The Other Side
To be an observer was to be a collaborator...
by Ilya Leybovich
Audio: Ilya Leybovich reads from'“The Other Side”
Among the many unexpected consequences of my father’s death was the political realignment it provoked in me. Until that point I’d been a soft-shell liberal, donating twice a year to NPR and complaining about oil drilling in the national parks or tax cuts for people with three commas in their net worth, but was otherwise content to do my job and pet my dog and lift pints with a friend once in a while without worrying about the end of civilization. My father, on the other hand, had been a reactionary. In his final years, he was disappointed by the soullessness and stupidity of the clown president’s administration, but nonetheless adhered to musty notions of individuality, less government, fewer handouts, and an absence of special treatment for anyone regardless of how much racism or sexism or lead poisoning they’d endured. He was saddled, too, with a pre-therapeutic concept of masculinity. By his standard, the ideal man could replace a U-trap and repair an ignition coil while reciting the canon from Herodotus to Hemingway, and his sole responsibility was bringing home a paycheck without acknowledging he ever felt any feelings. You’d think we’d hate each other, but we got along splendidly in our difference.
I’d meet him every Sunday at a diner on 9th Avenue. This location was chosen not for the quality of its food, which was abysmal, but to minimize the distance that a man with a hip replacement would have to travel. Every time I watched my father hobble in through the door, a splinter lodged in my heart. When I was growing up he’d had the bearing of a circus strongman, but the second-to-last stroke had slowed and shrunk him, and it was hard for me to see him so diminished. Dad, of course, pretended nothing had changed. He’d ease himself into the booth across from me and launch into the day’s agenda. A typical salvo:
“You hear they’re renegotiating NATO?”
“Yeah,” I said. “It’s a shame.”
“What shame? The pact isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. Long overdue for a shakeup, if you ask me.”
“What would Paine say about a country that reneges on its obligations?”
“To hell with him. This is Bismarck’s game. Count up five players, then ally with two so you can beat the shit out of the others. The rest of the world can go screw.”
We’d drain the afternoon with such squabbles, and after eggs and a gallon of coffee were all smiles. By the end of our visits, I was reminded of my savage love for this man. He always made it clear he was proud to have a son who rejected every one of his ideas, and even in the grayest season of his decline we were each warmed in the other’s presence. We’d shake hands, pat each other on the back, and part ways with plans to meet the following week, until one day we parted without knowing it’d be the last time.
After he passed away, I went through a conversion of sorts. Which is not to say I switched sides. If anything, his absence led me deeper into my tribe, caused me to put on the war paint and pick up a spear. Without any voices to contradict my own, I became a joiner.
No longer was it tolerable to check the news for fifteen minutes in the morning. The abuses against immigrants and minorities and women, the debasement of discourse with schoolyard taunts, the entire Orwellian excess of the moment—all of it necessitated action. To be an observer was to be a collaborator.
Looking back, I can see that I was desperate, too. With both parents gone, I was no longer anyone’s child. An entire category of existence was closed off, and thus untethered I grasped about for a rope. The nearest within reach was activism. So I went to gatherings, listened to speeches, marched in rallies, wrote letters to the editor and thousand-word replies to the Facebook poster. It was this newfound enthusiasm for resistance that, ultimately, brought Fabian back into my orbit.
Fabian was the ex-husband of my college friend Stacey, an overcharged filament of a girl, whip-thin and invested with energy in constant search of release. She’d been the head of our university’s branch of Women 4 Justice, a founder of the Refusard Collective, which staged sit-ins to raise the custodial staff’s wages, and was a reliable source of weed at 3 in the morning. Stacey could march and chant and organize but her activism was always untainted by dismay. I admired this quality in her, that even in the darkest days, with two wars on (four, counting Terror and Drugs) she still retained a cheerfulness that seemed its own form of defiance. Although I was aloof from the campus turmoil, Stacey and I stayed close, enjoying friendly debates in which she argued from as far left as you could go without falling off the edge. After graduation, she traveled across South America and returned to the city a year later with Fabian—the circus ringmaster of fuckups—in tow.
I didn’t like a single thing about him, from his name on down. “It means ‘noble farmer,’” he told me, apropos of nothing, when we first met. More accurately, I discovered after looking it up that night, it means “bean grower.” And that was the problem with Fabian: he misled by proffering information no one wanted to know. He spoke English with a slight Portuguese curl, but his formulations were as inane as the pablum embroidered on pillows. He was convinced that Americans suffered from an incurable form of provincial barbarism, which kept us from recognizing the deeper currents of life. He began every conversation with something like, “You wouldn’t understand this, but it is a fundamental truth that nature rejects the chaos of war.” I’d nod along, scanning the room for something to light on fire.
