In Halifax, Nova Scotia, a man walks into a bar. It sounds like the start of a bad joke, and it is. In Halifax, Nova Scotia, a man and a woman walk into a bar. It sounds like the start of a bad joke, but it isn’t. One is Scottish and carries his stress in his shoulders and a thick accent in his throat. A wall around his heart. One is Irish with laughter in her eyes and lined hands for holding. Her heart is a wrecking ball. In Halifax, Nova Scotia, a man and a woman walk into a bar. It sounds like the start of a bad joke, but sometimes the sound of a bad joke is the same as the sound of falling in love. In Halifax, Nova Scotia, two ships sail into the Narrows, and no ships come out. It doesn’t sound like a joke. It doesn’t sound like anything at all. 9:04 the morning of December 6, 1917, and there are no words. Two ships pass silently in the Narrows, then collide. No, this isn’t entirely true. Two ships in the Narrows are on the path to collision. The first ship sees the second and signals once, says we have the right of way. The second ship hears the first signal and signals twice, says we are not moving. We will not yield. The first ship signals once more, says please. The second ship signals twice, says no. If two ships make signal sounds but don’t seem to hear each other, did they even make sounds at all? It sounds like a philosophical question, but isn’t. 9:04 the morning of December 6, 1917, and there are no words. Two ships pass silently in the Narrows, then collide. One is Norwegian and is not carrying wartime explosives. The other is French, and is. The result of this quiet collision is the biggest man-made explosion the world has ever seen, not counting the aftermath of the atomic bomb that hasn’t been invented yet. 9:04 the morning of December 6, 1917, and the world is in shock because it is experiencing something new. Because it is experiencing something it doesn’t have words for yet. 9:04, and the woman who walked into the bar at the start of her real life a few years back is also experiencing something new. She does have words for it. Her words for it are AH and motherfucker and goddamn, because the new thing she is experiencing is childbirth. AH, motherfucker, she says. She breathes goddamn goddamn goddamn between contractions. It echoes the goddamn goddamn goddamn of the men jumping off their ships a few miles off the shore. The men on the SS Mont-Blanc curse the French government for charting the path from New York to Bordeaux through Halifax. The men on the Mont-Blanc curse the need for highly explosive cargo. To flee the flames, they leap from the stern of the ship and think of their wives. They picture their wives in blue dresses with high necklines and tight sleeves, sitting by the window, awaiting their return. Straightening the stems of the daisies in a glass vase on the kitchen table. Pouring burnt coffee into dainty white teacups. Opening up The Local, the black and white world unfolding before them. Before 9:04, one sailor said to another, my wife can’t bake bread. It sounds like the start of a bad joke, but is actually another way to say, I miss her. At 9:04, he pushes off from the railing and pictures his wife with her face in front of the orange glow of the oven waiting for the rise and fall, the rise and fall. When they hit the water, the sailors think of their children, all runny-nosed and muddy-shoed. Storing gumballs in their cheeks and getting sticky handprints all over. The captain is waiting for a son. The cook is waiting for a wedding. His daughter finally found a man who deserves her. His daughter and the man who deserves her are waiting for her father to return from his expedition to say I do. They are all waiting, and 9:04 the morning of December 6, 1917 feels like the longest minute in the world. The sailors aboard the ship with highly explosive cargo are waiting for 9:05, and for a world for their children where such weapons are unnecessary. They are waiting for a little bit of kindness, for relief. Somewhere in Belgium, citizens are waiting for relief. They are waiting for the SS Imo to come with supplies from New York because this is 1917, and the war has been happening for three years now. There are German soldiers in Belgium and northern France, and their boots are muddy on the ground and their thoughts are with their own wives in blue dresses and their own children who have or have not been born yet. The soldiers are waiting to go home, and the citizens are waiting for home to feel like home, for the SS Imo to bring a sample size of sweetness. Herbert Hoover is not yet president of the United States, but somewhere in America, he pats himself on the back because this relief organization is his child. The sailors on the SS Imo just wanted to help people. One sailor can’t swim. This sounds like the start of a bad joke but is actually the start of a small tragedy. He says help me to a friend who can’t hear him because he is already swimming into the smoke. Or away from the smoke. It’s everywhere. Help me. The sad sound does not echo. If the world had walls, the explosion blew them down. The world opened up. The black and white world unfolding before them. Help me, says the woman in childbirth. Goddamn goddamn goddamn. The amount of energy released in this single event is roughly equivalent to 2.9 kilotons of