A travelling salesman befriends a colleague suffering from a bizarre curse; by Gael DeRoane.
He sat down at a table not far from mine, and when he glanced my way I caught sight of his astonishing blue eyes. It seemed odd that he sat alone. Surely a man so strikingly handsome would generate a small entourage. But his coworkers passed by with their trays as he devoured his lunch, his eyes scanning his laptop open on the table. Perhaps he was a visitor, a representative from one of our satellite offices. I ended my speculations when Artie Harrington, our most successful - and most annoying - sales rep came over with his tray and started in about the commission statements.
We ate and argued, and then I noticed the movie star rising from his table. "Hey, Artie," I said, sotto voce, "who's that?"
Artie looked up from his baked chicken. "Jordan Swale. One of the drudges in Research. Why?"
I was subsequently forced to parry Harrington's insinuations that I fancied this Swale fellow. So it goes in the sales crew, where homophobic jibes pass for banter. We moved on to other topics, and I forgot all about Jordan Swale.
As District Sales Manager I'm on the road most of the time and don't often get to hobnob with the plant workers. When I'm in house my time is spent in the office, going over the figures and reports, praising or chewing out my staff. I talk sports with the maintenance crew, flirt with the secretaries, and otherwise keep to myself. People think a salesman has a lot of friends and a busy social life, but in fact I was rather a lonely man during that green, sultry April of my fortieth year. I had weekend golf buddies and kept in touch with some friends from college, but lived alone in an apartment complex and was between girlfriends. At night I did paperwork and watched ballgames till I fell asleep. Occasionally I would patronize a local tavern for beers and light conversation. On one of these nights I ran into Jordan Swale.
I was nursing a Tilburg's brown ale and watching the Yankees pound the Twins on the overhead TV, when I heard the rustle of someone sitting down next to me. I turned, hoping to see a female face, but it was Jordan. He nodded. I nodded back. He ordered a beer, and after a few sips made a dismissive comment about the Yankees that sounded right and proper. We shook hands and introduced ourselves.
"I saw you at Comtech," I said. "About a month ago."
He looked surprised. "You work there?"
"District Sales Manager. Midwest region."
He drank some beer. "Sales must be fun. Meeting people and all that. Me, I'm in the office every day, staring at the screen, lost in files and databases."
"Well, sales isn't what it's cracked up to be. It's mostly driving, fast food, motel bedspreads you don't want to see in ultraviolet light."
We talked, watched the game, ordered another round. I liked the guy. He was pleasant and bright. His one failing was a refusal to make eye contact for more than a few seconds. Never had I seen such shifty eyes, and the irony was that these eyes glittered like sapphires.
After a third round I probed a little. "Jordan, why do you sit at a computer all day? You should be in sales. Maybe politics."
His laugh was bitter. "Trust me, I'm exactly where I belong."
We became friends. He was a golfer, so I brought him into our group. He fit in at first, but after a few weekends the others grew cool to him, and he dropped out.
On the fairway one Saturday I asked a couple of the boys if they had a problem with Jordan Swale.
"He's okay," said one, "but he never looks you in the eye. It's creepy."
"You know me," said another, "I have no problem with gays. But I don't like it when they pretend to be straight."
"What are you talking about?" I said. "Jordan's not gay."
"Ever hear him talk about women, or mention a girlfriend? Guy with his looks who doesn't go through chicks like the rest of us go through beer nuts - he's gay. Case closed."
I could see they'd made up their minds. But I wasn't about to give up on my new friend. As a salesman I could help him with the presentation of self. One night when we were in my living room watching another ballgame, I gently broached the subject of his poor eye contact.
He fell quiet, staring at the TV. "Sorry," I said. "I guess it's none of my business."
He shook his head. "No, it's okay. I haven't had a friend in years. Maybe it's time to open up."
And then he told me his story.
A gifted and beautiful child raised by loving parents, Jordan Swale had been the shining star of his small Midwestern town. He excelled in the classroom and on the playing fields, and was beloved for his humility. People said he might become a professional athlete, or a movie star.
At sixteen he played high school football. During practice one day he jumped high for a pass and fell hard on his head.
For two days he lingered in a coma. His family and friends prayed at his bedside. Maybe the prayers worked. He resumed consciousness and the doctor said he was fine. No neurological damage or apparent anomalies. He could even play sports again, in time. His family rejoiced, and his future regained its shimmer.
But things were not as they appeared.
