The Evelyn Variant
By Nicholas Rombes.
The professor in her green skirt and white blouse and with her impeccable chalkboard handwriting had spent two weeks showing us how Robert Frost’s poem of twenty lines, “The Road Not Taken,” was not about so-called choices in life but rather the disintegration of the single self into two selves. The key lines, she claimed, came near the end of the poem, in the final stanza, stanza four, after the first three stanzas have just demonstrated the very opposite of what they are remembered as suggesting: that the two roads are not, in fact, different, but the same or, in the words of the poem, “worn . . . really about the same.”
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by
According to the professor—and my notes are clear on this point—the “I” of the poem splits at this moment (after the poem has just expended three stanzas demonstrating that the roads are not, in fact, fundamentally different in terms of how they have been work by travel) the second I leaving the first I behind after the radical and violent dash, the only dash used in the entire poem.
I thought of this poem and the professor’s class because, after a journey, I found myself in a hallway. To be more precise, I found myself where one hallway split into two (diverged) which resulted, it seemed, in two choices: the hallway to the left, or the hallway to the right. I should say here, before this goes any further, that this is less of a choice than it seems.
And so now here I found myself, in the fluorescent lit basement hallways of annex 16. I had been sent here by my employer to retrieve a set of documents that for years were largely forgotten, irrelevant, stored like thousands of other documents in the vast archive. My instructions, as always, were precise and brief.
You are to remove the documents in folder 12, file 32.4, drawer 5, level 2, annex 16, I was told. As usual, the one-sentence command was typed on a small note card and signed (if a signature is what you’d call it) with an X in black ink. Having secured documents from archives across the land, these instructions did not in the least bit intimidate me.
That was my first mistake.
How is it that we know things? Scratch that. Too heady. What I’m dealing with here is the real world of tooth and claw. Like I said, first mistake. My typical pattern—my habit—was to say the instructions aloud over and over until I remembered them for good. How was it that, in my memory, file 32.4 became file 34.2? In the cool, humidless infrastructure of annex 16, level 2, I mistakenly selected the wrong file, as usual not disguising the fact that I was stealing it but by doing nothing at all to hide my actions. After all, I knew I was being observed by the multiple cameras—hundreds of them—positioned throughout the vast archives. It wasn’t a matter of avoiding being detected. That was impossible. Instead, I would allow myself to be detained, to be questioned, to have the file that I had stolen be confiscated by those who would interrogate me, and who then would return the file to where it belonged. This was the usual procedure, all-too familiar. Some tough questioning at first, in the form of questions spoken like commands: who is your employer? Why were you sent? Why did you attempt to steal this particular file? Where you planning to take it? How did you enter the annex undetected? Then, at some point during the interrogation, a phone call would be placed by my employer to someone in a place of high power, and I would be released, without the file.
That, at least, is how it usually went. The point was never really to steal whatever file it was I was instructed to steal, but rather to show that it could be stolen. It was a taunt, a subtle exercise of force, a signal that the hegemonic order still functioned. As was explained to me when I was first recruited, in a meeting that seemed more like a session in philosophy than a lesson in the protocols of document theft, the binary oppositions that defined our kingdom needed to be maintained at all costs.
I came to understand that those who caught me each time knew that a script had already been written that would always end—without exception—with my release after interrogation, the file that I had “stolen” left behind with them. For my part, I never grew weary of the narrative I was in. Each time, no matter how often it had happened before, I grew nervous as I saw the surveillance cameras swivel to follow me, and then the inevitable sound of heavy metal doors opening and shutting in the distant reaches of the annex (whatever annex I happened to be in), and then the echo of footsteps on the smooth concrete floors coming closer, and then the confrontation with the guards in their pale blue uniforms and belts with billy clubs and mace who took me—my arms gripped tightly by their hands in surgical gloves—via a series of elevators, to the deepest and farthest reaches of the annex to a small room where I waited in silence for hours before being summoned into another room, identical to the first, except larger.
And that is where I found myself now, across the slate table from a man with such a deep and long scar down the left side of his face that he looked permanently creased.
“And so. You’re back,” he said.
The statement, I’ll admit, surprised me, and for a moment I thought I had misheard him. When I didn’t respond, he continued.
“Can’t stay away, can we?”
“But I’ve never been here before,” I said.