TNT. The explosion, that is. The Mont-Blanc is blown apart. Wild and directionless. The 90mm gun of the ship is found with its barrel melted entirely away three and a half miles north of the explosion on the shore of Albro Lake. Its anchor in the backyard of a man who lived two miles south in Armdale. It crashes into the roof of the garage he just painted. He is silent for a while because he has never experienced something like this before, so he doesn’t have words for it yet. He thinks maybe someone is playing an elaborate prank on him. Or maybe this is a hate crime. His neighbor always hated him. Then he thinks maybe he is dreaming. He says to his wife, honey am I dreaming? She says no. He is confused, then annoyed. Goddamn. The impact is felt for miles. Right before 9:04, the fire from the ships is visible from land. It hurts not to look. The smoke floats through the streets and curious people living their curious lives gravitate towards the windows. Like them, the man who walked into the bar carries his stress-ridden shoulders to the glass. Street lamps and shop windows shatter through Halifax. Glass from the windows blasts in as the baby coming out of the woman blasts out. The world is concaving, and the baby is crowning. Head, then shoulders. People lie bloody in the streets, faceless. The baby is brought into the light. People are going blind. The man with the thick accent in his throat now has glass in his eyes. Help me, he says. It echoes the help me of the nine thousand people who are injured. A street lamp swings down and pierces the cushy skull of an elderly gentleman strolling by. Help me, he says to a woman whose skin is being singed by the fires that catch all up and down the streets. Help me, she says. A tree falls on the young couple sitting under it, and they say help me to one another but the words are muffled. If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear the victims’ cry, did they even make a sound? It sounds like a philosophical question, but it isn’t. A school teacher is crushed by a fallen support beam, and she says help me but everybody who is there to hear it is already dead or otherwise joining in the helpless chorus. Help me, help me. Help me, says the overworked twenty-something year old man, ash-covered and on the assembly line in a tin can factory that has been shaken to its core. The square glass windows break out of their grid, and the young man is trapped under rubble, and nobody is getting canned tuna anytime soon. What kind of a world is this baby coming in to? Goddamn. Two thousand people are six feet underground. For days after, coffins line the streets of Halifax because people die and mourn and get rid of their dead faster than the earth can take them in. The lucky ones walk between the stacks of the deceased like in a dream, like in a very bad dream. At least the funeral parlors are doing okay? It sounds like a bad joke, and it is. Sorry. The lucky ones are sorry for a while. And silent. There are no words anyone can say to make this better, so instead the lucky ones don’t say anything, just sort through the debris for bodies that can still be identified and books that haven’t been burned up. The lucky ones walk into bars and don’t sound like the beginnings of bad jokes and don’t tell bad jokes, just drink. The lucky ones go to the one grocery store that’s still kind of standing, except they can’t buy canned tuna. The lucky ones visit their living, breathing, beautiful neighbors. To get to these places of sanctuary, though, they have to maneuver through the maze of caskets. There are so many cadavers that it is confusing. A few are buried in mismarked graves. When an unnamed man down the street from where this story takes place goes to visit his wife, he is actually visiting his butcher. He is still a lucky one. The man in the story is not a lucky one. The man is not anything anymore. He is a memory to the woman. To his son, a name for the silence. AH, motherfucker. Goddamn. The man is dead, and the baby is born. The woman is silent because this is something she has never experienced before. She holds her bloody baby in her bloody arms and doesn’t say a thing. 9:04 the morning of December 6, 1917, and there are no words. Then 9:04 is over, and everybody is asking everybody else if they are okay. In Irish, there are no words for yes and no. Every answer is an echo of the question before it. Are you okay, the sailor says to the friend swimming around him, and his friend says, I am okay even if he’s not. Are you okay, the neighbor of the man in Armdale asks him once he sees the anchor. The man in Armdale says, I am okay even though he hates his neighbor. Someone in the States asks Herbert Hoover if he is okay, and he says yes because he is in America and to him, it’s just another day. Are you okay, the widows in blue dresses back home get asked when the news comes through the folds of the black and white world, and they say they I am okay. The cook’s daughter gets asked are you okay by the man who deserves her. She is the only one to say no. She is in France, and in French, they have words for that sort of thing. In Irish, there are no words for yes and no, but there are 43, 741 other words. Still, the woman holding her baby doesn’t say anything because there simply aren’t words for this new life.
