1. You Pick
“Soupe de poisson? Terrine de torchon?” she says to her dinner date, pointing at the two least expensive plates.
“You pick and I’ll get the other thing,” the date says.
“Why do I need to pick?”
“So I know what to say if he looks at me.”
“Why don’t you pick if he looks at you first, and I’ll pick if he looks first at me?”
“So then, he’ll pick?”
If he is nice, it’s comfortable. If he is not nice, it’s uncomfortable, and if he is too nice, it’s more uncomfortable than if he is not nice. If he is slightly too nice, it does not quite cross the line into discomfort, unless the other party is either not nice or also too nice. If the other party is also too nice there comes an awkwardness during which neither party is sure how to retreat into simple, uncomplicated niceties in order to have an “out” in which they may retrieve their own entertainment from the seat-back pockets in front of them. If the second party is not nice, the tonal chasm is quickly spotted by both parties, and the not-nice party feels apologetic (a faint thing that goes unsaid).
If both parties are nice for too long, a concern will develop about what is the appropriate next step. Should the niceties remain on a cordial level, the conversation will soon cease to interest either party, even if neither possesses better reading material than the printed card depicting the emergency exit plan. Should the niceties escalate into friendliness, however, new concerns will develop over each party’s true depth of interest.
If neither party is nice or if both parties are meticulously neutral, it is pretty comfortable, unless either party actually harbors a secret wish to be nice.
The film is having an immediate effect on her outlook. The movie characters were so numerous and yet distinct, each with their struggles. Each a hero, each an antihero too.
As she waits in the long, winding line for the toilet afterward she feels camaraderie with her fellow line-dwellers. When women walk out of the stalls, she wants to acknowledge that she cares about them all, so she gives them big eyes and a smile and a little nod as they pass. She supposes they are all newly excited about strangers, too.
As a child, he spent his hours in study hall staring up at the pocked ceiling tiles, understanding that the pattern of the marks was both regulated and random. A regular mechanism had been employed to get the marks onto the tiles, but in comparing them to each other he saw that the patterns were distinct from tile to tile, and the differences that made them unique were quite subtle. And yet, had his view of the tiles been a few feet further out, they would have appeared identical. How was it done?
He came to understand that many things worked this way. Freckles were like this! One girl’s freckled arms were like no other girl’s freckled arms, if you paid close attention to detail, and yet they could all be called the same thing: freckled arms. Bricks were like this, too. Each brick had its own pattern up close but the bricks were interchangeable and uniform from afar. Throughout college and medical school, it comforted him to find that germs, viruses, and cells operated within this framework—there was always a calculable distance at which a specific example of something appeared identical to all other versions of that thing. Even mutations, their very nature being a break from pattern, formed patterns, if you stepped back to view large populations over a great span of time.
While looking at celestial photography on his computer, he is struck with an intense awe. The awe is shadowed by a sense that all his behaviors and even his awe fall into a greater patternwork, an idea equally belittling and comforting to his mind. He is conjuring up images on a small electronic screen, much like the children in the next apartment over and the lady down the hall and most of the people in the lit apartments across the boulevard, whom he sees out his window.
The Gentle Living article he has encountered at the podiatrist’s office instructs him to add a little bit of neon to the decor of his staid home. Guidance is offered: images of classically furnished beige and white rooms made piquant with gestures in chartreuse, hot pink, and aqua.
He has never had what could be defined as interest in neon colors before, not even in the 1980s, when the colors were worn far and wide and their prevalence seemed less a fashion trend than an embrace of advancement itself—frontiersmanship. He’d found the colors strange and offensive, like alien droppings, or candy for the ten and under set.
And yet, these photographs are appealing. Everything in the rooms appears new and of-the-moment, even the most common features. He feels he is capable, with some effort and expense, of replicating the living room at home. His apartment has a window just like the one in the example setting. Some of the shopping information is printed there beside the picture. He has some extra money. He could locate similar chairs and similar throw pillows and set a lacquered credenza in the hallway just like the magazine’s style guru had.
He tears the picture out and takes it with him. After his appointment he drives to the upscale suburban mall, buying a bookcase, a sofa slipcover, a throw blanket and pillows, pretty candlesticks, two electric orange side chairs, and a credenza. Not everything can fit in his car, so he arranges for some items to be delivered.
Within the week he has replicated the picture almost down to the last detail, but it doesn’t look right. The white of his walls is different than the white in the photograph, and he supposes the lighting in his apartment is also subpar. He writes a message to the editor.
Dear Ms. Janet Gaines,
I’ve set out to replicate a look I found in your magazine. The look is found on pages 47 and 48 of the June issue of Gentle Living, in the feature “Add a Little Bit of Neon.” I have purchased the bookcase, the sofa slipcover, the blanket and pillows, the candlesticks, the credenza, and the very same electric orange chairs you featured. My apartment’s new look is unsatisfying to me. Can you please tell me what pain color the walls are and what type of lighting exists in the room, or if there are any other tricks you pulled to achieve the look?
Gratefully, Jim Poulsen
While waiting for a response, he notices that entering the newly refurbished room from his bedroom is a shock; the decor in the living room is au courant, but the decor in his bedroom reeks of yesteryear. No research led his decisions in choosing the furniture for that room. He knows what he needs to do.
He returns to the podiatrist’s office to search for the June issue of Gentle Living . It’s there, buried deep in the basket of magazines, and it has seen a lot of thumb traffic. The whole article about the neon colors is now missing. He looks around at the other patients in the waiting room, but none of them look especially guilty.
He drives to a grocery store to peruse the magazine rack, but they don’t carry the publication. He drives to a bookstore, but they have only the newest issue, which is July. He drives to the library to search the back issues, and , on the way, while stopped in traffic, a woman walks beside his car wearing a soft, sherbet-colored dress that ripples magnificently in the wind. Seeing it cools his mood. For a few seconds, she is so close to him that if he reached out his car window he could shove his hand into the passing fabric.
Children stand in the sidewalk when she is coming home from work. They stand in a way she considers confrontational, especially when she is carrying a load of groceries.
What did she think of adults when she was a child, those large, hairy people moping around, the strangers? They were undifferentiated, like trees in a forest. They made up an atmosphere that mattered to the functionality of things in general, but the details of that functionality were not worth knowing.
7. Two Sons
She looks at another woman’s son on television and shakes her head. Her son and the other woman’s son are the same age. The similarities continue: the haircut, the slight gap between the front teeth, the athletic build. The son on the screen, the defendant, has an expression she recognizes from some of the more challenging interactions she’s had with her boy. It is the look of emptiness.
When she was the age of the two sons, she was married with a child on the way, her college degree framed on a wall of the home they owned. Their photographs and memories are faded, but she knows her husband hadn’t looked as boyish then as the two sons do now. A bad air surrounds today’s young people, she thinks. It is almost a sickness. Violent people are leaping out of the shadows thrown upon the world by stable, noble entities.
Don’t be a weak person, she imagines telling her son with some conviction. Lead. Dedicate yourself to something. Take chances.
And he will look up, confused, from his adventure game. Was I supposed to learn bravery from you? he will ask, fiddling with the controls.