Jeffrey S. Rosenthal

(June, 1990)

I was walking alone in the park, barely conscious of where I was going. The events of the day kept playing over and over in my mind. We had had lunch together, Joey and I. Over sandwiches and ice cream, we had compared notes for next week's History 205 midterm, had joked about our professors and our classmates, had laughed about previous adventures together. Joey hadn't been feeling well, and was coughing a lot -- I had suggested he go to the University Health Clinic for some medication or something. By the time he got there, he was having trouble breathing, and within an hour he was hospitalized. The doctors had announced their diagnosis by early evening: Joey had a severe lung infection, some kind of pneumonia or something. They would operate tomorrow morning, but privately the doctors had told me there was much less than a fifty percent chance that Joey would live.

It all seemed so unfair, I thought, looking around the park. All these idiots here just walk on, perfectly healthy, while Joey, the greatest guy I'd ever know, was probably going to die. Joey had grown up in a poor, rough, working-class neighbourhood, but he was extremely honest and honourable. By his own assessment he was the only kid on his block who never stole anything. He had worked part-time while he was going to school, had helped support his family while simultaneously achieving top honours in high school and then in university. He was the only guy I knew who I was absolutely certain was smarter than me. But it was more than that. He was also the gentlest, most unselfish, most helpful and caring guy you could imagine. Everybody liked him; he was everybody's friend. And to me ... well, he was the closest friend I'd ever had, the only person I'd ever completely trusted, completely respected, always wanted to be around. He was the only person I never grew tired of.

And now, here Joey was, lying in a hospital bed, having trouble breathing, waiting for an operation tomorrow that would be long and difficult, and probably wouldn't even save his life.

``I can help you," came a voice. I looked around, but didn't see anyone. It had been a voice of an older woman, I'd thought. But there was no one there. I must have imagined it. I walked on.

``I can help you," the voice repeated. I looked around, but again saw nothing. ``Here, on the bench." There was no bench right near me, but there was one a bit further back on the path. Someone was seated there, a woman covered in an Indian-looking costume. But she appeared to be asleep, and in any case wasn't looking at me. I was puzzled. ``That's right, me," the voice said. ``Come closer." I hesitantly approached the bench with the woman on it. She appeared old and frail, short and wrinkled. As I got near, she suddenly looked up at me and smiled. It sort of scared me. ``Have a seat," the voice said. But the woman's lips didn't move.

I was unsure how to proceed. I assumed I was just imagining the voice, but it was compelling enough that I didn't want to just leave right away. The woman was sitting on one side of the bench, so I could sit on the other side without getting too close to her. I decided to just have a seat, wait for a minute to let my head clear, and then to move on.

When I sat down, the woman smiled at me and said ``Hello". This time her lips moved normally. It sounded like the same voice I had heard before, but I couldn't be sure.

``Hello," I responded, forcing a little smile myself.

``Sometimes, events are so cruel, so unfair," she said. ``They must be altered."

I was startled. What was she talking about? How did she know about ...

``Don't worry," she continued. ``Don't be afraid. I can help you."

I was confused and said nothing.

``Many things happen to many people in this world," she went on. She sounded sort of distant, and she spoke quite slowly, but there was a certain sincerity in her words, and I dared not interrupt her. ``Some are good, and some are bad. Some make people happy, and some make people sad." She looked at me now, and spoke to me more directly. ``This is all quite normal," she insisted, as though she expected me to contradict her. I remained silent, and after a pause she continued, again more distantly. ``But sometimes, sometimes, every once in a while, a certain event is ... different. So cold, so twisted. Something that must be changed."

She paused for quite a while, and again I dared not reply. It was getting late now, the park was mostly empty, the sun was setting, and I started to feel chilly. A slow wind rustled the autumn leaves, making a creepy crackling sound. A bird flew gently overhead, above the trees. Some distance away a car horn sounded.

Suddenly the woman sat up, and looked into my eyes more intensely than she had before. I somehow felt naked and exposed. ``Your friend Joey," she said quickly. ``You want him to live, no?"

I inhaled suddenly and deeply, tense and shocked. I was stunned. How did she know about Joey? What did she know of whether or not he would live? What did she know about me? Who was she, anyway?

