The Trick: Notes toward a Theory of Plot

Marilyn Abildskov

The hospital sat high on a hill. The city smelled of coffee and salt. When I wrote my name, I thought, “There’s a record now.”

Beside my name, friend. Beside others’ names, mother, sister, wife, wife, wife.

His hands were bare. The first time we’d met, both his hands were covered in rings. The rings repelled me. I was surprised to be so repelled. But here he was, alive and ringless, in a sweatshirt and khaki pants. He’d just finished dinner. His feet looked funny in beige socks and flip-flops.

I told him about a movie I’d just seen, set in Japan. There had been a lot of scenes involving feet. He said he would like to see it. He said, “This is the first time I laughed all day.”

We talked in one of the anonymous waiting rooms where everything, the walls and chairs and atmosphere, was beige. He still had a half-eaten container of pudding nearby. “Do you want to finish that?” I asked. I thought if he still liked pudding, he’d be okay.

There were advantages. I came to understand that right away. I always knew where he was. I knew where he was yesterday, and where he would be tomorrow, and where he would be the day after that and the day after that. I did not worry about him meeting someone else.

A car, a subway, a taxi—it took these three forms of transportation to get to the hospital every week. I had a lot of time to think. And I remember the day after each visit as heightened, saturated, a day of attention and high alert. The color of the pumpkins growing in the neighbor’s yard across the street, the taste of the apple pastry and dark coffee at Peet’s, the feel of the paperbacks at Half Price Books—it was all ordinary, important, memorable.

At Le Bateau Ivre, on our first date, I told him all I remembered from junior high school French was Je suis biblioteque.

He said he’d lived an eventful life. I said I’d lived an uneventful one and wanted to keep it that way.

I wanted to make sure I understood the timeline. So when, over lunch, he told me bits of his history—that he sold cheesecakes once, a long time ago; that he worked for a radio station after that; that when he lived in this neighborhood, he rode a purple bike; that he spent a year traveling in France—I reached for a napkin to write it down: “Cheesecake, radio, bicycle, France.” I wanted to fix the details along a line of time. But he put his hand over mine. I closed my eyes so I didn’t have to look at his rings. “No,” he said. “These things have to happen organically.”

After lunch at Le Bateau Ivre, we took a walk. Kissed on a street corner. Went to my apartment, where he said he needed to lie down. When he woke, we walked across the street for coffee. We sat on a bench. He said he needed me to drive him home. I’d never driven to the city. I was afraid of its steep hills. I was afraid of water. I was afraid of the bridge. I told him all this. But I said I’d try. “For you.” Now that I’d told him my darkest fears, I insisted he tell me his. “I’ll tell you later,” he said. Then all at once, his face darkened as if thick black curtains dropped to cover the stage of an unsmiling mouth.

He could have just as easily disappeared. We’d only gone out once. We’d made plans to go out a second time, to hear jazz in the city on Friday night, something I thought sounded like what people who lived in the city would do on a Friday night. He called me on Thursday night to cancel, saying he was in Langley Porter, that he would be there for a few days, but I could call tomorrow night if I wanted. Afterward, I looked up Langley Porter online. I looked up 5150 online. I called him Friday night. I called him every night. I had just moved to town. Who else would I call?

When I asked him how he was doing, what he had done that day, what he had eaten for dinner, he answered simply: “Not well.” “Watched TV.” “Meatloaf and mashed potatoes.” When I asked him what was going on in his head, he said, “Nothing.” And I came to believe that happiness was an ability to elaborate, to chatter, to embroider, to cluck over how dry the meatloaf tasted.

I was forty-two years old. I’d lived alone for many years. I knew how to get by, how to go without.

And the situation was not without its comforts. There was comfort in calling, comfort in learning the names of his doctors (Dr. Lee, Dr. Nyeem, Dr. Housner), comfort in learning the names of the others on the fourth floor (Daniel, Chris, Isabel), comfort in writing down the names of the drugs he went on (Effexor, Lamictal, Ambien, Seroquel), comfort in learning what all the drugs were for (depression, moodiness, insomnia, anxiety attacks).

Did I have an agenda? Yes. Soon enough, I believed, he would be fine, and then, just imagine how grateful he would be, beholden really, to the woman who’d called every night, the one who’d waited so patiently, the person who’d seen him through his darkest hour.

We went from nothing to something, the plot of a story I knew. Stories, or fragments of stories, began to leak through.

The first time, he said, was with sleeping pills. He was thirty-three. His father had just died. He had been visiting his mother. He had wanted his mother to find him.

