One year earlier they had been rushing toward a break. She had gone so far as to complicate things by hiring a lawyer. But things had calmed and the last three months had been focused on what was to come. They headed out that morning intoxicated with the sense that their lives might have somehow uncomplicated themselves and would now roll out seamlessly till old age like a long padded carpet, cushioning every step; both desirous of what had been promised—a promise that seemed like a windfall after so much difficulty, and offered, after so much time grasping for the next thing, an end in itself.
They had not felt that way since those early vaporous days when everything had remained unexamined, before they had contemplated things like data points, parallel processes, points of sale, and corporate projects represented as buckets or silos. But this morning’s meeting with the counselor had introduced a new complication, a complication which now appeared like a ghost planet next to the suddenly reappearing Jupiter-sized orb that had been their failing marriage and threatened to be again.
Both had taken the day off so that they could go to their appointment with the counselor, an appointment which coincided with the results of several tests she had taken the week before, the potential repercussions of which had been left unexplained. After the appointment they had planned to go back to their neighborhood and have brunch at a café a block or so down from their apartment—that type of cosmopolitan brunch which seems only fitting after all the complexities have been worked out, and the deck cleared.
The couple gamboled across the street to reach the hospital office building. They were both dressed casually; she in jeans, paper-light running shoes, and a tight-fitting long-sleeve T-shirt; he in black workout pants and royal blue zip-up athletic jacket he had bought for cold-weather runs. As she walked, her long hair popped on her shoulders; his, receding, stayed put.
To their left, unnoticed, a small shuttle bus—its occupants protected only by nominal, shuddering, wind-breaking panels—was picking up employees to take them up the street to the hospital’s other campus. Across one side of the road, the dense, small-leaved trees that lined the median created lacy shadow patterns on the road. And as the cars passed under the trees the shadows jumped to make quick and bobbing art on the tops of each.
As the couple reached the sidewalk in front of the hospital office building they reached a minor obstacle, a blockage between the beige stone wall of the office building and the street. There, a prematurely aging and spindly woman was attempting to maneuver a man in a wheelchair over a particularly long, raised, cracked seam in the sidewalk, caused, upon quick inspection, by an overgrown tree root that had erupted through the concrete. The man in the wheelchair had been genetically unlucky. His muscles sagged and frowned down around his bones. His right leg tremored rapidly as if on an overdose of caffeine, and his mouth was stretched open in a silent searching scream—like a deserted soldier signaling to rescuers that would never come. The woman, pushing, wore a deep bone-weariness that looked curable only by a good long coma, or death. She had managed to get the front wheels over the lip of the crack through a sort of wheelie move and was now attempting to lift the bigger back wheels separately. Each time she managed to get one wheel over, the other would slide and slip down and she’d have to start over again. Seeing this might take awhile, the couple took the long way around.
They shared some things in common. Both were traditional liberals; wanted, someday, to be vegetarians; wanted to try to go to bed earlier and to spend less time on their phones; and agreed that TV shows were much better than they used to be. They liked to speculate on how much their condo had appreciated in the three years since they’d bought it, what they might ask if they put it on the market, and how much they would have for a down payment on their next house, a house they hoped would have a backyard with a garden and a set of chickens that would lay fresh eggs daily—some they would use for themselves and some they could give away to their friends and neighbors. Beyond that they somewhat differed.
The entries on her resume starting from the bottom looked like a steep staircase ascending towards a high mountain peak—each step a project completed and a goal met—a resume that would, no doubt, culminate in a title like CEO or Executive Director. She viewed life as a grid with each hour represented as a rectangular box that it was her responsibility to fill. And she did so assiduously because she had the sense that the consequences of leaving anything blank might be disastrous. It was a duty she could never quite escape, even on that breezy Friday morning that began with so much promise, and would end, after a brief interlude with a counselor, with a salty brunch.
Counting backwards from the time she would like to fall asleep, she had about twelve hours. Assuming the appointment would last thirty minutes, and brunch would last about an hour, she would have ten and a half hours left, an anomaly in her schedule to which she had been looking forward since Monday. Today’s list included doing three loads of laundry, responding to at least twelve important work emails, compiling tax documents for their accountant, buying plane tickets for her sister’s wedding, choosing a bridesmaid’s dress from the options her sister had chosen, picking up for the housekeeper who was coming the next morning, creating a menu for the week, making a grocery list based on the menu, and doing the grocery shopping at a store that sold 500 varieties of cheese when she really only needed one. She created a sub-list of snacks she intended to eat between meals, because she found that if she didn’t eat something every 1.5 hours, her focus would often flag slightly. And if she missed an entire meal, well, she may just abandon her lists completely, barricade herself in her office and wait for aid.
