On this quiet tropical night, while Murphy drools at her side like a man beaten unconscious, Eva lies awake reviewing the small traumas and embarrassments of the day. It’s a routine moment of contemplation in the instant before sleep. She curses herself for buying the French vanilla yogurt instead of plain. She wishes she hadn’t said that thing to that person. She wonders if the pain in her ear is the first symptom of a devastating illness that will culminate in her death. She is certainly not thinking about the Judeo-Christian god, nor of any other god, because she is a secular humanist who believes in goodness for its own sake, and in reason, and in fermented foods and renewable energy and a single-payer health care system. So imagine her surprise when she sighs and adjusts her pillow and there at the foot of the bed is Yahweh, god of the Israelites and troubled protagonist of the Hebrew Bible.
For context, if you’re a lover of context, it’s eleven o’clock on a late-April night in Miami. Nighttime lows have risen into the seventies, the convective outlook is general, and the black vultures have gone north for the summer. Gunfire can be heard, but only faintly. A reality-television personality has just been elevated to the presidency. Murphy and Eva are living in a temporary furnished apartment, just the latest in a sequence of temporary furnished apartments, and there is no prospect of a permanent residence, nor any prospect of real jobs beyond the freelance adjunct part-time work they’ve been doing for years. Eva is a poet, but she also teaches ESL classes. Murphy writes occasional restaurant and movie reviews for the local free paper, but he has yet to conceive of a more meaningful professional ambition. Those are the facts.
How does she know it’s Yahweh? If this is a dream and not an authentic encounter with the divine, and it’s reasonable to assume that it’s a dream, then it’s one of those dream moments when you’re talking to a stranger but you also know that the stranger is your aunt Patricia. Yahweh is wearing sunglasses and an elegant linen shirt and he’s attended by a deputy angel of some kind. The deputy looks more or less like Yahweh himself, minus the sunglasses. Both have a Levantine cast of feature. In fact they resemble Murphy, whose mother is a Lebanese Jew.
‘This is her?’ Yahweh asks. ‘That’s what I was told.’
He gazes searchingly at Eva and scratches his chin. Eva is not afraid. She knows that gods enjoy doing depraved things to human women, but it looks as if these two are here on business.
‘Can she talk?’ says Yahweh.
‘She’s said to have an attractive throaty voice.’ ‘Ask her to say something.’
The angel nods. ‘You,’ he says. ‘Can you speak?’
Eva finds that she cannot.
‘She can’t speak,’ says the angel.
‘She can speak. She’s malingering. They always do.’
‘You,’ says the angel. ‘Repeat after me. “From the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness in it; but wounds, and bruises, and putrefying sores.”’
Eva says, ‘From a soul and a foot and even into the head, there are no sounds in it, but . . .’
‘She does have a nice voice,’ says Yahweh.
‘You,’ says the angel. ‘You will go where you’re told to go, and speak as you’re told to speak. You will ask the people you meet, “Have you heard the name of the Lord, which is Yahweh?” And then they’ll know that he is the Lord. Do you agree?’
Yahweh crosses his arms. The angel leans forward and glares at her. ‘Do you agree?’
Eva says, ‘I’m innocent! You’ve got the wrong woman!’
‘This is how she behaves in the presence of the Lord,’ says Yahweh. ‘The Lord of Hosts! Slow to anger and always merciful. It never fails to amaze me.’
But it’s a dream, it’s just a dream, it must be a dream, because that’s all there is. Next thing she knows, it’s morning and the dust is dancing in a thick bar of sunlight.
As the poet James Schuyler writes: ‘Now it’s tomorrow, as usual.’ The sun rises, a bird begins to scream in the yard, and it’s time once again to undertake the complex business of daily life. Murphy and Eva assess the day’s likely meteorological scenarios and select clothing on that basis. They each prepare a breakfast that satisfies their unique dietary preferences without transgressing the rigid boundaries of nutritional requirement. They read the news with terror and incomprehension, like pedestrians witnessing a violent crime.
