Center Circle

So I’m sitting in a bar retelling this story from many years ago to a friend.

I was 22 at the time and terribly disillusioned. I had graduated college the previous spring and taken a job as a research assistant at my alma mater—a small liberal arts college in upstate New York.

I didn’t like the work. And I didn’t like living in upstate New York. And I didn’t like sitting around thinking about what the next 60 years of my life were going to look like.

The only thing keeping me there was my girlfriend, who attended the nearby state university. We had been dating for over two years. At one point I believed we were in love, but lately I wasn’t so sure.

Whereas once everything flowed so easily between us, now it felt like every interaction was stunted. And it seemed she had neither the ability or interest to try and remove that blockage. And neither did I.

On a Friday afternoon in November I got into my car to drive to her apartment. The sky was overcast that day, as if it had been blanketed with lead. My plan was to have a serious conversation about the direction of our relationship, but I never made it.

My car broke down on a one-lane highway that hugged the large hillside that separated our respective campuses. I managed to amble the car onto the shoulder. Then I called my girlfriend to let her know what happened—but she didn’t answer.

Next I called the tow company in town and asked them to send a truck. The estimate they gave me was 30-45 minutes. I got out of my car and went to the trunk, were I had left a navy blue bomber jacket. I pulled it on over my sweater, leaned against the hood of my car, and lit a cigarette.

A cool breeze ruffled the trees and sprinkled dead leaves onto the road. There was something oddly calming about it. The afternoon sky was slowly but surely turning a darker shade of gray. After about 20 minutes, I realized I hadn’t seen another car since I broke down.

Considering this was a heavily trafficked road separating two highly populated areas, I found it more than a bit odd. And that’s when I first heard the music.

It was distant. I assumed it was coming from another car traveling towards me, but no car ever came around the bend—and the music was still there. I checked my car to make sure I hadn’t left the radio on. I even looked in the trunk because I couldn’t make sense of the origin of the sound.

No, the music was definitely coming from somewhere else. Another gust of wind danced across the hillside. It had now been 30 minutes since I broke down, and still no other signs of life. I checked my phone and saw no missed calls.

The music had become louder. Still distant, but definitely louder. I could almost make out its style. It sounded like gospel music. Between the music, the wind, and the dancing trees, the hillside felt alive, and not in a way that made me feel comfortable.

After 45 minutes, I could hear the lyrics:

“I would have lost it all.”

“But now how I see how you were there for me and I can say,”

“I’m stronger, I’m wiser, I’m better, much better.”

I pulled my jacket closer to me and lit another cigarette. 15 minutes later the music was reverberating from every direction.

“When I look back over all you brought me through.”

“I can see that you were the one that I held on to.”

“And I never, never would have made it.”

“Oh I never would have made it without you.”

I got in my car and locked the door, but it made no difference. The music was so loud, it might as well have been coming out of my car stereo. I squeezed my eyes shut and pounded my fists on the steering wheel, adding my car horn to the crescendo.

When I picked my head up again there was a man looking at me from across the road. He was entirely alone. He looked to be of Asian descent, and he was quite old. For a moment I thought it might be the tow truck guy, but there was no tow truck—in fact he had no vehicle at all.

I gave him a wave, but he either didn’t see it or chose not to react. A moment later he gingerly pulled himself over the metal guardrail and began walking down the hill into the woods.

I got out of my car and yelled “hey.” Abruptly, the gospel music stopped, and the hillside was silent once more. I ran across the street and peered down into the woods, but saw no sign of the old man. The gray sky had given way to a deep blue twilight and a bright yellow crescent moon was rising.

I pulled myself over the guardrail, and my sneakers crunched on the dead leaves littering the forest floor. I carefully worked my way down the hill in pursuit of the old man, using the trees for support.

The further I went, the more crowded the tree trunks became, until it was all I could do to squeeze my way in between them. I looked up and saw a large black canopy of foliage with barely any visibility to the sky above. And the further I looked down the hill, the darker it became.

Still I pressed onward, my curiosity outweighing my concern. Finally I came to a point where the darkness and the trees made it impossible to go any further. I looked around defeated, wondering why I’d even come down here in the first place.