She accomplished the items on her list completely and precisely, often approaching each item as if there was only one right way do it if it was to be done most effectively—a categorical imperative approach to list completion. But she didn’t think about categorical imperatives. Whether she completed lists categorically was neither here nor there; indeed she had never heard about categorical imperatives, and if she had she would have dismissed them. She not only had personal lists of course, but professional ones, which she stalked and brought down like a wolverine might a fawn. She did it all out of love, unadulterated love, of her family, her friends, her colleagues, because she wanted things to be good, and if good, better, and also because she was born with a compulsion to make people understand that she loved them. She formed a perimeter around them to prevent strays, distributing goodness and willing success, and therefore, she hoped, happiness. She maintained a sturdy impenetrable rhythm, guarded it from plunderers and freeloaders, and vouchsafed it, by benevolent force, to her chosen recipients, modulating them, like a human metronome. The only time she wasn’t thinking about lists, and things undone, was when she was watching shows about vampires or zombies, which was how she relaxed.
He didn’t keep lists. And if he did it was only temporarily and only at the insistence of his wife. His brain, like a misty, unmeasurable, unremitting fog, tended to wander. It was a disability of his, this wandering and dawdling—like his brain was perpetually puttering around some curiosity shop, fingering the bric-a-brac. And he thought about many things, all kinds of things, always incidental to the sturdy reality that seemed to be always interrupting him.
Recently, he had been thinking about innocence, goodness, purity; the brief innocence of people; the fleeting goodness of their thought; the purity of their first-emerging ideas. Ideas that start to tank as soon as they pass through the cerebral membrane, like a new car that loses a third of its value as soon as it’s driven off the lot. Beautiful concepts made steadily uglier, sullied and corrupted by an inexorable accretion of interests and innovations and abstractions. Good things turned crass through analysis; simple things perpetually polluted by the addition of complexity. Complexes. He had been seeing these complexes everywhere, all looking at him askance, with sharp, severe eyes, like they could pounce at any time, murder him as he slept. Everything, he noticed, if you looked hard enough, was part of this or that complex, and the more he thought about them, the more uneasy he was. He had noticed this concept appearing more and more in smaller, less obvious categories like religion, holidays, airline travel, pet gear, news gathering, grocery shopping, patriotism, public education, parenting, and matrimony. He recalled just now for instance, that when he got married five years before, there were entire companies zealously devoted to making groomsman’s gifts, things like cheap stainless-steel monogrammed flasks for $39.99 or gold cuff links; outfits that sell bridesmaid dresses designed for one-time wear only; websites focused on save-the-date refrigerator magnets. And there were people who charged a $250 cake-cutting fee and companies committed passionately to chocolate-covered strawberries. Just last week he had gone to a “convention” where uncounted companies set up endless tables to sell more and more baby equipment. Things like humidifiers in the shape of elephants where the vapor traveled out through the trunk, crib mattresses stuffed with coconut husks that had been soaked and softened in natural latex, motorized nasal aspirators, sleep consultations, and free-trade, organic cotton, handsewn slings for mothers who wished to haul their babies around like nomad girls on their way to the next hunting ground, which was the best and only proper way to haul babies. The other ways were incorrect. And if they were to do it correctly they must have one of these slings, handsewn. He also sat through demonstrations for three different cloth diaper systems—systems.
After September 11, he observed a growing manufacture of patriotic songs that sold in the millions, the proliferation of national security experts, the invention of color-coded threat levels, news always breaking, an increasing variety of lapel flag pins, which if left unworn were a sign of Benedict Arnold-level traitordom, and that were swelling to sizes not seen since the earliest days of the republic. New jargons were selling like gangbusters and everybody was getting in on the action.
“Senator, if this insurgency continues to grow, would you support putting additional boots on the ground.”
“Boots on the ground? Well Chuck I don’t want to deal with hypotheticals, but I wouldn’t take anything off the table.”
“Does that include putting more boots on the ground?”
“Yes Chuck, that may include putting more boots on the ground.”
“Senator, this issue of putting boots on the ground, has become a bit of a political football, has it not?”
“Well, I don’t know if it’s become a political football, perhaps a third-rail issue, but Chuck, I don’t think we should politicize it.”
“So, just to reiterate Senator, you are not opposed to putting boots on the ground?”
“Chuck, if our military personnel recommend more boots on the ground, yes, I would vote to authorize putting additional boots on the ground.”
“Are you willing to double down on that?”
“Yes, Chuck, if it means safeguarding our American troops, I would be willing to double down on putting more boots on the ground.”
