The Aleph

A lie is a lie is a lie, no matter how trivial, no matter how socially acceptable. I don’t care if the whole world is telling the same little lie. It’s still a lie.

That was how Charlie Danson lost me before hello. On OKCupid he’d said he was 5’9”. In real life he was 5’7”—if I was giving him the benefit of the doubt. For the record, I’m not into tall guys. I’m 5’3” and as for that gaga reaction so many women have around tall guys, I don’t get it. (I’ve heard women say they feel “protected” or “a little thrilled” simply because a guy is tall. “It’s this dazed feeling, in a nice way,” was how one friend explained it to me. Is this some vestigial thing, left over from cave dwelling days? Please, leave me out.) No, it wasn’t Charlie’s height itself that bothered me. The point was: the lie. The obvious, none-too-intelligent lie.

Yes, I might sound cranky. I’ll admit I wasn’t in a great mood when I walked into the micro-brewery to meet Charlie. Two days before had marked eleven months since Beatriz had died. Beatriz, Biz—my best friend since college, my favorite person in the world. She’d been gone for almost a year and it still felt like broken bones that wouldn’t heal. She had been smart, funny, boisterous. She’d worn her feminism like a merit badge pinned proudly over her heart, and this was long before feminism came back into style. It was a time when newspapers and magazines carried articles about how women our age rejected the idea of feminism, a word the “younger generation” associated with unattractive, pushy women. At the same time that younger generation of women took their equal rights for granted, the journalists pointed out.

“Really, equal rights?” Beatriz said on a Sunday morning at Starbucks when we were reading one of those articles The New York Times, “I haven’t noticed too many of those cluttering up the place.”

She also said, “I’m not going to pretend to be stupid just to make you feel better,” when a male classmate commented that she raised her hand “quite a bit” in class. And whenever our female friends got into a discussion of weight, always under the assumption they needed to be thinner, she said, “I’m not going to starve myself in order to take up less space in the world; I’m not going to starve myself to make more room for men.” (And you’re now wondering, simply because I wrote that, if she was fat. She wasn’t. She was neither fat nor thin. “I’m curvy and comfortable with it,” she always said.)

At parties Biz was the first one dancing. When she had any say in the music, it was Gorillaz, Funkadelic, LeTigre and The Julie Ruin, Beyoncé, Outkast. She’d pull me along with her and start to dance, not caring if people stared. Soon there’d be a crowd around us, but it was Biz and me in the middle, dancing for each other, together and free.

Basically, Biz had blown my mind open our first year at U.W. We’d been inseparable since. Through college, grad school, first jobs, second jobs, first dates, second dates, good relationships and not so good ones, we never went two days in a row without talking. Whatever happened, I knew she’d have my back. Then she was gone.

She died far too young and far too fast, of bone cancer. A rare kind with no real treatment, except experimental ones that seemed to make her die faster. It felt like a weird dream that she wasn’t here anymore. Except for the moments her absence slammed against me, with a pain that left me winded, stunned. Then it felt horribly, brutally real.

The middle weekend in July I’d taken off work to go on the backpacking trip we’d done together the last ten years in a row. The year before had been our final trip. We both knew she’d be gone soon. She’d stopped treatment, her hope had dissolved to an eerie peace. “I want to go on the camping trip the way we always do, Georgie,” she’d told me. We’d rented a cabin instead of our usual tent, laughed and talked and swam, sometimes almost feeling like we’d bluffed away what was coming.

This year I went alone, just me and the dog, because I couldn’t imagine going with anyone else that weekend, and I couldn’t imagine being in the city either. I needed to feel the crushing loneliness of being without her. Not that I hadn’t felt it for the last 335 days, but I needed to in some way face it down and make a truce with it.

I spent those four days not saying a word, save a quiet hello to the occasional hikers. The wilderness around Lake Quinault was so full, so infinite: dawn unfurling into slow-moving sunlight, deep teal water and silver ripples, the fern-and-leaf filled forest, the dragonflies that mesmerized the dog. So much beauty, but all of it was going on without Biz. And that felt terrible.

Monday back in Seattle was like a hammer. There was an upsetting ruling on one of my cases. My clients were half-sisters, twelve and thirteen. The father of the twelve-year-old had come out of the woodwork, in Delaware. He had just recently learned about his daughter. He established paternity and asked for full custody. The two girls had never been separated for a day, and were already with an excellent foster family. The sisters petitioned the court not to be split up. The twelve-year-old made a plea to stay with her foster family, where she’d been thriving for the past five years. I argued the bond between the half-sisters should be honored, that they should stay with the nurturing foster family, but to no avail. The law was on the side of the father; the twelve-year-old would go to live with him in Delaware the judge ruled. The sisters were in tears.

I come across far more unnerving situations in my caseload, but this one in particular got to me. I spent the rest of the day in meetings in the fluorescent-lit conference room, followed by traffic. It had been a mistake to take the car, which I’d done because of the OKCupid date. I turned on KEXP and inched forward, not making the next light and feeling trapped, like everyone else.

Why was I dating anyway? Did I really think I would find a guy who could fill the hole Biz had left? No, of course not. It was legitimate, though, to want connection. To want to stop feeling lonely. I imagined meeting a guy and I’d feel—well, what everyone wants—that spark, that connection. We’d start off chatting about any random thing, and we’d keep talking and laughing for hours. I imagined a guy who would turn into not just my boyfriend, but my best friend. Charlie Danson had seemed personable and smart online, a real possibility.

And then there was the bird-brained lie. Next, as we took our seats at the table, he was complaining about work.