After coming back to the States, Stacey took an entry-level job at an art magazine, working thankless hours to appease higher-ups, but she retained her sunny disposition through it all. A year into the role, she’d clawed her way into a staff writing gig. As in her college days, Stacey was a striver. Yet Fabian was not only unemployed, but categorically opposed to the notion of earning a paycheck. He spent his time on “projects,” the precise nature of which remained elusive to anyone who wasn’t in love with him.
I had no idea why, but Stacey was moon-eyed for the man. I could hardly exchange a few words with her without hearing his name. When I bought a dog, I learned that Fabian adored dogs and had grown up with six of them on his childhood estate. When my roommate had a car accident, I found out Fabian had also been in a car accident during a teenage trip to São Paulo. Nothing seemed to matter unless Fabian were there to attach it to the world. Eventually, I came to regard them as one of those tiresome couples, the kind who buy matching bracelets and construct their anecdotes in alternating sentences, as if sharing a single brain between them. From then on I kept my distance.
It was, frankly, a relief to put them aside and I was surprised by how easy it felt to forget someone. Of course, I’d still hear the occasional rumor about them from a mutual friend, vague rumblings about middle-of-the-night screaming matches or sex in inappropriate places.
Eventually, through the grapevine of alumni and acquaintances, I heard that Stacey and Fabian had gotten married. Three months after that, they were divorced. The reason for their split was spectacular.
One day, while Stacey was at work, Fabian invited his friend Andres, a man of unknown provenance, over to the apartment. This friend arrived carrying a small, six-inch by two-inch strip of gridded paper sealed inside a clear Ziploc bag. Each square of the grid was an individual tab of LSD. They cleared their schedules. Each consumed a tab and they sat in Stacey’s and Fabian’s living room, waiting for the results like patients outside a doctor’s office. Fabian became impatient at the lack of discernible effects, so he insisted on taking a second tab just twenty minutes later, and then a third. In the final estimate, seven tabs found their way down Fabian’s gullet. This, as anyone could tell you, was too much acid. Too much for a human being or a horse or a machine designed for testing acid. The record went blank for a few hours due to a lack of reliable witnesses, but from the evidence obtained it seems that Fabian and his friend dismantled the microwave in its entirety and arranged its constituent parts in neat rows on the living room floor, as if issuing some sort of Luddite threat. They then used kitchen knives to gut the innards of every pillow, cushion, and blanket in the house. Once they were done trashing the apartment, they departed into the night, and were next spotted at a warehouse dance party in a neighborhood considered to be the bad part of town by other bad neighborhoods. By this hour, Andres was starting to come down and he drifted into the crowd, leaving Fabian behind. Enraged by the club’s refusal to play a commercial jingle he remembered from his childhood, Fabian picked a fight and broke a glass pitcher over a bouncer’s head. He then bolted from the party. In making his escape, he tried to climb a chain-link fence surrounding a nearby lumber yard, but his wedding ring caught on a metal barb at the top. As he hoisted himself to the other side, the full weight of his body came down on that single point of pressure and his entire ring finger detached from his hand. As dawn approached, Fabian, manic and nine-fingered, decided it was time to leave town, so he ran up to a car stopped at a red light and jumped into the passenger seat. The woman behind the wheel screamed and batted at the intruder bleeding onto her leather interior, while he screamed back a string of nonsense phrases that would have been indecipherable even in their native Portuguese. A stream of pepper spray delivered to his eye sockets from close range succeeded in ejecting Fabian from the woman’s car, and he remained there at the curb, on his knees, blind and bleeding from his maimed hand, while the sun came up. Police and paramedics rescued him from this dejected condition. The authorities happily extended his night on the town into ninety days at a drug rehabilitation center. By the time he returned from rehab to begin his two years on parole, everything Fabian owned had already been put into storage and his sole means of communication with Stacey was through her divorce attorney.
Following that one titanic mistake, Fabian was excised from the extended social circle that had kept us tenuously connected and thereby vanished from my life. But although he was gone, Stacey and I never truly reconnected. We stayed on friendly terms, but something in her had broken that night too, and the radiance that had so long sustained her dimmed for good. She couldn’t understand why he’d done what he’d done, and Fabian himself had offered no explanations—not even an apology—during their split. It was as if he’d conspired all along to detonate their lives, and Stacey, in choosing him and loving him and permitting him the worst indulgences, had somehow been complicit in her own suffering.
A few months after my father passed away, I found myself back at the diner where we’d spent those many Sundays arguing. Earlier I’d been at an outdoor rally, the third that month, protesting something I can’t recall—the seizing of undocumented children as hostages or the appointing of rapists to public office or the corporate graft market that had opened shop in the capital, or some inchoate combination of all three.
