The Man Who Could See Radiance
Before he saw radiance, he saw the way we all see. He saw his wife Rachel as threatening or contributing to his equilibrium; an irritation or, sometimes, someone he loved so that touching her was like touching the source of all metaphor, making his mind gasp and his mouth open.
It's not something he ever put into words, what that was all about. Usually, she was someone to eat dinner with, someone to tell stories—he met lots of people, he told her stories. And all other women he saw as, first of all, more beautiful or less beautiful than Rachel, older, younger, could-be wives or lovers or godforbid-to-be-married-to-that-one. Or he saw them as Rachel's friends, taking her away from his life or maybe giving them someplace to go on a Saturday night. Then there were the old, he felt sorry for, and the young, he felt tenderness for, the young who made him remember the failures of his life.
Of course, his own children were different, they still made him glow, eyes fill so he had to turn his head away. Out of the house now, Jennifer in law school, Noah in his senior year at college, and he worried when they flew home, worried when they went off on ski weekends. At work he saw guys he liked or didn't like, men and women the same, good to work with or hard to do business with, dumb son of a bitch. McAndrews knew how to smooth over tensions at a meeting; Myers stepped on his lines. And he saw time as his enemy, keeping him from ever getting everything done, and energy he saw as something he held in a psychic bank and had to replenish if he spent, and never could he keep the account fat for very long. So he saw and saw and went through Boston seeing and that's the way it was. He saw the world fabricated from his needs, the world pleasant or unpleas¬ant, curious or dull, never beyond his fabrication, though he didn't see the fabrication.
Peter Weintraub was past mid-life, no crisis in sight; all the crises he could handle, he'd handled—doubt about his work, a beautiful woman who came along at the right time—and then Rachel, too, turned out to be having an affair with the Headmaster at the prep school where she taught history. A hard couple of years, but somehow they lasted and knew each other now, they said that in bed sometimes when they were about to make love, we know each other now. Fondness of the extra flesh at hip or belly as if to touch that flesh were also to know, with compassion, limits, this is it, my particular life, and it isn't bad or dull. This should be the end of a story; trailing into flashes of erotic glory, or a moment awash with tenderness, or joy of the capture of new markets for the software his company sold, vacation trips (Florence, Aruba), losses, sorrows, death, please God the lives of children continuing, history complicating or explod¬ing everything, maybe the planet. Otherwise, Friday evening concerts in Symphony Hall.
But one day at the end of grimy winter, riding the MTA from Newton into downtown Boston, he looked into the eyes—maybe they were temporarily unprotected, they must have been unprotected—of another middle-aged man (lap-top computer, London Fog raincoat) sitting across the aisle. The trolley went underground at Church Street and as Weintraub glanced up, the legs and bookbags in the aisle shifted and he felt this man's eyes, felt oh, my God, the damage and, instantly, saw the minor panic of this man putting up eyes in front of eyes like an alien discovering his humanoid mask wasn't right. Yet Peter felt it more now, the damage, heard this man not-saying I'm afraid of your eyes seeing me, making me pull too hard at the guy wires that keep me from breaking apart in this terrible wind. Trolley shivering and howling in the tunnel. Then overcoats and briefcases between them.
When Peter was able to see again, the man was gone. Weintraub shuddered and, his own eyes closed, he saw again the panic in the gone eyes and, under the eyes, the pain. Maybe the poor son of a bitch was cracking up. Just, aaach, just some poor son of a bitch. But he couldn't account for his own turbulence, as if a door had just opened into hell.
And here was the worst of it: he suspected that he'd seen this way before. Not once. Always. He'd kept himself from knowing. But he'd never not seen this way. At work, he forgot. March 1: he had a report to get out for a meeting with management, and he played with the stats and graphics, altering the units of measurement so a fairly flat curve looked pregnant. The report went to the laser printer and Jean Collis had eight bound copies on his desk ten minutes before the meeting, and he smiled up at her—and with a terrible rush felt her life, her life, and had to close his eyes to keep the knowledge off. Pain again, though not the same as on the trolley; then was it his own pain he was seeing? But no, he was sure it belonged to Ms. Collis, brittle Ms. Collis who had a well-publi¬cized secret life he'd always known, you could see the posters over her desk, soft-focus landscapes with New Age aphorisms about the soul, but what he saw now was a life intended to stay secret, even from herself, and it was so open to him, the balance sheet of humiliations she kept, he couldn't breathe.
