First, he describes hands:
1. The Left
Consisting of a middle finger, long and curved, and a thumb. The two stretch to form a crude parenthesis.
2. The Right
Three digits: a working thumb and two long, pincher-like fingers; resemble driftwood covered in flesh
Illustrated: the result of ectrodactyly, a genetic trait affecting the hands and feet, known by the colloquial term “lobster claws.” The acutely afflicted—for example, infamous sideshow performer and convicted murderer Grady Stiles, Jr.—may suffer from the foreshortening of legs to the point there is difficulty walking, forcing some to crawl on knees and elbows.
T’s legs are unscathed. Some have said normal, considering.
1. The Left
Toe, toe, toe, toe, toe.
2. The Right
Toe, toe, (blank), toe, (blank).
Though missing the middle and pinky toes, T ran track during high school. While running, he became his feet touching the ground, the lean around the curves. His adoptive father died crossing the street during a meet, T’s school against their rival two counties over. On the way home from his local bar, the driver of a lemon yellow Beetle neglected to flip on his headlights. T’s father, having had a few, wasn’t paying attention. He was tossed up like a rag doll, dead before he hit the ground.
His adoptive mother repeated that phrase as people passed by the casket, offering to each a slight variation of the story, the ending always the same: That’s on the official coroner’s report. Dead before he hit the ground. Like a rag doll. Very few of the mourners, even close family that came out of obligation to pay respects, chose to shake either of T’s hands.
She died two weeks later. Four Manhattans deep, she found herself with an urge to swim. He came home from a girlfriend’s the next morning to police cars and ambulances stationed around his front door, their lights silently flashing. As an officer delivered the news about fishing his mother out of the neighbor’s pool, T watched as the man kept breaking eye contact to look at T’s hands.
These, both sets of parents:
1. His Mothers
Former debutante, purveyor of anxieties, with button nose, sharpest tongue in the tri-state area; farmer’s daughter, sawdust for joints, cries when writing postcards, golden haired, from what he remembers.
2. His Fathers
Well-meaning, blank, always with the heavy pour.
He started his memoir when he turned 30. Picked it up again at 35 and again two years later. At 42, he’d restarted it longhand when he woke with a hangover the day after Christmas:
The story that got repeated at holiday dinners and parent-teacher conferences was that I was saved from the clutches of a top-hatted and mustachioed carny barker. Here’s what actually happened: My father, star attraction of a traveling geek show, gave me up on the way back to Gibsonton, FL one summer. My new parents, swooping in at the last moment as saviors, saw my originators as needy carnival provincials. As for saving a deformed infant with claws for hands from the lowest rung of the service industry? We can all agree that was too good of an act of highly visible charity to forego.
In their own way, his second set of parents had made life somewhat easier for him by dying. People spoke of his maturity, dealing with the estate, putting the house up for sale himself. Now he drank out in the open and people viewed the act with sympathy. A way to cope with the terrible loss of his family. And he did miss them, the way a drunk misses a drinking buddy who’s sobered up and moved on.
His mother made a list of ways to hide his hands: mittens, long sleeves past the fingertip, hands deep in pockets. There were several ways to get around people looking. She’d had a dozen pairs of gloves special made. He kept them all, never wearing any of them once.
People stare at difference for the same reason they flock to post-apocalyptic science fiction: They want something not like their own experience, but close enough to still be recognizable, maybe even a little thrilling. They search for relief from their own, never changing sameness, but in a way that doesn’t feel too alien. They also want something to make them feel better about themselves. T’s adoptive father told him this, both sitting with warm beers, the sun setting across the flat suburban yards that stretched to the horizon.
While T was a freshman in high school, a senior grabbed his left hand and started sparking his lighter. Other kids came to see what was going on and soon there was a crowd. They were entranced by his fingers, his hand splayed out under flame. He kept cool, knowing a freak out was what they all wanted. A teacher passed by just before the blisters started.