Today is a day like any other. Eva teaches her classes and doesn’t think of Yahweh at all. Murphy reads a novel and takes a long walk. In the evening, when the world heaves a big sigh and the warm air turns to glass, they visit the Whole Foods downtown. It’s important to do these things together sometimes – that’s the foundation on which a solid relationship is built. But because they go together, they approach their task in an unfocused manner and forget both the plain yogurt and the olive oil. They manage to buy milk, a few passion fruits, biodegradable trash bags, some toothpaste, and a bar of unscented soap.
Their conversation is less trivial than their errand. They are trying to decide whether to have a baby right away, i.e. as soon as possible, or later, i.e. in a year or two. They have been exploring this question for weeks and they flatter themselves by imagining that they have approached it ‘rationally’, as if that were a virtue and as if the matter of hauling a new soul out of the cosmic ether were susceptible to reason in the first place. Tonight Eva argues that having a child under ‘these circumstances’, by which she probably means America’s toxic political situation as well as the temporary nature of their domestic and professional arrangements, is an ‘insane and hubristic thing to do’, but she goes on to say that having a baby is always an insane and hubristic thing to do, since it means introducing an innocent person to the perils and sorrows of the universe, which is all to say, she says, shaking her head, that now is as good a time as any.
Whether they remember the yogurt or not, whether they chart a new course for their lives or not, the trip home should be a quick one. If all goes well, they should be able to get back to their apartment in fifteen minutes. But all does not often go well on the lawless highways of greater Miami. Tonight there’s an accident at the very end of I-95, at the spot where you have to descend to US 1. It involves three cars and a tractor-trailer. There are no fatalities, thank heavens, but they’re stuck here while the municipal authorities clear a path. At least the waiting isn’t as psychologically taxing as it might be. The spectacle of the ruined vehicles fills them both with a sense of life’s fragility, and although they use this time to check their iPhones and make tart observations about Miami’s lack of public transportation and over-stressed highway system, they also count their blessings. Meanwhile, their Prius shuts off with a sigh.
‘I just remembered,’ says Eva. ‘I had a dream last night about Yahweh.’
‘He had an angel with him. Like a bagman.’
‘Did you remember this because of the car accident?’ ‘Yes.’
Murphy nods sadly. ‘Because you were thinking about death.’ ‘They asked me to go around saying the Lord’s name. I don’t think
I agreed, but I was having a dream problem where I couldn’t really talk. At first I couldn’t open my mouth at all.’
Murphy is rocking back and forth and tugging at his seat belt. He has expressive hair and staring eyes. He’s the kind of person who enters the elevator and rushes to press the door-close button before the doors close. Eva doesn’t often press the door-close button, but she has staring eyes too, and her spirit is less placid than her languorous demeanor suggests. The two of them are almost exactly the same height, but because human women tend to be smaller than human men, Eva is considered very tall and Murphy is able to wear a medium right off the rack. This phenomenon is called sexual size dimorphism and it occurs throughout the animal kingdom. Sometimes it runs in the other direction. Ceratioid anglerfish males are tiny. They cling parasitically to the bellies of the much larger females.
Now Murphy is looking out the window at the thick slice of moon in the powdery blue sky. He tends to think of the moon as a cold place, he says, but he knows that’s not right. During the day it must be very hot. It’s no farther from the sun than the earth is, and there’s no atmosphere to protect you.
Eva says, ‘You could get a moontan.’
‘Does the moon spin? I can’t remember if it spins.’
‘I remember from somewhere that they did their manned lunar explorations at dawn, because of the sun.’
‘I guess it’s probably like a desert. It’s hot in the day and cold at night.’
Eva nods. A moment later she says, ‘They used to think that sleeping outside under the moon would make you insane. But maybe only the full moon.’
Murphy opens his window and pokes his head out, trying to see what’s happening up ahead and meanwhile exposing his face to the dangerous glare of the rising moon. He’s surprised to find that he can see the ocean from here. On this April evening, in the low sunlight, in the steady breeze, the water of the bay is a pale sandy blue, like Cool Mint flavor Listerine Zero Antiseptic Mouthwash. There are a great many islands floating around out there as well. Some of them are man-made. Some are private. Some are still uninhabited and some have been overwhelmed by Australian pine, which is not a pine tree at all but a flowering plant, an angiosperm, called casuarina in the Pacific because of its resemblance to cassowary plumes. We know this because we’ve just looked it up. It’s easy to look things up. That’s the world we live in.
