He remembers a bridge that spans a river. He doesn’t remember the name of the bridge or the name of the river or, for that matter, the name of the highway the bridge allows across. He has a bad memory for such things. He didn’t have a car then, anyway. He remembers the state—Pennsylvania. He remembers that the bridge lies somewhere east of Harrisburg. He remembers why the bridge is important to him now, twenty years later.
He wants to improve his memory. Dr. Jones says he will prescribe drugs—Prozac or Paxil. Sometimes it’s one, sometimes the other, as if he can’t decide which drug is right. “Memory loss is common,” he says, “in cases like these. A side effect of these medications is better memory.” The doctor’s nose and glasses don’t look real, a plastic novelty one gets at a dime store to place on an unremarkable face. “You don’t believe me, Billy.”
“I didn’t say that.”
Billy lets his eyes leave the doctor’s. He looks past them, through the blinds and out the window, where the air conditioner sits on the roof of the building next door, spinning full bore, Billy imagines, and he wonders how he knows this. He watches the space around the unit, but nothing moves. You can’t see air. You can hear it, sometimes—Whoosh!—when the wind blows. You can hear the fan’s motor whir, maybe even rattle if something’s loose inside. But the doctor’s windows are sealed. His office is quiet. So Billy watches the unit and waits. He likes to hear the doctor speaking in his gentle voice.
“Why are you here, Billy?”
Billy brings his eyes back into the room. “Why?”
“Why now? What prompted you to see a doctor like me?”
“My mother asked me to.”
“She must love you very much.”
“Do we have to talk about her?”
“No, we don’t.” Dr. Jones leans back in his chair. He opens his desk drawer and retrieves a prescription vial, pops its lid and shakes out a pill. “We talk about all sorts of things, Billy. Pick a topic.” It’s a tiny pill, something you balance on the tip of your finger, but the doctor clamps it between his front teeth and breaks it in half, swallows the piece in his mouth without water, contorting his face in the process. There is something needy in the way the doctor swallows the pill. It unnerves Billy to find so much need in this doctor.
“Ritalin,” Dr. Jones explains. He places the other half in the vial, recaps the lid and drops it back in the drawer. “My brain has a chemical imbalance, as does yours, I believe. Yours makes you feel sad and anxious. Mine impairs my concentration.” He crosses his legs and folds his hands in his lap. He smiles. “We can get help.”
Billy doesn’t answer. He doesn’t agree, but he doesn’t disagree.
“It’s not our fault we have these imbalances, Billy.”
“We can get help,” Dr. Jones says.
Billy doesn’t tell the doctor about the drugs he once took, about the daily bong hits and the weekly acid trips. Wouldn’t that have something to do with his poor memory?
Billy imagines the doctor confronting him one session, leaning forward in his leather chair with a challenge, telling Billy point blank what Billy already knows: that he isn’t making any progress because he’s holding back. In the meantime, Billy tells the doctor as much as he’s comfortable telling. He tells the doctor he wishes he didn’t have to come here. He tells the doctor he wishes he were almost anywhere but here.
For instance, Billy wishes he were home. Well, not his home, which is his mother’s home. Rather, he wishes he were at his own home.
“You had your own home once,” the doctor says.
“It’s not the home itself,” Billy says. “It’s the person inside the home. It’s me.”
Billy pauses to organize his thoughts, a trick he learned from a career counselor. A moment or two of silence is okay. He wishes he were someone else, someone who didn’t need a doctor like Dr. Jones. Millions of people live on their own. “It’s me I’d like to change.”
But Billy bows his head. If he says any more, he might cry, and he hates to do that when he’s not by himself, even if he’s just with a doctor like Dr. Jones.
Billy feels the doctor study him, as if Billy is a puzzle the doctor might solve. Billy knows all the counselor tricks: ask open-ended questions; let the client speak; listen. The silence lasts, but Billy will outlast it. Dr. Jones is a smart doctor, an insightful doctor, but an impatient man. Billy’s shoes are scuffed enough to appear old (though he has never considered these shoes old) against Dr. Jones’ blue carpet.