Deirdre still has her night-black hair, her round and high cheekbones, and eyes that tend to focus just beyond the body talking to her. He’d met her in college during his last semester, her third year, in a poetry seminar. She was an Irish exchange student, from Kilcormac. They didn’t have phones there. She told him she’d never dialed one in her life. They studied couplets. He was convinced she didn’t care about his hands; she’d even claimed not to have noticed them until the end of the fourth date, when he tried to unclasp her bra. He thought the lie was endearing.
It’s the question, isn’t it? How you live with something like this, something people stare at, like you’re a walking car crash.
Now, twenty-four years deep into their marriage and on vacation, while he sits in the woods in the dark watching her through the kitchen window doing the dishes in the yellow light, T remembers when they were at a particular coffee shop. He was still stuck in Grapes of Wrath at the part he’d never get past, where Noah Joad refuses to leave the Colorado River. She asked him something without context—they’d both been studying quietly—but he knew what she was saying the second she began. She had asked how in the world did he get through it?
T felt her leaning into him, and then the awkward awareness of his body, his hands, and wanted to give into her wanting to know more. She took his hand. “You know,” she said, “I won’t judge. I’m not trying to pry—you know you can tell me anything.”
He paused and told her when he felt the worst, the loneliest he’d ever felt, he would pretend his parents were at home, still sipping highballs, waiting for him to walk through the door. There would be one already made and waiting for him. It wasn’t entirely a lie.
In the woods, watching his wife clean up after their light dinner, he feels the familiar thirst for a drink and a desire for a cigarette. While they ate, he had told her again, “I’m going to do it. I’m going to finish the book while we’re here.”
Though isolated, their little getaway is in view of two other houses, all built by anarchist commune leader named Linda Robért, pronounced in the French fashion, in the early 60’s. One might not notice immediately, but before too long one begins to feel slightly off-center in this cabin. The bedrooms have just enough room for a bed and dresser, but the bath and kitchen are immense. The bathroom’s windows are positioned such to catch one sitting on the toilet from not one, but two sides. The position of the tub forces the bather to walk across the entirety of the room to reach the nearest towel rack, exposing one’s body to the open windows. The kitchen’s handmade cabinet doors are so heavy Deirdre leaves the groceries for T to put away. It was as if Robért sought refuge in these woods, but not comfort.
Deirdre finishes the last of the cleaning and leaves his view. Trees obscure the stars and the forest is so dark he’s had to walk with hands out, taking small steps and breathing very quietly (why he’s doing this he can’t say, but maybe it’s him trying to leave the silence unsullied, as if noise in such darkness was unbecoming). He’s found a clear space and is sitting not that far away from the house, but the familiar terrain recast in this unfamiliar darkness fools him into thinking he’s traveled to some unknown place where anonymity is the price one pays for freedom. He listens to the call of crickets and tree frogs in the night and remembers something his adoptive father had told him while drunk and slurring on the couch, that back when Indians and Whites lived in uneasy peace, borders were marked with mounds of earth, spaced apart by miles. No stations, no agents or guards. People could pass between two and never know they’d entered another country. Everything was the same to them, in their wagons or on their horses, everything grass and trees, and, for a long time, nobody knew any better.
While searching his pockets for a cigarette, he hears the steady sound of a body making its way through the brush. Whomever the sounds belong to is a few hundred feet away. The noise splits into stereo, the sounds of two bodies, the brush of feet on leaves and the occasional snap of twigs and slight branches. An unseen woman curses quietly and a shush volleys back from the opposing darkness. The sounds come from a hundred feet down the hillside from where T sits, likely at a point in the trail where a copse of large pines had been felled years before—the largest nearly three feet in diameter—the trunks sawed close to the roots. He then hears whispers, followed by a momentary silence, and then, a noise that sounds like soft clapping. After a few moments, he realizes he’s now listening to people fuck in the woods.
