How easy it is for a life to become tiny. How cleanly the world falls away.
The subway platform in Toronto. That was the first. Will was a toddler then. Even today, “safe” in her bedroom, Diane still couldn’t summon the incident in her mind without panic spreading in her like laughter through a crowd. She knew she’d brushed against true madness that day because it was huge and blunt and screaming.
She’d blamed the city, its wilderness of signs and traffic and sounds, its flip book of faces and lightning storm of a million brains. So she packed up their apartment and moved Will north to Thunder Bay, where she’d grown up, where she hadn’t returned since her twin brother, Charlie, died at the grain elevators when they were twenty-four.
A year had been the plan, time enough to rebalance herself, perhaps make a film, something personal, experimental, short. She still owned the old house, the one she and Charlie had saved for. Though she was the last surviving member of her family, other than Will, of course, she’d never stored the nerve to sell it.
In Toronto Diane bought a car, something she’d never owned, a robin’s-egg-blue Volkswagen Rabbit. She and Will set off in the morning: fourteen hours northwest that they split into two days because after the seventh hour Will was visited with unbearable silliness and wild irrationality. As they pushed northward, bugs left increasingly phlegmatic blotches on their windshield, and spindly, undernourished trees crowded the road as though trying to mount it, get roots into it, and in this manner escape. They tracked the CBC as its signal lived and died, resurrected town to hamlet to town, while the high, rusty channels dynamited into the roadside granite offered the impression of descending into a mine.
Initially, she dreaded the drive. The ratcheting fear could have resurfaced out there amid all that tree and rock. But she was fine behind the wheel, tranquil even. She sang to her old tapes as Will clapped his orange-sticky hands.
They found the house in neglect and disarray, ten years of woolly grain dust on every lateral surface, everything just as she’d left it, even a few plates in the sink, waiting to be washed for a decade. Her father was never one for photos or memorabilia, but she kept a few things: the old dictionary that had so obsessed her brother after their mother died, some of her own sketchbooks and charcoals she put aside for Will, as well as her father’s old work boots—the rest she drove to the Salvation Army.
She always preferred to work in a frenzy, to dash herself upon the rocks of a project—this was how she’d made her films—so during Will’s naps she cleaned, vacuumed, polished, painted, plastered, tore back wallpaper, and even sledgehammered half of a wall, swooping about on the skating rink of caffeine, coaxing the house into something that her brother wouldn’t have recognized. In a kerchief and some old jeans, she suffered the August swelter and fought the feral yard all the way back to the creek, where Charlie once pulled a thousand silver smelt in one night with just a net and a flashlight. A moving truck brought their furniture, Will’s toys, her cameras and books.
The work did her good, and this was a period of reprieve.
It was driving that allowed it back: a grocery run, stopped at a light while traversing the highway, Will strapped into his car seat like a babbling astronaut. When the green came, she shifted her foot, and they bucked then heaved to a halt. She pressed harder, yet the vehicle remained unmoved. Behind her a truck honked unkindly. She peered under the wheel to find her boot planted squarely on the brake.
Then the rushing heart and tingling digits, same as on the subway platform. How could she have confused the two most fundamental controls of the vehicle? Most unsettling was how easy it had been: they were both pedals, so close together, one a golf club and the other a door stopper—yet essentially indistinguishable. And what if she’d done it the other way around? Pumped the gas and jackrabbited onto the highway and the fury of logging trucks and snarling pickups piloted by jumpy, half-drunk hunters? What creature would she find belted into the burning jungle of death and fluid and steel that would remain of their car after the trucks had finished with it?
At first she simply avoided the highway. Routine trips took hours, but she didn’t mind. She kept to side roads and residential streets. Houses were a comfort. She’d use their phones if necessary. If what was necessary? Using the phone, she assured herself, plenty of good reasons for that.
Rather quickly, more rules established themselves. No roads over a certain speed limit. No night driving. Then no left-hand turns. She hugged the shore of the right lane, never risking her car in the path of an onrushing vehicle—that leftward leap of faith enough to burn her again with panic.
Each night her mind burbled with the close calls of the day, the inadequate traffic bylaws, the numbers and speeds and physics of it all. And after weeks of this she perceived driving for what it truly was: an impossibly complicated and lethal activity. One that required reserves of faith, confidence, and sheer stupidity that she would never possess.
After she sold the Rabbit and learned that Thunder Bay’s public transportation system had died the slow death of depopulation and underfunding, she and Will took taxis. The old trifecta of grocery store, library, and bank they could complete for less than fifty dollars in fares. For a while she’d been able to trust the proven expertise of these old men in mustaches and hats, immigrants mostly, because how could one possibly last as a cab driver without caution? And weren’t these soft-spoken men mostly poor? Weren’t their cars their very livelihood? Wouldn’t a crash scrape the food from their children’s plates? What better reassurance was there?
Will was three by this time and loved taxis. He asked the men questions with partially pronounced words that only she understood. “What means that?” he’d belt out, pointing at their CBs crackling with dispatches. “Yes, good,” the men would say, nodding.