“Have you been to the beach?” Dr. Jones asks. “Have you swum in the ocean?”
Billy shifts in his chair to let the doctor know that of course he has.
“You know there’s that area a little ways out where the waves break and it can get pretty rough. But if you swim through that, then the waves are just swells, gentle things, that lift you up and down. They’re really very pleasant, and not rough at all.” He waits for Billy to respond, but he doesn’t wait long: “I think you’ve been hit by a wave or two, and now you’re afraid of the water. We have to work on getting past those breaking waves. That’s what we’re here to do.”
Billy rocks in his chair to let the doctor know that he agrees completely.
Billy doesn’t remember the names of the couple in the front seat—the guy driving or his date. He has a vague recollection of their appearance, like faded, still photos he flips through now in his brain. The girl had brown hair that fell to the base of her neck. She had blue eyes that opened round and wide, a look of perpetual surprise. The guy had black hair, a mustache, a trunk like a linebacker. He drove a new, American car, with four doors and plush seats. It was a car your parents would drive if your parents were rich. Billy doesn’t remember make or model. A lot of guys spend their time with cars, driving them and fixing them, even washing them. A lot of guys remember make and model the way Billy remembers that Michael Jackson came on the stereo just as they started over the bridge. The song was “Billie Jean,” unavoidable in the quiet car. The speakers sat behind Billy’s head. They were excellent speakers, and Billy listened to the way the song unfolded slowly, patiently, despite its claims on the dance floors and discotheques. He listened to its craft, its studio sheen. He listened to the way the instruments were layered—the drums and bass, the synthesizers and guitars—one on top of the other, each integral to the next, no note wasted.
Outside, past the steel girders and up whatever river they were crossing, the sun was setting. It would soon be Saturday night. Billy’s date sat next to him, a dreamy look on her face. Billy barely knew her, but he liked her. He liked that she’d asked him out of nowhere to her sorority formal. He liked that she’d transferred from Penn State because she’d decided that the bigger school wasn’t right. He liked the plainness of her name—Missy. He liked that she didn’t remind him of anyone he’d ever met before. And he liked that he could watch her now, that she didn’t notice, or chose not to show she noticed. She gazed out the window, quiet and reverent, a slight curl on her lips, while Michael Jackson’s voice did flips from the stereo speakers, and the chains and bridge cables went spinning past.
Billy has a new job segregating costs into different buckets for the public utility. They call them buckets, but they’re really spreadsheets built to account for three companies. There’s Company Four, Company Six, and Company Eleven. Those are the numbers that correspond to the accounting system. Four is Virginia, Six is D.C., and Eleven is Maryland. Billy commutes, all highway, along the Beltway that rings the city. He leaves his house early so that the drive isn’t so bad. But what’s forty-five minutes in the morning is an hour, even an hour and a half, at night.
Tonight is Friday, mid-July. The backup begins a mile shy of the I-66 onramp. The heat gets wavy across the asphalt and the hoods and tailpipes of running engines. The air is still; the occasional hot breath puffs through the open windows.
Billy’s car is a five-speed, 80,000 miles on the clutch. He tries to keep the car in second gear, but then the traffic goes too fast, and he shifts into third as the brake lights glare. He slows and takes the car out of gear. Then back into first. He winces, imagines the clutch wearing down like the shoulder of a veteran pitcher asked to throw hard every other day. He wonders about his options if the car dies here. Ask a stranger to use her phone? Walk to the next exit? Billy imagines Dr. Jones questioning how it helps to wonder such things. How it helps to obsess. To use so much energy on a scenario that hasn’t happened, that may never happen. It helps Billy to hear the doctor’s voice in his head. It helps him stop obsessing for a moment and think of something else.