An afternoon later, he’s outside, the day warm and the air heavy with pollen. The woods surrounding the three houses are thick. White pines, hickory (shellback and hockernut) and, he thinks, a few platonic examples of the black willow—each with trunks like hydras’ necks. He and Deidre struck a deal: two cigarettes a day, one on Sundays, because of the Lord. He’s smoking, forgetting to enjoy it as he watching robins flit from branch to branch, when an SUV pulls into the driveway next door.
A quick rundown:
1. T’s Vices
A wanderer sated by nothing, waylaid by whatever delicious thing lies near.
2. T’s Virtues
Well-meaning, blank, always with the heavy pour.
He’d tracked down his birth parents when he turned thirty. In the summer of 1994, driving to Gibsonton, he practiced what he would say when he met them. He found the house, a small Levittown-style suburban box, but with a statue of a man with a smiling, genteel face holding his lobstered hands above his head, as if in victory, in the front lawn. A man in a wheelchair answered the door. He had T’s big and questioning eyes and receding jaw, edging slightly into the neck. The man’s hands were like his, exactly. His name was Edwyn Musgrove, and he was T’s father.
T’s real mother, Mabel, was normal handed and footed. A small, round woman, he saw he had her dark hair, blue eyes, and rubbery bottom lip. The first meeting, he and his father shook hands, pressing oblong palms together, fingered masses frozen, in a rapid up and down imitation of a handshake. Mabel took a picture. The living room was small, with pictures of Edwyn Musgrove in his red, skin-tight costume, THE AMAZING LOBSTERMAN in striking white letters across each one.
The first thing she asked was if T was healthy. He said yes. The next was if she had any grandbabies, and he said none that he knew of and she almost laughed.
T’s cashed in nearly all his accrued leave for this trip. He thinks he and Deidre have both come for the quiet. He for his book, she for whatever spirits the silence could beckon, or, more likely, to catch up on those pulpy political thrillers she buys used at garage sales. Not realizing he treated the solitude as a farmer would a plow, how utterly masculine to make everything into a tool, he busies himself over the next week. Progress is slow, but he is pleased with what he’s doing.
A week into their stay, Deidre interrupts him as he’s mid-recollecting his only night in Gibsonton. She asks if he remembers Hans and Greta, the German vacationers in the house closest to the service road at the mouth of the woods. Hans is a thin, feckless German, born in Stuttgart and schooled at Yale. In their brief encounters at the communal mailbox over the previous week, he told T three times about his grandfather’s service in the Luftwaffe during World War Two, his face always covered in a light perspiration though the weather was mild. T lies and says no.
“They seem nice. I’ve invited them over for dinner. Wayne and Charlotte, too.”
“Jesus Christ, do you ever pay attention?” She waits, sees his blank face, and says, “The Fosters. They’re in the other house. The one right next door, with the big picture windows that faces us.”
In the house Wayne and Charlotte (whoever they were) rent, Linda Robért had installed huge windows. It gave the house an appearance of being open-faced like an airplane hangar. While drinking, T has watched them from his second floor office when he’s not writing. He never knew their names.
“You, me, and some new people. Do you think you can handle that?” She leans in close. “For me?”
He agrees. Later, when she’s asleep and he takes off his shoes, Velcro straps because of his fingers, he feels the house has grown smaller, hotter, and decides to sleep on the couch.
Once, in Shreveport, he closed an account that would allow his company to rest easily in the black the rest of the fiscal year. The client had extended his hand without thinking. T took him up on it, going in slow, more to allow the client to bail before contact than to watch the man squirm. The man took T’s two fingers and shook them with a look of barely suppressed disgust.
Sales is about artful misdirection, but not quite lies. He can’t hide his hands, so he makes the best of them, pushes himself to make the target feel pity. With T, once a deal is done, no one in the room is free of shame.
T and Deidre have breakfast, and she circles around to Hans again over grapefruit and coffee. T eats with a big spoon; Deidre’s cut the wedges out for him.
