“Maybe it was coming to consciousness in a world war, but I've spent my whole life trying to understand what it is to be seized by a reality that is hostile, that tries constantly to destroy you, that keeps you alive but only barely, and prevents you from understanding how to get out. Because first you have to think of getting out and then you have to imagine what "out" might be and then devise a way to make the change. If you have the guts. Because then you won't be the same anymore, so how can you go back if it's all a mistake?”
In the SW “Four Corners” open country she was writing on a laptop while sitting at a picnic table — the kind with attached benches on either side. It was alongside a “trading post” where there was enough overhang to make shade. A nearby juniper tree was pungent in the midday sun. On the other side of the cement walkway around the building was a tall old hedge of caraghanas, hot enough to be bursting its pods, scattering tiny peas that bounced on the cement.
She stopped typing long enough to take a sip of her latte and ask herself whether her paragraph were really true. Standing on the other side of the table, waiting for her to look up, was a man about her age. He had a beer and a big spiral-bound pad of artist’s paper. “May I sit here?” he asked politely. “I need a surface for this while I draw.” He gestured with the pad.
Momentarily she was disconcerted and then became polite. “Oh, sure.” He was a nice-looking sun-toasted man in khaki shorts and shirt, worn loose and unbuttoned with no undershirt but a necklace of turquoise, nothing fancy, just beads. “Are you an anthropologist?” Anthropologists always wear khaki. But he didn’t have a Tilley hat. Instead he was topped with a battered straw vaguely-cowboy hat.
He understood her inquiry. “My father was. These are his clothes. He died last year and instead of throwing them out, I’m using them up.”
She thought about what it might mean to have an anthropologist father. Then she was grateful that he didn’t ask what she was writing because it was so internal. But he did ask, “Your outfit?”, and gestured with his lips towards her battered van. She realized that he was pretty much Native American, with enough white genes to have a neat little beard. She nodded. “Yeah. Mattress and cooler. I travel cheap.” Her train of thought had gone off the rails.
Seated, he began to draw and saw her curiosity about his pen. “Sakura Pigma Micron drawing pen.” He held it up. “You draw?” She shook her head. He added, “I only use .30 micron line width.” He didn’t seem to mind that she watched while he drew, not sketching composition or lines across the paper, not shading, but drawing a little shape in one place, then another different one in another part of the paper. “I’m just drawing what I already see, but it comes in spots.”
She went back to her keyboard. Before she'd had her stroke, she had a much stronger ability to focus. Afterwards, it was not as though something was missing, like a room closed off, but as though some capacity to suppress irrelevance was missing. Everything seemed significant. It was easier when that old sanity filter kept out so much, because now she had to struggle to cope with the torrent of impressions and patterns, almost too much and too fast to be written down. A lot of technical knowledge about sentence construction was missing from her brain but after a while she stopped worrying about that as a waste of energy. It gave her a receptiveness to other people, an empathy. She had not known that it was possible to have a mental impairment without a physical sign.
He rose. “I’m gonna get a beer. Want one?” She smiled and pointed to her latte. While he was gone she leaned over to see those creatures he had drawn. Returning, he caught her at it and turned the pad so she could see them right-side-up. They weren’t manga. More like what she saw on the website called “deviant art”: fantasy, schematic, sci-fi, inventive as the illustrations for storybooks of her childhood.
When she looked back at his face, she saw that he was mostly in that world, looking out at her. “I blog on a fantasy website network. You ever write about such things?”
“I have enough trouble keeping my sanity in this world without borrowing complications from another one.” She wasn’t being snarky or funny. That was her honest feeling about it. Living in this dangerous “reality” took all her resources. Just thinking about that made her adrenaline level rise. He saw — she knew he saw and recognized it but didn’t try to do anything about it. Just let her be what she was where she was.
A big ginger cat came out of the store and leapt up onto the table. After all, it was where it lived and it didn’t care whether it were welcome or not. She’d admired it in the store and the owner had explained to her that it was a little overweight, which didn’t turn out to be a problem when it hunted unwanted rodents. Not so much at catching mice, but it was a good packrat hunter. A packrat is a nuisance because it is named for its practice of carrying off small objects, but leaving something else in their place. Why or how the packrat made decisions about process was not known — no sympathy for packrats, just annoyance that one’s things were not where they were left and that the replacement was not of equal value or the same function. Objects had to be put away.
The cat did not look into their faces. It did not care. It had a “theory of mind,” meaning it could predict what a packrat would do next, but no empathy and no interest in much of anything else. Briefly it regarded the man’s tiny movements as he drew, but then closed its eyes and its mind went off wherever cats go when they doze. The tip of its tail twitched and once or twice its ears reoriented direction. Neither person tried to pet the cat, though she had greeted it politely. “Hello, cat.”
As the man drew, his paper filled up with creatures and their strange habitats. Once or twice she imagined that they moved, like the cat — just tiny flicks and twitches. But then she got hold of her line of thought again and began to write quickly. The two creatives in an environment adjunct to shelter but actually open space, became synchronized in some subtle way. Not so much in gestures or words as in a rhythm of tension/relaxation, feeling their way along wave-lengths only felt, almost like sunlight. But reciprocating to the moving sunlight, the shade withdrew and the spell broke.
The man’s page was filled densely with some story only he knew. The woman’s words had washed concepts through her mind that could be reconstituted by reading. The people smiled at each other, folded up their instruments and parted. Maybe they would meet again. Maybe not. It was afternoon, not yet evening, not yet dark. The cat yawned. Night was for hunting. Even the humans knew that. They were as much prey as predator.