The Pink Box
Raskolnikov, dark and silent, scowled and stubbornly refused to leave. Day and night, he sat on one of the yellow vinyl-covered chairs in the kitchen, averting his eyes from Howard’s hard, angry stares, ignoring Howard’s repeated questions, and sneering at his demands. The gloomy, wraith-like figure had barged into the apartment almost a week before, when Howard, who had been in an especially morbid frame of mind, reluctantly got out of bed and opened the door to see who had been knocking on it for close to ten minutes. Although Howard recognized the downcast, tired eyes and haggard expression, he could not help but ask, “Who are you?” to which the man standing in the doorway answered in Russian-accented English, “Dostoevsky sent me.” Before Howard could ask anything else, the man had brushed past him and walked straight to the dim kitchen, where, after looking around, he muttered, “Of course, no samovar and no tea glasses.” He then proceeded to brew a pot of tea on the stove. Howard, who had not spoken to or even seen another soul in close to three weeks, sat at the table and waited for the man to finish his task. When Raskolnikov finally sat down with his cup of tea—without asking Howard whether he wanted any—he sipped, made a face, and complained, “Tea bags! I know this is 2019, but who the hell uses tea bags?” Those were the last words he had spoken.
“For the last time, will you please talk to me?” Howard asked, more tired, unhinged, and despondent than angry. Raskolnikov turned away and stared at the big clock over the range. It read 12:03, the time at which Howard had unplugged it not quite three weeks before. “You’ve been here for a week, I think. You drink my tea, you eat my food, and you sit on my furniture. I know you. I know what you did. You feel guilty because you murdered the old woman, the pawnbroker, and her sister so that you would be able to steal their money. Everybody’s read the story. I know you feel remorseful. Talk to me. Damn it. Talk to me, I say! Otherwise, get the hell out!”
As those words hung in the chilly air, Raskolnikov turned to Howard and smiled grimly. Howard was frightened. He was also shocked by how angry he had become. In fact, he could not remember ever having been this angry before. Why was this freak, this character from a renowned work of literature, mocking him?
“So, you do have emotions after all,” Raskolnikov sneered.
“Of course. Why would you think I don’t?”
“Because you have lived your entire life holding back.”
“That’s not true. I have feelings.”
“Tell you what?”
“Tell me about your emotions. Love?”
“Yes. I feel love. I love Faye.” When Raskolnikov smirked, Howard added, “Of course, I know I should have said it and I should have done more, but back then, years ago, when I was with her, I was ... unformed, still finding my way. It will be different this time, when I am with her again back then.”
“And so, you still believe you’re traveling through time?”
“I spent hours with Faye earlier today, but then I fell back here.”
“Is that why you have chosen to make a hermit of yourself and not bathe, barely eat, and allow yourself to go insane? Is it working?”
“Yes, although, I have to say, your presence is making it difficult; I can’t always concentrate. It’s very distracting to know you’re here.”
“Oh? Just as Peter’s presence was distracting?” When Howard did not reply, Raskolnikov asked, “Don’t you feel any guilt for what happened to him?”
“I ... I don’t like to think about it.”
“Is that a yes or a no?”
Howard slowly, painfully stood up and shuffled to his room. In the darkness, the ever-present all-encompassing cold gloom, the shadowy emptiness of his bedroom, he sat on the bed and squeezed his head between his hands. He thought about how this cave-like environment was supposed to help him to focus all of his energy on breaking free of his connection to his present time and place—his mistaken time and place—so that he would be able to finally reside, permanently, where and when he wanted—with Faye. He had sweated blood and tasted bile and forced his frazzled brain to focus and he had concentrated his thoughts, suffering through chronic, pounding, electric-buzzing headaches and almost continuous nausea and the sensation that he was being absorbed by the filthy, heavy air of his dank, dark, unheated apartment. He was willing to do this forever rather than return to his previous lonely, empty life which was defined by and composed of endless regret and incessant unhappiness.
He refused to set a deadline. Although he was beginning to run low on food, he was not concerned; he ate very little—a bit of dried fruit, a handful of walnuts once or twice a day, along with a glass or two of water. On three occasions he had fasted for 24 hours in an attempt to mortify his body so as to help him to concentrate on his goal. At one point, he refrained from food and water for a bit longer than two days, but he became weak and was wracked with unendurable pain which left him unable to think. He remembered reading about monks and Native Americans and others who fasted for prolonged periods of time in an attempt to reach out to God or the gods or other mystical powers. He cursed himself because of his inability to do that.