“He’s a professor and a therapist, you know. And I’ve talked with him, and he’s agreed to…” She pauses. He knows this is when she’s searching for diplomacy. “An intervention of sorts.”
He takes a quick mental stock of his transgressions—the drinking (pretty much under control), the philandering (nearly there, but it’s tough because there is a certain kind of lady who just wants to add a lobsterman to her freak list), his sugar intake (fuck)—but nothing comes to mind that screams intervention.
“It’s the book,” she says. Unsure of what she means, he asks her to repeat it. “The book. The book you’re writing, about you and all your parents. And us. You’re obsessed, you push everything and everyone else away. When was the last time we talked about something that wasn’t your damned book? When was the last time we had a vacation that wasn’t expressly for you to waste writing? Or, more accurately, staring out the blessed window?”
He won’t think to write down the desperation in her voice or the way her eyes look just now. Instead he tries to fix in his mind the color of her t-shirt; the way the sun creeps up the hillside and shines, bleeding through the trees; and anything else meaningless so he can forget her anger, press it down, and write about something else. When she tells him how the therapy will take shape—she argues it will be more of a dinner party than a visit to the couple’s therapist—he balks.
“Hans is at the forefront of his field,” she says. Pausing, she adds, “That’s what he says anyway.”
T covers a laugh. She says, “It’s German, a German style of intervention. He said he’d invented it, called it something like the Neu Verbindung Ratgeber.”
Partly it’s the sound of Deirdre’s County Offaly-inflected German accent and partly T’s poor reaction, his panic really, in response to his wife’s laying these down at his feet over grapefruit and coffee, but he cannot stifle this laugh fast enough.
“Stop it,” she says. “Instead of tearing everything down, you need to stop, stop and listen to what I’m saying for one goddamned second before you—”
But what can T do now but acquiesce? He lets her finish her rant, feeling the whole weight of everything he’s ever done wrong slam down onto his shoulders—possibly a cliché, he thinks, like a punch to the gut? A ton of bricks? He will think of more artful phrasings later—and, tingling, he nods, says what a fine idea, this Avant-garde interventioning and once he cleans his dishes and goes upstairs to work, he settles down, cold feelings rippling through his heart, and reads the words he wrote last night after his wife had gone to bed:
I thought the most honorable thing would be to leave her alone—and if we’d had a child, doubly so—to disappear from the earth, allow everyone the privilege of growing older without me, of letting Deirdre off the hook. Instead of watching me find new ways to disappoint the world, I’d just sneak out, take a few drinks, and go the way of mom and dad, slip under the waves and out of the picture. This was the winter of 1978.
This evening, once she’s in bed, he will burn with anger, realizing what he’d done was the reason he was in this situation in the first place. Outright lies have their uses, but to be on the side of the unwitting is not his usual place. The night he stayed at his birth parents’ house, after dinner (chicken fried steak, gravy, corn, pintos) they all took a walk around the block, passing tigers in cages, elephants in pens. The smell of hay and animal dung in the late summer heat made him queasy.
“We hate that your bride isn’t here,” his mother said. Referring to Deirdre as his bride struck him as discomfiting and charming at the same time.
“She wishes she could have come.” He’d not told Deirdre he was coming here, instead making up a sales conference as cover. It wasn’t that he didn’t want her to meet his parents, but he needed to see what they were like first, to see where they fell on the freak-scale.
They passed the rest of the evening in small talk. No one was ready to breach the comfortable silence about the past. He left after breakfast the next day and never saw his father again. His mother would send postcards from their travels—they still worked the sideshows, though numbers, his mother said, were a quarter of what they used to pull before television got to be so popular.
