The autofill text-message game goes like this.
Begin a text using only one initial typed word (for example ‘Hello’), then hit the space bar. Then complete the phrase with as many of the three autofill helper words that appear above the iPhone keyboard as will give you a complete sentence. Write as many sentences as you like, beginning each with an initial typed word, then autofilling.
Hello there you
How are you feeling
I’m sorry I didn’t get to see you today
I hope you are okay
I have to say
Something about the way you get to have what you want
Is not a good thing
The fact is
I have a little time for a good day
You can do that for me and I’ll be okay
The fact is
I am a good person to you
And I love that I am able to give you a good life
I hope you are most definitely not okay
But you don’t know what I want
Women should be able to make their own choices
Men have the most important things and they don’t know how to feel about it
Women are not going to be there for you
Men are not going to be there for you
Friends and family members have been there for about two days
But they don’t know what you want
Wives are not going to make you happy
Husbands are not going to make a big difference.
Children, of course, are the only reasonable ones
Babies make sure you do what they want
But they don’t know what you want.
I’m still trying to get it out there.
I’m still trying not to get it out there.
Lying is not a good thing, but
Truth is the only reason why I’m still here.
Lying is not going to make a big difference
Truth will make sure that you are not going to make a big mistake
There is nothing to say about that.
The fact that I’m still trying is just a thing that makes me sad
Speaking about how I was really trying to be a good person
Is the only thing I want
Promises are not the only thing that you can make.
Mistakes are easy too
A great way to get the right person.
Look at you and me
Look how well you can make decisions about how things will be
Pain can make you smile but it doesn’t make you happy.
So I’m not going to see you tomorrow
I’m not going to see you
Everything is okay
But I’m not going to see you again
I hope you have a great time with your family
I’m not going to be a bad thing for you
You can be my friend
Only if you don’t have a reason to believe that I love you anymore.
Life has not always been good for me but I’m still trying to figure it out.
Men who can make me feel like a good person are the only reason why I love.
But sadness is a way to be a good person, a reason why I love:
You are the only one who can be your own friend
Sex was the only thing that could make us feel better
You are able to hurt the only person that can make you feel
I’m sorry but it was just a bad idea
Loved the game but it’s not going to work
Wishing you all the greatest things
Wishing for the most amazing things to come to you
I hope you get to see the other side of your life.
©Melinda Rooney, 2017
Reposted: my first Anthology submission (actually, I asked my former student if I could use it, and she said yes). Tori’s Canto 34 is the response to my assignment (set out below) to my freshman Western Heritage class at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin in the Spring of 2016.
[NOTE: the New Yorker cartoon below appeared several months after Tori composed her Canto.]
WRITE YOUR OWN INFERNO CANTO, WITH YOURSELF IN DANTE’S SHOES: AUTHOR, CHARACTER, HERO. DO WHAT DANTE DID. DRAW ON
- ‘THE REAL WORLD’ (PEOPLE, PLACES)
- PERSONAL EXPERIENCE: FAMILY, FRIENDS, GEOGRAPHIC LOCATION, KEY LIFE EVENTS. HOW ARE YOU LIKE DANTE?
- PREVIOUS ‘ARTISTIC’ INFLUENCES—MOVIES, BOOKS, TV SHOWS, VIDEO GAMES
- YOUR OWN TALENT!
- THOUGHTS AND IDEAS WE’VE DISCUSSED IN CLASS
- THE ESTABLISHED LITERARY FORM OF AN ‘ALLEGORY’
Think about how Dante pulled off this amazing piece, as we broke down its qualities and characteristics when we were studying the text, and focus on implementing them in your canto:
the sense of ‘epic scale’
the vividly rendered ‘sinner’
the clarity and variety of the immediate close-up details
CONTRAPASSI: symbolic punishments befitting the sin
the dramatic quality of human conversations
sections of Christian doctrine
the shifting emotional tone (humor, terror, disgust, anger, fear)
the constant sense of movement up and down and around
the developing awareness in the Pilgrim-Narrator (that would be YOU) who has to make emotional and conceptual sense of it all.
Downward still, we travelled, my guide so fixed to his path
that we nearly missed the split in the rock, so clearly discarded from the main trail,that I wondered if its intent was to remain so perfectly hidden.
I pointed there, finger outstretched,
to the putrid lichens that devoured the stone where it parted,
so sharp and spiteful I would fear to near it if not for intrigue,
my guide halting where he stood and looking back
as a child caught ignoring the wishes of his mother
when he otherwise meant to avoid them.
“What foul matter lies beyond, that hides behind these overgrown spires of stone,
that you would pass by as we have not yet done before?
Were we not to visit the entirety of hell?”
To this he replied, his mouth in as tight a line as ever I had seen it,
“I would not have dared to journey there unless you so desired,
but as your hand reaches, so there we will venture.
But as we diverge to a path only meant to be travelled by those who deserve it,
make strong your heart and your ears for a deafening thunder,
for surely what awaits us was not meant to be heard by living flesh.”
With trepidation, I followed his steps through the narrow path in the jagged stone,
sharp and pointed rocky teeth shadowing the air
that brushed us as we passed between,
distantly bringing tidings of the canyon ahead with echoes
that brought dark tidings for the stretch ahead
and rang off slick rock and skin alike.
As we descended further, the din grew to a stew of sound so thick and frenzied
a single source I fought to recognize just as a man seeks his friend in a crowded street,
but to no avail, the squealing thunder deep and grating all at once.
Eager to see what manner of beasts could unleash such a sound,
I rushed to the final ledge,my guide behind me, reluctant to lead,
he stood a cold comfort at my back.
And there they loped toward us with frightful gaiety,
creatures of such nature that at first I thought my eyes deceived,
in guise of children laughing as they skipped,
so merrily that it would seem they had forgotten
hell itself was to be their eternal home, then,
as gleeful as they were in the deafening mire.
My master, aghast, threw up his arm in front of us as they approached,
though the only heed it seemed they paid him
was to brandish instruments within their delicate hands, colorful kazoos.
“Come no closer, wretches. We are sent by One with power greater than your own,
for this, my charge, must witness the poor souls who dwell here
and remember them well. Your meddling will not go unsuffered.”
At the front of the band, with golden hair and a smile
so unsettling that no such gruesome things I had witnessed thus far
had yet sent fear’s cold hand to grip me quite as quickly,
a young boy laughed shrill enough to pierce the thunderous veil
of the raucous onslaught around us
and in response the others mimicked his cries.
Through gleaming teeth he did exclaim, with mockery
and enthusiasm that spoke the opposite intent of his words,
“Wait a minute…who are you?”
The children did not move, and indeed seemed curious
despite their leering grins and voiced mutterings, which to my surprise
I heard the deep voices of adults slip past their youthful lips.
What horrors were these, then, who wore the skins of playful children?
Pity seized my breast for them, these wretched beasts,
who jabbered with ill-suited tongues and jumped in excitement where they stood.
“Master, what are these creatures, who seem so youthful,
and carry such strange instruments? Pray, tell me where we are,
for I had not thought to encounter such a place in our descent.”