The second time, he was going to jump. I was sitting on the floor of my apartment for this. I had a little black couch, but the couch was uncomfortable, and I wanted to buy a new one, but I didn’t dare because I didn’t know yet if my job would work out. I wanted my next couch to be bold, not black but red. I had in mind that if I had a red couch, my love life would improve. He kept stopping to say, “Are you okay?” “Do you want to hear this?” And I kept saying yes, I was okay, yes, I wanted to hear. I was thinking about balconies, how high up his had been. I was thinking about flowers, if he”d had geraniums growing out there. I was thinking about rhythm, how after the first comes the second, and after the second? Three would be the charm. The third time would do the trick.

The trick is to find some reasonable plot. A thread, a through line, a timeline, a string. The trick is to move beyond the image, the fragment, the list. The trick is to find someone to hang it all on. To trade in the black couch for red, to have hope for the future, to learn how to shake things up, to stay out of the head.

“My childhood was consumed with my mother’s passions,” he said. “It was like a Greek tragedy.”

I read online to learn how it might go: how he would get an IV of Brevital; how, once unconscious, he would be given succinylcholine; how doctors would insert a rubber block in his mouth; how the worry is that the brain will be deprived of oxygen. I wrote down the steps: how doctors would rub jelly on his temples then connect him to electrodes; how they would push a button; how there would be a shock; how an electric current would run through his brain; how a grand mal seizure could last twenty seconds; how thirty minutes later he would wake up with a headache.

After the first electroshock treatment, I asked him how he was, and he said, “Great!” and I said, “Great!” But when I asked him to elaborate, to tell me more, he said, “The thing is, with this treatment, my memory’s shot. Did you know I’ve been here two months?” I asked him if he remembered why he went to the hospital, and he said, “The doctors told me that I wanted to kill myself.” I asked him what he thought of that, and he said, “I can’t imagine it. Why would anyone want to die?”

Later I asked him if he remembered me, and he said, “Yes, of course, don’t be ridiculous.” Later I asked him where we had lunch that one day, in the summertime, and he said, “Can you give me a hint?” Later I asked him what he’d ordered for lunch at the Drunken Boat, and he said he wasn’t sure, then he turned it around and asked what did he have? I didn’t remember but said chicken. “You had chicken. You said it was very good.” And I tried to sound definitive.

(I remember ordering crab cakes. I remember thinking they were the worst crab cakes I’d ever had. I remember when I shared my crab cakes with him, I wasn’t sharing to be generous; I was sharing because I thought the crab cakes tasted like shit.)

I remember calling a friend and saying, “The thing is, the situation suits me. He can’t remember the stupid things I said. He can’t remember that we never had sex. And this way, I don’t have to worry about him fucking around. It’s like dating someone in prison. I know right where he’ll be. Plus, it makes me feel like I’m doing something in the world.”

Romance as charity. Romance as service project. Romance as the plot that makes the world go round.

(“Did you know,” my friend Michael told me, “there was a plotline on Sex and the City just like this?”)

Each time we talked, each time I visited, he asked me how I was. I liked that. I’d been waiting for that. No one had asked me that in a very long time. It was a very simple thing. I’m embarrassed now to say it meant everything.

Once, when I visited him, he asked me, “No, really, how are you?” and I said, “To be honest, I’m not so sure. This whole thing scares me.” It took two hours to get to the hospital every week. Sometimes it seemed like a lot of work. And for what? But he said not to worry, that we were learning about each other, that this was a good thing, how much we were learning. “Don’t forget that,” he said.

So I began pushing him. “What do you know?” I asked on the next visit. “What can you say you know about me?” It seemed this whole thing had become too much about him. His face looked stricken, then worried, then blank. “I know you’re a teacher,” he said. There was a long pause. “Isn’t that right?”

One night I didn’t call. The next night he asked if something was wrong. I told him I was busy. He sighed and said, “It was Friday night. I’m sure you want to go out with your friends to have fun.” But it wasn’t that. I didn’t have any friends yet. I wasn’t interested in fun. Instead I had classes to teach, papers to grade, facts to face—I might be in love with someone who can’t remember my name.

Sometimes I came home from work exhausted and fell into bed with Goldfish crackers and a bottle of wine, and on these nights, I’d think of Langley Porter with its locked windows and big-screen TV, its steady meals and someone calling every night—it didn’t sound so bad to me.

In November someone new took center stage. The plot demanded it. What else was the spotlight—ever searching for drama, for action—to do? Isabel. He talked about Isabel all the time. The more than a dozen times Isabel had tried to kill herself; the hundreds of medications Isabel was on; the years of institutions where Isabel had lived and not even thirty yet; she wasn’t even thirty years old. Impressive.