Excerpts from the introduction of Hans Brandt’s Engaging an Active-Participatory Therapeutic Event: Toward a Deeper Individual Psychological Function through Group Inter-dynamics:
What sets this methodology apart is the focus not only on the subject’s dysfunction—the very reason for the therapeutic event—but to create a space where the subject’s own words, typically in the form of diaries or personal journals, are read by the participants. This serves several purposes. For one, the subject can actually hear the content of their thoughts without the unnecessary complications of their own emotions, their own voice. This also allows for the participants to hear the subject’s unvarnished thoughts about them, which allows for freer, more therapeutic dialogue.
To show the subject their own individualized “truth”—their localized impulses that allow quotidian function to occur—those truths, their written thoughts for which they assumed they were the sole audience member, can bend and flex, their meanings permeable, upon critique by the participants. It is only through the act of critical inquiry into the subject’s words that the subjects’ dysfunction can be situated, diagnosed, and then treated, all of which can be achieved through a properly administered active-participatory therapeutic event.
Banished outside to smoke, standing exactly where he heard the unknown lovers earlier in the week, T watches his guests walk to the house. He recognizes Greta, who’s carrying a dish covered in aluminum foil, Hans behind her, his face frozen in a semi-scowl. He looks haunted by something and has a habit of looking over his shoulder; his face looks like it expects a blow, his back a knife. Perhaps most Germans look that way. Greta offers a curt nod and smile instead of hello. Maybe they’re still fucked up, T thinks, not from the war, but from the idea of the war. He can’t blame them for that. Wayne and Charlotte, a middle-aged and squarely suburban Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, bring up the rear. They seem nice.
Like a cigarette before the execution, before the therapeutic event there is dinner. Deirdre is the perfect hostess. No drink reaches half-empty. Food comes in crushing waves, until everyone pushes away their plates. Wayne and Charlotte look and act purposefully blank, as if they’re both holding back a bombshell that will create their personas where God failed. Greta’s covered dish turns out to be, strangely for a German, a casserole made with rice and chunks of ham.
Hans eats without comment. He and his wife do not seem to know the other is there. Greta gets up and goes to the kitchen for what, T doesn’t catch. He excuses himself with the intention of following her. He’s two glasses of wine too deep and pushes past her, meaning to make as much contact with her body as he can as he slides by the narrow kitchen. He briefly places a hand on her hip as he passes. He stops at the hallway bathroom just past the kitchen, and waits.
He can feel the perspiration on his upper lip. It is hot under his arms, and in the air he’s breathing. But this isn’t hell, not yet. He thinks hell is not a place with fire, but a place of infinite cold, like the earth underneath parking lots. Ergo, this cannot be hell, but is something else. Purgatory, maybe. Limbo.
They’re both out of sight of the dinner party. He pauses at the bathroom door, and he looks up. They make eye contact.
He can’t read Greta’s face, and she says nothing. She looks down and quietly follows him into the bathroom. It’s a half-bath, decorated in white tile like a subway station, with Deidre’s guest towels embroidered with purple roses. He helps her up onto the lip of the sink and pulls up her dress, revealing her plain white cotton panties. They’re reassuring to him, but he can’t quite place why. Deirdre has left their cd player on repeat, and the same sonata—Schubert? Handel? T could never keep his classical composers straight—plays again. In the bathroom, he and Greta can hear the conversation in the dining room a few feet away, Wayne’s laugh that ends with a coughing fit, the clatter of utensils on plates, and he prays that everyone keeps up their chatter to cover the sounds of their heavy breathing and Greta’s occasional gasp of what he thinks might be surprise.
When they’re finished, he avoids looking directly at her, instead focusing on her clavicle, which is pronounced, a deep and stark recess in an otherwise flawless neck. She leaves. He senses he’s lost a battle he didn’t realize he was fighting and waits a full five minutes until Deirdre knocks, asking if everything’s okay.