I learned about sex in the strangest way.
Every night, I used to ask my mother to tell me a bedtime story. I wanted fairytales. Once upon a times and happily ever afters. I wanted princesses with hair braided by birds and princes on invincible white horses. I wanted the whole damn cavalry. Ivory-coated castles and kind old men with wooden staffs and wrinkles at their eyes and magic up their sleeves. I wanted spectacular. Stories about the sun and moon and all the celestial bodies in between. About the stars, one for each of them so she’d never stop telling me stories. I wanted to know about the earth, its origins.
Instead, every night, she told me about my own.
It was a simpler time, she’d say. Airports and airplanes were less vigilant places then. People believed in the kindness of strangers. I did, she’d say. She was flying from England. “From” and not “out of” because she was trying to get away. She didn’t have a destination in mind, just a paycheck and a passport. I figure she had a few other things too, but she leaves them out so I’ll know she was brave. She’d say she knew she wanted to cross oceans, time zones. She bought a round-trip ticket to New York. She’d emphasize the round-trip part because she wanted me to know it’s always okay to come home, but when she’d tell the story, she held the return stub in her hands.
Twenty-two is a lucky number for us, she’d tell me. Because that’s where they met. Aisle 22. He was a kind stranger—that’s all I’m told. Once, when I was eight, I asked for a name. Henry, she told me. I knew she was lying—knew she didn’t know—but sometimes when I felt afraid, I’d whisper Henry into the walls at night like a prayer.
This is where the details get murky. This is where I get spectacular. This is where I get origins. This is where I get the collision of celestial bodies. Bits smaller than the stars in the sky coming together to form something brighter than the constellations, she’d say.
I was conceived somewhere over the Atlantic. Created in an airplane, a heap of metal parts that just as easily could have malfunctioned, driven by a pilot who could just as easily have fallen asleep or ill or from the sky. I am here because of a woman’s wanderlust and restlessness and because of a stranger’s boredom on a seven-hour flight. I exist because of a moment of escape over open ocean, conceived in no particular time or place and with no inherent intention. I do not believe in inevitability, but for my mother’s sake, I believe in heroines and the kindness of strangers and sometimes even happily ever after because we are doing all right, aren’t we?
Even my mother has her kryptonite.
In college, my mom lost her virginity to a boy she was already in the process of losing. The gesture was supposed to make him want to stay.
No one is special.
Once, I attended a lecture that was supposed to alleviate the stress of the college application process. The admissions counselor stood in slacks two sizes too big at the front of the room and told everyone to write down their favorite number. We had about twelve seconds to think about it before she made every single student in that room read their number out loud. There were a lot of ones, some fives, a handful of thirteens. One other person said twenty-two from the back of the room, and I craned my neck to see who it was, wanting to trade tales about the number twenty-two after the meeting.
After we’d gone through everyone, the admissions counselor stood at the front of that room and said, You see? She demanded to know why no one had chosen a number greater than one hundred. She demanded to know why no one had picked pi, or a fraction, or a negative number. She supplied us with the answer: No one is special.
No one is special. You are not special, and neither am I. If we were saving ourselves for “that special someone,” we would be waiting our whole lives. If I asked every boy who entered my bedroom what his favorite number is, it would always be whole and less than one hundred.
What if sex were actually like this?