Murphy gazes meditatively at the islands, the Australian pines, the Listerine-colored water, the iconic skyline. He counts ten construction cranes downtown – so much enterprise, and all despite the inevitable inundation of this low-lying coastal metropolis. Eva watches a few pelicans fly past with what the poet Elizabeth Bishop once called ‘humorous elbowings’, a phrase she knows without having to look it up, although she could do so very easily, as we’ve just said.
When Murphy slides back into his seat, Eva says, ‘That’s where we get the word lunatic. A lunatic is someone afflicted with moonsanity.’
It doesn’t spin, to answer Murphy’s question. The moon is tidally locked, which means that it presents the same face to the earth at all times. The length of a lunar day is equal to the period of time required to complete its orbit of the earth. ‘With respect to the stars,’ this takes twenty-seven Earth days, seven Earth hours, forty-three Earth minutes, and 11.5 Earth seconds, except it actually takes longer, or appears to, God knows why. Its ‘actual’ average orbital period is twenty-nine Earth days, twelve Earth hours, forty-four Earth minutes, and three Earth seconds. We’re just reporting the facts, or the putative facts. It’s one thing to know and quite another thing to understand. In any case, lunar dawn is a couple of days long – plenty of time for some manned exploration. And as for the conditions up there: Surface temperatures in the equatorial and midlatitude regions vary from 224 degrees Fahrenheit during the day to about minus 300 degrees at night, although there are permanently shadowed polar craters where temperatures are as low as minus 397 degrees. We might have hoped for a less changeable moon, but no doubt you get the moon you deserve.
Now Eva declares that she’s going to eat a passion fruit. Murphy seems distressed by this decision and observes that passion fruits are ‘so messy,’ but never mind about Murphy – it’s not always possible to indulge him. Eva saws the fruit in half with her house key and eats it with a plastic spoon from the glove box. Meanwhile, she looks out at the tossing heads of the palm trees in the low light. It’s a beautiful sight, but she experiences the beauty of this moment as a kind of longing. We might imagine that what she longs for is an alternative present in which she is not marooned on I-95, but that isn’t true. In a sense, she longs for the very moment in which she’s living, marooned or not. She longs to experience it completely, as she thinks a younger and more innocent Eva would have been able to do. An eighteen-year-old Eva, just escaped from the dank Pennsylvania woods. Then she has a cascade of troubling thoughts – that life is ephemeral, that beauty is ephemeral, that beauty is inseparable from the ephemeralness of life, that beauty is the perception of life’s ephemeralness – and then she closes her eyes and tries to stop thinking about these things, which are nothing more, after all, than thoughts of death. She tries to savor her passion fruit, which is so delicious that she can barely taste it.
Murphy says, ‘I read once about somebody who set up a ton of mirrors to focus the moon’s light. I want to say it was Galileo. He said he could feel the warmth of the moonlight.’
‘That’s a recipe for a serious moonburn. Moonsanity would be the least of your troubles.’
They’re stuck here for slightly less than half an hour. It’s a long time, but not when you consider the vast labor involved in clearing away the ruined vehicles. Maybe the most remarkable thing is not this magical human ability to move thousands of pounds of metal in short order but our unexamined conviction that the job can and should be accomplished so swiftly. It doesn’t matter, because when they do begin to move, it’s a short reprieve. Down here on US 1, which is also called the Dixie Highway, commuters from downtown are joining the aggravated motorists from I-95, and now a teenager in a champagne-colored Honda comes roaring down the ramp, darts in and out of traffic for a luminous high-spirited moment, and slams into a lavender Chevy Blazer. This causes a sequence of other traffic incidents and soon every lane is blocked and they’re trapped once again, and trapped at the very worst point, where there’s no place to exit.
This time there is to be no discussion of the moon, nor any wistful reflection on the impermanence of an individual life on this blue sun-dazzled pebble of a world. They have seen the accident, they know that it’s the result of carelessness or drunkenness or texting-while-driving, and both of them are angry and frustrated. Murphy exits the vehicle immediately. Eva shuts the car off but stays where she is. It is no longer possible for her to apprehend the beauty of the light in the palm trees, or else, if beauty is nothing more than an aspect of subjective experience, and what reason does she have for thinking it’s not, then beauty itself fades from the palm trees. They are no more than two miles from home.