And as he sought to answer me, they began to buzz in unison,
a cacophony of frightful and unsynchronized melodies
upon the kazoos they held, the noise saturating the air as a thick veil over our ears.
All around us they began to dance, trumpeting their horrid symphony
until their leader gave a sign, at which they dropped to all fours
dragging their knees against the ground as forward they crept.
“I’m a big, tired cow,” the leader laughed, and he began a note
so low and deep it echoed through the canyon above the din below,
the other joining in, advancing with an abhorrent lowing
of which the Minotaur himself would be jealous to conjure,
and our young pursuers chased us deeper towards the souls that writhed below,
in such a fashion, sounding as a dozen bulls from their kazoos.
Their leader relented while the others continued on, and grasping at my arm unbidden
he dragged me through the lamenting souls, beset by similar horrors,
of such a sort the deafening thunder was no longer a mystery to me.
Performed by such malevolent children, each soul was set to torment
by some variety of provoking sound in horrid concert,
some with kazoo renditions of “Careless Whisper,”
others still with serenades of “Hot Cross Buns” on the recorder,
played by groups of children each just a bit off time with the other,
all as skilled as any unpracticed musician and his first instrument.
I began to lose sight of my guide, I called but could not hear him
through what encompassed me, and wailing
faintness touched my head, amidst such rancor, I feared I’d lost him.
Until the masses began to clear, the horrid child guided me
towards a great monument at the canyon’s center,
where my guide awaited me, disheveled from the crowd.
The sinister imp on my arm released me to dance around the pillar
and giggling he joined the other children atop it,
freeing me at long last as I stumbled.
Atop his pedestal, an ominous creature sat chained,
so fearsome to look at that I averted my eyes, for such a soul I had not yet seen,
in every circle I had yet journeyed through, this was the most wretched.
His pallor belonged to that of an orange, which forgotten
had been left to sit at the bottom of a crate for a great many weeks,
only sparing his squinting eyes to be colorless sockets.
Loose across his face, his skin hung as slack as his jaw,
flapping about, words from his lips were lost to the noise around him,
his head bobbing as if seaborne in a storm, his eyebrows desperate oarsmen.
His torment was the loudest yet, a great section of brass about him,
tubas and trumpets all, each blown by several children each in long, thundering bellows,
which whipped his loosely flowing updo to every side just as a bird that struggles in flight.
“Silence! I beseech you, delinquent pests!” My master roared,
“So that we may speak to the one whom you torture, quiet your tumultuous gale,
and you may soon again return once we are finished.”
As they grew quiet, the soul’s attention turned, and my fearsome guide commanded,
“Tell us your name, O sinner, my companion may yet carry your name
back to the realm of the living, for you cannot go there.”
To my amazement, he paused in his speech before he answered,
“Who am I? You want to know who I am? Well, that’s a good question.
People call me many things, you know, but my people call me Trump.”
To which I urged my master, “If he can continue on, should he tell us
which sins have been committed to bring him here,
what merits such a symphony, I would like to know.”
And my guide replied, “It shall be so. Please, then,
recount to us the accord through which you have obtained your suffering,
troubled spirit, that we may find reason to pity you.”
Eyebrows raising and lowering as if to fly from his brow, he replied,
“Am I suffering? Good question. Well I think it’s fair to say that some people are suffering
and that I am one of them. Suffering is the foundation upon which this great
institution was built and if I were to be suffering I would know it. I have people
who know about suffering, and let me tell you, there are a lot of experts on this who
agree with me, that I am suffering. You know, those other guys,
they don’t know about suffering like I do.
I have stocks in suffering, and you know what?
I really do a lot of deals in suffering. Huge deals. So yes,I think you could say
that I do a lot with suffering and that I know about suffering. We can make suffering great
And without a word, my good guide led me away on his own,
the deep brazen notes roaring again as we turned our backs,
to drown that loose tongued soul’s words as he yet spewed them.
Incredulous, I followed without word, for what could be said?
The speech had been so surely given, and yet I found
that nothing of value had been spoken to us.
My master, as we departed back to our intended path, asked me,
“Tell me now, what sins do you now think the souls here commit to
befit such torture, now that you have witnessed it?”
My reply was swift, “Souls who speak without purpose, or for the purpose of speech itself,
possess an incontinence as wicked as those in circles before us;
their tongues are as foul as the serpent’s was in Eden.”
And so back to that fateful road we climbed, ascending once again,
to follow its trail to yet fouler depths, the raucous concert
fading far behind to smother the rampant tongues of the souls we left behind.
©2016 Tori Jadczak
Tori Jadczak attends Carthage College and is majoring in Biology. In her free time she writes, draws, and plots to crush the patriarchy.
Cartoon by Paul Noth, The New Yorker
Renunciation is realizing that nostalgia for life’s vicious cycle is full of shit:
the waving grass, intermingling with a rich profusion of wild flowers, the most beautiful sight I had ever gazed upon;
our own dark environment, where our only companion is the smell of our own sweat.
(One option beyond these two seems to be the attempt to organize and defend the new sphere of civil society not as mediation but as an end in itself.)
If it had ever become ‘necessary’
(I can find no other word)
to strengthen the central supporting column without too much enlarging it or adding to its weight,
no better formation than this spiral could be conceived,
and an almost exact parallel to it occurs
in the air-tubes or tracheae of insects
and the water-tubes of plants.
Although a prisoner’s internal experience
(the smell of his own sweat, her own dark environment)
may be close to
or identical with
that of another person suffering severe pain
or a stroke
or phantom limb,
it is, unlike this other person’s, simultaneously being externalized:
waving, intermingling, a rich profusion.
Ignorant what to do, he is stupefied;
he neither lets go the reins, nor is he able to retain them
(life’s vicious cycle: full of shit)
nor does he know the names of the horses.
She forgets that she is talking to listening children; she lives with the fairy folk,
or the kings
and beautiful ladies, whose adventures she narrates,
a consistent, enduring effort to create or shape events
to influence the relations of the public to an enterprise,
Father Arnall’s low and gentle voice:
I wanted to amass information against the enemy we were capturing on the battlefield.
In the fire of the visiting sun their faces shone like the faces of children lit by a golden lamp,
The most beautiful sight I had ever gazed upon.
They began as useful and practical goddesses who cared for springs and wells and cured disease and foretold the future.
Archaeological excavations of sites thousands of years old have revealed bodies that show signs of medical attention:
broken limbs that have been set,
wounds treated successfully.
Relief is not complete cure, and may proceed from different causes:
a few preparatory experiments,
a panegyric upon modern chemistry
useful and practical goddesses.
produced when thin slices of material are placed between two polarizing plates,
have been used to investigate the structures of many natural objects
battlefields and wells.
Nature is abundant, but Grace is not abounding.
The book says so.
It is the best of those of your poems that you have let me read.
All that I could do was to wait until the tide was at the highest,
keeping the raft
with my oar
like an anchor
to hold the side of it
fast to the shore,
near a flat piece of ground,
which I expected the water would flow over;
and so it did.