Gospel music pours from the stereo speakers. Billy tapes the program on Sunday mornings then listens on the evening drive home. He doesn’t know the names of the songs or the names of the groups. He only knows what he likes. He only knows what he thinks is missing from his life. He only knows how gospel might help. “Miracle!” the singers sing. “It’s a miracle!” Billy imagines swaying bodies in satin robes. He imagines drummers and guitarists and keyboardists, armed with microphones and amplifiers, seizing the altar as if a stage. He imagines parishioners—arms up, palms out—shouting praises while the singers chests heave, while great lungs fill with air, while brows shimmer under hot lights.
The traffic moves, and Billy accelerates—all the way to thirty miles an hour, third gear, when the brake lights roll toward him like a wave.
Billy stops in the left lane, near the sign that tells him the speed limit is fifty-five. Scattered on the shoulder and the weedy edge of the median are those scraps of landscape you’re not supposed to see—you couldn’t possibly see—if you’re going the speed limit. Tailpipes and mufflers and who knows what, rusted off the underbellies of old cars like Billy’s. They lay nestled in the sand spread last winter, now blackened with soot and leaking oil. Lost parts. Irretrievable parts. What would be the point of retrieving them?
And all at once he begins crying, a sudden burst like a thunderstorm. It startles him, this jag, and brings a gasp and a shudder. The sobs are audible, and he’s conscious of the traffic, of the community of cars and drivers and the occasional passenger he shares this space with. They’re packed together in four lanes. The kid with the baseball cap in the red Volvo next to Billy could roll down his window and shout, “Need a tissue?” So Billy stares straight ahead and resists the urge to wipe his cheek with the cuff of his shirtsleeve. He stares straight ahead and tries to rein himself in, which proves impossible now that he’s gone this far, like trying to plug a leaky boat. All you do is bail, and hope that you do it fast enough to stay afloat. Another stab brings another gasp and grunt, more hot tears. He turns up the stereo to cover the wet sounds.
Dr. Jones enters the waiting area. Billy stands. He’s the only patient left.
“Billy,” Dr. Jones says, and Billy goes to him. “I have you in my appointment book for tomorrow at five.”
“Today is Wednesday,” Billy says.
“Yes, but our appointment is for Thursday.”
Billy doesn’t answer. What is there to say?
“Do you keep an appointment book, Billy?”
He only has one appointment a week.
“I find if I don’t write things down,” Dr. Jones says, “they get lost.” He points to his head. “Up here.”
The party was at a hotel in one of the ballrooms. The four checked into a room they would share. They changed clothes. Billy wore a tie and jacket. Missy wore a gold dress with stockings that glittered when she moved through light. They drank screwdrivers in rooms where the pre-parties were held. Missy’s sorority was a popular one on campus. Billy didn’t know these girls, or the guys they dated. Yet he stood with them in their circles, was never made to feel he was outside looking in. The vodka was strong in his glass. The party had just begun.
Missy turned to him and opened her hand. Two black capsules formed an “L” in her palm. “I have speed,” she said.
She swallowed one and gave him the other. He washed it down with his drink. “Let me know if you need more,” she said, raising her purse and tapping it with a painted fingernail.
He remembers dancing. He remembers dancing so much that people said stuff about how much he danced, how well he danced. About how much fun he seemed to have dancing. About how they’d never seen Billy have so much fun before.
Later, after the party, after the after-party, when the other couple came back to the room, Billy lay on top of her, kissing her, and she was kissing him.
He rolled off, and she sat up, smoothed her gold dress. He felt the wet spot in his pants. He folded his hands in his lap, and wondered how he’d gotten here.
The next day was cloudy. For a time it rained. On the way back to campus, Billy slept, and when he woke they had already crossed the bridge. The highway was like any other. They dropped him at his dorm. Missy got out of the car, while Billy retrieved his bag from the trunk. He remembers thanking her. He would have done that, of course. He remembers not kissing her. He wanted to. But there were spectators in the car, in the dorm, he imagined, peering out windows, waiting for Billy to make his move. There was something in the sober, gray light that told him not to.