Once, I dreamt of a society in which, when you decided to lose your virginity, you had to submit a formal request. There was a waiting period that could be as long as two weeks, but in the dream, my mythic boyfriend and I got lucky. We were rushed to a small white room in the basement of our local high school. There were two standard twin-sized beds with bleached white sheets but no pillows. The one on the left was made and pristine, the paper-thin toothpaste-white blanket stretched tight, tucked under the mattress. A shocking contrast to the bed on the right. In the bed on the right was Mrs. G, a substitute teacher I’d had once or twice in middle school. She was known for being a little eccentric; I recognized her by her unmistakable curly red hair, which frequently got caught and tangled in the large, neon, plastic, ‘80s-style earrings she wore daily. In the dream, I ruminated on the fact that the last time I’d seen her, she was not pregnant. The last time I’d seen her, I was not sexually active and she was not sweating profusely with her legs propped up, screaming a string of expletives. How things change.
Timing is a really remarkable thing when you think about it. In the dream, I undid the cold metal button on my boyfriend’s jeans. He traced my spine with the zipper at the back of my dress. A man I could only assume to be Mrs. G’s husband was holding a thick stack of flashcards and reading them out loud, one by one. There are 7.125 billion people on the planet. For two people to find each other out of the 7.125 billion people on the planet—that takes some pretty impeccable timing. That’s what I was thinking about when we started kissing. In the dream, my boyfriend did not have a face because in real life, he did not exist. In the dream, I didn’t find this strange. Instead, I kissed his ambiguous, amorphous face and thought about the pretty incredible timing of two people falling in love, with each other, at the exact same time. A baby is born every eight seconds. He slid a sweaty palm across my thigh. Our uncertain bodies started to compress together. And then someone yelled, “Push!” and someone else said, “It’s coming!” and he did and he did and it did and she yelled and I yelled and there was crying and I wasn’t sure where it came from.
This is how it actually happened.
It’s high school. It’s early in the fall, when the leaves begin to burn and crunch. It’s the homecoming game, and there is a wide receiver who has to sit out on account of a shin splint. He’s really fucking angry about it, except for there’s a girl in a denim mini-skirt with his letterman jacket wrapped around her dainty shoulders, still sun-kissed from the summertime.
And even though he’s not playing, his team is doing all right. Hell, they might even win. The teenage boy is so distracted by the prospect of maybe winning that he is barely thinking about the brunette in the denim mini-skirt and the way she crosses and uncrosses her legs. Barely.
They lose the game. They stay at the bottom of the bleachers as the cheerleaders cartwheel and whirl and split off the field. Yes, they are very pretty, but all the teenage boy thinks about is how it looks like their too-high ponytails are tugging at their skin, wrestling it over their skulls, like a face-lift too soon. And then they’re gone, and so are the hot dog vendors and the cotton candy pushers and the other sports fans with their foam fingers and extra large diet cokes (oh, the irony). And then it’s just the teenage boy and the brunette in the denim mini-skirt. It’s just him rubbing his bad leg—the left one—and sighing and thinking he could have made that last pass, thinking his body failed him and he failed his team. Is there such a thing as the Transitive Property of Failure? It was his body that failed the team—leave him out of it.
The teenage boy has a loss on his shoulders and a knot in his stomach. He needs to be cheered up. He looks like he wants to be cheered up. He knows he looks like he wants to be cheered up, sitting next to a girl who lets her hair run loose, tumbling over his letterman jacket, who just wants to help somebody and who has an inability to say no.
And just like that, the knots in his stomach are not knots—they aren’t even butterflies—they’re motherfucking eagles, and the brunette in the denim mini-skirt is crossing and uncrossing her legs until she’s not anymore.
Kindness is letting the stranger sitting next to you on the subway fall asleep on your shoulder.
There is a man reading a menu on the subway. It’s one of those laminated one-page, double-sided ones that are some unnecessary length longer than a normal piece of paper. Nothing fancy. It has a black-and-white checkered print that is supposed to remind you of diner floors from the fifties and girls with flouncy ponytails and poodle skirts. Sock hops and jukeboxes. High school sweethearts, two straws and a milkshake.