“Thank you, Senator.”
“Thank you, Chuck.”
He felt alienated by all this and imagined himself scurrying about the streets, harried and frantic with deep lines of anxiety and conviction drawn on his face, confronting everyone who would listen about these complexes and how they were threatening our moral foundations. He wanted people to care because he believed all people had dignity, and because they had dignity they should not be manipulated like automatons. Moral acts, he believed, began and ended with a duty to do the right thing, the consequences of which were incidental. But, he figured, no one really seemed to care about complexes or dignity, and that scurrying about providing information about them might make him look silly. So he just thought about them, waiting for the day when people might care. Then he thought about free will, and the evidence that we have none, and how if we didn’t we might all just as well kill ourselves. He remained, forever, unfocused.
These differences between the two, these disparate avenues of entry sometimes left each with a stinging aloneness, even when they sometimes could rally the energy to hold hands.
She did not think about complexes, or free will—and whenever he brought it up, this free will nonsense, she dismissed it, noting that of course we have free will and that if we didn’t she didn’t want to know anything about it. She thought about the ways her husband could help her out with these lists and how he wasn’t because he was too distracted thinking about nonsense like free will and complexes. And when she wasn’t thinking about that she often thought about the resentment she felt that he was not helping her but wasting his time thinking about nonsense, and that maybe she would be happier if she had a husband who shared her desire for list completion and getting things done and didn’t think about nonsense—like free will and complexes.
So, with the taste of bacon and pancakes already gathering on their tongues, they waited in the lobby of the counselor’s office, and when they were called, seated themselves on the foam and leatherette chairs and crossed their legs.
The counselor faced them in her own chair—her back to the desk, her hands cupping and pulling back on her knee awkwardly as if imitating some pre-run stretch. Her face was fleshy, the counselor’s, and she had a cherubically round head that supported an artless cropped hair cut that looked close to giving up. She was maternal, which masked her youth. In her black pantsuit, stretched at her butt and her thighs, and a dowdy cream-colored blouse that hid underachieving breasts, she looked exactly like someone who reminds you of someone else, a benevolent someone else who, if she didn’t have anything nice to say, didn’t say it at all—the perfect delivery system for bad news.
But, as the couple settled into their seats, the counselor paused, in an apparent effort to delay, looking at the ground just beyond the toes of her chunky canvas wedges, worn at the toes from overuse, and rather than shifting the papers on her desk, straightening her pens, or rearranging her pictures, all of which were behind her, she just blinked hard, three, four, five times, as if trying to blink away the grime on her contacts or the sweat after a vigorous workout. This was her first time. The self-assuredness she had built up the previous night after seeing the results had been illusory. Figuring that she might as well as just get to it, she bent forward at the waist and in a voice two ticks above a whisper—and in some parody of a parental tone that seemed ill-suited to the delivering of bad news to adults, but which, she realized, was the only tone then accessible to her, she started. She used words and phrases like “not responsible” and “support” and “advocate” and “risk” and “abnormality” and “no treatment” and “religious beliefs” and “decision-making framework” and “choice” and “emotional” and finally, “neither right or wrong.” She let them have it, along with an inscrutable printout of numbers and probabilities. And that was that.
“How long do we have?” the woman said.
“About two weeks. After that things will get more complicated.”
At that, the counselor sat up, shuffled the two steps to her office door like she was trying to hold off a back spasm, and gave them both a look as if to say: “time’s up.”
As the light wind from the opened door floated stiffly by, the couple, shaking off the g-force-like pressure that had pinned them to their seats, extracted themselves from the sponge-suck of the chairs and thanked themselves out of the office.
Now, just outside the door the couple came to an incongruous, comical stop, their backs just inches from the closed door—much closer than is considered the norm after an office exit—and held back the urge to turn around, open the door and exclaim: “wait, what was that?” Instead, the couple began their way to the exit.
As they retreated through the automatic sliding doors of the hospital office building and onto the sidewalk facing Geary Street, there appeared to them now to be a slight pixilation in every rapid movement, the sensation that the tint, at the margins, had ticked up towards a jaundiced yellow, and that each scene had been panned and scanned from an airy expanse into a claustrophobic dream. They had the sensation that they had stepped firmly onto another planet, and that there would be no return trip.
On a hunch, they turned left towards a “Public Parking” sign, judging by the name that it was a likely place for cars to be parked, and that perhaps, if they were right, their car would be parked there too. They shuffled into the shabby, low-income, alien-lit elevator—an elevator that had decided long ago that it couldn’t keep nice things around—its walls a brushed metal with a deliberate, factory-scratch pattern on the surface designed to assimilate the thousands of little careless, ungrateful scratches that already marked the walls, and the thousands more that would come.
