The Longest Ride. Занятие 34

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“You can live without me,” Ruth says to me.


Outside the car, the winds have died down and the darkness seems less opaque. This is moonlight, I think to myself, and I realize that the weather is finally clearing. By tomorrow night, if I last that long, the weather will begin to improve, and by Tuesday the snow will be melting. For a moment, this gives me hope, but as quickly as it comes, the feeling fades away. I will not last that long.


I am weak, so weak that even focusing on Ruth is difficult. The inside of the car is moving in circles, and I want to reach for her hand to steady me, but I know that’s impossible. Instead, I try to remember the feel of her touch, but the sensation eludes me. “Are you listening to me?” she asks.


I close my eyes, trying to make the dizziness stop, but it only increases, colored spirals exploding behind my eyes. “Yes,” I finally whisper, a dry rasp in the volcanic ash of my throat. My thirst claws at me with a vengeance. Worse than before. Infinitely worse. It’s been more than a day since I’ve had anything to drink, and the desire for water consumes me, growing stronger with every labored breath.


“The water bottle is here,” Ruth suddenly says to me. “I think it is on the floor by my feet.”


Her voice is soft and lilting, like a melody, and I try to latch on to the sound to avoid thinking about the obvious. “How do you know?”


“I do not know for sure. But where else can it be? It is not on the seat.”


She’s right, I think to myself. It’s likely on the floor, but there is nothing I can do to reach it. “It doesn’t matter,” I finally say in despair.


“Of course it matters. You must find a way to reach the bottle.”


“I can’t,” I say. “I’m not strong enough.”


She seems to absorb this and remains quiet for a moment. In the car, I think I hear her breathing before I realize that it is I who has begun to wheeze. The blockage in my throat has begun to form again.


“Do you remember the tornado?” she suddenly asks me. There is something in her voice imploring me to concentrate, and I try to figure out what she’s referring to. The tornado. It means nothing at first, and then, slowly, the memory begins to acquire shape and significance.


I’d been home from work for an hour when all at once the sky turned an ominous shade of grayish green. Ruth stepped outside to investigate, and I remember seizing her by the hand to drag her to the bathroom in the center of the house. It was the first tornado she’d ever experienced, and though our house was unharmed, a tree down the street had been toppled, crushing a neighbor’s car. “It was 1957,” I say. “April.”


“Yes,” she says. “That is when it happened. I am not surprised you remember. You always remember the weather, even from long ago.”


“I remember because I was frightened.”


“But you remember the weather now, too.”


“I watch the Weather Channel.”


“This is good. There are many good programs on this channel. There is sometimes much to learn.”


“Why are we talking about this?”


“Because,” she says to me, urgency in her tone, “there is something you must remember. There is something more.”


I don’t understand what she means, and in my exhaustion, I realize I suddenly don’t care. The wheeze grows worse and I close my eyes, beginning to float on a sea of dark, undulating waves. Toward a distant horizon, away from here. Away from her.


“You have seen something interesting lately!” she shouts.


And still, I drift. Outside the car. Flying now. Under the moon and stars. The night is clearing and the wind has died, and I’m so tired I know I will sleep forever. I feel my limbs relax and lose heft.


“Ira!” she shouts, the panic in her voice rising. “There is something you must remember! It was on the Weather Channel!” Her voice sounds far away, almost like an echo.


“A man in Sweden!” she shouts. “He had no food or water!” Though I can barely hear her, the words somehow register. Yes, I think, and the memory, like the tornado, also begins to take shape. Umeå. Arctic Circle. Sixty-four days.


“He survived!” she shouts. She reaches for me, her hand coming to rest on my leg.


And in that moment, I stop drifting. When I open my eyes, I’m back in the car.


Buried in his car in the snow. No food or water.


No water…


No water…


Ruth leans toward me, so close I can smell the delicate rose notes of her perfume. “Yes, Ira,” she says, her expression serious.


“He had no water. So how did he survive? You must remember!”


I blink and my eyes feel scaly, like those of a reptile. “Snow,” I say. “He ate the snow.”