But soon she found herself advising the drivers where to turn blocks in advance, checking and rechecking their gauges, reminding them of speed limit changes while peering between the headrests out the windshield, blotting the driver’s sightline with her alert face. They would glance at her in the rearview with their bushy eyebrows and try to smile.
After she could no longer abide the taxis, her ordering from home began in earnest. She discovered that with the right mix of ambiguity and persistence—“You see, sir, due to a severe condition I am unable to visit your store”—everyone in town delivered: the grocery store, the library, the pharmacy. Just say “severe condition,” and deliverymen leapt into their trucks. She was surprised by how easy it was, how efficient. They went through a checkbook a week— good thing they delivered those too. She and Will were free to take walks and do artwork and not be stuck dragging a cart through the shrink-wrapped gore of the meat section every Saturday.
Then the outside closed upon her like the aperture of a camera.
The front yard was more of a decision—a calculated avoidance of risk—than anything imposed upon her. While shoveling slush from the driveway, she found herself casually worrying that the panic would return, and by the time the dangerousness of this vein of thinking registered upon her, it was already there: the revving heart, the icy sweat, her throat constricting. She left the job unfinished and fled inside, where the symptoms instantly subsided. With no handy explanation this time, no subway doors, no crowds, no city, no mishandled car, only the snarling shovel and the tight cold and her breath a soft crystal in the air, she knew the panic no longer obeyed laws it once respected and would seize any opportunity she allowed it to decimate her. So after that day she would not venture even a few steps from their front door to where she knew it lay in wait.
Then, as she was picking up carrots, coal, and various items that four-year-old Will had used to personify a snowman, it visited her in the backyard, same as the front.
And if she could venture into neither yard without meeting a tempest of dread, how was she to leave? And how to let her son play in the yard if she couldn’t go out to retrieve him? What if a stray dog came? Or, God forbid, a man?
So they stayed inside. Thankfully, her son was so obsessed with building and painting and his constant tumult of inquisition that he never seemed to mind. Both Will’s father and his uncle Charlie had been solitary boys, content with books and models, words and drawings. It was almost relieving, this simplification, and there followed some relatively peaceful, untroubled years.
Then, around Will’s seventh birthday, it came in. She was folding laundry when the air was sucked from the basement, the way water withdraws from the shore before a wave. Terror like lungfuls of knife-sharp fumes choked her, and her mind tumbled. She was on hands and knees when she reached the stairs to claw her way out. She didn’t imagine anything truly harmful down there, no ghosts or stranglers, just the immovable fact that panic came for her was enough. She ordered Will a stool and taught him to do the laundry by drawing him a diagram of the controls. She ordered another and placed it at the foot of the freezer.
But the most regrettable by-product of staying inside was losing the capacity to face another human being. The micro-rhythms of conversation, the dance of facial mimicry, the fencing match of eye contact were lost to her once she fell out of practice. She soon ceased answering the door—another chore Will assumed with gusto. She grew lonely, but this, too, dropped away. She no longer yearned for people, other than Will, of course. She sated her social impulses with films, music, books, consoled by the fact that no matter what, the actors and characters could never see how hermetic she’d become, how far she had fallen.
At times she’d considered leaving. Pulling on her olive duffle coat and tramping outside. Perhaps bringing an umbrella. How strange it would be. “Hello, I’ve lived next to you for eight years, nice to meet you.” Yet there was never reason enough. She’d always believed that the day she left would be the day she was required to. How that could ever happen she could not say.
If only they could manage to escape, maybe she’d leave the whole mess here behind in Thunder Bay. Back to Toronto, or a fresh start somewhere else, Paris perhaps. Arthur’s generous support checks, which surfaced each month in her account as predictably as tides, would bankroll anything she could dream up. But that would mean an airplane—the anticipatory preamble: tickets, packing, waiting, and searching, then the imperativeness of actually stepping through those awful retractable tunnels and finding her seat, with a whole plane watching in judgment. She half-considered hiring some amateur anesthesiologist to put her under for the journey, but she feared needles, and the effects of drugs, and dreamless sleep. Since passenger ships no longer served the Great Lakes (she’d checked), they couldn’t even take a boat.
Besides it wasn’t that she couldn’t leave, Diane reminded herself. She was refusing to. Her terms. Years of the Thunder Bay Tribune and American news shows had proved what fresh horrors the world invented each day. As far as she could tell, there wasn’t much of the Thunder Bay she’d known left. Its industries gone, just strip clubs, strip malls, taverns, and hockey rinks remained—the old Eaton’s department store now a call center. The houses were still all aimed at the lake like faces to a coronation, eager for some great arrival, even though the lakeboats had stopped coming and the storefronts downtown, once strung with garlands and signs and teeming with families, were now mostly shuttered and vacant. But it was the knocking of grain-ship hulls from the harbor she missed most— now there was only a spooky quiet over an overgrown industrial ruin that reminded her of Tarkovsky’s Stalker, a film she’d nearly memorized in college that seemed made for her alone.
No, she and Will were stuck, like the pilgrims who’d built the frames of their houses from the planks of their ships. All they could do now was decorate.
From IF I FALL, IF I DIE. Used with permission of Hogarth. Copyright © 2015 Michael Christie.