By Robert Granader
It was loud in the bathroom.
A thin door, the noise pounding from the packed outdoor restaurant combined with a clanking overhead fan.
I tried to reach for the switch on the wall without stepping too far away from the bowl, but my arms couldn’t make it happen. I stepped a bit closer to the door, but I saw the stream starting to veer. A rim shot was not worth it.
Why did I care? Why did the noise bother me so much?
Annoying, yes, but not worth ruining my pants.
So the orchestra played on, the splash dancing with the whir of the fan, the clank of the errant metal flap, and my irritation grew.
When I finished, I flipped the fan switch off, realizing there was just one switch, and it serviced both the lights and fan. Whatever. I washed quickly, ripped a paper towel, and hurried back to my family before they ordered dinner without me. I hate when they do that, as if I’m just a credit card.
I slalomed through the crowd past the kitchen and to the open courtyard that is the Greek restaurant where so many of our family meals happen: me, my wife of thirty years, and our three mid-twenties children.
They were all finally home from college and jobs. It was just a long weekend for my wife’s birthday, but the first meal is the best. Everyone is happy to see each other, the bickering hasn’t started, no comments on how anybody looks or the outfit one of the girls stole from the other, everyone just settling into their roles of being home.
I sprang from the chaos to see a full restaurant, except for the empty table in the middle where my family had sat. Our table, fully remade, silverware on clean, folded napkins, empty water glasses turned upside down. The bustle of the waitstaff and the customers’ laughter filled the air with another annoying mix, so I couldn’t get straight where my family might be. It was this table, wasn’t it? Our table?
We’d been there so many times over the years, I think we’d sat at every table, known every waitress, eaten every special. I’d mixed up tables before. There was that one time the kids won’t let me live down, where I sat at the wrong table. The woman, her back was to me, looked just like my wife, Julie, and so I sat in an empty chair. They realized it before I did.
But this was our table, the empty one. I was sure of it. I looked around at the otherwise completely filled spaces. A shift had occurred. The restaurant, so familiar before, was now foreign; none of the tables had my people. I couldn’t find anything that rang any bells in my head.
I grabbed a waitress by the arm, harder than I should have. I could no longer recall if she was ours or not.
“Where is my family?” I blurted.
The look on her face, like the pull of her arm, said everything about how she felt or what she knew. A place so close to our home, and I couldn’t find a single familiar face, a neighbor, a friend, someone my kid went to school with.
I walked toward the exit and tapped the hostess on her arm, asking if she’d seen my family. She was facing the other way; when she turned I felt that we’d had this discussion. We went through an all-too-familiar routine:
“We have a reservation. Can you tell me which table?” I asked.
“What name?” she asked.
“Reynolds, we had a table for five people.”
“Just thirty minutes ago,” I said. “We were about to order, and I went to the bathroom, and now they are gone.”
“No reservation,” she said and turned to an actual guest with an actual reservation.
I grabbed her screen with both hands and dragged my finger anxiously down the list of times, 5:30, 6:00, 6:30, 7:00, nothing. Our name did not appear. Maybe my wife used her first name?
I walked through the opening and out onto the sidewalk and then the street. I looked each way, but there was nothing but nameless streets and storefronts. This wasn’t real, there was no family, there was no dinner reservation, there was no one here for me. I looked back at the hostess, who was helping other guests, families who looked like mine. When her eyes caught mine, I felt her look of pity and then disinterest.
I ran to the corner and the guy who parked the cars. He, too, didn’t recognize me. I had no ticket when he asked. I reached into my pockets, but nothing, not even cash. They didn’t feel like my pants.
“I’m not crazy,” I said to the people waiting for their cars as I scooted in front of them. But their faces were buried in their phones or the ground. I was nobody to them.
These people were real. Cars were pulling in and pulling out. This wasn’t a dream; it was just full of people and places I didn’t know and who didn’t know me. Cars I didn’t recognize, streetlights, restaurants, all as unfamiliar as a new hotel where the ice machine needs to be pointed out.
Feeling around my front pockets for the keys, I knew my wife had driven because I was going to have a drink. She’d been driving me a lot lately, and besides, she hadn’t had a glass of wine in over eleven years, since the incident in front of the kids: drunk, naked, with a cigarette burning a hole in our bedspread.
She was our permanent designated driver.
My heart beat faster and faster, beat after beat in my chest and my temple and my arm, so fast I could feel it through my shirt, the sweat forming, and I didn’t know what to do, so I started running. Even with everything in question, I thought I knew the direction home, but I didn’t and I stopped, walked back to the valet stand, where again I looked for our car keys hanging from the hooks, the cut slips of paper with numbers. How was it possible there was a place where we handed over our fifty-thousand-dollar vehicles to an eighteen-year-old kid because he had a shirt with a logo?
Of course I didn’t see our keys, just like I couldn’t find our table or our server or our reservation or my family.
I wanted to flag down a taxi, but they didn’t exist in the suburbs, and they took away my smartphone, so I just have one that calls. I couldn’t sit and wait. I was worried and the worst possible thoughts bounced around my head from my ears to my eyes, around and around my skull about what happened to my family.
My phone had big buttons with names on them. I called my wife and it went right to voicemail. I called my son. Voicemail. I called my middle child and it said the mailbox was full. With my youngest the mailbox hadn’t been set up yet.
I reached for my wallet; it wasn’t there. I’d left it on the table. It was gone with them? I’d been robbed, maybe I’d been hit over the head and that’s where they went, gone, along with my memory. I felt my head, through my hair for a bump or clump of blood, a sign of the crime, but it was smooth.
Stopping in the middle of the street, I looked back. I wanted to run back in to ask the waiter if my wallet, my family were all taken. Where was my wallet? I wanted to scream, but they would think I was a crazy person. I couldn’t go back in there. I couldn’t do anything but stand on the corner without a family, or car, or wallet, or ID, nothing but this phone that couldn’t connect me to anybody.