Across from the elevator door, their black SUV stood waiting for them, like a humpbacked magician holding a bag of bad tricks. Its doors, which had flipped open and shut like sheets of balsa wood earlier that morning, had now become heavy. They pulled and leaned on them like they were trying to pry open two ancient stone sepulchers.
The woman looked straight ahead, unblinkingly, out through the windshield at the oil-smeared, gray concrete wall of the parking garage. After a long moment, the man, head down, studying the cracked leather of his seat, said, “I wasn’t expecting that.”
“What are we going to do?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you think we should do?”
“I don’t know.”
Both sat silent, breathing, fiddling with their fingers, wondering in intermittent throbs: wait, this seems like a big deal. Is it? Yes, it seems so. But, what does it call for? Static, ponderous, contemplation? And how many hours, days, of this contemplation? Does it matter that this isn’t our fault? When do we eat?
Turning back to his wife, he said: “What do you want to do?”
“I said I don’t know.”
“No, I mean what do you want to do now?”
She turned her neck slowly towards her husband as if manipulated by an invisible puppet wire below stage: “I don’t understand the question.”
“I mean what do you want to do right now? In this moment. We can’t sit in this parking lot all day.”
It was true. There were a lot of hours left in the day—about eleven she now calculated, not counting sleep time.
They had two weeks. This had briefly comforted the woman until she realized, within a few seconds, that they would have to make a decision, and in the meantime they would have the same information—the same jumble of numbers, non-conclusion conclusions and known unknowns. The counselor had said that she would, “support any decision you make.” Support any decision you make? That was nice of her. This counselor was full of wisdom, the man thought. Helpful, compassionate, precise. Then again, maybe, given the results of these tests, her hands were tied.
They backed the car out and silently navigated the sharp, narrow left turns down four levels to get to the street. As he inserted the ticket into the machine that would open the gate, the man in the booth looked down and gave him a quick, uninterested nod before reverting back to the video that was playing on a thin monitor propped on the garage-facing window of his booth. The presence of the man in the booth, the man thought, was interesting. If the garage had free parking, why were they issuing tickets and operating the gate? And then, why if everything was automated did they need a person in the booth? It was nice, in any event, he reflected, that the man in the booth had a job. He thought of raising the issue with his wife but then decided against it.
As they exited the garage, he tried again: “So—”
“Wait,” she said, “I’m not ready yet. Let’s just get there first.”
“Get where first?”
“Chloe’s? You still want to go to brunch?
“Yes, I want to go. I’m hungry.”
“Yeah, but don’t you think we should talk?”
“We can talk there.”
His mind, as he meandered the car through gridded streets, across Market, and under the overpass to the bottom of Potrero Hill, wandered on back to the meeting with this counselor. There was something sinister about all this, he thought. What was the deal with this counselor? She must be part of some complex. But which one? He wondered whether if it was even possible for them to make the right decision, or at least, whether it was possible to make the right decision on purpose. They could make the right decision by accident, run across it like finding a sand dollar on the beach. But was the human mind even capable of coming to the right decision in this case? Did it even have enough computing power, enough capacity for moral reasoning, to sift through what little information it had and come out in the end with a decision based on any type of rational argument? He doubted it. In any event, he resolved, even if a reasoned conclusion was possible, whatever they decided was already in the cards, preordained by the location and velocity of each of the particles now ponging about in their brains, chemicals interacting with each other across synapses built according to blueprints drafted billions of years ago. Any decision depended on, as all things depended on, whether we have free will in the first place. In any event, he figured, in light of all this irresolvable uncertainty, it wouldn’t do much good to worry about it.
She came back to her lists. Where did this entry, this one cast only in statistical complexities, fit? This one—inflexible, unamendable—this one felt different. She would have to wing it, and she didn’t like winging anything.
When they arrived for brunch, the café was peppered with noiseless customers, a smattering of well-preserved and well-contented retirees, their newspapers flattened on the table. The couple sat down.
He opened the conversation: “Look at Brian’s brother, he’s done okay, everyone seems happy.”
“Yeah, what about him?”
“He seems to be doing okay?”
“Do you want to talk about this or not?”
“Wait . . . Brian’s brother? Isn’t he dead? Didn’t he wander out into the street and get hit by a car?”
“Oh yeah . . . he, uh . . . yeah he did do that, I forgot,” he said, dumbfounded by his own ineptitude. “Right, but see that—that was an accident. They normally had him on a leash—not a leash, but like a little rope kind of thing when they were in the City—but they forgot that day. But here’s my point: before that, everything was good. That leash thing, that was just an oversight. Before that they didn’t seem to have regretted anything.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?”