She holds my gaze and I know she is daring me to look away. “There is snow here, too,” she says. “There is snow right outside your window.”


At her words, I feel something surge inside me despite my weakness, and though I am afraid of movement, I nonetheless raise my left arm slowly. I inch it forward on my thigh and then lift it, moving it to the armrest. The exertion feels mammoth and I take a moment to catch my breath. But Ruth is right. There is water close by and I stretch my finger toward the button. I’m afraid the window won’t open, but still I stretch my finger forward. Something primal keeps me going. I hope the battery still works. It worked before, I tell myself again. It worked after the accident. Finally my finger meets the button and I push it forward.


And like a miracle, bitter cold suddenly invades the interior. The chill is brutal and a dab of snow lands on the back of my hand. So close now, but I am facing the wrong way. I must lift my head. The task seems insurmountable, but the water calls out to me and it is impossible not to answer.


I raise my head, and my arm and shoulder and collarbone explode. I see nothing but white and then nothing but black, but I keep on going. My face feels swollen, and for an instant, I don’t think I’ll make it. I want to put my head back down. I want the pain to end, yet my left hand is already moving toward me. The snow is already melting and I can feel the water dripping and my hand keeps moving.


And then, just when I’m on the brink of giving up, my hand meets my mouth. The snow is wonderful, and my mouth seems to come alive. I can feel the wetness on my tongue. It is cold and sharp and heavenly, and I feel the individual drops of water trace a path down my throat. The miracle emboldens me and I reach for another handful of snow. I swallow some more and the needles vanish. My throat is suddenly young like Ruth, and though the car is freezing, I do not even feel the cold. I take another handful of snow, and then another, and the exhaustion I felt just a minute ago has dissipated. I’m tired and weak, but this seems infinitely bearable by comparison. When I look at Ruth, I can see her clearly. She’s in her thirties, that age when she was most beautiful of all, and she is glowing.


“Thank you,” I finally say.


“There is no reason to thank me.” She shrugs. “But you should roll up the window now. Before you get too cold.”


I do as she tells me, my eyes never leaving hers. “I love you, Ruth,” I croak.


“I know,” she says, her expression tender. “That is why I have come.”


The water has restored me in a way that seemed impossible even a few hours earlier. By this, I mean my mind. My body is still a wreck and I am still afraid to move, but Ruth seems comforted by my recovery. She sits quietly, listening to the chatter of my thoughts. Mostly I am preoccupied with the question of whether someone will ever find me…


In this world, after all, I’ve become more or less invisible. Even when I filled my tank with gasoline—which led to me getting lost, I now think—the woman behind the counter looked past me, toward a young man in jeans. I’ve become what the young are afraid of becoming, just another member of the nameless elderly, an old and broken man with nothing left to offer to this world.


My days are inconsequential, comprising simple moments and even simpler pleasures. I eat and sleep and think of Ruth; I wander the house and stare at the paintings, and in the mornings, I feed the pigeons that gather in my backyard. My neighbor complains about this. He thinks the birds are a disease-ridden nuisance. He may have a point, but he also cut down a magnificent maple tree that straddled our properties simply because he was tired of raking the leaves, so his judgment isn’t something that I consider altogether trustworthy. Anyway, I like the birds. I like the gentle cooing noises they make and I enjoy watching their heads bob up and down as they pursue the seed I scatter for them.


I know that most people consider me to be a recluse. That’s how the journalist described me. As much as I despise the word and what it implies, there is some truth to what she wrote about me. I’ve been a widower for years, a man without children, and as far as I know, I have no living relatives. My friends, aside from my attorney, Howie Sanders, have long since passed away, and since the media storm—the one unleashed by the article in the New Yorker—I seldom leave the house. It’s easier that way, but I frequently wonder whether I should have ever talked to the journalist in the first place. Probably not, but when Janice or Janet or whatever her name was showed up at the door unannounced, her dark hair and intelligent eyes reminded me of Ruth, and the next thing I knew, she was standing in the living room. She didn’t leave for the next six hours. How she found out about the collection, I still don’t know. Probably from an art dealer up north—they can be bigger gossips than schoolgirls—but even so, I didn’t blame her for all that followed.