I tried to reply, but no words came out. I started to shiver from the cold. But the woman just smiled. ``Relax," she said. ``I can help you."

At the thought of help for Joey, I was suddenly intrigued, and I stopped shivering just long enough to say, ``What do you mean, `help me'?" Then I started shivering again, and pulled my jacket around me more tightly.

The woman became more distant again, and didn't speak for a while. I kept waiting for her to explain herself, but she just sat still, staring ahead. I was starting to get impatient, and even irritated, when finally she began on what sounded like a prepared speech. ``It is sometimes thought that certain things `just happen', and that no one can possibly do anything to change them. And it is fortunate that people think so, for if everyone thought they could change everything at any time, then reality would have no meaning, and no one would have the will to live. A single, inviolable reality -- that's the foundation on which everyone builds their life. But nothing is untouchable, no stone cannot be moved. The universe is viscous, it oozes along slowly, susceptible to occasional stirring and mixing, separating and modifying. Usually I say, `Leave it alone! Let nature take her course!' But sometimes, occasionally, now and again, I see it. The wrong that simply must be righted. The tiny vortex that won't stop spinning. The grain so coarse it summons the tweezers. The imperceptible tampering that is finally required." She looked at me meaningfully. ``Such is the case tonight," she whispered. Then she paused, expectantly.

I shifted nervously in my seat. I was trying to concentrate on what she had said, but suddenly I felt tired and my head started to hurt. I had had a long, long day. What had she said? Nothing untouchable? The universe viscous? Right the wrong? Tweezers? Tampering? The words hung like tiny pieces of a huge jigsaw puzzle. ``Can you help Joey?," I asked, trying to be direct.

She smiled, sighed, and said, ``No, I am too old for this game. But I can help you to help him." At this point she looked around in all directions, perhaps to make sure no one was watching us. Then quickly she said, ``Give me your hands." Taking them, she pulled back her outer garment, pulled my hands closer, and, underneath the cover of her robe, began moving my and her hands around in a strange but simple pattern against the seat of the wooden bench. At first I sensed nothing, and felt a little silly. But then my headache cleared, I ceased being tired, and I started to feel a strange sensation. Even now I find it difficult to describe. The best I can do is to tell you that I felt at once wonderful and empty, important and insignificant, happy and sad, real and pretend. But out of all of this I was suddenly at one with the bench, and suddenly I knew that I could alter the physical structure of the bench, or of anything I wished, just as I desired. Reality was suddenly mine to play with, to mold, to manipulate, to change. I could do anything.

But at the same time I could do nothing. For as soon as I felt my new power and control, I felt an immensely powerful note of caution filling up my senses. I knew at once that I should not, could not alter reality as I pleased. Indeed, I could almost never make any use of my power at all. Reality was almost unalterable, almost untouchable, almost inviolable. Almost. Only in certain extreme situations, the kind that occur maybe once in a lifetime, could I ever dare to tamper with what is. Discretion was of unimaginable importance. Indeed, to overstep the bounds, just once, just a little bit, just for fun, was to risk making life meaningless for everyone, to risk destroying the entire cosmic awareness of sentient beings everywhere. It could never be done.

Slowly, shakily, I pulled my hands away. The bench was exactly as it had been; to alter it was to invite destitution. The woman was still sitting on the bench, wrapped in shawls, old, wrinkled. I was shivering again, the leaves were still rustling gently, and the sun had set. I could see no birds. On the other side of the park, a couple walked by, arm in arm.

As I recovered my wits, I again thought of Joey. ``I can save him now," I thought. ``He's going to be okay." Quickly I started making plans. I could go down to the hospital now. Visiting hours were over, but I could probably get into his room. He'd be sleeping, probably; they'd have him sedated. I could fix up his lungs, start the infection receding. Tomorrow morning, the operation would be a success. He would recover. He would go back to school. He'd still be in my history class. We'd still have lunch together, tell jokes together. It would be okay.