I pressed the button with my name on it, and it called my office, and it went right to voicemail. It was my voice. I could hear me apologizing for not being around to pick up the phone. I said something about taking time off. But at least it was my voice I heard on the other end. It was a sign. I was here. I was alive. I still existed in some form.
Walking up Wisconsin Avenue, the main road through our town, the heat of the moment took over and the sweat came. Interior sweat, like a car that overheats from the inside, nervous sweat, flop sweat, something that can’t be quelled by anything cold, no ice on the neck, a head in the refrigerator. This was sweat that came out from under my hair and fell into my eyes and stained my shirt collar so that a week from now when I am asked to pick up the dry cleaning, I will look at this shirt and marvel that I just paid four dollars to have this shirt cleaned and the collar has a rust stain running through it like dirty white underwear.
Breaking into a jog, my feet moved to the beat of eight syllables: “I need to find my family.” It ran through my head like a song I’d made up. If no crime was committed against me, then I needed to rescue them from whatever happened to them.
It took less than an hour to hustle the more than three miles to our house. I cut across streets and through backyards; fences, branches, brush, and the occasional deer made it hard, but it was still faster than the streets. And besides, whoever took my family might be looking for me, and so the back way was probably best. The grass was wet, and occasionally something mushy came along. I wiped my feet on the wet lawns to get the dog shit out from between my toes. I tripped over hoses, my pants got caught on a fence top, I hit my toe on a sprinkler, I slipped, and my elbow dug into the soft grass. I turned a corner and there was my house, standing tall like a fortress that I always thought could protect my family. But this night, which was getting blurrier, we must have gone out and into town and that’s how they got us. We left the castle.
But the house I saw from across the street and behind the poplar trees was lit with life. Why would a kidnapper bring them here? I knew this was the street, though there was no sign and I couldn’t find my glasses, and so the world blurred more than usual.
I saw lights in our house. Flickering lights in front. But I’d changed those bulbs; they shouldn’t flicker.
Closer and closer I stepped tentatively toward the house across the wet lawn from Mr. and Mrs. What’s their name? I saw the lights; they were blue and red. It’s not Christmas. Those aren’t our lights. Is this my house?
There were people in front of the house, more people I didn’t recognize. I stood back. I didn’t want to get closer. I didn’t want to see why they were there. I knew why they were there. I knew they were dead. I knew it was the police in our driveway there to deliver me the bad news. Even though I didn’t know what happened, I knew it was awful and the police were there and the longer I stood back, the longer it would take for me to learn my family’s fate. I don’t want to know. It’s bad. It can’t be good.
My feet were cold against the grass, which alternately tickled and pricked the bottom of my feet. Between my toes it itched, but it was the cold that remained.
Squinting, no one looked familiar; the lights from the police cars blinded out everything. There were dozens of people there. It looked like the whole neighborhood was on my lawn. They were milling around, looking in my windows. The front door was propped open, and people went in and out as if they lived there. No sense of ownership, no sense of property, it’s all community. We needed a fence. We weren’t gone that long, and yet people were taking over. They were squatting. “You are squatters,” I yelled momentarily before trying to hide again.
My neck hurt. I’d been shivering. My shoulders and muscles ached all around. Maybe I had a fever; this was a fever that was affecting me. It wasn’t just the grass and the water and the cold. I tried to walk toward the house, but I was scared. No, it wasn’t fear; it was my legs. They wouldn’t move. Stuck in mud, but mud I could move with. This was muscle failure.
Then I started to move, one then another as I headed for the lights and the house.
The gravel on the road hurt more than the grass. Now the small rocks poked like Legos under my feet in the middle of the night. The street was blocked, so no traffic to fear, just me trying to will my legs one in front of the other as I moved from one curb to the next until I reached the wet lawn of our family’s house.
Finally a familiar face in a window. It was my son. He was upstairs, the light in his room was on, and I saw his face was buried in a tissue, then back up for air and back in.
He escaped. He made it home and called the police. It would be me and him; we would go on without the others.
I passed the police cars. The neighbors who had been chatting were now frozen, staring at me.
The sounds of the world came to a stop, even the wind.
The first sound to break it was my daughter, who was just inside the house, and somehow she saw me through a maze of people and over the heads of the many adults. It was a loud yell, but she was too young to shriek. A shriek is made up by adults who want to sound dramatic. A yell comes from the souls of children who are happy.
She broke through the line of people like a top football recruit and grabbed me.
I was confused by her excitement. She had left me. I was alone and searching. I found my way.
“Where have you been?” The question didn’t come at me and from me. A man in a dark suit with a white collar asked where I’d been. He had been talking to my wife. Her face was red and wet.
She hugged me. Now she was crying, but I noticed everyone was crying except me. The feeling slowly returned to my toes, the prickles of heat making their way. I felt something but nothing like the sadness they all seemed to feel. I was sad because they were, but they were alive, and so I was happy. Is there something I don’t know?
“You left,” I said.
My daughter didn’t let go of my neck. I was shaking again, maybe from the cold, and my wife pulled me into a soft, puffy chair, which at first was cold, but it was just my wet shirt clinging to my back that chilled me. Someone brought a warm towel and wrapped my feet. It hurt when they rubbed the rocks and twigs from my toes and heel.
People came and went. More people cried or hugged me, asked me questions that I couldn’t answer. People in the crowd talked about me; I knew they were, even though they didn’t address me. They asked what happened, but I heard someone say, “He’s been doing this a lot.” “She can’t take care of him anymore.” “It’s dangerous for him.” “It’s dangerous for her.”
“Did you eat?” she asked me.
“No,” I said. “Did you order without me?”