Eviction can be contagious that way.
So I have to watch it–be its eyes.
A consistent, enduring effort
Is it about faith or is it about grief?
Well, you’re the detective, aren’t you?
[with gratitude to the original authors, from whom I beg indulgence for the theft and for the occasional tweak for scan and sense]
©Melinda Rooney, 2017
You, tired prince in plastic sandals
A table in a room, a chair
A foreign land
Bereft of incense, street scenes, color,
Instead a chair, a table, couch, down the street a KFC,
Cheap fluorescent ring or bar that buzzes, pops, assailed by moths
A laptop wired to link your world,
Oh weary prince with yellowed eyes,
To mine: a housewife, novice writer, decent lighting, central air
NPR, a custom workspace
in a corner of the new kitchen
As you read this, I don’t want you to feel sorry for me
Because, I believe,
Everyone will die someday.
You could be anywhere
I have not particularly lived my life so well, as I have never really cared
You could be anyone
Permit me to inform you of my desire
You could tell me anything.
Which one should I use, you wonder, fingers poised above the keys
What killed my wealthy father this time?
(and if by chance you hate your father, what fun these tales must be to write
Car accident: they lost there lives?
My father was a cocoa merchant
Poisoned in a plan gone wrong
Treachery! His trusted partners!
Discussing on a business deal.
(You stop, consider;
Is ‘on’ correct there?
Google Translate, it will tell you:
Leave it in or take it out.
Fucking English, so complicated)
Abidjan, in the Ivory Coast
Is where he drew his final breath
Secretly called me on his bedside
Suspense account, a local bank
A simple and sincere business
It would be nicer, don’t you think,
Were your fingers stained with ink?
Scratching with a reed or feather
Dipped into a little pot
A scroll, or parchment,
A woven ribbon, wax to seal,
Leather pouch in which to send it, hand to hand, across Africa,
To a packet boat, perhaps,
To sail across and land here on my desk?
These bytes and keystrokes, digital packets,
Not much romance there, for sure.
You strain after the exotic, a tool to entice,
A compelling narrative
But some things only work the old-fashioned way.
You sense instinctively, I think,
That you have to up your game.
I prayed over it
This letter, not intended to cause any embarrassment
But just to contact your esteem
The knowledge of your high repute
There you go. Flattery. Never fails.
Now, follow with a plea.
Please, my dear, I repose great confidence in you
Please, I need your assistance to make this happen
Please, do not undermine it
Next, appeal to mutual interests:
Be a source of upliftment to you,
Finally, appeal to my desire for risk, as I languish here in leisure, desperate for a story:
You have absolutely nothing to loose in assisting us,
You have so much to gain.
I mean, why not!
What could possibly go wrong?
And isn’t it, when I’m honest with myself, the fact that something could go wrong that
Tempts me for a second?
Crash and burn this life
My husband’s money
My children’s college
(none of this is really mine)
That jerk of the steering wheel while crossing the bridge
That moment at the edge of a cliff
What if I did?
You need a cast of characters, you need a set of actual names:
A Jewish businessman, Mark Rissar
The then head of state General Sani Abacha
A Lebanese banker, Chagoury,
Junior brother (did you mean younger?) Ahmad
The present civilian administration of
Chief Olusegun Obajanso
And you’re good with details, I’ll give you that:
Bearer Bonds and Treasury Bills
Certificate of deposit
My family’s cash lodgement
(I’ve not heard that one; a term of art?)
A security firm abroad
The Federal Government Of Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation
A Foreign Firm in the
Petroleum Trust Fund
Which I have these information in my custody now.
And this, perhaps the best of all, so vivid we can nearly see it, feel it, chilly, in our hands:
A metal box consignment with Security Deposit Number 009GM
And here we are, the buried lede, the crux of the matter, the big reveal:
(you’ll want to drop that last zero, by the way; you don’t want errors tarnishing your authority)
Invoiced to the tune of
I’ve been told I’m lost in details,
Overly enamored of description.
It derails the story, bogs it down
My reader grows impatient
I’m impressed with how you pull it off
Perhaps it helps to have a goal in mind,
A proposed exchange
An attempt to forge connection between the reader and the art:
- YOUR FULL NAME
- COMPANY’S NAME
- POSTAL ADDRESS
- PHONE AND FAX NUMBERS
- YOUR BANK NAME
- YOUR BANK ACCOUNT AND BENEFICIARY NAME
[You must be the signatory]
Here is the difference between us, prince:
You know why you write
It always eludes me
Wanting to be heard is not enough.
In this way, I suppose,
I mean, I suppose you could look at it this way
You are more honest than I am
Your motives more pure, if base,
For of course there are such things, marriages of opposites
Like you and me, prince: two different kinds of parasite.
And time is of the essence here
I’m a mere civil servant
Who needs this money out
Before the newly democratically elected government ever think of making enquiries as regards the various activities of the past military government.
Kindly contact me above
So that we can swing into action
As time is not on our part.
Mohammed Abbas, weary prince,
Thanks for writing
Take my money
I will take your words.
[all misspellings are verbatim]
©Melinda Rooney, 2017
I stared at the laundry.
I stared long; I stared limpidly. I stared with an impassioned intensity that promised much, if only…
I batted eyelashes; I pleaded breathlessly. Tender tears trembled at the tips of my lashes, and I sighed, longing.
‘Twould not do itself.
I changed tacks, swearing stormily, pouting, stomping my sockless foot (no socks left).
Still, ‘twould not do itself.
I bargained, I cajoled. I made promises I daren’t speak of.
‘Twould not, alas, take that small yet necessary leap into the machine.
At last, I threw in the towel (the towel was dirty too), and resigned myself to going commando.
I got the no laundry blues.