``And then," I thought. ``And then what? What else could I save? Maybe my grandmother, on a small pension but fiercely independent, could get rich or something. But how? Maybe win a lottery? Yes, I could probably make the lottery people pick her number! Who would know? And ..." My mind was racing rapidly. ``And what about starvation? Surely there would be ways to get food to starving people, without arousing suspicion ... maybe I could just get certain influential people to be more concerned with the problem -- what about that? What's wrong with that? Who would know?" But in the few seconds it took for these thoughts to pass through my mind, I felt an impenetrable resistance building up. Was she creating it, or was I? In any case, I suddenly knew I could never fulfill such grand plans, could never have such an influence over events, could never right all the wrongs, could never patch the entire hole. No, everything but Joey would have to wait.

As if to confirm my thoughts, the woman sat up again, and started speaking rapidly and meaningfully. ``Listen to me now. You must understand what extraordinary events caused me to call to you. If Joey hadn't been a close friend of yours, it wouldn't have been enough. I would have let you walk by." She paused to let this sink in before continuing. ``If Joey hadn't been your BEST friend, your very best friend ever, it wouldn't have been enough. If Joey weren't so well loved by everyone, if there was a SINGLE person who knew him and didn't like him, who wanted him to die, it wouldn't have been enough. I would have let you walk by." Again she paused to let this sink in. Her eyes never left mine, her expression remained absolutely earnest. She was now whispering like a ghost, each word emphasized in its own way. ``If once, just ONCE, when Joey was a boy, he had stolen for his own gain, had caused trouble without provocation, has misbehaved. Just ONCE. It wouldn't be enough. If he had been just a bit less of a scholar. Had spent just one fewer hour in quiet thought. If he had already lived just a few years longer. If he had grown up in a rich family. If he hadn't been picked on in school. If just once he had responded to a taunt in anger." She leaned over now, and spoke practically right in my face. ``IT WOULDN'T BE ENOUGH."

And strangely, I understood. I knew that such power as I had just been shown was very dangerous. That it shouldn't be used for any but the most extraordinary of extraordinary situations. And I saw just how extraordinary Joey was. Even I hadn't realized how perfect he had been growing up. He must have had it rough, being poor, living in a tough neighbourhood. He must have been bothered plenty of times. Even threatened. And he had never responded in anger. I didn't know how the woman had known this, but I sensed that she knew, that she was right. I also knew that I had to go to the hospital, to go see Joey, right away.

I stood up and said, ``I have to go now. Thank you so much for helping me like this." As soon as I had thanked her, it sounded so absurd, so trivial. I started to extend my hand, to shake hands, or hug, or something, but my effort was in vain. The woman now appeared to be asleep again, exactly as she had appeared when I first saw her. ``Do you hear me?," I asked tentatively, but she didn't reply. With a nervous sigh I started to walk off, to catch the subway, to go to Joey. As I left I heard her voice say, ``Good luck and be careful." Yet she lay perfectly still, eyes closed, and her lips did not move.

*       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

They gave me more trouble than I expected at the hospital. ``Visiting hours are over," I was informed, rather rudely I thought. It was only after explaining that Joey was having an operation the next day, that he would probably die, and that I was his best friend, that I was let in. Joey was sleeping, as I expected, and his breathing sounded kind of raspy. I went over to him at once, and started concentrating and motioning. I soon felt the same wonderful yet empty feeling that I had felt with the woman at the park. All at once I was at one with Joey, with his lungs, with his infection. And all at once the infection began to recede, and his lungs began to clear, to function more smoothly. His breathing became audibly easier. Satisfied, I quickly left the hospital, hurried home, and, after setting my alarm clock for early the next morning, fell into bed exhausted.

The next morning I found myself pacing impatiently in the waiting room of the hospital. ``Was I crazy last night?", I wondered. Perhaps it had all been a dream, an hallucination, my imagination. Perhaps Joey would die after all.

The information came out in drips and drabs. They were taking him to the operating room now, someone said. They were using anesthetic now, I heard from someone else. The words were vague, distant, unreliable. Passing the time was maddening. Some of Joey's family were in the waiting room with me, but I didn't know them too well. Then I saw someone I recognized. She was a friend of Joey's from high school or something. Perhaps they were in a class together at university, too. I wasn't sure. Cathy was her name, I thought.