There is a man reading a menu on the subway the way that people read bibles during their morning commute. It is fascinating to see what people do during their in-between time. He is tracing the individual itemized listings with his index finger, following the string of dots to the prices. He is whispering the words under his breath as he goes along and it sounds like a prayer. Cheeseburger. Lettuce, tomato, onions. For bacon, add fifty cents. Maybe food is his religion.
There is a man reading a menu on the subway and he is crying and his tears are rolling off the laminated covering. He is starting to sob. He is close to throwing a tantrum. He looks like a child. No, he looks like someone who needs his parents. These are not the same thing. Maybe Sal’s was his dad’s diner. Maybe Sal was an earnest and hardworking gentleman who loved nothing more than grill grease and his son. Maybe Sal spent many slow afternoons chasing his son around the bar stools and maybe Sal’s son—the man with the menu—loved nothing more than watching his father flip burgers during the dinner rush. But maybe Sal’s initial love proved not to be a lucrative profession so he had to board up and close down. Maybe Sal’s diner was the man with the menu’s sanctuary, and so now this last laminated menu is his touchstone.
There is a man reading a menu on the subway and he is turning it over and over in his hands like he’s going mad. He has been on this train for almost an hour and the menu only has two sides and is printed in a font larger than the kind you’d find in a book. Maybe he is trying commit to memory. Maybe he is just trying to figure out what he wants to eat for dinner. Maybe the man with the menu is always the last to order when he goes out with his friends and he is just trying to be prepared. Maybe the man with the menu has a date tonight and he wants to be sure of his recommendations to the girl he finally mustered up the courage to ask out. Everyone speaks in extremes. Everyone claims to be the most indecisive person on the planet, but somewhere someone really is the most indecisive person and what if this man with the menu is him?
There is a man reading a menu on the subway. There is a man reading a menu on the subway, sitting next to a girl who, in sleep-deprived stupor, has started to doze off, collapsing onto the shoulder of the stranger’s menu-holding hand. The man stays still until the girl jerks awake on her own, avoiding eye contact.
There is a man reading a menu on the subway, and he is kind.
How religious are you, exactly?
I did not grow up religious. My mother and I never went to church. We had one bible in the house, and we used it to prop open the broken window in our living room. The closest I got to a prayer was whispering Henry over and over at night, but I knew it wasn’t for him, wasn’t a hope for his manifestation in my life. It was an acknowledgement of my mother’s lie, born out of love. It was a testament to how much she loved me.
I do not believe in grand miracles. My mother’s insistence on telling me my origin story every night might suggest that she was inclined to believe in such things, but I chose to look for miracles in more manageable bits. While she basked in the improbability of my life, I celebrated the small certainties. My most prized possession was a watch that was synced up to the atomic clock in Boulder, Colorado. I loved math for its assurances. I wanted to be an axiom, an accepted truth. I wanted to be simple as two plus two equals four. A right angle, a sure and dependable thing. I wanted to be able to be plotted on a graph. A point on a line.
In college, I took a theology class that focused on the Book of Genesis. I learned that in the beginning, before God created heaven and earth, sky and sea—before God himself became a separate, autonomous being—there was believed to be one amorphous entity. Some people believe the original sin happened long before Eve and the apple; some people believe it was our separation from that great big ball of glowing energy that did us all in. Religion is just an attempt to get back to that level of connection.
When I dream about a boyfriend who doesn’t exist in real life, his amorphous face always radiates glowing energy onto mine. Once, I asked a boy in bed how religious he was. I wanted to know if I was connecting with someone who was connected to something larger than ourselves. He misunderstood and told me that the process of giving a blowjob would be the same, circumcised or not.
My mother hates the expression “Like mother, like daughter.”
I told my mom that we are actually quite alike. She told me, “Be better. Be like me, but better.”
No one is invincible.
Every time a boy touches my right breast, I think about my mother. Home alone at four in the afternoon with the sunlight beating in through the slits in the window shades. Watching Dr. Oz. Learning how to perform an examination on her own breasts. Discovering a lump. Riding the N train by herself between rush hours to the closest specialist. Being told it’s cancerous. Reading medical journals and books by doctors written in layman’s terms, wrapping them with supermarket fliers so her daughter doesn’t see.