He pushed back from his desk, hand over his heart. “Thank you so much. Thank you, such a good job, thank you.” “We forgot to single-space the indents.” “But it's beautiful.” Weintraub stumbled through the meeting. He was afraid to look anyone in the face; he was afraid to breathe too deeply, as if it were breath that was taking in the pain, like the summer in college when he worked in a State hospital and there were certain wards where it was best to take a deep breath and hold it until you walked out. He tried to explain to Rachel. “Well, as for Ms. Collis, what do you expect?” she said. “Your Ms. Collis is a sour bitch. I can't stand Jean Collis.”
She poured their wine. “Don't get me started.” Now he was afraid to look into Rachel's eyes, but it didn't matter, he was anyway flooded by her life, nothing she said, her life naming itself secretly in her voice so that he found hot tears coming as he tried to answer, thinking I didn't know, I didn't know—knowing it had nothing to do with Jean Collis, whom she'd met maybe twice. What then? He couldn't say, but he held her hand against his chest and stroked, mothering them both. I'm just having problems about boundaries, he thought, thought over and over; fusing, confusing. This has to stop.
Then a week without trouble except at night, dreams of hard travel through a half-strange city, the bus not coming, subway station the other side of an impossible highway, maps he couldn't read without glasses, and along the way irritating helpers who put him on the wrong elevator, tumbling him into the morning radio news, cranky and fatigued. Then the next night, the same confusing city and so much to carry, clumsy not heavy, and the overcoat he had to go back for probably lost. I need a spring vacation, he said to Rachel. You and me both, she said. The first seeing came almost as relief, like rain pouring down to break a heat wave and finally you could breathe, worth it even if you'd left the cushions out on the deck chairs.
This time, it was a friend. Aaron and Beth Michaels came for dinner and Weintraub had nothing to say and longed for them to be gone, longed for sleep, held a glass of good wine that tasted sour. He felt hot, itching—soon he'd learn to recognize that itching in his chest—he looked up to see Beth, who'd been talking about their daughter's suffering in marriage, to see Beth's own suffering, her life suddenly visible. He half stood to reach out to her and fold his arms around her but that wasn't possible. But he wanted to, and it was his having to sit there and listen quietly to Beth's story that sent him over into seeing the radiance that first time. It shone from her eyes, something to do with her eyes, but it was centered at her chest, pulsing out like the Northern lights he once saw, visible, not visible, a trick of the light?—oh, no, she glowed, out of the suffering something radiated.
I can turn this off, he thought. I can examine it critically and get rid of this golden light. But he'd always liked her, and all at once he was breathing so fully again after suffocating weeks that he didn't have the heart to try. I know you, know you. He drank his wine and felt vaguely adulterous—and hoped they couldn't see. He changed from Handel to Brahms, a trio, and checked the casserole. When he came back to the couch, he was afraid it wouldn't be there, but it was. Everything else went on according to the rules of the dance. The Brahms that everyone else seemed to tune out was almost too much for him to bear, with this light pulsing around Beth in the wing-backed armchair. A trick of sight, a trick of hearing as well, for the cello pulsed within his body. A trick of the heart. I wish I could talk about this to Rachel. But he was afraid it might never come back. And then... she'd think things.
“Anybody for more wine?” Maybe if he saw truly, Weibtraub thought, this is how he'd see everyone. Every human creature in the radiance that made him tremble, made him—terrible dinner companion—gawk at Beth all evening. And Rachel did think things. Getting ready for bed, she wouldn't talk. “Rachel?” he said. “Please?”
“You were staring at that woman all night. I wouldn't care but it was humiliating. Everyone must have noticed.”