Back on his hall, the bag slung over his shoulder, Tubby Joe Gregg was waiting. “You should’ve kissed her,” Tubby Joe growled.
In his mother’s basement, Billy opens a box, but it’s the wrong box. This one contains an ankle brace, some watercolors and paintbrushes, a roll of paper towels. A bunch of random crap. And lying loose among the contents are photos. About a dozen. He picks one from the top. A twenty-year-old Billy leans against a white, wooden fence, with the college lake behind him. He wears a Baltimore Orioles baseball cap—an old one, with the cartoon bird on the front. He wears a T-shirt with the American Express logo. His smile is barely there, as if it’s merely a reflex from looking into the sun that shines behind the camera, behind the unknown photographer. But the eyes stop Billy now. They’re red and glassy. Stoned, Billy thinks, but it goes beyond that. There is something distracted in this Billy’s gaze, as if he’s looking at the lens but his mind sees something else.
Upstairs, Billy’s mom cooks him dinner. He wishes she wouldn’t do that, treat him like a little boy. He knows it’s not possible, or even fair, but he wishes he could share this house with her and never see her. Billy spots a pen in the box and picks it up. He pulls the cap off and scratches the point against the box lid. Black ink flows easily.
He remembers a postcard he received once from Missy, during the summer between his junior and senior years. She was traveling in Europe with a friend who had a reputation on campus for giving head. Billy wondered what that said about Missy, to be friends with this girl. He remembers exactly one line from the postcard: “You’re far too shy, Billy.” She suggested they spend more time together in the fall. When the postcard arrived that summer his mom asked, “Who’s Missy?”
Now Billy looks at the picture again. Why would he have a picture of himself, standing alone? He flips it over. The back is blank. He remembers the labels his mom puts on the backs of photos—“Billy, with Tonka, Xmas 1970.” He gets an idea, an impulsive one, and writes on the glossy, white paper, “Me, in happy times.” He looks at the photo again, then back at the label. He toys, for a moment, with changing the period into a question mark, to make the label that much more cryptic, something for future generations of Billy watchers to fathom. He can’t help but smile at that thought, and he wonders if his smile now is the same as the one in the photo. He decides it can’t be, so he leaves the period a period because that’s the way he remembers what he remembers.
“Billy!” his mom calls.
He twists his head, and yells up the stairs: “Down here!”
“As these cases go, Billy, believe me, yours is not a bad one.” The late-afternoon sun streams through the doctor’s window and shines in Billy’s eyes. In a minute it will fall behind the roof of the building next door. Until then, Billy shifts his chair so that a standing lamp by the window blocks the sun’s rays. “You’re not delusional,” the doctor continues. “You’re not suicidal. At least you haven’t told me you are.”
The doctor waits a beat. Billy watches him wait.
“Are you?” Doctor Jones asks.
The doctor flattens his mouth. “Sure.”
“No,” Billy answers.
“Ever?” the doctor asks.
Who isn’t? Billy thinks. But the truth is he is too afraid to act. Throw himself off a building? What a mess. Asphyxiate himself in his mom’s garage? It makes him sick to think about it. Other people turn themselves around. Why can’t Billy?
“It’s okay,” Dr. Jones says.
“Hasn’t everybody,” Billy asks, “thought about killing themselves?”
“It’s common,” the doctor agrees, “to have those thoughts at one time or another.”
Silence follows. Billy realizes he’s supposed to tell the doctor about his suicidal impulses. He also realizes that the doctor is wary of Billy ever filling these voids with anything useful.
“Billy,” the doctor says after a time, “you have a mid-grade depression. It’s always with you. You’ve grown accustomed to it. It’s like your friend.”
The sun is gone now. Billy rolls his chair back to where it usually sits.
