One Saturday morning I met the members of the grotto on the corner of Chapel and Church, outside the now defunct Chapel Square Mall. Aside from Lucas, there were five of them: Ed, the president/secretary/treasurer, who in aboveground life is a dentist in West Orange; Jen, a Connecticut matron sipping from a Starbuck’s cup; Beth, Jen’s co-worker at Bleak/New Haven Hospital; Jen’s husband Don, a mortgage specialist at the State Street Bank with the genetically sad face of a basset hound, and Jason, Ed’s nephew, a wiry twenty-year-old whose arms and legs were spattered with white paint. We squeezed ourselves and some bags of gear into Ed’s minivan and set off into the wilds of Connecticut. I thought of the trip I’d taken, years earlier, with Gladstone Fallows Junior, to look for the remains of Atlantis in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. Obviously, we hadn’t found any lost continents on that trip (although I had found Suzanne: the trip was the beginning of what I guess you would have to call our relationship), and I wondered whether this excursion, with its more modest goal, would be less disappointing. In the seat ahead of me (I was in the back of the van, by myself), Don and Jason were talking about the cave.
“I want to push the Southeast Passage,” Don said. “Remember how we found that sump?”
“You think we could get past the sump?”
“It’s midsummer. The water table ought to be low.”
“Might find us some virgin cave,” Jason said, relishing the chance to say the word virgin in front of (or rather just behind) the young and pretty Beth.
“Some tight passages,” Don said.
The thought of finding virgin cave scared me. If there was any part of New York State, even subterranean New York State, where no one had ever been, it couldn’t be easy to get there. You’d have to have some extraordinary quality to reach it—although, listening to Don and Jason rib each other, I wondered what quality that was. Gladstone Fallows Junior had had the courage of his extraordinary conviction. He was completely dedicated to his search for the lost continent, however futile or mad it seemed to other people. Even Lucas has some strange beliefs. I wondered if Don and Jason had hidden powers, or, on the other hand, if discovery, which I’d always imagined to be the privilege of a few exceptional people, was actually more democratic than I’d thought. Maybe the things you had to do in order to make a discovery were like the things you have to do in order to accomplish anything else: go to the cave a couple of times. Bring the right gear. Try the sump.
“The two of you are gross,” Beth said.
As northern Connecticut and then New York State scrolled past the minivan’s window, I wondered if this trip was going to be part of what I could only think of as my progressive disillusionment, my journey from a world of miracles (not always, or even particularly, pleasant ones) to a world of causes and procedures. Would I return to New Haven that evening with a new interest, or just one illusion poorer, closer to the bare rock of the real world?
A couple of hours later, Ed parked the minivan at the end of a chained-off dirt road in the middle of a nondescript forest, and we put on boots and kneepads, helmets and headlamps. I’d imagined that the entrance to McFail’s Cave would look like a cave entrance, an irregular arch in the side of a cliff, but in fact the entrance was a drain-sized grate in the ground, beyond which was only darkness.
“This is it?” I asked.
“Yep,” said Lucas.
One by one, the members of the grotto crawled into this hole and vanished. Finally only Lucas and I were left on the surface.
“Go ahead,” Lucas said.
“You first,” I said.
“Oh, no,” Lucas said, “I’m going to watch you go in.”
I knelt by the entrance to the cave and looked in. I couldn’t see anything.
“I thought you said this was fun.”
“It is fun.”
“I don’t think I’m going to fit.”
“Believe me,” Lucas said, “you can do this.”
Could I? I thought of all the situations I had run away from in the last ten years. I’d caromed from one coast of America to the other, I’d left Suzanne in the freezing front room of her apartment in Montreal, I’d left Yesim in Thebes, pregnant with a child I had never met. I thought of all the things I’d left half-finished: my dissertation, my science-fiction novel, the historical novel in the middle of which I was currently stuck. Even the Thebes story which I wrote in the spring of 2001 was incomplete; I had never begun the second part of the project, the hypertext I’d been so excited to imagine, to plan. My biography was like a series of open parentheses nesting themselves deeper and deeper within a sentence that would never be finished. I looked up at the milky-blue sky, and down into the dark period of the cave entrance. Ten years earlier I’d made a decision not to jump from a bridge, and I’d gone on living, for better or worse. Now I was at the mouth of a dark and gloomy cave, and it seemed to me that the only way I could continue to live was to do something suicidal.
I crawled in.
“Atta boy,” Lucas said, as I vanished into the darkness.