A small smile crept across his lips. “Now why would you go and say a thing like that?” He stood up from the table and left the room by the only door, the same one I had entered. I waited in silence for a very long time. After how long—two hours, three?—the florescent lights flickered for a moment, then dimmed. I thought I heard a scream from far away. The lights returned to their former brightness, then dimmed again. Another noise, not a scream this time but something worse, like a muffled wail. Minutes later the door opened and the same man entered, this time with a briefcase, an old-fashioned, boxy one. From the case he took out something and tossed it on the table in front of me.
“The file,” he said, “that you failed to steal from us.”
The file was imprinted, in bold lettering, with call numbers, and within seconds I realized that the file before me—the one I had tried to steal tonight—was not, in fact, the one I was instructed to steal. 34.2, not 32.4. I understood, for the first time that evening, that my mistake had somehow breached the rules of the game, so to speak. For if my theory was correct that that my role as thief was to help sustain one of the many binary oppositions that gave rise to the political architecture of the State, then by stealing the wrong file I had failed not only my employer, but my victims at the annex.
In other words, I had put myself in a very dangerous situation.
I had written myself out of the very equation I was attempting to balance.
From the room I was taken—by the same men who had escorted me in—down a long, dark, doorless hallway that seemed unsteady. There was something wrong with the architecture, as if the angles where the floor met the walls were not even close to 90 degrees. At some points, the walls seemed to bow out, and at others they seemed to bend in. This I attributed to fear. My own fear and the intense distortions it caused. In silence we walked, always illuminated by the overhead lights that flickered on only as we approached, and then switched off the with the sound of an electrical snap as we passed. One of the guards wore, instead of pale blue, a lemon yellow uniform, and this triggered a fragile memory of my wife and daughter, long before I was recruited. How many years had it been since I’d seen them? Fifteen? Twenty? Even longer? My daughter, Evelyn, she must have been 8 or 9 at the time, had become obsessed with trying to catch her own eyes move in the mirror in her bedroom. It was a yellow bedroom; that’s why I remembered it now. Sometimes she’d call me in to watch the mirror with her, to verify that her eyes—in the mirror—did indeed look away when she looked away.
Of course they did, but even if they didn’t, what was I to have said? If, in fact, Evelyn’s hunch was right, and her eyes reflected in the mirror stayed fixed on her even when she looked away . . . if this were true what sort of father would I have been to tell her this?
Finally, we reached the end of the hallway, which consisted of a pale green cinderblock wall and a dull blue door. The guards let go my arms, and only then did I realize how tight their grips had been. I suppose I don’t need to tell you that my instinct told me not to open the door and that, in fact, every fiber of my being rebelled against the idea of so much as reaching out to grasp the door handle, or that I could feel—really feel—that the balance of power about which I knew so little but sensed all around me had shifted, and that by breaching the protocol and taking the wrong file—albeit accidentally—I had set in motion the gradual reversal of the binary, like one of those lakes that “turn over” and stratify, the bottom water rising to the top, but of course I did open the door in front of me, I did pass through and was confronted with the two hallways, one branching to the left, the other to the right.
And so we find ourselves back at the beginning, and I already know from the Frost poem that although these two hallways diverge, they are “really about the same” and that my choice is no choice at all, and that the elegant solution that has been decided upon is that, in order to restore the binary, I must always be stealing the incorrect file, and that I must always be apprehended and confronted with my error, and that I must always be released back into the archive to repeat my actions, which have now in fact become a part of the binary itself.
If there is a variant to this endless pattern I have yet to find it. I always end up standing before the blue door, on the other side of which the hallway forks in two directions, one of which I must choose, although both lead inevitably to the same place.
That’s not exactly true. There is a variant to the story: Evelyn, my daughter, lost to me now forever. They don’t—they can’t—know about her, the way she used to laugh so easily, or her dark moods that made her even more beautiful with her furrowed brow, or the way she chased her eyes in mirrors, in search of one impossible moment.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nicholas Rombes writes for The Rumpus, The Oxford American, and Filmmaker Magazine, where he serves as a contributing editor and writes the Blue Velvet Project. His work has appeared in The Believer, Wigleaf, Exquisite Corpse, and other places. He teaches in Detroit, Michigan, and can be found here.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, May 31st, 2012.