©Hillary Fields, 2017
Hillary Fields is a New York-based novelist and essayist. Her most recent novel is Last Chance Llama Ranch, published by Redhook books. Learn more at https://hillarymfields.com/
Who was the first President
Who was Deep Throat
Who was Jack the Ripper
Who was President during Katrina
Who was the second President
What was the Cubs score
What was the Cold War
What was Watergate
What was The Marshall Plan
What was the Holocaust
When was Millennium Park built
When was Hurricane Sandy
When was Hurricane Katrina
When was the Civil War
When was Jesus born
Where was Abraham Lincoln born
Where was Game of Thrones filmed
Where was pizza invented
Where was Jesus born
Why was the Berlin Wall built
Why was Clinton impeached
Why was sense8 cancelled
Why was NATO formed
Why was the Civil War fought
How was your day
How was your day in Spanish
How was the Grand Canyon formed
How was the moon formed
How was God created
Who is the Night King
Who is the richest person in the world
Who is the next Bachelor
Who is the host of the Gong Show
What is the weather
What is the meaning of life
What is the score of the Cubs game
What is the temperature now
When is Trump’s press conference today
When is Labor Day
When is Father’s Day
When is Memorial Day
When is the next full moon
Where is the Grand Canyon
Where is the love
Where is the nearest Walmart
Where is the nearest gas station
Where is the fire
Why is the sky blue
Why is the ocean salty
Why is the ocean blue
Why is the Governor of Texas in a wheelchair
Why am I so tired
Why am I so hungry
Why am I so cold
Why am I so dizzy
Why am I so gassy
Why can’t I pee
Why can’t I focus
Why can’t I eat
Why can’t I find a job
Why can’t I get a girlfriend
Why is the FBI here
How can I keep from singing
How can investors receive compounding returns
How can I watch Game of Thrones
How can I make money
How should I cut my hair
How should I dye my hair
How should I dress
How should I invest my money
How should I style my hair
How do I embroider eyes
How do I get home
How do I get a passport
How do I love thee
Who will I marry
Who will be the next Bachelor
Who will be the next King of England
Who will be the next James Bond
Who will save your soul
What will happen on September 23, 2017
What will the weather be like today
What will a hydrogen bomb do
What will happen to Illinois
When will Irma hit
When will I die
When will Irma hit Florida
When will the world end
When will it stop raining
Where will Hurricane Irma hit
Where will Irma hit
Where will Hurricane Irma go
Where Willy went
Where will the 2020 Olympics be
Why will Trump be impeached
Why will the world end
Why, William Blair
Why will Steam not open
why will anyone hire me
How will I know
How will I die
How will Game of Thrones end
How will the world end
©Melinda Rooney, 2017
Ossuary / Arco Felice / 1974
Sometimes the bone man clattered by, his horse-drawn wagon heaped high with the stripped remains of dismembered corpses, a cloud of flies in his wake. I would watch him from my perch on the hillside above the street, contemplating the wondrous creatures that could arise if only one possessed the imagination and ability to assemble and reflesh the various rib cages and skulls, the scraped and articulate bones and fragments stacked on the wooden bed. I never considered a destination, never thought to follow, but instead wandered elsewhere, down to the waterfront, or along Via Domitiana to Lago d’Averno, Hell’s entrance, not far, they said, from the River Styx.
Odd, I think, that I never once contemplated the various paths taken to bring that wagon before my eyes, to that very intersection, on those particular days. Nor did I wonder that it was…
View original post 132 more words
Dear Valued Customer,
Thank you for flying with us!
We would like to get your input on your recent experience with this flight by completing this quick survey. We recognize that listening to our customers is one of the most important things we can do, and your response will help us ensure that your next experience exceeds your expectations.
Well, that’s a tough one, frankly. My overall experience on December 04, 2016 from Chicago O’Hare (ORD) to Baltimore, MD (BWI) was really not at all about Spirit Airlines, until, abruptly, it was. My overall experience was about my father in the hospital, dying, in Baltimore, and me, in Chicago, trying to get out to see him for the last time. So as you can imagine, Spirit Airlines, my overall experience that evening was both all I could think about, and all I could not think about. Instead, I focused on details: the email you considerately sent informing me that the flight had been delayed by 45 minutes; the amount of shit I could cram into a carry-on that would be light enough not to be confiscated at the gate, at which point I would be charged $100 to check it; rushing to the airport. I was not overly concerned with missing the flight (I had some other things on my plate, like getting someone in to feed the cats, finding a place to park the car that wouldn’t overdraw my checking account, merging onto the rush-hour Kennedy Expressway, speaking to the nurse who stood at my father’s bedside, her voice timid and southern-inflected in the Bluetooth-configured cabin of my car, assuring me that while he could not speak, he smiled as he heard my voice: ‘I’m on my way, Dad. Hang in there. I’m on my way.’
You had assured me there was a delay, Spirit Airlines, and I had left enough time that I was certain to be at the gate before even the flight’s originally scheduled departure.
There was plenty of time.
I was reassured, upon arriving at the airport, that the delay was still in place: all six monitors I obsessively checked assured me of this. So imagine my surprise when, upon arriving at the gate, 15 minutes prior to the *original* departure time, I was informed that the plane had already left and was taxiing down the runway.
If you actually gave a shit, Spirit Airlines, about your employees, those beleaguered and expressionless gate agents who have to break this kind of news and then endure the blowtorch of wrath from your paying customers, you would ask these particular two what they had to hear from me, maybe have given them a little bonus, or at the very least a day off. There was a lot of obscenity, some flying spit (I’m a theater major; my professor tells me if you aren’t drenching the people in the first row you’re not enunciating sufficiently), some tears, some flung baggage. What could they do? The plane was on the runway. My father was, as the doctors called it, ‘actively’ dying. I was, I’m embarrassed to confess, on my knees, clutching my head, wailing.
I’m going to assume that ‘overall experience’ includes my attempt to reach your customer service line, a succession of cheery bots who led me in a mechanical circle right back to where I’d begun, so I’ll toss that into the mix too.
My overall experience? Are you sure you really want to ask me that?
Hmm. The primary reason. How about ‘you fucking suck’? I think that about covers it. I have not filled in any of the holes above because there is not a number low enough. How likely? How likely?
Well, now, see, this is easy, because none of this part ever actually happened. It’s hard to assess a boarding process when you didn’t get to even fucking board. I mean, I suppose I could apply this to the flight the following morning, but I was a little distracted by the fact that by the time we landed in Baltimore my father was dead, and I had an email from you, time-stamped two hours earlier, assuring me that the delay on the flight that had departed before its scheduled departure time the previous evening was still in place, so hey! No rush!
Now, this afternoon, in the Uber on the way to the funeral home, I have occasion to ponder your choice of name. Spirit. I assume it’s meant to evoke a sprightly will, a zest for life, a seize-it-by-the-horns, embark on an exciting journey kind of feeling. But I find myself drawn-chalk it up to the emotional intensity of the present moment, I guess-to its more ethereal, metaphysical connotations: spirits, like that of my dead father, like mine, like those of all of your other passengers, all of whom, I’m guessing, have reasons to travel that are, well, shall we say, pressing.
You bear each of our spirits into the air and back down again. We give you our money. We pass through security, throw away our water bottles, take off our shoes, stand in the backscatter booths with our arms over our heads like caught criminals, participate in the magical-thinking rituals, reassuring ourselves that we will not fall from the sky or careen headlong into an office building, screaming the names of our children, our parents, our lovers. We run down the concourse, draw up breathless at the gate, only to find that you have left us.We trust you with our lives and those of the people we love. But you have left the gate, and as one of the blank-eyed gate agents told me, almost wistfully, ‘I’m afraid there’s nothing we can do.’
But I’m here now, Spirit, and I have to pay the driver and go in to pick a coffin. I hope that this survey will help you ensure that my next experience exceeds my expectations.
- Why was the restaurant three-quarters empty when we arrived for the ‘only’ reservation your hostess told us was available?
- Was the jewelry the hostess wore real or fake? And has she heard how much she looks like Ali MacGraw? Does she even know who that is?
- Why did we have to wait 15 minutes to be seated?
- Why were we asked three times, by the hostess, the man who seated us, and our server, whether we had any vouchers or coupons? And, perhaps more to the point, why did this not set off alarm bells in our exhausted brains?