“Can you imagine yourself,” Dr. Jones asks, “without that dull ache?”
Billy shakes his head, no.
“We can do all sorts of exercises,” the doctor says, “to help you see past it, to help you live as healthy as possible. But your depression will still be there—sometimes in the background, sometimes in the foreground, like a fan that whirs and distracts from time to time.
“Close your eyes, Billy.”
Billy does so.
“I want you to imagine,” the doctor says, “what it would feel like if we took that ache away.”
Billy feels the pressure that radiates down from the top of his chest, through his heart, his ribs and into his stomach, up through his shoulders and out his arms to the tips of his fingers. It isn’t an ache, exactly. It is dread. That’s the only word to describe it.
“How would it feel,” the doctor’s voice says, “if we took that away?”
Billy imagines it gone, wiped away with a rag, or zapped and incapacitated with the sort of radiation they use to treat tumors. Would he feel anything if they took it away? Would he still be Billy? Or someone else. A Kenny, a Sam, a Bob.
“Different,” he says. “It would feel different.”
“Is different better?”
“I don’t know. Different is different.” He opens his eyes.
Dr. Jones sighs through his big nose. “Your resistance to medications is normal. You don’t know what to expect, except to feel different. The thought of suppressing part of your brain, even a part that is naturally suppressed for most people, scares you.”
“I just want to cope better.”
“We have common goals,” Dr. Jones says.
Billy nods. He believes the doctor, but he’s not going to take the doctor’s drugs.
Dr. Jones looks at his watch. “We’re out of time, Billy. Think about your treatment. Some of us can help ourselves but so much.”
He remembers sensing—even as it happened in real time, as they started across the bridge and the first, vague notes of “Billie Jean” gathered like black clouds gather, quickly and efficiently, before a thunderstorm—that the moment was extraordinary. He remembers how the clouds that day were white, how they hung like balloons tethered by strings to the fists of children. He remembers how the river was blue and splotched with green, where the clouds cast their shadows, maybe, or where they reflected off the rippled surface. It was December. There were no boats on the water. Trees met the shoreline. It could have been wilderness.
Inside, the car was warm. Billy leaned his head against the cinnamon velour and felt the throaty hum from the tires, up through the wheels and the axles and the frame. He felt the low end from the stereo speakers mounted in the trunk. No one spoke. He had no obligations now, to be witty or engaging. All of that was deferred. It would be a while before they reached the hotel. He took comfort from the promise of time, from the promise of miles they had yet to cover. The sun was low in the sky. It shone through the windows on the driver’s side and lit all four faces. The cables pitched up and the suspender wires rose high to meet the arch, and now the car and its occupants were inside of something, looking out. Sunlight flickered through the gate formed by the wires, like film spinning past a projector’s bulb, frame by frame, and Billy imagined himself an actor during the quiet, contemplative part of a movie, where the moods of the audience and characters were one.
It was then that Billy turned his head. He could have been asleep. He merely let the muscles in his neck go until his cheek rolled against the seatback. It was no more motion than that. Except his eyes were open with an indifferent, far-away look, he imagines—as if watching himself play the scene for the umpteenth time. Missy gazed ahead. Her temple touched the window. She seemed somewhere else—on the water, perhaps, upriver, or on the far bank. It was bold the way he watched her. He studied how her black hair fell to the small of her back, how it was tucked behind her ear, which held three gold hoops—two in the lobe and a smaller one up high, where the tissue stiffened. It was a small ear, curved and fluted. A shell. A tiny, perfect prize one claims on an empty beach.
She’s mine. What the singers sing. What the actors say. She belongs to me. My girl. My lover. My baby. Mine.
On the river, the sunlight glinted, reflecting halos on the gray-cloth ceiling. The trusses blurred with speed. Michael Jackson shouted. The halos danced. Billy and Missy and the front-seat couple merely breathed. This was the way people lived. The car hurtled forward. The bridge held them.