Every time a boy touches my right breast, I think about calling my mother and telling her that we are more alike than we had previously thought. I think about the biopsy. The cold gel that caused goosebumps to ripple across the surface of my skin. The needle with the numbing cream. The long metal tweezers that made a sound like a stapler every time the doctor broke off a piece for the petri dish.
But no matter what the results say, I am all right. I am all right because my mother is all right. I am all right, and the boy touching my right breast is all right. We are all all right, right angles. Sure and dependable things.
I never rinse my mugs out anymore. I like the rings of coffee stains, like the shorelines that shift in the sand throughout the day. The insides of my mugs look like cut-open tree stumps. Dendrochronology is the act of telling how old a tree is by counting its stilled wooden ripples. Maybe my insides look like the insides of an unwashed mug look like the sliced stump of a tree. Maybe someday somebody will cut me open and count.
Here’s the thing.
There is no inevitability. There is no destiny. No one set path, just a few fixed points—people, places, epiphanies—that we’re supposed to hit along the way. Because we are all just people forgetting things to put on grocery lists and trying to get that one song out of our heads. We are all just people learning to tie our shoes and putting on our pants one leg at a time. Trying to figure out the best way to spit gum out: into a piece of paper first or directly into the trashcan. We are all just people waiting for news and whispering into the walls at night. Wrapping secrets in supermarket fliers and reading menus and being indecisive. When you reach your palms to the sun, does a bright, pulsing red not bleed between your fingers? It does for me.
It does for me.
Reasons to Love
The boyfriend was carrying something cumbersome like a UPS box or a birthday cake when I said, “infomercial.” Maybe it was because there was no THIS SIDE UP FRAGILE sticker or because he didn’t like whose birthday it was. Maybe because he didn’t care or because he cared too much about the game, he flailed his arms around and propelled his stick figure body forward.
“Oh, fiddlesticks!” he said on the way down.
Bonus points because steps were involved.
My turn: I asked if he remembered falling off the track in Mario Kart, how a creature on a cloud brings you back up.
“What if we had that for everything we let fall?” I said.
“What do I have you for?” he said.
We never stop playing Infomercial. We play Infomercial on the road. We threw our duffel bags into the boyfriend’s red Volvo from ’88 and headed west like most stories. We want to experience the World’s Largest/Smallest/Best. We are in it for the extremes.
The world’s extremes always seem to be in the most random places. The boyfriend is brimming with impatience, so much so that every time we passed a congregation of sheep in the middle of nowhere, I think he’s going to bubble over.
“Are we there yet?” he always wants to know.
I buckle my seatbelt.
Sometimes he asks before we’ve even started.
Sometimes he says, “infomercial” when I’m driving. If there are no cars on the road, I let go of the wheel. As we sway in the machine of metal parts, I wait for the invention that will save us. A robot that will chauffer us. A contraption of rubber bands to keep the steering straight. A spray bottle that will squirt water every time I let go.
“What’s going to keep me going?” I ask.
“What do you have me for?” he says, taking the wheel.
The World’s Largest Ball of Twine is in Cawker City, Kansas. There, a little boy in blue overalls tugs at his mother’s hand and asks, “Why are we here?” She stares at him blankly for a few seconds before he reconsiders his question. “Why do we care?”
It reminds me of a conversation I had had with my mom. I was six, and she was tetris-ing dishes into the dishwasher. She told me she loved me. When I said it back, she told me I didn’t have to. For months, I thought that was the most delightful thing I could tell someone.
I love you.
I don’t have to.
But I do.
The World’s Smallest Post Office is in Ochopee, Florida. The woman inside the World’s Smallest Post Office is named Shannon. Shannon has groundhog hair but looks happy anyway. We don’t ask, though. Instead, I ask the boyfriend, “Do you want to mail any postcards?”
He blinks twice. “To who?”
The boyfriend stands quietly outside the World’s Smallest Post Office. His idle hands hang limp at his sides. Inside, I write a postcard to everyone I don’t have to love.