“Amazon—those people are slave-drivers,” he said. “As everyone knows.”

“Amazon? I thought you were a journalist,” I said.

“Yeah, true. I put that in my profile. I guess you could say Amazon is my day job. I moonlight as a journalist. I write for The Stranger, actually. Freelance. But like everywhere else in journalism these days, it’s impossible to get hired full-time.”

I was glancing at the menu while I listened to him (to distract myself from annoyance?). Meanwhile some part of my brain was wondering how long this let’s-get-a-drink date was going to take.

The server came. I asked him to recommend me a beer.

“A San Pellegrino for me,” Charlie said. “Beer and I don’t agree.”

“AA?” I asked, after the server had gone.

“Nah,” Charlie said. “Beer gives me stomach stuff. It’s chill, though. I had my afterwork MJ in the car, the good-old vape. So I’m feeling pretty all right. Hey, want to split the deluxe five-pound nacho platter?”

Along with the majority of Washingtonians, I voted to legalize pot in 2012. That doesn’t mean that I want to spend time around stoners.

So no, I did not want to order five pounds of deluxe nachos. I did not want to add time to the time I had to spend with someone who was stoned.

Had to spend? In hindsight, why didn’t I just get up and leave immediately? That would have been the rational thing. We humans have a powerful need to adhere to social patterns, and this particular pattern did not include me leaving after three minutes. And then there was the female need to be nice. Women have had niceness drilled into us from birth. This can often be a good thing, but in this instance, with Charlie Danson, it made no sense. I stayed, knowing I was wasting my time. The only out that entered my mind was getting this drink-date over quickly.

I told Charlie I wasn’t hungry. He ordered the nachos anyway. Then he launched into telling me about himself. He’d grown up in “the agricultural sticks,” apple country. (Like Biz, I thought.) His father had been a doctor. Charlie had gone to Stanford, not that he had anything against UW, “but you know” (he threw in a fake modest shrug) “I got into Stanford on a wrestling scholarship.” The server arrived with the nachos. Charlie tucked in. A shoulder injury his junior year ended wrestling. As for writing code, anyone could do it, he was a cog in the Bezos machine, a gerbil on a wheel. What he cared about was journalism, even though his journalism career was just getting off the ground.

“Journalism, it’s like being an artist. You do it for love, not for money,” he said. He wrote mostly music reviews, “independent venues, up-and-coming artists, sometimes open mics,” mostly published on TheStranger.com.

“I play a little guitar myself, so I have some perspective on the field,” he said, pausing to shovel a nacho piled with meat, cheese, and guac into his mouth. “And I also write insider pieces about working for good old JB. But those are published anonymously, because I have a non-disclosure agreement in my contract.” He actually winked at me when he said this. Winking is something I associate with creepy older guys. I cringe/smiled back.

Did Charlie show any curiosity about me? Nope. The one thing I explained about myself was my job, not that he asked, but it came up anyway. (I’m mentioning it because it became important later on.) Eventually, as Charlie eased his way through the nachos, he drifted on to everyone’s favorite topic, real estate.

“It’s rough these days,” I said. “I’m glad I managed to buy something a while ago.”

“Well, I’m set,” he said. “I’ve got super -low rent. Been in the same place since 2009. Daylight basement, Capitol Hill.”

“Lucky you,” I said.

“Yeah, I’m paying literally half what some of my co-workers are paying for spots in towers in South Lake Union. I mean, the place isn’t remodeled or anything, but my landlords are super-nice. I wish they hadn’t had the kids, though. I mean, it was fine when they were babies, but now that they’re four and five, they’re up at dawn, running around, shouting, making a racket.”

Charlie put more nachos in his mouth. I was at a loss for words.

“Brats,” he added, taking another big bite.

“Actually, I love children. I’m a Big Sister, and I’m a lawyer for children in the foster care system.” I didn’t bother to keep the peeved tone from my voice. Still chewing, he flashed me the peace sign.

“Oh, yeah… now I remember from your profile you did something like that,” he said. “I’ve got nothing but respect for you SJWs. A lawyer for kids, that’s cool.”

A less-self involved guy, or one who wasn’t high, might have asked me more about myself at that point, or at some point. Charlie, however, proceeded to tell me, in aggravating detail, about all the times he’d been fired in his life. There were many.

The server appeared at last. “More drinks? Dessert?” he asked, clearing Charlie’s plate.

“Actually,” I said. “I’ve got to get going. Haven’t had a chance to grocery shop for the week yet.” I pushed a ten across the table towards Charlie. My beer had been $3.50 but he just nodded and pocketed the bill as he pulled out his credit card. He looked as if he was about to start another round of conversation, so I got up quickly.

I made my way to the grocery co-op, wishing Biz were around, so I could laugh with her about the wasted hour.

Grocery shopping? Never been handed that excuse before. Ouch! Charlie texted me the next morning. He followed up with the laughter emoji. I didn’t bother to text back.

I assumed I’d never see Charlie Danson again.

A month later, I saw Charlie at the one-year-memorial for Biz. It was supposed to be a small gathering, not nearly the size of her funeral service a year before. Which meant there was a small crowd. Biz had been one of those people. Everyone felt they had a special connection to her, and her students had loved her. Add to that how young she was when she died: We grieve in greater numbers for the first to go. If you die at thirty-one, all your friends, classmates, relatives, colleagues will feel sucker-punched, outraged, sick with grief. Every seat in the Beacon Hill Interfaith Community Church had been filled at Biz’s funeral a year before, with a phalanx of mourners on foot, pressed in behind the pews. If Charlie Danson had been there, I hadn’t noticed him.

