The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 11, No. 3


by Jonathan Baumbach

For weeks they argued as if the terrifying unimaginable were at stake over something that had happened (or had not happened) fifteen years back. Or perhaps seventeen years back, as Genevieve continued to insist. The dispute concerned a trip they had taken to Seattle—that much was sometimes agreed upon—during which they had both behaved badly, a trip that had very nearly ended in the dissolution of the marriage. It had come back to Josh in barely discernible disguise, provoked into memory by a startlingly vivid dream.
     He woke in a tattered rage and replayed the dream in his head, straining not to lose it as he had lost so much else in recent years, juggling its shapeless fragments while waiting for Genevieve to open her eyes. Finally, outmaneuvered by his own impatience, he shook her awake.
     "I just had this disturbing dream," he started.
     She anticipated what came next. "And you want me to listen to it? Is that what this is about?"
     "You were in the dream," he said.
     "Was I?"

He couldn't remember when it started or even precisely how, or if it had always been this way. He would have something in his hand or something in his sight he was thinking of picking up, something—whatever he had plans for—and then, in a moment, it was nowhere. He could look everywhere for it, he could tear the house apart and not find it. How furious it made him, furious both at himself and at the disappeared object, his reading glasses, say, or his car keys, furious at being thwarted. Genevieve hated his rages, but what else could he do? It was the only revenge powerlessness offered.
     Shortly after that, or perhaps concurrently, words that had been previously available to Josh mysteriously vanished. It was his habit to do the Times crossword puzzle every night before going to sleep. His aptitude, on which he secretly prided himself, began to abandon him, answers he was almost certain he knew refusing to come to hand. And more than once, he had blanked out on the names of acquaintances—people he knew perfectly well—when running into them unexpectedly. If he exercised his memory, which he did—it was almost all he did beyond staring at unkempt sentences on the computer screen—he knew, or supposed, he could defeat the problem.

"I'll listen to your dream after I have my coffee," she said.
     He followed her into the kitchen, rehearsing the opening of the dream in his head. The two of them were riding in a rented car, a late-model Audi wagon, going to a party at an old, sometime friend's house.
     "I have a feeling I know how this is going to end up," she said, sipping her coffee.
     "I was uneasy about going," he said, "because the husband part of the couple giving the party was someone you once had a one-night stand with in Seattle. I kept telling myself, Turn back before it's too late, though for various reasons—there were no exits on this particular highway, the traffic was unimaginably dense—the choice was out of my hands."
     "I never had a one-night stand with anyone in Seattle, for god's sake," she said. "Who did you have in mind?"
     "The trip seemed to go on forever, though it was supposed to be three hours at most. ‘Maybe we should head back,' I said, wanting you to want not to go. ‘It'll be longer going back,' you said. ‘Let's just get there and get it over with, OK?' Then suddenly the house appeared, as if it were parked in the middle of the road, and we had to pull over to the side not to run into it. Pulling over, we slid into a ditch and you said, ‘I knew this was going to happen.' When I promised you I would find a way out, you shook your head with what I took to be contempt and looked out the window. Anyway, we got out of the car and went into the house without knocking or ringing the bell. We were obviously very late because the party seemed in its last stages, couples lying on the floor, drunk or asleep, a few having sex in what seemed like slow motion. The hostess appeared—the man's wife—and she said to make ourselves at home, but all the good wine had already been consumed. I had brought a good bottle as a gift yet it was still in the car, and I excused myself to go out and retrieve it. ‘Don't leave me,' you whispered, but I went out anyway, stopping at the door for a moment to embrace the hostess, whose name I had forgotten. And then I was in the car, looking under the seat. I came up with a dusty bottle of pinot blanc from some fake-sounding chateau, Ryder or Riser—it was not the bottle I remembered taking—and handed it to the hostess, who was on her knees next to me. ‘I know this wine,' she said to me. ‘It was my absolute favorite before I quit drinking and carousing altogether. I don't know how to thank you. Will a long, lingering kiss do the trick?' I didn't think an answer was appropriate. Then we got out of the car and started back to the house. She took me around the side where there was a picture window and we looked into the master bedroom together, her small breasts pressing against my back. There was a couple on the bed, fooling around, his head under her skirt; and the hostess said, ‘That's my husband and your wife.' It was odd because, though the woman was wearing the clothes you traveled in, her hair was a different color and somewhat shorter. I thought maybe you were wearing a disguise."

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