He felt dirty and itchy, which caused him to continuously scratch himself. His skin was covered with raw, red sores. He lay down on his bed, curled up like a fetus in its mother’s womb. He shivered, his head spun, his stomach lurched, his back hurt, and he was deeply unhappy.
“You’re home early. Are you sick?”
“What? Oh, Faye, you’re here.”
“It’s 5:30. I just got out of work.”
“I’m so glad you’re here. I didn’t know when I’d see you again.”
“What are you talking about? Oh, your head is hot. You are sick. You have a fever. I’ll get a washcloth and some aspirin.” She walked to the bathroom, returning a moment later. She applied the cool, damp washcloth to his forehead and smoothed back his hair. Then she asked him to sit up, put two aspirin tablets in his mouth and held a glass of cool water to his dry lips, and then said, “Now, lay back and sleep.”
“No. I want to talk to you before—”
“I’ll stay right here. Close your eyes.” She stroked his clean-shaven cheeks. He smiled in drowsy relief and happiness as the fragrant, cooling vapors released by her hand soothed him. He drifted off to sleep.
When he awakened, the room was dark. He nervously patted the spot next to him in bed, relieved that Faye was still there. He felt cool and his headache was gone and he was no longer nauseous. In fact, he was wide awake and filled with energy, but since it was the middle of the night he remained in bed. He turned to his side and carefully moved his body against Faye, pleased that she was facing the other side of the bed. After fitting himself snugly against her back and her buttocks and putting his free arm around her, he smiled. He always enjoyed this sweet, nestling position. It always aroused him, but he would not awaken her. Not this time. He always used to do that. She never complained, always complied, even if she was still half asleep, but he would not do that now. That was how he had acted the first time around in this life, back then; this was his second chance. Maybe, he thought, if I do the right things, the feeling-type things, the considerate things, I won’t go back to that hellhole of a life. Maybe I’ll be able to stay with her forever. Then, feeling guilty, he forced himself to remember what he had done, swearing to himself and to Faye, who was snoring sweetly next to him, that he would not do that again. This time, his second chance, he would reach out to others, even when it made him feel uncomfortable.
In the morning, he felt Faye’s warm hand against his forehead. “That’s good,” she murmured. “You feel cool and you look better.”
He smiled broadly and said, “Yes. I feel fine now. Thank you for taking care of me and ... thank you for loving me.”
Kissing his cheek, she said, “You make me so happy.”
“I hope Peter is better today.”
“I hope so too. He’s becoming very depressed. Between Ellen leaving him and thinking she’s with another man and not having a job, he’s pretty close to the bottom. I’m glad you’re being so nice to him.”
“Why wouldn’t I be? He’s my brother-in-law. You know, I think it would be nice to be married. Why don’t we get married?”
“What? Don’t joke, Howard.”
“I’m not, but that’s not the way to do it.” Sitting up in bed, Howard said, “Faye, will you marry me? I want that more than anything.”
She covered her mouth with her hands and then she pushed him down and covered his face with kisses.
“We’ll go out and buy a ring today. Okay?”
“Yes. Once it’s on my finger, we’ll go to my parents.”
She smiled and kissed him again and again.
Later that day, Faye smiled as she admired her ring. Then she looked at the reflection of her hand in the bathroom mirror. She applied lipstick and fixed her hair in preparation to going to her parents’ house. Howard sat in the living room, reading. Then, losing his concentration, he put the book down and walked to the spare bedroom and knocked on the door. No answer. “Peter, I would like to talk with you.” When Peter answered, Howard opened the door and walked in. Howard forced himself not to notice the mess. He sat on the edge of the bed and, placing a hand on Peter’s shoulder, said, “I know you’re depressed and feeling adrift and defeated. Believe me, I’ve been there. It’s a lonely feeling.”
“How would you know? You have my sister and a good business and this apartment. When’ve you ever been in my situation?”
After thinking for a moment, Howard said, “It’s complicated. All I can say is that life is not a straight path from here to there. It’s a circle. We travel. We all travel back and forth through time and place. Don’t let this unhappy situation define you. Things change over and over again.” Peter looked at Howard as if he had spoken in an unfamiliar language. Howard said, “I know you want to ask something. Go ahead.”