I went up and said hello. She smiled, and said that she remembered me, too. She had a nice smile. She said that she had just heard about Joey's operation late last night, and had decided to come down to the hospital to see how he did. She had indeed gone to high school with him, and still saw him sometimes at university. I gathered that they were not so close anymore, but that she still held the same kind of respect and admiration for Joey that I did. She told me some stories about Joey in his high school days. It seemed that no matter what the circumstance, Joey had handled it perfectly, with good humour. I was not the only one who knew how special he was.

At last the doctor came out with some good news. He said that the operation had been more successful than they would have expected, that the infection appeared to be receding, and that Joey now had a much better chance of living. He would have to remain in the hospital for quite some time, however. The news was greeted with tearful joy by the many people in the waiting room who knew him. Immediately people began hugging each other, tense but happy.

I needed to know if my visit late last night had made the difference. I asked the doctor if Joey's infection appeared to have started receding even BEFORE they started the operation. He seemed surprised. ``Why yes," he replied. ``That does indeed appear to be the case. We're not sure why, though. How did you know?" I replied non-commitally, saying I was just curious as to how these things worked, and then I walked outside. I was overcome with emotion: joy, relief, and an awesome sense of responsibility.

I didn't really know where I was headed when I went outside. I stood on the sidewalk for a minute, trying to decide where to walk next. Cathy caught up to me from the waiting room. ``I was watching you talk to the doctor," she said. ``I think you know more than you said." I responded non- chalantly, saying I was just curious about how Joey was doing, but she pressed on. "Someone told me you visited Joey late last night, after visiting hours were over. I think you had something to do with what happened to him." Suddenly I felt shaky. How much did she know? I decided to play it cool, but my hesitation had already confirmed what she thought. ``I think you have a special power," she went on. ``I think you know how to change things!"

``That's ridiculous," I said. ``What do you mean?"

She eyed me intensely. ``I mean," she said slowly and deliberately, ``that when you visited Joey last night, you did something magical to make him better, and that that's why he was better when they started the operation this morning."

My heart fluttered. Here I had been trusted with this incredible responsibility, this immense, dangerous power, and already I had let the secret get out. I tried to minimize the damage. ``I have to go," I said curtly, and started walking down the street.

She followed me. ``It's okay," she said. ``I won't tell anybody. Just tell me the truth." I looked at her. She was being honest, I decided. She wouldn't tell anyone. Still, I didn't want to tell her any more than was necessary.

``Look," I said. ``You shouldn't mention this to anyone. And don't ask me any more questions, okay? Joey's probably going to be okay. Just leave it at that."

We continued walking down the street, a little slower now, a little more quietly. I could tell she was considering what to say next. But some of the aggressiveness from her earlier questioning was gone. It was in a gentler tone that she continued. ``Is it really true? Can you really change what's real?" I said nothing, but she took my silence as encouraging. She bit her lower lip a little bit, thinking about how to say what she had to say. Finally she went on. ``Can you help my brother, too? He's been out of work for almost a year now. He's really nice, and really hard-working, and really talented and everything. People just don't hire him because he doesn't make a good first impression or have a high school degree or whatever. It's starting to really depress him. He used to be so happy all the time. I'm sure that if you just get him his first job, then he'll be so much more confident that he'll never need your help again. And no one will ever know who did it. I won't tell, and he'll never even know, and ..."

I felt the pressure rising inside me. Suddenly, I burst. ``No!," I shouted. ``I can't help your brother! I can't help anyone for you! Don't you understand? Don't you know how things would be if I helped everyone all the time? If reality meant nothing? If ..." I was fumbling for words, not really sure how to say that which I understood all too well. We were standing still now. Cathy was looking at me, rather startled, and at the same time hurt. "Look," I went on, a little more calmly. ``There's someone I know, who's right near here, who can explain it better. Will you come somewhere with me now?" She nodded, and I started walking back towards the park, as quickly as I could. Cathy sometimes had to run a little to keep up with me, but I didn't even care. I just wanted to find the old woman again, to ask her if I was doing everything right, to get some advice, to have her talk to Cathy.

But when we got to the park, I couldn't find her anywhere. The bench we'd shared the previous night was empty, with no indication of what had transpired there. There were some other people around, lying in the sun, throwing a football, out for a stroll. But the woman was gone.