She was doing her job and I could have asked her to leave, but instead I answered her questions and allowed her to take photographs. After she left, I promptly put her out of my mind. Then, a few months later, a squeaky-voiced young man who described himself as a fact-checker for the magazine phoned to verify things that I had said. Naively, I gave him the answers he wanted, only to receive a small package in the mail several weeks later. The journalist had been thoughtful enough to send me a copy of the issue in which the article appeared. Needless to say, the article enraged me. I threw it away after reading what she’d written, but later after I’d cooled down, I retrieved it from the trash and read it once more. In retrospect, I realized it wasn’t her fault that she hadn’t understood what I’d been trying to tell her. In her mind, after all, the collection was the entirety of the story.


That was six years ago, and it turned my life upside down. Bars went up on the windows and a fence was installed that circled the yard. I had a security system put in, and the police began making a point to drive past my house at least twice a day. I was deluged with phone calls. Reporters. Producers. A screenwriter who promised to put the story on the big screen. Three or four lawyers. Two people who claimed to be related, distant cousins on Ruth’s side of the family. Strangers down on their luck and looking for handouts. In the end, I simply unplugged the phone, for all of them—including the journalist—thought about the art only in terms of money.


What every last person failed to see was that it was not about money; it was about the memories they held. If Ruth had the letters I wrote her, I had the paintings and the memories. When I see the de Koonings and the Rauschenbergs and the Warhols, I recall the way Ruth held me as we stood by the lake; when I see the Jackson Pollock, I am reliving that first trip to New York in 1950. We were halfway through our trip, and on a whim we drove out to Springs, a hamlet near East Hampton on Long Island. It was a glorious summer day and Ruth wore a yellow dress. She was twenty-eight then and growing more beautiful with every passing day, something that Pollock did not fail to notice. I am convinced that it was her elegant bearing that moved him to allow two strangers into his studio. It also explains why he eventually allowed Ruth to purchase a painting he’d only recently completed, something he seldom, if ever, did again. Later that afternoon, on our way back to the city, Ruth and I stopped at a small café in Water Mill. It was a charming place with scuffed wood floors and sun drenched windows, and the owner led us to a wobbly outdoor table. On that day, Ruth ordered white wine, something light and sweet, and we sipped from our glasses while gazing out over the Sound. The breeze was light and the day was warm, and when we spotted the occasional boat passing in the distance, we’d wonder aloud where it might be headed.


Hanging next to that painting is a work by Jasper Johns. We bought it in 1952, the summer that Ruth’s hair was at its longest. The first faint lines were beginning to form at the corners of her eyes, adding a womanly quality to her face. She and I had stood atop the Empire State Building earlier that morning, and later in the quiet of our hotel room, Ruth and I made love for hours before she finally fell asleep in my arms. I could not sleep that day. Instead, I stared at her, watching the gentle rise and fall of her chest, her skin warm against my own. In the dim surroundings of that room, her hair splayed over the pillow, I found myself asking whether any man had ever been as lucky as I.


This is why I wander our house late at night; this is why the collection remains intact. This is why I’ve never sold a single painting. How could I? In the oils and pigments I store my memories of Ruth; in every painting I recall a chapter of our lives together. There is nothing more precious to me. They are all I have left of the wife I’ve loved more than life itself, and I will continue to stare and remember until I can do it no more.


Before she passed, Ruth sometimes joined me on these late hour wanderings, for she, too, enjoyed being drawn back in time. She, too, liked to retell the stories, even if she never realized that she was the heroine in all of them. She would hold my hand as we wandered from room to room, both of us reveling as the past came alive.


My marriage brought great happiness into my life, but lately there’s been nothing but sadness. I understand that love and tragedy go hand in hand, for there can’t be one without the other, but nonetheless I find myself wondering whether the trade-off is fair. A man should die as he had lived, I think; in his final moments, he should be surrounded and comforted by those he’s always loved.


But I already know that in my final moments, I will be alone.

About the Author

Диана Семёнычева

Диана Семёнычева