The first time it happened I found myself sitting at a table in a smoke-filled bar, surrounded by men I didn’t know. No one seemed to notice my presence. Except, the man at my right had his hand on my thigh. He was wearing gold chains and a Hawaiian shirt, and looked very much like a hot tub salesman. Everyone was intently watching a football game on a television set hanging overhead. I slowly reached for my handbag, which was resting on the table beside my drink. Just then the hot tub salesman turned and looked straight at me.
“Oh, excuse me,” I said smiling. “I’m just going to the loo to freshen up. I’ll be right back.”
He eyed me suspiciously as I slowly made my way towards the end of the bar. Once out of sight, I found the backdoor and escaped into the alleyway. I had no idea where I was, but luckily I had some cash and was able to call a cab and make it home.
It happened to me numerous times after that, and each time it was the same. It was as if there was a switch in my mind and someone was flipping it on and off. Suddenly I’d wake up (even though I was never actually asleep) and find myself live, in the middle of some late-night scene, not knowing who I was with or how I got there.
Well, I sort of knew how it started. I’d go along with the girls after work for a few beers. We’d sit around and gossip and visit with the other regulars at our favorite hangout. And that’s as far as I went—after that, everything starts to fade.
But I’d recall little glimmers afterwards—pockets of time that didn’t fit in. Like I’d remember driving around downtown with an overweight white guy in a new BMW, but I wouldn’t know who he was or where we were going. Or I’d remember sitting at a crowded table in an after hours club in Chinatown drinking beer served in teapots. But no one I was with looked familiar to me.
The day after one of these incidents, the girls at work would always ask me how my night went. They’d giggle and say that I left the bar with so and so, to go off to some such place. And they were always very curious about the details: Did I go home with him? Where did he live? Were we going to see one another again? I had to make things up, since I only remembered little stray bits and pieces—the shape of a nose, the pattern of a tie, a street lined with magnolia trees, a cold sweaty hand, breathing.
I never told anyone about my condition.
On the nights that I didn’t go out, my life was quite different. Everything made sense. The world didn’t shift about. I liked to walk home after work. I enjoyed the exercise and thought the old streets in my neighborhood were pretty. I’d admire the big Edwardian homes, wishing one were mine. I’d imagine decorating it with antique furniture and Persian rugs.
When I returned to my studio apartment I’d make myself a pot of coffee. I had no food, only coffee and half-and-half. Then I’d spend the evening cleaning and smoking cigarettes. The silence intimidated me and made me depressed, so I’d turn on my ancient Zenith television for company. I couldn’t get much in the way of reception, but just the sound of crackled voices made me feel better.
I liked to wake up early in the morning and have breakfast at a small café near my house. They had a special: two eggs, potatoes, and toast for $4.25. Eating was not officially included in my weekly budget, but I knew that if I didn’t ingest something at least once a day, I’d probably die. So I ate at the café a few times a week, and chewed on whatever else I could muster in between. I didn’t mind not eating. I didn’t want food. Just breakfast, every so often.
The morning after the hot tub salesman incident I woke up early, even though I hardly slept the night before. For some strange reason, I couldn’t get back to sleep. No matter how hard I tried, my mind wouldn’t shut off. It kept reviewing the scene at the sports bar, and the image of the hot tub salesman with his hand on my thigh kept popping into my head. Finally I decided to get myself dressed and go out for a nice leisurely breakfast before work rather than lying in bed, battling with my mind.
The café was practically empty when I arrived, but a little while later a man came in and sat down at the table next to me. He was wearing a charcoal gray suit and reading the newspaper (all the people at the café read newspapers, except me). Every so often I’d catch him peeking over. Did I know him? I wondered. Perhaps I had encountered him on one of my nights out. After ten minutes of peeking, he finally introduced himself.
“Hello,” he said, extending his hand. “My name is Karl—Karl Potter.”
We chatted for a while. I told him where I worked and that I lived in the neighborhood.
“I know,” he said, with a smile, “I see you passing by my house sometimes in the early evening.”
Before I left, he gave me his business card and wrote his home number on the back. “Call me,” he said. “We should go out.”
That night it happened again. When I woke up, it was two in the morning and I was making Armenian coffee for a group of Middle Eastern college students. They were very impressed that I knew how to prepare it—coffee, sugar, over the flame, three times to a boil.
I felt a little weird walking home after that. Every time I passed a house I imagined Mr. Potter was inside watching me. Although I was shy about the possibility of encountering him, I was also curious. Which home was his? I wondered. The large shingled craftsman on Stanton with the huge cypress tree in the yard? Or the old Spanish mansion on Camden Lane. Or could it possible be my favorite—the two-story Edwardian on Fillmore with the beautiful garden. Although I still went out every so often, more and more I found myself walking home after work and staying in.
Then one Friday I gave in to the pleas of my coworkers at the end of the day, and joined them for happy hour. I ended up getting really wrecked, and what I feared most of all ended up happening. I found myself in bar and whoever I came with was gone. When I became alert, I was sitting at a table and in the middle of ordering a drink from the cocktail waitress. The place was full of a mixed crowd, mostly rednecks, with a few hipsters sitting off in the corners. I tried not to appear uncomfortable. A large man with a handlebar mustache was playing a guitar and singing a sad country tune, but no one was paying any attention to him.
When the waitress returned with my drink, I opened my wallet and there was no money inside. That’s when I felt someone touch my shoulder. I turned around and saw Mr. Potter.
“Hello there,” he said with smile. “Can I join you?”
Mr. Potter paid for my drink and sat down. We sat and listened while the man with the mustache sang. Once he finished, Mr. Potter suggested we leave. It was winter and the air outside was cold and smelled of firewood. I was very, very awake and didn’t want to go back to my apartment. Unlike during my previous nighttime experiences, I could see everything clearly. The night. The darkness. Mr. Potter’s profile. His large black sedan. The beams of his headlights shining into the fog. I kept waiting for him to ask me where I lived, but he never did. He just drove.