Past Life
by Susan Dickman

The last time I saw Philip was three days before he left town for good, leaving a swarm of people looking for him, and the money and explanations he owed them. He was like that. He could charm anyone, until the bottom dropped out of his world. And even after the barrage of bitter words and anger had faded, and it was clear he had taken people, and lied and wrenched money and real sympathy from them for his false sorrows, no one could stay angry with him for long. I couldn’t. I couldn’t love him enough, either.


We scaled the crooked back of Half Dome that summer, Thom and me and the baby. The baby. I still get a kick out of women who say that, the baby. So detached, as if that pulsing lump of flesh and blood and bone had somehow found its way into your arms or lapping at your breast one day as if by magic. Kevin wasn’t even a baby yet, he was an infant, half-dozing, sucking on his fingers or on me, staring up at the constellations of lights floating above his head.


Thom shows me off at dinner parties. “Carolyn hiked Half Dome two months post-partum, can you believe it?” And our friends ooh and aah and say I must be some kind of natural woman to have climbed a mountain with a baby strapped to me. An Amazon woman of superhuman strength. I bit Thom’s hand during labor, and it was his blood that helped me push Kevin out. He thought I was crying from pain when Kevin crowned, forgetting that the pain of the head coming through is anaesthetic, numbs the surrounding tissue. I didn’t cry from pain, or from joy, but from somewhere in between the two, somewhere I’d never been before.


In the back country Thom made a cradle from a trampled butterfly net left in a parking lot, lined it with a blanket, and hung Kevin in it next to the roasted breast of turkey and other food we had put up in a tree to tease the bears.

“Won’t the bears want him too?” I asked. Thom was setting up the tent, running a finger and thumb along the nylon seam to check for leaks.

“He’s hardly a snack, they’ll leave him be.”

And I rocked Kevin and flicked away mosquitoes from his fat pink cheeks. I remember looking at his eyes and counting the lashes in the days before they grew in thick as a forest, overnight. Looking at his face for hours and thinking, he’s growing every second, his cells are multiplying and dividing and dying all the time. Strange to look into a baby’s face and see life and death beneath the skin, beneath the pale thin blood vessels on the eyelids that ripple under the spell of dreams.


I met Philip somewhere, in a place I used to frequent in my old life, somewhere I stopped going after I met Thom. And not long afterwards, Thom asked me to marry him. It was so easy, that quick. Old-fashioned. I had known about Philip for years before we’d ever gotten together. He was a friend of my brother’s at one time during high school, though ‘friend’ is probably not the word you’d use to describe the relationship between dealers and users. I’d seen his face so often at parties before we finally met that when it finally happened he already felt familiar to me, almost like a brother. Except that I had no memories to account for his childhood and what injuries had sustained him. This was just as I was starting to clean up my act. I’d stopped using, even stopped smoking cigarettes, drank ginseng tea instead of coffee.

When I first met Thom he would cook huge feasts of rice and stir-fried vegetables and curries. He’d bake his own dinner rolls and roll out piecrusts and fill them with raspberries; he made his own jams and sauces. He didn’t know about me at first, didn’t understand that by coincidence I needed what he had to offer. That I was only just beginning to eat again. He only knew he loved to watch me at the table, loved observing the way I used my fork and knife. I was careful, he said, I knew what eating meant, I knew it in my body that sharing bread was communion.


Thom worked night hours then, ferrying people from car wrecks to the E.R.. Pulling people from vehicles, strapping their bodies onto gurneys. He was the one who held their limp hands, he was the soft one who got teased by the rest of the crew, the ones who referred to the people they had rescued by the names of their injuries. The coronary bypass, the cracked cranium, the severely punctured lung. Because he knew what to say to those people, the ones all bloodied, their limbs twisted beyond repair, their insides broken and bleeding. Choking on their own vomit, grabbing at their chests as if to read their own faltering hearts. Thom is gifted that way. He drops down and kneels at their sides, he whispers into their ears words an angel might say. And you can see the calm washing over them, easing the panic in their faces even when it is clear they’re going to die. An emergency room doctor told me this once at a party. That Thom is like the father explaining heaven to the young son in the account you read about in Holocaust literature. Standing naked on a mound of dirt before a pit filled with bodies, waving his thin hand across the sky to point to God moments before the bullets reach the backs of their heads. Thom is nearly a saint, really. He’s rescued me.


He rescued Philip once, too, after a so-called friend dropped him off near comatose at the hospital curb. I knew it was him from Thom’s description, and from his voice when he crawled into bed early the next morning.

“This guy comes in all fucked-up on heroin and soaked in blood from a big “X” he’s carved out over his heart. So we’re working two angles in the van, working the wound and trying to keep his body from shutting down. Beautiful guy, too, like a model. Young, fancy clothes, ice-green eyes.” Thom’s voice all rich and gravelly, which means he’s been smoking or crying. I knew it was Philip from the way Thom said the man took his hand the next day when he stopped by to check on him, folded it in both of his and said, disingenuously, “Thanks, man. You saved me from the fire.”

“He’ll be dead in no time,” Thom tells me. “I give him six months to a year.”

“No doubt,” I answer, and hang up his jacket, its rough canvas like velvet against my cheek.


Before Thom saved his life, I hadn’t seen Philip in over three years, had managed to keep him out of my head. His heavy voice over the telephone, the feel of his slim fingers on the curve of my neck. The view of the golden bridge from his bedroom window. I went out a week after Thom saved Philip’s life and waited for him to show up outside of some guy’s house, a place I knew he went every Wednesday morning to get his fix. A nice guy in a nice house in the suburbs east of the city. A nice guy lawyer dealing from his two-car garage. Philip pulled up and parked behind me, climbed into my car at once and put one hand in my hair and the other on my swollen belly and neither of us spoke for a long time.