- Why were we asked, also three times (must be a charm!), whether we’d been to Ruth’s Chris before? Was this simply small talk, or a canny stab at assessing our level of gullibility?
- Why was it a nearly two-minute walk through the murmuring plush and glint of dimly lit winding corridors to the heart of the labyrinth, a tiny walled booth (if memory serves, there were drapes), where we were placed in our seats like dingy chocolates in a gilt box, a massive cube-shaped chandelier glaring and winking above our heads? Might it have been that we were rumpled after a long drive, for which one tends to dress casually, and that landed us in the cheap seats? Might it be that there is a certain standard a restaurant is within its rights to uphold, that it cannot afford to have other diners, of which there were, at this particular moment, roughly 12, put off by shabby patrons? Is it maybe because we didn’t look like these guys? Does anyone look like these guys?
- Why did anyone think it was a good idea to produce smoky-voiced-chanteuse, lounge-lizard covers of such favorites as Wish You Were Here, Under My Thumb, Billie Jean, and Smells Like Teen Spirit? And why did your establishment opt to play them?
With the lights out, it’s less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us
A mulatto, an Albino
A mosquito, my libido, yeah
9. Why didn’t we listen to our 19 year old son, who dropped his menu and said ‘let’s just get out of here’? Did it have something to do with feeling flattered and shamed at the exact same moment? Or were we just exhausted?
10. Why does a dinner that costs a fortune come with a stern warning not to touch the plates, which are heated to 500 degrees (to ensure your food stays hot from first bite to last!), lest you badly burn yourself? Why am I paying for that?
10a. Why were my crab cakes cold anyway?
10b. Why was there no glass of ice water to plunge my fingers into after I forgot (do you know how easy a thing that is to forget?) and touched my plate?
11. Why is there some guy in the men’s room chatting up my son, nudging his little saucer of dollar bills across the counter, offering a paper towel in exchange for a tip? Is a man in a bathroom assuming familiarity with a stranger in exchange for cash somehow classy?
12. Why does a tablespoonful of mint jelly cost 4 dollars?
13. How long did the ‘julienned potatoes’ (read: fries) sit under the warming lamp?
14. Why did our server never quite strike the balance between attentive and discreet, instead veering wildly between obsequious and oblivious? Was she having a bad night, maybe? A babysitter flaked on her? Her mother showed up drunk to her kid’s birthday party?
15. Why did I feel sorry for the unseen couple at the adjacent booth (‘my table just proposed,’ our server blurted breathlessly as she bustled past us with two little flutes of champagne), muttering under my breath ‘I give it six months’? Does a marriage whose seeds were planted in this place stand a chance?
16. Why did my food taste like rain-soaked charcoal ashes?
17. Why, at 27 dollars a glass, did my husband order a second glass of wine? I mean, I guess that’s something I should ask him. Or not.
18. Why did I ask for the remainder of my dinner to be packed up when we were staying in a fridgeless hotel room, then scurry out of the restaurant with a plastic bag with handles feeling like maybe, at least, I’d gotten away with *something*? I mean, it would’ve been like leaving 65 dollars in cash (well, I’d eaten half of them, so let’s call it $32.50) on the table.
19. How would Ruth Fertel, your establishment’s founder, described on your website as a feisty single mom who overcame all kinds of obstacles, including a fire that burned her first steakhouse to the ground, have felt about being cynically pampered, deftly insulted, and divested of her money for a *steak* when she had children to send to college? Or was this what drove her? Was this how she justified the business model she strove to create? Did hardship beget hardness? Eat or be eaten? Did it beat the decent right out of her? Hers is a compelling story, an inspirational screenplay. Just look at her, tiny, barely 5 feet tall, butchering steaks with a bandsaw, hiring only single mothers as waitstaff. What’s not to love? But did it occur to her that maybe she had some single mothers as customers?
20. Did our server maybe for one second feel a little bit sorry for us, or does she have problems of her own (see above)?
21. Why am I surprised that Donald Trump is the president? I mean, well, we’re in Canada, but only by about fifty feet. You want to feel rich? It’s gonna cost you. Even with the vouchers, you’re getting gouged. And ‘Wow!’ we think. ‘What a deal! I’m surrounded by velvet!’
22. My son picked up the little frosted glass votive on the table, peered in, and saw a battery-operated lightbulb, showed it to us with a wordless eye roll. Could you maybe have sprung for some actual candles?
23. Why, after we left, did I prefer to imagine I’d just been mugged than out to dinner? Maybe because at least a mugger acts out of necessity, however base? Maybe because a mugger wouldn’t pretend he was doing me a great service by pressing a steak knife to my throat? Maybe he wouldn’t shower me with false flattery first?
24. Why was I relieved to learn that we were not your only victims?
25. Four dollars for a diet Pepsi?
26. Have you ever seen anything more beautiful in your life?
I mean, if you’re going to sit awake all night thinking about your health insurance, your property taxes, the credit card balance and the weird noise coming from underneath your car, you couldn’t ask for a better view. I’d say it puts all of it in perspective. I’d take a moment to be grateful that such beauty is given to us, this miraculous world, regardless of whether we deserve it.
But I’m afraid that’s going to have to wait for another day.
Part 1: Trick or Treat
Riley Detmer, age 9
Why do I always have to be doing something? Mom and Dad all the time ‘what are you doing?’ How does a bag save a planet?
I don’t know. I think this is going to be my last year. I was too young and now I’m too old to remember when it was fun. The one story I always hear is how I went through my entire candy bag when I was three and a bumblebee, ran around like I was crazy and stopped in the middle of my grandparents’ all white almost empty living room and turned white like a ghost bee and barfed all over the floor.
I mean, that doesn’t sound very fun.
Last year I was 8 and I wanted to be Wolverine from X-men. Wolverine could save the planet better than a bag. The answer was no. The reason was my mom said Wolverine made violent choices and didn’t think of better ways to solve a problem. Is that really what you want to be Riley she said which the answer was yes. Is that a part of yourself you think is okay? she said. What if I don’t have the claws I said. She shook her head. Nice people are the real heroes she said.
This happens a lot. I used to get mad about it but finally I stopped. Getting mad is a violent choice and besides it just makes her talk more. I ended up being a fireman with a plastic helmet and coat that looked totally fake.
When I was 7 I wanted to be a Apache brave which we were learning in school. This was also no because we shouldn’t take things from the Indians and we also should not be calling them Indians. You’re a lucky little boy because you are privileged she said, and that means you can’t take things that aren’t yours and make fun of Native Americans. I said I am not making fun. If I am privileged I said I wonder why does that mean I can’t pick my costume and be whatever I want. This was before I stopped arguing about everything. Plus it was totally confusing because Wyatt who is 5 and my brother was Ariel from Little Mermaid. But Ariel is a girl I said. Wyatt can make that choice my mom said. We can’t tell him how he should express himself. But I want to express myself and be a Apache brave I said. Wyatt is not a girl I said. Riley, she said. Stop making fun of your brother. This is along with my friend Chloe at school who was a artist with a french hat called a beret because she was not allowed to be Ariel from Little Mermaid because it is not what little girls should want to be. So Wyatt got to be Ariel with a boob thing made of two plastic seashells and a tail thing with sequins. I don’t know why but I just wanted to hit him really hard. And I was a cowboy because it is okay I guess to make fun of them.