Then a figure emerged from the trees. It was a man. A soldier dressed in green and brown fatigues. He looked to be about the same age as me.

“Hello,” he said in a friendly voice.

“Hello,” I said, with some reservation.

We stood there in silence for a moment.

“Uh, is ROTC having a camping trip or something,” I asked.

“No,” he replied. “I’m here to take you the rest of the way.”

“The rest of the way?”

“Yes, as long as you still want to come.”

“Come where?”

“To the place you’ve been looking for,” he said, as if that were obvious.

“I haven’t been looking for anything.”

He shook his head. “That’s not true.” Then he threw up his arm as if to say “let’s go.” For reasons I still can’t explain, I obliged.

He turned around and began walking very fast. I jogged to keep up but feared I’d lose him. He seemed to know every crack and crevasse between the tree trunks, abruptly making hard left and hard right turns. I, on the other hand, had to avoid tripping over roots and smacking my face on low hanging branches.

“Hey,” I called ahead. “Wait up.” I heard no response. Worried, I broke out into a run and promptly caught my shoe on a root and hit my face against the side of a tree. Feeling disoriented, I reached to touch my face and felt blood. Then I looked up and saw the soldier standing over me.

“Happens all the time,” he said. He grabbed my hand and pulled me off the dirt. He walked me about another 50 yards to where the tree line thinned out. Then we were standing at the edge of a cliff overlooking a valley with a stream and about a dozen or so wooden cabins scattered around it.

Another soldier approached. This one a bit older looking. “So we have a newcomer,” he said. “Yes,” the younger soldier replied. “Can you bring him down and get him fixed up?” The older solider nodded. “Right this way,” he said to me.

We went down a steep switchback trail that was carved into the side of the cliff. By the time we reached the bottom my legs were throbbing in pain, and the gash on my face had me feeling lightheaded.

Or maybe it was the entire situation. I’d never heard of any village in the forest by campus. And why was it guarded by soldiers? My disbelief became harder to suspend.

The soldier walked me to a brightly lit cabin and opened the door. “This is you,” he said.

The cabin was surprisingly modern. A glass table was bookended by two black leather couches. Behind it was a kitchen with granite countertops, and through the door in the back I could see a neatly made queen-sized bed.

“I’ll have someone come and deal with that gash on your face,” the soldier said. “Is there anything else you’ll be needing at this point.”

I was stupefied into silence, so I just shook my head.

He shut the door and I was alone. I walked to the the kitchen and opened a cabinet. Inside was enough provisions to last months. Cans of soup, veggies, and fruit, bags of dried beans, crackers, jars of pickles, peanut butter, potato chips, cookies, mixed nuts—everything one might need to live in the woods for an extended period of time.

I felt famished and reached for the nuts, but then thought better of it. As soon as I closed the cabinet there were two knocks on the door. I opened it and found a young and attractive woman in a deep green gown with a white apron standing before me.

“I’m here to mend that cut on your face,” she said simply. “May I come in?”

I showed her to the couch and sat down next to her.  She produced a first aid kit and took out some gauze and rubbing alcohol. She poured the rubbing alcohol onto the gauze. “Look at me” she said. I met her stare and was overcome with a sudden sense of familiarity. But that thought was scattered when she, without warning, pressed the gauze into my gash.

“Ow!” I hissed.

“I would have given you a moment to brace yourself, but I find the anticipation of a painful event is often worse than the event itself,” she said as she pressed into my wound. “Do you agree?”

I had no idea what she was getting at. Nor was her inquiry high on my list of concerns at that moment. But for some reason I felt like I owed her a response.

“Sometimes,” I said. “I mean for something minor like this, I guess it’s not that big of a deal.”

“Nothing in life is minor. Everything that happens has an express purpose.” She said this with extreme matter-of-factness, as if it were a universal truth. I felt taken aback.

“Seems a bit dramatic. Do you really believe that?”

“We all believe it,” she told me.

“All?”

“Yes, everyone in the village.”

“About that,” I said as my attention snapped back to the peculiarity of my situation, “what is this place. Are you part of some religious cult?”