He couldn't see the light pulsing from Rachel. He even dimmed the bedroom hoping to see. I mean, imagine—to live in the presence of that radiance! She turned the lights up again. “You're not all of a sudden getting romantic with me—not after staring at someone else all night?”
“No. Listen, Rachel, it's just that I noticed something about her. Like her soul for godsakes.”
“What a peculiar animal I married.” Rachel started giggling the way she used to years and years ago, until the giggles emptied out, then brimmed up in her again and bubbled over so that she had to lean against the bed and dry her eyes. “Her soul! Tell me another. Oh, you dumb bird!” Stepping out of her skirt, she went to the closet for her shorty nightgown. “Peter? I think I'm changing my mind about romance. You can make love to my soul.” About Beth, at least he could understand. Wasn't it true he'd always imagined taking her to bed? Her soul? Rachel was right to laugh. But what about Jack Myers, Vice-President in charge of Sales and Being a Prick? They couldn't be in the same meeting without putting each other down. Just the hint that one of them supported a plan was enough to get the other suspicious.
Myers! The guy had a big mouth for (1) swallowing the world and (2) emitting hot air. But the next Monday morning at the weekly marketing meeting, Peter Weintraub looked up and there was the narcissistic son of a bitch glowing, pulsing. He could hardly bear to see, it was so rich, the light. The son of a bitch, so precious—why was he so precious? Myers laid out a campaign for sales to large corporations. Weintraub had a hard time listening. So precious! He got up and sat next to Myers—“Mind if I look over your shoulder?” Myers kept talking.
Weintraub conducted an experiment; casually straightening papers, he let his fingers get close to Myers' chest: What did the light feel like? Myers gave him a Look. “Mmm, nice plan,” Weintraub said. Now McAndrews, the guy who made everything move in the company, McAndrews also gave him a Look, and Ferris, the aging golden boy who'd developed the original software concepts, said, “Well! It must be one hell of a plan.” And Weintraub, thinking fast, said, “Myers, you're finally coming around to what I said a year ago.” Now, for the time being, it was okay.
Everyone laughed except Myers. He could feel the light or feel something at the borders of his own body, not see, but feel in fingers and cheeks and chest a humming like when he stood at night outside a Con Edison plant—a kid, summer¬time, doors open and the turbines humming like a giant chorus in all registers, and it seemed they were producing the energy that made the earth turn and the trees grow. Whose energy was this? Myers'? His own? No saying. At work, colleagues had always seen Weintraub as a little peculiar, but—he knew—they were fond of his strangeness. So there were times you could walk into his office and find him checking proofs on a catalogue, head¬phones on, arms conducting a silent Mahler. He knew they accepted that. It made them feel that the workplace wasn't a concentration camp. They used his freedom as symbols of their own. But now they began looking at him after he passed down the hall; he caught reflections in glass doors. People spoke to him carefully and slowly. Sometimes that was when he was staring into their radiance, sometimes not.
And then Rachel sat him down one day and said, “Peter? Peter, I got a call from Joe Ferris. He wonders...”
“I'm not going to do therapy. Isn't that what you're asking?”
“Do you want to go off somewhere? You said...”
“Actually,” he said, “I don't want to lose this.”
“Lose what?” He was afraid to kill it by saying. “It's too good to talk about.” It was so good that he had to wonder. Look. He was no saint. Especially now. Sometimes five minutes after he saw radiance, he felt rage. And it was worse when he tried to live an ordinary life. One night, he had a fight with the young jerk behind the checkout at the video store. The kid mixed him up with someone who'd tossed late tapes on the counter.
He called out to Weintraub, “Hey! You owe $6.50 on these.”
“Me? Those? No—they're not my tapes.”
“Hey! Don't bullshit me.”
“You got the wrong guy.”
“Hey! You can just stop looking—you're not taking out any more tapes until you pay.”
“And I told you, you moron, they're not mine.”
“Yeah? Let's see your card, then. Hey!”
“YOU! YOU!—shut the hell up! Close that mouth, you understand?”
And Weintraub discovered he was suddenly raging, shouting, and the other browsers were staring. “I said they're not mine, prick! You'll see my card when I'm goddamn ready. Now—not another word out of you! Not another word!”