The anniversary gathering was at the home of Biz’s college advisor, who had stayed close to her. She had a large, tasteful house in Laurelhurst, overlooking Lake Washington, with a side garden that could easily hold the 40 or so guests. Biz’s mother read a psalm and I read an Elizabeth Bishop poem, The Fish, which has been one of Biz’s favorites. I managed not to break down in tears when I got to the point when the fisher notices the five old rusted hooks in the fish’s lip, “Like medals with their ribbons frayed and wavering…trailing from his aching jaw,” but my voice was shaking on the last lines:

…until everything

Was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!

And I let the fish go.

Twenty minutes later, during the reception, Charlie cut across the lawn towards me. My brain scrambled to get itself around what was happening, and before I knew it, he was beside me, saying:

“Georgie! What a surprise! You were friends with Bea!” He put an unwelcome arm on my shoulder as he explained that he was her cousin. I managed to make small talk with him and one of Biz’s friends from the teacher’s union for a few minutes, then broke away. I immersed myself in a cluster of old college friends, then talked to Biz’s mother, keeping my back to Charlie.

It wasn’t until I was driving home that I put it together. My head was still buzzing from the event—reading the poem and seeing so many people who’d loved Biz. And yet I’d been eerily aware of Charlie the whole time. As I got off I-5 and turned into my neighborhood, it clicked. Biz’s cousin CJ. Older by two years, he had sexually assaulted her when she was fourteen and fifteen. He’d grabbed her breasts over and over, and trapped her in closed rooms twice, when he went further. The first time he pinned her to the floor and pulled off her shirt. The second time, he pinned her and pulled her pants down. He had his fingers in her vagina, when she managed to bite him, “hard, on the arm, hard as I could. He screamed like a maniac,” Biz said when she told me the story. “And then my aunt came in.”

The aunt blamed Beatriz entirely. Her wrestling-star son could do nothing wrong in her eyes.

“You slut, you whore,” she said. She found Biz’s parents outside, at the extended family gathering, and told them, “Beatriz got CJ alone in the bedroom, was taking off her clothes and worse.”

Biz protested, pouring out what had actually happened, to no avail.

“You keep your legs shut,” her father said, once they were in the car, having left early.

“Jesus, Dad! I was trying to,” Biz said.

“Try harder,” he shot back, then drove on in furious silence. “He’s a little pervert,” he said as they neared home, “which means you need to stay away from him. What were you thinking, going into a room with him?”

“I didn’t. I was there by myself, watching T.V. He came in and jumped on me,” Biz said, “Why is this my fault?”

“Honey, men are like that,” her mother said. “They push and take whatever they can. You need to listen to your father, because if any boy manages anything, you’re the one who gets pregnant, not him.”

“I know,” Biz told me, when she spilled the story out to me in college, “It’s fucking crazy. I know my mom loves me more than anything, but that’s what she said. And after they talked about it with me that one time, my parents never said a word about it again. My mom never defended me to her sister. Maybe because my aunt married a rich doctor, I don’t know. Everyone acted like it didn’t happen, and I was supposed to go to barbecues and dinners even though he was there. I was supposed to act normal.”

By now everyone’s heard so many stories of sexual assault that they might as well be Muzack. Since #metoo happened, a couple months after Biz died, there’s been a news story of sexual harassment or assault practically every other day. And legions of women who would never make the news, but had carried the secret of their assaults around for years and decades, finally opened about what they went through. So many assaults, so many women talking, and posting, and writing about it.

But back when Biz and I arrived at college, no one talked about these things. It was as if the words for what we went through didn’t exist. If you were assaulted, especially by someone you knew, by someone who was the last person who should be touching you, cornering you, pinning you down—it felt impossible to talk about.

I speak from experience. I had my own story, and it was just as impossible to tell. Those things didn’t exist in the clean-cut, Lutheran world I grew up in. ‘Story’ is perhaps the wrong word. Story implies telling. When Beatriz told me about CJ, it wasn’t a story, but a tangle of barbed wire inside her, cutting, cutting, cutting away at her. That one conversation with her parents—and that was it. Who could she talk to? Whoever she told would think she was twisted, sick, had somehow made the assault happen. Why hadn’t she screamed bloody murder the first time CJ grabbed her boobs, which in hindsight she wished she’d done. She’d reacted instead with a strange paralysis, too surprised to know what to do. The next time she gathered her wits and kicked him away. But she should have screamed. She should have gone to her mother or aunt that first time, or so she told herself. Why had she been so stupid? And anyone she told her secret would see that she’d allowed it, and think she had a warped psychology, that deep down she wanted that kind of stuff to happen. And with her cousin. No, it was better not tell anyone.

She didn’t understand why, but she longed to tell someone.

The second or third week of college we had been at a party—not a frat party, just first-years drinking smuggled vodka and orange juice in a dorm with unusually large rooms and a strange configuration of mazy doors around an unsupervised common room. (“Let’s stick together,” Biz had said when we got there.) The party had split up abruptly, probably on rumors the campus police were coming, and we’d made our way back to our room, discreetly carrying our still full plastic cups. We’d stayed up talking. We were far from drunk, but the vodka made us bold in our growing friendship. We dared to reach out to each other even more than we already had in those first couple weeks. We told each other what we’d been through, and we vowed to keep each other’s secrets.