I imagined Isabel with long, dark, wild hair and a dancer’s fragile build, her wrists covered in delicate markings.

One night when he talked about Isabel again and at great length, I got quiet, and he asked what was wrong, and I said, “I’m sorry, I just can’t get into this.” “Into what?” he asked. “Into feeling sorry for Isabel.” He said she was sick, really sick. He said he was afraid she was really going to do it this time, succeed in killing herself if they let her out. “I hope she does,” I said. “It must be terrible to be such a fuckup at being a fuckup all the time.” He said, “You don’t mean that.” But I did. I was tired of hearing about Isabel all the time. I was tired of him worrying about poor Isabel. Why Isabel? Why not me? “Because you’re okay,” he said.

But I wasn’t okay. I had a cold, a terrible cold. Nothing helped. Not NyQuil. Not tea. Not peeling and eating oranges religiously. I wrote on student papers: “It isn’t clear if you’re analyzing the cause or effect.” I watched TV. I walked outside for fresh air. Near my apartment was a French boutique that sold handmade baby clothes in delicate shades of blue, yellow, and red. In the window, the tiny mannequins had no heads.

What causes two people to come together? What causes a man to write about himself online? Or a woman to answer? Or for someone to turn her head left before leaving a bar? What causes his eye to rest on a plain, unadorned face? What causes her to stop and talk at the bus stop? For two people to realize they are part of a new-old plot, glowing in a new-old kind of heat?

At Le Bateau Ivre, I’d asked him if he wanted to hear my theory of plot. It wasn’t mine exactly. It belonged to a professor I loved and before him, thousands of others. But I wanted to say something that sounded smart. “There are two strands,” I said. I cut my crab cake in half to make my point. “What happens and also what the person thinks about what happens. The more interesting part.” He got quiet. When I asked him what he was thinking, he said he was just trying to take in the atmosphere, the Marilyn-ness of it. Then he wrapped his fingers around his water glass and said he was thinking about how he would think about this afternoon later on.

After my first visit to the hospital, I’d waited for a taxi, the fog so thick I couldn’t see across the street. I’d started to cry, imagining that this was it, a kind of slide into gray oblivion. Part of me wanted to run back upstairs, to tell him something big, to talk about something other than a small film with feet. Part of me wanted desperately to be home, alone.

The plot was simple; the plot was old. Cities are filled with bridges and balconies and the smell of fresh bread. Cities like this one are filled with sad people who want to go home.

He was released from the hospital. Now there was no reason for me to call, no reason to visit. Now he could call me anytime. And sometimes he did, but not so often, not like before. He wasn’t as devoted as I had been. He must not have had any agenda in mind. So part of me missed it, the old routine, the steadiness of it, the way I could control it, count on it, the way it all depended on dependable me.

When he called, “Anonymous” came up on caller ID.

One night we went to the Elmwood. He ate popcorn. His hands were covered once again in rings. He’d had to quit smoking while in the hospital, but he’d started again. The holidays were approaching, and there were previews for a lot of sappy family dramas. Catherine Zeta-Jones came on the screen. He leaned over to me, said, “She does nothing for me. I’m like a baby now.” Later he told me that the Anafranil had rendered him “chemically neutered,” a dreaded side effect for many men, so much so that one guy he met at Langley Porter asked to have Viagra prescribed at the same time. “As for me,” he said, “I couldn’t care less. In fact, it’s a relief. One less thing to worry about.”

And in the end? What happened happened fast: a quick succession of arguments. He suggested a movie on Tuesday night. I arranged to take Tuesday night off work, then he told me Tuesday was no good, that he’d promised to go to Isabel’s daughter’s Christmas pageant. In an e-mail, I wrote: “So Tuesday’s off now? But I moved heaven and earth to make Tuesday work!” And he wrote back that everyone—except me—had given him wide latitude on his memory slips, and that if I got pissed off so easily, he would happily step aside. “This drama,” he concluded, “is getting a bit much.”

We never saw each other after that. We haven’t talked. But when “Anonymous” appears on caller ID, I think of him.

Marilyn Abildskov is the author of The Men in My Country and the recipient of honors from the Rona Jaffe Writers’ Foundation, the Corporation of Yaddo, the Djerassi Resident Artists Program, and the Utah Arts Council. Her short stories and essays have appeared recently in AGNI, New Ohio Review, the Offing, the Rumpus, the Sun, and new work is forthcoming in Fiction International, Image, West Branch Wired, and Witness. Her essays have been shortlisted for Best American Essays four times. She received her MFA from the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program and teaches in the MFA program at Saint Mary’s College of California.

"The Trick: Notes toward a Theory of Plot" appears in our Autumn 2017 issue.