“Hey! I said show me your card if it's not you.” Now the kid wasn't sure. “Who are you then?” Weintraub, affronted, righteous, trembling, hot, hot in the face, took his time, picked out a movie and slapped the cover on the counter—along with his membership card. “Yeah, well, okay—you could've showed me this and saved the hassle.” There were twenty, thirty tapes piled up on the counter. Weintraub swept them off with the sickle of his arm, and they scattered against the metal shelves and Weintraub stomped out, neck tight, victorious—victorious over a child. All that rage! The kid had him by twenty pounds and twenty years but wouldn't have stood a chance (Weintraub was sure) against his battle fury. He could imagine a bloody fistfight in the video store, all the Newton lawyers and doctors waiting for their professional ser¬vices to be required. And that he should be the one to see radiance! It made him squirm.
Maybe I do need therapy. He drove around awhile. Then, sitting in the silence of his garage with the engine off, he wondered if it wasn't wishful seeing, pretending the world secretly expressed love. When it didn't. Calmed, he could still feel his own blood, and, at the borders between his body and the world, the humming that was always with him now. Peter had never been a fighter, hadn't fought since grade school. I wanted to kill that boy. He tilted the rear view mirror to look at himself, expecting to see a terrible radiance, green or red ugly light pulsing around his head. But all he saw was his ordinary face; the eyes, at being questioned, questioning.
“I'm home!” he sang out, entering. “I'm in the family room. Come have a drink.” From her voice he knew she knew. She poured him a sherry and sat beside him, capturing his hand.
“The store called. The owner: he was very, very upset.”
“I was very upset.”
“Not the young man. The owner. He's cancelled your membership. He says, if we make trouble, he'll sue.”
“I couldn't care less.”
“And...Nancy Pollock called.”
“Christ—was she there? Well, to hell with the Pollocks.”
“No—Nancy was being kind, she was terribly worried. I said you'd been under some strain.” She stroked his hand. “Poor Peter.” Now came the strain: he worked hard to do the work of the world. He tried to avoid being peculiar, even in the old ways. Goodbye to his Walkman and headphones and waving his arms to Lied von der Erde. He never loosened his tie. It would take time, he knew, to regain his position of normality in his company, but soon, at least, sooner than he'd expected, they had stopped talking slowly and carefully to him.
Ferris brushed invisible dust off Weintraub's Italian suit and congratulated him on a report—really on reentering the world. Weintraub knew he was really staying outside, outside other people's hearts and safe from radiance and rage. He could tame the eyes of colleagues if he looked at, not into them. Sometimes he wondered whether they knew what he knew and had taught themselves to see only just enough to get by on—then to forget they'd done it. No radiance, but the cost: the world stopped glowing, and then stopped mattering. It was only matter. He imagined it was like being an alcoholic or say a heroin addict, who'd felt the rich fabric of life through his drug, and then, his blood neutralized, felt nothing.
But then, he began to be aware, dimly, unsure, out of the corner of his eye, but soon intensely—of a visible dissonance; shock waves. Always. He saw them first faintly in the street on his way to work. Twice, he saw them in the supermarket, but they were just jangling, just irritating, they weren't terrible—not until the regular Monday morning meeting. The meeting hadn't got started, people wandered in, coffee mugs full, talked football scores. Laughter. Of course it was a little phony, a pretense at relaxed congeniality, but so what? That, Peter knew, was how business got accomplished—people put on underwear and shoes and combed their hair and made up their faces and worried about their own projects, their own places in the company, about their children, about their health, and wasn't there something noble about the false good humor that gave them, temporarily, a common speech, a key in which to sing all their different notes? And then work got done.
But this Monday morning he saw not radiance but only forms of brittle energy surrounding, bounding everyone, like the concentric circles around a rock dropped in a pool, fending off the circles around other rocks. But these shock waves weren't concentric; they were crazy-irregular. No angel would wear such a thing as nimbus. Ugly, jagged, the waves of air jarred against each other, distorting, and Peter sank back in his conference chair to keep out of the way. The squawk! As if every man and woman was a miniature broadcasting tower sending out these waves, jamming each other's broadcasts. Worse: the lines of force—though nothing, though air or a trick of seeing—had nasty, sharp, staccato edges—watch out!—like concertina wire strung up to keep off thieves.
