by Tyler Corbridge
As the return flight from Bucharest descended from 30,000 feet, the city of Los Angeles began to reveal its features. Joseph watched the slow transformation from his window. He was thin; his skin and muscles were particularly tight in his calves and high-boned cheeks; and his eyes, which were dark with exhaustion, blinked more often than usual as he stared out at the lights. He, like most people, was enchanted by the place he called home, and all the more so this late at night. At a distance the dark glow of Los Angeles County reminded Joseph of something he had read years ago—a physical description of deep-sea creatures that produce a phosphorescence, which after nightfall resembles Christmas lights floating to the surface of the ocean and flashing in rivalry with the stars. He decided to find the book as soon as he arrived home, and then wondered if his wife would be awake, waiting for him. She usually would, but as the plane came low to the ground so he could finally make out the stoplights from the tail lights, he thought this time she might have already fallen asleep.
The plane touched down at 11:25 p.m., ten minutes ahead of schedule. He had traveled to Bucharest on business, and his trip had been short, only six days. This would be his second fight against jet lag in less than a week, he thought, yawning.
Apart from his carry-on, he had only one bag, which was the first to come down the ramp; he moved quickly to an open cab and was soon approaching the city limits. Because Joseph never felt comfortable sleeping in taxis, he tried reading in the dim light to pass the time but quickly found himself reading and then rereading the same paragraphs and pages, processing none of it, dozing, etc., and in the end he decided that he’d already finished the entire chapter on the plane and had only forgotten to dog-page his new place. Giving up, he leaned forward a little and considered speaking but decided against it; had his driver been interested in making small talk with passengers he would have already begun a conversation. Even from behind, Joseph could see that his driver was a barrel-chested man, and on the dashboard was picture of him with an enormous swordfish. A moment passed that Joseph felt regret for never having a fish tale of his own, then he rested his head back and watched the uniform green exit signs come and go in hypnotizing rhythm.
Joseph’s wife’s name was Josephine, and their friends regularly called them both Joe. She taught children in their neighborhood to play the cello. She had a long neck and thin wrists, and her hair looked just as good in a mess as it did put together. To Joseph, she looked best in the mornings when her eyes were still tired.
When they were first married six years ago, wine made Josephine talky, so she shared everything with him, determined that she and Joseph should become one entity, not as a result of weakness or inexperience but as an experiment. But over the last few months, Joseph noticed his wife sharing less at nights. She slept earlier, and in the mornings she often left the house before Joseph was out of bed. In turn, Joseph had begun to show less interest as well, but it occurred to him in the cab that he was excited to see her now, and then for several minutes there came over him a strange and ardent impression that things would be different between them; in fact, he felt that things had already changed—that in his short absence life had moved forward in a wonderful way and he need only step back into a current. Watching the passing of the signs, he imagined himself floating languidly downstream on his back. She’ll be wearing something new, he thought, something thin for sleeping in. He imagined her reaching for his hand at the door, and then he pictured a lioness in breathy repose, a dreamy rhythm in her nostrils.
Joseph reset his watch. He wanted to bring a gift home to Josephine, so he asked the driver to take him somewhere he could buy flowers. He bought chrysanthemums, and when he left the all-night supermarket he was certain that they were her favorite, but as he neared their house, holding the bouquet to his nose now and again, he began to second-guess himself.
It was just before one o’clock when the taxi pulled in front of their modest stucco home. Joseph removed his carry-on and bag from the trunk and then paid the driver. The night smelled sweet, as desert nights often do, and the full moon, which was set against a nearby streetlight, cast conflicting shadows along the asphalt. The air was damp and warm, too warm for that hour, and all the usual outside sounds were quieted by the soft, airy hum of the outdoor A/C unit at the side of the house. The front door was locked. He considered ringing, then decided it was too late. He began searching his carry-on for the key instead, but after a few moments he thought he heard someone walking inside—a dull rhythm like the sound of bare heels on tile. Knocking lightly with two knuckles, he listened. The outdoor A/C unit sputtered and shook, then became still and silent. He knocked again, louder. Still no answer, so he rang the bell, but as soon as he did the dull steps began again and faded, moving deeper into the house, passing into another room and to the deadened carpet. Perhaps she has forgotten I fly home tonight, he thought. I might have scared her.
