As the doctor shook the man’s pale hand, he noted that it felt unusually cold. “Certainly. From your phone call it sounded rather urgent, and I just happened to have a cancellation.” He gestured for the man to sit on the leather couch in the center of the spacious, oak-paneled office.
“Thank you. I think it is urgent.” The man bolted for the sofa and lay down, folding and unfolding his hands repeatedly on his chest while the doctor sat, retrieved his notebook and uncapped his pen, and looked at the man expectantly. While he waited, he sipped from a cup of coffee on the chair-side table.
The man seemed to have trouble knowing where to begin speaking. He stared anxiously at the fireplace, as if the warm glow of the flames could melt his fears.
“Why don’t you start by telling me what you do for a living?” prompted the doctor after a beat.
“Well, that’s part of the problem, doctor.”
“What do you mean?”
“You see, I don’t really know what I do. Or who I really am.”
The doctor put down his notebook and looked over the rims of his eyeglasses at the man fidgeting on the couch. “Do you mean that you are suffering from amnesia?”
“No. Yes. well, that is, I don’t really know if that’s what it is. I know that yesterday I wrote advertising. Then I was a screenwriter.”
The doctor chuckled. “It’s not uncommon for creative people to feel as if their identities are intimately bound up with their work . . . ”
“No! That’s not what I mean!” The man sat upright and turned to face the doctor. “I mean, one minute I have a job in an advertising office, with a secretary and a boss and friends who I’ve known for years, and then . . . poof! They’re all gone. I’m in another building with different friends and a different boss, and I feel like I’ve known them for years too! But I remember the other people, but no one knows them. And then then the next day, I wake up and I’m on the train going to somewhere completely different, as if that was normal!”
“That’s very unusual.”
The man laughed sardonically, desperately. “You’re telling me, doc! I’d say it’s ‘very unusual’ to wake up with a blonde wife and come home to dinner with a redhead!”
“Now just calm down . . . ”
“I can’t, doc!” The man pulled out a handkerchief and patted his damp brow. “This has been going on every day for years. Or days. Or minutes. I don’t know anymore! My whole world keeps changing. I can’t go anywhere, do anything anymore!” He began twisting the handkerchief in his hands. “I’m afraid to leave because I can’t be sure that I’ll find out that the place I left isn’t even there anymore! Everywhere I leave disappears!”
Ralph Waldo Emerson once observed,”‘Every man is a quotation from all his ancestors.” Of course, Emerson’s point assumes that a man knows whom he is quoting. Case in point: young Harold Blank, who until recently was quite sure of the words he spoke.
Now, Mister Blank finds himself untethered to past or present, and quite fearful that he may have no future. As he is about to discover, the existential paralysis from which he suffers can only be treated by an extended stay in the special care ward . . . of The Event Horizon.
Once the man had relaxed enough to resume lying on the couch, the doctor picked up his notebook and pen from the table next to his leather wing chair. “Perhaps it would help if you could tell me when you started noticing these strange shifts.”
“That’s part of the problem. I just don’t know for sure.”
“At this moment, what feels like the right answer?”
“Well.” The man shifted in the couch, relaxing momentarily. “It’s been three days. I was coming home from work on the train. It was just an ordinary day at the office. But when I got off at my usual stop, everything had changed. The name of the station, even the station master was different. But it felt like I knew that place. It was my stop, and at the same time it wasn’t my stop.”
“What did you do then?”
“I thought I was just tired. It had been a long day. So I just got into my car and went home. But I kept feeling like I was going down the wrong road, even though I knew that I wasn’t. And when I got home . . .” he tensed up, stifling a sob.
“My wife was was another woman! I mean, there was a completely different person in my house, waiting for me, making dinner and telling me about the kids’ day at school, just like usual. I felt like I was in a dream, or like watching a play. Like the cast had changed, and a new actress was playing the part of my wife. And the same thing happened the next day. I went to work in another building. My secretary was a different person. Complete strangers were telling me jokes in the coffee room, but I knew them. I knew who they were, even though I had never been in that place before. Or — or that’s what it felt like.”