Peter dug in as if his chair were a trench. It was war. He gaped. Then the meeting settled down, and he saw these protective waves settle back close to their owners, condense, intensify. Then Ferris' voice, getting things underway, warm and cheerful: all the barbed lines of force opened slightly like lips to let his voice enter, but the force felt it as invasion. He could see how his colleagues handled the alien force that they had to let in: prepared, they shaped it, surrounded it, until it became part of their own force. But when he looked at the room, he understood why Ferris was so successful with personnel. Gradually, the lines of force grew less staccato, smoother, and the edges less fierce. It was like wild beasts under the sway of a tamer.
Oh, but he knew how temporary. No hope! No hope! No hope! Less afraid, now that the individual boundaries had grown less jagged, he had time to mourn. Behind his hand, he wept for all of them. This wasn't smart! Thank God he had a tissue in his pocket, he could blow his nose—a spring cold—but what did it matter, the hopelessness was so much more terrible than his individual embarrassment. So, his weeping unprotected by tissue, he collected his papers and went back to his office.
“Jean, I'm not feeling well. I don't think...I think I'm—“ But the barbed lines of air around Ms. Collis were fierce, and he rushed past her, down the elevator and into a gray spring day, downtown Boston, but it was like entering Beirut in civil war or the hell where city gang fighters go when they die. Burrowing down inside himself, he walked fast towards the subway at Government Center, then broke into a run, but there was nowhere to run, all around him on the open plaza in front of City Hall were indifferent people with fields of force that weren't indifferent at all. So many people—each surrounded by a jagged perimeter of defense, and the lines jarring silently against each other, a giant interwoven beast or bitter maze that shifted to let him through. He himself was without protection. Worst, he was without protection from his vision. So this was it!
He flagged a taxi just empty and ran to its open door. For the first three days Peter lay on the beach and didn't look at people, kept his eyes to himself like a shy child. He let Rachel decide where they would eat, when they would sleep. Did he really sleep? He couldn't tell. Ashamed, he clung, big man, wrestler in college, close to her warmth against the crisp white hotel sheets, and, tense until her breathing deepened, then he sank into a flowing dark inside the dark; it was like, by day, letting the Caribbean mild tides carry him as he floated, breath¬ing through the snorkeling tube and letting his eyes fill with gentle, glowing fish, the colors leading him down under giant coral and through the reef passage, where he would breathe deep and plunge, a sudden drop of fifteen feet, into darker water of the bigger fish until he couldn't take the pressure. Then he'd surface, clear the tube, and drift back through the passage. He couldn't read. What did he do? He lay on the beach.
“You're healing, don't worry,” Rachel said. On the third night, they made love again, and it was gentle as the fish. For three days, he hadn't looked at her, not looked all the way down, but while he was inside her he opened his eyes and her eyes were open, and moving slowly inside her he saw at the perimeter of his seeing a dim glowing that might have been him or might have been her or both, like a pattern impressed into the dark, angel-in-the-snow they made an angel in darkness. The radiance had come back to him. He was afraid to ask, Do you see it?
He closed his eyes; coming, he drifted into the radiance. It was after two when he awoke and went to the balcony to look at the ocean. No moon. He felt his blood rising into fingers and put up his humming palms as if they pressed against a window of darkness and for the first time he could see his own radiance, faint, glowing.
I'm all this, he said to himself. This is who I am! This is who I am! Turning, he saw Rachel with her hair spread out on the pillow, and it seemed to him that faintly, from the dark of her hair a light hovered around her. And in that light he could read her sorrows—miscarriages and work she'd grown tired of, failure as a musician and compromises in loving him and fear that Jennifer didn't love her. Saw. As he looked, her radiance flamed. I can never be the same, never... he whispered and whispered again, longing for it to be true.