If Biz hadn’t died in the summer of 2017, if she had lived into the fall when so many prominent, powerful men toppled in the wave of sexual assault finally brought to light—what would she have done? I can guess what she would have felt: a strange, sad sense of relief, to hear and read all the stories that echoed each other. We had not been alone after all, we had not been a few pathetic women with “victim mentality” who’d brought it on ourselves. And she would have felt a sadness at just how many of us had gone through these things and had thought we were alone for so many years.

But what would she have done? So many ordinary women pondered whether to tell their stories. Yes, plenty of us told, and others thought through the repercussions, the ongoing relationships they might damage or sever. Our minds switched back and forth over whether to come out with it, naming names, or just find relief talking to our closest friends; or maybe to post somewhere on the tail-end of a Facebook thread, putting something on social media that worded things in a vague way, vague enough not to point fingers. We wondered and fretted, were about to and yes, went through with it; were about to, then no, changed our minds. In the end, plenty of us kept it private.

If Biz had lived, would she have told her story? Or not? Would she have added her voice to the battle cry of women who took that risk, as the first step toward change? If we don’t speak out, no one knows how pervasive this problem is, not us, not others. If we don’t speak out, nothing will change. And if we do speak out, there will be a price to pay, probably a steep one. Would Biz have opened up that rift in her family?

I knew Biz as well as anyone, but I couldn’t say. She was very close to her mother, and her mother was close to her aunt. They would not want the story out in public. And then there were her students—in particular, that gives me pause.

“Would you tell, Biz?” I asked her, more than once when I was wondering if I should tell my own story. She didn’t answer. She was gone.

Clearly, though, Charlie was the cousin, the cousin she’d carefully avoided as long as I’d known her—she rarely went home for holidays, and turned down invitations to brunch and dinner from relatives when they were in town, on the chance that CJ would be there. Charlie was CJ. He was two years older, living in Seattle. He’d dropped the family nickname, was all.

At the memorial he’d told me how much he’d loved Biz.

Cool to see you yesterday. Cool that you were friends with B. Let’s get a drink. How about tonight? Charlie texted the next day.

Not tonight, I replied.

No hardsies about the grocery shopping blow-off :-) he replied.

Would love to talk about some memories of B, he texted the next day. I’ve been writing some stuff, would love to show you. Free tonight?

Busy tonight, I replied.

When’s good? he shot back. Good Lord, the creep was persistent. I didn’t reply for a day, then another.

It occurred to me that maybe he was reaching out to me not to hit on me, but because he felt remorse about Biz and wanted to get it off his chest. That might be possible. He was thirty-four now, living through the #metoo year himself. On the one hand he was surrounded by Amazon brogrammers, but on the other hand, he was writing for a progressive independent paper. At The Stranger he’d be surrounded by discussions about consent, how men should own up to past mistakes, and take responsibility in ambiguous situations. A lot of men were seeing things through women’s eyes for the first time. Biz’s methodical avoidance of him for all those years must have sent a clear enough message. Or the fact that she kicked him, shouted at him, struggled, and bit him—did #metoo jar those memories loose? Did he remember that? How could he not? Did he regret that it was too late now to apologize?

On the other hand, if he was just hitting on me, I really didn’t want to deal with it. Before I made up my mind, Charlie took my silence as a blow-off.

Let’s stay friends, he texted, then sent me a Facebook friend request.

Fine, stick him in the compost-bin that was Facebook. If he really wanted to talk, he could get in touch again and explain his motives for seeing me clearly. It was up to him.

Two days later, a post from Charlie popped up in my news feed:

“Another date ended in nillsville. Is it me? Or are ALL women pissed off at men these days? Even us nice guys? Can’t wait for #metoo to be over.” There were a handful of likes and laughing emojis, a few commiserating replies from overpaid brogrammer pals.

In a fury, I posted a comment: “I really pity you men. You have it soooo hard!” Radio silence on the thread after that.

Unfortunately, thanks to my comment, Facebook’s algorithm kept showing me Charlie’s posts. Although not as infuriating as that first one, they were vapid enough. Each time I saw Charlie’s profile picture (playing guitar, wearing STANFORD t-shirt) it reminded me of what he’d done to Biz, apparently without remorse, and put me in a foul mood. I don’t believe in creating an oblivious bubble around myself, but it didn’t take long before I blocked posts from Charlie Danson from my newsfeed. May we never cross paths again.

One evening in early September, I biked home from work, happy to have sworn off the car for good. I turned on the radio to KEXP while I made dinner. I heard a familiar voice singing along with an acoustic guitar. The melody was an all-but naked steal from Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (a steal that might not be obvious to everyone, but I’d been in my high school’s production, I could sing those songs in my sleep). The lyrics were banal:

You’ve gone up to the stars, the sun, the moon.

Younger cousin who died too soon.

But you’ll always be a part of me,

You were like a sister, a friend to me

But now the Universe has set you free.

Some people say you’ve gone away,

But I see you every day.

You are the glitter on a gymnast’s face,

You are the slow turtle that won the race.

A tiny canoe in the great big sea,

The wings of a honeybee.

I see you in each budding flower,

I see you in Seattle showers.

You’re summer sunlight on my skin

You’re the blue sparrow that won’t blend in.

You’re the shiny red on a fast new car,

The laughter drifting from the neighborhood bar.

It went on and on. The voice (you’ve probably guessed) was Charlie Danson’s.

The next day the song was playing in my neighborhood café and in the grocery co-op. They were playing it in Banana Republic when I bought a new suit for court. I ducked into Ann Taylor to look for a blouse right after, and heard it there too. They played it so much on KEXP that I stopped listening to the station.