Hans gathers everyone into the living room. Deirdre has followed his instructions: The only light is from candles, enough comfortable seating for the participants (Hans calls everyone except T a participant; T is referred to only as the subject), and T’s spot, a hard and wooden elementary school-style chair he’s never seen before, sits in the middle. Like he did with his army men and teddy bears as a child, T senses a connection with this inanimate object, as if they are partners in the coming ordeal. There will be soft music in the background, a Boulez piece set to guitar, which will be turned off after the first hour. “It’s a good way to put everyone at ease,” Hans told Deirdre as they planned this night over the phone, “because we can’t have anyone feeling anxious. That wouldn’t do.”
The room is hot from the candles and bodies. What flits through T’s mind before his wife begins to shame him:
- She would never say she loved a part of him, as it would (they both tacitly realized) underline the parts of him that were different, i.e.
- They sat watching television, as usual; this was the last time she said she loved him, during a commercial break for fruit snacks, leaning in close, her breath sighing against his ear.
- His mother sent postcards he would hide from his family, to make sure his life remained as uncomplicated as possible.
Hans points to Deirdre, who’s lost the hostess persona and now is one of a group in a living room in a house in the middle of the country. And she steps forward, spotlight, cue music, the show begins.
1. The Left
Slight tremor; you should have seen this coming from a mile away.
2. The Right
Clamped down on knee (same side), resembling a resting, alien starfish.
And it’s not that he cheated, though he did. It is not that he drank after he promised to stop, though he did. It’s not that he said he’d be, in general, a better husband, which he never quite followed through with. It’s not even the poor souls with ectrodactyly he’s hounded all across the country that he’s promised to leave alone (research research), though everyone thinks he should. It’s not the cigarettes, the hiding of liquor, the posing in photographs with nasty tourists for money. It’s none of that.
It’s that he’s lost himself trying to find out who he is, says Deirdre. He’s so hell-bent on finding the particulars of his past—the photos on his parents wall (The Greatest Show on Earth poster; his father’s face, painted up like a lobster on rough slats of pine board, a cross stitch barn that begged the viewer to bless this mess), the temperature and humidity of the night she’d agreed to marry him (he’d checked: thunderstorms had brewed over the coastal region, throwing hot, confused wind their way inland)—that he’s a shotgun blast of a person, all different directions, a thousand miles per second, blowing through anything that stands between him and the horizon. She wasn’t wrong.
But the event begins, fast, dizzying, the participants forced to read T’s words quickly off of their prepared slips of paper. Begin with Wayne.
“I remember telling Deidre about my adoptive parents, how they died so closely. I don’t remember telling her that grief is a spectrum, and it ranges from blessing to relief to a gaping wound you’re sure will never heal. But that might just be me.”
“I remember once, coming home when it hadn’t snowed yet. It was too cold to snow, highs barely in the double digits. I went to the liquor store, bought a nice bottle of vodka, the expensive Scandinavian shit,”—her face reddens here, and T finds it charming—“spending everything left in my pockets, and went for a drive. The highways at night were ghostlike. I just drove and drove, swigging from the bottle, feeling my plan was a good one, that I was a good guy. It was so late that I saw deer exploring the empty exits. My lights turned on them and they didn’t flinch, just stared at me.”
“Well, now out of context—”
“Quiet! You!” Hans points to Charlotte, who is chewing a fingernail. “Keep it going.”
Looks around the room, pausing on T, before speaking. “The car idling, I remember getting out—by this time I was pretty fucked up—and leaned against the open car door. I could see their breath in the cold. There were five or six of them, all does except two little ones. They walked across the pavement like it was theirs, as if humankind had some agreement to hand over the parts of the world we weren’t using at night to deer.
I’m stopped on this exit to a country road forty miles from home watching deer. It was so late it was becoming early. The deer and I watched each other for a while, until the approaching cop scared them. Did I mention I had a gun? That I’d felt the taste of it in my mouth? I called Deidre from the drunk tank the next afternoon, and her voice was heavy with what I thought was disappointment, but what she called worry. I told her I stopped drinking as part of my plea. Whenever I drive late at night, alone or with her sleeping in the passenger seat, I see those deer, their eyes shining in the headlights, banded together and ready to make a break for it as one.”