The long hours of cold and crowds and chanting had put an ache in me, and I suddenly wanted to be alone. Realizing I was just two blocks away, I hoofed it over to 9th Avenue and took a seat in the worn, faded-red booth I’d once shared with my dad. As the waitress deposited a plate of runny eggs before me, I saw a man with a dark leather jacket and half-gray beard staring at me from the counter. As soon as I noticed him, he smiled, got up from his stool, and approached.
“I knew it was you,” he said, still grinning. “Even from far away, even with so many other faces around, I could tell.”
“Unfortunately, that’s a one-way street. I’m afraid I don’t recognize you.”
“Of course—it’s been so long. I am Fabian.” Without asking, he slid into the seat opposite me. He seemed so genuinely pleased to see me that I offered no resistance.
“Fabian.” I shook my head. “God, I haven’t seen you in eight, maybe nine years.”
“A vast length of time,” he said. “And yet it feels like nothing because I have thought of you often. Almost every day, in fact.”
“We are connected, you see, in a manner that defies all of this.” He gestured at the booth and the plates and the diner surrounding us, then pinched the flesh on the back of his hand, as if referring to material reality itself.
He was paler than I remembered, his earth-brown tone faded into something ghostly and vaguely sick. I thought perhaps that’s what the whole situation was about. Maybe there was a tumor eating his brain and it had him convinced there was some magic between us, a mystical bond that existed outside the lines we’d been coloring in. Or he could have just become a lunatic, the LSD from a decade ago having broken his gears.
“Look, man,” I said, “we were never that close. Stacey was the connective tissue, and since I’m not really friends with her anymore and you’re definitely not married to her anymore, I don’t think there’s much we have in common.”
Fabian shifted in his seat, the leather jacket crinkling against the padding at his back, and proceeded to stare for several long moments as if sizing me up for auction. “For all these years, I never tried to contact you because I was afraid you would not understand. But when I saw you today, marching proudly and waving your sign, singing your passion from your throat, it was clear to me that you are finally ready to accept what I have to give you.”
I expected him to offer a deal on a timeshare or a role in some hare-brained heist at an Amazonian resort or, possibly, a knife between the ribs. Whatever it was, I knew I didn’t want it, and felt the urge to bolt out of the diner. But there was a countervailing weight, too, a deep curiosity that kept me anchored in place. I wanted to solve the mystery of that one day, to be the first to uncover Fabian’s reason for ruining his marriage.
“This thing you have, it wouldn’t happen to be LSD, would it?”
Fabian chuckled. “No, no, no. Once was enough.” He held up his left hand and I saw the smooth empty space where his ring finger had been. I tried to imagine what his gloves looked like.
“So why’d you do it? What was the motivation?”
“I am glad you asked me this. The answer is simple: I wanted to see what was on the other side.”
“What did you find?”
“You. It was you.”
“When I took the acid, when I crossed over, I was not transported to another place, but to another life.” He leaned in close now and dropped his voice to a whisper. “I became you.”
“Right,” I whispered back. “So what did you do about my credit card debt?”
“Always joking. I remember this about you.”
“Then you also remember I don’t go in for New Age nonsense. If you went on a spirit quest, I don’t want to hear about it.”
He sighed heavily, as if releasing air from a sarcophagus. “Not a vision. Not a metaphor. I was literally born as you and lived your entire life.”
“That night you were stabbing pillows and losing fingers and assaulting innocent people, Fabian. You’re weren’t miraculously inside another person.”
“That was merely my body performing mechanically, impulsively. It was only meat. The real me had departed.”
I started to reach for my jacket but he put his mangled hand on my arm and said, “Please.”
The dislike was reciprocal, it turned out. Fabian had always thought of me as a square, the kind of dull, conventional type who would never make a difference in the world for fear of standing out. When he looked at me he saw a man who went to an office for forty hours a week, checked his bank account, took a modest vacation once a year, and waited to die someday. Even my milquetoast liberalism was a veneer, a way of fitting in with others rather than a politics born of conviction. Had I been a fascist he would have at least been impressed. And what I had thought was Stacey’s friendship was actually her pity—she was simply too good-natured to ignore me outright. To her, I was just a pair of ironed slacks.
But something changed. After he consumed the seventh tab of LSD that night, a black cloak descended over Fabian and he was convinced he’d died. Then cracks of light appeared at the edges of his vision and he awoke as a child on a table, with two faces hovering over him—my mother and father. He recounted being raised on the block where I’d grown up, playing Wiffle ball and later skateboarding in the alley next to my building. He talked about having above-average, but unremarkable, grades in school, and the handful of friends who came and went every passing year without ever building a lasting bond with me.