Then there was Heaven and Earth. For anyone living in a bunker the past few years, Heaven and Earth was an HBO hit, sort of Gray’s Anatomy meets Stranger Things. Set in Seattle after a giant earthquake, the show followed three ER doctors as the city puts itself back together. One of the doctors, a brilliant Indian woman, has lost her sister in the quake and to deal with her grief she creates a Sims-like version of her sister; at night she disappears into the video-game world where she and her sister go on adventures. The show weaves back and forth between real-life and the animated online world. Like everyone else, I was waiting for the second season. The night it aired, I was in my pjs, on the couch curled up next to the dog and a bowl of popcorn. There was the opening teaser, then as the credits rolled, I heard the familiar guitar chords and Charlie’s voice. Heaven and Earth changed its theme music to Charlie’s song. I had to stop myself from hurling my computer across the room.

The next week, at an office picnic, a co-worker who was also big fan of the show, played “Cousin” over and over.

It goes without saying that I wanted to scream each time I heard the song. I also wanted to turn to the person next to me, usually a complete stranger, and tell them exactly what Charlie had done to his cousin. I mentally composed a letter to The Stranger laying out the facts. Let everyone know what bullshit that song was, make the creep’s life miserable. It was a letter I never actually typed up. I made a promise to keep Biz’s secret. Her story was not mine to tell.

I haven’t mentioned yet that I’d told my own story, on the #metoo threads on twitter. Other women I knew were posting, and in a rush of courage, I added my tweets. My family members weren’t on twitter, but word had somehow made its way back to them. My sister sent me a furious email, defending her husband. My mother didn’t call me to ask when I was coming home for Christmas, and I didn’t go. We haven’t spoken since. And yet, I didn’t regret posting my story. We need to tell what happened to us for things to change. I firmly believe that. Progress is painful. Progress can feel like shit.

One day in October, fourteen months after Biz had died, I came out of a 9 a.m. hearing to find two phone texts and a messenger text from Charlie.

I need help! Can we meet today? Then:

Can you meet me today after work?

I’ll find you at your office? He pinged an hour later. Meet for lunch today or tomorrow?

Lunch? Today?

HELP NEEDED ASAP!!!! urgent!

Your professional advice needed. Am willng to hir you as a lawyer.

It’s a case of Social Justice.

The texts by then were hard to ignore. Had Charlie come across some terrible case of child abuse or neglect, maybe while researching an article? Let him find another lawyer, I thought. Let him look up my organization and call the receptionist like anyone else. If we crossed paths, I’d tell him my phone had died.

But the more I thought about it, the last thing I wanted was for Charlie to google up where I worked and show up there—and possibly follow me home.

I told him to meet me at the Oddfellows Café after work. I’d hear him out. Then I could pass him off to a colleague, a male colleague.

Charlie came into the restaurant babbling about the crisis in affordable housing and how decent, middle-class people and creatives were being turned out of their homes. Fremont was now a bourgeois den of Google drones. His massage therapist had just moved to Tacoma…. It took a few minutes for him to calm down and for me to figure out that:

1) He was operating under the mistaken impression that I work in housing rights.

(“But you’re a social-justice-warrior-lawyer,” he said. “Yes, and it’s child advocacy,” I repeated. Hadn’t he been listening to me on our date? Of course not. He’d been high.)

2) It wasn’t struggling artists or adjunct professors about to lose their affordable housing. No, the so-called victim was none other than Charlie Danson himself. His landlords were putting their house up for sale and moving to West Seattle, in order to afford the healthcare costs for their younger daughter, who had a congenital heart defect and would need a series of operations.

“How are you the victim in all of this?” I asked. “You work at Amazon. You just had a hit song. I’m sure Heaven and Earth cut you some checks. I’m sure you can afford a one-bedroom, even with real estate what it is right now.”

“You’d be surprised, the way the music industry screws over the artists—Prince, Little Richard—”

Little Richard?” I rolled my eyes. “Charlie, you are no Little—”

“—I don’t have enough to buy the house. I need to buy the house.” He was talking over me. “It’s a double lot. Even if it stays zoned single-family, some developer will swoop in, tear it down and put in a giant douche-box—”

“Charlie, can you not say douche-box?”

“Why not? It’s happening all over the neighborhood.”

“Just find a less-misogynist insult,” I said. “And what does that have to do with you finding a new place to live?”

“I need that house. I need that basement!” His voice rose to a half-shout. The people at the table next to us turned to look. The tension coming off Charlie was practically an electric aura. I wasn’t getting it.

“Is there any way to stop the sale of the house?” he said, picking up his napkin and twisting it in his fingers. “Do I have any rights? I’ve got to have rights.”

“I know some lawyers, real estate, tenants’ rights, but they’ll only tell you what I’m going to tell you now: No. Not if there’s a remodel or rebuild, not if you can’t buy the house yourself.” He put his head in his hands. “Get a grip,” I said. “You’ll survive.”

“You don’t understand,” he said, leaning towards me. He looked around, and lowering his voice to a whisper, confided. “There’s an Aleph in the basement, Georgie…. I guess not many people know what an Aleph is.”

“I know what an Aleph is,” I said.

“You do?”

“Yeah. I’m surprised you do,” I said.

“I went through a Borges phase in college,” he said, almost defensively. “I read that story. Never thought it was more than just, you know, Borges stuff.”

“Borges didn’t invent Alephs,” I said.