“Do you really believe that crazy shit? That nutty belief in multiple lifetimes? Going back and forth through time?”
“Yes. I do. I know it’s true.”
“Really? How do you know?”
“It happens to me. I have lived this life before, but I’m also living other variations of my life in other places and other times. I go back and forth. I’m living this version of my life better than I did the last time.”
Smiling, Peter said, “I’ve always known you were a strange dude, but that’s way out there. Okay. What does that do for me?”
“I don’t know.” Then, after a moment of reflection, Howard asked, “How’s the job search going? Any leads?”
“Not yet. If you’re worried about money, I have a little saved up.”
“You can stay here as long as you like. We’re happy to have you. Don’t even think about giving us money or leaving before you’re ready.”
“I don’t like living off your charity.”
“It’s not charity. We’re family, or will soon be. When you’re back on your feet you can take us out to dinner. How’s that?” Rubbing his eyes, Peter looked up at Howard. “I’ve got an idea,” Howard said, trying to sound excited. “Come into the store with me tomorrow. I’ll show you how I operate, and you can work along with me and, when you feel confident enough you can run the store on days when I’m not there. That would be good for me, because you would help me to keep the store open longer. And you would be able to earn a few dollars.”
“That would be great, Howard. I really appreciate it.”
“My pleasure.” As he walked back to the living room, Howard assured himself: This is what I have to do to stay here, in this life, with her, and by acting like this I won’t end up doing that terrible thing.
Howard and Faye’s wedding plans were complicated by the fact that even though they wanted a simple ceremony, both sets of parents were looking forward to one with all of the elaborate trimmings: “A nice wedding in a synagogue and a lovely meal and a band and flowers in a fancy catering hall. What’s so bad about that?” Mrs. Berenson asked as her husband silently shook his head in agreement. He didn’t say what he was thinking: Peter and Ellen had a fancy-schmancy wedding, and look how well that worked out. Howard’s parents, who had assumed their only child would never get married or even have a long-lasting relationship with a woman, were grateful and happy.
Reminding himself yet again how, this time around, he had to do all of the nice things that he had run from during his previous life with Faye, Howard told her that he would not mind going the elaborate wedding route. For the twentieth time that day he told her that he loved her more than words could express. Her smile and the gentle touch of her fingers against his face thrilled him to his core and assured him that all was well and that it always would be. In addition, he was happy that, by getting married, he and Faye would be pleasing both sets of parents. They planned their wedding for June of that year, 1995.
Two months after Peter began working at West Side Booksellers, Howard had become upset. Even though the store was once again open seven days a week, it was not pulling in as much as it had in the past, before Faye had asked him to close early some days and keep it shuttered for most of the weekend. He knew that many books were missing from his inventory, so there was only one explanation for the shortfall in receipts. After thinking for an agonizing few days about what to say and do, Howard swallowed hard and kept his mouth shut. He said to himself, Better this small financial loss than the big emotional one that will cause grief to Peter and Faye and rip my heart right out of my chest.
One frighteningly cold day in February of 1995 Howard left Peter alone at the bookstore so he would be free to go to Gotham Printers in Greenwich Village to pick up the wedding invitations that he and Faye had ordered. While Howard waited for the owner of the business to locate the box that was “somewhere on a shelf in this damned store,” he breathed in the lovely aroma of ink and paper and glue, and looked around. Then he spotted it. His heart plummeted to his stomach and his hands instantly turned icy cold. There, on a low shelf behind the sales counter, he saw a small pile of Infinite Journeys, Infinite Possibilities. He thought, No. It can’t be. I don’t know about that book in this version of my life. I can’t know about it. He quickly averted his glance. He did not want to see it. His heart thrummed in his chest as he worried that even looking at a copy of the book would, in some inexplicable way, interfere with this wonderful state of existence. Perhaps doing so would fracture the time-space continuum and send him hurtling back to 2019, where and when, away from Faye and forced to live with the memory of what he had done in this time, he would sadly stumble through his final years.
