Fiction

Subaqueous

Joyce Carol Oates
Black and white image of a cafeteria with illustration of a building and low-hanging lights superimposed.
Illustration by Laura Padilla Castellanos

So densely constructed is the old, urban campus of the state university, so labyrinthine the interiors of the high-rise cinderblock buildings secreting A, B, C levels underground at the foot of Pitt Street South, it is hardly to be wondered that cell phone reception is poor to non-existent here; and so, on those cheerless Thursdays when I venture into the city, and descend underground to C-level of Building H (Humanities) to teach in a fluorescent-lit windowless classroom containing twenty- five careworn vinyl chairs arranged in a haphazard, asymmetrical, and unpredictable pattern, in effect I step off the grid, or rather I am expelled from the grid, or expunged from the grid, for several hours floating in a subaqueous element like a deep-sea diver dependent upon air supplied by an invisible source that though (surely) oxygen-deficient is yet breathable, life-sustainable. And though at the conclusion of the three-hour class, and before my office hours (C-level), I might make an effort to align my cell phone with the university’s WiFi, or better yet exit Building H, to sprint to a nearby park where my cell phone would spring into life like a reanimated heart, out of inertia I usually remain in Building H, only ascending to a café on A-level where I sit at a table facing a cinderblock wall gaily festooned with glossy reproductions of Parisian-café scenes by Toulouse-Lautrec, spreading papers out before me with the hope not to be interrupted before I am expected in my office two floors below. In the brightly lit café are students at long formica-topped tables, hunched over laptops, with intense eyes, furrowed foreheads; though I try not to stare at these near-immobile figures I am inclined to think that they rarely leave Building H, for each Thursday when I return I see them, or figures who closely resemble them, in the same positions at the long tables, hunched over their laptops; and though my title is Visiting Professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, with all that that implies of distinction (and transience), I find myself gravitating toward the same place also, to the café that is really not a café but (merely) a bright-fluorescent-lit stretch of windowless cinderblock corridor perversely festooned with Parisian scenes of a bygone era and outfitted with humming vending machines, overflowing trash containers, recycled air eking from narrow-pinched vents overhead. Occasionally in the Parisian café (as it is known in Building H, though it is not a café) other patrons seem to recognize me, for indeed it’s likely that they are “my” students, as I am “their” professor, but we greet one another cautiously, with awkward smiles, for it’s difficult to establish our relationship outside the classroom in which “our” class meets as if the four walls of the room were a kind of clothing, to hide nakedness; and so like a creature that has grown comfortable inside its underground burrow, even as its eyesight is weakening, even as its lungs are shrinking, even as its heart is beating ever more weakly, I return to the same table, the same chair, the same vending machines; pressing my fingertips against my forehead to forestall the onrushing cluster headache; staring at my watch to calculate how many minutes I can remain here, before I must descend to the windowless office assigned to me on C-level.

And here I am overcome by a sudden need to call my husband with whom I have not spoken in some time for we are separated, it seems, yet, from my perspective at least, I have no idea why. Love for the absent husband is constant as a heartbeat but like a heartbeat unnoticed, unremarked, unacknowledged, for only the aberrant defines itself; what is constant can be easily lost; and so I remove my cell phone from my canvas bag, eager to hear my husband’s voice, that is like no other voice; it’s bizarre to me, inexplicable, that out of pride perhaps (his or mine, I do not know) we have drifted apart, have failed to mend a misunderstanding or a rupture; but even as my shaky fingers are wielding the cell phone I’ve forgotten that the café is underground, and there is no cell phone reception here; when I try to call my husband the device rebukes me immediately—call failed.

In the bleak little wintry park where I stand on a pathway with a useless cell phone in my hand the paralyzing knowledge sweeps through me.

Desperate now, unable to grasp why I haven’t made more of an effort to speak to my husband, uncertain where my husband is, or why he is apart from me in another city perhaps, or perhaps he is traveling, in a subaqueous zone too in which there is no cell phone reception, unable to comprehend how I can have allowed this drift to separate us, why I seem to have filled my life with every kind of diversion, and digression, and distraction, and derangement, as if Time were a vast empty windswept space, a cheerless plaza between high-rise cinderblock buildings that has to be filled, in any way possible filled, cluttered with vinyl chairs so lightweight they are blown about in gusts of wind, clattering and rattling, filled with long formica-topped tables at which motionless figures are seated hunched over gray-glowering rectangular screens; I am suffused with the desire to tell him I love you, where are you, I want to see you, I want to speak with you, I want to hold you, kiss you, comfort you and I want to be comforted by you but—where are you? And the yearning is so strong, the heartbeat so pronounced, it is revealed to me as the most profound fact of my life, which I have not understood until now, and now in my face this revelation must show, no wonder that strangers glance at my face in surprise and alarm, and some of them look away quickly, in embarrassment at such raw unfettered yearning, and some of them cannot look away, for it’s as if I am holding a lighted candle before my face, shielded by a hand as the candle’s tremulous flame is borne through a jostling crowd; shielded from drafts of chill air from overhead vents in labyrinthine corridors, that stir unspeakable yearnings, regret, remorse, vivid-red as mercury rising in a thermometer. And so, needing to acknowledge that yes, the man who is my husband has broken me utterly, my deepest and most secret self he has pierced; my limbs he has broken, my soul he has violated. By this time I have made my stumbling way to the solitary elevator, which moves with maddening slowness, always there’s a disgruntled gathering of persons awaiting this elevator including at least one individual in a wheelchair; all wait in silence, resigned; but I am not resigned, for I am desperate to hear my husband’s voice; desperate to escape the subaqueous belowground; and so losing patience, ascending stairs to the first floor of Building H and through a revolving door into the filtered gray urban air of winter; now hurrying along a traffic-clogged street, breaking into a run, desperate to get to the park, running the last block to the park, threading my way past pedestrians who glance at me with expressions of surprise, annoyance, pity and finally I have crossed into the park that smells of damp chill earth mixed with acrid exhaust, where I feel the cell phone in my hand vibrate with life as emails flood in, lift the phone to call my husband even as the realization comes to me that my husband has died, of course my husband has died and is no more, in April of the previous year my husband died, and now it is January. In the bleak little wintry park where I stand on a pathway with a useless cell phone in my hand the paralyzing knowledge sweeps through me.

That is it. There is no mystery—why my husband has been silent, and why he has drifted from me. He has died, he is dead.

Joyce Carol Oates is a writer whose books include Black Water, Blonde, them, and Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars. She is a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
Originally published:
June 16, 2021

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