He described what it was like when, during sophomore year of high school, my mother was hit at an intersection walking home from the supermarket and died right there, on the street, surrounded by boxes of cereal and sliced cheese. He told me how it felt to realize that she’d died alone. He told me about the bitterness and fear that I carried like duffle bags with me into college. He remembered what it was like meeting Stacey for the first time, her hair caught in a flickering shaft of sun in the library reading room, and, unlike me, he understood that it wasn’t affinity or kinship I felt for her, but love. All those late-night conversations, when Stacey had been humoring me, were more important than I ever let on. Every anecdote, every joke, was another step deeper into that feeling I couldn’t admit to myself. He described the pain of watching her leave for South America after graduation, the excitement of meeting her after her return, the heartache of seeing her with Fabian. And this, he said, was the crucial moment. Until that point, he hadn’t known he was living someone else’s life, but when he saw himself, when he finally met the other Fabian at the party, a primal, intuitive understanding entered his mind and he knew he had to make a choice. Instead of having a terse, unfriendly conversation with Stacey’s new boyfriend and then going home angry and alone, he mustered his courage and led her to an upstairs bedroom where he confessed his feelings. He told her to leave Fabian and to be with me instead. Naturally, Stacey refused the offer, and slapped him—me—hard across the face. That palm striking my cheek dissipated the shrinking fear inside me; it jostled me out of inertia. I was finally freed of my longing for this girl and could leave it behind. In the days and months that followed, I found a passion for the world and became politically active, instead of waiting all those years until my father died. I organized meetings, made speeches, became a leader. I embraced suffering and joy. Along the way, I met the woman who became my wife and the mother of my children, who was my inspiration. I opened myself to reality and this courage set me on the road to fulfillment. Best of all, rather than exchanging my final words with my father in a greasy-spoon diner, I was present at his bedside during his last hours. There, cradled in the solemnity of imminent death, my father pulled me close and whispered something extraordinary in my ear, an elixir of wisdom that unraveled the knot of existence, that laid bare the mystery of the future and all the things it contained.
Here Fabian paused in telling his story and searched my face, his eyes wide and wet with emotion. “Do you want to know what he said?”
I thought of my father—my real father, the curmudgeon, the curator of outmoded ideas. I knew that to other people he’d just been another loud-mouthed crank, but to me was a giant, a hero of outsized proportions by dint of his honest affection for me. I’d already replayed his death a thousand times, had tried to live inside that moment and draw meaning from it even if it was only a picture in my head. I saw his gray lips part, heard him draw a rattling breath, and felt his final knowledge escape him. That was his true passing. He didn’t need another.
“No, I don’t.”
I dropped a few bills onto the table, shrugged into my coat, and left Fabian behind with his final profundity caught in his throat.
On my walk home through the cold winter evening I went over Fabian’s story. He’d gotten many of the details right: the awkward childhood, the loss of my mother, the emotional baggage I’d lugged across campus. He’d even been right about Stacey—love and jealousy had made her prominent in my memory.
But it was all a fortune-teller’s trick, I decided. Fabian was a liar, as he’d always been. Those intimate truths were all things I’d told Stacey long ago, and she’d no doubt relayed them to Fabian in their time together. And my father’s death was no secret either. I’d written the obituary, had spoken at length about it to nearly everyone I knew. He wouldn’t have had to reach far to find that. What gave it all away was Fabian’s claim to have some life-changing wisdom that he’d gleaned from my dad. In truth, I knew what my father’s last words would have been: “The rest of the world can go screw.”
I stopped outside my building in a puddle of orange light beneath a streetlamp, and searched my pockets before realizing I had lost my keys. They must have been back at the diner, but I chose not to retrieve them, chose to stay stranded there and become shagged with snow. All those years my father had spent alone, missing the only woman who’d tolerated his stubborn theories and supporting the only son who’d rejected them. I understood then that Dad, in his endless argumentation, had attempted to give me a gift—the possibility of seeing the world another way. To step into another life, to become more than yourself, is not a game reserved for the likes of Fabian. It’s an alm given freely by those who cherish you. And then it’s gone.
“I was born in the Soviet Union and raised in the U.S., which may be why I'm drawn to contrasts, especially those we take for granted. In this story I wanted to examine how the loss of a counterpart—the death of a querulous loved one, the end of a troubled romance—can remove us from our defined selves. Being unmoored from our opposites lets us see the other people we might have become, and that is when we start to mourn.”
Ilya Leybovich's fiction has appeared in Chicago Quarterly Review, The Normal School, Fiction International, Los Angeles Review, deComp, Notre Dame Review, and other publications. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.