When I was 6 we didn’t do Halloween because refined sugar. When I was 5 I wanted to be a hobo with a stick but that was no for some reason too so my mom made my costume without even asking me which was a bunch of grapes made of balloons. I was mad and got a timeout. Before that I don’t remember except the story about barfing which is not really a thing I remember but just a thing they told me that happened.
So I think this will be my last year. I don’t know what I will be. I guess I will wait for Mom to tell me. But I will take this bag because those plastic pumpkins with handles are stupid and for babies and I swear to God I will argue about that if I have to.
That is what I am doing.
Part #2: Domesticity
Amy Wallace-Detmer, age 38
What am I doing? What does it look like? I’m putting away the goddamned groceries. There’s a guy who loads them into my car at the store but once I’m home I’m on my own. It’s easier than trying to get the boys to help me. I pick my battles.
I remember you. Back when I was young, in that big old first wave of recycling, you all were saying the same thing. And now it’s back, and the bags are back, asking questions: a successful campaign; why wouldn’t it be successful again?
But I’ll ask you a question back: What did it succeed at? Do people shop more at stores with bags that sneer at them? I saw lots of you tumbling empty through parking lots, wadded up in garbage cans. Just what was it you were trying to accomplish?
All you have to do is wait long enough and everything comes back around again.
You can be reused 125 times. Well, we have that in common, at any rate. In fact, I may very well have you beat. And will I reuse you? Not likely. I never think to bring bags along until I’m in the car. They pile up under the sink. So you are not the first bag to ask me that question. I’ll stuff you down there and you can all trade saving-the-planet stories, congratulate yourselves in a crinkly little cocktail-party mumble. I’ll pull one out to carry wet bathing suits, clean the litter box, load up with some stuff to take over to Dad on the days Meals on Wheels doesn’t come, give to Riley and Wyatt for trick or treating.
That snuck up on me. I used to be better about holidays. Now I’m always running along behind them, like the kids. I thought I had parenthood nailed, once: cupcakes one year topped with orange frosting and spiders with gum-drop bodies and licorice-whip legs, a dozen of them, for Riley’s pre-K. I was up until 3. I wanted to do everything for him, which might’ve been a mistake. He’s become so passive. It kept me anchored, the routines, the recipes, the things it was okay or not okay to do or be or read or say.
I am a parent. Everything is my fault.
You’d like Ted, bag. He is saving the planet, or the people on it with cancer, at any rate. Does that count? You and he would get along, trading smug challenges and debating the finer points of planet-saving. He’s always taken care of me, from the time he met me when he was rounding through the psych unit as a med student. I was glad I’d washed my hair. He saved me, I guess you could say–so it would be peevish to criticize. But I sometimes think he loves that he saved me more than he loves me.
I love him. I do.
That said, there’s a whole continuity of care issue–I stole that from him–when it comes to the boys. He’s never around, in other words, to see things and watch things, which to me means that he’s not in a super-good place to worry out loud that our kids are always trying to comfort me and settle me down and that that is bad for them, that I am always trying to control them, and that that is bad for them, when all I am doing is trying to keep them safe, calm, confident, on the right path. And maybe they could want to comfort me sometimes? Is that such a bad thing? Aren’t we all supposed to kind of look after each other? Isn’t loving someone enough to want to comfort them a good thing?
I mean, Ted, stick to cancer, okay? Help me out by not suggesting maybe I should’ve gone back to work, which implies there was work to go back to: B.A. in Music, Minor in Astronomy? As my mother once said, ‘Now, there’s a lucrative career path.’ Maybe only remind me of the psych unit a few times a year, the checking account I emptied to make that model of the universe, the run of not-so-wise intimate encounters, the inanimate objects like cell phones and shopping carts coming to life and trying to hurt me, you know, the suicide stuff after. Holidays, maybe. Mention it on holidays. Halloween. Last year I got that haunted house place across town to close down the room that was supposed to be a mental hospital full of wackos, but it’s funny; I couldn’t really work up a big old head of steam about it. Stigma, it’s called, but that’s just another word for being afraid: their problem, not mine. Crazy people have bigger fish to fry: med compliance, shrink after shrink, bloodwork, behavioral coping therapies, insurance, revolving fucking door policies. I was lucky. The meds finally caught and held, never let go after that, and I never let go of them. I joke to people that I am a professional patient. I am my own job.
There is really nothing wrong with being afraid of crazy. I mean, I have enough trouble with what I think; I have to decide how others think now too? I mean, I try to say the right things, have the right feelings, arrange them neatly, like setting a table for company.
You’ve got enough job for two people, Ted. It all balances out.
Meanwhile, well, yeah, groceries. And the phone call to that woman at the managed care place; my father’s going nowhere fast. And Riley’s waiting for me to tell him what he wants for a costume. Like I would know. I don’t understand why he doesn’t want to decide on his own anymore. I don’t know why Wyatt wants to be a girl.
I just don’t want them to be crazy. That is all I don’t want.
So, yeah. Not real interested in saving the planet. I’ve got other things on my plate. But you go right on ahead.
That is what I am doing.
Part 3: Music of the Spheres
Conrad Wallace, age 68
What am I doing? I’m going through Amy’s things. And I guess you’re the bag I’m not supposed to open but must be sure not to leave behind or throw away, her machine-gun instructions from the unit, over the phone, what the docs called pressured speech, don’t open it, Dad, and don’t even fucking think about throwing it away, it might look like garbage to you but that’s because you don’t get it, you never got it, I had to ride this goddamned genius train all by myself, feel the music all around and align my body to it like a tuning fork, Dad, do you even know what a fucking tuning fork is, Dad? Of course you don’t, because you don’t get it.
She was never a cusser.
‘It’s a work-in-progress, Dad, a model, I’m helping the structure perfect itself, capture the music, make it audible to everyone. And if you throw it away like everything else you’ve always dismissed and made fun of–‘
‘Honey, I never–‘
‘Shut up Dad! Shut the fuck up, Dad! You don’t get to talk! I’m giving you simple instructions. You throw away that bag and that will be the end of us. The end of Amy and Dad at the planetarium. No more music for us.’
So the work in progress, and boxes of books, sheaves of sheet music, clothes, sheets and towels, a giant pair of men’s basketball sneakers, a small pair of briefs that I tweeze from the floor like a dead animal. One man? Two? The guy she brought to our house for dinner once and spent the evening fondling, scratching his back under his shirt, murmuring in his ear as her mother and I sat and watched, our food cold lumps in our mouths? There were a lot of them, when things got bad. It was how you knew they were getting bad. There was no stopping that either.