Let’s start with the basics.
Aleph is the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet. It looks like this: א In mathematics an Aleph is a term related to infinity. The figure א followed by a zero, a one, two, etc., refers to different sets of infinity. The set of all even numbers is one type of infinity, the sets of prime numbers, fractions, negative numbers, are other types of infinity. Taking poetic license, the sign of the Aleph denotes a multitude of infinities. And yes, there was the story by Jorge Luis Borges. Borges wrote in the last page of the story, “In the Kabbala, that letter signifies the En Soph, the pure and unlimited godhead; it has also been said that its shape is that of a man pointing to the sky and the earth….”

The godhead. That which dazzles the brain beyond its capacity. Then Moses said, “now show me your glory. And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you…but you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” Yes, I can quote the bible like the obedient Christian I once was.

The year I was eighteen, I renounced my faith. That was the year my father—the successful, real-estate developer, the  Church deacon, the devoted Lutheran who led the family in prayer every night, who told my sister and me about the importance of loyalty, humility, and above all the sanctimony of marriage—my father who had praised my mother for everything she did for the family, filed for divorce. In three months he was engaged to a twenty-six-year-old, a first-grade teacher who taught Sunday school. She looked (uncannily) like a younger version of my mother. It was also the year I started college, the year Biz and I shared our secrets, the year I first read bel hooks. That year I decided I wanted to have nothing more to do with the patriarchal structure of the Christian church. I stopped praying, and decided once-and-for-all there was no God. No God up in heaven, no God watching over me, no God guiding me and everyone else towards good and away from evil. I would have to figure out good and evil for myself.

And yet the supernatural is a hard habit to break. I need my fix. I deal with it by reading about religion, mythology, and esoteric phenomenon. Yes, I have moments when reading a good myth, or learning the symbolism of a Buddhist mandala, sends shivers down my spine. There’s no harm in being curious about these things, as anthropological phenomena. A person can marvel at the Sistine Chapel without believing in god.

The Aleph falls into the general category of mystical vision. Whether brought about by a mountain peak, or vast quantities of meditation, or an Aleph, mystical visions of dazzling splendor and the infinite universe are set pieces in religious texts. Chapter 11 of the Bhagavad Gita, for example, is Arjuna’s vision of Krishna’s true power: “Behold, Arjuna, a million divine forms, with an infinite variety of color and shape…. Behold the entire cosmos turning within my body, and the other things you desire to see.” As for the Borges story, the Aleph was a single pinpoint that contained infinite time and infinite space. Or, as Borges speculates, perhaps it’s just a simulation of infinity because to truly take in the infinite universe would be more than the human mind could bear. (And if you’re thinking this sounds a lot like the Total Perspective Vortex in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, you would not be wrong.)

“Alephs,” I said to Charlie cautiously, “don’t really exist.”

He shook his head slowly, agreeing and disagreeing at the same time.

“That’s what I thought until the night I happened to come across it—”

“Happened to?” I asked.

“It’s in my apartment, on the stairs up to first floor—I hardly ever use them. Don’t ask me why I was sitting there. I can’t remember. You have to sit on the ninth step, on the left side. Center left. I inch along until I reach the exact spot and then—” he made a little poufing gesture with his fingers, “—The Aleph!”

I made the gesture for smoking pot, and said, “Are you sure?”

“Cut me some slack, Georgie,” he said. “Sure I smoke a little now and then, medicinally, but I’m not dropping acid. I know what I’m seeing.” I must have still looked skeptical, because he said: “You know what, I’ll show it to you.”

The house was about ten blocks away, Charlie said. It turned out we were both on bikes, so I followed him. The sun, arcing around to the west, had come out from behind the clouds. Charlie put his bike in the garage, while I locked on the sidewalk. He led me up the long flight of garden stairs and along a path around to the basement side entrance.

“It’s a classic mother-in-law,” he said as he unlocked the door. “Separate entrance here, inside there’s a flight of stairs up to the kitchen of the main house. The stairs.”

I followed him in. The place was a dump—low ceiling, old carpet, ratty furniture. It smelled of basement, a pile of unlaundered clothes in a corner, and strata upon strata of pot smoke.

“Jesus, Charlie, the place needs airing out, leave it open,” I said as he started to close the door. Outside, the evening awash in the last of the day’s sunlight. “Let some light in,” I said.

I was also doing a silent calculation that involved Charlie’s 5’6”, my 5’3”, and my dusty self-defense skills. I wasn’t getting any coming-on-to-me vibe from Charlie, but these things spring out of nowhere. I wanted the door open.

“Fine, for a little bit,” he said, leaving the door open and picking up a half-smoked joint from the kitchenette counter. He cast his eyes around for matches. “But if you’re gonna see the Aleph, it’s got to be closed. The place’s gotta be completely dark, lights off.”

I snorted. “You think I’m falling for that?”

“Falling for what? I’m not making this up,” he said. “You can’t see it any other way. I’m not trying to come onto you, if that’s what you mean. Not that I wouldn’t if you were into it.”

“Well, I’m not,” I said. “If I need to be in the dark to see this thing, then we can close the door, but you go outside.”

“What? I thought, you know, we could look at it together. A bonding thing. I could be your guide.”

“Fat chance,” I said, crossing my arms over my chest for emphasis.

“Ok, OK,” Charlie said. “Let me just show you where it is.” He ushered me over to the stairs. The door at the top was closed, with a gray towel tucked into the crack between the floor and the bottom of the floor, I assumed to prevent his pot odors from rising.

By then Charlie had located some matches and was lighting his joint. He offered me a hit, “to enhance the experience.” I declined. Charlie patted his hand on to the ninth step, and told me to take a seat. There was a pen mark on the worn wooden surface, impossible to see until he pointed it out.