They held hands on the flight home. He could look again, though it frightened him to see the jagged perimeters of strangers, but his vision protected him, his knowing. He walked safe inside his own space of knowing. At Aaron and Beth's house he took a chance on coming back into his old world. Candles on the coffee table, old friends as in a beer commercial. Beth and Aaron laid out a platter of artichoke hearts and calamata olives, scallions and red peppers—an antipasto. But the shocks of air, the brittle, jagged energy protected Aaron.
Protected from what? From me? What am I doing? He smiled across at Aaron as if to say, Hey, no need, no need—it's all right. But though Aaron smiled, humoring, Aaron's fierce shock of air intensified. Peter wondered, Can I feed him from my own radiance? But that was the moment, lifting his hands as if to pass on a blessing, he saw for the first time his own barbed field of force, it grew out from his hands and through his jacket and surrounded him, and as he grew afraid it grew uglier until it seemed to wrap around him like a stockade. And murderous—it wanted death for Aaron, wanted absolute exclusion of other life.
“Oh, please...I want to get out,” he said, in a small voice, meaning this prison of his own making. “It's not like I thought. Nothing's like I thought.”
“Rachel—you want me to get your coats?” Beth said, and her voice implied long conversations about him on the phone. “No—that's not it—“ Peter started to explain, but stopped, because in this moment of emergency everyone had come temporarily together, maybe it was that, and that his own need was so great to get past himself, and he saw as if all the cells or atoms of each of them were pointilistically vibrating in golden space and each desperately holding separate being together but he could see that boundaries were almost arbitrary.
And all the defensive fields, too, were not separate but intermeshed. Aaron's field depended on his and his on Aaron's. If he looked too long, all the boundaries, the visible forms, would disappear. Like a computer engineer getting under¬neath the software, under¬neath the hidden codes, underneath the program and even the machine lan¬guage to the essential on-and-offs that you couldn't see. And he tried to explain, and Beth said, “Can I get you a scotch, Peter?” and he knew it wasn't possible and bent his head and stayed silent and made his heart stay silent.
“Pass the wine,” he'd say. “Pass the steak. How's work, Aaron?” They were all relieved. He stayed mostly silent all the next day, a Sunday, and Rachel let him be. He listened to music. When he heard her getting dinner started, he came down and helped her cut up vegetables, because that's what you do, you cut up vegetables and sauté them in oil and add cumin and coriander. You say to your wife, “I'm feeling okay,” and take her kiss and say, “You get your lesson plans finished?”
And slowly, because it was necessary, the vision faded. He wept at odd times and for no reason. The vision came to him less and less the next few months, finally not at all. And sometimes he thought, It was just chemistry. And sometimes he thought, I know what's under there. He took up his work again and was careful what he said. So after a while he was able to wave his arms while listening over the headphones to Mahler, and the others shook their heads and grinned, relieved: Weintraub was back. And he was able to fight with Jack Myers and when he talked with Joe Ferris didn't see more than Ferris wanted him to see, didn't see with his heart. He saved his heart in a safe deposit vault and brought out small sums when he could, especially for Rachel, for Rachel and for their children.
“The Man Who Could See Radiance” was read at Symphony Space in New York and has been aired often on NPR as part of the Selected Shorts series. JOHN J. CLAYTON'S third novel, Kuperman's Fire, was published in July, 2007. His Wrestling with Angels: New and Collected Stories, was published by Toby Press in September, 2007. His stories have won prizes in O.Henry Prize Stories, Best American Short Sto¬ries, and in the Pushcart Prize anthology. His second collec¬tion, Radi¬ance, was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award in 1998. His second novel, The Man I Never Wanted to Be, was also published in 1998. Clayton has edited six edi¬tions of an anthology, the Heath Introduction to Fiction (now for Hough¬ton Mifflin). He has also written a good deal about modern fiction, including Gestures of Healing, a psycho¬logical study of modern British and American fiction. His Saul Bellow: In Defense of Man won awards in literary criticism. He has published criticism on various twentieth century writers including D. H. Lawrence, E. L. Doctorow, and Grace Paley.