“Did you try to explain your feelings to anyone?”
“Well, I tried, but . . . it seemed like no one understood or noticed. Like it didn’t make any sense. And since I knew their names and where their offices were, it didn’t even make sense to me either. I mean, how can I simultaneously know and not know them?” He shrugged. “How do you explain that to someone? At first I thought it was just that I was tired and overworked, but then I started wondering if I was just going crazy. So I looked you up.”
The doctor nodded and wrote detailed notes in his book as the man talked. “Have you been taking any medication? Do you smoke or drink?”
“No, no medication. I don’t smoke but I drink, though not a lot. Not more than the usual cocktail at lunch and maybe something with dinner.”
As the doctor noted that in his book, the man rubbed his chin. “It’s almost like . . .” he began, then stopped himself.
“I was going to say that it almost feels like I’m not really here. That I’m part of someone else’s dream. I’m not controlling the changes, they’re happening all around me. That’s the only way I can think to describe it.”
“Is that what you think is happening? That you’re a figment of someone else’s imagination?”
The man chuckled. “Silly, isn’t it? But that’s what I am, doc. I’m becoming a ghost. I can’t believe anything that I think I know. I think I exist, but in the real world things don’t behave the way I see them behaving. It’s impossible. So maybe it’s really that I’m impossible.”
“You think that you’re an impossibility?”
The man sat up again. “Well, it’s either that, or I’m crazy. Either way, I’m not normal. I don’t belong. I can’t believe or trust anything I see. But it can’t be that it’s the whole world that’s messed up and I’m the only normal one, can it?”
“Sometimes it can feel as if we are at odds with the world, that what we know to be true isn’t.”
“But see, I believe in the exact opposite! What I know isn’t true! The world is at odds with me! And the world is going to have to win. It always does, doesn’t it?”
The doctor could not think of anything to say in response.
The man stood up. “I have to go now. I feel like I have to face my destiny out there. Somewhere.” He gestured vaguely toward the window at the far end of the doctor’s office. “I know I don’t belong here anymore.”
“I can’t let you go if you’re going to harm yourself.”
The man smiled with a suddenly confidence and surety. “I’m not going to kill myself. I can’t. I just have this feeling all of a sudden that I know the reason this is happening to me.” He poked his own chest with his finger. “You see, doc, I am a ghost. I’m already dead. Thanks for your help. I gotta go.” The man practically ran out of the office before the doctor could stop him.
* * *
The man pushed through the glass doors of the lobby and into the busy Manhattan street. He smiled up toward the sun and spread his arms wide as oblivious passers-by bustled around him.
* * *
The doctor put down his notebook and pen, and picked up a large microphone attached by a thick coiled cord to a reel-to-reel tape recorder. He leaned over and switched on the recorder.
“Tuesday, three-twenty in the afternoon. I’ve just had a most interesting breakthrough. I now realize that I don’t need Harold Blank.”
He took a sip of his coffee before continuing. “I have been wrestling with the central character of my novel for several weeks now, and every rewrite has only made things worse. As a character, Blank was just not moving the plot along. At first I thought it was because his job wasn’t enough of a source of tension. Then I tried changing his family situation. But that didn’t seem to make the plot any better. But I’ve just had an epiphany. Blank isn’t the most interesting character. He’s not working out as the protagonist. So I’m going to scrap the first three chapters and start over from the point of view of the brother. He’s turning into a much more interesting character.”
The doctor switched off the recorder and got up. He walked over to his desk, opened the top drawer, and pulled out a stack of paper. Then he walked over to the fireplace and opened the grate.
* * *
Harold Blank continued to smile as he walked along the crowded sidewalk. As he passed an alley, he turned to look and saw a white light at the far end.
Suddenly, he knew where he belonged.
“All the world’s a stage, ” William Shakespeare wrote, “and all the men and women merely players.” Harold Blank has had his entrances, and now it is time for his exit. And as the lights go down he will at last find the refuge he seeks in the dark backstage . . . of The Event Horizon.