In the fourth grade at St. Ann's school, Jordan had a girlfriend. Red curls, green eyes, and naughty enough to hold his hand during recess one day. A nun spotted them, and that was the end of that. At fourteen, seated upon a picnic table in twilight, he kissed his first girl, who promptly disengaged herself and later ignored him, even when they passed each other in the halls. Jordan shrugged it off, concluding that females were mysterious creatures who played by different rules.
Three months after the accident, during the weekend of his seventeenth birthday, he lost his virginity in a friend's hunting cabin. Lying in the narrow bunk with Shauna in his arms, he dreamed of the future. He had entered manhood now, and even if things didn't work out with Shauna there would be others. In college he would date coeds with dazzling smiles and sensational legs. He would become rich and travel the world, bedding exotic women in every port. While he mused, sleepy-eyed Shauna raised her head to look at him. In that instant, Jordan's life changed forever.
For years he told no one what had happened in the cabin. He believed the diagnosis would be grave, that he would be considered delusional, perhaps insane. Yet he knew instinctively that he was not crazy, just tragically unique. He wanted to tell someone, to seek help, but feared being probed and studied. He would bear it alone.
It was hard going. He withdrew from his friends, dropped out of sports, avoided girls. People blamed it on the accident. Seeing him on the street, they would whisper about the tragedy. But Jordan was a fighter; he focused on schoolwork and received a scholarship to a state university. He might still make a good living for himself.
By the end of his junior year he was coming unglued. Three years of fending off romantic overtures had worn him down, and he made an appointment with the school psychologist.
It was a man, which made things easier. Jordan danced around the doctor's initial questions, trying to discern the openness of his mind and the breadth of his knowledge. And then he took the plunge. He told the doctor what had happened when he looked into Shauna's eyes.
It was, he said, like being pulled into another reality. Dizzy, panic-stricken, he floated in space watching figures in a landscape. Suddenly he realized that the figures were himself and Shauna, that he was witnessing the long pageant of a shared life; but - impossibly - with all the events occurring at once, in a venue where time did not exist. He had read that such visions accompanied a near-death experience. Was he dying? No, he could feel his heartbeat, the sheets he lay upon, Shauna's hand on his chest. And then she spoke to him, and the vision was gone.
In dim light he stared at Shauna's questioning face, relieved that the fantasy had ended. But as their eyes met he felt a curious internal vibration, and sensed that the vision would return unless he looked away.
Now the happiness was gone. The girl's voice was a gnat in his ear, her touch a sandpaper caress. He was overcome with nausea, for in the vision he had seen every moment, and every tedious, maddening detail of the life they would inevitably share. The joy of their intimacy had been replaced by repulsion. If he stayed with this girl there would be no surprises. He would anticipate her every word, every new garment and hair style. Sexual intercourse, so thrilling and new to him seconds earlier, was now foreseen as a peristaltic chore to be endured with a woman transformed, as in warp-speed claymation, from nubile grace to aging, fleshy amplitude.
Perhaps it was a fleeting aberration. But no. In the days that followed he risked looking in the eyes of those he knew, with chilling results. It didn't matter if they were casual friends, family members, desirable women. If he kept eye contact for more than ten seconds, he saw everything that would happen between them, whether profound or trivial. Every verbal exchange, every nod of the head, every laugh, embrace, cough, question, cry of ecstasy, cold betrayal. Even in the eyes of total strangers - a passenger on a bus, a girl jumping rope on the sidewalk - logically constructed scenarios would present themselves, showing what might occur if he and the strangers became close. He tried to observe the surroundings in these visions, that he might gain knowledge of the world forty or fifty years from now. But it didn't work. Everything was fuzzy except for the personal details, the touches and smells, the droning voices, the mutating faces. There seemed to be no hope. He would never have a meaningful relationship again.
The psychologist advised an MRI, followed by therapy if the problem was inorganic. Jordan must understand that he was not really seeing visions of the future.
He ignored the diagnosis and never sought help again. Somehow he made it through college and acquired the good job he now had, which kept him in an office by himself, away from the eyes of coworkers who had given up trying to be sociable. He appreciated my interest, but would understand if I chose to terminate our friendship. He was used to being alone.
I wasn't sure what to make of Jordan's tale. I knew he wasn't crazy - he had a job, kept his person and his apartment clean, was generally well assimilated. He was, I decided, a sad man with a troubling affliction. I might pull back a little, but I was not going to abandon him.
In September Jordan started taking a night class at the local university and I began a long road trip, so we saw little of each other. But I always returned his calls and e-mails. I wanted him to know that his confidence in me was well placed.
