sea of silence in which I am drowning.
“Pardon?” she says.
I clear my throat, flounder a few strokes in her direction, and rephrase my request. “I said I would like to see the notebooks of Richard Henry Banal, please.” I smile and hold out a slip of paper with Banal’s name printed on it. “Can you help me?”
She takes my note.
I watch her eyes – forget-me-not blue. Her damp lips move ever so slightly as she reads. A tendril of black hair falls along her cheek and she absentmindedly tucks it back behind her ear with a middle finger. The gesture, inexplicably, takes my breath, causes my heart to pick up its pace. I feel I have asked for something forbidden.
She hands back my paper and then, without looking at me directly, says, “I am new at the library. I am unsure where are these notebooks.”
The trace of an accent. That charming lapse of syntax. French, I think.
“Oh, well, I can show you! I know right where they are.” I sound a little too courageous. It surprises me. I wonder if the tops of my ears are turning red in that way they did when I was a boy. “If you just want to come with me, to make it official.”
She considers this, nods indifferently, and pushes away from her desk.
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