Listening close at the door, he noticed another soft whirr coming from behind and saw that his cab had not left. The driver, who had been watching, gave an inquisitive thumbs up, so Joseph responded by raising his index finger. He searched his carry-on for the house key but it wasn’t there, neither could he find it in his case. He went around to the back of his house to try the only other entrance, but it was locked as well. He returned to the front of the house and decided to call his wife’s cell. No answer. Then he called his home phone and heard its faint ring several times inside, each ring seeming to follow a longer space in time than the last. Twice he got the answering machine, which was his own voice: “Hi, friend. You have reached Joe and Jo. If you have a message for Joe, press 1. If you have a message for Jo, press 2. Leave a good one and we might get back to you.” The recording, which could be heard playing inside, came though Joseph’s phone with a delayed effect, resulting in two separate voices at once, competing against each other. The inside voice ended, followed by a long beep, and then at the moment the second voice in the phone finished speaking there came a gurgle from the side of the house, followed by a second stuttering gurgle, and at last the outdoor A/C unit resumed its previous hum.
At once, a dark animal shot out from the shadows and crossed his lawn toward the gutter; there was the faraway sound of footsteps, and a man could be seen at the end of the street trailing a cigarette, which was only visible as he inhaled—the glowing orange dot fading like a distant lighthouse. It wasn’t until now that Joseph noticed the wet blush of moonlight in the grass and the gutters and he thought it must have rained earlier that night. His driver cut the engine and waited.
Joseph thought he heard his wife speak, but it came muffled through the door. He tried to look in through the window, but the blinds were seamless. Her voice came again. He knocked at the door and spoke into it, saying it was he and that he had brought flowers. He turned his neck and listened, but there was no clear answer. Looking back at the window, he noticed a faint shadow of what might have been his wife conjured up by a soft lamplight in the entryway; it was too frail to be sure. Even if it was his wife’s shadow, he couldn’t tell if she was facing toward him or away, nor could he tell what she was doing with her hands. He cursed the blinds, and watched the shadow for several seconds and when it didn’t move his frustration grew. He cursed the doorknob and shook it. He laughed at himself and at the absurdity of his situation, recognizing the humor in a mechanical device that refuses its own function. Taking a step back, his house began to feel false, as though it was made of paper, and the front door was a farce.
He stared and listened. The amalgamation of the hum and the insects and her soft traveling voice evoked a memory, or rather a single audible image of Josephine sitting on a kitchen chair in their backyard, erect, her cello balanced between her knees, dragging her bow deeply. She enjoyed the way outside sounds accompany her cello, especially afternoon sounds like children’s voices. He set his ear to the door, the words were indecipherable but her voice was more distinct, not whispering or mumbling but clear and steady. Her tone made Joseph feel as though they had been carrying on a normal conversation for some time, perhaps for days. Trying in earnest to make out the words, there was an odd sensation that he had missed several significant conversations with his wife, that in the few days he was gone she had become someone he could not recognize, that she had, in a sense, changed skins, that if she did open the door right then, she would be unrecognizable and he might pick up his things and leave anyway, knowing that he had no business with her now. He held the bouquet of chrysanthemums up to the window, and then spoke to Josephine through the blinds, telling her that he had brought the flowers all the way from Romania. He set them on the ground. He told Josephine that if they were wilted or gloomy it was only jet lag, they would be fine in the morning. When she didn’t respond, he took his luggage and went back to the taxi.
On their way to a motel, the driver spoke slowly and sleepily. Joseph only half-listened as he watched the signs again, this time counting backward. They seemed to come at him in slow motion, their reflectors aglow in the thinning school of headlights. Ever since asking where Joseph had taken his trip, the driver had been going on and on about Bucharest, saying that he’d spent a month there and didn’t like a second of it. “To spend a month in a city where the dominant color is gray and everything divided into cookie-cutter blocks with no personality…,” he shook his head and grunted. “Like the specter of communism, that’s what I call it. That, to me, is Bucharest. Then there’s the gypsies, and the smell of the gypsies.” Joseph wasn’t interested. He told the driver that he enjoyed his stay in Bucharest and that he would go back the first chance he got. But the driver clearly wasn’t finished; he shrugged and went on, “But I spent some time sailing the Black Sea and you wouldn’t believe the things you’ll see there at night, right there in the water, just beside the hull. Some things are so impressive they stick in your mind forever. I remember a school of jellyfish—big-ass jellyfish with thick mushroom heads—coming right up to the surface, and they glowed like fat Christmas bulbs. I remember it came into my head the way they pulsated looked like they were waving to us, or egging us on or something, and for a minute there, as I was leaning over the side of the boat, I thought I might jump right into the water after them.” Joseph rested his head against the window and shut his eyes; he tried hard to remember whether or not he had removed the tag from Josephine’s chrysanthemums.
That night, Joseph dreamt that the sun had long set below the Black Sea and that a sailor in a white hat and Navy necktie, who had somehow been deserted without a vessel, was now kicking his legs furiously against the weight of the sea, trying to stay above the endless school of lights and shining jelly below, like dull lamps and tinsel rising steadily upward toward the surface. It wasn’t until late the following afternoon, long after the sunlight had escaped through his shades, when an even tick woke Joseph and he opened his ears to the soothing cadence of a ceiling fan.