A month later I came home to a frantic message on my answering machine. He was more animated than I'd ever heard him, said I must call him at once, that it was a matter of great urgency. When I called, he picked up the phone on the first ring. Without preamble he said, "Can you meet me in half an hour?"
I had just slipped out of my shoes and was taking off my tie. "I got home five minutes ago. Let me have some dinner and I'll meet you in an hour."
"Please," he said, in a plaintive tone that shocked me, "I'll be at the Student Union. You can eat there. I wouldn't ask if it wasn't important."
I sighed. "Twenty minutes. You're buying."
I ordered the cheeseburger platter and brought it to Jordan's table. I noticed he wasn't eating. "All right," I said, "here I am. What's up?"
He gazed back at me for almost ten seconds - a risky move. "I'm not sure," he said. "I think it's something good. But I'm scared. I need moral support."
"Something good?" I popped a French fry into my mouth and followed it with a sip of Coke.
"Yes," he said, distracted, his eyes focused somewhere behind me. "Yes, I think so..."
I nibbled at my food, watching him, waiting.
"It started about a month ago," he said. "I got into the routine of coming here for a late supper after class. As usual, I tried not to pay attention to the people around me. But one night I sensed I was being stared at. I looked up, and there she was."
He gave me another nine-second stare and then turned away. "My soul mate."
I put down the cheeseburger.
He leaned closer. "She was so beautiful, so compelling, that I couldn't stop staring into her eyes. All right, I told myself, here we go. Why not? The visions aren't all bad. I wanted to see what she and I would be like."
Jordan leaned back in his chair, almost in triumph. "There was nothing. No jolt, no visions, nothing. I looked into her eyes for ten, twenty, thirty seconds. A full minute! And still nothing."
"Are you saying you're cured?"
"That's what I thought. But when I tried it with others, the visions returned. It's this woman. For some reason she's immune to my stare." He sighed heavily, brushed his hair back from his forehead. "I can't help thinking... maybe we're meant to be together."
I shifted in my chair, glancing left and right. "Is she here now?"
He nodded. "She's right behind you. The redhead in the purple sweater."
Casually, I turned around. She was pretty but wild looking, with pale skin, too much makeup around her eyes, and frizzy, unkempt hair. She was drawing in a sketchbook in her lap.
"Not bad. She's an artist?"
"You haven't spoken to her?"
He grimaced "I just couldn't. I've been afraid of blowing it. She's here every night, and we look at each other, and she smiles and then goes back to her sketchbook."
"Jordan, you've got to make your move. Otherwise it's the same as being rejected. Worse, because you'll always wonder."
"Yes," he said, wringing a napkin he'd snatched off my tray. "I know. That's why I asked you here. Will you come with me to her table?"
I laughed. "Dude, you have been out of the game. The two of going over there would be awkward. Just go yourself. You said she's been smiling at you."
He thought it over.
"Look," I said, "ask her to join us for coffee. If the conversation lags I can step in. And if you start hitting it off, I'll suddenly remember that I have to be somewhere."
His face brightened. "Right," he said. He took a deep breath and looked at the girl. "No big deal. I can do this." He rose from the table. I gave him a nod and he set off in her direction.
I positioned my chair so that I could watch out of the corner of my eye. The girl, wearing a blank expression, was absorbed in her sketch book. Jordan stood next to her and said something I couldn't hear. She raised her head, a slow smile spreading across her face. Looking pleased, Jordan sat down opposite.
The girl moved the sketchbook aside and dropped one hand to her lap. When the hand reappeared it held a knife.
Like a striking cobra the knife darted to Jordan's throat.
Jordan had his back to me. I saw him stiffen, put his hands to his neck, then fall sideways from the chair. She had not missed the jugular, and the bright bubbling blood shot out of him like a fountain.
There were screams from a nearby table, the sound of chairs scraping violently on the floor as diners leapt out of them. For a moment I was paralyzed. Recovering, I stumbled forward, but the light was gone from Jordan's eyes before I reached him.
The girl held on to the knife but did not move from her chair. The security guards had no trouble disarming her. She never stopped smiling.
After they took her away, and after Jordan's body had been wheeled out on a gurney, I picked up her sketchbook. It held the scrawlings of a lunatic. Monstrosities with staring eyes and screaming mouths. Bleak landscapes of rubble and ruin, snarled with what looked like human ganglia. Page after page of dark, chaotic swirls.
On the final page she had drawn an ornate frame, a tangle of intertwining limbs and grimacing faces. At the bottom, a rectangular plate bore the words, "OUR FUTURE." But there was nothing inside the frame. The page was blank.