“Here’s where the magic happens. Be patient. It can sometimes take a sec for it to come up, and you definitely have to be in the just the right spot,” he said. “You might have to nano-scoot around a bit. Got it?”


“Ok. Fasten your seat-belt. This is going to be the best ride of your life.” And he went out to the yard, closing the door behind him. It was close to pitch black. I could almost feel my pupils dilate as I waited, seeing nothing, and more nothing. I waited a little more, then inched to the right—and there it was.

It was a pinpoint at first, then like a diamond suspended in the darkness, an arm’s length away. It was a kaleidoscopic light, expanding by the second… and here is where words fail. As a lawyer, I’ve learned to use language precisely, to close up loopholes, define reality in terms of specific building blocks that work towards something cohesive. That use of language here is useless. Reality, as we humans perceive it, no longer applied. Our meagre versions of the truth, of the universe, are so extremely limited. What a human being sees and experiences over the course of a lifetime, even a lifetime filled with travel and learning, was laughably narrow.

I saw, heard, smelled, felt, took in everything at once—or if not at once then at a dizzying pace, a tedious pace. The sheer volume of time weighed on me, how very slowly and quickly it passes. I felt dark matter moving through me, and I realized there were thousands of colors that human eyes couldn’t see. As for the billions of human faces on the planet, I looked into each with the intimacy of an infant gazing into her mother’s face, and the seven billion faces added up to nothing against every blade of grass, every microscopic mite on the hides of a herd of rhinoceroses, every scale on the creatures of the sea, every molecule of flowing water. At some point, the dizzying pace slowed, or I got the hang of riding it, focusing on one time and place while the rest roared around me. My consciousness rested among the slow-growing roots of an oak tree, soaking up water and nutrients from the soil and sending rich, bio-chemical communications to the mycelium and the surrounding plants in a symbiotic symphony. Time came in majestic waves. I stayed as the tree flourished, died, and cycled into new life. The roar and rush of the Aleph snatched me up and

—I was on a stinking, watertight Georgian-era wooden frigate, teeming with rats (yes I took in each of the 97 rats), reeking of mold and the body odor of the 250-man crew (three of them preteen girls in boys dress). I learned each of the crewmen’s names as my consciousness wove among them, lived in their cramped quarters, experienced their turns of sleep and work on the see-sawing sea. For months we crossed the Indian Ocean, the swell-and-crest, swell-and-crest, swell-and-crest, until I thought I would go insane from it, the tedium so endless I was ready to throw myself over…Then one of the teenaged girls was discovered for who she was, she was brought up onto the deck, stripped and raped (for a moment I was inside the mind of one of the men as he raped her, exultant in his momentary power) and then she threw herself over.

I went over with her. As my consciousness arced from the ship’s gunwale through the briny air towards the ocean, I saw every time a man hit, assaulted, and raped a woman. (And among them, I saw Charlie assaulting Biz, then assaulting another woman, when he was in college.) Then I saw every time a man and woman had fallen deeply, tenderly in love, and helped each other through a lifetime of days and years, sleeping with their arms around each other, holding each other as they died.

I saw my companion plunge into the water, as my eyes latched onto the wings of a white stork, one in a passing flock, wide-winged, long-necked creatures oblivious to the disputes of humans. I soared with them on the air currents, on mountainous waves of sunlight, my feather-light body at one with the elements it moved through.

But this could go on forever, I realized. I could lose any sense of self, if that even meant anything anymore. I flew on with the storks, resting on tiny, craggy ocean islands, diving for fish—but enough!

Suddenly I was seeing what I’d been hoping to see, as soon as Charlie had mentioned the Aleph. I saw Biz as she was at eighteen, when we met, then as a newborn, a three-year-old girl, then six (riding a bike), then twelve (helping with the apple harvest), then as an adult, a teacher, aged thirty-one, as she dwindled away, already skeletal. She was deep in the earth, we were, in the garden plot outside Ellensburg where her mother had worked her ashes into the soil—I saw worms, mealy bugs, teeming mites. Biz’s ashes were now my own, my mother’s, my father’s, my daugh—

“So Georgie, pretty amazing, huh?”

With a jolt I was back on a dingy basement step on Capitol Hill, second-hand pot smoke and Seattle sunlight filtering through the open door on the far side of the apartment.

“Pretty amazing, right?” Charlie said.

I was still getting my head straight, blinking, a little dizzy.

“You know how long that was? 45 seconds. Bet it felt like hours—maybe more—but that’s the Aleph for you. You know I discovered this thing a few months ago, it’s a total trip, right?” I wasn’t, in fact, getting my head straight. I was entirely dizzy now. “And you doubted,” Charlie said. “Not anymore, I bet. Did I tell you it’s my font of inspiration, did I mention that? There’s no way I could have written ‘Dear Cousin’ without it. I’ve been doing a session every night, working on a few more songs, thanks to the old Aleph.”

Charlie babbled on about how the Aleph needed to be saved… so he could bring more music out into the world. He had a contract now, with Big Machine, Taylor’s Swift’s record label. Only he needed to have the songs…. My dizziness subsided, but speaking felt beyond me. This version of reality felt so paltry. The color seemed drained out of everything. It must be the dim light in this dump of a basement, I thought. I got up and walked outside. Charlie followed me.

“Well?” he said. “We need to preserve the house, right? Preserve the Aleph. Want to co-invest? We could sell tickets…” It was idiotic pot chatter, so annoying.