``She's not here," I explained to Cathy. ``I don't know where she is." I looked around a bit, feeling sort of helpless. Cathy hadn't said anything in quite a while. I felt tired again, and my headache started to return. "Listen," I said, ``would you like to go get a coffee or something?" She hesitated, a bit puzzled, but slowly nodded her acquiescence. Bleary-eyed, I found a coffee shop, and we got an outdoor table in the sun. I drank some coffee and tried to clear my head.

``Cathy," I said. ``I'm sorry I'm not explaining this to you properly. It's just that Joey is, well, special. You know that as much as I do. And I don't just mean special ... I mean, I'm sure your brother is special too. But it was a special circumstance. I mean, he was going to DIE. And die so young. And he was such a great guy. And had his whole life ahead of him. And ..." I paused, unable to go on with the list. ``The point is, it was the sort of thing that only happens maybe once in a lifetime. You don't go changing things every day. You don't ..." I sort of didn't know how to continue, or how to get my point across. Cathy was listening to me attentively, even respectfully, but I didn't feel I was making myself clear. How could she understand that I wouldn't help her brother? He probably deserved a little boost. And why wouldn't I help him? No one would have to know. And yet I knew that I couldn't. I leaned my head against my hand, and tried to slow down.

Suddenly I saw her. Out of the corner of my eye at first. It was her all right. The old woman. She was walking slowly along the sidewalk, right near our table, in the middle of a big crowd of people. She was already walking away from us when I spotted her. Before I could jump up and call to her, or start to run after her, I heard her voice again. ``It's all right," she said. "Remain seated. Don't come after me." She continued shuffling away from us down the street, lost in the lunch time crowds, neither looking at us nor moving her lips. Cathy was oblivious to her presence, as were the masses of people on the sidewalk or seated at the tables. ``You don't need me anymore," she continued. ``You're doing fine." I was about to protest, to tell her to talk to Cathy, to ask her what I should do next. But she was already gone. I looked at the people on the sidewalk, one and then the next, but they were all strangers, unfamiliar, unreal.

I turned my attention back to Cathy. She was staring into her coffee cup, holding a coffee stir, playing with the liquid. I was about to speak when she began, softly, without looking up. ``It's so wonderful that Joey will be okay. It's a wonderful thing you did," she said. ``Um ... a wonderful thing that happened," she corrected herself, glancing around a little. She then returned her gaze briefly to her coffee cup. Suddenly she was looking up at me, smiling slightly. Her eyes were dark and deep. The wind had blown her straight, black hair partially over one eye, giving her a sort of coy impression. ``I'm sure my brother will find another job; he's a smart guy." She looked right into my eyes. ``I understand what you were saying before." My hand was resting on the table, and she sort of put her hand on top of it. We sat like that for a few minutes, our hair blowing in the breeze, looking at each other.

Suddenly she smiled. ``How about a compromise?," she asked. ``There's this new laser printer I want. Fast, quiet, great print quality. And very expensive. If you could arrange to get that for me ..." She started to laugh. I smiled, too, and then I laughed along with her. She had a pretty good attitude at a time like this. I could see that she forgave me. I felt some of the tension, the worry of the last twenty four hours or so start to leave my body. My shoulders eased up. I sat up straighter. My legs relaxed. I leaned closer to Cathy. She leaned closer, too.

We were quite near to each other now. We had stopped laughing, but residual smiles remained. I could actually feel my memory receding, my memory of the old woman, of sneaking into the hospital, of the pain in Joey's lungs, of the family crying in the waiting room. It all seemed to distant now, like it had happened to someone else. I had a strong sensation that it was over. We had won. Joey would be okay. Life would go on. It would be alright.

And still she was in front of me. I barely knew her, and yet I felt more comfortable than I had in quite a while. She wasn't out to get anyone. She wasn't in it for herself. It was nice to be with her. It was nice to hold her hand.

I kissed her gently, first on her forehead, then on her lips. She put her free arm around me, and brushed my hair with her hand. We were unaware of the other customers in the coffee shop, of the crowded sidewalk nearby. I held her closer.

``I have some extra money in the bank," I thought. ``Maybe I can get her that printer after all."

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