And you, bag, heavy, clanking like pirate’s loot and knotted tightly at the top, everything goes into the U-Haul, again, another failed flight for Amy, again, her third school in as many years, the meds make me fat and stupid, Dad, I’m meant for bigger things, I can’t fuck, I can’t sleep, I can’t wake up. I know how to balance this.
I read her a story once about Phaethon, the son of the sun, his father had made him a promise: ask me for anything and it is yours, swore on a sacred river. And he asked to drive his father’s chariot dawn to dusk across the sky. Myths were my music when I was a kid; I thought I might grow up to be a writer once (‘Now there’s a lucrative career path,’ my practical wife told me, not unkindly). The sun balked and begged his son, please don’t make me keep that promise, it is more than you can do, the horses are wild, but he had sworn on a sacred river, that is of course what a promise to a child must be, unbreakable, and Phaethon was stubborn like kids always are, convinced he could control the uncontrollable and he took off and the horses sensed his tentative hold on the reins and went wild and the chariot tipped down toward the earth and set it alight, the fire spreading so quickly birds burned in the trees, then veered back up and just as fast it froze, charred branches locked up in layers of ice, the chariot’s axle snapping, Phaethon falling into the sea, slipping between the waves, and he was gone.
Oh, her baby-bird wings, no escape velocity, she peaked for a moment in the sky, pausing as if taking a breath of surprise–Jesus, how did I get up here–like one of the model rockets she made dozens upon dozens of once, her fingers peeling with hardened glue, gunpowder on the air, then turning nose down, plummeting to the ground. Again.
I was old when she came, closing in on 50. Her mother, too, 45. An accident after we’d given up, a wish we no longer made. Was it that? That we’d stopped hoping? Was it faulty sperm? A stale old egg like a wrinkled pea? She was odd from the beginning, never cracked a smile. She never knew happy.
I am a parent. Everything is my fault.
And here is the present moment again, life is a messy pile of them, I’m poised on it, weaving, like a drunken gymnast on a bar, the present only starts to make sense once it isn’t the present anymore. The past falling away behind me, her sweaty hand in mine, the future dim in front of me, will she come back this time? Will she ever have a nice house, the right meds, a couple of kids, a husband who maybe won’t be real warm but helps her stay on track, will always come to save her, kind of like me, who feels for her the kind of love he’s capable of feeling on his best days? Will they have a piano? Will daily things replace her magic flights?
Will she be okay with that? Will she be okay?
My knees ache as I bend to drag stuff out from under the bed, my neck twangs as I pull posters from the cinder-block walls, her roommate silent in the doorway, owl-eyed, who called the Student Health Center three days ago, got the hospital ball rolling. Again.
I think it burned her brain a little, each time. A smell came off her: carbon, model rockets. When she was a kid there wasn’t a name for it. Then, suddenly, there was. And it turns out it did. Burn her brain, I mean. An electrical storm. The psychiatrist used those exact words.
She used to love explaining things. I’ve always been good at having things explained to me. I like to think she loved me for that. I’d take her to the zoo, the Natural History museum, the aquarium on the Sundays when her mom went for coffee and an afternoon with her journal, but she loved the planetarium the most. We’d sit in the soft movie-theater seats, a curved acoustic-tiled heaven within a heaven, pinpoints of light, a man’s deep voice-over edged with static, explaining, and she’d name the planets above us, trace their orbits.
The music came later, flowing out her fingers into white keys, stretched strings, padded hammers. I took out a little loan for the piano, the lessons, the expensive schools. She’d sit and watch the tuner work his magic, striking keys, adjusting wires, damping pedals.
I sit back on the floor for a minute, stretch the stiff out of my knees, look around at all the crap, don’t know where to begin. And you sit there, I look over at you again: ‘I’m saving the planet.’ As though you are inviting me with a weird plastic sympathy to look inside: maybe this will vindicate her. Maybe she really is on to something. Maybe the third time’s a charm, where the crazy finally burns away to leave a bright star of brilliance. Maybe you really do hold magic, the mechanism she began to describe over the phone six weeks ago, she’d never made anything before, this was new, an hysterical thread running through her voice, dead men whispering, Pythagoras, Kepler, the music of the spheres, hidden ratios, that unheard song, the cycles of the planets, the stringed instruments of bodies, one cannot hear nor align with the other, she’d found a way to do that, emptied her checking account buying the materials and the tools, was embarked on the design and construction of the tool that would make it possible, she ticked the list off during another phone call, this one at 3 a.m.: a jeweler’s drill, sheets of brass, a tiny saw, rubber hammer, watch springs, threaded screws that would pass through the eye of a needle.
People need to hear it, Dad. People need to hear it.
Then the Health Center called, then the Dean. Then I got in the truck and drove to the hospital. Then I stood outside the ancient spacecraft airlock doors of the unit, waited for the burly male nurse who’d greeted me twice before–a former Marine, maybe? his hair was so short, his crossed arms behind the chicken-wire glass as big around as my thighs, I looked like him once–to buzz me in, took that short instant alone to drop my head into my hands, feel my legs begin to go, feel the wail run through me, aligning me with that silent chord of the universe, escaping, my mouth shaping it into her name.
I don’t have room for any of this stuff anymore, her mother’s death only made the house smaller, I guess I’ll rent a locker. That way there’s a chance she’ll come get it, a chance she’ll come back to earth, heft the heavy lock in her palm, scroll in the combination, slide open the door.
But meanwhile in this present that makes no sense yet I drag you across and up and into my lap, work the knot with my fingers, give up, tear you stem to stern. Tiny gears and crookedly sawn tiny lengths of brass, sharp enough to draw blood, and the tools, a miniature disaster, chaos in a bag, clashing, crashing notes. I gather them up in my hands, let them fall, and they jingle and ring with trapped music.
That is what I am doing.
Part 4: Do No Harm
Ted Detmer, Age 46
What am I doing. Well. Do you want the methodical answer, or the existential one? I’ll confess, as a research physician, that I prefer the former. My cocktail-party rap about my research is that I am in the business of blocking microscopic traffic. You see, there are these proteins. Well (*chuckle*, sips drink), that’s pretty much all there are, actually. But the ones I’m interested in are the ones that block other proteins from rushing like repair teams to damaged DNA, lashing it back together before it collapses like a rickety ladder or a rope bridge across a chasm. If my interlocutor’s eyes haven’t glazed over by now, he or she might ask ‘well, why would you want to block something that fixes damage?’ I then can give him or her the lip-twitch ironic smile I’ve been perfecting since high school and say ‘well, what if that DNA codes for cancer cells?’ Depending on how late the party has gone, it can take from seconds to a full minute for this to sink in.
The War on Cancer. Dramatic, sexy, an heroic standoff with the forces of chaos. But cancer is really quite methodical, tedious even. It makes petty plans and carries them out pretty much the way people do: sophisticated but often fucked up communication, ill-advised liaisons, mixed messages, amassing of armies, sabotage, subterfuge, disguise.
All you really have to know is how to look really closely, for a really long time, at really small things, and be willing to do that over and over and over again.