Now Murphy is the one thinking about death. Even the sunniest of people must think about death now and then, and no one could justly accuse Murphy of being a sunny person. He squints and frowns into the breeze. All he knows for certain is that he and everyone he loves will die. The only way to avoid witnessing the deaths of his loved ones is to die a tragic and premature death himself, and in that case his loved ones will have to witness it. What kind of demented and malevolent deity would make such a world?
Eva watches him stamping back and forth on the median. She sees him stoop to pick some Surinam cherries, which he eats with every appearance of relish, morbid reflections notwithstanding. Above the incessant honking and the rush of the wind, she can hear the sounds of lawn care. In Florida, there is never a moment when you can’t hear the sounds of lawn care. The aerial fig roots have to be cut before they reach the ground. Coconuts have to be removed and carted away so they don’t fall and cause property damage or personal injury. The grass needs mowing even in the dry season because people like to water their lawns. Leaf blowers run all the time. Miami is the only major city in the contiguous United States with a tropical monsoon climate (Köppen climate classification Am), and the struggle to subdue wild nature is never-ending. Native flora encroaches upon the man-maintained tropical lawnscape; exotic plants escape from the lawnscape and invade untended spaces. Eva wonders why it’s necessary to subdue nature in the first place. Whence the convention of the green lawn? Is it because the United States derives many of its preoccupations from Mother England, and England is a country of lawns? Or is it that we instinctively prefer a savanna-like environment similar to the one in which our species was born?
Two screaming parakeets flap by above Murphy’s head, and he turns to shout at them as they go. Then he, too, thinks of his younger self – that morose little boy, so oppressed by the suffocating snows and obscene purple darkness of the northern winter – and wonders what he’d have thought if he’d known that the cries of parakeets would one day become a routine irritation.
Eva is still sitting in the car. She’s looking at a box of latex gloves on the side of the road. It gives her a funny feeling. The integrity of it. The wholeness and singleness. The way that glove protrudes in just that way from the perforated opening. The whole thing seems like one fiber in a vast and inscrutable web of intentionality, and she finds herself thinking: a clue.
Eva, wistful Eva, feels a great weariness. She likes living in Miami, but she knows that Murphy, who has been having a difficult time these last months, will have been thinking of the traffic jam as evidence that nothing functions as well here as it does in his native New England. As if there were no traffic in New England! As if Boston drivers were not savages, with murder in their hearts and flecks of blood on their glasses.
A spray of flowers comes sailing out of the blue sky. A mynah bird watches her from the guardrail.
Shadows, as Emily Dickinson wrote, hold their breath.
And then, gazing through the windshield at her fellow motorists, who are busy pounding their horns in the maddening and ineffectual manner of city people everywhere, she sees Yahweh again. He’s sitting behind the wheel of an orange Lamborghini. He’s in the right lane, a few car lengths in front of her, and he doesn’t appear to have seen her. His posture is relaxed. Maybe he delights in the spectacle of destruction. And yet Eva knows intuitively, as she’d know in a dream, that he’s here for her.
Once again, she is not afraid. Her only thought is to put some distance between herself and that orange car. This is why she decides to flee – for this reason and no other – and yet when she thinks of this evening much later, out there on the great American road, under the pale sky of the high plains or the sugar pines of the Sierra or the mists and fog of the Pacific Northwest, she won’t remember the moment of decision or the sounds of lawn care or the light in the palm trees. What she’ll remember is the box of latex gloves.
Eva rolls the window down and commands Murphy to return to the car. Then she eases the Prius up onto the median, reaches out to fold the side-view mirror back, and passes with an inch of clearance between two young mahogany trees. Murphy, to his credit, says nothing, and moments later they’re back on I-95, northbound this time, the city disappearing behind them, the sun setting like a piece of pink candy over the Everglades.
This is an extract from Aaron Thier’s novel The World Is a Narrow Bridge, published by Bloomsbury and available now.
Title image © wondereye