Oberlin Alumni Magazine: Summer 2001 Vol.97 No.1
Feature Stories
When Worlds Meet
Visions of Oberlin
Safety Man
[cover story] Caught in the Act
Round Robin Takes Flight
Message from the President
Around Tappan Square
  Safety Man

by Dan Chaon

continued from page 3...

She wishes she could tell this story to Allen. What would he say? she wonders.

She has noticed that when she imagines speaking to him, she can clearly hear his voice. She can carry on long conversations in her head, and it seems very real. For a while, she'd had the same experience after her father died. Then the voice faded away.

Most of the time, she imagines Allen laughing his baritone laugh. "You've really built a big thing out of this, haven't you?" he says. He would tease her into smiling about it. "You're a trooper with the big stuff, but you obsess over the details," he says. "You're funny that way."

Once, he told her that he thought she tended to "displace her emotions." She didn't mind it when he would use this
kind of jargon, though she kidded him about it. He had been a psychology major in college, had become an insurance salesman. She didn't think he could help himself. It was something she'd loved about him, that mix of irony and kindly officiousness.

"Displaced emotion," she'd said, rolling her eyes. "Oh, please. What does that mean, exactly?"

He smiled a little, as if he knew more than he was willing to say. They were washing dishes, and he handed her a plate to dry. "It means," he said, "that you're not worried about what you think you're worried about."
Which is something she worries about, nowadays. What should she be worried about? What are the things she tries not to think about?

Well, there's this: Sometimes, she sleeps with Safety Man. The thought of someone knowing this actually makes her blush, so she tries not to let it cross her mind. It's no one's business--probably it's perfectly natural, perfectly normal to want to fill that empty spot in their bed with a body, even an artificial one.

But what about that one night, when she'd stayed up late, drinking? In bed, she'd boozily cuddled against Safety Man, legless though he was. She'd even kissed him.

No, she doesn't think about that. She doesn't think about the way, in crowds, she sees Allen's face, or her mother, or her daughters, and her heart will crackle like a product being freeze-dried. She doesn't think about the janitor who resembles Safety Man, disappearing around the corner of a hallway as she walks from her cubicle to the restroom to pat water on her face. She doesn't think about her mother, clutching her at Allen's funeral. "You know, honey," her mother said, "you're never going to find another man who loves you as much as Allen did." Her mother sighed. "It's a real tragedy," she said, and put a hand to her throat, as if to constrict a sob.

Sometimes, such thoughts seem unbearable.
But she is functional. She maneuvers through her day, despite the cannibal letter writers, despite teeth in ashtrays, despite Safety Man janitors steering their wheeled mop-buckets past her workstation. When she begins to feel a wave of grief or terror washing over her, she likes to visualize a line of cheerleaders in her mind's eye. They jump and do splits and wave their pom-poms: "Push it back! Push it back! Push it wa-a-ay back!" they chant, and it seems to work. She thinks of how much Allen would like these mental cheerleaders. How he would laugh.
Sandi's daughters, Megan and Molly, seem to be coping fairly well. Sandi knows that she doesn't think about them as much as she should, but she is there for them. She makes nice desserts, she helps them with their homework. She sits in the TV room with them for a while, trying to watch what they are watching.

"What is this?" she asks, and Megan shrugs, her eyes blank, reflecting light.

"I don't know," Megan says. "It's something like, 'I Eat Your Flesh,' or something like that. It's not scary. They don't show anything," she says with disappointment, and Sandi nods.

"Mom," Molly says. "Put your arm around me." And Sandi does. Molly leans against her as, on screen, a woman opens a basement door. The woman peers down the dark stairs, and the lightbulb fizzles and goes out as the music begins to build.

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