“A cult? Not at all. Although I guess there is a spiritual aspect to this place. It’s hard to explain unless you live here. But the best way I could put it is that this is a place for those seeking to feel contented.”

Contentment is nice, I thought to myself.

She looked me directly in the eyes, and a smile crept across her face. “Yes it is.”

She stayed like that for what felt like forever, looking me directly in the face with her blue eyes. Her stare awakened something in me. I felt the urge rising in me to kiss her. I think she felt it too. But before I could act on that feeling, she stood up.

“Ok, time to go.”

“Go where?” I asked.

“To see Mr. Winthrop. You met him back up on the road. He said you followed him into the woods.”

I was beginning to think I had imagined that, so it was good to hear another human confirm it.

“I guess I was curious. I mean, why was an old man walking into the woods?”

“That’s good. We’re all happy you’re here.”

“Do you know what he wants with me?”

She shot me a little smile again. “I’d rather have him tell you.”

She walked me out of the cabin and along a little dirt path that ran in between the cabins. Each cabin was adorned with festive lights around the porch and shingles, but there was nobody else outside. When I looked in the windows of the cabins, I saw shadows of figures moving around, but the panes were fogged, which prevented me from making out specific details. It gave the whole place an odd stillness.

Mr. Winthrop’s cabin was situated in the back of the village closest to the treeline. But like all the other cabins in the village, it was well lit and had lights adorning the porch and shingles. The woman in the deep green gown knocked on the door twice, gave me another little smile, and simply walked away. I kept my gaze on her until she turned a corner and disappeared behind a cabin.

When I turned around a short Asian man was staring me in the face.

“Hello,” I said in a tone that poorly disguised how startled I felt.

Mr. Winthrop did not return my salutations. He simply turned around and walked back into the cabin. I took that as my cue, and followed him inside. He raised his right arm and pointed to a red leather sofa next to a burning fireplace. I went and sat down on the couch, and he took the seat on the couch opposite me.

And then he just stared at me without saying a word. It was pretty uncomfortable. This carried on for about a minute until I worked up the courage to say something.

“So, I was told you wanted to speak with me.”

Still no response. Odd. Maybe he was deaf. My eyes began to wander around the cabin. It was also quite modern-looking. There was wall-to-wall shelving holding hundreds of books, and some abstract artwork that I found to be quite tasteful hanging above the fireplace.

“You’re unhappy.” he said abruptly. His voice was deep and gravelly.

My attention snapped back. “Who told you that?” I said.

“Nobody told me. I feel it. It’s emanating from you and polluting the air of this room.”

I started to feel self-conscious. Christ, was I really that bad?

“I guess things could be better,” I said in defense. “But that’s life I suppose. It has many ups and downs.”

“Yes. Ups and downs.”

I sat uneasily waiting to hear what he had to say next, but he didn’t speak. It started to become too painful to meet his stare, so I looked at the spot on the floor between my sneakers.

“Circles don’t have centers.”

Huh?

“Circles don’t have centers,” he said it again.

“Circles, you said?”

“Yes, circles.”

I thought it over. Circles do have centers. I feel like I had learned that in school.

“You can’t find the center of a circle in school,” Mr. Winthrop said, reading my thoughts. “It’s not something they teach you.”

“But there’s geometry. A whole discipline dedicated to the measurement of shapes.”

“You’re thinking of the wrong circle. You know the circle I’m talking about.”

I know the circle? Why would he presume that I know the circle he’s talking about?

“The center of the circle is what everybody’s looking for. It’s the reason you came into the woods tonight. But it simply is not there.”

“So then why keep looking for it?”

“Because most people don’t want to believe that a circle has no center. They’d rather die in search of it. And you know this.”

I sat back and tried to picture a circle without a center. But every image in my head ran contrary to that belief. Clocks, dartboards, bicycle wheels, toilet bowls, manhole covers, watermelons—all these things have a center, no? Maybe donuts? I thought about that for a good moment.

“Think harder,” Mr. Winthrop said.

I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to push my brain towards a new level of understanding. One where circles exist sans their center. But something about it just didn’t add up.

“The source of your unhappiness is your inability to find the center of the circle,” Mr. Winthrop said. He adjusted himself on the couch and then sat forward so his face was a foot from mine. “I brought you here to tell you to stop searching.”

