Her name was Beth. We didn’t know each other. We took her car and headed to Missouri from Chicago. I remember that by the time we’d gone a few miles south on the Stevenson we’d already run out of things to say. But, for some reason, we both decided, without spelling it out, not to push it. Nothing was going to come of this, of us, we had hours to go, and it was all right just to let the silence be and listen to the radio. We were on our way to a séance she’d heard about from an old high-school friend. She’d grown up in a small town southwest of St. Louis, and the séance was being held nearby, at an abandoned air-force base.
We’d met a couple of nights before. Beth had come into the restaurant near the Loop where I waited tables, and had written her number on a napkin. “Call me,” she’d ordered. A couple of nights later, over drinks, she told me that she wasn’t the kind of person who ordered people to call her. Something about my face had said that I needed to be told what to do. That was also when she mentioned that this séance was happening at 2:00 A.M. near St. Louis. If we left right away, she said, we could probably make it. The fact that we both had to be at work the next day made it all the more spontaneous and awesome. We headed out into the night exalted, until, like I said, our conversation dried up completely. It was as if the intrepid adventure were already over and now we just had a shitlong ride ahead of us, which we did.
When I woke up, we were already past St. Louis and Beth had turned off onto a narrow two-lane highway that cut through a forest. We drove another hour and a half before we reached the base. As per her friend’s instructions, we ditched the car beneath a stand of trees. Beth didn’t need any help climbing the fence. She practically leapt over it, and I had to sprint to catch up with her as she strode along the ghost streets, past rows of empty barracks.
“What’s the hurry?” I said. “Everybody’s already dead.” No answer. When we got to Hangar 32, the séance had already begun. About a dozen people were standing in a circle holding hands. At the center of the circle was a flower pot. Two people unclasped their hands to allow Beth and me to join. A bearded guy in a black watch cap was mumbling with authority. I admit that at first I found the whole thing mesmerizing. Coming upon this group in the darkness of that enormous hangar, the man chanting, the single flame flowing shadows onto the corrugated walls. There was something weirdly sacred about it all, and I thought, Right, if you want to commune with the dead, of course what you have to do is drive across the night to Missouri.
But, after half an hour, forty-five minutes, I began to understand just how fucking cold I was. It was mid-March and I hadn’t dressed for it. You want to dress lightly on a first date to demonstrate how free and easy-going you are. The dude was still mumbling, and I waited for something, anything, to happen, while softly stamping my feet on the crumbling pavement to warm them up. I was about to whisper to Beth, whose hand I was holding, “Yo, why don’t we blow this popsicle stand and get some fucking breakfast?,” when somebody new began shouting. “Marina? Is that you, Marina?” Then other people were speaking, too. “Larry, tell your sister I’m onto her games.” “How many years did you think you could hide in plain sight, Ramon?” Even Beth got into it: “You never loved me, not a day, not an hour, not a second of a single minute—”
Everybody was speaking at once, and I had trouble discerning individual words in the chaos of voices. And it was ridiculous, it was beyond ridiculous, but it also wasn’t ridiculous. Shouts in the dark. Maybe that’s the best we can do to reach beyond ourselves. I tried to join in, too, but I could sense none of my dead, and I couldn’t, for the life of me, think of anything to just spout out. So I bought it, but at the same time, by that point, I was just trying to live through it, I was so cold. Then the candle went out and our leader broke ranks and swooped down to relight it, but his lighter jammed. We all stopped speaking and began patting down our pockets for a lighter or matches. But our leader shouted at us, “No! Don’t break the membrane! Re-bond!”
We never quite got back on track after that. The collective spirit or belief or whatever it was escaped from us, and, though our leader mumbled for another half an hour, only a few people spoke up. The guy next to me, a guy I’d been holding hands with for almost two hours without getting a look at his face, actually made a joke. At least, I thought it was a joke. He said something about the temperature of coffee in hell. I laughed out loud. No one else did. That pretty much ended it. Before we left, Beth went up to the leader and gave him a kiss on the lips that wasn’t a friend’s kiss, not by a long stretch. In the car, I asked her who she’d reached. She said she didn’t want to talk about it.
“So you and the dude—”
“That was nothing. O.K.?”
We settled back into the silence of the drive. No radio now, just the drone of the engine, which you don’t hear unless you listen for it, and then it’s there all the time. It was getting toward dawn, and the dark was giving way to gray. I’ve always loved that early-morning gloom. I was about to say as much, to try to chip away at the silence, when I noticed that the car had begun to drift into the oncoming lane. Beth had fallen asleep. I don’t know why but, instead of grabbing the wheel, I seized her shoulder. She woke up but didn’t seem to realize what was happening and immediately stomped on the brakes. We jolted forward, skidded, and stopped. Headlights were approaching out of the gray. I had time for only one thing. I opened my door, got out, ran off the road into the trees, and waited for the headlights to slam into Beth.
They didn’t. The other driver saw her in time and fishtailed around her and stopped. For a few moments, everything was still. Then I heard the birds in the trees. I walked back out to the road. The guy rolled down the window of his truck. He looked at Beth in her car; he looked at me. Then he drove away, as if some lovers’ spat weren’t worth anything he might have mustered up to say. My door was still open. Beth was calm, motionless, her hands still gripping the wheel.
When something happens, for better or for worse it’s happened. It has a before. It has an after. Maybe you can talk about it. Maybe you can’t. But what about something that almost happens? What almost happens repeats itself. I’ve come to believe this as a kind of personal gospel. We’re stopped in the opposite lane. I see lights emerge out of the gray. I open my door and run. I leave her in the car to die. Every time.