The sunlight, which had seemed so warm and inviting while I was inside the dank basement, was now far too bright, slamming against my eyes, bringing on a stabbing headache. Charlie’s presence beside me was unbearable. The thought of his emotionally lazy brain tripping out on the Aleph, and more of his vapid music pouring into the world—and if the Aleph showed him everything, the way it had showed me everything—then he truly had no remorse about Biz. It was nauseating.

A cold-serving of revenge flashed through my mind. I found my voice at last.

“I don’t know how to put this, Charlie, but—look, I know you believe there’s some kind of Aleph, an infinity viewer or something, hanging around on those stairs.” He looked at me in surprise. “At least that’s what it seems like you’re saying. But I have to break it to you that I didn’t see anything. I nano-scooted all over those stairs, but I didn’t have the benefit of the pot. Look, maybe you haven’t read about the connection between marijuana and schizophrenia, but there is certain percentage of the population who can tip into serious mental illness, hallucinations of exactly this sort from that stuff. It happened to my neighbor’s son.”

For emphasis I took the joint from his hand, dropped it to the ground, and ground it into the dirt with my foot. Charlie was looking alarmed. “If I were you I’d go straight to a healthcare professional, I’d call Narcotics Anonymous. You can get help for this before it becomes irreversible. So stay calm, don’t worry. Do you have a friend you can call?”

He was nodding, eyes wide, his phone out, already dialing.

“OK. I’m gonna go. I’ve got to be at work early, and I need to grocery shop.” I headed for my bike before he could suck me back in.

At the grocery co-op, every face looked drearily familiar: I’d seen them all while I was sitting on Charlie’s ninth step. The world was drained of vitality, aggravatingly banal, but also too loud and bright. I had a migraine by the time I got home. My head hurt so much I wondered if I had done something fatal—but you cannot see my face, for no one can see my face and live. I managed a few bites of the chicken salad I’d bought at the co-op and got in bed. The next morning’s sunlight was blinding, the beep of delivery trucks and the cry of crows shattered my ears as I woke, I wanted to cry. I spent the next few weeks avoiding people, lights, noise, and wondering if I’d done myself permanent damage by looking at that thing.

In time, the impact of the Aleph lessened. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, my brain returned and I got back to normal. As for Charlie, I didn’t hear anymore songs from him. I’d managed to spare myself that much. When a year had passed, I thought of him and looked him up. On TheStranger.com he’d published just one article since the night he showed me the Aleph, dated a few weeks after. It was more of an opinion piece:

“You may know me as ‘that guy with the hit song,’ but I had my humble beginnings covering music for The Stranger….” He went on to say he wouldn’t be writing for them anymore, denounced the paper for receiving 60% of its advertising from “The Marijuana Industrial Complex,” and decried the evils and perils of pot. “All of Seattle has drunk the KoolAid. Wake up, people, wake up!” (I have to say, I was impressed The Stranger published the piece. They do get the bigger half of their ads from Seattle’s forest of pot shops.)

On Facebook, Charlie had posted fairly often over the past year. He went through dark days, often blurting forth in the early hours of the morning, to the silence of brogrammer pals. Then he turned a corner, was loving life. He’d been drug-free for six months, then nine. Most recently, he’d been fired from Amazon, and was “getting back to my roots, going to spend a year working and learning on an organic farm, called The Grass Is Greener. You may think of me as ‘that guy with the hit song,’ but my experience with fame and its trappings has taught me how empty it all was. I believe I’ve found true inner peace in renouncing materialism, and I hope others can learn from my example.” Well, he’d never been one to hold back on self-congratulation.

I biked by the house on Capitol Hill; it was gone. In its place was an obnoxiously enormous luxury p.o.s., courtesy of the real-estate-industrial complex. It was a blight on the charm of the century-old four-square houses on the rest of the block. If Biz had been with me we would have laughed about the house (what else can you do?), and the Aleph. Would we have laughed about Charlie, too?

I biked home, slowly. From my kitchen, I called The Grass is Greener Organic Farm in Skagit Valley.

“Hello?” a woman’s voice answered.

“Yes—um—I know you don’t know me, but you have someone about to start to work there soon and I thought you should know that he’s committed sexual assault.”

“I’m listening,” she said.

“A Kavanaugh type of thing. The incidents I know about were years ago, but he’s never expressed remorse. A friend of mine lived with the trauma for years…” I gave her my name and offered to make the drive if she didn’t trust a phone call from a stranger.

“No, I believe you, I understand exactly. I won’t feel comfortable with him here. I have teenage daughters. Thank you for letting me know.”

And with that, I was done with Charlie Danson.

As for me, once I was feeling better, I signed up for a swing dance class with Cat, a new lawyer in my office. She and I have become a little addicted to swing dance, going three nights a week and few times travelling for all-weekend long swing dance events. Cat isn’t Biz, but we’ve become good friends—we get each other, we crack each other up. I can tell her exactly what’s on my mind. I also started dating someone a couple months ago. I met him at the Century Ballroom, he’s smart and thoughtful, likes to get around by bike, he doesn’t smoke pot. It’s still early, but I feel optimistic about him.

All of this is to say—Biz—I still miss her, I still want her back. I still feel her absence every day, but her absence isn’t a terrible, crazy pain anymore. It’s just a regular ache. I’m getting used to her being gone, which feels somehow wrong.

Noelle Catharine Allen has worked as a news reporter in Buenos Aires and Mexico City, and now lives in Seattle. Her short fiction has appeared in Hunger Mountain, Phoebe, JMWW, Girls with Insurance, Best New Writing, and other publications. She received Hunger Mountain's Pushcart Prize nomination, and won the Editor’s Choice Award from Best New Writing. She is working on her first novel.

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