I tend to remember all the elements which surround a life-changing moment—what I was wearing, the weather, the date, what I had for breakfast and the rest of it. One such moment occurred when I was twenty-five years old, and I remember everything.
Or at least I would like to think I do.
It was 1957 and Dwight D. Eisenhower had just been reelected as President. Elvis Presley had performed on the Ed Sullivan show for the last time; he was flanked by four background singers in pin-striped jackets and was filmed only from the waist up. He sang “Peace In The Valley”. This, I witnessed on my television screen, which was set in a very dangerous angle on the kitchen counter in my small apartment in downtown Chicago. I had just got dumped by my college girlfriend and was getting by on writing a boring events column for a newspaper that no one actually read. I picked up smoking again after a year. I was nearly done with my third cigarette of the day when at around eight o‘clock that night, my phone rang and it was Jean Sheldon.
There was a rumour going around at that time of “Number 21”. No one knew what it was, who it was, or where it was. They said people go there to forget and you could only find it if you really wanted to. You had to drive west, they said, as far as the road would take you. And when you get to the end, you go on.
No one quite knew how or when exactly the rumour started. It was as if someone had stumbled out of the murky west one day and started telling somebody. Hope, as they say, spreads quietly but quickly. At first, it began as whispers between one desperate individual to another. Then, it became engulfed by the curious, the skeptics, and the believers alike, just as all rumours are treated whether the actual content is significant or not. Articles were written, documentaries were made, and discussions were held to the point that Number 21 was exaggerated or, as the majority of the population seemed to believe, woven into existence. It could be said that a small and flickering flame was lit (no one seemed to be particularly bothered by the identity of the lighter) and it was kept alive by both the desperation of the human soul and the curiosity of the mundane. No one wanted to be too vocal about it, however, for people are fickle, and even though this is a truth universally known, it is not something that is particularly acknowledged. No one wanted to be the fool who believed too loudly nor the fool who opposed too certainly.
We, as human beings, are a funny lot. There is much that we do not know and yet there is much that we like to think that we do know.
And so it was that Number 21 grew. It expanded, mutated and passed on mostly through off-handed conversations when one became either too bored or too sad. Naturally, many versions of the story were told, but all of them shared one common denominator which had never been questioned: they said that if you had ever come back from Number 21, you would never even remember that you had gone.
But Jean Sheldon remembered. That was what she called to tell me on the evening of 31 January, 1957.
Two days later, I shaved, put on a presentable suit and acquired a table near the window in the small cafe we agreed upon. The bustling noise of the establishment was masked slightly by the jazzy tune emitting from a radio set on the polished counter; a disgruntled-looking young waitress loitered next to it, casually flipping through the day’s papers. Outside, the Saturday hustle and bustle of the Chicago streets seemed to be offering either a promise or a grey premonition. It can go either way, really, I thought to myself grimly.
I ordered a cup of coffee and was just lighting up a cigarette when Jean walked in.
The last time I saw her, she was all but eighteen. She had blonde hair, a bounce in her steps, and she was driving out of town, crying as she went. Now, in her red pencil dress, black high heels and curled brunette locks that were arranged just so, she seemed to be gliding towards where I was waiting. With an immaculate smile, she took the seat opposite of mine and crossed her long legs.
“You haven’t changed much.” She began taking off her gloves.
“Can’t say the same.” I grinned. It was like seeing a portrait come to life. “With the hair, the lipstick, and....” I gestured off-handedly, “....all that.”
“A girl has to adapt, you know.”
I offered her a cigarette. She shook her head. “I quit.”
“Well, now...” I laughed, returning the item back into my coat pocket. “You have changed. What are you, a straight jacket now, eh?”
“Don’t be a pig, Reg.” She smoothed out the gloves on the table, eyeing me curiously. “How’s your girl, by the way? You wrote about her. Eva, is it?”
Her slight tone of disdain did not go unnoticed. I took a quick drink of the scalding hot coffee. “Yeah...it didn’t work out.”
“Why? She’s too tame for you?” There was something like mockery dancing in her dark brown eyes, something of a memory.
“No, too intelligent.”
“Who would’ve thought.”
“What do you want to hear, Jean?” I challenged, making her smile the smile she wore back when she got behind those wheels, all those years ago. I rushed on defensively: “You called me. Arranged to meet me after, what, seven years? I thought we were acquaintances by letters only.”
“I need you to write my story.”
“And you can’t write it yourself?”
“No, I can’t. I’ve never been particularly...” she frowned, “...smart enough.”
“And you have no other friends who are? I find that hard to believe.”
She lowered her gaze and looked a little bit ashamed. “They’re not friends.”
“And we are?”
She did not answer right away, but her confidence faltered slightly. There was always something about her eyes, I realised. I thought I left them behind a long time ago, but having them staring right at me again, they did take me back. There was a small town in a valley, pine trees, a little stream that ran behind the school, and there had been.... something else.
“Reg...” she reached out, her fingertips brushing against mine, “I’m giving you this last chance.” And she believed it too.
I sighed and removed my hand from the table. “Let’s say I agree...”
“That’s a start.”
“Let’s say I agree,” I repeated, looking pointedly at her. She was practically beaming, the little minx. “Am I supposed to just... believe you?”
“That is reassuring.”
“What do you want to hear?”
“It sounds like bullshit to me, Sheldon, if you don’t mind me saying.” She smirked, not looking at all bothered by my small outburst. “Is there any proof that you actually found Number 21? That you, of all people, drove out west...”
“It wasn’t only just me.”
“I was with someone.”
“And the validity of your story has just been confirmed. That right there.” I did not attempt to hide the sarcasm in my statement as I leaned back in my chair. “I don’t know why I came, to be honest.”
“But you did,” said Jean. “You did, and you might as well listen. I could care less if you wouldn’t want to see me again after you hear what I have to say.”
“You have always been sentimental, Jean.”
“Was that supposed to be condescending?” Her red lips curved into a playful smile. “God, you haven’t changed at all. I’m a pretty girl, Reg. We don’t do well with sentiments.”
She had told me that once before, I was sure. I just did not remember when. I only remembered that I had never believed it. I noticed again how different she looked, and I wondered if she had been home at all in the last seven years. She had been a little girl with braids and my mother had to chase her out of our garden. A tune had been playing on the record player inside the sitting room and dinner was ready in the kitchen and the world spun around and around...
The boy on the sun couldn’t stop smiling,
The girl on the moon couldn’t stop crying.
I thought inexplicably of Eva, and my apartment downtown, with the crooked dining table and the faded curtains. I thought of the broken down television, the letters on the couch, “Peace In The Valley”, and all of it.
They said that if you just drove west and never stopped...
There is always a particular moment in life when you take a leap, however big or small.
So it was that on the second of February, 1957, at around eleven o’clock in the morning, I leaned forward in my seat and sighed with exasperation. My slight shake of the head was confirmation enough. Jean Sheldon smiled triumphantly.
“Alright,” I said. “You win. What the hell.”
About the Author
Pim Wangtechawat (she/her) is a writer from Bangkok with a Masters in Creative Writing from Edinburgh Napier University in Scotland. Her writing has been published in various websites, literary magazines and journals, including Mekong Review, Nikkei Asian Review, and The Selkie. She has performed her poetry at events in Edinburgh hosted by Shoreline of Infinity and the Scottish BAME Writers Network, and has given talks about her writing at Chulalongkorn University and Ruamrudee International School. Through her work, she aims to tell stories that reflect our shared humanity, and bring more Asian narratives to the forefront. Follow her on Twitter at @PimsupaW and on Instagram at @pim.wangtechawat.