Raises his hands as if surrendering. He has the room’s attention. A slight hum cuts through the air, like electricity dancing from person to person. “Let’s break there. That was excellent, everyone. Very good. Thank you. Now this is the point in the exercise where the subject speaks. Begin.”
T fidgets. He taps his long fingers and avoids the eyes of everyone in the room and says, after what feels like too long, “I want to say, I think, is that I’m sorry? I want to make it better, I’m talking to you Deirdre that I know I’ve fucked up and am sorry, but this is ridic—”
“Enough,” interrupts T, points at Deirdre, “You, you read the next.”
Deirdre drains her glass of wine and begins reading what T remembers as a botched attempt at forgiving himself for who he’d become. “I went to school—a very good school—and learned to make enough money to be seen as a provider. Met a young woman, one who didn’t judge me for my reserve and didn’t press me to explore my feelings about my parents, either pair.” She coughs, face red from either the drink or the embarrassment, though T can’t be sure. “This young woman agreed to marry me, something I never thought would happen.”
Greta crosses her legs and leans back on the couch. She acts as if she’s listening to an elderly relative recount a particularly memorable grocery list from the old country. T’s felt self-loathing before, but never to the degree that hits him now, watching this woman look at his wife like she’s the idiot.
“Are you bored?” he asks her. “I do some pretty fucking amazing shadow puppets if you’d rather watch those.” He catches Charlotte staring at his fingers. “You know, just what the fuck is this trying to accomplish?”
“I’ve told you once already to be quiet,” Hans says. His stern tone is playacting, and the room can sense it. Wayne looses a small belch, Charlotte titters. As a child, T was told by a school counselor to take the word “hand” and make it his own, so he would not feel shame from what they called his deformity. The counselor was heavyset, he remembers, and had red, rosy cheeks, like a ragdoll. He thinks of “hand” words and says them to himself: Offhand, handmade, handoff, handyman. He wrote so much this short trip, even with all the interruptions. But who’s to say that he didn’t spend all last night writing new material for this evening? Handshake, handle, handjob, underhanded. So the thing is within that pile of paper—what Deirdre thought was his manuscript—are new additions. Fresh material for the gang to hear.
“Okay,” T says. “I’ll be good.”
Hans laughs, clearly enjoying his sudden return to control. He allows himself a satisfied smile.
She said/he said:
1. Just Stop
It’s not too late.
2. I Give Up.
“Well then,” he says to T, “It’s your turn! Yes, you! Now you share something from this unbound book of your life.” Hans offers him a dozen sheaves of paper; T pulls one out from his inside jacket pocket, one he’s been writing all night. He clears his throat and reads to the room. “Hello, everyone. We’re sitting in the cabin now. Everyone is here, and I hope they’re comfortable, full of good food, and not too unhappy with this awkward situation my wife and I have created. My apologies for fucking one of the guests at dinner, but it was defensible, I think. An act of retaliation.”
Deirdre snaps the paper from him and reads it. “You fucker,” she says, her eyes still focused on the page “This isn’t a joke.” Hans allows this outburst. She reads silently for a moment, then out loud. “I’ve heard it now at least half a dozen times. I hope for the actors it’s not lost any of its novelty—it certainly hasn’t for me—but the meetings take place roughly the same time. The moon here is obscured by the tall pines, an unexpected benefit for surreptitious philandering, and after a few times I began to insert myself into their act, taking on the role of one of the blank dark figures. I imagined the leaves and twigs and how they felt against my bare skin. I thought about the breath of the other person—it’s definitely a man and woman, and I can tell by the breathing, the occasional soft cry. That’s the woman. The man crashes through the brush, just like all men do everywhere, but he’s taciturn, just like all men are everywhere. What about the wife and husband of these two? How foolish they are, watching television or reading in this vacation spot, their spouse fucking in the dark like some animal.”