Postcards cost 49 cents a piece. When I’m through, the boyfriend forks over a five and a ten and tells Shannon to keep the change.
The World’s Smallest Church is in Oneida, New York. Cross Island Chapel sits at the center of a September pond. It seats two people. “Come here,” the boyfriend said. His body seemed to take up a little more than half of the 28.68 square feet. “Infomercial,” I said, and my small body met the small body of water. Bonus points for self-inflicted infomercial.
He couldn’t invent something to keep me dry. We went to a Walmart and bought a scraggly blue towel for $3.95. Then we drove around trying to find a World’s Best. The boyfriend wanted burgers. On Yelp, A.K. Greenfield was all for a bar and grill in Providence, Rhode Island. Five stars. Six, if I could, he said. But Mary Joe Simon claimed the World’s Best Burger is in Houston, Texas. That’s where she’s from, though, and we decided she must be biased. Hillary D. made a claim for the cheeseburgers sold out of a truck somewhere in Wisconsin. I believed her. A fair number of people posted about a veggie burger not far from where we were.
“It doesn’t count,” he said.
We gave up trying to find a World’s Best because no one on Yelp can agree on anything.
The World’s Largest Peanut Butter Cup was in Bennington, Vermont. They ate it, though. Can you imagine? The feeling of having the World’s Anything inside of you. Do you feel imbued with importance now?
I bet it’s like being in the quietest place on Earth.
The quietest place on Earth is in Minnesota. The room has negative decibel levels. In the room, you become more aware of your own small sounds. Your graduated breathing. Your granular heartbeat. Your stomach, grumbling. The boyfriend wanted to come in with me, but I said no. Wanted to flood the negative space with my own liquid sound.
The car ride out of Minnesota was a quiet one.
Somewhere on the I90 between Springfield and Boston, the Volvo broke down. Just sputtered to a stop in the middle of the highway. I thought it was part of the game at first.
“I didn’t say infomercial,” I protested.
“Is this funny to you?” he asked.
The tow truck driver’s name is Kyle. He has swimmer shoulders and immunity to the cold. Big guy. His body is 23 years old. He acts much older, though. This might be because Kyle has a son. We don’t ask what Kyle’s son’s name is, but Kyle tells us he is in the one-year stretch of sleepless nights. He says this in response to the question, “Do you like driving? Moving around?”
Kyle is not racist because his girl is Puerto Rican. Kyle doesn’t regret anything, but he tells us to wait as long as we can to have kids. He says this after I ask the question, “Where’s the furthest place you’ve ever had to tow to?”
“Las Vegas,” he says.
“How’d you like it?”
“Loved it.” Long pause. “Wait as long as you can to have kids, ya hear?”
Kyle has dyslexia and dropped out of high school. Kyle has had the most experience driving the trucks, so he gets sent to all the fatalities. Mostly deer. Once, a moose. Once, a family of four.
“You don’t get used to it, but the shock wears off,” Kyle says, then pulls over to the side of the road to leak liquid gold.
I used to think there were two types of people. The people who, when they have to pee, are sometimes too lazy to get up to go to the bathroom and so hold it a while, and the people who lie if they claim they don’t fall in the first category.
Now I know there are people like Kyle who aren’t lazy and aren’t liars but who will make of the world what they need.
Another thing I know now: people jump off bridges because they’re there. When the boyfriend and I reached San Francisco, we witnessed an accidental suicide. When the flashing lights and the voice recorders interviewed the person after, he said he didn’t know what came over him.
“I’m not an unhappy person,” he said.
Studies have been done on survivors, these victims of spontaneity. The decreasingly shocking thing they hear is “I’m not sure why I did it.”
I can relate.
At the Motel 8 that night, the boyfriend and I are watching the news, illuminated by the small square television screen, which is fuzzing white around the edges. The news anchor with an ’80s hairdo and red lipstick stuck at the corner of her mouth asks the world what we can do to stop these incidents.
“If this were an infomercial,” I begin, “what would it be for?”
“Each other,” he says.
But I imagine a world enveloped in nets, to keep everyone from falling off the edge.