We met a few times a month after that, for lunch or coffee, eating crab cocktails and chowder from sourdough bowls at tourist spots along the wharf. We rode the cable cars sometimes, talked about his plans to move to New Hampshire where his sister lived. Where he was certain the woods and clean living would dry him out, tame him. He’d grin when strangers who passed us asked when the baby was due; he was charmed to think he looked so normal, so average, so able to be a father to a child.

The one thing I can say about Philip is he never tried to con me the way he did other people. And even with the others I can’t say it was really con work because the truth is, he was a hard-luck story. Anyone with a bad family, anyone outside of himself like that is. He was vain and scared. Beautiful. And he was gifted. Everything he said happened to be true, even when it seemed clear he was lying. He knew people; he could look inside and know what was there and what was missing. And he only gave people what they wanted: what they needed and what they themselves asked for.


I didn’t see him for a long time after Kevin was born. I had no time to think, let alone counsel a man because I couldn’t let go of his life. Months later he sent a ridiculously impractical baby gift, a turquoise cap that tied with a bow and was made from silk and was the size of a doll’s head. I wrapped it up in a tissue paper package and stuck it at the bottom of a box of baby clothes, Kevin’s newborn snap t-shirts, cotton caps, tiny jumpsuits he’d outgrown in the first few weeks of life. While he napped I would fold and pack away what was no longer needed, close the cardboard boxes and label them with a big black marker. Everyone I knew said to sleep when the baby slept, repeated it to me like some lost mantra as they’d approach the door to leave, but I couldn’t keep myself from keeping busy when he went down. I didn’t want to sleep, didn’t want to dream, because even my dreams didn’t belong to me anymore. They had become blank, white and huge, soft and formless as bales of cotton, scented yellow like the baby’s breath on waking. I’ve heard other women say it, too, that even your dreaming changes after you’ve given birth. As if the child’s body emerging pulls with it every last remnant of a previous life, yours and his, and turns it inside-out. Enlightened women of the nineties aren’t supposed to let on that maybe they believe the baby grazing their thighs like a wet seal after nine months had had another life somewhere else. That birth is mostly separation, that being born into this world means being taken from another.


We rested for a few days at the campsite near the river after returning from Half Dome. We would lie inside the tent dozing until noon, then walk to the river and take turns floating down on inner tubes. Sometimes if Kevin was sleeping deeply Thom would strap him into the front pack and take him with. I’d see then drifting along the side of the riverbank in the shade of trees, Thom singing softly to the bundle on his chest,

Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily
Life is but a dream.

The last night of our camping trip Thom cooked pasta primavera over a wood fire and fed me noodles while I nursed Kevin. He had found a good loaf of bread at the lodge store and spread garlic butter on it, poured me red wine into a Dixie cup from a bottle he’d hidden away in his backpack.

“To our last night in the wilderness,” he’d said, taking a swig of the wine, his free hand stroking Kevin’s sleeping head. An hour later we threw water on the fire and crawled into our tent, but I stayed up watching the patch of sky caught in the net window of our tent. There was no moon that night, but the stars shone bright and cold keeping me awake with their noise.


My sister once told me there are times in our lives when we do the impossible, the unbearable, the one thing we’ve sworn and promised we’d never do. She said this over coffee late one evening after I had bailed her out of jail for breaking into an ex-lover’s apartment to retrieve some clothing. While she was there she took a blood-red lipstick the new girlfriend had left near the bathroom sink and pulled it, opened, along the white plaster walls. She sat at the table with her French manicure and rattled off her tale, breathless. At the police station she had insisted I visit her in the lock-up before posting bail because she’d wanted me to see her like that: her face flushed with excitement, her hands running up and down the iron bars as she giggled and asked if I had called our parents yet. Later that night she seemed puzzled when she tried to think of how it had all happened.

“It went so fast,” was all she could manage. Then, “I graduated magna cum laude, remember?”


I climbed into the car that last night in the woods, strapped Kevin into his infant seat and drove four and a half hours to San Francisco because I knew that this time, Philip was leaving town for good. I left Thom a note saying I’d woken early and couldn’t get back to sleep, that I’d decided to take Kevin for a quiet drive. I left the note taped to the lantern he’d lain his book next to the night before.


I had driven that road alone before, knew the curving lanes that unwound the mountains and straightened out to head west until the city came into view. In the darkness even the mountainsides of fir seemed asleep, the wildflowers closed up for the night, the deer caught in my headlight’s beam sleepy-eyed, chewing slowly as they lifted their heads. When I finally glimpsed the darkened bridge rising up before me I unrolled the windows, pulled onto the shoulder and cut the engine. It was nearly two-thirty, and as I sat in the car and nursed my infant son I could see orange light on the water cast by lamps along the bridge. I heard fish jumping, a voice somewhere below me mumbling a woman’s name over and over. I could smell the black metal rails.


No one ever tells you where to find the people who can reach inside you, the ones who make your life seem real when they’re not even a part of your life anymore. The ones who can read your soul when you never once believed you even had one.

I would make it back to the forest by morning, I knew. I’d make it back to find the man I had married drinking coffee on a rock near the river. There would be time for all of it. I started the car and took my time crossing the water. All the dark below me spread out in waves and then I was on land again, covered, clouds reflecting the orange city lights. Those lights stayed on forever, I remember thinking. They would be on when I found Philip, and they’d be on an hour later when I’d turn the car around to make my way back up the mountain.

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