“It’s not here, the invitations. This happens when I let my wife take care of things. I have a system, but, ah, here they are,” said the printer as he reached down to the back of a low shelf. Howard, disoriented and disturbed, looked as the man moved aside the copies of Infinite Journeys, Infinite Possibilities and pulled out a bright-pink box. The man looked at the sample invitation that was glued to the cover of the box and the attached receipt and said, “This is it, Berenson and Fox.” When the man saw that Howard was looking at the shelf from which he had taken the box, he said, “Oh. You’re looking at the books. Yeah. We print books too. This is a strange one. A black guy—I think he’s from Haiti—he wrote it. Smart man. It’s very mystical. Those are proof copies. The man wants 500 copies of the book.”
Howard grabbed the box, pushed the check he had written before he had left the apartment into the man’s hands, and bolted from the store. As he moved quickly along the sidewalk with the box in one hand, his other hand holding his coat tightly closed against his neck, and his head down in an attempt to shield himself from the freezing wind, he bumped into a man. Howard and the man said, “Excuse me” at the same time and then they looked at each other. Howard felt the same electric tingling that he had experienced in 2019 when he had spoken to this man, first on the phone, and then in his office in the old church—which was only a block away from the printing business. The man—he looked much younger than when Howard had met him at that other time in that other plane of existence—looked at Howard with a puzzled expression. Then he said, “Pardon. I did not see you. Did you feel a shock when we bumped into each other?” When Howard remained mute the man held out a gloved hand and said, “You look familiar. Have we met? I’m Renard, Antonin Renard.” After a few seconds, the man smiled and said, “Don’t worry. Despite my name, I am not sly. Oh. You do not understand the joke. Renard is the French way of saying fox.” Howard, stunned and bewildered, stared at the man; his legs grew weak and he felt faint and indescribably cold. As he backed away he stumbled and lost his hold on the box of invitations. It fell, struck the outer edge of the sidewalk, and plopped heavily onto a puddle of dirty, icy water in the street alongside the curb. Renard and Howard looked at the box as it instantly sank below the surface of the deep puddle and instantly transformed from pink to a dark blood-red. Overwhelmed with anxiety, Howard ran to the subway station and onto a train. He sat, his head down, ignoring all of the other passengers. At the next stop, a tall, thin man with bright orange hair got on and took the seat next to Howard. At one point, as the train sped over a curvy section of track and the lights flickered off and on, Howard slid on his seat and bumped into the man. Howard mumbled an apology. Then, in a weak voice, he said, “I know you. You’re Howard Roark.”
The man turned his steel-gray eyes to Howard and said, “I am.”
“I know you through The Fountainhead.”
“Oh. That book isn’t worth talking about.”
“It is. I understand it and your ... I mean Ayn Rand’s philosophy. In fact, after I read the book I changed my name to Howard Roark Fox.”
“And ... I have attempted to emulate you.”
“Because I understand you.”
“Do you now? In what way?’
“Well, in The Fountainhead, in the courtroom scene, you explain your philosophy, actually Ayn Rand’s philosophy, and I’ve tried to live my life according to it. You have influenced me profoundly.”
“Be specific. How?” Roark asked Howard.
“Well, for example, one pivotal line in the book really had an impact on me. In the courtroom, during your speech, you say, ‘The creators were not selfless. It is the whole secret of their power—that it was self-sufficient, self-motivated, self-generated. A first cause, a fount of energy, a life force, a Prime Mover. The creator served nothing and no one. He lived for himself.’”
“How does that have anything to do with you?”
“I have always lived for myself. Doing that has served me well.”
“Oh. I think you’ll wish you never said that,” Roark replied as he stood up and got off the train at the next stop.
Later, in his bleak apartment, after Howard saw that Faye was not home, he was suddenly overcome with exhaustion. He lay on his bed and tried to understand what had just happened. Although he fought it, he fell into a deep, uncomfortable, restless sleep. When he awakened, after scratching his chin through his shaggy beard, he forced himself out of bed. Holding his breath, he checked the bedroom closet, the bathroom medicine cabinet, and the refrigerator. He moaned and then he put his hands over his empty stomach and cried. He was alone, completely alone. He was back at the time and place he had hoped to leave behind. The apartment was cold and dark and lifeless. He thought about the box of invitations turning red in the icy water of the gutter a few feet from the print shop and of the randomness of life, which had caused him to collide with Antonin Renard, and he cursed his existence and his odd habits and his toxic luck and any and all of the gods who controlled fate.