His words hit me with a thud. I took my hands and ran them through my hair, which sent a chill down the back of my neck.

“So I suppose you’d have me stay here then?”

“You’re welcome to, if you’re willing to give up your pursuit.

A thought about that. I had only just heard of this concept tonight, so I supposed I wasn’t married to it.

“I have the choice?” I asked him.

“Everybody has a choice in life.” At that he reached out and put his hand on my shoulder. At his touch, a felt a deep sense of peace. It was like an intense sunlight beaming down on me and only me. And then I saw the rest of my life start to topple like a set of dominoes. The places I’d go. The people I’d meet. The people I’d lose. The happiness and pain I’d experience. All of it rolled up into one large circle, with me standing in the center.

Mr. Winthrop pulled his hand away, and I was back in the cabin listening to the crackling of burning wood.

He could sense I had just been through an ordeal, so he gave me a few moments to gather my composure. Then he ushered me up and walked me to the door. I was startled to see all the villagers had gathered outside. Regular looking folks in sweatshirts and T’s. I felt like I could even recognize a few from campus. All of them wore looks of hopeful anticipation. And standing in the middle of them was the girl with the green gown, wearing a knowing smile.

“I hope I’ll be seeing you around,” he said. His tone had turned noticeably more friendly. Then he turned around and shut the door, leaving me alone with the villagers. I stepped down onto the grass. The girl with the green gown approached. Hand-in-hand we walked through the crowd. As I passed by, each villager gave me a warm smile.

***

I had finished my second beer and was motioning to the waiter for another. My friend sat there in rapt attention.

“So what happened next,” he asked.

“Well what do you think? I’m sitting here talking to you after all.”

“So you left the village?” The look on his face betrayed his disappointment.

“I left the village. Once I was alone, I turned around and hiked back up the trail, climbed the hill, and got in my car (which was working once more). I never returned. And that was that.”

“But what about Mr. Winthrop. And the circle without a center and all that.”

I told him that I’d thought a lot about what Mr. Winthrop had said. And as the years past, I came to realize that he was probably right—circles do not have centers. And the village was probably as close to the center as I’d ever get in my life. But I had still walked away.

Why?

Maybe it was youthful arrogance. Maybe it was fear of the life not lived. Maybe I had just hit my head too hard on that tree.

“I don’t know. I don’t really like the woods.”

At that I shrugged and changed the subject.

I stayed for another two beers and left feeling a bit more tipsy than I had planned. The sidewalk was sleek with rain and passing cars sprayed rivulets of water into the sky.

I popped in my headphones and started playing “Can I Kick It?” by A Tribe Called Quest. As I walked I began rethinking the events of that November night many years ago. There was one detail I had deliberately withheld from my retelling—my girlfriend was there.

She had been wearing a deep green gown and white apron.

I didn’t bring it up because the thought still leaves me unsettled. The truth is I hadn’t recognized her when I was in the village. Call it a spell or some sort of permutation. But I looked her directly in the eye and could not make the connection—even when she kissed me outside my cabin and urged me to stay.

“We’ll be happy here,” she had said. The words cast an unbearable lightness upon me. And before she could get out another word, I ran.

It was only after I had climbed back into my car and caught a glimpse of myself in the rearview mirror did it make sense. I reached out and touched the cut on my face, and it all came rushing back to me.

So I got out of the car and ran back down the hill in the pitch black, but I never found the place where there were too many trees to move. I never saw the solider. And I never found the village.

So I returned to my car and drove to her dorm, but she was gone. I came back the next day and the day after that, but she never returned. The village had taken her.

I leaned up against a building wall to compose myself. Tribe still buzzing in my ear.

“Can I kick it? (Yes, you can!)”
“Can I kick it? (Yes, you can!)”
“Can I kick it? (Yes, you can!)”
I lit a cigarette and took a long drag. The Tribe song faded out. Across the street I noticed somebody turn down a dark alleyway.
And then the next song came on.

“When I look back over all you brought me through.”

“I can see that you were the one that I held on to.”

“And I never, never would have made it.”

“Oh I never would have made it without you.”

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