“Brian’s brother. They didn’t regret it.”
“Of course they didn’t regret it. What the Christ—that’s not the point.”
“Well, what’s the point then? You tell me,” he said wounded and confused by the sudden change in tone.
“It’s not just about the way we would feel.”
“Yeah, I know that,” he said. He paused, sat back in his seat and picked up the fork which he had unwrapped from the cloth napkin. His shoulder blades just touched the back of his chair before he leaned forward again and, not certain of whether he wanted to continue in this vein, or any other vein . . . ever, said: “You know it’s not like it’s a sure thing. It could turn out fine.”
“We’re not—we’re not talking about best outcomes here,” she said, resisting the urge to end her declaration with “you fucking idiot.” With her right index pointed straight down, severely, like a newly burnished stiletto, as if whatever she was about to reference was living surreptitiously underfoot, and with a light flush in her face, she said: “We have numbers. We know what’s most likely going to happen.”
“Buy why? Why do we need to assume that one outcome is worse than the other?”
“Because one will be worse than the other, don’t you see that?”
“Yeah, but just because one is worse than the other doesn’t mean it would bad. Worse could even be better. It could be all about how we approach it.”
“Approach it? We don’t even know what ‘it’ is.”
“Exactly. She didn’t even say specifically what it could be. It could be a whole range of things.”
“She said ‘severe.’”
“She said ‘possibly severe,’ and she also said ‘possibly mild.’ It’s all very uncertain as I understand it. Anyway, look, a lot of people have conditions that are severe, but if you asked them I’m sure most of them would say, ‘yeah, I’m glad I’m around.’” With that he paused, extending his hand cautiously to his water glass and took a bird-like sip and, wondering whether he had scored a rhetorical point or had said something horrific, noted that he had to go to the bathroom. On his way he thought about moral duties and ends, and then about free will, but it only confused him.
As her husband left, she leaned forward, fished the lemon wedge out of her own glass of water and squeezed it in. She sat back, sort of laid back, and brought the glass up to her mouth and sipped the lemony water.
When he returned from the bathroom his wife was studying the menu and its delineated lists, holding it high as if hiding behind it. He pulled back his chair, scraping the metal nodes that served as feet on the uneven brick patio, and picked up his own menu. It had seven different varieties of eggs benedict—the classic with ham, but also varieties with smoked salmon, spinach, turkey sausage, pork belly, Dungeness crab cakes, and corned beef hash, which they called the “Country Benedict.” The brunch complex, he thought. She had already ordered without him.
“So, do you want to keep talking about it?”
She moved herself all the way back so that the hinge connecting her thighs and hips wedged into the chair, relaxed her shoulders to a slump and gave both her eyes a deep rub with her knuckles. The menu was now on her lap. She stared at it, through it, her head bent down so her chin was attached, suctioned, to her lower neck. The letters on the menu faltered and flickered, the light waves reflecting off the letters widened and deepened as her mind receded from the scene, finally disappearing into a distant doppler blur. She recalled something. Something from earlier that morning. Something that had slipped by, something subliminal perhaps, yet palpable. It now thundered back like a closely passing, white-hot comet. She recalled it: the erupting root; the wheelie move; the slipping and sliding; the uneven, rolling lumber; the palsied leg; the piston popping arm; the sagging, frowning muscles; the tendon-stretched jaw and the silent, searching, desperate howl. And then she remembered the face of profound fatigue, the languid leaning and pushing, the deep-bone weariness and the resignation.
She plunged her hand down into the canvas tote she was using as a purse, blindly, as if she was reaching into a grab bag, and slipped out a baseball cap that had been living, unworn, at the base of the bag for several weeks as if waiting for just such a moment. She pulled her hair into a ponytail, securing it with a double loop in the back with the unconscious confidence of an old sailor securing the mainsail. She placed the cap tight onto her forehead. Fishing around for her sunglasses, she found them and pushed them with the base of her palm onto her nose and over her ears. She folded the brim of her cap in on the sides, eliminating all but the faintest motes of light necessary to see what lay directly in front of her.
When her brunch came she picked up her fork and plunged it into the sunny side of her eggs. The viscous bright orange of the yolk flowed easily onto the outer white apron of the egg shiny with butter. She had made her decision—and like she had said, she was hungry.
Matthew Springman is originally from Montoursville, PA, and currently lives in San Francisco. He is a former civil rights attorney turned teacher. This is his first published piece.