Hans looks to his left and watches as Charlotte begins to piece things together. Deirdre’s voice goes flat, like she’s gone somewhere else and been reduced to a recording, she keeps going. T knows this is the last bit, a hurriedly sketched scene he hasn’t quite thought out. Not the ending he envisioned. “I still go out to smoke,” she reads. “Deirdre won’t let me light up in the house anymore. Hurts the resale value. But that’s fine. There’s a dirty bottle of Jack, the label long since peeled off in the weather, that keeps me company. I count ten trees from the door, northward, and twenty-two trees in a line to the west. Under the rock, there’s my Jack.”
He regrets the sound of his wife saying these words and sees an image of her on the other side of an unknown field, green and mythical. He places her in her Ireland, though they only went once for her mother’s funeral and he doesn’t remember much—they drink more than he ever could. Perhaps during their trip they visited the coast, maybe that why she’s near the water, back turned to him. The spray of ocean on rocks, the misting air, salted and stinging. His memory can’t be a story—stories aren’t special if the world is full of them—but it’s got the bones and skin of a story; a beginning, middle, and end all the same.
And, he knows, the tragedy of his life, and so of his book, is not that his is a story that’s bound to end sadly, it’s that his is a story stuck in the middle of an ending.
“Deidre,” Hans says. “This is the somewhat unusual, but now you’re a subject, too. He’s pulled you in and you’ve let him. You crossed over.” She nods and he continues. “I ask all the subjects this question at the end of the therapeutic event, but I see no reason to wait, given the circumstances. Would you do it again, this life with your husband, with everything you now know?”
Everyone in the room hungers for her answer, the final act, the feeling of all the bodies, T included, leaning in to hear. They’ll talk it over later in the year, at Christmas, with a pair of lawyers in the room. Deirdre will detail how she accidentally orchestrated overlapping, antithetical scenarios: her lover’s vacation with that of Dr. Hans and his Neue Therapeutik, that she thought it she’d planned things for different weekends, but, when everything started to hit at once, she gave in. “I felt like I’d given up trying not to drown,” she’ll tell T in the lawyered room, and she’ll weep and he’ll sit there, too far gone to care.
“Never mind that,” T says. “Was it you in the woods? And which of these two prizes was it?”
There is a long silence, a silence, the room agrees, that works as a tacit admission of guilt. Charlotte begins to weep. Poor little dolly, she never knew. Wayne moves away from her, towards T.
“Was it you?” T asks Deidre again, though now it’s clear. Wayne cuffs him on the chin, knocking him out of his wooden school chair. It doesn’t hurt, not really, and Wayne already is backing out of the room, everyone but Deidre staring in horror. T wonders if Wayne, big dumb Wayne with his jaw that sticks out and his hair that’s probably not real, is thinking of an explanation or an apology, but the light dims a little for T with that punch—or not, perhaps it’s that everyone’s had a little too much to drink—and all T can see is Deirdre, her body now reimagined and redefined by somebody else, and she becomes new to him, as if transported back to their early life together: the series of tiny apartments with hissing radiators and howling dogs in the alleyways, when they’d refuse to leave each other or their warm bed on cold Saturdays, even when they both had work.
Deirdre gets up and walks past Hans and Greta, past the sobbing, cuckqueaned Charlotte, and when she gets close to him he reaches out. “Wait, just wait,” T says, sitting up and gripping her forearm, just above the wrist. Deirdre looks hard at his face, then his hand, and turns into one of them, the lookers, the ones that can never tear their eyes away. They don’t even try. T knows if he ever found the words to describe this scene, they wouldn’t capture it. He could never make clear the hot, weighted air of the room; his heart beating in his ears; the pain in his knees from kneeling on the hard wooden floor. His ending is still not here. But not just his, it’s all their stories just out of his reach, and he pleads without breathing, before she walks out of the room, for someone to please, oh please, won’t someone finish this.