I once thought I’d work with patients, but that was the existential end of the continuum and it turned out not to suit me: too many variables, or too few. I realized this very early on, my third year of med school, rounding through the psych unit where I met my wife. I saw it as a choice: I could try to slam the gate after the horse had escaped, talk patients down as I scrambled for a treatment, an explanation, a reason to fight, or I could climb into the stall myself, corner that fucking horse at the molecular level and take him out.
So let’s go with methodical: I’m emptying out a bag of things I found in Wyatt’s closet. In order of extraction, I find the following:
- child’s plastic princess crown, symmetrical placement of false gems in a blue, clear, pink, green, yellow progression, one (pink) missing
- small plastic sandals, colloquially termed ‘mules,’ pink, with a kitten heel and a vamp made of puffy pink and white synthetic feathers
- child-sized kimono-style robe, red synthetic satin, machine-embroidered floral details at hem, collar and sleeves
- iridescent, semi-translucent rainbow-hued scarf, fabric unknown
It is perhaps more challenging to identify and assess my reaction (mouth goes dry, heart rate quickens, mood darkens and edges toward anger: he has hidden them! he has deceived me! we had an agreement!), and it is unclear whether it would serve any useful purpose: it is familiar and chaotic at once; it is both fully aware and utterly bewildered. It explains everything and nothing at all.
None of this is new; he has had the scarf since he was 3, snatched from a bin at Goodwill while shopping with his mother. He enjoyed lying on his back and arranging it over his face so that the world bloomed into color as he looked up through it. He danced, flounced, squealed, *lisped*: behaviors I’d always understood as learned, acquired, socially and politically inflected, and have now been forced to attribute to…what? Where could he have learned this? Where acquired? At 3?
This is where my reaction gets chaotic, and hence not helpful, and I have borne this in mind when I have talked to Wyatt, who is old enough, at 5, to be talked to; old enough, at 5, to understand that there are things you do, and things you don’t do, depending on who you are. We don’t get to decide what we are any more than we get to decide whether or not to be born. It is not about *us.* We are all prisoners of our bodies: capricious, prone to failure, stubbornly insistent on being what they are. The sooner peace can be made with that, well, let’s just say I want to spare my son the exhausting and futile task of trying to make himself into whatever he wants to be.
It’s just not that simple.
These things are scripted, okay? DNA is an instruction manual: what you will become, how, when, everything but the why. We don’t get to write it. It writes us.
Trust me. I’m a doctor.
So I was methodical with Wyatt, a year ago, and it appeared to gain purchase: you are a boy, Wyatt; it is what you are. These things are what girls do, and I don’t want you to feel confused. We reached an agreement, I thought: together he and I gathered up the clothing, the toys, the Barbies with their tiny pointy shoes, the kitchen things, the toy vacuum cleaner (such oppressive roles!), the miniature cosmetics, all the girl stuff (Amy has poor boundaries with these things, more often than not simply buying him what he asks for rather than asking why or- and I don’t think she has this in her- simply saying no), and boxed them up for his new little cousin in Seattle, just born into her body, just beginning to sense the limits, the possibilities, the finite number of options.
And then his mother allowed him to be a Disney mermaid for Halloween, dismantling it all with one swoop. ‘There are things we just don’t understand, Ted,’ she said. ‘But we can understand what he wants.’
‘He doesn’t know what he wants!’ I shouted. ‘He made a deal with me, Amy. We had an agreement. We gave away the girl things. He was fine with it.’
‘Fine with it? Fine with it? Is that why he’s out back right now dancing around in a plastic seashell bra?’
‘You bought it for him!’
‘He wanted it!”
‘It’s going to Sophia. He and I tomorrow will put it in a box, and it is going in the mail to Sophia.’
Can we just have a few things that are clear and unambiguous? Can we just agree on that? And could one of them be my child’s gender? I’d be fine with a clear message. It doesn’t have to be the one I’d prefer; the clarity would be sufficient.
I was the only one who could comfort him, right from the beginning. He was born crying, howling in protest. Amy likes to say she felt him wailing before he’d even left her body, but Amy is like that: prone to hyperbole and excess, needing a steady hand. I sometimes wonder whether she loves that I saved her more than she loves me.
And of course there was the question of whether to have children at all. The nifty little salt that settles Amy’s brain-no one has ever been abled to explain why-has been linked to heart defects in infants; when she turned up pregnant with Riley, unplanned, we did a risk-benefit with her ob who, once he’d read her history, advised her to stay on it. We’ve kept an eye; Riley’s heart ticks as steadily and soundly as a Swiss watch.
Were we gambling when we opted for a second? I am not a gambler by nature, and Amy has learned caution the hard way. I think it was more that we carefully looked off the other way and let it sneak up on us. Can you plan to be surprised?
She’d call me in tears, Wyatt wailing in her arms, beg me to come home. I’d take him from her and he’d settle instantly, which only upset her more. We were spoiled by Riley. He was an easy baby, fooled us into thinking we knew what we were doing. I’d sit with Wyatt as he fought sleep, fix him on my lap and page with him through the color plates in my medical books, the stained microscopic images of cancer cells: the swirling shapes and brilliant colors, which I would explain in a sleepy, lulling murmur aren’t their actual colors
but rather a broad range of contrast media saturated with ultraviolet and infrared light: it defined them more clearly. It isn’t art, Wye, I’d murmur. It’s science. He’d stare, transfixed, lay his fingers on the glossy images, nod into sleep, eyes rolling back and his heavy head dropping against my chest.
I sit on the bed, lift a shoe, drop it, pick up the crown, perch it on my head, lift it off, drop it. The door opens and slams downstairs, a murmur of voices: Amy, Riley, Wyatt, back from some errand or other.
I have samples to culture, rows of test tubes in wire baskets (that’s not strictly true; I have techs and assistants for all that by now, but I prefer thinking that this is what I still do. The writing and grant-grubbing and lecture circuit and panel-sitting are wearing away at me. It’s not what I am good at).
Oh, Wyatt. Oh, Wye. I stand and bundle all of the stuff into my arms, lift and shake you open, bag, to jam it all back in, and find that I cannot do it, the way that on my honeymoon, two thirds of the way from the summit of Mt. Katahdin, clouded in so that I could see nothing but my feet below me, I could suddenly no longer walk, could suddenly no longer detach myself from the rock face behind me. I was nearly there. Nearly there.
‘Pick a snack, Wye, then nap,’ I hear Amy say. They’ll be heading up soon. We’ve talked about naps, that, at 5, he has surely outgrown them, but he insists, sinking into them like a fainting lady on a couch, as eagerly as he resists going to sleep at night. I stand there for a moment longer, drop you on the floor so that I can use both hands to place Wyatt’s
things on the bed, laying down the scarf first and arranging the crown, shoes, and kimono on top of it, a neat colored square, a contrast medium, everything carefully arranged. I step away, assess the symmetry, make a few adjustments, stand there a moment longer, then turn and leave the room.
That is what I am doing.
©Melinda Rooney, 2016